Archive | December, 2012

Christmas Memories

22 Dec

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Dad > Jeff, 12/22/08, 12:08pm: “The things she always likes are books and crossword books.  I would google Sharper Image and Brookstone in Westchester to see where they are located and see if they have any kind of cool back-scratcher device or electric back massager.  I think she would find that fun.  I bought cards for your brothers.  I know you usually make your own.”

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I don’t think anybody personified the joy of Christmas morning like Jeff did.  After going to Church on Christmas eve, he loved opening presents on Christmas morning.  I could never resist taking videos of the boys on Christmas, and here are some great clips of Jeff:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YeT0M-ypD6A

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQg69F5UtDo

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apbFwxnP6yI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p6VSWQmRiAE

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Merry Christmas, Jeff.  We are holding you in our hearts, remembering all the beautiful times that we had together, and carrying you with us everywhere we go.  Love you so much.

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Knicks 2000, This Is Our Year

17 Dec
“Well it’s the Knicks, back in the mix, representing all New York City kids,
Like tricks, last year we done, Eastern Conference champs, and you’re about to see it again like a rerun
But this new season we’re about to enter, the Knicks taking no shorts, like winter,
So put your hands in the air and cheer:  Knicks 2000, this is our year!”
—-“Go New York, Go New York, Go”-New York Knicks Theme Song- 1999-2000

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQ59Wg5h2aY

These days, something as simple as watching a Knicks game on TV can send my mind and emotions into frenzy.  And that is exactly what happened on the evening of December 6th as I watched the team that has alternately exhilarated and tormented our family for the past 20+ years completely dismantle LeBron James and the defending NBA champion Miami Heat under a barrage of threes from both unlikely sources (Raymond Felton-6 threes) and more likely suspects (Steve Novak-4 threes).  In Miami.  For the second time this year.  It was almost too good to be true.

I was joyous as I watched this beautiful blend of youngish old players and really old players whip passes around the perimeter for wide open threes, while Felton kept the defense honest by periodically driving the lane.  I texted frantically with Brett at Villanova.  It took every ounce of strength I had to refrain from texting Drew at Widener, but he had two finals the next morning, and if he was watching the game instead of studying, I didn’t want to know.  And through it all, my head nearly exploded from the pulsating lyrics of the old Knicks rap-style theme song that I couldn’t get out of my mind: “Knicks 2000, THIS IS OUR YEAR…GO NEW YORK, GO NEW YORK, GO….”

Why 2000?  It’s because , in the aftermath of the Cinderella season of 1998-1999 when the Knicks sprinted to the NBA finals as the 8th seed in the East, only to go out meekly against the Spurs in 5 games, the Garden played that song before every game and during many timeouts the following season, which was so full of hope.   But it later became a sarcastic rallying cry for Jeff and the rest of our family as the Knicks’ fortunes plummeted over the course of the next decade.  We’d be at a Knicks game in, say 2005, and if they were doing well that day, Jeff would turn to me and say, “Heyyyy, Knicks 2000, this is our year!”

That Knicks 2000 season (1999-2000) wasn’t their year to go all the way, as the theme song so hopefully suggested, but even so, it was another highly successful one for the Knicks. They finished third in the East with a 50-32 record before losing to Indiana in the Eastern Conference Finals.  Back then, the Garden was still a great place to be, and when Jeff turned 13 on March 2nd, 2000, I thought it would be fun to take him to a game for his birthday and to have the Garden post birthday wishes to him on the scoreboard. He loved it, and the snapshot of that scoreboard message remained on Jeff’s bookshelf in his room for the rest of his life, and it remains there today.

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The frenzy that took over my mind during the Heat game stemmed from the fact that the Knicks were such an integral part of Jeff’s life from the time he was about 3 years old until, almost literally, the day he died.  I took him to his first game in 1991 when he was 3 ½, and when Jeff and I stumbled upon Charles Oakley and John Starks signing autographs shortly thereafter in what is now the Target strip mall in Mount Kisco, Jeff was hooked for life as a die-hard Knicks fan.  Always armed with a camera back in those days, I was fortunate to be able to take photos of Jeff with these Knick stars.

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The decade of the 1990’s was a golden era for Knicks basketball, including two trips to the finals in ’94 and ’99.  They had a Hall of Fame center (Patrick Ewing) and coach (Pat Riley), and the Garden was absolutely electric in those days.  And as a family, we took full advantage and went to dozens of games over that decade and enjoyed every minute of them.

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I wish I could adequately describe the scene in our home on June 22nd, 1994 when the Knicks played the Rockets in Game 7 of the NBA finals.  The championship was at stake, and Jeff, Drew and I were pumped up for the game.  Carey was seven months pregnant with Brett, who was already enormous and very active, and would arrive two months later as our largest baby at 9 lbs, 2 oz.  Jeff wanted us all to watch together in our bedroom, which would have been fine, except that the two of us became increasingly agitated as John Starks proceeded to shoot 2 for 18 from the field and essentially cost the Knicks what would have been their first title in 21 years.

Apparently our screams were not pleasing to fetus Brett, and he too became agitated inside of Carey, and before long she was rubbing her stomach trying to calm him down while rightfully requesting that we tone it down a notch.  Drew, true to his easygoing nature, remained calm and amused through it all.  He was three at the time.  I actually don’t think it was our screaming that bothered Brett.  I think he too was furious at Starks for his performance.

 I’m actually quite thankful that Jeff grew up during that exciting and successful time, because when things turned south with the advent of the new century, he did not take it well.  Jeff was appalled at the blundering moves of Knicks’ President Isiah Thomas from the time he signed on in December 2003.  I, however, thought it was important back then to stay optimistic about the Knicks’ prospects, especially with young Brett, since I didn’t want him to jump ship and root for another team like the Nets, who were going through their own mini-golden era at the time.  But Jeff had no tolerance for my unfounded optimism, and he was intent on setting the record straight.  And so, on February 23rd, 2006, he sent me two links to extremely derogatory articles about the Knicks as part of the following email.  In the subject line, he wrote “Reality”.

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And just in case that wasn’t enough to convince me that the Knicks’ future was bleak, the very next day he sent me the following email for good measure, with two more articles:

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Throughout that decade, Jeff remained incredulous at the egregious things that regularly occurred in the sports world.  The Knicks’ woes were always part of his hit list.  On November 14, 2007, Jeff sent me an email from London where he was doing his semester abroad.  It was a classic Jeff Klein sports rant that belongs in the email Hall of Fame.  Not surprisingly, it included scathing criticism of the Knicks’ then current situation.  And Jeff included a sarcastic variation of the “Knicks 2000, this is our year” rally cry.

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The cruelest irony of all is that the Knicks that Jeff loved so much were a big part of his final days, and events related to them may have been the final straw that broke his spirit for good.

When Jeff was really down at the end of October 2010, I figured the best way to snap him out of his funk would be to go to the Knicks season home opener on Saturday night, October 30th against Portland.  All five of us were excited to start the new season at a game together.  Jeff also had a Halloween party that night in the Village, so it was perfect.  He’d come to the game with us, and we’d drive him downtown to his party afterward.

How could he not be excited about a Knicks game with his family and a Halloween party with his best friends after, right?  He even wore his policeman’s costume to the game.  To top it off, as I was driving us into the city that night, Jeff received an email informing him of his excellent LSAT score, and he was visibly proud of it.  I looked at his smiling face in the rearview mirror as he told us, and I was certain that things were clearly turning around in the right direction.

Except for the fact that the Knicks lost that night, everything else worked according to plan.  Jeff partied in the city, slept there and came home the next morning.  He was then all set to go to his next Knicks game on November 2nd with Brooke and Julie, using tickets from our half season plan that we buy every year.  Jeff was clearly excited to take them to their first NBA game and had planned to meet Brooke at the train station in Chappaqua to take the 4:40 train into the city, where they would meet up with Julie.

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But as I’ve shared here several times before, that game was called off when asbestos was found falling from the ceiling in the Garden that afternoon before the 7:30 tip-off.  Jeff was crushed and, given his state of mind at the time, seemed to place a much deeper meaning on what happened than was appropriate.  I explained that to him and offered him a choice of other sets of tickets for upcoming games over the next week or two.  Jeff said he would think about it but never got back to me on that.

On the night of November 8th, 2010, after having watched most of Monday Night Football with Jeff and while giving him a big hug goodnight, I told him the Knicks were playing the Bucks the next night and suggested that if he was around, maybe we could watch the game together.  He said, “Sure, sounds good,” and at that moment, I am 100% certain that he was not planning to end his life the next day.  But something snapped the next afternoon, and I never saw him again.

Of all the feelings and emotions that I’ve experienced over the past two years, the one that has surprised me the most has been the extent to which I fantasize about Jeff and about how I could have prevented this tragedy.  In my first post of this year (“Starting A New Year By Seeking A Do-Over Of The Past”, January 10, 2012, https://kleinsaucer.wordpress.com/2012/01/10/starting-a-new-year-by-seeking-a-do-over-of-the-past/), I shared some of those fantasies. I have fantasized in detail about how I could have come home early from work that day and found Jeff before he pulled out of the garage.  I would have then taken him over to Michaels, our favorite local sports bar, to watch the Knicks game over dinner and drinks.  I have further dreamed about how different the November 10th newspaper articles could have been if I had done that.

Mock newspaper headline

 However, now that I’ve finally come to grips with the fact that the outcome can’t be changed, I instead fantasize that maybe someday God will let Jeff come home for one weekend, just a Friday night to Sunday night, so we can hold him just one more time and to try to achieve some understanding of how things could have gone so wrong.  Drew and Brett could come home from school for that weekend to see him, and we’d all stay inside the entire time to preserve the secrecy of Jeff’s visit.  Maybe if Jeff can make this happen, we can all watch one more Knicks game on TV together.

In the meantime, while I wait patiently for that fantasy weekend with Jeff, the 2012-13 Knicks continue to sit in first place in the East and are playing like the true TEAM that Jeff had longed to see since Knicks 2000.  Say what you will about them being too old or that they shoot too many threes to sustain this success.  Neither concern is valid.  Thanks to modern fitness technology, 35-40 year old professional athletes today can perform at a much higher level than those of yesteryear, and as long as the Knicks’ marksmen don’t force up their threes, they will continue to make around 40%, which is a recipe for success in the NBA.

While I don’t think Knicks 2013 will be the season in which they win it all, I do think they will get to the finals.  And along the way, they will continue to thrill their fans, including Jeff, with their unselfish team play.  In fact, upon further reflection since my last post, I think that Jeff’s thumbs-up gesture to me above the clouds in Turks and Caicos may have been as much about how the Knicks are playing as anything else.  After all, they were a huge part of his life until the very end, and so there’s no reason to think that they aren’t just as important to him where he is now.  And Jeff was equally important to the Knicks, and in a loving gesture facilitated by his friend Evan Sahr just weeks after he died, they posted this message on their scoreboard.

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I have already begun to share some great Knicks moments with Drew and Brett during their Christmas breaks from school.  Drew and I went to that amazing game against the Lakers last week, and he, Brett and I are going to the Nets game together on Wednesday.  I remain a blessed man.

Since December 6th, though, I still have not been able to get that pulsating music out of my head.  Go New York, Go New York, Go. But it just hit me that this vintage Knicks theme song is one of my connections to Jeff, and I never want it to go away.  So let the music play, and let the Knicks continue to roll.  For me, this is about more than just sports.  This is about my family continuing to find ways to fight back from the depths after the grave injustice that we suffered, and doing so in part by bonding together around a team that has been such an integral part of our lives for over two decades.  These Knicks have provided energy toward our healing process, just as the Giants did earlier this year.  And who knows how many other families in the hurricane-ravaged tri-state area feel just the same way for their own very personal reasons?

So please, when you watch or read about the Knicks, think of Jeff.  Remember his passion for the team and for basketball played the right way, and on his behalf, put your hands in the air and cheer.

Knicks 2000, forever our year.

-Rich Klein

 

We Always Found Our Beach

4 Dec

After another November 9th without Jeff had come and gone, and it was time to escape for a few days away with my wife and best friend of 27 ¼ years (the best friend part actually goes back 33 years), there was never a question that we would flee to a beach.  For the beach is where our roots run deepest, back to when we were a young dating couple and then a growing family of 3, 4, and then 5.  From the sands of Manasquan, New Jersey when Carey and I were 20 years old, to our first vacation with Jeff in East Hampton when he was 18 months old, to our final vacation as a family of five in August 2010 right back in East Hampton where it all started– the Frisbees had flown, the nerf footballs had been tossed, the smash balls had been hit in record numbers, the body boards had been ridden, and the oceans and seas had refreshed us. While we will always treasure our European family vacations to places like Rome, Florence, Venice, Paris and Barcelona, our beach vacations have been the largest part of our family’s identity.

Young Jeff in sand hole

Jeff in sand hole

Jeff, Dad with smashball rackets

Jeff, Brett Smash ball

For Carey and me, Turks and Caicos was an ideal location for this November’s trip– a new destination where we could add a fresh chapter to our story, as empty-nesters for the first time.  But nothing is simple and uncomplicated these days, and I felt uneasy about being out of the country while Drew and Brett were at school back home.  Having lost Jeff, I think I now suffer from separation anxiety as it relates to my other two boys, and being away such that I couldn’t get to them quickly if needed, was difficult for me.

 But as I sat there on the beach feeling anxious, I looked out at the cloud formation over the Caribbean, and sure enough, there was Jeff, with the profile of his head above a layer of clouds, and with his arms outstretched, giving me the thumbs up sign with both hands.  A crystal clear, double thumbs up signal.  He was telling me that everything would be ok and to relax.  And so I did.  I am so thankful that I captured this incredible image of my son communicating with me from above.

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My thoughts wandered to our first Caribbean vacation with Jeff, in February 1990 in St. Thomas, and of how after surviving such a trip with a tough kid in the throes of his terrible two’s, we thought we may never go away again.  That was the vacation on which Jeff thought it would be fun to hurl a glass full of milk across our hotel restaurant at which we were dining, causing a horrified French woman to exclaim, “Mon Dieu”!  Fortunately, nobody got hurt or wet.

That was also the trip on which I was excited to watch heavyweight champion Mike Tyson defend his title against unknown Buster Douglas.  But fearing that the TV would keep light-sleeping Jeff awake and crying, Carey put the kibosh on that idea.  I practically cried myself when I awoke the next morning, turned on HBO, and heard the announcer proclaim, “If it wasn’t for HBO, you would have missed the GREATEST UPSET IN BOXING HISTORY!!!”, as they showed a replay of Tyson crashing to the canvas   Thanks Jeff.

Man, did Jeff and I have fun in the summer of 2008 when we finally kept our long-held promise to buy the DVD of that fight and watch it together over a couple of beers.  Jeff never tired of hearing me tell the story of how he caused me to miss a piece of sports history as it happened.  Notwithstanding all that, this was also the trip that produced some of the post poignant photos of Carey and me, with our little boy.

Jeff, Dad in Water St. Thomas

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Carey holding Jeff in St. Thomas

Jeff was known for his love of any kind of adventure and some of our journeys to the beach did not lack for adventure and drama.  The best example was the horror of August 1998, when the five of us were having such a great beach vacation in Sandbridge, Virginia that we didn’t pay much attention to the fact that Hurricane Bonnie was rapidly bearing down on the southeastern coast.  By the time we did hear about it, it was too late. Bonnie had peaked at a Category 3.  We were trapped in our rented beach house on stilts, directly across the street from the Atlantic Ocean.  When the power went out, the only shred of light we had was from Brett’s tiny plastic toy flashlight, which was enough to enable me to search the old fashioned phone book for the number of the local police station.

I instructed Drew and Brett to go to sleep, but there was no way Jeff was going to miss any of this excitement.  He thought it was the coolest adventure ever and was completely oblivious to the danger we were in.  Carey and I were quite clear on the danger level, however, as we watched the ocean surge perilously close to our house. Jeff, though, was always the one who wanted to go on the craziest rollercoaster ride at any amusement park we ever visited, so this was just another wild adventure for him.  He seemed to have no fear of situations like this, and that remained true for the remainder of his life.

Jeff was practically giddy when, nearly two horrible hours later, a police van pulled up to our house and offered to lead us to the local elementary school, where the Red Cross had set up shop to house evacuees like us.  When we got to the school, we were taken to our five red gym mats, which were to serve as our beds for the night.  And when we woke up (not that I slept a minute), we found a long table stocked with small cereal boxes, pints of milk and some orange juice.  Of course, Jeff was the first person on line for this American Red Cross-style continental breakfast.

From Jeff’s perspective, there was no doubt as to which of our beach vacations was his favorite of all.  It was our August 1997 trip to Nantucket, and the reason was simple.  For this trip, we arranged to share a beach house for two weeks with Carey’s sister and her family. Jeff absolutely loved his cousins, Chris and Jono, and so for him, spending nearly two weeks with his two brothers and two cousins all together was as good as it got.  His memories of that trip were so rich that he actually wrote about them in a high school English paper entitled “Early Treasures”, in which he reflected on some of the highlights of his childhood.  Here is some of what Jeff wrote about that Nantucket trip: 

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“The best summer experience of my life occurred when I was ten years old, the summer before fifth grade.  Virtually every year since my youngest brother Brett had been born, my family had vacationed in a rented beach home for two weeks at the end of August.  My parents would choose a different location every summer, some of which included Montauk, Martha’s Vineyard, and East Hampton.  It was a fun and relaxing way to end the summer, to savor those last moments of freedom before school once again picked up.  My brothers and I never had any trouble amusing ourselves all day on the beach and then afterwards back at the beach house;  we loved the daily schedule…”

“I loved seeing my cousins; they were like best friends.  Unfortunately, since they lived in Maryland, we had never been able to see each other as much as we would have liked; our visits, when we did get together, always seemed too short.  Yet now we were going to share together two weeks full of jokes, laughter, and endless fun.  This vacation, I realized as a smile washed over my face, would surely surpass all of the previous ones…”

“Nantucket was the only vacation I ever went on with Chris and Jono, or for that matter, any of my relatives.  As I rode the ferry back to the mainland and then sat in the car on my way back to Chappaqua, my mind was deep in reflection and thought.  School would be starting in under a week.  I would go back to my ordinary life—and that was perfectly fine with me.  But at the same time, I knew I would go through every day longing for what I had been blessed with from August 20 to August 30, 1997.”

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And then there was East Hampton and neighboring Montauk, the beach communities where it all started and where it all ended for our family as we knew it.  We spent more time on those beaches over 20 years than we did on any others, and it is where so many of our family traditions were created and cemented.  We had our “go to” restaurants such as the Lobster Roll and Gossman’s Dock, the latter being the place where Jeff cracked open his very first lobster, as well as his very last one just three months before he died.  And for breakfast, Jeff lived for our visits to Mr. John’s Pancake House, which he affectionately called “Johnny Pancakes.”  Not even the usual hour long wait times could lessen his enthusiasm for that place.

OUR FINAL VISIT TO JOHNNY PANCAKES, AUGUST 2010

OUR FINAL VISIT TO JOHNNY PANCAKES, AUGUST 2010

And every trip out there included multiple visits to the Puff ‘n’ Putt miniature golf course in Montauk.  Jeff loved playing that course, and he was super competitive, whether it was playing against just me when he was younger, and then against his brothers too when they were old enough.  Those were also the beaches on which my sons and I tossed every conceivable ball and object known to man and where we must have set records for how many waves we rode with our bodies and our boards over the years.

How fitting it is that our very last beach vacation as a family of five was in East Hampton in August 2010, less than a week after Jeff had walked out on the job he despised.  Prior to leaving the job, Jeff had asked his firm for approval to take a few days off for our vacation, and he seemed to be looking forward to it.

I get an eerie feeling when I think back to how I had to spend most of that vacation in bed with a fever that spiked to over 103.  I don’t think I’ve ever been that sick in my life.  Did I subconsciously have an inkling that something was very wrong?  I don’t know.  But despite my illness, the boys seemed to have their usual great time, as the following photo shoot from August 16, 2010 reflects.  These are the last images ever captured of our three boys together.

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I don’t think I will ever be able to return to East Hampton again, which is a tragedy in and of itself given the depth and the richness of the family memories that reside there.  But the pain would be too great—the pain of knowing that Jeff will never again be on that mound of sand with both arms around the brothers he adored, and the pain that would result from just being near our favorite restaurants, beaches and the miniature golf course that he loved so much.

But that doesn’t mean that our family has stopped going to the beach together.  Far from it.  It is where we belong, and in the two years since Jeff died, the four of us have vacationed together on the beaches of San Juan, Rehobeth (Delaware) and Cancun.  Those trips have been therapeutic for all of us, and they have helped us bond even more closely together, if that’s possible.

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CANCUN, DECEMBER 31, 2011

Drew and Brett are young men now, and the number of opportunities we’ll have to vacation together as a family will naturally decrease over time.  However, I know that we will continue to search for and find our beaches, the way we always have, and they will be ones where we can create beautiful memories in a new context—our new world in which we are still a family of five, but with Jeff now joining our journeys by looking down at us from Heaven above, just as he did in Turks and Caicos.

I have no doubt that when our family next hits the beach, I will look up at the blue sky and once again find Jeff hanging out above the clouds, with his outstretched arms beseeching me.  But this time, instead of reaching for my camera, I will grab the nearest ball and heave it with all my might toward him.  And being the outstanding athlete that he was and will always be, I know that Jeff will make the catch.  I then picture Drew and Brett rushing into the ocean while battling for position to catch Jeff’s return pass from the sky.  It will be just like old times.

By visualizing all this, I realize that I have, in fact, discovered our new beach.  It looks a lot different than the St. Thomas of 1990, the Nantucket of 1997 and the East Hampton of 2010.  But as long as I go there in lockstep with Carey, Drew and Brett by my side, I know that Jeff will be the first one to give it a big thumbs-up.

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– Rich Klein