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.

Jeff Cloud

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

Jeff,_Dad_in_St._Thomas_1

Jeff,_Dad_in_St._Thomas_2

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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2012-12-02_1

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.

Boys east hampton cropped

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.

CANCUN, DECEMBER 31, 2011

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.

jeffbeach

– Rich Klein

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2 Responses to “We Always Found Our Beach”

  1. Debbie Palazzo December 4, 2012 at 9:54 pm #

    So beautiful Rich. A very moving tribute to a very special young man.

  2. Nicole Sloane December 5, 2012 at 9:57 am #

    What beautiful memories!! HAPPY HOLIDAYS!! LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING YOU SOON!

    Nicole

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