Our Small Christmas Eve Miracle

2 Jan

“Oh, they say, she died one winter,
When there came a killing frost,
And the pony she named Wildfire,
Busted down its stall,
In a blizzard he was lost.

She ran callin’, Wildfire
She ran callin’, Wildfire
She ran callin’, Wiiiiilllllld Fiiiiiiirrre”

–Michael Murphey, “Wildfire”, 1975

It’s sort of ironic that for a family to whom Christmas has been so important, both spiritually and in terms of being a wonderful time for family bonding, Christmas Eve has not always been kind to us.  I’ll spare you the relatively minor incidents that have occurred on that day over the years and share just the two most traumatic ones.

On Christmas Eve 2000, the five of us went into Manhattan to do some ice skating at South Street Seaport, to see the tree at Rockefeller Center and then to have dinner at Michael Jordan’s steakhouse in Grand Central Station before jumping on the train home.  It was an amazing day and evening.

However, at about one in the morning, Drew, who was just 9 years old, came into our room in tears and in obvious pain.  True to his nature, he apologized for waking us up but said that he felt extreme stomach pain.  I knew immediately what it was, as it happened to me when I was 11.  I asked Drew to point to the exact spot on his abdomen where he felt the pain.  He did so, and it was the precise location where the scar from my appendectomy was still visible on the right side of my abdomen.  I explained that we needed to get in the car right away and get to the hospital but that everything would be just fine.  I told him that Santa would know and would deliver his gifts to the hospital.  And so in the early hours of Christmas 2000, Drew had his appendix removed and Carey came to sleep in his hospital room while I went home to be with Jeff and Brett.  Drew opened presents in Northern Westchester Hospital on Christmas morning.

I would have thought that one such dramatic Christmas Eve incident would be enough for one family, but I was mistaken.  Our evening for this past  December 24th was all planned out.  We’d have an early dinner out together and then go to Church services.  Those plans changed quickly, though, when during our greyhound Dobi’s late afternoon walk, she ran off in the woods at Dogwood Park, in the same direction in which she typically wanders off for short amounts of time.  She had always come back in the past within ten minutes or so.  Not this time.

At the 20 minute missing mark, Carey and I started getting nervous, as darkness was quickly settling in.  Dobi was wearing a bright pink coat (very fashionable), but not only didn’t we see anything in the distance, we didn’t hear any rustling in the leaves either.  After a half hour, we started to bellow her name, beseeching this greyhound, whom we had rescued from the racetracks of Florida when our whippet Clif was diagnosed with lymphoma just three months after Jeff died, to come back to us.  Dobi had comforted us greatly in the aftermath of Jeff’s death and Clif’s ultimate death in January 2012 (see “Clif’s Coming”, 1/30/12, https://kleinsaucer.wordpress.com/2012/01/30/clifs-coming/ ), and now she was gone.  The song Wildfire entered my mind.  The forecast for that evening was for sleet and snow, and I panicked at the thought that Dobi could be lost in a storm just like Wildfire was.

DOBI IN HER PINK COAT

DOBI IN HER PINK COAT

After an hour, we had screamed ourselves hoarse with nothing to show for it.  It was pitch black, and the silence was deafening.  Carey and I agreed that this time she wasn’t coming back.  Carey speculated that she had been attacked by a coyote or a deer that she had chased.  Or maybe for some inexplicable reason, she had escaped the park onto a road.  Not knowing what else to do, we drove home without our precious dog.

DSC01780

DSC01774

We had texted Drew and Brett what was happening, and when we got home, the look of disbelief on their faces broke my heart.  Again.  As we stood in the kitchen, that all too familiar feeling that our family had suffered yet another crushing loss permeated the room.  It was surreal–there we were in a warm house while our greyhound was somewhere outside in the very cold night, hopefully still alive.  She had been gone over 90 minutes.  At that point, Carey verbalized what we were all feeling.  We were going back into those woods, together as a family, and we weren’t leaving without our girl.  We grabbed flashlights and got in the car, all five of us including Carey’s mom.

For a brief moment, though, I stayed behind in the kitchen while they went into the garage.  I pulled Jeff’s picture out of my pocket–the one that was given out with the prayer card at his wake.  He is wearing a deep blue shirt with a red tie.  I keep it with me at all times.  I looked him squarely in the eyes, and my rage that has boiled within me for over two years surged to the surface.  I screamed at him, “You owe us for everything you’ve put us through.  YOU OWE US.  Bring her back, do you hear me?  As your father, I’m telling you to BRING HER BACK.”  I didn’t know if he could hear me, but I guarantee you the neighbors did.

No more death.  No more tragedy.  Not tonight.  Not on Christmas Eve.

2012-12-27_0

We parked the car, and Drew, Brett and I got out with our flashlights and plunged into the woods.  We each started calling Dobi’s name as loud as we could while shining our lights every which way.  Nothing.  We walked a little futher in, now screaming in fear, not hope.  About five minutes later, Drew called out, “I heard something up there”, and he pointed up and to our right.  Brett whipped around and pointed his flashlight at the spot, and we all immediately saw a flash of pink.  Instinctively, Brett sprinted toward her, and Dobi started to run away from the blinding lights.  I screamed at Brett to stop, and when I called her in as calm a voice as I could muster, she ran into my arms.  I had dropped her leash by the entrance, but it didn’t matter.  I wasn’t letting go until she was back safely in our car.  It had been over two hours since she went missing.

CLIF AND DOBI

CLIF AND DOBI

I don’t know exactly how Jeff got Dobi back toward the entrance to the park while we were driving back there, after Carey and I had searched futilely for over an hour, but I do know that enough things have happened over the past two years–most of which I’ve shared in this forum–to convince me that Jeff’s spirit is alive and that he is watching over everyone he loves.  While I don’t think he can control everything (if he could, all his favorite sports teams would win the championship every single year), I believe that God has given him a sphere of influence within which to operate, and he has utilized this to communicate with us periodically, to turn out the lights on occasion at major sporting events, and to guide the dog he never met back to us.  I shudder to think about the emotional devastation we would have felt if Dobi had not returned.

The day before all this drama, on December 23rd, the four of us drove in to the city for the Knicks game.  At the garage we use across the street from the Garden, you can prepay your parking so that you don’t have to wait on line to do it after the game.  Unfortunately, this time after I paid, instead of putting the parking ticket in my wallet, I left it on the counter at the booth.  I realized it only after we had already entered the Garden.  If I wasn’t able to retrieve it, I’d have to pay another $39 for a new parking ticket after the game.

I called the garage from our seats and asked if any kind soul had turned in my parking ticket to the booth.  They checked, and sure enough, someone had done so, and they told me they’d hold it for me there.  I inquired as to who would have the ticket and who I should ask for after the game.  The guy said, “Just ask for Thao.”  Carey watched my face turn ashen.  I asked how Thao spelled her name.  “T-H-A-O”, he said.  Of course, who else would I ask for?  After all, Thao Lam was one of the most important people in Jeff’s life over his last months at Middlebury and beyond.  And she has been a beacon of light for our family since his death.  Jeff didn’t entrust the safety of my parking ticket to just any Tom, Dick or Harry.  He put it in Thao’s hands.  Of course he did.

Jeff & Thao

JEFF AND THAO

Once we returned home with Dobi on Christmas Eve and fed her, we went directly to Church.  Dinner could wait until afterward.  Once there, in addition to celebrating the true miracle of Christmas under the leadership of our Priest,  Father Elias Villis, we silently thanked God about a million times for bringing Dobi home.  And I privately thanked Jeff for stepping up for the family and doing his part.

When I opened the Church doors to leave after the completion of the service, the snow was falling fairly heavily, the cars were covered with it, and I had to compose myself while thinking about how Dobi, then safe and warm in our home, could just as easily have been out in this storm with her pink coat saturated, and with her shivering and scared in the woods or elsewhere.  I was instantly overtaken, right there on the Church steps, by that feeling of parental helplessness that I was introduced to so abruptly and violently in the fall of 2010, and I was deeply shaken by it.

The bottom line is that whether it’s your dog or your child, you protect them as long as you possibly can, but when it’s time to remove the leash, your parental powers significantly diminish.  At that point, all you can do is hope and pray that they are equipped to move forward productively, to make decent decisions and to stay out of major trouble.  I have no idea where Dobi was or what she was doing during the two hours we were separated from her, but she somehow found her way back to us.  Jeff, on the other hand, who had taken one dollar with him to the bridge on November 9th, 2010, just in case he decided to pay the return toll to come back home, chose not to.  And in making that decision, he devastated the family he loved so much.

The story of Dobi on Christmas Eve is just the latest incident that has made it quite evident to me that incorporating Jeff into our lives as if he was still here is the way to move forward  most productively.  That is why I made sure that he was as central to our search and rescue mission for Dobi as we all were.  And thus I will continue to yell at him when appropriate, talk to him daily, email and text him on occasion and call him every day to hear his voicemail greeting.  I will also be attuned to his signals and will always be open to communication from him, such as when he told me the Celtics would beat the Heat in overtime during their playoff series last season (they did).

The path to recovery for me has never been clearer.  I must continue to cherish what I do have, which is an incredible amount, while battling my loss by always carrying Jeff with me everywhere I go.  Given how he sprang into action the second I called upon him to bring Dobi home, he obviously still needs me to be his father, and I will never stop being that for him.  I miss him dearly, but through emails, texts, photos, videos, anecdotes and special memories, he truly remains alive for all of us.

 I have learned not to look too far into the future, but for now, Dobi is home, Christmas was beautiful, my wife and sons love me, and my friends and family are amazing.  2013 is here, and I’m ready to take it on.  Things are bound to go awry along the way, but the events of December 23rd and 24th have given me a blueprint for how to approach most problems in the future.

In many cases, I’ll pull out Jeff’s picture and sternly instruct him to make things right.  And if that doesn’t work?

I’ll just ask for Thao.

-Rich Klein

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