With Courage, Love And Compassion, My Family Has Guided Me Through My Roughest Moments

28 May

“I’m going back in time, and it’s a sweet dream,

It was a quiet night, and I would be all right, if I could go on sleeping,

But every morning, I wake up and worry: What’s gonna happen today?” 

                            –Eagles, “Best of my Love”, 1974

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Therein lies the problem.  I get up on most days, put on my imaginary flak jacket, check my right and left flanks, and prepare for battle.  What’s life going to try to throw at me today?  And in contrast to the fall of 2010, will I be ready this time and can I anticipate it in advance and beat it back before it gets me?  I’m not exactly sure what “it” is in today’s context, but I know it’s not good.  It wasn’t good in the fall of 2010, and for some reason, I always imagine there is more trouble coming.

This is not the way to move forward productively, and it’s certainly not the example I want to set for my boys in terms of how to approach life.  Thus, I need to overcome the severe post-traumatic stress that I suffer from.  But it’s hard when the enduring memory that I have is desperately trying to contact Jeff on November 9th, 2010 starting at 4:05pm, the instant I had hung up the phone with Daniel Zwillenberg, the behavioral therapist who had called me at work to inform me that Jeff never showed up for his 3:30 appointment, which would have been his first one with him.

I knew immediately that something was very wrong, and I dialed Jeff’s number frantically, but his phone was off and my calls went straight to voicemail. Over and over again.  “Hey this is Jeff.  I can’t answer my phone right now, so leave a message.”  I am sure he turned it off before heading to his final destination, because Jeff knew that if any of us had called him when he was on his way, he never could have gone through with his plan once he heard our voices.  I tried texting him, pleading with him to respond.  Nothing.

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The fact that I thought he would get my texts when his phone was off is a reflection of how desperate I was in those terrible moments.  It wouldn’t have mattered anyway, because the evidence strongly suggests that Jeff died between 3:45 and 4:00pm.  Daniel’s 4:05 call was too late.

As I continue to fight through these memories, I need only look to my amazing boys, Drew and Brett, for inspiration.  And to Carey, who is a role model in courage, strength and unwavering faith.  Brett was just 16 on that fateful afternoon, and when I arrived home, he was upstairs in his room.  Carey and I stood before our downstairs TV and heard our local news station break the story that a young man had just been found dead on the train tracks under the Bear Mountain Bridge.  While they didn’t identify the young man, I knew that this could not be a coincidence.  It was Jeff.

When I walked upstairs and into Brett’s room, he was curled up on his bed, clearly aware that tragedy had struck our family.  I sat down and held him close.  I asked him if he had heard that something terrible had happened to Jeff.  He nodded affirmatively.  Just the night before, Jeff had come into Brett’s room before he went to sleep to talk sports.  Then Jeff hugged him while saying goodnight.  Not even 24 hours later, Brett now got up from his bed, stood before me with tear-filled eyes, and said, “I should never have let go of him.”  I felt my body sag at Brett’s words, but I held myself up, hugged him harder and whispered to him that I would take care of him forever and that our family would get through this together.

What happened next is something I will remember for the rest of my life.  Brett gently pushed me away and said, “I’ll be ok.  You need to go take care of Mom.”  My 16 year old son was telling me to take care of his mother.  I considered that to be an extraordinary act of courage and selflessness for a kid his age, and as I look back on it now, I realize that it set the tone for how he has moved forward since then.

Drew was away at college.  At least Carey, Brett, Carey’s mom and I were all together to support one another as we learned what had happened.  I can’t imagine anything worse than being away from home when hearing that your big brother had taken his own life.  Some hours later, after the police had come to confirm it was Jeff and to drop off his final notes, we knew we couldn’t wait any longer to call Drew.

In yet another incredibly courageous act, Carey said that she would make the call.  I don’t know how she found the words, but she did.   We later found out that Drew, upon hanging up with Carey, proceeded to kick a trash can the length of his dorm hallway.  We will forever be grateful to his dorm RA, Mark Starling, for coming to his aid, bringing Drew into his room, and talking him through those early moments for the ensuing 90 minutes or so.  Drew came home the next day.  Carey’s strength that night in the face of unspeakable tragedy, her soothing support of me during my stressful periods since then, and the way she has moved forward while always carrying Jeff in her heart, is comforting and inspiring beyond words.  I said it in 1979 when we first met, and I say it now: Carey is literally the most special person I’ve ever known.

Over the past two and a half years, we have each embarked on our healing journeys, both together and individually. Carey has tended to Jeff’s grave with loving care and has prayed in Church regularly, for Jeff and for all of us.  Drew has written two blog posts about his brother, has posted periodically on Jeff’s Facebook page, and has talked to me often about Jeff and how much he misses him.  Brett has kept a lot inside, but last fall he opened up to me in an email expressing how, in losing Jeff, he lost what would have developed into a best friend relationship, as Brett now would have been able to connect with Jeff on a young adult level.

As a family, we have taken vacations, gone to Knicks and Yankees games, and celebrated all the holidays together.  The holidays are rough, but in sharing them as a family, we have maintained and strengthened our bonds to each other.

And we have each continued our life’s journey.  Brett proceeded to complete his high school career and has begun his college career at Villanova.  Drew continued working toward his sport management degree at Widener and has recently accepted a job in the health and fitness industry, in which he intends to build a career.  Carey is thriving as office manager of a sports medical practice, while still serving as Board member for Hope’s Door and taking a regular shift as an EMT for Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance Corp.

And then there’s me.  Given the depth of my despair, I have, in some respects, surprised myself with how I’ve done since that wretched day in 2010.  I have plowed myself into my work and have had two of the most productive years of my career.  As you all well know, I have also blogged my heart out, and it has been cathartic.  But as I said at the outset, I suffer from what can only be described as post-traumatic stress, and it is readily apparent in everything I do.  Carey, Drew and Brett have gone above and beyond the call of duty with their support in helping me get through this, especially given my firm belief that I should be the strong one leading the way in our recovery.

My symptoms have included wanting to be in constant contact with Carey, Drew and Brett.  We have always been an extremely close-knit family, so staying connected frequently is nothing new for us.  The difference is subtle and is one of degree.  Whether I’m watching a Knicks game at home, or am on a business trip, or out to dinner with a client or friend, I find myself texting my boys telling them what I’m doing, giving them my view on the quality of the Knicks’ play that night, or maybe even telling them what I’m having for dinner wherever I am.  Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, I guess, but there are times when I’ve gotten carried away.  This past January 17th serves as a case in point.

I had the good fortune to be able to host clients in my company’s corporate suite at Staples Center for the Lakers-Heat game in Los Angeles that night.  While I was excited about the event, I would have given anything to have had my boys with me too.  But since that wasn’t possible, I did the next best thing—I texted them pictures and running commentary on the game at a rapid rate, almost frenetically.  Drew and Brett seemed to be enjoying this for a while, as the banter below with Drew illustrates…

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But then I clearly got carried away.  I couldn’t stop texting them when anything interesting or exciting happened, and before I knew it, I had completely lost track of time and had forgotten that I was in a different time zone than they were.  Brett probably waited as long as he could to break the news to me, but with his morning class time rapidly approaching, he finally had no choice and he responded to one of my texts with a gentle reminder…

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My heart sank.  In my desire and need to be fully connected to my boys, particularly when I was experiencing something that I wanted so much to share with them, I had gone overboard and kept Brett from some much needed sleep.  His text to me, though, is a perfect illustration of how tolerant they both have been of my often overbearing nature for the past two and a half years.  He could have responded in the obnoxious manner utilized by many 18 year olds.  But I found his text to be gentle and respectful, while still getting the message across that it was time for me to let him sleep.

Even more than being tolerant, they have been outwardly supportive and encouraging when they’ve sensed I needed it.  I’ve expressed to Drew my feeling that, in retrospect, there were specific things I should have done that could have saved Jeff (to be explained in my Father’s Day post).  In the aftermath of one such conversation, I received the following text…

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Drew has been amazing.  Last summer, even when there might have been other things he’d rather have been doing, he went out of his way to carve out time for us to play tennis each weekend, and for me, those times were priceless (even though I took a beating each week).  Drew prioritized spending time with me over other things on his schedule.  That fact is not lost on me, and I treasure it, as I also treasure the text above and many others that he has sent me.  Rest assured, despite Drew’s kind words, I have no aspirations to be any form of deity.  I just want to bring some serenity back into my life.

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In a similar example, before Brett came home for this past Christmas break, I mentioned that we had four tickets for a Knicks game shortly after he and Drew were scheduled to arrive home.  I told him that Drew was planning to invite a friend to be our fourth and that I would be happy to step aside if he wanted to invite one as well.  Brett’s response strongly reinforced to me how blessed I am.  He texted that he wanted me to go to the game so we could all be together.  When I wrote back how truly touched I was by that response, Brett brought tears to my eyes when he texted back:

“Knicks 2000, this is our year!”

This was a poignant and loving reference to my blog post from December 17th, 2012, which I didn’t even know Brett had read, about Jeff’s and our family’s Knicks fandom over the years, and how we’ve used our common interest in the team to aid in our recovery.  With love like that coming at me from every direction within our family, I know I can overcome my post-traumatic stress.  It is just taking a little longer than I had hoped.

The key to winning my battle is for me to gain an ability to control my nerves when my boys have the “gall” to not respond to my texts within minutes of my sending them.  When I don’t receive responses, particularly in the late evening hours, within some short period of time, I get overwhelmed by flashbacks of sitting at my desk at work on that November 9th futilely and desperately trying to reach Jeff to no avail.  I am completely aware of how terribly unfair this is to my boys, who are simply trying to lead normal college lives and aren’t necessarily staring at their phones 24/7.  But I think two recent incidents may have finally put my anxiety to rest for awhile, and hopefully for good.

On February 8th, at 11:26pm, after having not received a response to a text I sent to Brett earlier that evening and feeling like there was no way I’d be able to fall asleep until I heard from him, I tried again.  This time, his response was immediate and beautiful:

Brett Text

He could not have written more perfect words than those, and the sentiment behind them was so incredibly thoughtful.  Brett was basically telling me that he would never be a stressor for me and that I should just put that concern (and myself) to bed.  The young man who at 16 years old on the night of his brother’s death, told me he would be ok and to go take care of his mother, was essentially telling me over two years later that I can relax and that it’s time for me to take off that flak jacket and stop looking over my shoulder for trouble that doesn’t exist.  I love you, Brett.

Similarly, in mid-March, I completely freaked out when I couldn’t reach Drew one weekday evening, and my reaction was compounded by the fact that Drew’s phone was off and my calls went straight to voicemail.  Repeatedly.  Now despite the fact that I know iPhone battery lives are short, and as Carey calmly reminded me, Drew had no classes the next day and was surely out at some frat or sorority party, I couldn’t keep the flashbacks at bay, and I panicked.

More calls went straight to voicemail.  And even though I was reaching Drew’s voicemail, my ears were instead pulsating with the message, “Hey this is Jeff.  I can’t answer my phone right now, so leave a message.”  Once again, I sent pleading texts that weren’t answered.  Carey insisted everything was fine and that I needed to relax and come to bed.  And sure enough, just as I was reluctantly getting into bed with my stomach churning, my cell phone rang.

As Carey had calmly and rationally said would be the case, Drew called to say that he had been at a party at a sorority since he had no classes the next day, and his phone had died.  I felt like a complete idiot.  I apologized to Drew for my many calls and urgent texts and told him that I was out of line, yet again.

And do you know what Drew did?

HE apologized to ME, said it was totally understandable why I get like that, and added that he’d try to be more sensitive to my feelings. That, in a nutshell, is the kind of young man that Drew is: sensitive, caring, loving. But this is my problem, not his, and he has no reason to apologize to me for anything.  I love you, Drew.

And Carey, thank you for not only tolerating me but also easing my anxiety over so many things for these past two and a half years.  Thank you also for leading by example with your deep faith, amazing strength and endless love.  I love you so much.

In one of the final notes that he left in his car on November 9th, 2010, in which he addressed each of us individually, Jeff began his paragraph to me by writing,

“Dad, you are the rock of the family…”

Well, I guess it’s time for me to man up, because I believe that what Jeff was implicitly saying was that he was counting on me to maintain my rock status and to take care of the family in the aftermath of what he was about to do.  Though I candidly don’t think I owe Jeff anything in that regard given that he’s the one who caused this devastation and trauma, I certainly do owe it to his amazing mother and brothers to step up and get a grip on my emotions.  They have been my inspiration to date, and now it’s my turn to reclaim my position as a strong leader in our family.

And so the next time one of the boys doesn’t return a text by the time I’m ready to go to sleep, I will climb into bed, resolve to speak to them the following day, and then proceed to sleep soundly.  And when it’s time to get dressed from this day forth, I intend to leave the flak jacket out of my wardrobe and to seek out life’s beauty, rather than prepare to ward off its heartache.  It may have taken me a while to realize it, but Carey, Drew and Brett have formed an almost impenetrable shield of love around me, and I truly am the most blessed man on the face of the earth, even after what has happened.

Jeff was right—I was the rock of our family.  Today, I commit to them to be that once again, this time bigger and stronger than ever.  My amazing family, who rallied to my side when I needed them the most, deserves nothing less than that.

-Rich Klein

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