The Butterfly Effect, And The Golden Opportunity I Missed To Save My Son (A Father’s Day Reflection, Part 3)

16 Jun

“The butterfly effect is a term used in chaos theory to describe how small changes to a seemingly unrelated thing or condition (also known as an initial condition) can affect large, complex systems. The term comes from the suggestion that the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in South America could affect the weather in Texas, meaning that the tiniest influence on one part of a system can have a huge effect on the other part.

The butterfly effect applies to systems beyond weather; indeed, any complicated system may be vulnerable to seemingly small factors…In human behavior, it may be possible for small initial changes to render behavior unpredictable. For example, the loved ones of someone who has committed suicide are often left wondering what could have caused the death. They might agonize over the myriad small details they did not see, but which could have predicted the suicide. The butterfly effect might suggest that a huge range of experiences, dispositions, and genetic, physical, and emotional factors were too many to account for the person’s actions.”

–www.wisegeek.org/what-is-the-butterfly-effect.htm#

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I had never heard of the butterfly effect until reading Stephen King’s book, “11/22/63”, a year and a half ago. The book is a time travel story in which a high school teacher goes back in time to try to prevent Lee Oswald from assassinating JFK. The book was fascinating and clearly touched a nerve in me, as I constantly think about going back and changing the past to prevent Jeff’s death from having occurred. King’s book makes the point that the past is simply not meant to be changed and that undoing Oswald’s heinous act could have had a catastrophic effect on the world in the future.

Nonetheless, there isn’t a day that goes by, nor will there ever be one, when I don’t agonize over any and every possible thing that I, or anyone else, could have done to steer the outcome in a completely different direction.

For example, on the evening of November 8th, 2010 when I was in Jeff’s room watching Monday Night Football with him, he was sitting against a backrest on his bed, while I alternated between doing sit-ups on the floor and watching the game as we chatted. Like virtually all 23 year olds do, he was texting away as we watched the game. At one point, I saw him break into a big smile as he read a text. Given that he had been struggling over the previous couple of months, I was thrilled to see that and asked what he was smiling about. He told me that one of his female friends was babysitting that night and had written that she wished he was there. I told him that, by all means, he should go see her, and that we could watch games together any time, including the Knicks game the following night. He replied that he was a little tired after his weekend with AB and friends in Manhattan and didn’t really feel like going out, but he would make plans to see her soon. I regret that I never thought to ask who she was.

I have thought about this exchange often since Jeff died. What if Jeff had gone to see this girl and had a great time with her instead of watching the game with me? I’m decent company but I’m sure it would have been much more fun for him to be with his friend. Would he have awakened on the morning of November 9th in a much better state of mind? Could this have been an example of the butterfly effect whereby “the tiniest influence on one part of a system can have a huge effect on the other part”? What if she was a potential girlfriend? The questions are unrelenting.

But if I think about the latter as a potential example of the butterfly effect, it is even worse to know in my heart that I missed opportunities that could have resulted in a pterodactyl effect (pterodactyls were the flying dinosaurs whose one flap of their wings could change all types of systems dramatically). And those opportunities were so basic that I cannot believe that I didn’t realize it back then.

Six months after graduating from Middlebury, Jeff accepted a paralegal position at one of the largest international law firms, not because that job appealed to him, but rather because the opportunity was there, and the job market was otherwise horrible in 2009. The nature of that job, however, which particularly in July-August of 2010, required him to work 18+ hour days under pressure-packed conditions, ultimately drove him to quit. And I was relieved when he did, because I witnessed what the stress was doing to him.

But this experience had a profoundly deleterious effect on Jeff, as he took his decision to quit as a personal failure that signaled his inability to cut it in the real world. That conclusion was absurd, though, because it was simply a function of the job not being the right fit for Jeff. He didn’t like it, it didn’t interest him, and the unreasonable pressure placed on him by attorneys combined with the hours made the situation untenable. The indisputable truth, however, is that this terrible experience was a huge factor which influenced what Jeff did less than three months later.

Jeff should never have been in that position in the first place. He was an incredibly gifted writer who had developed a passion for it during his Middlebury years through his J.K. Rolling column. Yet he never really thought about pursuing journalism after graduation. That was his error of omission, but where was I when all this was happening? I never even thought about journalism as an option. In football, they’d call that a completely blown assignment on my part. A parent, particularly one like me who consciously chose not to pursue his passion (sports broadcasting) 30 years ago, needs to be attuned to these issues, and it was my role to step up and dole out advice to my son at that critical moment. The adult child can choose to accept or reject such advice, but for me to not have thought of the most common sense career for Jeff to pursue was inexcusable.

JK Rolling

It was not until after Jeff died that I heard about how his friend Danny Roberts from Midd had gone on to a one year graduate program in journalism before accepting a position at Fortune Magazine. And only then did the light bulb go on in my head. Of course, that’s exactly what Jeff should have done. With the butterfly flapping its wings in the direction of journalism school followed by a writing position, Jeff would have been on a defined path toward doing what he loved, would never have been prescribed meds for anything, and this disaster could have been averted.

But I guess I lost sight of how crucial it is to at least consider following your passion. I was asleep at the switch, and that is particularly egregious given that we were blessed that there was no urgency from a financial perspective for Jeff to have taken the first job that came along. He could have bided his time and gone after his dream. Neither Jeff nor I seriously considered this alternative, and so there is shared blame on this one.

There is no shared blame, however, when it comes to the one thing that I could have done, and did not even think of doing at the time, to turn everything around and put Jeff’s life back on track. It is all on me, and this blown opportunity is the thing that will torture me forever. On Tuesday, October 26th, 2010, Jeff came home after spending a week in the hospital being weaned off of the horrible cocktail of meds that had recklessly been prescribed to him over the prior two months. He had no job and no real plan other than to potentially apply to law school for the following year. And the cloud that the medication had caused to form around his head was as thick as ever.

Under these horrible circumstances that my beautiful, brilliant, kind and universally-loved son was living under, do you know what I did on Wednesday, October 27th?

I went to work.

Yes, you read it correctly.

I WENT TO WORK.

Just like it was any ordinary day. I got in my car, drove to the train station, took the 7:22am train in to the city, walked to my office, got my coffee, and went about my day. Did I think about Jeff every minute I was there? Yes. But I had no business being there.

It gets worse. On Thursday, October 28th, I flew to Kansas City for a previously scheduled closing dinner to celebrate a business deal with a client there. So not only was I not there that day either for Jeff, I was away that night celebrating with a client rather than being home with my precious son who was suffering. I flew home on Friday, the 29th. Three colleagues were attending that dinner with me, so I had ample back-up and certainly could have bailed out. Why didn’t I? I have no answer. I just don’t know what I could have been thinking.

I don’t know exactly when I had the epiphany about what I now know I should have done instead, but it was probably close to a year after we had lost him. If on that Wednesday morning I had, instead of going to work, told Jeff to pack his bags because the two of us were heading down to a beach in Florida for a week to rejuvenate and to devise a plan of attack for the future, there is not a doubt in my mind that Jeff would be alive and thriving today. He needed to be taken far away from home at that moment, and I was the guy who needed to do it. I have lived this illusory week in my mind in detail for over a year now.

We would have awakened by 8am every morning and then headed down to breakfast where we would have talked about what had happened the prior two months. Then we would have strategized, together as the great team that we were, about the right course of action from that point on.

Every day after breakfast, we would have hit the beach. We would have owned it, because it was an off-peak time of year when the college kids were still in school, and it wasn’t holiday season yet. I would have used this beach time as an opportunity to whip his body (and mine) into the best shape of our lives. There’s nothing like the feeling of being in really good physical condition, and by the time we left for home, Jeff would have had that feeling.

WE WOULD HAVE OWNED THE BEACH IN FLORIDA, JUST AS WE OWNED THIS ONE IN MONTAUK IN 1995

WE WOULD HAVE OWNED THE BEACH IN FLORIDA, JUST AS WE OWNED THIS ONE IN MONTAUK IN 1995

I picture us running wind sprints on the open sand, with minimal rest in between, until we are ready to drop from exhaustion. Then I see us plunging into the ocean we’d always loved, riding waves as we had done for nearly two decades together. But it still wouldn’t have been time to lie in the sun and relax. It would first have been time for throwing the Frisbee, then the football and yes, of course, playing smash ball and trying to set records for how many times we could hit the ball to each other before it fell to the ground. These things would have brought back visions for Jeff of a happier past and a taste of what the future could be as the cloud around his head slowly dissipated.

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Throwing Jeff in Water

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Dad and Jeff in water

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Dad and Jeff with smashball rackets

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Finally, we would lie on our lounge chairs, soak up the sun, and talk. And talk, and talk. I would have used every precious moment with Jeff to look him in the eyes and explain to him how he is entitled to stumble in life just like everyone else and that he was being unreasonably harsh on himself. And I would have gotten through to him. There is no doubt. Away on a beach, just the two of us for a week, would have been the perfect setting to enable me to blow the cloud away and to get his buy-in for his next steps. But instead, I was at work and then in Kansas City.

Jeff, Dad on lounges in St. Thomas

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After a light lunch on the beach, we would have headed to the hotel fitness center to lift weights. Jeff was a marvelous physical specimen, but naturally through this traumatic time and his hospitalization, he had lost a slight amount of his fitness. But by lifting together and exhorting each other to exceed our previous limits, we would have emerged stronger and more bonded to each other than ever, if that was even possible. And this would have further cleared his head. Strong of body, strong of mind.

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Back to the beach for what has always been our favorite time—late afternoon to dusk, with a good book (or ESPN The Magazine, Jeff’s favorite sports publication ever) to just get lost in our reading as the beautiful sound of the waves rushing in surrounded us.

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And then we’d go out to dinner, to a different restaurant every night, for great food and nice wine, and for yet another opportunity to talk, to tell him how much we all loved him and to remind Jeff how unconditionally PROUD we were of him despite what had happened. The prior two months had represented nothing but a bump in the road; I would have repeated that until it registered. And I would have told him that it was time for him to go for his dream and start applying for graduate programs in journalism. I would have gotten through to him, because he’d have known that I believed these things with all my heart, and that I only deal in facts. I don’t ever b.s. my kids, and they know it. We would have drunk numerous toasts to Jeff’s bright future, indulged in our favorite desserts and headed back to the hotel to watch SportsCenter.

So imagine if we had repeated this routine every single day and night for a week, far away from home with no distractions. Well, that’s exactly what I do pretty much every day. I imagine it in detail. And my conclusion never varies. With that level of concentrated parental intervention from his father, coming from the heart with genuine love for my son, there is literally no doubt that Jeff would have left Florida with a purpose and a plan, with a rejuvenated spirit, and with a much clearer head on his shoulders. This is not some pie-in-the-sky fantasy about what could have happened. It would have been a simple and basic approach to Jeff’s situation that would have worked beautifully if I had only thought of it before he died, not a year after. In late October 2010, Jeff was completely salvageable.

The obvious retort is that if I had really suspected that Jeff’s predicament was so dire that he was close to suicide, then of course I would have taken action along these lines. However, that logic doesn’t absolve me from my inaction. When it came to my son, it was my responsibility as a father to sense when he needed extra attention, and the fact that he had come home from the hospital with no plan as to how he should spend his days from then on was reason enough. I didn’t see that at the time, and thus, I failed him. I went to work and left him home to flounder.

Like most young people who commit suicide, Jeff’s dark mindset was temporary, and if I had taken the actions described above, I could have put it behind him forever. In a recent New York Times front page article authored by Sabrina Tavernise (“With Guns, Killer and Victim Are Usually the Same”, February 14, 2013), she wrote, “Suicidal acts are often prompted by a temporary surge of rage or despair…”

She also wrote, in reference to the subject of the article–a 17 year old boy who shot himself to death in Wyoming–“Kameron’s crisis was, by all accounts, temporary. He was a popular football player with adoring parents and no history of depression.” Substitute the word basketball for football, and Jeff’s name for Kameron’s, and she could have been writing about our son. Jeff could have been saved. His despair was temporary.

I may never know the identity of the young woman babysitter who brought such a broad smile to Jeff’s face on his last night on earth, but I will always believe that if he had gone to hang out with her that night, it is possible that the butterfly effect would have been significant enough to have altered his mindset and to have kept him with us.

However, it is more than possible—in fact, it is certain—that if I had either steered Jeff toward journalism before he accepted the paralegal position, or more importantly, I had taken him to Florida on October 27th, 2010 instead of going to work, Jeffrey Alexander Klein’s name would today be in a media company’s directory rather than on a tombstone. Typing these words is beyond painful, but when one deals in facts, those facts can’t be sugarcoated. There would have been no tragedy, and you would not be reading the Kleinsaucer blog right now. The truth is inescapable.

The only way that I can live with this horrific truth is by making sure that I never again allow anyone I love to become a victim of my inaction. I have taken that approach, probably to excess, since Jeff died. Drew and Brett are the ones who have borne the brunt of having an overly hands-on father, but as I wrote in my last post, they have been incredibly understanding and tolerant of me. For that, I am deeply grateful to them, because I am having difficulty loosening the reins. They know how much I love them, just as Jeff knew how much I loved him.

To this day, I still get on the 7:22am train to the city to toil at my profession. I sometimes wonder if Jeff, now in his new home above with complete clarity of mind, ever looks down and questions how I could have boarded that train on October 27th, 2010. Just in case he does, I tell him out loud that despite his isolated references that fall to having dark thoughts, I just never believed he would ever actually leave us. I mean, why would he ever even think about leaving so many people who loved him so much? But after I say this to him, I can’t help but think of the line from the Moody Blues song “Nights In White Satin”—

“Some try to tell me, thoughts they cannot defend…”

I am aware that my defense is feeble.

All I can do now is to learn from what happened and continue to ferociously love and protect the gems that I still have. I gave Jeff every ounce of love and devotion that I had in me, but because I let my guard down for one split second when it counted the most, it wasn’t enough. Now, I can only care for him by doing my best to keep his memory alive forever. And I will continue to do that.

In the meantime, Carey, Drew and Brett can rest easy and feel secure in the knowledge that, no matter the circumstances, I will never let my guard down again.

– Rich Klein

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2 Responses to “The Butterfly Effect, And The Golden Opportunity I Missed To Save My Son (A Father’s Day Reflection, Part 3)”

  1. Myrene Conner December 8, 2014 at 10:27 pm #

    Hello Rich,
    Just wanted to let you know that I read your article in “Inside Chappaqua,” and I was truly touched by your family’s story. The courage and energy you have put into spreading Jeff’s story is remarkable and admirable. I wish you and your family peace and happiness.
    Myrene Conner

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