Archive | September, 2013

The Day The Bottom Dropped Out (And The Story Of The Mazda 6)

29 Sep

“Reflexes got the better of me,

And what is to be must be,

Every day, the bucket goes to the well,

But one day, the bottom will drop out,

Yes one day, the bottom will drop out.”

   –Eric Clapton, “I Shot The Sheriff”, 1974

___________________________________________________________

The bottom didn’t have to drop out for Jeff on November 9th, 2010, but because reflexes got the better of him, it did.  Every day for his last two months, I’m quite sure he sent a bucket down into his personal well of strength reserves, but the medication he was on depleted those reserves day by day.  And when he reached down deep on November 9th, only to find that the well had run dry, he reacted on impulse rather than on reason.  Instead of going to the gym or out for a jog to replenish the well, he panicked.  The bottom dropped out.  He wrote his notes and took one last ride in his beloved Mazda 6.

But just two days earlier, on Sunday November 7th, our family did what we always try to do on Sunday evenings—have a family dinner out with as many of us as are home at the time.  And so on this night, with Drew away at college, the remaining four of us had dinner at Macarthurs in Pleasantville.  Carey, Brett and I drove over there together, and Jeff came directly from the gym to meet us.

In the midst of that terrible autumn, this night stood out to me, as Jeff was in as good a mood as I had seen him in for quite some time.  You knew Jeff was feeling good when he teased Brett (who he affectionately called “B Man”, or just “B” for short), as this was one of his favorite pastimes.  That night at dinner, Jeff gleefully teased Brett about the fact that the menu was filled with “B things”, like Beef Barley soup and Butternut Bisque.  Jeff thought this was hilarious.  Brett just rolled his eyes.

Carey and I were simultaneously thankful and taken aback by Jeff’s lighthearted mood at dinner that night.  It had been a while since we had seen him like that.  The optimist in me reasoned that doing things with his family always brought out the best in Jeff, and this night was just another example of that.  In retrospect, though, the cynic in me–a side that really never existed until Jeff’s death—speculated that Jeff’s mood was the result of his having already made the decision to end his life, and thus he no longer needed to fear the future.  I have since concluded, based on the great time we had the following night watching Monday Night Football and his earnest attempts on the morning of November 9th to get to his behavioral therapy appointment, that it was the former.  Jeff just let himself enjoy the continuation of our Sunday night family tradition.  He had no definitive plans to leave us.  The bucket was still delivering strength from the well.

Three months earlier, Brett had received his driving learners’ permit and was going to take his road test that coming spring.  Thus, after walking down the street to have ice cream at Cold Stone, Brett asked if it would be ok for him to drive Jeff’s car home to get some practice.  I told him that was a question for Jeff, but since it was before 9pm, it was fine with me.  Jeff didn’t hesitate for a second; he threw the keys to Brett, and they were off.

To this day, I remember standing on the sidewalk watching the metallic blue Mazda 6 drive away with Brett at the controls and Jeff in the passenger seat.  I felt a bit emotional, as it was the first time Brett had ever driven without either Carey or me in the car. But I knew he was in great hands with his big brother, and I felt proud.  I had absolutely no clue where that car would end up about 43 hours later.

The Mazda 6 was Jeff’s second car, but it was the first one that he leased in his own name and for which he made the payments.  For me, the best part of it all was that Jeff willingly allowed Carey and me to be fully engaged in the car shopping process, and it was a great parental experience for us.  And just recently, I got to enjoy a similar experience with Drew.  It was wonderful observing how Jeff solicited our advice, thoroughly analyzed all the options, considered the various prices, and made the final decision.

Although this all happened over 3 1/2 years ago, in January 2010, I remember it vividly.  But I need not worry if my memory fails me someday, because I can literally relive the entire experience through my computer screen by simply pulling up all the emails (of course I saved them) that bounced between the three of us during that time.

DSC02831

DSC02838

DSC02799

DSC02849

DSC02809

DSC02854

DSC02868

Jeff enjoyed driving his Mazda 6 for a full nine months before, on November 9th of that year, he tried to drive it to his first appointment with a behavioral therapist but was thwarted, first by me calling him and his Bluetooth not kicking in, causing him to be pulled over a cop.  How tragically ironic it is that the bluetooth feature that I felt was so important for him to get to maximize his safety malfunctioned at the most critical of moments and arguably cost Jeff his life.  The cop let Jeff go without giving him a ticket, but when he resumed the drive, a stone wall of traffic on the Sprain Parkway caused him to turn back and head home.  We rescheduled his appointment for 3:30 that day, but at that point, Jeff had apparently had enough.

After having lunch with Carey at home, he instead drove the car we all shopped for together to the most horrible of places.  Once parked on the Rockland County side of the Bear Mountain Bridge, he left the car behind with only his cell phone, his drivers’ license, three final notes, and one dollar bill remaining in it.

About a month later, Brett asked me what I planned to do with the car, and I told him that I would dispose of it and get it out of our sight as soon as humanly possible.  I was stunned by his response.  He told me that he loved the car and would like to have it as his own first car.

I had a viscerally negative reaction to Brett’s suggestion.  After all, Jeff spent his last moments on earth in this vehicle.  How could it possibly be healthy for Brett to inherit it?  He was just 16 at the time, an age that I considered to be quite tender. I suggested to him that it might be better for him to start fresh with his own new or used car and that maybe this one would bring with it some very unpleasant memories.

Brett rejected that hypothesis out of hand.  He reiterated that he had loved driving it home the month before, it looked really cool, and he was not at all concerned about the fact that it had been Jeff’s. I believe he also viewed this as a way to stay connected to his brother.  I was very moved by this, and since Drew already had a car that he was very happy with, we decided as a family that the Mazda 6 would become Brett’s.  And five months later, on April 11th, 2011, Brett passed his road test driving that car, and within minutes of doing so, he sent me this triumphant text:

Brett Yeah Baby

I don’t think I’ve ever had such conflicting emotions about an inanimate object in my life, but the Mazda 6 has brought them all to the forefront.  For Jeff, back in January 2010, the car represented excitement, pride, responsibility and self-satisfaction.  But when he drove it to his final destination, I could only view it as a holding pen for the personal articles listed earlier and an instrument of destruction that carried our son to his end.  With Brett’s extremely mature and pragmatic approach to the car, though, it now sits in our driveway as a symbol of renewal, and in my opinion, of unequivocal brotherly love.

Brett has demonstrated his love for Jeff in his own quiet ways.  I was quite touched when, during finals week this past May, I received this photo and text from him right before he left his dorm to take one of his final exams that day.  Unbeknownst to me, he had begun a tradition earlier in his freshman year of wearing Jeff’s Middlebury shirt when he took any important exam.  In this text, he wrote under the photo: “My test taking shirt.”  What an understated but beautiful expression of his love for Jeff.

DSC02667

I don’t know what we’ll do when the Mazda’s lease is up at the end of the year, but personally, I think that it will finally be time to say goodbye to the vehicle that, by simply looking at it, conjures up so many conflicting feelings within me.  However, it will be Brett’s call and I will support his decision.

In the end, though, the future of the Mazda 6 is unimportant, as this blog post is really just a story about how something as simple as shopping for a car with your son can be a wonderful bonding experience between parents and child that can be treasured forever.  And it is also the story of just how strong the bond between brothers can be, such that no matter how horrific the manner in which Jeff left us was, his brothers’ love for and pride in him remains unbroken.  So whether it is Brett driving Jeff’s car and wearing his shirt on test days,  or Drew blogging about him here on Kleinsaucer or sharing anecdotes about him when we’re home together, they do those things with pride and it is how they each keep him alive in their own way.  It’s really a beautiful thing to observe.

This blog post, however, is also about the dangers of acting reflexively in the heat of a moment in almost any situation in life.  The consequences of doing so are rarely good, and in Jeff’s case, they were fatal.  This concept also applies to more mundane situations, such as holding your fire on an email or text that you might want to send in anger, or taking a deep breath before saying something hurtful to someone you love in the midst of an argument, and so on.   It is one thing to act impulsively and take your spouse away for a weekend on a whim.  It is another to act out in a destructive way during stressful situations.

I keep getting back to the New York Times article written by Sabrina Tavernise (“With Guns, Killer and Victim Are Usually the Same”, February 14, 2013) that I referenced in my Father’s Day post.  She wrote that the majority of suicides are the result of temporary bouts of rage or despair—essentially reflex actions leading to the bottom dropping out.  If Jeff had only taken a deep breath, a walk around the house, or had called me…

When we lost Jeff, we lost a beautiful, smart, kind, funny and universally loved young man whose ability to think clearly was simply obliterated by misprescribed medication during the last two months of his life, after he had left a job that he detested.  This is the reason I will devote a great deal of my time in the future to raising awareness of the danger of doctors making rash decisions to prescribe anti-depressants before a thorough evaluation and diagnosis of a patient’s condition has been completed.  It is safe to say that Jeff was not the first to become a victim of this tendency.  I want to help ensure he is one of the last.

So many people have told me that through both the Friends of Jeff Klein Facebook page and through this blog, they have come to know Jeff better than ever.  And many others who did not know Jeff very well before he died have told me that they now feel like they’ve known him for years.  I never tire of hearing those comments.

Jeff had the terribly misguided thought that he no longer wanted to live.  However, through the collective efforts of everyone who loves him, we have given him no choice.  His spirit is vibrant, his memory is alive, hair styles have been altered in his honor, and his emails, texts, photos, videos and this blog are here forever.  And I know in my heart that Jeff, in Heaven, is fully aware of all this and is deeply humbled by it.

I am also quite sure he now knows that he made a terrible mistake.  But suicide unfortunately is irreversible, as is the enormous pain that the victim leaves behind with all of the people who loved him or her the most.  For Jeff, what was to be has been, and it can’t be undone.

So please, the next time you feel your blood reaching its boiling point or when you simply feel overwhelmed, take a deep breath, and think of Jeff and the lesson he left behind.  He made the old cliché become all too real.  Life truly is too short to let reflexes get the better of us.

But while Jeff’s life was way too short, our time with him was as rich and meaningful as it could have possibly been.  And that’s why I am today focusing my thoughts on the experience of shopping together for the Mazda 6.  The reason that moment, just like so many other precious times we had with Jeff, is alive and vibrant for us today is because we took the time to bask in the experience back then.  By living in the moment with your loved ones as you experience life’s day to day simple joys, you will ensure that those times will live in your hearts forever–even if you don’t have any emails to help jog your memory.

-Rich Klein

Advertisements

Jeff’s Tragic Misapplication Of The Concept Of Going Out On Top

16 Sep

“Anyone who’s been close to a loved one suffering from depression knows that the vicious cycle behind her condition means that, by definition, she can’t hear the logic or reassurances we extend to her;  if she could, she wouldn’t be suffering from depression.”

–Pico Iyer, “The Value of Suffering”, The New York Times Opinion Pages, September 7, 2013

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

When I beat myself up for not being able to get through to Jeff during his final two months, I need to remind myself of these words from Pico Iyer that I read in his article the other day.  Though it is a phenomenon that I simply can’t relate to, Jeff obviously couldn’t hear me no matter how many times I tried to talk sense into him.  Coming to grips with this fact is one of the single biggest challenges I face, along with post-traumatic stress disorder, as I move forward.  In Jeff’s case, though, it was slightly different.  He heard me just fine when he first became depressed; he stopped being able to hear me once the debilitating side effects of misprescribed medication kicked in.  The bottom line, though, is that he couldn’t hear me.

During one of the depressing autumn evenings in late September of 2010,  a couple of weeks after Jeff had confided to Carey and me that he felt hopeless and had gone as far as to think about suicide, I lost my composure during one of my many heart-to-heart talks with him.  The thought of a gorgeous, brilliant, kind and universally-loved superstar having dark thoughts was such anathema to me that, at one point, I just blurted out:

“How can you even THINK of such a thing?”

To this day, Jeff’s reply leaves me stunned and speechless.

“I don’t know, Dad, I just thought maybe it would be best to go out on top.”

Fighting through my shock, I probed Jeff as to what he could possibly mean by that.  He explained that he believed his depression would only get worse over time but since nobody else knew how he felt inside, people would perceive him as having gone out on top if he was no longer here.

However distorted this notion was, Jeff’s message was clear.  In his clouded and medication-damaged young mind, he believed that it was all downhill from where he stood then.  After walking out on his job and feeling like he couldn’t hack it in the real world, Jeff was convinced that his life was in an irrevocable tailspin.  I didn’t know how to even begin to combat such irrational thinking.

About a year after Jeff acted upon these twisted thoughts, I was going through my regular routine of searching for more precious memories of him to savor, and I came across something that literally caused my knees to become weak.  I found an issue of The Middlebury Campus newspaper from November 9th, 2006.  First, it was the date that temporarily caused my breathing to cease—it was exactly four years to the day before Jeff died.  But then it was Jeff’s article in his J.K. Rolling column for that issue that shook me to the core and was extremely eerie in light of the comment he made to me in 2010 about going out on top.

Jeff’s article was about the stunning announcement by New York Giants’ running back Tiki Barber that he would retire at the end of that season.  Barber’s announcement was shocking both because of its timing—fans thought this bombshell would be a major distraction for the team in the middle of its season—and because he’d be walking away while still in his prime as the Giants’ star offensive player.  The latter factor made such a decision almost unprecedented in sports.  Most athletes wait until their skills have eroded significantly before deciding it’s time to call it quits.

amd-tiki-barber-retirement-sign-jpg

Jeff took the minority position and was a huge supporter of Barber’s decision.  But in the context of what Jeff did exactly four years to the day later and what he said to me in September 2010, the words he wrote in his article were chilling and ominous:

“Personally, I can understand people’s bewilderment at Tiki’s choosing to retire at such a high point in his career.  He could easily play another five years at an extremely high level and earn a ridiculous amount of cash (by the ordinary person’s standards, anyway).  Bewilderment, though, should by no means turn into criticism.  There is nothing wrong—and in fact, quite a bit right—with choosing to walk away ‘on top’.” 

Dear God.

There is nothing wrong—and in fact, quite a bit right—with choosing to walk away “on top”, he wrote back then.  I had an immediate flashback to September 2010 when he looked at me with confused eyes and said, “I don’t know, Dad, I just thought it might be best to go out on top.”  Jeff had clearly entered his final crisis-filled two months with a pre-existing belief in the virtue of going out on top, and as I read this article a year after he died, I wondered if he had thought about Tiki Barber near the end.  Did the meds actually cause Jeff to confuse an athlete leaving his sport while on top as being analogous to a person leaving the world when on top?

The sad truth is that, despite the fact that Jeff still had all the attributes that I listed at the beginning of this post, he did not go out on top.  He was depressed, and worst of all in my view, he quit on life.  He didn’t retire from a sport at the top of his game.  He quit life without a fight.  I have accepted the fact that it wasn’t his fault given that his body and mind were thoroughly taken over by the side effects of anti-depressants.  However, that doesn’t make it any easier for me, because there is no doubt that Jeff could have recovered from his temporary setback and thrived in the future that he didn’t allow to arrive.

Like Jeff, I too admire the rare athlete that decides to leave the stage while still on top.  That said, I find it even more inspiring to observe those who persist at their sport after they are past their prime, not because of the money, but because of either a genuine love for their game or due to a fighting spirit that drives them to attempt to reclaim their previous level of success.  Mariano Rivera is another example of an athlete who will leave on top, while Roger Federer is an example of the latter.

 Mariano Rivera has indisputably been the greatest closer in baseball history, and even this season at age 43, he is still one of the best today.  Yet he announced in March that this season would be his last, as he felt he was missing out on precious time with his family.  As a Yankees fan, I have been the loudest voice calling for Mariano to reconsider.  As a father, I know he’s doing the right thing.  And given his views on what Tiki Barber did, Jeff would surely be a big supporter of Mariano’s decision.

I watched Roger Federer get completely taken apart by Tommy Robredo at the U.S. Open last week, and as both a tennis fan and a huge Federer fan, it was painful to see.  The greatest tennis player ever (in my humble opinion) was getting crushed by a guy he had been 10-0 against in his career.  Roger wasn’t just missing shots by a little—he was hitting some shots that landed closer to the stands than the court.  Yet he fought to the end.  Having entered the tournament as a shockingly low seed (#7), he seems destined to drop out of tennis’ top ten just a year after having reclaimed the number one ranking.

After the match, I watched Roger’s press conference, and all I could think of was how much I wished that he had gone through this athletic mid-life crisis three years ago when Jeff was struggling.  He answered question after question, exuding a fierce resolve to work even harder to return to tennis’ upper echelons.  Federer said, “I’ve definitely got to go back to work and come back stronger.  Get rid of this loss now as quick as I can, forget about it, because that’s not how I want to play from here on.  I want to play better.  I know I can.”  Maybe he will.  Maybe he won’t.  I, for one, am inspired by his words and am excited just to see him try.

Using history as a guide, it seems safe to conclude that Roger Federer will not , in a pure tennis sense, go out on top.  The odds are better that, despite his greatest efforts, he will gradually slip in the rankings as he plays on into his mid-30s.

However, I would argue that in a human sense, he will absolutely go out on top whenever he decides to quit.  He will retire after having worked harder at his game, having made adjustments in response to his new frailties and having learned to utilize his experience more than just his raw talent.  He will become even more popular, because most of us are not superstars, and he will now seem more like one of us.  Just like us, he will work hard and do the best he can for as long as he can, and in the same way that Tiki Barber had every right to leave football at the height of his talent, Roger Federer has every right to play tennis for  years to come.

And therein lies the message that Jeff could have sunk his teeth into—Federer will play on, even if it is at a diminished level.  To use Jeff’s own words in taking the opposite position of his, I say that there is nothing wrong—and in fact quite a bit right—with choosing to forge on even when the odds are against you ever being even close to your best again.  Like Roger, Jeff was a star in life who had fallen on rough times.

Even if Jeff was right that, at age 23, he had reached his peak in whatever way he defined that, I believe I could have used today’s example of Roger Federer to make an impression upon him, especially given how closely Jeff followed professional athletes and took lessons away from their successes, failures and how they handled themselves.  Jeff didn’t want to live if he didn’t think he could do so up to his unreasonably high standards.  The fact that he couldn’t see the beauty of taking the journey and dealing with the obstacles as they arose along the way is a tragedy of epic proportions.

On March 8th, 2011, almost exactly four months after Jeff  left us, Tiki Barber filed papers with the NFL to come out of retirement and play professional football again.  But at age 36, after having not played a down for an NFL team for almost five years, Tiki found that there were no takers.  When the 2011 season began, and no team had shown even mild interest in signing him, Barber gave up his dream of making a comeback.  The man who Jeff so admired for going out on top had tried to come back when he was a shell of his former athletic self.

tiki barber comeback announcement

But Tiki Barber could attempt to come back, because his decision to retire was not irrevocable.  Nor is Mariano Rivera’s.  Jeff’s decision to “go out on top” was.  And during those terrible two months in the fall of 2010, that was one of the three themes that I tried desperately to hammer home to Jeff.

The first was how loved he was and how we would devote our lives to getting him back on track.  The second was that his despair was temporary and medication-induced, and that if he stayed strong while the meds gradually left his system, he would be back to his old self before long. And finally, I told him in no uncertain terms that the decision to commit suicide would be irrevocable.  There would be no do-overs or comebacks when it came to that one.  I failed miserably in my attempts to get through to him (there I go again, but I just read Iyer’s article, and eliminating these feelings will take time).

I wish Tiki Barber all the best in his continued retirement from professional football, and I hope Mariano Rivera revels in his family as he begins the next phase of his life next month.  And to Roger Federer, I send my greatest admiration for his determination to plow forward in his career, in the face of tennis mortality, as he searches for his new normal place within the sport he loves.

And to Jeff, I continue to say that you could have been anything that you wanted to be.  Even if that turned out to be something less than the superstar level that you demanded of yourself to achieve, and even if your life was filled with struggles just like the rest of us, I will always regret not having had the opportunity to fight through them with you every step of the way.  That’s what families do.  They band together and fight.

But it’s too late now.  Your deeply flawed application of the Tiki Barber example robbed us all of the opportunity to experience that with you.  Unfortunately, unlike Tiki, you can’t just file papers and make a comeback.   And the tragic irony is that, while Tiki’s attempted return was flatly rejected by NFL teams, your comeback would be greeted by everyone in your world with open arms and tears of joy.  I told you in the fall of 2010, though, that there would be no do-overs if you acted on your thoughts.  I’m so very sorry that you weren’t able to hear me.

-Rich Klein