Jeff’s Last Two Months: So Much Love And Hope Amidst The Darkness

20 Oct

“One day, you’ll look, to see I’ve gone,

For tomorrow may rain, so…

I’ll follow the sun.”

            –The Beatles, “I’ll Follow The Sun”, 1964

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Soon after Jeff had quit his paralegal position, we returned from what was meant to be a healing family vacation in East Hampton, and Jeff visited a local psychiatrist for the first time.  Believing Jeff’s problem to not be that serious, we selected him based solely on his geographic convenience and education.  Later that day, as per the doctor’s prescription, Jeff ingested his first tablet of Celexa, an anti-depressant that this guy said should certainly wipe away the anxiety Jeff felt over the way he had walked out on the job.  He concluded that this was the right course of action after this one 45 minute appointment,  and I believe this was reflective of the cavalier attitude that he had toward doling out medication.

Feeling reasonably good that the doctor thought Jeff would be fine, and wanting to keep the positive vibes flowing, I went home that day and secured another half-season Knicks ticket plan (the “Orange Plan”) for our family.  Once everything was confirmed, I took the opportunity to share the good news with Jeff, as well as to wish him a happy half birthday (at some point when the boys were young, I began the tradition of, while maybe not fully celebrating half birthdays, at least acknowledging them).  I could never have imagined that this would be the last age milestone I would ever celebrate with Jeff- 23 ½ years old.

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During the first few days of Celexa therapy, we didn’t see any noticeable change either way.  But looking back on Jeff’s September 5th Facebook status, his sports passion was still evident, and if Jeff was still excited about his sports teams, how bad could things have been?

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On September 8th, I took off for a one day business trip to San Francisco.  Little did I know what news would await me when I arrived there.  That morning, hours before my world would be rocked by this news, I sat at the airport thinking only about mundane but wonderful things such as football.  I was pondering the fact that since I would be flying back the next night, I would miss watching a big Thursday night football game with the boys.  Of course, I felt compelled to email Jeff and Drew right away to inform them of my poor travel planning:

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It was when I arrived at my hotel in San Francisco later that day that it all fell apart.  I remember my cell phone starting to ring as I was opening the door to my hotel room.  It was Carey.  My memory of critical moments in my life has always been so vivid, and that is why I remember her exact first words to me on that phone call:

“Everything’s ok, but I want you to sit down for what I need to tell you.”

Obviously, everything was far from ok.  That just meant she wasn’t going to report that anyone we knew had died.  I sat down and braced myself.  She continued:

“I just had a long talk with Jeff, and he said he’s having bad thoughts and that he feels hopeless.”

Hopeless?  I was dazed and confused when I heard that.  What could that mean?  How could that be?  I mean, two weeks earlier, I had had the most wonderful and productive talk with Jeff as we drove back home from East Hampton, just the two of us.  We had taken two cars on that trip, and Carey drove Drew and Brett, while I intentionally took Jeff so we could talk.  But that was B.C.  (Before Celexa).

During that ride, we talked about everything.  Jeff was still bummed that he had quit the job, but he openly discussed his thoughts about how to regroup.  He was saying that he thought the best thing for him would be to have a more serious relationship as opposed to casual dates.  I countered that that made sense but maybe it would be better if he found and got settled into his next job first so that he could be in a better, more stable position to devote himself to such a relationship.

We batted that around a bit, talked about the type of job environment that would be best for him to seek, and it was just another all-around awesome talk with my son, just like the hundreds of others we had shared over the prior two decades.  When we arrived home after nearly three hours of driving and talking, I remember thinking that the kid was alright.  He was thinking clearly and rationally about his next steps.  All would be fine.

But now, two weeks later with 8 days of Celexa in his system, he was hopeless.  I later went to http://forums.psychcentral.com/meds/celexa.html, where I found the warning below as the third bullet under the heading “The following are the major potential risks and side effects of Celexa therapy:”

“Suicidal thoughts or actions: Persons taking Celexa may be more likely to think about killing themselves or actually try to do so, especially when Celexa is first started…Contact your healthcare professional right away if someone using Celexa talks about or shows signs of killing him or herself.”

I asked Carey to put Jeff on the phone.  He sounded shaken but not totally despondent.  I told him to relax and to figuratively take a deep breath and that I would be home the next night, at which point we would talk and work this out.  I also said that I was sure this was a reaction to the medication and that Carey would go with him back to the doctor the next day to tell him what happened.  After hanging up, I was scared yet sure this was all correctable.  However, I have no idea how I was able to sleep that night or maintain focus through my client meeting the next day.

From the minute I hung up with Carey and Jeff that night until the minute I got home the next night, I launched a full scale assault of love on Jeff.  Carey did too.  Over the next 24 hours, I texted and emailed him frequently with words of encouragement.  I called him from the airport the next day while waiting to board my plane home and reminded him that he was the one who made me a father for the first time and that he, his brothers and Carey were the lights of my life.

As the coup de grace, I called one of my clients in Los Angeles and asked him to hook me up with a reputable ticket broker out there, and I immediately placed an order for four tickets for me and the boys to the NBA All-Star weekend at the Staples Center, which was coming up in February 2011.  I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Jeff what I was planning.  I figured the prospect of something that exciting would surely snap him out of his funk.  I had always believed that I could literally “love” the distress right out of anyone I cared about.  The inspirational quote that I subscribed to unequivocally was “Love conquers all.”  This would certainly be put to the test now.

On the night of September 9th, I arrived home to find that my love strategy had paid immediate dividends.  I was not a Facebook member at that time, but Drew texted me from school that I should check out Jeff’s status, which confused him a little.  Drew was not aware of what had been happening, but when I read it, I certainly understood where it was coming from and was relieved to see it.  It said:  “Jeff Klein…really appreciates his family and friends and recognizes how much they mean to him.”  Ok, I said to myself, we can do this.  Jeff was feeling the love, and it was having an impact.  I had no clue that he had exactly two months to live.

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 Drew clearly sensed that something was awry, and he immediately replied to Jeff’s status with a display of brotherly support:

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Of course it was gonna be all good.  As a family, we were going to love this issue right out of him.  The next day, when Carey and Jeff went back to the psychiatrist to report what happened, he said not to worry and that he just needed to add another drug to the mix.  It was called Remeron.  The two in combination would work just fine, he said.

Or not.  The two in combination, according to Jeff, actually caused a cloud to form around his head, impeding his ability to think clearly.  Nonetheless, he continued to respond to job ads by day and report on the sports world on Facebook by night.  His Facebook posts reflected the same old classic Jeff and contained no signs that anything was wrong:

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But while Jeff remained totally engaged in the sports world, he was still verbalizing deep concern with his situation.  The medication had him feeling like he was in a fog, and he was extremely uneasy about his future in light of his not being able to tolerate the stress of the paralegal job.  As the calendar turned to October, Jeff, Carey and I agreed it was time for another visit to “Dr. Meds”.

True to form, the Doc didn’t hesitate to add another pill to the mix, and his latest idea was a daily three drug cocktail that would now include a mood stabilizer called Abilify, together with Celexa and Remeron.  We were desperate to get Jeff relief, so he and we agreed to give this stuff one last chance.  And just in case he needed it, the doc gave Jeff a scrip for Xanax too.  Carey became more and more panicky as the drugs piled on.  From that day on, the panic has never left Carey.  To this day.

Despite the fact that he wasn’t able to drink much socially while on these meds, Jeff was determined to keep going out with friends, and he did.  During the first half of October, there continued to be signs of hope in his Facebook posts.

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So much hope.

But on the date of the Facebook post above, Jeff confided to us that the meds were making him feel drowsy all the time and that he was ready to give up on this failed idea of how to make himself feel better about his future.

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That was all we needed to hear.  Clearly, Jeff was not responding to the meds the way many people do, and instead they were destroying him.  It was time to begin the process of weaning Jeff off of these destructive pills, and we were all relieved that he had come to this decision.  A few days later, we had a consultation at a local hospital, and we agreed that Jeff would begin a gradual withdrawal from the meds on October 18th under medical supervision.  Though we were warned that even after the one week process was completed, it would still take possibly weeks more before the drugs were completely flushed from Jeff’s system, Carey and I were thankful for the prospect of getting our old son back.  In the midst of such hope, we couldn’t possibly have known that, as Jeff began this process, he had just three weeks to live.

And then, on October 19th, one full day into the process, Carey received the text from Jeff that simultaneously broke our hearts and filled us with immense hope.  Of all the texts and emails that we received from Jeff over so many years, many of which I have shared here, this is the one that will forever torment us the most but will also warm us the most with his love.  From the hospital, Jeff sent this text to the person he was closer to than anyone else in the world:

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SO MUCH LOVE.  SO MUCH HOPE.

For the first time since early September, Jeff had actually expressed resolve to come back.  He was going to beat this thing.  He was going to FIGHT.  That was my boy.  But my precious son was apologizing to his mother for a chain of events that were not his fault in the least.  How could he possibly have known that the meds which were so recklessly prescribed to him would have such horrific side effects?  While I was heartbroken by the need he felt to apologize, I was absolutely joyous after seeing his determination to grow stronger.  Looking back at this text now, though, I am completely baffled by how fleeting that resolve was.  How could it have disappeared so quickly?  I had assumed that if he felt this way already, he would become even more emboldened as the meds continued to exit his system.

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The positive trend continued for Jeff as that week progressed.  The hospital psychiatrist (we had of course ditched “Dr. Meds”) and the social worker that the three of us met with for a long talk both told us that Jeff was responding just fine to the gradual reduction in dosage and that he’d be completely off this stuff by Tuesday, October 26th.  He was, and he didn’t have to go back there any more.  That night, Jeff was clearly fired up.  While I still wasn’t a Facebook member, I had learned that I could monitor Jeff’s page, and I did.  While I didn’t (and still don’t) approve of Jeff’s vulgar language in his status that night, I was ecstatic deep down that my son’s passion was back in full force:

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Could it have been that easy that all he had to do was stop taking anti-depressants and everything was fine again?  It seemed too good to be true, but I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.  That Friday night, October 30th, the four of us (Drew was at college) went to the Knicks home opener against Portland, and Jeff wore a policeman’s Halloween costume, complete with a night stick, to the game.  After the game, we drove him straight to the Village to meet up with his friends for the parade, and based on his next Facebook status, he seemed to be enjoying this great night.

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While Jeff was withdrawing from the meds the prior week, Carey had been hard at work researching cognitive behavioral therapy as an alternative to help Jeff cope with his stressors.  When she shared with me the goal of cognitive behavioral therapy, I agreed that it was perfect.  There was a group of specialists in nearby White Plains, and their site said that their objective is to help clients “identify goals, overcome obstacles, and resolve problems that may be impeding their lives.”  Bingo.  No talk of medication.  Just learning how to deal with situations similar to what he just went through.  When Carey shared this with Jeff and texted him that she had set up a consultation for him, he was all for it.  He wrote to Carey:

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More love.  More hope.  I will always remember the love and appreciation that Jeff expressed to us over the course of his life up until the very end.

On the next day, November 2nd, Jeff was pumped to go to the Knicks-Magic game with Brooke Sager and Julie Parise.  I took the opportunity to remind him to smell the roses and enjoy life’s fun times.  He would get a job and find his path in the near future, but moments like these with friends needed to be savored.

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But right about the time of the loving text exchange above, asbestos began to fall from Madison Square Garden’s ceiling, and shortly thereafter, the Knicks announced that the game would have to be postponed to another date.  This was the first time a Knicks game was canceled for a non-weather related reason since 1965.  Jeff, in his fragile state, did not take the news well, and I will be forever convinced that this event was the last straw.  Jeff was never the same after that day, and as it turned out, he had exactly one week left to live.

Over the next week, I latched on to any positive sign I could find in Jeff’s behavior to convince myself that he was ok, and those signs did exist.  First, I noted that his appetite hadn’t diminished, and that was always a good sign.

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And that Saturday night, Jeff went into Manhattan with Andrew Becker and his friends from Duke, which was yet another positive sign.  Though A.B. has since told me that he had to push Jeff to go out that night, the bottom line was that he did and he seemed to have a great time.  I even received the latest version of a classic Jeff Klein early Sunday morning text informing me that he’d be crashing in the city and coming home the next day:

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As promised, he was home by noon.

November 9th.

The greatest source of pain and anguish that I feel is the knowledge that Jeff began that day with absolutely no plans to end his life.  In fact, in his first Facebook post of the day, at 12:08am, he responded to his friend Thao’s post on his page by referring to the future.  In case the photo is hard to read, he wrote, “Sorry Ms. Lam, I’ll try to revert to original form in the future with you being on my short-list of drunken texts.”

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Oh, the future.  November 9th was supposed to be all about Jeff’s future.  He was all set for his 11am behavioral therapy appointment, the first of a series that we were sure would turn the tide for him.  And he was on his way to that appointment, driving south in the polar opposite direction from the Bear Mountain Bridge, when I called him and his Bluetooth malfunctioned.  When Jeff told me he was being pulled over by a cop for talking on his cell phone, I was devastated.  After hanging up, I texted him immediately:

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Jeff did exactly as I had suggested, and the cop, who he described as a very nice woman, kindly let Jeff go without giving him a ticket. When Jeff called me back (on his bluetooth which suddenly worked again) to tell me the good news, we both laughed out loud over his good fortune, and I told him this was certainly a sign that November 9th was the dawn of a new day for him.  He agreed to resume his drive to try to make his appointment.  I called Carey to tell her what had happened, and she texted Jeff congratulating him on sweet talking his way out of the jam.

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But as I’ve described on Kleinsaucer many times, Jeff hit brutal and unprecedented traffic on the normally wide-open Sprain Parkway, and after calling me to consult about what to do, we called the therapist and rescheduled Jeff’s appointment to 3:30.  We agreed that Jeff would go home, relax and leave in plenty of time for his appointment.  Carey had heard about the Sprain traffic on the radio and texted Jeff about it:

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But instead of driving south to White Plains for his appointment, at some point during the mid-day hours, Jeff made an incomprehensible decision to drive north to the Bear Mountain Bridge to destroy his life and devastate ours.  When Daniel Zwillenberg, the behavioral therapist, called me at precisely 4:05 to tell me that Jeff had not shown up for his appointment, panic set in, because I knew deep down that it was over.  All the heart-to-heart talks, the reliance on anti-depressants, the desperate attempt to wean him off of them before it was too late, were for naught.   On the day that began with so much hope, a comment about the future to Thao, and laughter over evading a traffic ticket, something had gone terribly wrong.

I called Carey at home and pleaded with her to find him while I got the next train home.  She took the calm approach in trying to reach Jeff:

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I, however, could barely breathe, and I made no pretense of being calm.

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Jeff never saw either Carey’s last two texts or mine.  He is believed to have died between 3:45 and 4:00pm, and he thus had no knowledge of the desperation and panic we were feeling.  I have included these graphic texts to drive home the point to any reader who has ever had even a fleeting thought of committing suicide that the fear, panic and ultimate pain they’d be leaving behind is unimaginably excruciating and long-lasting.  That is why I sleep with my cell phone on the window sill beside my bed so that my boys can reach me at any time in case they are in trouble, and that is why post-traumatic panic sets in when I can’t reach Drew or Brett within a few minutes of trying to contact them.

Autumn used to be my favorite time of year, but since Jeff died, every day from September 8th through November 9th brings with it difficult memories, flashbacks and the raw feelings of panic, desperation and utter disbelief that we were unable to save him.  But I also fight the battle within to allow myself to remember the passion for sports, friends and family that Jeff clearly had until the bitter end.  And perhaps more than anything, I try to simply cherish those text messages filled with love and appreciation that now serve as Jeff’s precious and everlasting gifts to us.

Carey and I wll never know exactly what went wrong, so abruptly, in the afternoon hours of November 9th.  But we do know one thing.  Jeff loved us, and even more importantly, he knew how much we loved him.  And when we lie awake in the middle of so many nights, searching for a level of serenity that is so elusive, those are the thoughts that ultimately help us get back to sleep.

At Jeff’s wake, I got up and spoke to everyone in attendance at the packed funeral home, and I asked the following of our family, our friends and Jeff’s friends:  I asked that when they thought about Jeff’s life, they focus on his first 23 ½ years and not his last two troubled months.  Today, nearly three years later, I have done just the opposite in writing this post—I have focused your attention on those last two months.  In chronicling them, I thought readers could learn something from Jeff’s struggles and  the risks involved in taking anti-depressants, but also from the love and hope that he exuded during that time.

I realize now that Jeff’s last two months are an inextricable part of his life and his legacy, and that his struggles were real , human and should not be swept under the rug.  We will all hopefully learn from them and, just as importantly, we will cherish the loving young man that he was until his very last minute on earth.

Life often doles out some harsh realities as you move through it, and for me, it was a cold, hard slap in the face to learn that one of my basic life tenets was a fallacy:  love doesn’t actually conquer all.  In fact, our love for Jeff was no match for the catastrophic chemical reaction that took place inside his body and mind once he began taking anti-depressants.  Having said that, I still fiercely cling to the belief that, while love may not conquer all, it does conquer most, and I will continue to live my life accordingly.  I will express my love for my family and friends in the same strong manner in which I always have, and when any of them becomes distressed in any way, love will still be my weapon of choice to wipe that distress away.  And though Jeff succumbed to his inner pain, at least I know that he went down wrapped warmly in our love.  That definitive knowledge does provide us with a measure of peace and solace, and thus, we will hold onto it tightly and never let it go.

When the police officer who came to our home to give us the official word that Jeff was dead handed me one of Jeff’s final notes, the one addressed to Carey and me, he had a tear falling from his eye.  He had clearly read Jeff’s note, which was handwritten, short and sweet:

“Mom and Dad,

You were the best parents a son could ever ask for.  I just couldn’t figure life out.  Please forgive me, and God bless you.

Love,

Jeff

I couldn’t take my eyes of the word “were”.

After he watched me read the note, the officer put out his arms and offered a hug.  I accepted it.  He then looked me right in the eye and said, “Mr. Klein, I’m a father too.  I pray that my son will say that about my wife and me someday.  You should be very proud.”

I couldn’t muster a response then, nor can I now, but one thing was clear.

At the very end, even when all the hope had run out, every ounce of love in Jeff’s heart still remained.

–Rich Klein

One Response to “Jeff’s Last Two Months: So Much Love And Hope Amidst The Darkness”

  1. Daniel Roberts October 21, 2013 at 1:22 pm #

    thank you, Rich.

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