Why I’m Feeling Stronger Every Day

23 Mar

“And knowing that you would have wanted it this way,

I do believe I’m feelin’ stronger every day”

                –Chicago, “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day”, 1973

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The torrential rain pelted the bubbling water of the hot tub in which Brett and I were standing, outside our hotel in Grand Cayman.  Carey had fled to the fitness center, Drew to the business center to scour the internet for the latest sports news, and Jeff was certainly smiling down on us from Heaven.  He was there, of course, only because instead of heading to the fitness or business center, Jeff fled to the Bear Mountain Bridge when he perceived that the rain in his life had become torrential.  I looked across the tub at Brett, who while holding our nerf football, first broke into a broad smile and then completely burst out laughing as he contemplated the beautiful absurdity of the moment.

Just minutes earlier, the four of us were lying on our beach lounges when a cool light drizzle began to fall under a hot sun.  Carey remarked how refreshing the misty drizzle felt, and no sooner did she finish her sentence than the skies opened up and it began to absolutely pour.  Almost in unison, each of us blurted out the same thing.

“Jeffrey!”

There was no doubt in our minds that Jeff had opened up the spigot in response to Carey’s comment.  He was the king of weather, a storm tracker to the very end, and when you consider that he was a premier prankster too, the evidence clearly pointed skyward to him.

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It was January 6th, and our JetBlue flight home had been cancelled earlier that morning, allowing us to spend an extra day and night in Grand Cayman.  After Jeff had pulled his prank and we had all scattered to our respective destinations, Brett and I sat in the hot tub, on opposite sides, and tossed the football back and forth for a solid half hour waiting for the rain to stop.  But it only got heavier, and so we tossed and laughed and talked, and it hit me right then that it had been well over three years since I had felt this happy and strong.  I told Brett that this half hour was a unique “moment” that we would each remember forever, and in response, he walked across the tub, hugged me for a second and told me that he knew that was true.  The rain continued to pelt us, but we stayed there, undeterred, because for me at least, it didn’t get much better than this.

I had a similar moment with Drew the day we arrived.  At around 3:30 that afternoon, he and I plunged into the sea, swam out a bit, and started to tread water.  And we just started to talk while treading.  We covered everything from the philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats to the Knicks’ prospects for making the playoffs to the Yankees’ chances of signing Masahiro Tanaka (two weeks later, they did!).  When we emerged from the water, I checked my phone, and it was 4:45.  We had been out there over an hour, and I wasn’t the least bit tired.

Treading water out in the Caribbean while talking with Drew, who was away at school on November 9th, 2010 when our lives changed forever, I could have stayed out there well into the night.  I derive so much strength from the time I spend with Drew and Brett, and from the very fact that they want to spend that time with me, that there is no ambiguity as to why I’m feeling stronger every day.

In the early days after Jeff died, well-intentioned friends and acquaintances would see us in town from time to time, and in their struggle to find the right thing to say, would come out with something like “I don’t know how you get out of bed in the morning.” While not the most consoling words, there was a great deal of validity to the sentiment.  After all, how could we possibly withstand this devastation?  The primary answer is that the family bonds that we worked so hard to cement all these years since the boys were small have not only prevented our family from disintegrating in the wake of this tragedy, but they have also helped us keep each other strong while continuing to move forward productively.

We do this by continuing all of the family traditions that began when Jeff was here with us, and our vacations to the Caribbean for so many years were where many of them were spawned.  In places like St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Barbados and Aruba, we rode jet skis and kayaks, swam, snorkeled, hiked, and tossed every type of ball and Frisbee in existence.

The more things change, the more we make sure they stay the same, and that is why now, in the sea at Grand Cayman, Brett drops back to pass in the shallow part of the water, with the nerf football in hand.  He simulates a fake handoff to an unsuspecting passerby, and then I begin to blitz while shouting, “Here comes Reggie White!”  While Brett is too young to remember Reggie, a Hall of Fame pass rusher who played in the 1980s and ‘90s, he acts frightened enough to thrash frantically through the water to evade my rush.  As I dive toward him and scream, he heaves the ball 20 yards out into the sea over my outstretched arms.

The ball is wide of its intended receiver, but Drew dives left, snags the pass with his long reach, and falls beneath the water.  When he emerges, he and Brett raise their arms in a touchdown signal.  They have beaten me again.  We continue to play this game, the same one we have played for well over a decade, until the skin on our fingers is completely shriveled.  And we howl with laughter all the way.

drew and brett with football

Of course, it is painful to reminisce about the days when Drew was not the lone receiver out in the water.  In days gone by, Brett would have thrown the ball up for grabs, while Jeff and Drew battled for position to make the catch.  We remember Jeff’s unique lefty throwing motion and also how he loved to catch a pass and time it such that he would then dive head first into an oncoming big wave.

But I can’t cry about what once was, because I have these two amazing boys who still want to play beach football with me.  And as we scream and howl while we play, we laugh about all the things Jeff used to say and do, and it is cathartic.  On this most recent trip, I saw how much fun my boys were having as we played, and I swear, they could have been 12 and 9 again, instead of 22 and 19.  And they make me feel like a 30-something young Dad again.  Stronger every day.

Me and boys at Grand Cayman

Boys before jet skiing

But when Drew is working and Brett is away at school, I’ve needed to find my own motivational tools and ways to stay strong.  I have always been committed to working out every day, both for the obvious health benefits, and also because I believe in Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “A strong body makes the mind strong.”

Since college, the cornerstone of my workouts has been to do 300 sit-ups each day.  I have to be honest, it sucks.  It’s hard and it’s time consuming, and since Jeff died, I’ve been tempted on many nights after work to just bag it.  But I know that taking days off can be a slippery slope, and so I figured out a slight trick to help me stay focused and motivated.

I simply changed my goal for the nightly number of sit-ups.  Instead of 300, I now do 302 in honor of Jeff’s birthday of March 2nd (3/02).  This way, when sit-ups are the last thing I feel like doing, I think of Jeff and tell myself that he’d be disappointed in me if I didn’t honor his birthday by doing them.  I immediately hit the floor.  Though I don’t really believe he’d feel that way, I need to play these mind games with myself to make it work.  And it does.  I surround that regimen with weights, cardio and my weekend tennis league match, and I feel both my physical and emotional strength increasing consistently.

DOBI KEEPS ME COMPANY WHILE I DO SIT-UPS

DOBI KEEPS ME COMPANY WHILE I DO SIT-UPS

And I have Carey.  I know that weaker marriages have often, in the aftermath of losing a child, completely fallen apart.  Ours has gotten stronger if that is even possible, because I knew 28 ½ years ago that I married my forever girl.  Carey’s devotion to our boys, to me, to her job and to her charitable work and community service is inspiring.  And as I’ve articulated in other posts, she has been the leader in our recovery process.   I could not have gotten through this without her.  She too has derived great strength from Drew and Brett, and she has given it right back to all of us.  She has tapped into her faith and has allowed her love for us to overcome everything else.  And when we’re not out with friends on weekends, we never miss a date night.  Carey has been the driving force behind every good thing that has happened to me, and so it is no surprise that she has been critical to my recovery process.

Carey is a happy, upbeat person who laughs easily and smiles regularly.  But she worries about how people perceive her when they see her in public simply being herself, and this breaks my heart.  Carey is an amazing mother, wife and person and deserves to be happy.  I pray that she ultimately allows herself to enjoy life fully and without guilt.  Jeff certainly would have wanted it that way.

Sonoma

SONOMA VALLEY, CALIFORNIA, JULY 2013

The holiday seasons have been tough, going back to and including 2009.  Jeff started his paralegal job in November 2009 and immediately began working brutally long hours.  It was hard for us to relax, never knowing when in the early morning hours Jeff would get home, how early he’d need to go back to the office the next day, and we were deeply worried about how little sleep he was getting.  And in the years since then, of course, adjusting to going through the holidays without Jeff has been extremely painful.

But this holiday season was a turning point.  On Thanksgiving Day, we went to the gym prior to heading to Long island to be with our family.  Drew played basketball, while Brett proceeded to take me through his grueling weight workout.  In the middle of it, I was overcome with emotion at how amazing it was that I was lifting with my son on Thanksgiving Day, that he wanted me to lift with him and that Drew was simultaneously down the hall in the gym playing the sport he is passionate about.  I texted Carey to let her know how thankful I felt, and her response will stay in my phone and in my heart forever.

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It has always been critical for me to live in the moment, but never more so than since Jeff died.  For example, if I’m watching a Knicks game on a weeknight with Drew, and we’re screaming at the TV, having a great time, or if we’re actually at the game, I will not allow myself to think about the fact that each of us has to get up early the next morning for work.  That game and our time together isn’t over till it’s over, and I milk every last moment with him, because it is precious.  Tomorrow comes when it comes, and not a minute sooner.

Likewise, when we got home from our trip in January, and I began to fret that Brett would be returning to school five days later, I cut those thoughts short.  Five days is five days, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t going to enjoy every last day that he was home.  And I did.  To cap it off, on the day before we drove Brett back to Villanova, he and I went to see ‘Nova play St. Johns at Madison Square Garden, and we screamed ourselves hoarse as they came back to beat St. Johns in a great game.

WITH BRETT AT VILLANOVA-ST. JOHNS GAME, MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, JAN. 11, 2014

WITH BRETT AT VILLANOVA-ST. JOHNS GAME, MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, JAN. 11, 2014

I have learned that I can’t allow myself to think too much about a good time being almost over.  I have to stay in the moment for as long as it lasts, because that’s how to gain maximum enjoyment from it and create the best lasting memory.  As a result of taking this approach, when I hugged Brett goodbye the next day after dropping him off at school, I was able to look back and say that I enjoyed every last second of his three week Christmas break.  Living in the moment makes me stronger.

And then there is this blog.  I don’t think Elon Rubin can ever truly know just how critical the blog that he created out of his love for Jeff has been to my emotional well-being and to my ongoing ability to get stronger.  Writing about Jeff and about all the issues related to what happened has become a core part of my life that, at least for the foreseeable future, I now know I cannot live without.  But while writing is fulfilling, it is the extremely large number of supportive responses that I receive to each post from so many of you that literally fills me with both physical and emotional strength.  When I read your heartfelt feedback, it makes me feel as if I can overcome any obstacle.  I thank you all so very much.

To be clear, though, the agonizing pain of losing Jeff has not subsided, not even a little.  I understand now that it never will.  The key for me is to manage the pain, in the same way that you’d manage a serious chronic illness or severe injury.  The same holds true with the post-traumatic stress disorder that has plagued me since he died.  It’s still there.  As an EMT, Carey gets a text every time there is an ambulance call in our area.  On December 30th, when she received a text that there was a car accident right near our gym to which Drew could have been heading at that time, I feared the worst rather than acknowledging that the odds were that it wasn’t him.

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But this is part of the lasting damage that Jeff left behind, and that’s why, for over three years, I have not been able to reconcile what I perceive to be two conflicting facts:

Jeff loved us, genuinely and completely.

Jeff took his own life and devastated ours.

To me, those two statements are not separable.  How could he have loved us and then do what he did?  He was a brilliant young man and analytical to a fault, so how could he not have thought about the devastation and pain that he would leave behind?  Yes, I know he was not of right mind when he made his final impulsive decision, but if you read my post about Jeff’s last two months, you know that he was completely self-aware until the very end.

To Jeff, though, the above two statements were completely separable and they coexisted harmoniously in his mind.  Yes, he loved his family immensely.  But to Jeff, the fact remained that he was in great pain, which weakened and debilitated him to the point of no return, and so he left us.  Neither statement had anything to do with the other.

Jeff began his final note to our family by writing:

“Dear Mom, Dad, Drew and Brett,

I love you all so much, forever and always.  Each of you will always be a part of me.”

Jeff note

That’s one heck of a way to start a suicide note.  But it was Jeff’s way of helping us understand that his decision was completely separate from his love for us.  Though I still fault him greatly for not thinking it all through to the aftermath of his action and the extreme pain he would inflict on those he loved the most, gradually letting go of my anger has been a key to getting stronger.

As I continue to type, though, It is becoming clearer to me now.  When he cranked up the rain to a torrential level after his mother he called Pote commented on the delightful drizzle, and he watched us scamper away, I like to think that Jeff was sending us a message.  He was letting us know that we are still and will always be a family of five, and that he was there with us participating in our fun and in our healing journey.

And even if this fantasy that I’ve concocted about Jeff and the rain is not actually true, the fact that funny things like this immediately make us think and laugh about him is precisely why we are, in fact, still a family of five.  He is in our minds and hearts every second, and we carry him and his hilarious personality with us everywhere we go.  His presence is always palpable.

WE WILL ALWAYS BE A FAMILY OF FIVE

WE WILL ALWAYS BE A FAMILY OF FIVE

And as he watched us thrash about the sea playing football without him, and as he watched Brett and me in the hot tub under the pouring rain, and as he listened to Drew and me talking about life as we treaded water, Jeff was no doubt smiling to himself.

That’s because he sees that it is playing out exactly as he intended.  Just in the last few minutes, I have come to the realization that I was wrong to believe he hadn’t thought it all through to the aftermath.  Of course he had.  Jeff knew there would be excruciating pain, but he also knew from being a part of our family how strong our bonds were to each other and that we would get each other through it.

At the end of my September 26th, 2012 post (“Jeff’s Passionate Support Of Obama In The Days Of ‘Yes We Can’”), I wrote,

And while I may no longer be Superman, I am still pretty damn strong…”

Brett took exception to that statement, and in a highly emotional email to me three days later, he wrote:

DSC03165

When I read that, I felt like Popeye does after he eats his can of spinach.  Even after the mistakes I made in my failed attempts to save Jeff (those mistakes have been well-chronicled here on Kleinsaucer), my boys’ faith in me has not wavered.  Nor has Carey’s. That is both humbling and beautiful, and it is why I feel like the most blessed man on earth, even now.  It is also why I am starting to feel like a rock again.

JEFF'S FINAL NOTE TO OUR FAMILY, NOVEMBER 9, 2010

FROM JEFF’S FINAL NOTE TO OUR FAMILY, NOVEMBER 9, 2010

And so the bottom line is that I will continue to focus on doing all the things that make me feel stronger. I will spend every minute I possibly can with Drew and Brett, I will cherish my dates with Carey, I will hit the floor every day and do my 302 sit-ups, and I will stay in the moment every time I experience a time worth savoring.

I will also do my best to get the four of us together later this year for another family trip to a warm climate where I can be Reggie White again and continue my quest to sack Brett in the water before he throws yet another touchdown pass to Drew.

And as much as anything, I will allow myself to continue to get stronger, because there is no doubt that Jeff would have wanted it this way.  In fact, writing this post has helped me come to the realization that it was part of his grand plan all along.  He too had great faith in me, and Jeff knew that regardless of how severe the pain was, I would figure out how to manage it over time, and no matter what, I would never let our family down.

–Rich Klein

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2 Responses to “Why I’m Feeling Stronger Every Day”

  1. Susan McClanahan March 23, 2014 at 11:24 am #

    hey Rich- what an amazing post. Being able to feel joy while managing a chronic illness is proof that you remain superman and a rock to us all- including Jeff. Thanks so much for sharing and xoxo, Sue

    • Meyi Sobon October 25, 2014 at 6:05 pm #

      Thank you for sharing…….

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