Confronting The Memories: After Five Years, My Boys And I Return To Montauk

28 Sep

“There are places I’ll remember,
All my life, though some have changed.
Some forever, not for better,
Some have gone, and some remain.
All these places had their moments,
With lovers and friends, I still can recall,
Some are dead and some are living,
In my life, I’ve loved them all.”

—Beatles, “In My Life”, 1965

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Jeff text about vacation approval

On the date of this text in July 2010, when he had received his employer’s approval to take a week off for vacation, Jeff had every reason to look forward to another trip to the Hamptons, our favorite beach vacation spot. Up to that point, 2010 had been one of the best years of his life, and what better way to end a glorious summer than to return to the beautiful beaches of East Hampton, to the miniature golf course in Montauk that had been the scene of so many classic family battles for putting supremacy, and to our “go-to” restaurants in both places. Our family memories that were created there over the previous 20 years ran so deep that despite our boys’ advancement into their late teens, and in Jeff’s case early 20s, their desire to return to the Hamptons as a family was as high as ever.

We had no idea what lay before us in the weeks leading up to our vacation. How could Jeff or we have known that he would be assigned to work on a high profile Wall Street bankruptcy case and that the resulting workload and brutal treatment by his bosses would break his spirit and cause him to walk out on the job with no warning? In spite of these devastating developments, I tried to pump Jeff up by telling him that the beach on which we grew as a family would be the perfect place for him to clear his head and begin to heal. He agreed. Jeff was extremely shaken by what had happened, but he was ok and there was no talk of psychiatrists or anti-depressants at that point in mid-August.

The trip that turned out to be our final vacation as a family of five was an utter disaster.

Inexplicably, I became terribly sick within an hour of our arrival, and by the following day, my temperature had spiked to 103.5. To this day, I’ve never been more severely ill in my life. I was holed up in our room for two or three days, shaking with chills in the middle of August. Things got even worse when Jeff, midway through the vacation, came down with a less severe version of whatever I had. At one point, Carey spent nearly an hour in traffic trying to get to the pharmacy in East Hampton to pick up some meds for Jeff and me. It was a nightmare.

Jeff and I were doggedly determined, however, to get out of the Inn that doubled as a sick ward and join the family at all our traditional spots. We ended up hitting them all– Puff N Putt Miniature Golf, John’s Pancake House (which Jeff had nicknamed “Johnny Pancakes” two decades earlier when he first ate there as a kid), Gosman’s Dock where Jeff cracked open both his first, and on this vacation his last, lobster, and of course Atlantic Beach in East Hampton where the boys posed for what would be their last photos together. Two and a half months later, Jeff was gone.

boys on sand mound east hamton 1

Boys on lifeguard chair2
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The memories of that disastrous vacation have haunted Carey ever since, and she has said that she will never return to the area again. That comes from a woman who spent summers in nearby Ammagansett throughout her childhood and who loved our family vacations out there as much as we all did. Her feelings, which are a manifestation of acute post-traumatic stress, are completely understandable but also tragic given the richness of the memories that reside there. Initially, I believed that over time, Carey would change her mind. However, after several conversations on the topic over the last few years, it is clear that I was wrong. Carey will never again set foot in either Montauk or East Hampton.

I’ve felt differently about it over these past 4 ½ years. I feel that neither the memory of that botched vacation in August 2010 nor what Jeff did a couple months later could ever erase the beauty of the times we had there. In the aftermath of tragedy, it is natural to avoid special places and activities that you had shared with a lost loved one, especially your child. The pain of going back can be too great.

But when Carey told me a few months ago that she was going away in July for a long weekend in Kiawah with her closest college friends, I knew that weekend would be my best opportunity to take Drew and Brett back to eastern Long Island to confront the memories head-on and to create new ones for the three of us. It was very emotional to receive their enthusiastic responses to my idea, and once I did, I laid out the schedule that would include all of our traditional activities. Drew, Brett and I would be heading back to Montauk. It is what Jeff would have wanted.

 ______________________________________________________________________

When you make the left turn onto Main Street in East Hampton, the first thing you pass on the left is The Maidstone, our sick ward from five years earlier, and I was more than happy to speed by the place. In the spirit of creating new memories within the confines our old stomping grounds, I booked a motel  in Montauk right on the beach and within walking distance to most of the places we wanted to hit. Perfect.

The weekend in Montauk was everything I had hoped it would be. It would have been impossible and unnatural to not be wistful while picturing and remembering Jeff there at various ages, especially as the three of us now threw the Frisbee and the football around on the beach, as we competed fiercely for the Klein family championship in miniature golf, as we ate at “Johnny Pancakes”, and as we enjoyed the beautiful view of the water at Gosman’s, Jeff’s favorite Montauk restaurant.

Jeff sand hole young

But these were our places too, not just his, and what made it so warm and poignant was hearing one of the boys say at different points, “remember when Jeffrey…”

“Remember when Jeffrey tried to chip the ball over that fence onto to the green?”, Brett asked as we approached one of the miniature golf holes. Of course I remembered. And I loved that he remembered. If there was an unconventional, against-the-rules way to get close to the hole, Jeff would go for it. Recalling those moments is what made it feel like his spirit was right there with us at every stop. I closed my eyes and envisioned Jeff hitting that shot.

August 2005

August 2005

Boys at golf 2

August 2015

“Remember when Jeffrey used to always want to walk out on those rocks after dinner”, Drew asked as we ate at Gosman’s. “Let’s do that tonight.” God, did I remember. I was a wreck watching him scale the uneven rock formations along the water and worrying that he was going to fall and crack his teeth. But led by Drew, the three of us headed out there after dinner. It was as if Drew thought that Jeff’s spirit would be felt most strongly out on those rocks, and sure enough, it was. We felt it. And even then, I worried about an untimely fall.

Boys on rocks outside Gosman's

BRETT AND DREW ON THE ROCKS OUTSIDE GOSMAN’S

Boys and me outside Gosman's

The closest I came to crying was when we first sat down inside Johnny Pancakes.

I guess it’s because nothing symbolized Jeff’s love of both Montauk and food more than this place. He was the one who, many years ago, first ordered the “E.T. Pancakes”, filled with both chocolate and peanut butter chips, and after watching him snarf them down, we all have ordered nothing but those since then. And on this morning again, it was three orders of E.T. pancakes. But more than that, I realized that what almost brought me to tears was the fact that the very last photo of my three boys and me was taken five years earlier in front of this restaurant. As bittersweet as it is, I’ll treasure the picture forever.

Johnny Pancakes 2010

Johnny Pancakes 2010

But it was time for another photo in that same spot with Drew and Brett. It was part of confronting the memories head-on. Although we were down a man from five years ago, the result was a photo that will also stay with me always.

Boys and me in front of Johnny Pancakes

Johnny Pancakes 2015

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The former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis once said of his upcoming opponent, Billy Conn: “He can run, but he can’t hide.”

That sums up the way I feel about myself in relation to all the places that hold such special memories of either Jeff or of our family of five. The reminders of Jeff, mostly beautiful ones from the glory days and other deeply painful ones from his last two months, are everywhere. I can try to run from them, but the reality is that there is nowhere to hide. Jeff is in our home, everywhere we go in Chappaqua, at Gedney Park, in Yankee Stadium, in Madison Square Garden, in all of our favorite restaurants, and on the basketball and tennis courts at Horace Greeley High. And he is in Montauk and East Hampton and always will be.

As we drove away on Sunday, I privately wondered if I’d ever return to the area that had been almost like a second home, but in the final analysis, it no longer matters. After five years, I had gone back with my boys, and together, we extended our arms, paid homage to Jeff by wrapping them around the memories that he spawned, and we began another chapter while carrying him in our hearts and minds. In the end, it became apparent that there was actually no need to deal with the memories in a confrontational way, and so instead, we welcomed them. Our weekend together was fun and it was bonding–precisely the way Jeff would have wanted it for us.

There are more of Jeff’s favorite family vacation spots that I would like to visit again someday. As with Montauk, it won’t be easy to come to grips with the knowledge that Jeff will never return to yet another place where we had such great times together. But I don’t want to run and I refuse to hide.

The bottom line is that, however difficult it might be at first, the more we start our sentences with “Remember when Jeffrey…”, the easier it will ultimately be to embrace the memories from our years as a family of five.

–Rich Klein

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One Response to “Confronting The Memories: After Five Years, My Boys And I Return To Montauk”

  1. rob reuben September 28, 2015 at 10:30 am #

    thinking of you

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