When Hearts Become “Un-numbed”

5 Jan

The pace of modern life is often so relentless that it keeps you focused outward, away from your inner core. Over time, this stance numbs your heart.  To increase your positivity, you’ll need to ‘un-numb’ your heart. Let it feel. Let it be open.  Slow yourself down enough so that you can see and hear and sense with your heart, not just with your eyes, ears and mind.”

                           –Barbara Fredrickson, “Positivity”, 2009

_____________________________________________________

I stood at the water’s edge for the last time on this rejuvenating vacation, my stare fixed upon the cloud formation in a sky that was preparing for another gorgeous sunset.  For five years I had believed that I’d periodically seen Jeff in the clouds. In Turks and Caicos in 2012, it was crystal clear- the portrait of Jeff’s head with his arms outstretched, giving a double thumbs up to Carey and me for going away to focus on taking care of ourselves.

Jeff Turks cloud


Turks & Caicos, November 2012

This time was different, as the head looked more like an animal’s than a human’s head, and the arms looked more like paws, but nonetheless, I was sure it was him.  He was just being his prankster self. And with Carey having already gone back to our room, and with nobody else left on the beach, it was just Jeff and me. Alone and at long last, face to face.

It had taken five long years for the rendezvous I had dreamed of to finally occur, and as I stood on the beautiful island of Nevis this past November on our last evening there, Jeff had clearly decided that the time was right. He knew that this was the place to which we had escaped after the five year anniversary of his death, and the island’s beauty and tranquility provided the perfect setting. My thoughts, however, were not particularly tranquil. I was going to let out my rage to him once and for all.  Right there on a remote Caribbean island.

While staring at him, I thought about how the people who loved him most had repressed their pain to cope with the unthinkable loss, and my heart broke yet again…

_______________________________________________________

During the week of November 15th, 2010, Carey found me sitting on our family room floor, staring at the television between sets of sit-ups, while silently and repeatedly shaking my head “no”.  My overwhelming grief had taken complete control of my body and mind, and I was oblivious to my head shaking. Carey knelt down and put her arms around my head until I stopped.  There must have been comfort in routines, though, and so I resumed my sit-up regimen.  But there were only so many I could do, so I mostly wandered around the house aimlessly for two weeks.  I had to go back to work, and after Thanksgiving seemed like the right time. In order to get on the train that first day, and to generally move forward with my life, I needed to find a way to smother the pain. It wasn’t until five years later that I realized what I had unknowingly done to make it work.

_______________________________________________________

When I arrived home on November 9th, 2010, I found Brett curled up on his bed.  He adored his oldest brother, and at 16, he had just been introduced to life’s cruelty for the first time. My enduring memory of those dreadfully sad moments in Brett’s room is that after allowing me to hold him for a couple of minutes, he gently pushed me away with these words:

“I’ll be ok. You need to go take care of Mom.”

I felt my body sag at Brett’s selfless words, and before going to do exactly what he said, I told him we’d be together forever and would get through this tragedy. After Jeff’s wake and funeral that weekend, Brett went back to school on Monday. His basketball season started that day, and he had prepared his entire childhood to play on Greeley’s varsity team, just as both his brothers did.  And so he took his first step forward and did just that.  Athletes play through physical pain, and Brett found a way to play through his emotional pain.

Since then, Brett has demonstrated his love for Jeff in small, subtle ways.  Calling it his “test taking shirt”, he wears Jeff’s Middlebury t-shirt on the days of important exams at Villanova, and he frequently uses words or phrases that Jeff was known for.

Brett test taking shirt

During his first two years at college, though, he either couldn’t or wouldn’t talk about Jeff to his new friends and fraternity brothers. This past spring, however, during a frat meeting, he told his brothers what had happened.  I guess the heart can only hold certain things inside it for so long.

 ______________________________________________________

Drew was at a new school to which he had recently transferred when his cell phone rang on the evening of November 9th, 2010.  Carey delivered the news in as gentle a way as possible, but there was no way to sugarcoat the raw facts.  His older brother to whom he looked up and loved was dead of his own choosing.  After hanging up the phone, Drew kicked a large trash can the length of his dorm hallway.  Just three days earlier, Jeff had reached out to Drew for support, and in his understated yet direct way, Drew let him know he’d be there for him.

Jeff stay close and stick together

Drew u got it

Three months later, Drew and I went to Los Angeles for the NBA All-Star weekend, a trip that was planned for four of us, including Brett and Jeff.  Brett had to stay back for his playoff basketball game, so Drew and I went, and we spent hours talking about our loss.  We lamented how this type of weekend together was what Jeff lived for before antidepressants distorted his thoughts.  We talked about the blog posts I had started writing on Kleinsaucer, and Drew said he wanted to write his own at some point.  Over the next few years, Drew wrote three such posts, and they were extremely moving.

When he went back to school after our weekend together, Drew joined Theta Chi, and in a frat meeting where each pledge was asked to share something personal, Drew told them about Jeff. He opened his heart, and the feelings flowed.

Jeff’s photo remains on the desk in Drew’s room next to his computer’s keyboard, where he strategically placed it five years ago.

Jeff photo on Drew's desk

_______________________________________________________

Andrew Becker, known to his friends as A.B., is one of Jeff’s oldest and best friends. They were together throughout childhood, they were together in Bryant Park the day Jeff walked out on his job in August 2010, and they were together on Jeff’s last weekend of life, which was spent partying in Manhattan.

Jeff and AB

Jeff and A.B.

A.B. was shocked and devastated by Jeff’s death, both because he loved him and because, like all of Jeff’s friends, he didn’t know Jeff had been suffering.  After all, they’d had their typical great time in the city into the early morning hours of Sunday, November 7th, when Jeff crashed at A.B.’s friend’s apartment.

Jeff ABs frat bros aptmnt

I picked Jeff up at the Chappaqua train station later that morning, and he told me he had a great time.  About 55 hours later, he jumped off the Bear Mountain Bridge.

A.B. comforted me greatly in the months that followed. He sat with me at Brett’s basketball games, we had lunch numerous times in the city, and we remain in close text contact.   He has a knack for coming out with very poignant words at the most emotional times. After the Giants beat the Patriots in the 2012 Super Bowl, A.B. and I texted about how excited Jeff would have been if he’d been here to see it.  Concluding our text exchange, he wrote:

“Well, times like these, we just have to savor the moments for him, and stick together.”

Even now, I get a lump in my throat when I think of those words.  Yes, that’s exactly what we need to do, always—savor the moments Jeff would have loved, and stick together.  A.B. is wise beyond his years.

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 I decided long ago that when November 9th falls on a weekday, I wouldn’t sit home and mourn.  It’s better for me to stay occupied and go to work.  On this past November 9th, at 9:51 a.m., in the middle of an internal meeting, I received the following text from Brett:

 

Brett i love you dad

And then more:

 

brett 1

Brett 2

Brett 3

The 16 year old kid who somehow found a way to keep the pain beneath the surface in order to move forward with his life was now a man, and on the fifth anniversary of losing his brother, he honored him by running exactly 3.02 miles in recognition of Jeff’s March 2nd birthday. He opened his heart and allowed Jeff’s presence to fuel him during his run, and the shin pain he’d been enduring disappeared.  I couldn’t hide the moisture in my eyes, and so I started to plan a graceful exit from this meeting. But then my phone buzzed again.  It was Drew.

 

Drew Hope you're getting through

True to the form he has exhibited his entire life, Drew’s primary concern was for all of us. He had involuntarily been thrust into the role of the oldest brother, and on this terrible day, he was focused on being there for Brett.

Emotionally spent, I knew that for me, this meeting was over, so I bolted.  My colleagues would cover for me.

I was back at my desk a few hours later when A.B. texted.  It is a text that made me realize what we all had been doing these past five years, and it is one that will stay with me forever. This loving, compassionate guy had nailed it once again with his poignant words.

 

AB emotion moment

Later that evening, A.B. texted me with a photo of Jeff’s grave, the headstone having just been adorned by roses that he, Lexie Picker and Blake Heller had brought. On this tragic anniversary, they visited Jeff to let him know how much he is missed.

 

A.B. roses at Jeff's grave

For years, we all numbed our hearts.

Of course we did, because how else could we have gone on after losing our son, brother or friend?  The magnitude of this tragedy is beyond words, and had we not numbed our hearts to some degree, we could have easily just dissolved into puddles on the floor.

But on November 9th, 2015, hearts became “un-numbed”.

And the result was a beautiful, heartfelt display of love and emotion that I will never forget.

_______________________________________________________

As the sun descended directly behind my son the cloud, it illuminated both him and the enormity of the moment.

 

Jeff Nevis cloud

I called for the anger that had been brewing inside me all these years to rise to the surface.  Jeff’s profile in the brilliant sky appeared to edge closer in anticipation of my words, but in the moment of truth, I opened my mouth and there was nothing there. I choked.  My legs suddenly felt unsteady. I sat down in the water and fought back tears, but what was the purpose of holding them back?  There was nobody else around. I cried because I miss him so much that it hurts, because I know in my heart that I could have done more to try to save him, and also because I was emotional over having just had a very special vacation with Carey on this beautiful island paradise.

I thought back to A.B.’s text and realized that while the anger I feel toward Jeff for leaving us is very real, the fact that I’ve focused on that instead of the love and the pain has been part of the unconscious process of numbing my heart.  And as A.B. said, you can only do that for so long before it all comes out.

As I sat there with my tears and my un-numbed heart, I whispered “I love you” to Jeff, but there was no way he could have heard me. I looked around to confirm the beach was still empty, and then I shouted it from the depths of my soul. The whole island heard that one and so did Jeff. The sun slowly fell below him, and as it did, Jeff’s body began to peacefully dissipate into the atmosphere, a beautiful contrast to the way his body violently came undone under the bridge five years earlier. I watched the sun touch the water out on the horizon, and I then felt a level of calm and serenity that had eluded me for half a decade.

I packed up and headed back to our room feeling unburdened, un-numbed and excited for a final night in paradise with my beautiful wife of thirty years.

I knew all too well that serenity can be fleeting, but for at least that moment in time, it felt as if Jeff and I had finally made our peace.

–Rich Klein

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One Response to “When Hearts Become “Un-numbed””

  1. Lisa. St John January 5, 2016 at 8:50 am #

    Jeff-
    thank you for sharing your mourning/healing process. And I could hear your sould’s scream by the ocean. Your love for Jeff is profound and undying and once again, moved me to tears.
    Your posts remind me of the vital importance of expressing our deepest pain in safe ways.
    Wishing you and yours a joyous peace filled year.
    Much love.

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