When The Nest Empties Too Quickly–A Father’s Day Reflection, Part 7

18 Jun

“Where do we go from here, now that all other children are growing up?

And how do we spend our lives, if there’s no one to lend us a hand?”

                —Alan Parsons Project, “Games People Play”, 1980

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March 11, 2017:

It was exactly the way things should go in the progression of life, and yet I secretly prayed that the moving truck would break down on the way to our home. Granted, that would have only bought me another few hours, one more day at most, until they found a replacement vehicle to whisk my youngest son’s bed and other large belongings away to his new apartment. But I didn’t care. At that point, I’d have taken any reprieve I could get from having him fly the coop.

March 11th was a day that most fathers would have wholeheartedly embraced–Brett was moving into the city with an exciting job in his chosen career. The year before, Drew had also moved out, having established himself, in Brett’s words, as “the face of youth sports in Westchester County.”  Carey and I would be full-fledged empty-nesters by sundown, and when your wife is your soul mate, what more could any man want?  When I was young, this was precisely the way I’d have drawn it all up in my personal playbook of life.

Well, not quite.

The problem, of course, is that when your firstborn son, the one to whom we’d given our hearts and souls to make comfortable and happy, takes his own life, nothing is as it should be. He was the one who was supposed to leave the nest first, to blaze his own exciting trail. But instead, Jeff drove one fall Tuesday in 2010 to the Bear Mountain Bridge, either unaware of or unable to care about the devastation he would leave in his wake after he jumped.

We had scheduled Brett’s movers to come at 9 a.m. and when they hadn’t arrived by 9:45, I immediately assumed it was Jeff’s attempt to, in some small way, make amends. He wasn’t going to let his brother leave just yet, and he had done something to the truck from above.

Brett asked me to call the moving company to see what was up, and when I reluctantly did, the receptionist said that their truck had in fact fallen victim to an unusually cold March night and wouldn’t start. They were trying to summon another vehicle from their depot in Yonkers, but it would be at least two more hours.

Holy crap. The kid in Heaven was at it again. His mischievous spirit had shown itself many times over these past 6+ years, and on March 11th, he sensed my dismay and came to my aid. For the first time that day, I smiled.

I called to Brett to get his butt downstairs and watch SportsCenter with me. We watched the previews of the college basketball conference finals games that would take place later that day, including Villanova’s Big East Championship game against Creighton, which we were going to attend after moving Brett into his new place.

Two hours later, as the movers lugged Brett’s bed out of our house and into their replacement truck, the rational side of me hoped that this day would actually be a microcosm of our future. Yes, Carey and I were helping our youngest son move out on his own, but once we did that, the three of us would head to Madison Square Garden, as we had done countless times over two decades, this time to see Villanova try to win the Big East Championship game.  Is it really true that the more things change, the more they stay the same? God, I hoped so.

I high-fived and hugged Brett a little more than usual during Villanova’s dominant win that afternoon, but it was when we walked out of the Garden that our new reality set in. Carey and I were walking to our car, while Brett summoned an Uber car to take him to the bar where his Nova friends were celebrating. After that, he wouldn’t be coming home to Chappaqua. I held back an oncoming tear at that moment. He was an hour train ride away, for goodness sake. Suck it up.

Carey, though, knows me better than I know myself, and when we got into the car, she leaned in close and said:

You will always go to games and do things with your boys. Always. They adore you, Rich.”

When nothing is as it should be, those were the words that I needed to hear.

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March 29th:

As Carey and I sat at our gate at the West Palm Beach airport after a rejuvenating vacation at the Breakers, I was deep in thought about going home to the empty nest. But it was about more than that. It was about how quickly it emptied over the last year, and how unnaturally the process started back in 2010.  Had Jeff left home in the normal way, this would still be an emotional time, as it is for all our peers. But it wouldn’t be tinged with profound sadness and that feeling that nothing is as it should be.

My self-doubt is always there. It never goes away.

Jeff and I were so close. We did everything and went everywhere together for 23 1/2 years. Jeff was old school, and we had a great time doing even simple things like traditional father-son baseball catches in the backyard. Our one-on-one basketball battles were epic. Hell, we even had an intense nok hockey rivalry. How’s that for old school?

 

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I used to sneak out of work in the early afternoons to get home for Jeff’s high school basketball games. And I started a tradition with Jeff that I carried on with my other boys when I took him on a sports trip to attend random baseball games in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston for his 16th birthday. To this day, I remember the joy on his face when he caught a foul ball off the bat of the Marlins’ Ivan Rodriguez at the game in Philly. Jeff put it in a plastic case in his room where it remains today.

 

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And we talked. Always. When things got rough toward the end, we didn’t skirt the issue. I went at it directly and honestly with Jeff. As did Carey. And he talked openly about his depression and bad thoughts. When I saw that he wasn’t improving, I got desperate and actually tried to guilt him out of his bad thoughts by painting a vivid picture for him of the permanent devastation that would result if he left us.

And after all of that–the 23 1/2 years of great times together and all my efforts at the end to snap him out of his funk–he still drove away on November 9th, 2010, never to come back.

And so what right did I have to ever think that Drew and Brett would want to come home to visit once they moved out, or despite Carey’s assurances after the Villanova game, that they would want to continue to do things together?  With Jeff long gone, the thought of losing the closeness of my relationships with them was almost too much to bear.

As we got up to board the plane, my phone’s text tone sounded louder than usual as it snapped me out of my depressing thoughts. All I could do was stare at the beautiful message before me and marvel at its timing.

 

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Watching the Yankees together on opening day was a tradition for my boys and me whenever they were not away at college. And as this was Brett’s first post-college opening day, he was letting me know that his moving out wouldn’t change that. He was coming home. Drew also came by that Sunday to watch as much as he could before heading to work. As we sat there watching the Yankees take a beating that day, I knew I needed to let the self-doubt go.

My unconscious decision to go to work during the time Jeff was really struggling at the end, instead of taking him far away for a father-son vacation that would have cleared his head and refreshed his outlook, cost my son his life, in my strong opinion. Beautiful and well-meaning people have tried to convince me otherwise, but they can’t. I believe firmly in my powers of persuasion as a father. Why I didn’t utilize them to their maximum effect by taking him away at that most crucial time is something I have not come to grips with.

Unfortunately, many bad decisions, including Jeff’s final one, can’t be taken back. It’s been 6 1/2 years now. It’s time to let it go. My boys had come home to watch the Yankees home opener. What more could I want? If this is what the empty nest was going to look like, everything was going to be ok.

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May 18th:

The blare of the sirens was almost deafening, as every type of emergency vehicle imaginable sped by me on 42nd Street heading in the direction of Times Square. This wasn’t normal. They just kept coming. As I approached my company’s building on my way back from a meeting, I walked toward a police officer to ask what he knew. But before I could open my mouth, Carey’s text rang out.

 

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My safety wasn’t the issue. Brett’s new apartment was two avenues from Times Square, and the gym he decided to join was on the edge of Times Square at 41st and 8th. It was 12:02pm, the time at which he’d normally be walking home to his apartment after his gym workout to get ready for his 1pm start time at CBS. I called him twice in rapid succession. No answer. Brett is almost always reachable. I called Carey, but I was so scared that I fumbled the phone and hung up before she answered.

 

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This couldn’t be happening. The trauma of desperately trying to reach Jeff when he went missing that day in 2010 haunts me every single day. And now I couldn’t reach Brett who was potentially in the middle of an apparent terrorist attack or a horrific accident. I fired off a pleading text, fully prepared to run to the scene if he didn’t answer.

 

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There was no response.  In the minutes that followed, my thoughts spun out of control. Brett couldn’t wait to move out to enjoy life in the city and to be close to his job, but did he have to move so close to Times Square, arguably the highest risk area of Manhattan in which to walk around? And then I was in a time warp. It literally seemed like it was yesterday that I was frantically calling and texting a son who didn’t answer.

 

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But there was no time to relive the nightmare of 2010, and so I just continued to call and call and call. About five minutes and fifteen calls later, my prayers were answered in the form of Brett’s strong, annoyed voice:

I’m fine, I’m fine, I just spoke to Mom. I’m in the shower.”

The shower. The beautiful, safe shower. If only Jeff had been in the shower 6 1/2 years ago when he didn’t answer his phone…

Later that day, I read that the lone fatality was an 18 year old girl from Michigan, who was visiting New York with her older sister. Her sister was injured in the incident but survived. My heart bled for the parents who had learned that their precious young daughter wasn’t going to come home. I knew precisely the level of pain and anguish that awaited them, and unable to bear that thought, I left my office a little early to go see my beautiful wife in our empty nest.

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Today:

The only way to fight through a deep, dark tragedy is to always focus on your remaining blessings. I woke up today knowing that on my seventh Father’s Day without Jeff, I would have Drew and Brett by my side. They have never not been with me on Father’s Day, and even though this is the first one since they’ve both moved out, my boys came home again and the house is full. And yesterday, the four of us ran the Evan Lieberman Westchester Medical Center Trauma Mud Run 5K race, as part of the Chappaqua Volunteer Ambulance team. It’s been an amazing family weekend, the kind I live for.

 

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More importantly, Drew and Brett are thriving and happy, with jobs that they love. And as sons, they are a father’s dream: hard-working, caring and loving. They want to come back to the nest on days like these to spend time with me. I really can’t ask for any more than that.

I will forever live with both a hole in my heart from the loss of my son and the associated guilt of knowing that I made terrible choices toward the end of Jeff’s life. But the blessings I still have are so overwhelming that I thank God every day for everything, especially my precious wife and sons. I don’t understand why Jeff was taken from us, but I no longer harbor the same level of anger that I had for so long.

On Father’s Day 2017, with my boys here for the day, I am ready to embrace the next phase of our lives, including the empty nest.

   –Rich Klein

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