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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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A Letter To My Son In Heaven On His 30th Birthday

2 Mar

“Well I’m not the kind to live in the past,

The years run too short and the days too fast.

The things you lean on are the things that don’t last,

Well, it’s just now and then my line gets cast into these time passages,

There’s something back here that you left behind,

Oh time passages…”

                                                –Al Stewart, “Time Passages”, 1978

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Dear Jeff,

What you left behind was all that was precious to you—your family, friends, memories and possibilities—and you left us to live and navigate the ensuing years without you. The big 3-0, your 30th birthday, is just another sad reminder of what might have been.

When you lose a child, especially in the gruesome, dark way that we did, every day thereafter becomes a war with your own mind. Looking at our situation objectively as we sit today, Mom and I are so blessed. We have two wonderful, loving sons still here on earth who bring us so much joy every day, and we each have jobs that we enjoy. We have friends, family, and a precious greyhound that you never met. And so we have these blessings that we can count, but we also have a son whose battered body is in a grave about thirty minutes from our home.

Controlling the mind is everything. I have needed to be mentally and emotionally strong enough to keep it focused on the blessings and away from the horror of what you did. You can imagine, Jeff, how difficult that can be, especially on certain dates—your birthday, your death date, and even on random days when I just can’t help myself. On those days, in the words of Al Stewart, my line gets cast into those time passages. I imagine the extent of your pain and loneliness as you drove to the bridge, and I have to physically snap myself out of it by punching a wall, doing some push-ups or jumping up from my desk at work.

For the most part, I’m able to stay squarely focused on all the good stuff. And I have to say, we had a lot of fun in 2016. Experiencing Villanova’s run to a most unlikely national championship in your beloved March Madness tournament was incredibly fun, and of course I know you directed it all from Heaven. I was so sure of it that I wrote a blog post about it in the days following Kris Jenkins’ buzzer beating shot.  And with Brett’s graduation occurring less than two months later, it was an amazing time for us.

 

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https://kleinsaucer.wordpress.com/2016/04/13/can-spiritual-influence-from-heaven-affect-the-outcome-of-an-earthly-sports-game/

Then, in August, we finally took the family trip to Greece that we had always talked about. And while it was too late for you and surreal for us that you weren’t there, it was a vacation we’ll always treasure. Every time the slightest sad thought about you not being with us tried to creep in, I took one look at mom and your brothers and I beat it back. We carried you in our hearts as we biked through Athens, walked up the Acropolis to the Parthenon, and enjoyed the beaches and restaurants of Mykonos.

When we got back, I sat in the massage chair in your room one night and told you all about it. I often sit in that chair, both to loosen up my back and to talk to you.

Your room.

If it was up to me, Jeff, I’d leave it intact for as long as we live in this house. When I’ve gone in there over these years, I’ve felt like you came back to life as I stared at your posters, your bulletin board with your ticket collection, the stack of Middlebury Campus newspapers with all the articles you wrote, your NBA standings board and everything else.

However, it’s not solely up to me, and this topic is a case study for how two soul mates can feel completely differently about the same sensitive issue relating to their deceased son.  As the recent years rolled by, Mom increasingly felt it was morbid to leave your room untouched. And since she indulged me on this for six years, I agreed last year that it was time to take it down. My only request was that we do it gradually.

But then, I was walking in midtown on a recent Thursday morning when I received the following text from Mom, referring to Gram who was at our house at the time:

 

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WHAT?

This had come totally out of the blue, and I freaked. NOBODY can touch your stuff but me. I know where every single item in your room is—every Middlebury Campus newspaper containing your articles, every trophy, every shot glass from your  favorite places, every EVERYTHING—and if Gram put these things where I couldn’t locate them later, I would go ballistic. This is MY domain, and as irrational as it is, I get nervous when anyone goes in your room, even Mom, and even if it’s just to move an old phone charger of yours.

I started to hyperventilate. I frantically texted Mom to tell Gram not to touch a thing until I got home.

 

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No response.

I texted again to tell her that it wasn’t right to do this to me. Still no response.

I tried again to no avail, and at that point I called Gram’s cell phone. She picked up, and I told her not to touch a thing in that room. Clearly shaken, she assured me that she hadn’t and wouldn’t. Crisis averted.

I stood in the middle of a crowded sidewalk, placed my hands on my knees, and allowed my breathing to gradually return to a more normal pace. The thought of Gram moving your personal items into storage bins without me there had elicited feelings inside me that I had only felt once before—the day you went missing. The man you described in your suicide note as “the rock of the family” had just had a full-blown panic attack in the middle of midtown Manhattan.

Don’t worry, I’m still a rock. But I’m human with vulnerabilities too.

Jeff, I think I subconsciously believed, deep down, that if we left your room exactly as it was, you might have actually come home again some day.  I never saw your destroyed body after it happened, mostly because I was afraid I wouldn’t survive the sight, but also partially because if I didn’t see you, I could pretend that it wasn’t really you in that casket.

Mom later explained that she was in the supermarket with limited service at the time I was texting her. When she stepped out of the store, one frantic text after another popped up on her phone. She thought my reaction bordered on psychotic, and she later explained that with much of your furniture gone and the things that were on it now scattered on your floor, she had been feeling extremely upset that your room looked so sloppy and uncared for. Whether it’s your grave or your room, your amazing mother will never stop taking care of you.

Over the next few days after this harrowing incident, Mom involved me in the effort to organize your room. I put all the things I was worried about losing in bins of my choosing, and I stacked them in their new spot. Nothing will ever be lost. I know where everything is and feel in control again.

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Mom and I came together, as partners do, to take care of each other’s needs. For Mom, it was organization, and for me, it was preservation, and neither of us would ever throw out things that had a direct connection to you.

Your furniture.

I’ve written in great detail in prior posts about how Mom selflessly sought to protect me from the pain that awaited on the day you jumped. It should therefore come as no surprise to either of us that, six years later, she did the very same thing when it came to easing the pain I felt when the time had finally come to tackle your room.

As Drew was preparing to move out last fall into his new apartment, Mom told me that she’d asked Drew if he’d like to take some of the furniture from your room to his new place and that he had said yes. I was overcome with emotion over the poignancy of that. Your furniture would not only stay within our family, but it would go to your younger brother who adored you and saw this as a way to maintain his own connection to you.

But even more striking to me is the fact that your mother, this most elegant woman, had come up with a perfect, elegant solution to a terribly difficult situation, i.e. how to gradually dismantle our dead son’s room in the least painful way possible for all concerned. As a result, a part of you, both spiritually and physically in the form of your furniture, will live on in Drew’s new place.

Drew.

There are no words, Jeff, to describe what he has meant to me since you left. He was in college when it happened, but thankfully we still had Brett home.  But when Drew finished in 2013 and Brett went back to Villanova a few months later, I feared that he would soon move out. I prayed that he would live at home for the foreseeable future while he started out on his career.

Having him home, even if I didn’t see him all that much given his crazy schedule, was incredibly healing for me. And without a word on the topic spoken between us during that time, I know he sensed it.

So he stayed.

Being the kind, loving son that he is, he stayed. The two of us went to the NBA all-star weekend in Los Angeles just three months after you died. We watched sports on TV together, we went to Knicks games together and we played tennis together whenever I could grab some of his time.

 

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The fact of the matter, Jeff, is that he lived at home way longer than he needed to, and in the ultimate display of selfishness, I let him do it. I didn’t tell him that I’d be ok and that it was alright for him to go. Because of the desperate situation that you put us in, I let my own selfish needs take priority over what was right for my son. I am so ashamed of myself for that. It’s just that my relationship with each of you is so close that I cherish the times when we’re together. And now that Drew has moved, for just two more weeks, I still have…

Brett.

Another amazing son. It has been awesome having him home since Villanova’s graduation, and during football season, I planned my Sundays around watching as many Giants games with him as possible.  In January, we had a great time going together to the ‘Nova-St. Johns game at the Garden, which has become a special annual outing for the two of us.

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And of course,  in my last post, I wrote about how raucous and fun it was listening to and observing Brett through the election cycle, which culminated with an outcome that none of us saw coming. Jeff, there is something I need to share with you regarding that outcome…

For a sunny guy, I have been harboring a very dark thought.

I can’t stop thinking about the fact that Trump crossed the 270 electoral vote threshold on the same date on which you jumped off a bridge.

November 9th.

I just can’t get that parallel out of my mind. I can only hope and pray that the date that devastated our family will not also be the date that began the devastation of our country.

The eerie similarities grow deeper. Exactly six years earlier, on November 9th, 2010, when it was clear you would not be coming home, I wrapped Brett up in a hug, with his head resting on my left shoulder, and told him we would get through this tragedy by sticking together forever.

Six years to the day later, on November 9th, 2016, Brett and I sat in the family room at around 12:30am, staring blankly at the TV screen as the electoral vote tally relentlessly continued to fall in Trump’s column.  Brett had to take the 5:30am train to work that day, and with confused eyes he looked over to me and asked if I thought he should go to sleep, i.e. was there any way that Hillary could pull out all the remaining states she needed? I told him he should go to sleep.

I stood up when he did, because I knew where he was headed. I opened my arms and as I wrapped him up on yet another November 9th, he placed his head in the same crevice on my left shoulder once again and asked me if everything was going to be ok. My response was similar to what it was six years earlier. It will be ok, because we will stick together and treat all people the right way, with kindness and compassion.

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Your room looks bare without the furniture there now, and we’ve continued to go through and store your belongings. This has resulted in a couple of wonderful new “finds”. I found a couple of editions of the Greeley Tribune in which you wrote sports articles in high school, and I’ve so enjoyed reading these early writings which preceded your Middlebury Campus gems.

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Then I came across a small wooden box, which contains what is essentially a diary that you kept in high school—individual folded pieces of paper with letters to yourself, that expressed your thoughts about the day and the future. Yes, I’ve started to read them, and your expressions of wonderment and excitement about the future are obviously bittersweet.

 

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Thanks to your beautiful mother’s elegant solution, I am at peace with moving forward to convert your room into a guest room. I’m sure you understand that this is something we must do.

I have no idea what this year has in store (maybe you can direct another Final Four run for Villanova?), but one certainty is that the war to control my mind will continue.

I will not win the battle every single day, and given the extreme nature of what you did, that is to be expected. But the blessings I have—especially Mom, Drew and Brett—are so overwhelmingly special that I will always win the war.

With mental and physical strength, as well as countless blessings, I’m ready, willing and able to soak up all of life’s joys, and to contend with its challenges, in 2017.  I know that is what you would want for me and for all of us.

Wishing you a peaceful 30th birthday, Jeff. Thank you for making me a father for the first time and for giving me 23 1/2 years that enriched my life in ways that will stay with me forever. I still feel the closeness of our relationship every day, and I thank God for that.

Sending all my love,

Dad

Six Years After Jeff’s Death, Goodbye To The Candidate Who Infused Him With Life

2 Nov

“Nothing worthwhile in this country has ever happened unless somebody, somewhere is willing to hope. Somebody is willing to stand up. Somebody who is willing to stand up when they are told, ‘No you can’t ‘, and instead they say, ‘Yes We Can’.”

     –Barack Obama, February 12, 2008

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When I saw the card in the mail, it seemed so right and natural that for a brief moment, I was back in 2008, and I instinctively put it aside to give to Jeff when I next saw him. But as had been the case in similar situations when I’d allowed myself to drift from the real world over these past six years, reality struck back quickly, reminding me once more that if I ever see Jeff again, it will be in a very different place.  And It will be too late to give him the card.

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Yet here it was, a voting card addressed to Jeff as if he was still here, because with an extremely consequential election on the horizon, how could he not be?  His booming voice from eight years ago, passionately explaining why Barack Obama needed to prevail over John McCain, still echoes throughout Middlebury’s campus, in many bars in Westchester County and Manhattan, and Lord knows, in every room of our home. Thankfully, I can hear him as clearly today as I did back then. Such was the passion with which he spoke and campaigned on Obama’s behalf. In 2012, I actually believed that Obama, without Jeff on earth to fight for him, would have no chance against Mitt Romney.

Despite Donald Trump’s deep concerns about dead people voting, there’s something very wrong about the fact that election officials don’t accept absentee ballots from Heaven, for if they did, Jeff would surely find a way to get it here. His unwavering support for Obama would clearly have extended to Hillary Clinton as the keeper of the President’s legacy. But irrespective of the fact that the Westchester Board of Elections still believes he’s here and continues to send him voting information cards, the harsh truth is that politics is yet another passion that Jeff left behind when he made his tragic choice.  The depth of his despair on November 9th, 2010 was so great that Barack Obama’s re-election two years in the future was the furthest thing from Jeff’s mind.

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Jeff was three weeks shy of 21 when the young candidate out of Chicago uttered the words quoted at the beginning of this post, but it was more than the pithy catch phrase at the end that had him captivated from the start. Jeff was on his way to graduating magna cum laude from Middlebury, and he placed a high value on intelligence, especially when it came to choosing a candidate to back as the leader of the free world.  Obama had it, and Jeff viewed him as a welcome contrast to the President of the prior eight years.

Whether Obama had what it took to actually govern effectively remained to be seen, but Jeff was willing to take a flyer on that. The man was intelligent, articulate , a respected Senator and a devoted family man, and if that wasn’t enough, Obama was passionate about hoops too. Done deal. Jeff resolved to dedicate the next nine months of his life to convincing every single person in his inner and outer circles that it was crucial that Barack Obama be elected President.  And when Jeff latched onto a cause, you knew it was going to be a wild ride. This email to me, which signified the beginning of his crusade, made that perfectly clear:

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As an admirer of McCain back then, I couldn’t resist taking every opportunity that summer, when the race appeared to be close, to send Jeff little barbs about how Obama was blowing his opportunity to beat a Republican Party in disarray. I sent him an article in which Republican strategist Ed Rollins was quoted as saying that Joe Biden was a terrible VP choice for the Dems and that Hillary should have been chosen instead. Jeff  blew that argument out of the water in his response to me, but he did acknowledge that the race was tight.

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When the polls showed that the contest remained close through early September, Jeff began to ruminate over what he considered to be the potentially dire implications of an Obama loss.

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However, just a week later, the tide began to turn Obama’s way, and by the time the calendar turned to October, I  conceded to Jeff that he could probably relax and start planning the election night parties at Middlebury.

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Starting a month before Election Day, Jeff and Elon Rubin, this blog’s creator, began the countdown to victory.

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And then, history was made on a night that contained little suspense. It was clear from early that evening that Obama was in control, and at exactly 11 pm Eastern time, when the polls closed in many western states, the first election in which Jeff cast a vote was called for the first African American President-elect. It took Jeff only three minutes to email me with his victory message.

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Of all all the emails and texts that I’ve shared over the past six years, this one brings to the fore the widest range of powerful emotions.  I feel in my bones Jeff’s sense of triumph and satisfaction that he had fought for a winning cause. I shed tears of happiness that the candidate and his message had so inspired him and sparked a fire within him that was on a par with his passion for the underdogs of March Madness. And staring at this email brings a longing for the closeness of our relationship that prompted him to email me just three minutes after the election had been called.

But the most overwhelming emotion of all is profound sadness. Neither of us knew in Jeff’s glorious moment that almost exactly two years later, with the euphoria of Obama’s victory long past, he would completely lose the spirit of “Yes We Can” and succumb to a hopeless feeling that was the antithesis of Obama’s vision for the nation. That dreadful feeling was also in direct contrast to the outlook that Jeff publicly expressed on Facebook in the days after the election, as he basked in the afterglow of victory.

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And isn’t that the greatest tragedy of all?  Jeff WAS in for a great eight years and beyond, not necessarily because of what the new President was going to do, but rather because Jeff had it all going for him.  He was armed with every attribute one could ever ask for to forge a successful future, but in the final analysis, he failed what I believe to be the true test of intelligence.

In John Holt’s book “How Children Fail”, he defined intelligence in a way that has always resonated with me. Holt wrote:

“By intelligence, we mean a style of life, a way of behaving in various situations, and particularly in new, strange, and perplexing situations.  The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.

The intelligent person, young or old, meeting a new situation or problem, opens himself up to it; he tries to take in with mind and senses everything about it;  he thinks about it, instead of about himself or what it might cause to happen to him;  he grapples with it boldly, imaginatively, resourcefully, and if not confidently, at least hopefully;  if he fails to master it, he looks without shame or fear at his mistakes and learns from them.  This is intelligence.”

Jeff wanted to celebrate intelligence, but when faced with the first real difficult situation of his life, namely not knowing what to do after abruptly walking out on his first full time job, he did the polar opposite of what Holt lists above. He didn’t grapple with it boldly or even hopefully. He thought about himself and what the situation might cause to happen to him. He felt shame and fear after his setback, and instead of learning from it, his distorted mind concluded that his future was bleak. And then he let the worst happen by succumbing.

How terribly unfair it is of me, though, to even suggest that Jeff’s end had anything remotely to do with not acting intelligently. He was a brilliant man who was the victim of a cataclysmic chemical reaction inside his body and mind to misprescribed medication that left him defenseless. I had just hoped that intelligence and inner strength would be enough to overwhelm the destructive power of the meds.  But Jeff just couldn’t find that reserve of strength that we all have inside us. He tried for two months. It is not for me to judge whether he could have tried even harder.

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The text messages arrive each day without fail, the level of excitement contained within them rising as Election Day nears. Some report the latest projected electoral vote count, while others share the egregious happenings on the campaign trail. He is certain now that his candidate will win, and after over a year of loudly and passionately articulating how crucial it is that this result come to pass, he is ready to celebrate.

His booming voice at the dinner table so dominates our animated conversations about the election that the familiarity of it all overwhelms me.  As I drifted again into my alternate reality on this particular night, I heard his heavy, thundering feet running down the stairs to tell me the latest breaking news. I prepared to tell Jeff to take it easy because while I love his passion, he was making the house shake again.

But I could only stare as the 6′ muscular figure in the Middlebury t-shirt emerged from the dark hallway into the family room pumping his fists in jubilation and bellowing  “Arizona is now a toss-up! It’s gonna be a landslide!”

Having regained my senses, I was clear again that it wasn’t 2008, and while they are built the same, talk the same and have the same passions, that was not Jeff standing before me.

It was Brett, wearing Jeff’s college t-shirt and shadow-boxing in front of the TV as he watched CNN’s John King excitedly talk about the electoral map.

 Just six months older than Jeff was in October 2008, Brett has matured into a young man who is strikingly similar to his oldest brother. His recently found passion for politics has taken us on a 15 month election campaign ride that’s been eerily and beautifully similar to the one Jeff took us on eight years ago. Brett’s commitment to his candidate and his opposition to her opponent is on a par with Jeff’s commitment to Obama, and the way they each expressed that support through emails, texts and verbal onslaughts is identical. As Brett said to me one night this past summer, “We’re basically the same person…except for…”

He left it there, knowing full well that no further explanation was needed.

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Drew, who had swung by to pick up some stuff before heading to his apartment, walked into the family room and observed his fist-flailing, fast-talking little brother rail against Donald Trump. Drew is a more low key Hillary supporter who is much less willing than Brett, Carey and I to overlook Hillary’s baggage, and he’s been disgusted by the venom in the campaign for a long time.  Nonetheless, his chill demeanor stands in sharp contrast to that of his vociferous brothers. He took one look at me and instantly knew what I was thinking. He broke into a broad smile, walked over and wrapped me in a hug. Without a word spoken, the hug shared our mutual thought:

Jeff lives.

Six years after making the horrific decision to end his life, Jeff still lives. He lives through the amazing memories he created for us all. He lives through our nation’s political process, through March Madness, through his love of the Knicks, Yankees, Giants, great food and great beer, and through his brilliant writing on his Talkin’ Sports blog and in his school newspapers.

And yes, he lives through his youngest brother, who has proudly taken on his bold and hilarious persona.

Lastly, Jeff will always live through our exiting President, who served as the catalyst for some of the most exciting times of his life. Barack Obama has served our country with exceptional dignity and grace over eight scandal-free years, he’s a great guy, and Jeff couldn’t have chosen a better role model to support with such high energy.

I’m sad to see Obama go, but I will always be deeply grateful to the man who infused my son with so much life just two years before his tragic and unnecessary death.

–Rich Klein

They Don’t Really Want To Die: The Tragedy Of Instant Regret

8 Sep

“The millisecond that my hands left the rail, I had what I call an instant regret.  I prayed for my survival, hit the water, which is like hitting a brick wall at that speed.  I shattered three vertebrae, rendering me, my legs motionless.  I went down 70 to 80 feet, but I opened my eyes.”

–Kevin Hines, on the Glen Beck Program (8/12/14), discussing his suicide attempt from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000

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There are many things about Jeff’s death that torment me on a daily basis.  For one, there isn’t a shred of doubt in my mind that he felt instant regret the second he took flight.  Unlike Kevin Hines, however, Jeff insured that he’d have no chance to survive, as he jumped over train tracks, not water.  Additionally, after having studied the relevant research, it’s clear that if we or anyone else had somehow thwarted Jeff’s suicide attempt, there’s a better than 90% chance that he’d not only be alive today, but that he would likely have been alive decades from now.  He would have buried me someday instead of the reverse.

Suicide is an impulsive act, and when suicidal thoughts are harbored by a naturally impulsive person, that is a dangerous situation, a tragedy waiting to happen.

Jeff was always an impulsive guy, and during the good days which comprised his entire life until his last two months, his actions actually resulted in some very funny stories.

The most classic one was when,  on November 20th, 2005, the Saturday before he was to come home from Middlebury for Thanksgiving break, one of Jeff’s friends told him that the Anchor Bar in Buffalo had the best Buffalo wings anywhere. That’s all Jeff needed to hear, and in one impulsive motion, he went to their site,  www.buffalowings.com and ordered 125 (two and a half buckets) of the hottest and spiciest wings that they offered, to be shipped to our home in time for his holiday break. After partying hard that night and having forgotten he had placed that order earlier in the day, he went to the site again after midnight and ordered another 125. In the irony of all devastating ironies, their spiciest wings were, and still are, called “Suicidal”.

 

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When I checked my email the next morning, I found a confirmation of “my” order of 250 suicidal wings, and a credit card receipt for $250 including shipping.  I quickly realized that my impulsive eldest son was the culprit.  Sure enough, 250 wings arrived at our house a couple of days later. Lucky me. Classic Jeff. Fortunately, we had our big Thanksgiving bash at Carey’s cousin Athene’s house, and we all howled watching all the different generations of Greeks turning beet red after trying these incredibly spicy wings.

But impulsiveness cuts both ways, and during Jeff’s last months, it turned out to be his undoing.  Having had all he could take of his paralegal job and the heartless treatment he received from his bosses, Jeff quit and walked out without warning one day in mid-August of 2010.  He didn’t give notice to the firm, and he didn’t say a word to anyone. He just left.

And on November 9th, 2010, in a moment of extreme despair that nobody saw coming, Jeff committed the ultimate impulsive act.  After having made arrangements to see a behavioral therapist for the first time that afternoon, and after having lunch with Carey at home for over an hour while having another deep talk, and after telling her that he was going upstairs to work on his law school applications while she went to pick up Brett at the bus stop, something snapped.  I will never know what the final trigger was, but there’s one thing that I do know.  Had Jeff been met at the bridge by a barrier that prevented him from executing his plan, he would be alive today.

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In her February 14, 2013 New York Times front page article entitled “With Guns, Killer and Victim Are Usually the Same”, Sabrina Tavernise wrote, “Suicidal acts are often prompted by a temporary surge of rage or despair…”

The first formal study which confirmed that thwarting the initial suicidal urge can wipe it from a tormented individual’s mind forever was published by Richard Seiden in 1978.  It’s entitled “Where Are They Now? A Follow-Up Study of Suicide Attempters from the Golden Gate Bridge”. In the study’s opening paragraph, Seiden (a former professor at the University of California at Berkeley) wrote:

“Proposals for the construction of a hardware antisuicide barrier have been challenged with the untested contention that “they’ll just go someplace else”. This research tests the contention by describing and evaluating the long-term mortality experience of the 515 persons who had attempted suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge but were restrained, from the opening day through the year 1971… Results of the follow up study are directed toward answering the important question: ‘Will a person who is prevented from suicide in one location inexorably tend to attempt and commit suicide elsewhere?’”

Seiden notes that there are many landmark structures, including the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, that have historically been hotbeds of suicide activity. But as he wrote:

“… these examples differ from the Golden Gate Bridge story in one very significant respect. In every other instance the rash of suicides led to the construction of suicide barriers, which dramatically reduced or ended the incidence of suicides. Of all the suicide landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge alone has failed to solve the problem with a protective hardware suicide deterrent.”

Thankfully, as I will get to shortly, the Golden Gate Bridge finally did make a firm decision in June 2014 to solve the problem. 

One of my favorite photos of my boys and me was taken at the top of the Eiffel Tower in August 2008. Note the protective wire mesh that surrounded us. This was installed decades earlier to eradicate the plague of suicide from the tower. And the protective wire did just that. There is no way anyone can jump from there. The only way out is to walk back down the stairs or take an elevator. As Seiden’s study shows, barriers work not only to prevent a specific suicide attempt but also to alter a would-be jumper’s mindset such that they will never try again.

eiffel tower photo

More from Seiden:

“Relative to the Golden Gate Bridge, a consequence of this belief is that there would be little to gain from a hardware antisuicide barrier since “they’d just go someplace else.” On the other hand, there are those who hold a contrary view, namely, that a switch to less lethal agents would reduce suicides or that when a person is unable to kill himself in a particular way it may be enough to tip the vital balance from death to life in a situation already characterized by strong ambivalence.”

Jeff’s situation was characterized by strong ambivalence. He was hit by a wave of hopelessness on that November 9th afternoon, but exactly a week earlier, he was extremely excited to go to the Knicks game with his friends.

Three days earlier, he was texting us to pick up his favorite “Classic Triple” and fries from Wendy’s, and three HOURS before he died, he asked Carey why we didn’t have any tomatoes in the house for the turkey sandwich he had for lunch that day.

classsic triple and fries

This was not a guy who was hell bent on killing himself. Yes, he had suicidal thoughts, but something triggered that feeling of temporary despair on November 9th. Had he been stopped that day, Seiden’s study strongly suggests he’d be alive right now. I believe that with all my heart. Hardware suicide barriers, through their very presence, make committing suicide by jumping virtually impossible.

Jeff would be alive today if the Bear Mountain Bridge had had such barriers in place when he got there on that wretched day in 2010. The results of Seiden’s study make that perfectly clear:

“What this table discloses is that after 26-plus years the vast majority of GGB suicide attempters (about 94%) are still alive or have died from natural causes.”

And the study’s concluding paragraph:

“The major hypothesis under test, that Golden Gate Bridge attempters will surely and inexorably “just go someplace else,” is clearly unsupported by the data. Instead, the findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature. Accordingly, the justification for prevention and intervention such as building a suicide prevention barrier is warranted and the prognosis for suicide attempters is, on balance, relatively hopeful.”

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On June 27th, 2014, more than 3 1/2 decades after Richard Seiden’s study validated the effectiveness of suicide barriers, the Board that governs the Golden Gate Bridge voted unanimously to approve a $76 million funding plan for installation of steel-cable nets, 20 feet beneath the east and west edges of the bridge, that are intended to deter people from leaping to their deaths or catch them if they try. Once absorbed by the net, there will be no way out until help arrives. Here is the final design layout for the nets.

golden gate bridge safety nets

Construction is expected to be completed in 2020. Though way too late to save the over 1,600 people who have jumped to their deaths from this bridge, it is reasonable to believe that once the nets are in place, there may never again be another suicide death from the Golden Gate Bridge.

That may sound like a bold statement, but it’s really not.  Prior to 1998, two to three people per year had been jumping to their deaths from the Munster Terrace cathedral in Bern, Switzerland. After a safety net was built, there have been no suicides there since 1998.  Zero.

And they won’t likely just go someplace else. In Washington, D.C., erection of barriers on the Duke Ellington Bridge did not increase suicides on the nearby, and unprotected, William Howard Taft Bridge.

Finally, in an analysis of all of the research done on suicide barriers around the world, a study by a University of Melbourne, Australia professor found that after barriers were installed, there was an 86 percent decrease in the number of suicides at the barrier site. And, overall, there was a net decrease in the number of jumping suicides in surrounding areas.

Suicide barriers work and I will advocate for them for the rest of my life.

___________________________________________________________________________

Kevin Hines, the man who 16 years ago thought he wanted to die but realized instantly after jumping that that really wasn’t the case, has done a lot of living ever since. He’s an award-winning global speaker, best-selling author, documentary filmmaker, and suicide prevention and mental health advocate.  And in 2013, Hines released his bestselling memoir titled “Cracked Not Broken, Surviving and Thriving After A Suicide Attempt.”  He sits on the Boards of the International Bipolar Foundation, the Bridge Rail Foundation and the Mental Health Association of San Francisco.

Hines’ story inspires and torments me at the same time. In my darkest moments, I envision Jeff in the air experiencing instant regret but realizing he would not survive. No Thanksgiving with family in two weeks, no Christmas, and no more March Madness. In those final seconds, I’m certain it all flashed before him.

Thinking about where Jeff would be and what he’d be doing now, at age 29, is all useless conjecture, but I know in my heart he would have made a difference in whatever he chose to pursue.  He touched everyone he knew with his kindness, sense of humor and zest for life, which he had until his last two months. Just like Hines, if Jeff had survived his jump, he would have thrived and shared his story to try to help others.

People who either think about or attempt suicide don’t want to die. They just want to end their pain, and there are many constructive ways to work on doing that. I pray that those who struggle, as a result of increased suicide awareness and prevention efforts, will come to realize that and never put themselves in the horrific position of experiencing instant regret.

Kevin Hines is one of only 34 people who have survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. Every effort must be made to build barriers at all bridges and take away other lethal means from the suicide attempters of the future who, without intervention, will not be so lucky.

–Rich Klein

The Final Piece Of Jeff’s Story–A Father’s Day Reflection, Part 6

19 Jun

Does your conscience bother you?

Tell the truth.”

–Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sweet Home Alabama”, 1974

 

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It may be difficult to believe that after grieving in this public forum for over five years, there is still a painful slice of Jeff’s story that I haven’t yet shared. I’ve gone into agonizing detail about what happened to Jeff and how we’ve been coping since, but even the thought of writing about this last piece has been too overwhelming. And so I haven’t. But today is Father’s Day, the day that brings to me each year an odd mixture of pride and self-loathing, and the latter feeling is what led me to publish this today.

I’ve shared many times that on September 8th, 2010, eight days after Jeff took his first antidepressant tablet, he told Carey that he was having suicidal thoughts and had searched for information on the Bear Mountain Bridge. What I didn’t share was that Jeff also told her that he had drafted a suicide note that he subsequently deleted. I was in San Francisco on a business trip when all this was happening, and you can imagine how frantic I was to get home, hug him, and talk to him.

When I returned home, I asked Jeff to send me the suicide note he had written. He replied with the following email to both Carey and me:

 

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My heart shattered at the very notion that MY SON actually drafted a suicide note, but it then soared with my misguided belief that we had dodged a bullet. It was ok, I told myself. Jeff had just had a brain cramp in reaction to taking an antidepressant for the first time, and he had freaked out. Now he was back to his senses and wrote of a new beginning full of hope and determination to not give up. Here is the end of his revised note, a document beautifully titled “The Beginning”.

 

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“I WILL NOT GIVE UP”.

Jeff’s resolute pledge was comforting, because in my heart, I didn’t believe that a son of mine could feel so depressed and desperate that he would seriously consider taking his own life. Nonetheless, Carey took Jeff back to the man who I began to call, in my own mind, “Dr. Meds”, and he took Jeff down a path of adding more drugs to the mix. This course of action ultimately led to his demise.

Carey and I felt it was crucial for Jeff to get back to normal routines, namely working in a less stressful job and starting to blog again. He had not written a post since July 8th, as shortly after that he was assigned to a high profile bankruptcy case that took over his life.

Jeff agreed that he needed to get back into the workforce, and he wasted no time working on a new blog post that would target his longtime nemesis, NBA commissioner David Stern. I prayed that this suicidal episode was some bizarre bump in the road and would be fleeting. What I failed to understand is that once someone seriously considers the possibility of suicide, that person must be considered “high risk” from then on.

Two weeks later, on September 24th, our whole family received an email from Jeff with his new blog post attached. The subject line alone brought me to tears:

“After a long hiatus…”

 

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Oh God, it had been way too long. But when I read the post and felt that vintage Jeff Klein passion again, I was fired up. David Stern probably didn’t miss Jeff’s critical words, but I sure did. My boy was back. I had no idea that it would be the last post of his life, and it remains at the top of Jeff’s website (www.jeffkleinsports.blogspot.com).

 

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Three weeks later, on October 13th, Jeff took another step forward when he accepted a job offer, even though it was a job for which he was way overqualified. But the point was for Jeff to become active and productive again, and to get out of the house. He was to start on Monday, October 18th.

Before going to sleep on Sunday, October 17th, I went to Jeff’s room to wish him luck with the new job. When I got to his doorway, I saw him kneeling over the printer on his floor, removing a few sheets of paper. Instead of asking him what he was printing, I instead blurted out my own wishful thinking and didn’t even wait for him to answer:

“What are you doing, Jeff, printing out stuff on the company to read before tomorrow? That’s a great idea.

Jeff froze. I had caught him red-handed, and I didn’t even know it. With an awkward smile, he mumbled something like, “Yeah, yeah, right, just want to read up on them.”

For someone who considers himself to be an experienced and savvy guy, I’m often shocked and embarrassed by what a naïve imbecile I can sometimes be. I accepted Jeff’s awkward answer without question or concern. Had I taken just two steps forward to confirm what Jeff was saying, the jig would have been up, because I would have seen instantly that he was not holding information on his new employer. He was holding the document that was originally entitled “The End”, then became “The Beginning” and had now come full circle to become “The End” again. And the second sheet of paper was a goodbye note addressing each of his closest friends.

Jeff knew exactly how he would spend his lunch break on his first and last day of work. I, however, simply said goodnight, wished him luck again, and with blissful ignorance, climbed into bed. I had been two strides and some common sense away from derailing Jeff’s plan right there in his bedroom. But an experienced father of three grown boys was completely incapable of reading the most obvious warning signs in the awkwardness of his firstborn son.

At 12:45pm the next day, October 18th, I was at my desk at work when my cell phone rang. The caller ID displayed a number with an 845 area code. The only person I knew in this area code was my sister, and that wasn’t her number. With that possibility eliminated, I knew there was only one other. I suddenly became Mr. Savvy again and realized that from our home in Westchester, the Bear Mountain Bridge begins in the 914 area code and ends in the 845 area code. I was certain that I was about to be told that Jeff’s life ended in the 845 zone. I screamed “Hello” in a terrified, pleading voice.

“Hello, Mr. Klein? This is Officer Lugo of the Bear Mountain Police.”

Of course it was.

My next words were spit out on pure impulse.

“Is my son alive?”

I didn’t even have a chance to brace myself, as Officer Lugo answered quickly in a rather chipper voice.

“Yep, we’ve got him. He’s standing right next to me. He was standing on the bridge, looking out. A trucker saw him and pulled over, and asked him if he was ok. Your son told him he wasn’t feeling very well, and the driver called us immediately.”

At that moment, the horror of the fact that my son had driven to a bridge and stood at its edge contemplating whether to jump was a mere side note. The only thing that mattered was that he was alive and that we all, by the grace of God, had a second chance to help him get better. How many people in life actually get a second chance?

Officer Lugo explained that they were required to take Jeff to a hospital for evaluation, and I wouldn’t be permitted to visit him until the next morning. I’ve written many times that Jeff spent the week from October 18th – 25th being weaned from all the meds under medical supervision. But I had not told you that he was forced to spend that week in a hospital until it was determined that he was not a suicide risk.

When a nurse brought Jeff out to meet with me in a private waiting area the next morning, I stared at my handsome, brilliant, funny, kind and loving son and thought about the absurdity of this situation. Finally, Jeff looked me in the eye and said:

“I was so calm while I was driving there.”

I’m not often at a loss for words, but I didn’t have a clue how to respond to that. But Jeff didn’t wait for a response:

“Dad, I’m really glad I’m still here.”

I somehow controlled my body’s impulse to literally jump for joy. “YES!” my mind screamed. Jeff didn’t want to die. He had to do this to realize that. He now knew that life is always the right choice. Our eyes locked, I maintained my poker face, and I answered as forcefully as I could:

“Of course you are. Sometimes in life, people need to be pushed to the brink to realize that they’re never going to go over the edge. You were there, and you consciously chose not to go any farther. And now that it’s behind you, you never will.”

He nodded in agreement.

Later that afternoon, Jeff texted Carey with a heartfelt apology and yet another message of hope and resolve. He seemed almost embarrassed that it had come to this, which made me even more certain that he was going to be fine.

 

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But I needed to get him back home and out of the environment that we thought was destructive to his well-being. It took a full week to wean him off the meds and another 24 hours after that for Jeff to pass exit interviews. He came home on October 26th. Jeff had prepared for his suicide right in front of my clueless face on the night of October 17th, but that was history now. He was home, alive, and we were all blessed with a second chance.

_____________________________________________________________

Exactly two weeks later, Jeff drove right back to the bridge, and this time, he didn’t hesitate.

Many kind and well-meaning people have told me that there was nothing I could have done to prevent Jeff’s death. Unfortunately, that’s just not true. The closeness of our relationship combined with the love and respect he had for me provided a significant opportunity for me to impact his thought process and outlook. But he needed to be taken away from home for some one-on-one time and attention from his father. I wrote in thorough detail in my 2013 Father’s Day post about exactly what I should have done, so I won’t repeat it here.

 

https://kleinsaucer.wordpress.com/2013/06/16/the-butterfly-effect-and-the-golden-opportunity-i-missed-to-save-my-son-a-fathers-day-reflection-part-3/

 

Whether you agree with me or not, the bottom line is that doing nothing was not an acceptable option, and that’s exactly what I did.

Nothing.

Sure, we talked plenty over his last two weeks, but my daily routines never changed. I went to work like it was any normal time. Hell, as my Outlook calendar painfully reminds me, I even flew to Kansas City on October 28th for a “celebratory closing dinner” with a client.

Dear God.

 

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I had a son at home who had stood atop a bridge contemplating his next move and had drafted two suicide notes in the span of two months, and it apparently didn’t cross my mind that it was time to put everything else on hold and devote every ounce of my energy to Jeff. I had left work early for two decades to get to his basketball games, band concerts, teacher conferences, and the like, yet when his life was literally on the line, I went about my normal day and left him home to flounder.

Carey did absolutely everything to take care of Jeff, but with Brett still in high school, she had to take care of him too. It was my responsibility to step up and take Jeff away.

I allow myself on the one hand  to acknowledge that I’m a very good father, but then how could I have fallen asleep at the switch at such a critical moment? Even on the 1% chance that my taking Jeff away for that week wouldn’t have saved him, at least I’d have given it my best shot.

But instead I just went to work.

The pain of this knowledge is excruciating and is a catalyst for the self-loathing that returns every Father’s Day. Jeff’s texts and emails of resolve and hope indicated that there was something to work with during those final months. However, instead of latching on to those olive branches, I just let them hang, and a precious second chance was squandered.

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In 1974, Lynyrd Skynyrd beseeched its listeners to tell the truth about their respective consciences.

To say that my conscience bothers me would be a gross understatement. It torments me and has me on a string. Every time I’m enjoying something, it tugs on the string and yanks me back into its wretched claws and reminds me of what I didn’t do. Its relentless pulsating voice envelops me when I dare to wake up in the middle of the night.

“Dad, I’m really glad I’m still here, I’m really glad I’m still here, I’m really glad I’m still here, I’m really glad I’m still here, I’m really glad I’m still here.”

Stop. Please stop. But it won’t, and many a night’s sleep prematurely ends.

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Not everybody gets a second chance in life. When you’re blessed with one, what you do with it can ultimately define you and more importantly, determine crucial outcomes. I don’t want to be defined by my critical failure in the crunch time of my son’s life any more than a pro athlete wants his career to be defined by missing a potential game winning shot in the NBA finals. But it is inescapable. Unfortunately, my neglect didn’t cost something as trivial as a game. I believe firmly that it cost my son his life.

According to the Bible, Jesus said that the truth shall set you free, and maybe that’s why I chose to share the final piece of Jeff’s story today. But I’ve discovered while writing this that the more relevant saying is that the truth hurts.

Badly.

I’m looking forward today to being with Drew and Brett, whose unconditional love I’m blessed to have on Father’s Day and every day. They are terrific young men, and thanks to the closeness of my relationship with each of them, I’m able for long periods to block out the inconvenient truth about how I failed Jeff.

On Father’s Day, however, I’m defenseless against the truth’s assault. We all have to live with the consequences of our actions, or in my case inaction, and I do that every day. Since I can’t go back, my way forward is to never forget the lesson I’ve learned and to love my precious family that much more aggressively.

–Rich Klein

Can Spiritual Influence From Heaven Affect The Outcome Of An Earthly Sports Game?

13 Apr

The Villanova / North Carolina game was truly made of magic, as it had all of the same ingredients that magic has. No, magic is not a “Christian” word, per se, but the essence of magic is certainly spiritual. And anything spiritual is wonderful and delightful and charming and captivating and thrilling and chilling all at once.

Villanova’s winsome win was misty and mystic, miraculous and yes, magical.”

 

— “Villanova vs. UNC – The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat”,  www.godandsports.net, 4/5/16

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In the 72 blissful hours after the greatest sports moment of my life had occurred, I thought I had read every article that had been written anywhere in the world about both Villanova’s unlikely yet beautiful buzzer beating win over UNC and also about the stunning basketball they played throughout the entire tournament.

The authors raved about the final game itself, that it was the greatest college game and ending ever, that Ryan Arcidiacono’s unselfish pass to teammate Kris Jenkins for the win was the epitome of team play, the choice to win a national championship rather than to seek personal glory. They talked about the stunning statistics that the Wildcats put up over the course of their six game winning streak to the title. The reactions of the coaches, players, fans and even Charles Barkley were shown and analyzed. The articles were well-written and heartfelt, and they exquisitely captured the magnitude of what happened.

But I was looking for more. I wondered if anyone understood that there was surely more at work here, specifically spiritual influence from Heaven.  And then I found the  article I was looking for, the one quoted above. Not surprisingly, I found it on a website called http://www.godandsports.com. If writers from a website with a name like that didn’t understand, then certainly nobody else would.

There are many who believe that becoming so invested in sports is silly and that the outcomes of games and the fate of teams are meaningless. As one in-law regularly says to me, “I watch sports but I don’t care what happens. It doesn’t affect my life.”  I can’t relate to that point of view, but that’s a topic for another day. Suffice to say that I consider myself a serious guy who spends countless hours thinking about serious things. I’m deeply concerned about the potential consequences of this November’s election results and about the threat of continued global terrorism, and I pray for and monitor how each member of my family is doing on their journey of recovery from our unimaginable tragedy.

My passion for sports coexists in perfect harmony with my more serious thoughts and concerns. Sports have provided me with some of my most memorable moments with my three boys, and even more recently with Carey, who has become just as avid a Villanova Wildcats fan as I have. Our shared fandom has helped create a bond between us that is magnificent to experience. And even when we’re not together for an important game, we have always been just a few keystrokes away from sharing our excitement over what is happening.

 

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“Last night, the Villanova win and the North Carolina loss was one for the ages. And while the win was earned and very real, it was also almost imaginary and make believe. It was real and unreal, surreal and serene, fabulous and fantastic, unbelievable and improbable, absurd and bizarre all at the same time. The game, unlike any other game, was dreamlike in the wildest sense and nightmarish in the worst.”   (www.godandsports.net)

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Of course it was almost imaginary, make believe and dreamlike.  That’s because Jeff’s spiritual influence had a direct bearing not only on the outcome of this game but on the direction of the entire tournament.

I won’t explain Villanova’s victory by simply saying “It was Jeff”. I will lay out specifically how I think it came to be. I understand that sharing my fringe views may cause some people to change their opinion of me as a grounded person, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take. I reassure you in advance that I remain strong, grounded and a rock for my friends and family, as Jeff expressed in his suicide note to us:

 

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But being strong and grounded doesn’t conflict with being a free thinker. I observe what goes on around me and try to infer meaning from those occurrences or events.  And the meaning of what happened during the 2016 March Madness tournament hits me between the eyes like a ton of bricks. It is unmistakable.

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“Magic is not a word you hear in church or find in a good sense in the Bible. But it’s a good word nonetheless. Yes there is “Black” magic, but that has no place here. I’m talking about virgin magic as pure as freshly falling, driven snow. And Villanova, while not a Cinderella team last night like they were oh, so many years ago in 1985 when Rollie Massimino’s team beat Georgetown, found the glass slipper and slipped it on just seconds before midnight.” (www.godandsports.net)

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The case for believing that Jeff influenced the outcome of the 2016 tournament begins with the knowledge, recently corroborated, that his spirit is alive. Evidence of that is overwhelming:

  • On November 14, 2010, the day after Jeff’s funeral, his beloved Giants played the Cowboys at the Meadowlands. A few plays into the second half, with the Giants down 19-6, the stadium’s top section of lights went out.  They played on. Immediately after the Cowboys scored on a 71 yard screen pass to make it 26-6, the remaining lights went out and the stadium was completely dark. There is no other plausible explanation for such a thing happening other than Jeff venting his frustration.  His body was laid to rest the day before, but he let it be known that his spirit was alive.

  • On August 13, 2011, which was the day after my birthday and one day before Brett’s, he and I went to the Yankees game. During the game, Jeff’s voice in my right ear was crystal clear.  He told me that Eric Chavez was about to walk, and then Jorge Posada was going to hit a grand slam homer. I shared this with Brett, and we proceeded to watch Chavez walk and Posada crush a grand slam.

  • On Christmas Eve 2012, our greyhound Dobi went missing in the woods during her walk. She was gone over an hour when we lost hope and went home. It was dark and snow had started to fall. The five of us, including Carey’s mother, gathered in our kitchen and decided as a family to go back and not leave until we found her. While they waited for me in the car, I stayed behind and screamed at Jeff that he owed us, and I demanded that he lead Dobi back to the entrance to the woods. Minutes after we headed into the dark woods, Dobi came scampering back to the entrance. She had been missing for over two hours.

  • On Good Friday a few weeks ago, Brett and I drove in the pouring rain to the cemetery to visit Jeff’s grave. The forecast called for the rain to continue all afternoon. The second we stepped foot on the grass next to the grave, the rain stopped and the sun broke through the clouds. Brett hadn’t been there to visit for many months, and Jeff let us know how he felt about Brett’s return.

Jeff’s spirit is alive, and you should believe the same about your own departed loved ones.

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“This game, above just about any other and every other NCAA game we’ve ever seen, was fairy-tale fanciful, story book beautiful and yes, enchanting; it was simply full of pixy dust dazzle.” (www.godandsports.net)

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There was no possible way that Middle Tennessee State could beat Michigan State in the first round of the tournament. It was an example of men against boys, a big time basketball program against a nonentity. But when Middle Tennessee State completed what I consider to be the biggest upset in tournament history, I knew that the time had finally come and Jeff was writing the script.

Specifically, I believe that Jeff has been clamoring since he first arrived in Heaven for the ability to direct the tournament. But he was a new arrival and it wasn’t his time. I also understand that in Heaven, there are many millions of alumni and fans from all the schools that play in the tournament each year. So why was Jeff the one to be given a sphere of influence?

Those who knew Jeff remember that he was a force of nature and that when he latched onto a cause, he was passionately relentless in pursuing it. And so I believe that when it came to his little brother’s senior year at Villanova, Jeff knew it was now or never. He wanted Brett to experience the joy of being on campus when it happened, and he wanted to give some of the joy back to our family that he had so abruptly taken away.  And so he passionately pleaded his case to his guardian Angel, and said Angel relented and allowed him to have at it. But just this one time. Jeff was given the chance to draw it up. Middle Tennessee State kicked off Jeff’s dream, followed by Northern Iowa’s absurd half court buzzer beater against Texas, and Wisconsin’s corner buzzer beating shot to beat Xavier.

Then there was Villanova. Jeff had fun with this one.  In their first three games, they absolutely destroyed their opponents, including number 3 seed Miami. For kicks, Jeff made the Kansas game interesting, but Villanova beat the overall number one seed with perfect free throw shooting down the stretch. And then the record breaker that had millions of jaws dropping to the floor in amazement. The Wildcats unleashed a barrage of offensive firepower on the shell-shocked Oklahoma Sooners in their Final Four contest. It was the widest margin of victory in Final Four history. How did that happen, the nation wondered.

When Kris Jenkins launched the championship winning shot against UNC, it began to drift left. When you watch the video below, specifically the slow motion replays,  you’ll notice that Kris bends his body to the left as he follows the ball’s flight, praying that it didn’t drift any further. But he needn’t have worried, as this was Jeff’s crowning moment, the moment he would give the brother he adored a lifetime memory in his senior spring semester. He created a jet stream that was blowing to the right, and the ball’s leftward drift ceased. As the ball swished through the net, Jenkins straightened up again, the celebration began, and a video clip that will be replayed and remembered for decades to come was created.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=L7FFJUz0tdo

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It is devastatingly ironic that the godandsports.net article which so perfectly captured the spiritual and otherworldly nature of the Villanova-UNC game concluded with a paragraph that explains precisely why Jeff was not here to watch it with us.

“In one of the greatest basketball games ever played, we saw the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. And such is life. In life there are times when we win big and there are times when we lose large. We both come close and fail and almost lose it and win. And that’s the mystery of this life. Our failures seem like the end and our victories seem like we’ve only just begun. And the mystery of this life is learning how to both enjoy the thrill of victory and endure the agony of defeat, both all at once at the same time.”

Jeff won big for most of his life, but he felt like he lost large when he walked out on a job that brought more pressure than he could handle. To him, that failure seemed like the end and an ominous sign for his future. That gross misperception, exacerbated by misprescribed medication, led to his demise.

To be clear, what I’ve described in this post provides only a small amount of solace. I use the knowledge that Jeff’s spirit is alive, as well as his periodic communication, to help ward off the pain.  Nothing can replace the physical presence that we miss so much, but these things do help, especially during times like March Madness.

Whether or not you believe anything I’ve written in this post is irrelevant, because I’ve shared it solely to encourage you to be open to signs from your own friends and family in Heaven. If you are open to receiving communication, you may very well get it.  And talking to them in your private moments can be therapeutic and is something I highly recommend.

Do believe and remember this–the sports moments that gave Jeff the most joy and excitement during his life were the ones in which an underdog team won on a buzzer beater. His reactions made the house shake. Villanova was a three point underdog to UNC, and they won their first national championship in 31 years on a buzzer beater.

Hmmm.

As Led Zeppelin sang in such haunting tones in “Stairway to Heaven”:

“Ooh, it makes me wonder

Ooh, it really makes me wonder.”

 

–Rich Klein

Why I’ll Party This Weekend Like It’s 1985

31 Mar

For over five years, I’ve battled the questions that bounce back and forth in my brain like a pinball careening off the bumpers. Is Jeff’s spirit still alive? When will he contact me again and will I recognize the sign? Is he watching all these March Madness upsets? Is he helping them happen? Does he know about Villanova’s stunning run to the Final Four? Does he even know that his brother goes to Villanova? And on and on. The uncertainty is agonizing.

In the first year after he died, there was no question. Within days after his death, he communicated so clearly that it was impossible for us to miss. On Sunday, November 14th, 2010, the day after Jeff’s funeral, his beloved Giants were getting thumped by the Cowboys, down 19-6 at halftime. I stared mindlessly at the television, overcome by grief and the notion that I was viewing a Giants game without Jeff in the world. Dear God, it was unthinkable. But at the start of the second half, something else unthinkable happened. After the very first play, at exactly 6:00 pm, there was a flash, and several sections of lights atop the stadium went dark, leaving the new Meadowlands stadium in semi-darkness. The officials decided to let the game continue, and two plays later, the Cowboys scored another touchdown and took a 26-6 lead.

Had he still been alive, Jeff would have been beside himself with anger and would have launched a verbal assault on the television. Instead, five plays later, the remaining lights went out. The Meadowlands stadium was pitch black. Jeff had had enough, and I am fully convinced that he found a way to turn out the lights on this debacle of a game. The announcers Joe Buck and Troy Aikman could not recall something like this ever happening before. But if they had only known Jeff…

On August 13th, 2011, while at a Yankees game with Brett, Jeff spoke to me directly. With Yankee runners on first and second, Eric Chavez at bat and Jorge Posada on deck, Jeff’s voice in my ear was crystal clear:

“Hey Dad, Chavez is going to walk and then Jorgie is gonna juice one—a grand slam”

Jorgie was Posada’s nickname and my dead son had just told me what the next two batters would do. I shared this with Brett as Chavez strode to the plate.

I froze in my seat as Eric Chavez proceeded to walk on four pitches, and I jumped maniacally into Brett’s arms when Posada launched a grand slam deep over the right centerfield fence. It was one of the most incredible moments of my life, as well as one that I will never completely understand.

http://web.yesnetwork.com/media/video.jsp?content_id=17980741

But communication from Jeff became much more sporadic after that first year, and I became deeply concerned that even his spirit was losing its life. Within our family unit, though, Jeff continued to be at the forefront of our minds, particularly as it related to all his teams and his passions—the Knicks, Yankees, Giants, Barack Obama, great food and beer, and of course…

March Madness.

The most deeply profound moments occur during March Madness. With each extraordinary upset, each spectacular buzzer-beating finish, Jeff’s presence is everywhere. I am moved to tears when Drew’s and Brett’s immediate thoughts in the aftermath of any classic March Madness moment turn immediately to their fallen brother who lived for the excitement of the tournament. And we remain genuinely steadfast in our belief that somewhere, somehow Jeff has a role in certain outcomes.

How perfect it was that this year’s tournament began on festive St. Patrick’s Day, and on Day 2, I got to watch Villanova destroy UNC Asheville in its opening game at a pub near my office with a few friends.

I was in no condition to work deep into the afternoon after my long pub lunch, and so I took an early train home. During the ride I followed on my iPad as an upset of epic proportions was developing. Number 2 seed Michigan State had fallen behind 15 seed Middle Tennessee State and time was running down. With over 20% of the nation having picked Michigan State in their brackets to win it all, this would be one of the biggest upsets in tournament history. I believed it was THE biggest upset, and when it was over, I let out a yelp on an otherwise silent train, and all eyes turned to me.

I had to speak to my boys. I called Brett, who was at work at Philly Mag and should not have been following this game. He was, of course, and we roared together over what had just happened. I then tried Drew, who was also at work, but he didn’t answer, so I texted him in all caps. The matter-of-fact and poignant nature of his response struck a nerve so deep that I had to literally fight to maintain composure.

 

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Of course he did. We don’t know how and don’t even attempt to explain it, but we find it hard to believe that there’s ever been a bigger lover of upsets or champion of underdogs than Jeff. When a given year’s tournament didn’t have enough upsets for his liking, he made sure to let me know how he felt about it:

 

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The madness of that day wasn’t over yet. Hawaii, a 13 seed, took down #4 seed California, and late into the night, #11 Northern Iowa was giving #6 Texas all it could handle. I imagined Jeff in his glory days, flipping channels and screaming his lungs out with every crucial play. But I was exhausted and couldn’t stay up for the end of the Northern Iowa game. My night was not over, though. As a result of my post-traumatic stress, I leave my cell phone on the window sill next to my bed when I go to sleep. At 12:20 am, I was awakened by a text tone that I wasn’t expecting and jumped up in fright. It was Brett.

 

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Brett’s reference to Jeff having “called bank” meant that the winning shot luckily banked off the backboard and into the net, and that Jeff surely had directed the ball to its final destination. His text was eerily similar to Jeff’s Facebook post in March 2010 when Northern Iowa ironically won in an equally stunning upset in Jeff’s last tournament.

 

Jeff 2015 March madness 19

The emotion I felt after receiving Brett’s text on the heels of the one that Drew sent after the Michigan State loss was almost overwhelming, but in a really wonderful way. They each so clearly carry Jeff in their heart, and in these amazing moments, he becomes integral to what is happening. The madness, though, was only beginning.

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If you had told me five years ago that I would one day regain my unbridled passion for my favorite sports teams, I’d have probably responded with an incredulous blank stare. That seemed like a ridiculous notion in the aftermath of losing Jeff, the greatest sports fan of them all. Yet there Carey and I were, side by side on our lounge chairs in West Palm Beach on March 20th, iPads in our hands, watching Villanova’s demolition of Iowa in its second round tournament game. We had structured our day around watching this game in the sun, and it was tough to contain my desire to scream in public each time ‘Nova scored. With Carey and my boys as fully engaged as I am in the tournament, my passion is back, and then some.

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Streaming Nova-Iowa in West Palm Beach

On the following Thursday with Brett home for Easter break, all four of us watched Villanova startlingly dismantle the University Miami in the Sweet 16 round. What an amazing experience it was to be with my family, screaming ourselves hoarse for Brett’s school in his senior year. It was raucous, and I think we scared the crap out of our greyhound Dobi who had probably not yet seen us quite like that.

While Carey was at work the next day, Good Friday, Brett and I took a ride to Jeff’s grave to bring him some flowers that Carey had bought for the spring. We drove there in the pouring rain. As we stepped onto Jeff’s grave with the flowers, I told Brett how amazing I thought it was that both he and Drew had independently texted about Jeff’s involvement in the prior week’s huge upsets. His response took me aback:

I think it’s even more amazing that the rain stopped and the sun burned through the clouds the second we stepped foot on the grass just now.”

I looked up at the blazing sun that had in fact shone down on us just as we arrived. This was the kind of unmistakable sign that we used to receive in those early days after Jeff left us. It surely was meant to show how happy he was to see Brett visit him after so long. We wondered aloud if it was also his way of letting us know that Villanova would pull off a stunning upset of Kansas the next night in their Elite Eight showdown.

The next night Villanova did just that. They took down Kansas, the overall number one seed. It was almost unbelievable. During the game, the network camera showed a fan wearing a T-shirt that said “I Wanna Party Like It’s 1985”, in reference to the year of Villanova’s one and only March Madness championship. I stared at the shirt, and it had a profound impact on me, which I didn’t completely understand until the next day when I could analyze it in a more sober state.

 

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The basketball parallel between what is happening in Brett’s senior year at ‘Nova and what happened during Jeff’s senior year at Middlebury is striking. In 2008-09 Jeff was fired up over Midd’s historic run to its first ever NESCAC league championship. He texted and emailed me constantly with the blow by blow description of what was happening, and he clearly appreciated the timing of it all.

 

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Seven years later, in his little brother’s senior year, Villanova is in the Final Four after having not even won two games in the tournament in any of the previous six years.  For me, experiencing this with Carey, Drew and Brett, either all together as we were for the Miami game, or via text for the others, has been absolutely joyous.

 

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In April of 1985, Villanova won its first NCAA tournament championship in a shocking upset of Patrick Ewing’s Georgetown Hoyas in the final game. I was barely even aware of what March Madness was back then, as I had yet to meet the son who would teach me that it was the greatest sporting event on the planet, and I obviously had no idea that I would one day have a son at ‘Nova.

As the Wildcats were celebrating their unlikely championship, Carey and I were planning our wedding that was less than five months away. On August 24th of that year, we were married and partied the night away at our reception on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center, unaware that years later the venue for the happiest night of our lives would be taken down by terrorists and that everyone occupying the floor on which we were dancing would die. And as we enjoyed a most amazing honeymoon in Cannes and London, we were blissfully ignorant of the unimaginable fact that our firstborn son would one day take his own life.

The point is that the future is always uncertain, and we’ve got to enjoy every last drop of the moment that we’re currently in. I don’t know if Villanova is going to beat Oklahoma in their Final Four game on Saturday, and at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. The first quarter of this year has been a wonderful time for us, and the ‘Nova players have already provided our family with more joy, excitement and bonding time than we could have ever asked for, and the current weeklong anticipation of their next game is energizing.

And so this weekend I’m going to party like it’s 1985, the most glorious year of my life, the year I married my soul mate.

I’m going to party in celebration of the fact that Brett is having the kind of senior spring semester that all college kids hope for. I’m going to celebrate the fact that Drew is living the dream through his sport management and coaching career, and I’m going to revel in watching Carey’s sports fandom continue to grow through the Villanova Wildcats. Last but certainly not least, I’ll be toasting Jeff, who finally communicated with us again on Good Friday and who has been such an important part of our exciting March Madness journey, as always.

While celebrating, I’ll be thankful that, despite having a big hole in my heart, I can again feel the joy in life’s greatest moments. And I love the fact that times like this still make me want to party like I did in 1985.

–Rich Klein