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Was Jeff’s Suicide The Ultimate Rebuke? – A Father’s Day Reflection, Part 8

17 Jun

“Beyond all the grief and helplessness that other parents feel, your child’s suicide confronts you with particular problems, complications of your grief that are unique to survivors of a suicide.

You feel a profound sense of failure, that you could not prevent his death. Closely tied to your sense of failure is the implied rebuke: You could not make his life worth living, you could not offer him enough of…of whatever he needed so that he would want to live. You feel a terribly personal abandonment, that he preferred to die rather than be alive with you.”

Barbara D. Rosof, “The Worst Loss: How Families Heal from the Death of a Child”, 1994

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I handed Carey the note that Jeff gave to me on Christmas Day 2005, another precious gem that he had left behind, but one that I had only recently found. It was classic Jeff, expressing gratitude and thanks, as well as regrets over his role in a terrible mishap that had occurred that August when Carey and I were away in Hawaii for our 20th wedding anniversary.

Suffice to say that a party broke out at our house while we were gone, and the house was trashed. Jeff had passed out on a couch in our basement, rendering him incapable of defending the home front. He was devastated, and never being one to deflect responsibility, his year-end note expressed his heartfelt regret and gratitude for my support of him.

 

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Carey read the note, shook her head, and handed it back to me.

”Always loving, always grateful, always apologetic,” she said. “But he still left us.”

I knew exactly what she meant. Despite all the beautiful words, Jeff jumped off a bridge. It felt like the ultimate rebuke of everything we did for him over his 23 1/2 years. A rebuke of our parenting, in essence. And for me, it hurts to the core, because I didn’t do enough at the end, and it feels like it was a rebuke of that too—my lack of decisive action when he was on the brink.

That’s why it seems like I’m literally waging a tug of war in my heart and mind every year at this time. I have more beauty in my life than I could ever have prayed for, yet there’s a hole in my heart that can never be repaired. The demons that frequently remind me of what I didn’t do know exactly how to pour salt in that wound.

With the support of my family, I yank my mind back to focus on all that I have and on the knowledge that I’m a good father who made terrible mistakes.

So it wasn’t really a rebuke. Or was it?

It’s a bona fide tug of war.

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“Gazing at people, some hand in hand,

Just what I’m going through, they can’t understand.

Some try to tell me thoughts they cannot defend,

Just what you want to be, you will be in the end.”

—The Moody Blues, “Nights In White Satin”, 1967

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The clock had already crossed midnight when the Monday Night Football game between the Colts and the Texans ended. We had watched the entire game, as one-sided as it was, because we needed to be together and we both knew it. I turned and took the measure of my deeply troubled son who, with the calendar having now advanced to November 2nd, had exactly one week to live.

I’m fairly certain that he didn’t know that at the time, because for Jeff in the fall of 2010, suicide was a viable option that he kept in his back pocket, something he could pull out of that pocket on a moment’s notice if things became unbearable. At that moment, though, his point of no return hadn’t yet arrived.

From an unusually young age, I had thought about and had become excited about being a father. It was just what I wanted to be, and I knew I could be a good one. My own wonderful father had shown the way, and I had tried to take his parenting to a whole other level. Yet for all of that, I now sat beside a suicidal son.

I knew that the moment called for me to say something impactful, as I stared straight into his eyes, but all I could muster was a question:

“Jeff, do you trust me?”

He didn’t miss a beat:

“I trust you more than anyone in the world.”

“Then let me lead you out of this. Trust that I can help get you to a better place,” I said.

”Ok, I will,” he answered.

One week later, on the afternoon of November 9th, Carey told Jeff she was going to pick up Brett at the bus stop, and he replied that he was going to work on his law school applications.

But that was a lie. Soon after she left the house, Jeff got in his car and drove to the Bear Mountain Bridge.

A week earlier, he had looked me in the eye and told me he trusted me and would let me lead him. But he clearly didn’t trust me at all.

That was a lie too. And it felt like a complete and utter rebuke of me as a father. He didn’t think I could offer him what he needed to get better.

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“Are you gonna wait for a sign, your miracle?

Stand up and fight.”

Kenny Loggins, This Is It”, 1979

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It’s Father’s Day 2018, and the tug of war is on. I grip the rope firmly and dig in with my feet.

It’s time to fight.

I clearly see not only the white line five yards in front of me but also the demons five yards beyond it on the other side. They are sneering as they make the first tug. My feet start to slide, but in an instant, I feel a counter tug from behind.

I look over my right shoulder and see that Drew has anchored himself behind me. With his forearm muscles bulging from gripping the rope, he steadies me. As always, he is the steadying force in our family, the calm one in the storm.

My Drew. He was only 19 and away at college when Jeff jumped. He had been texting with Jeff every day during his last week and couldn’t possibly make sense of what happened. But in the ensuing years, he was there for me every step of the way, and we did everything together. And he always reinforced my worth as a father and let me know what I meant to him.

 

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And now he had come to support me in my greatest fight. Of course he did. I love Drew so much.

But the demons didn’t come here to go down easily. Their ugly voices just grew louder as they pulled harder.

“You spent his entire last night together watching football, you spoke with him the morning of November 9th when he got pulled over by the cop, you laughed over the phone together when she let him go without giving him a ticket, and five hours later, he still jumped. A complete rebuke.”

They are relentless, and I’m getting weary. But then, out of the corner of my left eye, I see him coming. With his customary swagger, he sidles up to the rope behind Drew and takes hold. Brett is a mountain of muscle, and with one yank, he has the demons on the brink of crossing the line.

My Brett. He was just 16 when it happened, and he knew how much Jeff loved him. So how could he have left us, left him?  One look at Brett on the rope gave me another infusion of strength and reminded me how critical it is to regularly let both of my sons know how much strength I derive from them. I remembered the email he sent me on September 29th, 2012, right after he started at Villanova. I love Brett so much.

 

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We had these suckers on the ropes now.

And then, out of nowhere, an unmistakable figure in his Middlebury t-shirt crystallized out in the distance. Though we hadn’t seen him in nearly eight years, Jeff looked exactly the same, young and fit. As he approached, we saw he was not smiling. Instead, his look was one of focus and resolve. I couldn’t let go of the rope to hug him, so he stopped next to me and said,

”Read my final note, Dad. It wasn’t a rebuke. I came to help you remember that.”

I’ve read the note about a million times, and it’s not that I’ve doubted that his words were heartfelt. He is the one who made me a father at 26, and I know how much he loves me. I’m a bottom line kind of guy, though, and to me, his final action spoke so much louder than his words.

 

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His smile broke out when he saw Drew and Brett. He playfully punched each in the arm as he walked by, and then he clenched the rope. I now had all three of my sons backing me up. Father’s Day, my day with my boys, was now here in earnest.

This tug of war was as good as over. The demons knew it, so they went for broke. They know exactly where my greatest vulnerability lies, and the dirty bastards went for it.

“What did you do during Jeff’s last month? Did you take him away to a beach to clear his head? No, you didn’t. You didn’t even think of it. You went to work. You went to work. You went to work. You went to work.”

Some might call that a low blow, but I just call it the truth. I didn’t even think of doing that until he was long gone. If there’s one thing that takes the wind out of my sails every time, it’s that – the knowledge that I went to work when Jeff was depressed and floundering at home.  

I started to lose my grip on the rope, and my feet started to slide forward.

But thanks to my incredible sons who literally had my back, I regained my footing and found a toehold just inches from the line.

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 “And she believes in me,

I’ll never know just what she sees in me,

I told her someday if she was my girl, I could change the world,

With my little songs, I was wrong,

But she has faith in me, and so I go on trying faithfully…”

         Kenny Rogers, “She Believes In Me”, 1979

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It always comes down to Carey, and at the end of the day, even on Father’s Day, how could it not?

We’ve been married 32 ½ years and together for 38 ½.

We’ve been to the top of the mountain and to the bottom of the darkest valley. But the only thing that matters is that we’ve been to those places, and everywhere in between, hand in hand, arms locked.

It is no surprise that she has come to join the fight. Having just gone through her own version of this on Mother’s Day a month ago, she understands exactly what this is all about.

Before heading to the back of the rope behind Jeff, she leans in to me and whispers in my ear,

“It’s time to put an end to this.”

Carey is my inspirational soulmate, the one that I reach out to when I’m down and need a boost, and now was such a time. Just a month ago, I was getting my ass kicked, 5-0, in my tennis league match by a younger, better player.  I was really upset, and I texted Carey between games. She replied immediately and knew exactly how to pump me up.

 

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I immediately won three straight games, and though I ultimately lost 8-5, I went down fighting, and it was far from a shutout. With Carey set now in the anchor position at the end of the rope, I actually did feel like Atlas.

I looked back at this beautiful, petite woman who, as an EMT, helps lift patients who are sometimes triple her weight. The demons were about to be obliterated.

She grabbed the rope and with one coordinated pull, the five of us sent the demons sprawling across the line.

And just like that, it was over.  

Together, as a team, we had won. Family bonds that are borne out of true love are unbreakable. We all suffered a devastating loss 7 1/2 years ago, but the fact that we have each other and have become closer than ever as a family is a blessing that will always inspire us to victory in our own individual battles.

 

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In our jubilation, we hugged and then frantically looked all around for Jeff.

But after having accomplished what he had come here to do, Jeff was gone.

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Today’s tug of war for my peace of mind has become an annual ritual that has taken place in the couple of weeks before every Father’s Day since 2011, my first Father’s Day without Jeff.  I would be naïve to think that I won’t have to fight again next year and for many years after that. 

I’m not fighting to make the truth go away, because that’s not possible or realistic. My failures and missed opportunities in Jeff’s final month are real and must not be sugarcoated. They must instead be treated as mistakes to learn from so that I can be a better father to Drew and Brett.

My fight is to not let the truth overwhelm me to the point of creating debilitating self-doubt in my mind as to my worth as a parent. Because if the Moody Blues band was correct that just what you want to be, you will be in the end, then I will be remembered as a devoted and loving father. That is what I want to be in the end. There is nothing more important.

After intense reflection, I understand now that Jeff’s decision to end his life was not a rebuke of me, Carey or anyone else. I may have missed my opportunity to save him, but misprescribed medication robbed him of his ability to save himself. His expressions of love and gratitude to me are everywhere in the cards, text messages, and emails that he sent over so many years. And I read them frequently.

Drew and Brett are home today, and a wonderful Father’s Day awaits. It would be the ultimate rebuke of their love and support of me if I let the demons take one ounce of enjoyment away from me.

And since I treasure every minute with my boys and would never let that happen, the voices that seek to torment me have no chance of pulling me over the line.

— Rich Klein

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Eight Years Too Late

30 Apr

“For those of you who read my column a few weeks ago, you will not be surprised that I am utterly disappointed at the lack of upsets in this year’s March Sadness…

What does this lack of upsets mean? For one, it makes you appreciate even more when significant upsets do occur. After last year’s upset-heavy tournament, some people—myself  included—started assuming that that would become the norm, when in fact it is the rare exception…

In any case, all this simply elucidates the significance and beauty of upsets. Monumental upsets do not occur every March Madness—as painfully indicated by this year’s tourney—so when they do, it is all the more reason to celebrate.

Oh, and one last thing: a 16 seed will knock off a 1 seed in my lifetime. It’s gonna happen.”

— Jeff Klein, The Middlebury Campus, April 11, 2007

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Andrew Becker (Jeff’s oldest friend):

 

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From my blog post, “Let It Be”, on November 9, 2013:

 

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It has finally happened, my son –  the historic upset that you not only predicted but waited your entire life to see.

#16 UMBC destroyed #1 Virginia on March 16, 2018.

With one horrific and impulsive decision, you ensured that it would not happen in your lifetime.

I know you were watching but still…

It was eight years too late.

— Rich Klein

I Recovered From The Depths Of Despair, And You Can Too (Jeff’s 31st Birthday Post)

2 Mar

You probably never thought you could live through your child’s funeral. What could have been more dreadful?

But you did.

Certainly, surviving all the grief you felt seemed impossible. Those days and nights of crying, exhaustion, and pain were almost beyond endurance. You were certain, at times, you would never get past that time in your life.

But you did.”

               –Harriet Schiff, “The Bereaved Parent”

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It was last summer on August 13th, the day after my birthday and the day before Brett’s, when we sat at an outdoor table at Harvest on Hudson in the blazing heat for a celebratory family brunch. Sitting at the head of the table, I was surrounded by love, hope, grit and resilience—Carey, Drew and his girlfriend Kelsey, Brett, Carey’s mom and 94 year old aunt, and my sister, a breast cancer survivor who was diagnosed in 2006 and has beaten it into long-term remission.

It was a glorious day in what had been a glorious summer for our family, and if you had told me as they lowered Jeff’s casket into his grave on November 13, 2010, that I’d ever again use that word in relation to any time period in our lives, I’d have said there was about as much chance of that happening as there was of someone like Donald Trump becoming President someday.

Last summer was glorious for us for so many reasons. It was heartwarming watching Drew and Kelsey grow close; amazing to watch Brett come into his own at CBS News; romantic and fun lounging on the beach in Southampton with Carey; and wonderful to do a boys trip in Montauk again with Drew and Brett. It was glorious because it was just so normal. How did we ever get back to this place?

We got here by making a choice in the aftermath of our tragedy, though speaking for myself, there was really only one option. That option was to maintain an unwavering focus on my most precious gift–my family. While I knew that I’d be grieving over the unnecessary loss of Jeff for the rest of my life, I needed only to take a quick look around me to know that I still had too many blessings to not appreciate them every day. If anything, the fragility of life that I had learned about firsthand made it even more imperative to be thankful. In addition, I was frantic from day one about keeping Jeff’s memory alive, and so I resolved to aggressively incorporate him into my daily life.

By doing those two things–maintaining focus on what I had left and keeping Jeff at the forefront of my life–I was able to gradually allow myself to feel joy again.

And so I carry his picture with me everywhere I go, I wear his Middlebury t-shirt to my most competitive tennis league matches so that he’s literally close to my heart while I play, I talk to him behind my closed office door at work, and I do 302 sit-ups each day in honor of today, March 2nd, the day Jeff came onto the scene and began to take us on a wild 23 1/2 year ride. Also, Jeff would certainly approve of the fact that I pour all my sports passion into the Villanova Wildcats basketball team.  And that’s only a fraction of it…

When Jeff’s Verizon Wireless bill arrives each month, I elevate it to the top of the pile.

Like a retired star athlete whose team retires his number so that no one else who plays for that franchise will ever wear that number again, no one but Jeff will ever have the mobile number 914-450-5601. I will pay his monthly bill for the rest of my life to ensure that is the case and that I can always hear his voicemail greeting on demand. And I will ask Drew and Brett to continue to pay it when Carey and I are gone. Jeff was a star, and I’m retiring his phone number. Forever.

This is yet another way that I keep him close.

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When we landed at JFK in late January after a vacation in the Bahamas, Carey had a text from a friend stating, “I need to talk to you.”  When they connected, she told Carey about a college kid from the next town who had hung himself at school a few days earlier. She wanted Carey’s advice on how she could help the mother, who she knew well. It was striking to both of us how dramatically things had changed over the years since Jeff died. There have sadly been several local suicides after Jeff’s, and in the early days, people tried to shield us from such news, thinking it would make our pain worse to hear about others.

More recently, though, people seem anxious to talk to us about the latest tragedies and seek our advice. Some will even say things without thinking, such as, “Can you even imagine…” when discussing something like the latest school shooting. We realize that it’s because Carey and I appear to be totally back to the way we were before November of 2010 and that people don’t view us as grieving parents anymore. They mean no harm.

And it’s true, we have regained the ability to feel genuine happiness and joy, and I’m glad that people see that and therefore don’t filter every word that comes out of their mouths when they’re around us. But we are still grieving always, and we manage the pain as you would a chronic illness, through our own therapeutic methods and routines. ____________________________________________________________________________________________

But no reign is eternal, no empire lasts forever. The past two years have seen Federer’s dominance fade, as 2010 saw his streak of consecutive semifinal appearances broken and Roger add only one trophy to his case…

This is the first time that he has not won one of the four Grand Slams during a tournament year, but it won’t be the last.  Roger Federer will never win another major…”

— Erik Wallulis, “Top 10 Reasons Roger Federer Will Never Win Another Grand Slam”, Bleacher Report, September 12, 2011

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Nine months later, Roger Federer won his 17th major.

And 4 1/2 years after that, at age 35, he won the first of 3 more majors, and last month at age 36, he regained the number one world ranking.

My point is that when Walluliis wrote that article, he was unwittingly doing more than making a simplistic and misguided sports prediction. He was contributing to a broader narrative that I feel has taken hold in our society and has been detrimental to the emotional well-being of large swaths of the population, and in particular, children and young adults. The message is essentially that when the chips are down, they will always stay down. People can’t recover and turn things around. The aging process is irreversible, and illness can’t be beaten. This prevailing pessimism is why the global suicide rate continues to increase, especially among young adults.

But that’s a load of crap. Roger Federer, Tom Brady and countless others have proven that sheer dedication and force of will can lead to prolonged athletic success. The workforce in general is aging, because people in all walks of life are working productively for longer than ever before. My sister and countless other cancer survivors have blown away the myth that a diagnosis is an automatic death sentence. Societal norms have been rewritten and will continue to be.

People recover.

In my small universe, I have witnessed how several of Jeff’s friends and peers, who have told me since Jeff died about their severe emotional struggles, have fought through their issues and improved with time. Three have recently married, and the others are doing just fine because they simply resolved to keep on fighting. These examples are why this is my favorite banner ever:

 

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Most young adults get to a better place by just living, maturing, gaining life experiences and taking even the smallest of action steps to move forward. Their difficult situations are not irreversible. Jeff and others who commit suicide, however, can’t call for a do-over, and that is so tragic because, according to a 2013 British study,

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) studies have made it possible for scientists to watch the rate at which the PFC matures, and have discovered the male brain doesn’t fully develop until age 25.” (Medicaldaily.com, Men Mature After Women — 11 Years After, To Be Exact — A British Study Reveals”, June 11, 2013)

Had Jeff simply lived to fight another day, each day until his brain fully developed, I am certain he’d be alive, happy and productive today.

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“The fear of the unknown is behind us, for most of us, because we have already taken a long look at hell.

Understand and accept that, for you, there is still a future and one that can be as bright and good as you choose to make it. You have before you the rest of your life. What you do with it is entirely a matter of choice.”

                                                                         —Harriet Schiff

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On Jeff’s 31st birthday today, I want people who knew him or have come to know him through this blog to remember who he was.  I want them to remember his handsome face:

 

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His hilarious personality:

 

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His passion for sports and for the underdogs, his sweet jump shot, his interest in politics and fervent support for Barack Obama, his love of food and drink (he once ordered curried goat from a fast-food counter in a mall), his sense of humor, his love for his family and friends, his Talkin’ Sports blog (http://jeffkleinsports.blogspot.com) and his articles in the Greeley Tribune and The Middlebury Campus newspapers.

But equally important for today’s post, I want you to understand where Jeff would have been today, at age 31, had he just bowed his head, said a prayer, and weathered the storm during the late summer and fall of 2010. He would have found his way, as his 23 year old troubled brain became a mature late 20s and early 30s brain. I envision him as a columnist and commentator, in sports or in politics. And he would have been fine.  Absolutely fine. He had a loving support system surrounding him, and he would have returned to his vibrant self with the passage of time.

And that is the point of Jeff’s 31st birthday post: hopelessness can be overcome, and for those who make the choice to fight, it almost always is. You just need to find the strength within you to live in the moment, put one foot in front of the other, and resolve to take small, incremental action steps each day to make your situation a bit better than it was the day before. Have goals for the future, but don’t live there and obsess over it. That’s what Jeff did, and it’s why he’s not here to celebrate his birthday with us today. I believe the worst thing any of us can do is to create artificial deadlines for achieving goals.

And so with permanent holes in our hearts, Carey, Drew, Brett and I forge on and find our own ways to cope with our loss and experience joy again. Brett will run 3.02 miles today, while Drew prefers to run 3.2.  I know that Jeff will be honored by each of his brother’s loving gestures on his birthday. March 2nd is a day to reflect on Jeff’s life–the joyous days and the days that turned dark, as we continue to try to understand and come to terms with what happened.

My outlook, though, is anything but dark. I have two sons here on earth who bring me pride and joy every day, as does the memory of my oldest son in Heaven.  And I have Carey, the love of my life since I was 19. I agree with Harriet Schiff that what you do with your life is a matter of choice, and I made the choice years ago to focus on all the blessings I still have, not the enormity of what I lost, and everyone who is depressed or hopeless can make that same choice. It’s easier for some than it is for others, I understand that. But you all can do it. Each of us is stronger than we think we are.

It all could have unraveled so easily if I had let it. But I simply wouldn’t let it. And I never will.

The glorious summer of 2017 is now a treasured memory, but on Jeff’s birthday, I have high hopes that 2018 will bring our family an increasing number of glory days.

–Rich Klein

 

 

 

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

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”.

 

suicidal wings 2

suicidal wings 1.jpg

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.

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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