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Desperately Trying To Keep Jeff Alive On His 29th Birthday

2 Mar


Today is not a funeral.  It is a birthday, and we shall treat it as such.”

            –Tarzan Tahsin Ozan Gemikonakli, Facebook post, March 2, 2013



Each and every birthday, I try my best to heed Tarzan’s words. It’s extremely difficult, though, as your birthday connotes many different things, and unfortunately, the thoughts that dominate my mind are those related to what might have been. My research into suicide has been excruciatingly painful, because each piece of data that I’ve found confirms what I intuitively knew—that any number of factors could have quickly changed the outcome and tipped your fate from death to decades of life in the blink of an eye. A suicide barrier at the bridge, a traffic jam on the way there, Brett’s school bus getting home a little earlier, a call from me making plans for that night…the list goes on and on. And the knife twists.

And if any of those things had happened, the research clearly shows that the suicidal moment would have permanently passed. You’d be celebrating your 29th birthday with us and others today, and during this incredible time in our history, each of your passions would have found plenty of fertile ground for your unique means of expression.

You really came of age during the 2008 Presidential campaign, and the passion that Barack Obama elicited from you is something for which I will always be grateful to him. I can only imagine how engaged you’d have been in this year’s bizarre campaign season. I can actually hear your expressions of outrage over the utter lack of substance in a couple of the Republican candidates and the somewhat disturbing policy positions of others.

I can picture you debating Jason, the young kid you mentored at Middlebury who is now a junior in college, about his strong support for Bernie Sanders. You would have spared no effort in trying to bring him around to your view that Hillary is the best choice for our country at this critical moment. I know you would have started a separate politically-focused blog on which to spread your message that Obama’s agenda must be continued. Your booming voice and colorful writing take over my mind during quiet moments at work. Knowing exactly what you’d be saying and writing makes it easy to fantasize, but while your spoken and written words are tantalizingly close, they are a tease.

And your brothers… they were kids when you upped and left, and now they are men with whom you’d have had raucous political conversations to complement your sports banter. Brett, as Features Editor of the Villanovan, has become a leading columnist covering the political campaigns, and Drew is aligned with you in his support of Hillary. He believes that electing a woman after an African American would not only be incredibly historic but would also indicate that our country, despite its divisions, is still capable of great things.

This train of thought leads me to the unbelievable reality that you never even knew that your little brother ended up at Villanova. For someone who was so close to his brothers and so engaged in Drew’s college search, that is something that boggles my mind. Your brothers were there for you at your graduations, and you were there for Drew, but it’s egregious, quite frankly, that you won’t be there for Brett.





And when you layer on top of that the fact that ‘Nova recently attained and temporarily held college basketball’s number one ranking for the first time in its history, your not being here to see it is really too much to bear. My God, you’d have been out of your mind with excitement over this amazing development in Brett’s senior year. Instead, the only Villanova memories you left behind were your angry Facebook posts about how egregious calls by the refs handed ‘Nova a first round victory against huge underdog Robert Morris during your last March Madness tournament in 2010. If you had only known that Brett would choose two years later to go to college there, all would have been instantly forgiven.



The reality is that observing all these current events that are so tied to your past keeps you alive for me. And even now, staying connected to you and keeping you alive in any way possible is crucial to my maintaining a healthy state of mind. I actually fear that as the people about whom you had such strong feelings start to fade from the scene, you will somehow become less relevant in the world.

As long as Kobe, Obama, Lebron and Eli Manning are still impact players, then in my confused mind, so are you. But when Kobe retires in May, and Obama leaves office next January, I feel like you will be that much more removed from today’s world, and thus you’ll be even more dead than you already are.



At least March Madness is forever, so your passion will always live through the tournament. And this year’s tournament, in which so many teams have a real shot to win it all, would have taken your excitement to new heights.

Some might call it masochistic, but when I still periodically receive emails that are addressed to you, I can’t bring myself to hit the delete key. I also have to confess that I keep much of the snail mail addressed to you too. I just can’t trash it. I don’t know, man, I guess I just feel that if advertisers still think you’re alive, then maybe in some metaphysical way, you are. It’s all about keeping you alive.





The most difficult conversation that Mom and I are having now is about her strong feeling that after five years, it’s time to start taking things down from the walls in your room.  Although I totally understand where she’s coming from, when she said it for the first time a couple of weeks ago, I felt the onset of full blown panic. And as you know, I’m the most stable, least anxious guy around.

To me, beginning the process of dismantling your room would be complete capitulation, an acknowledgement that you truly are gone forever and there is really no reason for you to still have your own room. It’s too painful for Mom to see the memories, yet for me, when I walk in your room and see Obama’s “Yes We Can” poster and your bulletin boards with all your sports tickets and memories, you literally come alive again for me. When my back is sore and I sit in the massage chair in the corner of your room and look around, it feels like you’re there. Your life surrounds me, and I like how it feels.




The bottom line is that Mom and I are 30+ year soul mates, and no matter what we disagree about, we always agree on the crucial importance of compromise. And so we will do this gradually in a way that works for her and eases me into it. First, we’ll take down some of the less personal items, like the framed sports photos. And then sometime later in the year, we’ll take down Obama, the Middlebury pennant, and the bulletin boards. That day will be the second most devastating day of my life.

Through relentless searching, though, I continue to find precious memories that I thought had long ago been lost or discarded. These “finds” energize me, and the memories bring you temporarily back to life. The most incredible recent discovery was a postcard, of all things, that you sent us during the summer of 2003 when you went on that Wilderness Ventures teen tour out west. It captures exactly who you were:

“Dear Mom and Dad,

It’s the day after I left the message at home, and we’re getting our laundry done. We just showered too. Wow! It’s tough out here—the conditions are brutal sometimes. I’ll tell you ALL about it when I get home, but I just want to let you know that the kids are GREAT and I cannot tell you enough how much I’m looking forward to East Hampton.



Like a digital camera that takes high resolution photos, this postcard is similarly a high definition snapshot of you. There you were, out in the elements, toughing out the hot and dry conditions, but loving the experience. And of course you thought the kids were GREAT. Was there anyone you didn’t like or get along with? I admire your gift of expression—in just a few sentences, you gave us a vivid picture of exactly how you were doing and what it was like. And in the midst of all that, you had one eye looking forward to a family tradition—a summer-end vacation for the five of us. I always thought you had perfect balance in your life between enjoying great times with friends and separately with family. I just don’t know whatever became of your ability and willingness to battle through tough conditions.

I guess it’s pretty ironic that over five years after your death, on your 29th birthday today, I’m still fighting a war for your life. It’s a fight to keep you relevant and to keep the memories fresh and vibrant. You were so worried about advancing through your 20’s and assuming the responsibilities that these years would bring. It’s so sad, because Drew would be the first to tell you that the 20’s are pretty damn good, and Brett’s early read would confirm that.

Kobe and Barack may be on their way out, but we’ve still got Eli and Lebron, and your man Bill Simmons is coming back with a brand new website and HBO sports talk show.



With those guys still making headlines, I feel like you remain alive in a spiritual way, and given the reality of the situation, that’s the best I can ask for.

Today is certainly not a funeral. We each get only one of those, and tragically, you’ve prematurely had yours. But birthdays keep coming, and that is what today is.  It is the birthday of  our firstborn son who filled us with such pride and joy for 23 1/2 years. I promise you, I’m fighting like hell to treat it as such.

Happy 29th birthday, Jeff. I love you with all my heart.