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Eight Years Later, The Journey Enters A New Phase

9 Nov

“I just want to celebrate another day of livin’

I just want to celebrate another day of life

I put my faith in the people

But the people let me down

So I turned the other way

And I carry on, anyhow”

— Rare Earth, “I Just Want To Celebrate”, 1971

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What a night it could have been. A truly special celebration. I had just turned 50, our 25th wedding anniversary was less than two weeks away, and Carey and I had resolved to finally plan the trip to Prague that we had always talked about. We couldn’t go that August for our anniversary because Jeff was in deep distress over his job that had become a living hell of 18 hour days, and we knew we couldn’t leave him. But by October, this would pass and he’d be back to normal. We’d go then.

But I didn’t find out until that Friday afternoon on August 13, 2010, before our planned night in the city, that Jeff, after briefly going to work the day before on my birthday, spent most of the day in Bryant Park explaining to his oldest friend, Andrew Becker, why he had just walked out on his job without saying a word to anyone and why he would never go back.

Despite the news, Carey came in to meet me anyway, but it was not to celebrate. It was to console each other and try to figure out how to help Jeff.  We agreed to find him the best therapist to talk him through this.

“We’ll go to Prague someday,” Carey said.

But we didn’t know that the seemingly very qualified psychiatrist we chose for Jeff was nothing more than a med-happy quack who would proceed to take the life out of him, one pill at a time.

Less than three months later, Jeff was dead.

From that day on, just getting to the next day was our collective family goal. There was no longer any planning for the future. The future was a mist.  Our lives and our family unit had been shattered, and we were in survival mode. One day at a time. That is when we truly learned the critical importance of living in the moment and executing well each day in the present.  Had Jeff done that and not obsessed over his future, he could have toughed it out with our help and made it through the storm.

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You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.”

— Steve Jobs, former CEO, Apple, Inc.

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As Carey and I sat on the train from Vienna to Prague staring at the beautiful countryside two months ago, I thought about that night eight years earlier when Prague had been taken off the table and the future consisted only of the next hour, or maybe the next day. And yet here we were, not through any long-term planning but rather through putting the proverbial one foot in front of the other each day and trusting that the dots would connect to get us here someday. They did, and we felt blessed.

When tragedy strikes, life becomes all about very short term goals. After Jeff died, I simply tried to figure out if, how and when I could go back to work. For Carey, just getting out of bed each day to care for herself and the rest of us was a win. Jeff left us right before Greeley varsity basketball tryouts, and Brett just focused on making the team. And Drew, who had to endure this nightmare while away at college, thought only about making it through finals so he could have a month at home to mourn with the rest of us over Christmas break.

The fact of the matter is that it shouldn’t take a tragedy to convince people to adopt this approach to life. If more people lived in the moment, rather than agonizing over the future and creating artificial deadlines for achieving or doing things, anxiety levels would come down significantly across the population. In her 2007 book “Dear Jesus”, Sarah Young explained it perfectly when she wrote:

”If you try to carry tomorrow’s trouble today, you will stagger under the load and eventually fall flat. You must discipline yourself to live within the boundaries of today.”

To be clear, I believe that having a broad vision of what you’d like your future to look like and setting goals in that context is important and healthy. I’ve seen too many people, though, including Jeff, try to live in the future – figuratively speaking – by obsessing over it, setting artificial deadlines, and in doing so, sacrificing the beauty and importance of the present. Jeff did that, and it did a lot more than make him stagger under that self-imposed pressure. It completely destroyed him.

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”Twenty years now,

Where’d they go?

Twenty years,

I don’t know.

I sit and I wonder sometimes

Where they’ve gone

And sometimes late at night,

When I’m bathed in the firelight

The moon comes callin’ a ghostly white,

And I recall

I recall”

Bob Seger, “Like A Rock”, 1986

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It’s time to prepare to downsize from our home of the past twenty years. The raging emotions that this process elicits are exhausting.

This house was the scene of some of our most precious family times – Christmas mornings, family dinners, birthdays, sports watching, and just hanging together. It was also the home of Jeff’s most joyously raucous moments, where we watched the Yankees win multiple World Series championships together and the Giants win the Super Bowl in 2008. And it is the house whose walls shook when Jeff bellowed about buzzer beating upsets in March Madness, egregious calls that favored superstars in the NBA playoffs, the ineptitude of NBA commissioner David Stern, and the critical importance of Barack Obama winning the 2008 election.

 

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But this house was also where the darkest tragedy of our lives was planned, in the room in which Jeff typed and penned his final notes. It is where dozens of friends and relatives came to console us in the ensuing days and where Father Elias held a private service in Jeff’s memory.

A month ago, we started the process of moving into the next phase of our journey when we closed on a weekend/summer home. It should be a beautiful time of our lives with so much to look forward to, and to a significant degree, it is.

But as much as anything, this new home represents a much needed escape. We still love Chappaqua, but since Jeff died, it has often felt claustrophobic. We frequently choose restaurants miles away so that we can go to places where we can be anonymous, not the parents of the kid who jumped off a bridge. And in the first few years after Jeff died, we intentionally took family vacations over New Year’s, in order to be away from the forced gaiety in our local area. It was all about trying to flee from the darkness.

We now have the option to escape at any time, just by getting in the car and driving two hours away to a new beginning. We hope to build amazing new memories there, with our friends and family, with our boys and their girlfriends, and God willing, with grandchildren someday.

After eight years, the bitterness and cutting pain have naturally diminished, but this beautiful new step our family is taking is not without emotional complications. We are taking this step WITHOUT JEFFREY, to a place he would have adored. Jeff absolutely loved the beach and the ocean. There was no wave too big for him to challenge, no water temperature too cold, and no limit to how long he could play smash ball and dig enormous holes in the sand with his brothers.

 

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And now we have the perfect spot at which to meet for family weekends over the summer.

And we will. Without Jeffrey.

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“A compromise would surely help the situation

Agree to disagree, but disagree to part

When after all it’s just a compromise

Of the things we do for love.”

— 10 CC,  “The Things We Do For Love”, 1976

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Walking through our basement storage room is like navigating a minefield of memories. Boxes, bins, and milk crates full of hundreds of old photos, camcorder tapes, and every school notebook and folder that each of our boys ever had at seemingly every grade level all the way through college. Dear God, we had saved it all.

 

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But nothing got to me like the art projects. Boxes upon boxes of art projects. So many precious creations from simpler days.

 

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It is emotional enough finding Drew’s and Brett’s, but finding Jeff’s was different. In his case, these memories are all we have left. If I get emotional about something Drew or Brett created, I can thankfully just grab my phone and text or call them. With Jeff, I still call him but it always goes to his voicemail greeting.

Moving deeper into the storage room, I literally stumbled upon all of Jeff’s college folders, with his application essays, decision letters and welcome packets. More painful reminders of a beautiful, successful life that somehow turned dark.

Finding all the old photos and all of Jeff’s creations has literally ripped open every raw wound that had started to heal and made them bleed again. And as if that isn’t enough, the whole point of going into this room was to start to throw things out.

I had brought a large trash bag into the storage room to begin the decluttering process, but I couldn’t do it. When I picked up a cornucopia and a snowman and moved my hand toward the bag, it started to shake and I dropped them back in the box from which they came. These were Jeff’s creations. I couldn’t trash them.

 

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Carey’s guiding principle has always been that when you’re torn between alternatives, compromising is always the right answer. She came down, saw how upset I was, and immediately proposed one. Let’s allocate two bins, she said, for art projects, school essays, college acceptance letters, etc. that for whatever reason, you think are “must keeps”.

And the rest?

It’s 2018 and we’re in the digital age, she reminded me. Use that 256 GB of storage you bought on your new iPhone and snap a photo of everything else. Back it up on iCloud and you’re done. You can then view any penguin drawing, Ben Franklin poster board project, or snowman painting that the boys ever made, any time you want, forevermore.

It was the perfect compromise. An elegant solution from the most elegant of women.

Carey’s love, supportiveness, and her ability and willingness to always help us find a common middle ground are among the reasons why November 9th, 2010, a day that would have broken many marriages, couldn’t put a dent in ours.

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The new phase of our journey takes us right into another November 9th.

It’s mind-numbing to realize that the last time any of us saw Jeff was eight years ago today. We’ve learned so much through the years, all of it leading to the painful conclusion that Jeff’s death was completely unnecessary and avoidable – the result of a temporary, awful job situation that, together with a catastrophic reaction to misprescribed meds, led Jeff to the misguided belief that he would never be able to cut it in the “real world” and that his future was therefore bleak.

In the early days after Jeff died, I wondered how the devastation we felt then would evolve and feel years later. Eight years out, it still hurts so badly. Aside from knowing how unnecessary it was, I just flat out miss him. Every day. Today’s sports and political happenings still have such a strong connection to Jeff that I constantly want to text him and say “Did you see that?”, or “Can you believe what he just tweeted??”

And sometimes I do. But there is no response.

I’m so blessed, though, to have Drew and Brett, and there is no lack of texting between us.

 

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We have come so far, but finding so many of Jeff’s writings and creations has set us back a notch. Old wounds have been reopened.

Maybe spending weekends at a new home over a hundred miles away will help us heal again, or maybe it will exacerbate the problem, knowing that it is a place Jeff would have loved to visit.

I don’t know.

But I won’t dwell on that.

Instead, I’ll have faith that in the same way the dots connected over eight years to finally lead us to Prague for a very belated 25th anniversary trip (instead, it was our 33rd), they will connect again in the coming years to take us to a place of long-term peace.

— Rich Klein

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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

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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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

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.

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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

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

When Hearts Become “Un-numbed”

5 Jan

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

                           –Barbara Fredrickson, “Positivity”, 2009

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

Jeff Turks cloud


Turks & Caicos, November 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brett test taking shirt

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

 ______________________________________________________

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

Jeff stay close and stick together

Drew u got it

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

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

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

Jeff photo on Drew's desk

_______________________________________________________

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

Jeff and AB

Jeff and A.B.

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

Jeff ABs frat bros aptmnt

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________________

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

 

Brett i love you dad

And then more:

 

brett 1

Brett 2

Brett 3

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

 

Drew Hope you're getting through

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

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

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

 

AB emotion moment

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

 

A.B. roses at Jeff's grave

For years, we all numbed our hearts.

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

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

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

_______________________________________________________

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

 

Jeff Nevis cloud

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

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

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

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

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

–Rich Klein

Confronting The Memories: After Five Years, My Boys And I Return To Montauk

28 Sep

“There are places I’ll remember,
All my life, though some have changed.
Some forever, not for better,
Some have gone, and some remain.
All these places had their moments,
With lovers and friends, I still can recall,
Some are dead and some are living,
In my life, I’ve loved them all.”

—Beatles, “In My Life”, 1965

_______________________________________________________________________

Jeff text about vacation approval

On the date of this text in July 2010, when he had received his employer’s approval to take a week off for vacation, Jeff had every reason to look forward to another trip to the Hamptons, our favorite beach vacation spot. Up to that point, 2010 had been one of the best years of his life, and what better way to end a glorious summer than to return to the beautiful beaches of East Hampton, to the miniature golf course in Montauk that had been the scene of so many classic family battles for putting supremacy, and to our “go-to” restaurants in both places. Our family memories that were created there over the previous 20 years ran so deep that despite our boys’ advancement into their late teens, and in Jeff’s case early 20s, their desire to return to the Hamptons as a family was as high as ever.

We had no idea what lay before us in the weeks leading up to our vacation. How could Jeff or we have known that he would be assigned to work on a high profile Wall Street bankruptcy case and that the resulting workload and brutal treatment by his bosses would break his spirit and cause him to walk out on the job with no warning? In spite of these devastating developments, I tried to pump Jeff up by telling him that the beach on which we grew as a family would be the perfect place for him to clear his head and begin to heal. He agreed. Jeff was extremely shaken by what had happened, but he was ok and there was no talk of psychiatrists or anti-depressants at that point in mid-August.

The trip that turned out to be our final vacation as a family of five was an utter disaster.

Inexplicably, I became terribly sick within an hour of our arrival, and by the following day, my temperature had spiked to 103.5. To this day, I’ve never been more severely ill in my life. I was holed up in our room for two or three days, shaking with chills in the middle of August. Things got even worse when Jeff, midway through the vacation, came down with a less severe version of whatever I had. At one point, Carey spent nearly an hour in traffic trying to get to the pharmacy in East Hampton to pick up some meds for Jeff and me. It was a nightmare.

Jeff and I were doggedly determined, however, to get out of the Inn that doubled as a sick ward and join the family at all our traditional spots. We ended up hitting them all– Puff N Putt Miniature Golf, John’s Pancake House (which Jeff had nicknamed “Johnny Pancakes” two decades earlier when he first ate there as a kid), Gosman’s Dock where Jeff cracked open both his first, and on this vacation his last, lobster, and of course Atlantic Beach in East Hampton where the boys posed for what would be their last photos together. Two and a half months later, Jeff was gone.

boys on sand mound east hamton 1

Boys on lifeguard chair2
_______________________________________________________________________

The memories of that disastrous vacation have haunted Carey ever since, and she has said that she will never return to the area again. That comes from a woman who spent summers in nearby Ammagansett throughout her childhood and who loved our family vacations out there as much as we all did. Her feelings, which are a manifestation of acute post-traumatic stress, are completely understandable but also tragic given the richness of the memories that reside there. Initially, I believed that over time, Carey would change her mind. However, after several conversations on the topic over the last few years, it is clear that I was wrong. Carey will never again set foot in either Montauk or East Hampton.

I’ve felt differently about it over these past 4 ½ years. I feel that neither the memory of that botched vacation in August 2010 nor what Jeff did a couple months later could ever erase the beauty of the times we had there. In the aftermath of tragedy, it is natural to avoid special places and activities that you had shared with a lost loved one, especially your child. The pain of going back can be too great.

But when Carey told me a few months ago that she was going away in July for a long weekend in Kiawah with her closest college friends, I knew that weekend would be my best opportunity to take Drew and Brett back to eastern Long Island to confront the memories head-on and to create new ones for the three of us. It was very emotional to receive their enthusiastic responses to my idea, and once I did, I laid out the schedule that would include all of our traditional activities. Drew, Brett and I would be heading back to Montauk. It is what Jeff would have wanted.

 ______________________________________________________________________

When you make the left turn onto Main Street in East Hampton, the first thing you pass on the left is The Maidstone, our sick ward from five years earlier, and I was more than happy to speed by the place. In the spirit of creating new memories within the confines our old stomping grounds, I booked a motel  in Montauk right on the beach and within walking distance to most of the places we wanted to hit. Perfect.

The weekend in Montauk was everything I had hoped it would be. It would have been impossible and unnatural to not be wistful while picturing and remembering Jeff there at various ages, especially as the three of us now threw the Frisbee and the football around on the beach, as we competed fiercely for the Klein family championship in miniature golf, as we ate at “Johnny Pancakes”, and as we enjoyed the beautiful view of the water at Gosman’s, Jeff’s favorite Montauk restaurant.

Jeff sand hole young

But these were our places too, not just his, and what made it so warm and poignant was hearing one of the boys say at different points, “remember when Jeffrey…”

“Remember when Jeffrey tried to chip the ball over that fence onto to the green?”, Brett asked as we approached one of the miniature golf holes. Of course I remembered. And I loved that he remembered. If there was an unconventional, against-the-rules way to get close to the hole, Jeff would go for it. Recalling those moments is what made it feel like his spirit was right there with us at every stop. I closed my eyes and envisioned Jeff hitting that shot.

August 2005

August 2005

Boys at golf 2

August 2015

“Remember when Jeffrey used to always want to walk out on those rocks after dinner”, Drew asked as we ate at Gosman’s. “Let’s do that tonight.” God, did I remember. I was a wreck watching him scale the uneven rock formations along the water and worrying that he was going to fall and crack his teeth. But led by Drew, the three of us headed out there after dinner. It was as if Drew thought that Jeff’s spirit would be felt most strongly out on those rocks, and sure enough, it was. We felt it. And even then, I worried about an untimely fall.

Boys on rocks outside Gosman's

BRETT AND DREW ON THE ROCKS OUTSIDE GOSMAN’S

Boys and me outside Gosman's

The closest I came to crying was when we first sat down inside Johnny Pancakes.

I guess it’s because nothing symbolized Jeff’s love of both Montauk and food more than this place. He was the one who, many years ago, first ordered the “E.T. Pancakes”, filled with both chocolate and peanut butter chips, and after watching him snarf them down, we all have ordered nothing but those since then. And on this morning again, it was three orders of E.T. pancakes. But more than that, I realized that what almost brought me to tears was the fact that the very last photo of my three boys and me was taken five years earlier in front of this restaurant. As bittersweet as it is, I’ll treasure the picture forever.

Johnny Pancakes 2010

Johnny Pancakes 2010

But it was time for another photo in that same spot with Drew and Brett. It was part of confronting the memories head-on. Although we were down a man from five years ago, the result was a photo that will also stay with me always.

Boys and me in front of Johnny Pancakes

Johnny Pancakes 2015

______________________________________________________________________

The former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis once said of his upcoming opponent, Billy Conn: “He can run, but he can’t hide.”

That sums up the way I feel about myself in relation to all the places that hold such special memories of either Jeff or of our family of five. The reminders of Jeff, mostly beautiful ones from the glory days and other deeply painful ones from his last two months, are everywhere. I can try to run from them, but the reality is that there is nowhere to hide. Jeff is in our home, everywhere we go in Chappaqua, at Gedney Park, in Yankee Stadium, in Madison Square Garden, in all of our favorite restaurants, and on the basketball and tennis courts at Horace Greeley High. And he is in Montauk and East Hampton and always will be.

As we drove away on Sunday, I privately wondered if I’d ever return to the area that had been almost like a second home, but in the final analysis, it no longer matters. After five years, I had gone back with my boys, and together, we extended our arms, paid homage to Jeff by wrapping them around the memories that he spawned, and we began another chapter while carrying him in our hearts and minds. In the end, it became apparent that there was actually no need to deal with the memories in a confrontational way, and so instead, we welcomed them. Our weekend together was fun and it was bonding–precisely the way Jeff would have wanted it for us.

There are more of Jeff’s favorite family vacation spots that I would like to visit again someday. As with Montauk, it won’t be easy to come to grips with the knowledge that Jeff will never return to yet another place where we had such great times together. But I don’t want to run and I refuse to hide.

The bottom line is that, however difficult it might be at first, the more we start our sentences with “Remember when Jeffrey…”, the easier it will ultimately be to embrace the memories from our years as a family of five.

–Rich Klein