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How Can We Know Everything Our Kids Need To Live? – A Father’s Day Reflection, Part 9

16 Jun

“What’s your name?

Who’s Your Daddy?

Is he rich like me?

Has he taken any time…

To show you what you need to live?”

— The Zombies, “Time Of The Season”, 1968

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By the time Jeff was applying to colleges, I had done all the basic parental stuff that you do to get your son prepared to go off on his own for the first time. I had had the sex talk, taught him how to drive, warned him ad nauseam about the perils of drugs, alcohol and the nascent internet, tried to instill in him the importance of a strong work ethic, and on and on.

But how can a parent think of everything that their child needs to live, to avoid danger, and to thrive? I always felt that I was going to miss something crucial that I should have taught him or spoken to him about.

I was downright paranoid about it, so with that fear in mind, I told each of my boys to come to me with anything that was ever on their minds and that I would give them my honest advice. And I pleaded with them then, as I do to this day, to never hide anything from Carey and me, because we would unconditionally support them no matter how bad the situation might be.

Jeff loved Colgate, Carey’s and my alma mater, and he enthusiastically applied, which thrilled the two of us. Their essay question was:

”What is one thing you would bring with you to Colgate? Why?”

When Jeff showed us a draft of his answer to get our reaction, I thought he was yanking my chain. It had to be a joke. He began:

”As a young child, most things came fairly easily to me. By first grade, I was reading advanced chapter books and could figure out arithmetical facts in a flash. I was equally gifted at sports, especially basketball. It was almost as if I were the perfect kid…

Well, not quite. Throughout my life, I have always struggled with tasks requiring manual dexterity. In plain English, I’m not good with my hands.”

Jeff went on to write that he would bring Robosapien, a “humanoid robot” introduced by the WowWee company in 2004 and written about in the New York Times, to Colgate, so that it could tie knots for him and sew buttons on his shirts. And he concluded:

”I’d make sure it knows how to perform every manual task that I have so futilely struggled with over the course of my life. It would be the key to my surviving college, manually dexterously speaking.”

I told Jeff not to send it. This was their primary essay requirement on the application. This wasn’t a joke. Moreover, I didn’t want them to think Jeff was taking this lightly given his legacy status. That was my strong advice. But Carey and Jeff disagreed, and the majority ruled.

Jeff sent the essay about Robosapien to Colgate.

 

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”Jeff – Your essay did a masterful job allowing us to get a greater sense of who you are as an individual and I am honored to welcome a humorous and caring young man like yourself to the Class of 2009!”

– Gary L. Ross, Colgate Dean of Admission, handwritten note to Jeff on his acceptance letter, 3/30/05

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I was 44 years old and theoretically a man of experience and some wisdom when Jeff was offered admission to Colgate, and yet I couldn’t have been further off in my counsel to him. Thankfully, my botched attempt to give sound advice did no harm in this case.  No harm, no foul.

But I remember thinking at the time that one day the stakes may be greater, and my advice might be crucial in helping one of my kids achieve a good outcome or avoid a really bad one. And what if I was wrong then? Parents need to be right a very high percentage of the time, and they need to be right 100% of the time in critical moments. And you have to get out in front of it all by anticipating everything that could ever go wrong.

With that line of thinking, the paranoia returns. The reality is that it’s always there. Even now, with 28 and 24 year old sons, I never stop thinking about what I should be doing for them or to protect them. When do they need their first colonoscopy, their annual skin exam? What am I forgetting to tell them or warn them about? It’s even worse now after having lost one. Yes, they’re adults living their own lives, but still.

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“Paranoia strikes deep.

Into your life it will creep.

It starts when you’re always afraid…”

– Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth”, 1966

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In the summer of 1996, I was on top of the world. At age 36, I had an amazing wife and three beautiful sons, and we were celebrating summer’s end in the Hamptons in late August. There was nothing obvious to be paranoid about as the five of us headed to the beach for a picnic at sunset. It was a perfect evening.

To this day, if you ask me why I allowed two year old Brett to walk around and play in the sand between our blanket and the ocean, I will have nothing more to offer than a blank stare. When I turned to my left that night, in between bites of a sandwich, I saw the wave coming, but it was too late.

The wave crashed near where Brett was playing, and as it continued its surge, Brett was caught in the undertow, and he slid toward the Atlantic Ocean.  The rest was a blur. I jumped up, sprinted, and dove to the spot at the water’s edge to which he was headed, in order to block his entry into the ocean. The receding wave with Brett in it hit me in the chest, and I held onto little Brett for dear life until the water had passed.

Back on the sand, as Brett coughed up water, I was heaving with panic. I was shaken to my core and mortified by my negligence. I hadn’t fully scoped out the situation and considered all the risks, including whether we were too close to the ocean. Being a parent is an enormous responsibility, and at that moment, I felt inadequate, embarrassed and not up to the task.

Even today, the thoughts of what could have happened on that evening 23 years ago haunt me. I didn’t give my son the protection that he needed to live. But thanks to a well-timed lunge to save him, we lived to experience many moments like this together over the last two decades…

 

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I came home on a Saturday afternoon in November of 2009 and found Jeff on his knees on the family room floor, with a stack of flat cardboard boxes at his side. He was literally wrestling with one of them, trying unsuccessfully to put it together into a useful box.

But Robosapien was nowhere to be found.

It was just me and Jeff. Father and son.

Jeff was a paralegal at a major New York law firm, and for better or worse, he needed to know how to do this as part of his job. Case documents were stored in boxes and the paralegals had to build them.

I got on my knees next to him, and showed him step by step how to put that sucker together and then told him to do one himself. He got about half way there. But the third time was the charm. He gave me a fist bump and a smile. It was a nice win in the battle with manual dexterity.

This position was a first job and not meant to be a long-term one. But nonetheless, at that moment, I felt like I gave him a little of what he needed to “live” in the paralegal world – a small measure of redemption for me after the bad advice about Robosapien five years earlier.

Nine months later, Jeff walked out on that job without a word to anyone, and the battle to save his life began.

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I had no idea that taking antidepressants could actually cause certain people to begin to have suicidal thoughts. I couldn’t imagine anything more counterintuitive. But how did a 50 year old guy like me let his son start an antidepressant regimen when a simple google search would have turned up clear warnings regarding the drug being prescribed:

 

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On August 31st, 2010, a recommended local psychiatrist suggested that Jeff start taking the above antidepressant to “take the edge off” after having walked out on the job under difficult circumstances. It sounded reasonable to me, especially since we knew plenty of people who took similar meds and were doing fine. So I went with the guy’s professional advice.

But eight days after taking his first pill, Jeff expressed suicidal thoughts, and two months after that, he was gone.

I never did the google search, or any due diligence at all, for that matter.

Where was the paranoia then? Where was basic intellectual curiosity about what my troubled son was getting himself into? How could a devoted father, which I absolutely was and still am, drop the ball in so blatant a way? And when things turned south, how could I go to work instead of taking him away to a beach to clear his head?

These are questions without answers.

All I can offer is another blank stare.

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My age didn’t matter. Whether I was 36, 44 or 50, the deep flaws were evident at every stage. My track record as a father is littered with careless and egregious mistakes, flawed advice and missed opportunities. One mistake nearly cost my two year old his life, and others surely contributed to the loss of Jeff.

How can we, as parents, know everything our kids need to live? The obvious answer is that we can’t.  I think all we can really do is to be present, be involved, be loving and supportive, guide them and teach them as best we can.

I was and did all those things, and that’s why it’s so difficult to reconcile in my mind how and why I failed to exercise basic caution and common sense in crucial situations. Trying to think of every possible thing that can go wrong in every situation is an exhausting way to go through life, but as a parent, I think that’s just part of the job. The world has too many minefields.

At the gym with Brett last weekend, I told him how I still agonize over what would have happened had I not blocked him from sliding into the ocean that night. He replied that I would have simply gone into the moonlit water, found him, and carried him out. I felt heartened by his matter-of-fact expression of unconditional support.

Shortly after , I received a beautiful text from Drew.

 

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What knocks my socks off is that, even after everything that has happened over the years, my boys’ confidence in me hasn’t wavered. That is the greatest gift of all and is why Father’s Day remains a blessed day, and I remain a blessed man.

                                             — Rich Klein

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My Precious Wife: The Mother That Kept On Giving

12 May

“In the first years of Jeffrey’s life, he kicked, he screamed, but Carey was happy nonetheless. Carey’s life seemed to be going just as planned. She could not stop giving. She turned out to be the greatest Mother on the face of the earth.”

 Brett Klein, “The Mother That Kept On Giving”, ~2007

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The door was locked, the fan was on, and the handwritten pages of my masters thesis were strewn all over the sink and the toilet tank. The bathroom was small but about what you’d expect in a New York City one bedroom apartment in 1987. And the fan didn’t do much to mute the screams coming from the living room.

But going to the library was not an option. Not when my newborn son was screaming and wailing for something like 18 hours of each 24 hour day and my weary, amazing wife was running on fumes while rocking Jeffrey, pushing him in the baby swing and otherwise doing everything possible to comfort her firstborn.

Carey and I were certain that this was not normal, but the pediatrician assured us that Jeff was just “a pain in the ass”.  Maybe so, but all we knew was that this was not the way we envisioned the early weeks and months of parenthood.  I fell in love with Carey all over again as I watched her hold Jeff, bounce up and down on her toes, sway side to side, and sing softly into his ears, for hours on end, stopping only to breastfeed him in between.

Eventually Jeff would cry himself to sleep and Carey would delicately place him in the bassinet, praying he would lay peacefully for a few hours. Day in and day out, she gave every ounce of energy and optimism she had inside her, despite the extremely trying circumstances. And when Jeff did ultimately fall asleep at some point each night,  Carey would finally come to bed, her tears falling quietly onto the sheets.

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“Carey’s life was filled with happiness and she gave to each one of her boys all she had, all of her love, her encouragement…If I gave all of the examples of when she gave to us, this would be 70 pages.”

— Brett Klein, “The Mother That Kept On Giving”
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The firstborn son who cried so hard during his first few months is long gone now.

Slowly but surely, I’ve been going through his room, packing up the treasures and disposing of the non-essentials. The signs of Carey’s efforts to save him are everywhere. She is an inspirational force of nature, and she did everything humanly possible to pump Jeff up during his darkest moments.

I found on his book shelf the book she implored him to read in the fall of 2010.

 

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And I recently found in his desk a card she gave him that was full of inspiration and hope.

 

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Up until Jeff’s last moments, Carey was there for him, pulling out all the stops to literally try to push Jeff away from death and back toward life. I wholeheartedly believe that her relentless efforts to save Jeff and the unconditional love that she gave to him every day bought us two extra months with him that we would not have otherwise had. He first expressed suicidal thoughts on September 8th, and he hung in there until November 9th. I credit Carey for our having those last two months with him, which as difficult as they were, I wouldn’t have traded for anything.

People like Carey, who are relentless, selfless givers have the ability to actually feel the joy and pain experienced by the people they care about the most. That is the clearest illustration of their giving nature. Jeff felt that so intensely from Carey that he expressed those very sentiments to her in his suicide note to our family. He wrote:

Mom- you understood me the best and stood by me every step of the way. My pain was your greatest agony; my happiness was your greatest joy.”

And so it was. Even in his final moments, Jeff was lucid enough to understand exactly how special his mother was to him and to all of us.  She held and consoled him as a screaming infant for hours and days on end, she reveled in his mostly joyous 23 1/2 years that followed, and she was there to hold him again and root him on during his last two months. Carey didn’t hold anything back, giving her all to Jeff, Drew and Brett every single day.

All mothers should be celebrated today, and we will celebrate Carey, a woman who not only gives continuously to her sons and to me, but also to our community where she has been an EMT for the past 12 years. She has helped save lives in that role, and although none of us could save Jeff, there is no question that she extended his life.

Happy Mother’s Day, sweetheart. You are the mother that kept on – and keeps on – giving. And we love and appreciate you more than you will ever know.

— Rich Klein

A Birthday Letter To Jeff, And A Call For Kindness

2 Mar

“Look around, be a part
Feel for the winter
But don’t have a cold heart”

  -Little River Band, “Lady”, 1978

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Dear Jeff,

You wouldn’t believe how much time I spend thinking about how you’d look today at age 32. In the last photo we have of you from August 2010, you still have those boyish good looks, but I dream of what you’d look like as a full-fledged man. It’s a useless exercise, though, because I just can’t picture it. Both your brothers are older than you ever were, so at least I’ve seen them grow into men.

In 2010, you were the man in the middle, your arms draped around the brothers you loved so much. In 2019, there is a huge gap in the middle, a lonely space where you should have still been standing.

 

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Life is hard, Jeff, and for many, it can seem like a series of punches to the gut that test whether they can absorb the blows and pull themselves off the canvas to fight another day. I’ll always remember the slogan of Dwyane Wade’s 2006 Converse commercial campaign, “Fall seven times, stand up eight”, with the eighth time signifying finally achieving success after getting up from each of the first seven failures or setbacks.

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had that much resilience, but as you discovered, not everyone is wired that way. For you, the punches you took, both big and small, had a cumulative effect. Each instance in which you were treated coldly, callously or with a lack of empathy took another chunk out of you. You just didn’t have the ability to easily shrug things off.

I’ll never forget the Friday in 2004, the last night of Greeley varsity basketball tryouts in your senior year of high school, when you called to tell us that you and Alex had been cut from the team.  In your senior year.  It was unprecedented. Seniors don’t get cut when they’ve been in the program for the first three years of high school, especially someone like you who was the MVP of the JV team in 10th grade and who made the varsity team easily as a junior. Your lifelong passion had been stripped away from you in your last year. You were devastated.

I left Coach Fernandes a voicemail the next day suggesting that a more empathetic approach would have been to take the seniors on the team, even if he didn’t intend to play them. At least they’d still have the comraderie and be rewarded for their commitment to the program for the prior three years. I said that what he did was mean-spirited, callous, and unnecessary. He didn’t return the call.

I often stare at the framed photos in the kitchen of Greeley’s Senior Night for Drew and Brett respectively, when parents join their kids on the court for a pre-game photo before the last home game. Coach Fernandes coldly and callously robbed you of a similar moment. Unfortunately they don’t have a “Junior Night”.

 

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I told you that this was an example of how unfair life can be, and that you just had to move on, focus on your college applications and look forward to playing in your college intramural league. My words were of little consolation.

Three years later, in the summer of 2007, you were the victim of a random act of violence when you were on the train home with Elon after a night out in the city, and some guy with anger in his eyes got on at 125th Street, then started shouting and pointing at you. As you recounted, he walked right up to you, punched you in the eye and quickly bolted. Blood spurted from above your eyebrow.

You called us from St. Barnabas hospital in the Bronx, where the ambulance had taken you to get stitched up. It was the after midnight phone call that every parent dreads – the one that comes when one or more of your kids have been out partying – but thankfully it was your voice on the other end of the phone. And even though you wore quite a shiner for the next few weeks, you still flashed that amazing smile. Back then, nothing could take away that smile.

 

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All I could do was remind you that you always had to have your guard up in life, both literally and figuratively, because the world can be pretty damn cold at times.

These incidents were rough, but you moved forward. The final straw for you, though, came another three years later, in July 2010 when we were sitting at Mom’s cousin Vivian’s wake in Queens. She had died way too young, a cancer victim in her 40s, and you had told your bosses that you couldn’t work that night because you’d be at a relative’s wake. You had been working 12 to 18 hour days at that point, and surely these pompous young lawyers would cut you some slack to attend a family member’s wake.

But that was a pipe dream, and your blackberry started buzzing relentlessly in the middle of the wake. At first you ignored it, but the buzzing didn’t stop and so you had to look. They didn’t give a crap about the wake. You were the lead paralegal on the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy case, and they wanted you back in the office. Not early the following morning. Immediately.

When I walked out with you and hugged you before you got into the back seat of the car that they sent to the funeral home, I looked into your eyes and saw pain. Deep pain, unlike anything I had ever seen before. I told you to stay strong and that this would pass, but it was clear you didn’t believe it.

The cold lawyers had broken you. They had made it clear that they considered your life to be irrelevant, and as a result, you inferred both that your life was meaningless and that there was no longer any reason to have faith in the humanity of others.

I’m a businessman. I know that commerce needs to get done and that sometimes there are real deadlines that require extraordinary effort to meet them. But there are limits and times when common sense needs to prevail. Your bosses crossed the line.

Was it really necessary for these people to drag you out of a wake? Instead, why couldn’t they have said that they understood you couldn’t work that night but that they needed you to come in really early the next morning? How about showing a little kindness, a little empathy for your situation?

A couple weeks later, after you continued to work brutally long days and nights, I texted you asking if you were ok. Your response will haunt me for the rest of my life.

 

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I never knew that pain could pour out of texted words like that. I told you to go home immediately and get some sleep. A few days later, you simply walked out on the job without saying a word to anyone, and you never went back. Three months after that, you were gone.

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“I know you wanna leave me, but I refuse to let you go.

If I have to beg, plead for your sympathy,

I don’t mind, ‘cause you mean that much to me

Ain’t too proud to beg, and you know it…”

      -The Temptations, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”, 1966

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I certainly wasn’t too proud to beg when things looked dire toward the end. When your child’s life is on the line, you try every tactic you can think of to turn the tide.

Including begging.

I may not have gotten down on my knees, Jeff, but you remember damn well how I pleaded with you to wash those horrific suicidal thoughts from your mind. I laid out for you in great detail what the consequences would be if you acted on your thoughts – the destruction of our family, the deep emotional scars you’d leave on your brothers that would cripple them, and the fact that I’d have no choice but to immediately sell our house because we wouldn’t be able to bear living there without you and walking past your empty room every day.

The fact that none of these things came to pass doesn’t mean that I lied to you. It means that I underestimated the incredible inner strength that we possess as individuals and as a family unit. Even with that strength, we each carry deep emotional scars and burdens that we must cope with every minute of every day.

I have always believed in the power of random acts of kindness and empathy. Holding doors for people rather than barging in first, smiling at the person behind the counter at a store when you pay, sitting down with someone eating alone in a school cafetera, or whatever.

I will also always believe that you were deeply hurt by random acts of callousness like the ones described above.

I obviously can’t say with certainty that you’d be here today to celebrate your 32nd birthday if your lawyer bosses had displayed some common decency by asking you to come in early the next morning rather than demanding you leave Vivian’s wake that night.

But the tragic thing is that I can’t say with certainty that you wouldn’t be here either.

I saw the pain in your eyes that night, and if they had acted with empathy, this could have easily gone in a different direction.

And so I hope that bosses, teachers, coaches, the “cool” kids in schools who delight in ostracizing others (like the ones who did that to you at Greeley-they know who they are), and people everywhere think hard about how they treat people on a daily basis. Not everyone has thick skin, and for those like you who were more vulnerable, the consequences of being on the receiving end of callous treatment can be dire.

Happy 32nd birthday, my son. We will never stop celebrating the day that you arrived and took us on an incredible 23 1/2 year ride. And I hope you haven’t stopped celebrating and enjoying March Madness in Heaven, as it’s only a few weeks away. Villanova is a huge underdog this year, and maybe your brother’s school will pull off a great early round upset, the type that you lived for.

And I’m praying that for the past 8+ years, you have had the peace and tranquility that somehow escaped you in your last months on earth.

Love you forever,

Dad

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

17 Jun

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a bona fide tug of war.

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“Gazing at people, some hand in hand,

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

Some try to tell me thoughts they cannot defend,

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Jeff, do you trust me?”

He didn’t miss a beat:

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

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

”Ok, I will,” he answered.

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

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

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

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

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

Stand up and fight.”

Kenny Loggins, This Is It”, 1979

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

It’s time to fight.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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We had these suckers on the ropes now.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 “And she believes in me,

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

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

With my little songs, I was wrong,

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

         Kenny Rogers, “She Believes In Me”, 1979

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s time to put an end to this.”

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

 

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

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

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

And just like that, it was over.  

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Rich Klein

Eight Years Too Late

30 Apr

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

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

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

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

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

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Andrew Becker (Jeff’s oldest friend):

 

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

 

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

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

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

I know you were watching but still…

It was eight years too late.

— Rich Klein

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

2 Mar

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

But you did.

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

But you did.”

               –Harriet Schiff, “The Bereaved Parent”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is yet another way that I keep him close.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

People recover.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                         —Harriet Schiff

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

 

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His hilarious personality:

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Rich Klein

 

 

 

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

2 Nov

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

     –Barack Obama, February 12, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeff lives.

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

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

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

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

–Rich Klein