Rees’ Newest Piece…

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I am at a place now where I can mostly remember the happy times with Rees and smile in remembrance of him.  My morning routine of looking at his collage of pictures is met with less sadness and more smiles on a daily basis.  I can talk about Rees, openly, and fondly with others without tears welling up in my eyes anymore.  I smile thinking back to day he was born, and the utter joy I felt knowing I had a little boy to share the Father and Son relationship with.  The sadness I used to feel at the realization I will never have that with him is not as acute anymore.  The kindness that I hear about people performing in his name conjures images of him smiling above me and it puts me at ease.  I mostly now smile when thinking of him, a welcome change from the flood of tears his image in my mind used to elicit.  For the most part, my memories of him now bring forth comfort to me; save for one memory I would trade anything to rid my mind of, but seemingly cannot and never will.  That particular memory still has the same effect on me now as it did the day after he died, with the only difference being the diminishing frequency with which I see it.

I wish I could properly explain the feeling that I have when I see him in that place…  There exists no word in the English language that really fits.  The feeling begins in the back of my throat and radiates up to my brain and down to my stomach while at the same time pushing forward, almost like what would be a scream, only to escape my contorted mouth inaudible – save for a slight moan.  The pain hits the back of my eyes with such force it feels like it is going to flash outwards, like a gamma burst, that only my conscious squinting can stop from propagating.  My ears ring, my fists clench and my stomach tightens.  I feel my soul tremble, and I shake my head in a vain effort to erase the thought like a child erasing an etch-a-sketch drawing.  Then the sadness hits.  The realization he is gone, and never coming back, brings on an intense sorrow that places a pallor on everything I am and all that I love.  It is in these moments that I find the only thing that can lift the veil of sadness is my family: namely my wife and two beautiful daughters.  They lift me up, and restore me.  Their presence is a beacon that lights the darkness, welcoming me to the safe shores of their love.  They are my light, my life, my hopes and my dreams.

I am safe with my family, and there is no other place I would ever rather be than with them.  I know the feeling is reciprocated by them.  Since our loss is a shared one, we all find peace and safety with each other and I know it is just as comforting for them to know I feel their pain as it is for me;  knowing they share mine.  In the wake of losing Rees, we were all there for each other, helping put the pieces of our lives back together as best we can and soldiering on with life, trying to make the best of it within the constraints of our “new normal.”  There is a strange comfort in knowing that you don’t carry the burden of the loss alone and in many ways, it is something that binds us and ties us all together.  My whole family shares this burden because fate placed it upon us and we have no choice but to do so.  All of us that is except one:  Rees’ newest piece, the baby my wife is carrying inside of her right now…

8 weeks ago Samantha and I found out she was pregnant.  Almost immediately, the conditions of my “new normal” were apparent:  what should have been a joyous moment for me became one of immediate concern and worry.  What if she miscarries?  What if the baby has a defect?  What if there is a life threatening complication for Samantha?  What if the baby is has a knot in its umbilical cord and its wrapped around its neck, just like what happened with Rees, but this time fate does not spare him/her like it did Rees.  What if, what if, what if??  I never used to play the “what if” game before Rees died.  I always took things as they were and just expected life to work itself out.  Losing Rees made me realize that there are so many factors out of our control and it added a new dimension of fear to my life.

It is bad enough that I worry about my daughters more than ever now.  The news that Sam was pregnant instantly added another worry to my list… What if I lose this baby, just like I lost my little boy?  Can I handle that loss again?  I don’t think so.  Well, if there are things out of my control, I cannot guarantee that something bad does not happen.  For the past eight weeks I find that I am constantly playing down the moments that should elicit joy with concerns about what could go wrong.  In many ways I feel that this baby marks a chance for me to start another chapter in my life that I thought had closed forever with the loss of Rees, but the fear of this chapter ending the same way scares the hell out of me.

I am not used to being afraid.  I used to not really fear anything, save for spiders and lighting (but that is a whole different blog entry!).  Now I find myself fearing the things that, maybe, I should have feared all along. I miss the carefree Rich who felt that things would just work out for the best.  Worry, doubt, and fear are words I wish I could expunge from the lexicon of my life.  But today, when Sam sent me the pictures from her 13 week sonogram, I realized something important:  those three words did not replace my previous self’s lexicon, they were merely added to it.  The worry I felt leading up to this sonogram today was merely part of the new perspective I have in the wake of losing Rees.

When I saw those pictures today I gleamed a million megawatt smile that just filled me with pure joy.  Everything was where it was supposed to be.  Heartbeat? A perfect 146.  Two arms, two legs, perfect sized head and neck, etc.  After seeing that picture today I realized that my worry allowed for a greater happiness by comparison than I ever had seeing a sonogram of one of my children before.  Maybe I just needed to see it for myself.  I needed proof that things can go right too.  Life has so many ups and downs, and I used to think that I could just ignore the downs, and focus on the ups.  I now realize that by trying to ignore the bad times, I lost the very metric I needed to measure just how good the “ups” can be.  With the loss of Rees of my standard of comparison, life really has only one way to go now: up.

It is with this renewed optimism that I sit here tonight able to bask in the joy of new life.  While I know there are some images that I will never be able to purge from my mind, I know the birth of our baby will give me another ray of light to fight off that darkness.  The baby will have a perspective in our family that is totally unique: one forged not in the loss of Rees, but in the fact that they never will have had the chance to meet him.  I realize that this will present a set of challenges in its own right.  Regardless,  Rees will always be a part of our lives, and he will be for the baby too.  Baby may never get to meet  big brother Rees, but that doesn’t mean he/she will not get to know him.   I look forward to reading “A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness” to my future son/daughter so that they can get to know their big brother.  In knowing Rees, even in a small way, they will share a piece of something that ties our family together and keep a part of his spirit alive.  The baby is going to forge his/her own way into the world – and hopefully that world they are joining is just a little kinder than the one their big brother left.  With new life, comes new hope in a world renewed.  Tonight I am not sad, because thanks to you, I know the world our new baby will grow up in is growing ever kinder, one Rees’ piece at a time…     photo 1 photo 2

Order ReesSpecht Life Car Magnets!

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We are pleased to announce the arrival of our ReesSpecht Life 6″ x  6″ weatherproof car magnets!  Now you can let the world know you are one of Rees’ pieces :)  Below is a picture of the magnet on the back of our cars to give you a sense of scale:

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You can order your magnets right here on ReesSpechtLife.com!  Magnets sell invidually for $6.00 plus shipping, and orders of 2 or more are $5.00/magnet with FREE shipping.  International orders are subject to a small shipping fee added at checkout.  All proceeds from the sales of magnets go directly into our scholarship fund.  As always, thank you for your support!  We look forward to seeing Rees’ pieces out on the road!

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6" x 6" weatherproof car magnet.

We ask that you consider a minumum donation of $5.00/magnet to help us offset the cost of the magnets and shipping.  All proceeds go to the Richard Edwin-Ehmer Specht Memorial Scholarship fund.





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Worries.

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I am worried…  Now for those of you reading who know me personally, you know that those words are almost alien to me.  If there is one thing that served to define me for most of my life it would be the fact that I do not worry about pretty much anything.  Bills?  They will get paid.  Paperwork? It will get done.  My weight?  I will lose it.  Regardless of just about any situation that life throws at me, I generally approach it with the same attitude:  I will get done what needs to get done when it absolutely must be done, and if as long as it doesn’t kill me I will not worry about it.  Up until the past sixteen months, there are few other times in my life where I did not approach life with this attitude.

My father used to complain to me that I never seemed to have  a sense of urgency about anything; admonishing me for having two speeds – slow and stop.  My father was right, I very rarely had a sense of urgency about anything.  This is certainly true for me at work.  The amazing secretaries we have at school all know that if there is a deadline for paperwork or other related duties I will most assuredly meet it, and by meet it I mean literally.  Not a second before.  In fact, a running joke I have with one of our secretaries is that my paperwork is guaranteed “fresh”, as it always represents the most up to date and recent activity on my part.  Ever since I was thirteen, I really never sweated the small stuff – and that is for good reason.

I was granted the gift of perspective on my thirteenth birthday.  For weeks leading up that day I had begun to develop symptoms that progressively worsened day after day.  What started as slightly blurred vision and a stiff neck burgeoned into me going cross eyed and blind in one eye with an incapacitating headache that was almost more than I could handle.  The night of my thirteenth birthday my father realized something was seriously wrong with me and he took me to the hospital.  When I arrived at the hospital the Doctors feared the worst.  I remember being oblivious to my parent’s demeanor as the Doctor said something to them in hushed tones that I was not meant to hear.  Later on I found out that the first doctor informed my parents that I was displaying the classic symptoms of an aggressive brain tumor that only a CT scan could confirm.

To this day I can remember the pings and whirs that CT scanner made as it took pictures of my brain.  I remember wondering what was going on, frustrated at the unknown, yet not worried.  Whatever was going to happen was going to happen.  There was nothing I could do about it.  Honestly, the pain was so bad I almost welcomed death as a reprieve.   The CT scan revealed nothing  (my brain was there, though my wife still argues the veracity of that claim), no growths,  no tumors,  no cancer.  New suspects emerged such as meningitis, but my symptoms did not match the classic definitions of a meningeal infection.  It was then that the Neurologist I owe my eyesight and probably life to, told my parents that he thought it may be a rare disease called Pseudo Tumor Cerebri.  My symptoms matched, but my demographic did not.  This was a disease found more often in women than men, and very rarely in children.  It was more common in obese people, but at the time I was not terribly overweight.  Regardless, he wanted to test me and the only way to do it was a spinal tap to measure my cerebrospinal fluid pressure.

My pressure was literally off the charts.   Normal pressure for someone my age was between 7 and 14 cm of H2O .  My doctor did not expect the pressure I had as apparently my pressure was so high it exceeded the markings on the reservoir of the needle.  My brain was literally being crushed by the very fluid meant to protect and cushion it.  I do not remember that first lumbar puncture – but I distinctly remember the next one several days later.  I guess the pain was so bad on the first one that I just did not feel the spinal tap at all.  That was not the case with the second.  My screams were so loud I recall my mother leaving the room, sobbing as she walked down the hallway trying to escape her helplessness to mitigate my pain.  I never screamed for another spinal tap after that.  I think it was the shock more than anything else…

After seeing countless more specialists, and dozens of spinal taps later, the disease was finally kept in check and I slowly returned to “normal” life.  I missed half of my seventh grade year and apparently rumors spread throughout my school that I had died.  Ironically, quite the opposite happened.  My brush with death at that age gave my thirteen year old self a dose of perspective that most teenagers never get.  Realizing how close I came to losing, at the very least, my eyesight – and at worst my life granted me a realization that life is tenuous and requires attention to the important things.  It was through this experience that I really came to recognize how futile it is to worry about things out of my control and to just take life as it is and embrace the good in it.  From that moment of my life I refused to “sweat the small stuff” and the me that never worried about anything was born.

I would not trade that experience for anything.  Although it cost me the eyesight in my right eye, I was granted a deeper vision of what is important in life.  My worries went by the wayside and I basically just took everything in stride.  That way of thinking defined me right up until Rees died.  Things changed after Rees died.  I think my own personal brush with, and escape from, death actually gave me a sense of invulnerability that was totally shattered on October 27th, 2012.  Rees’ death was a reminder of just how fragile life is.  I could have been Rees 25 years ago, with my Mother experiencing the pain I now do.  Instead, I survived only to see my son die from a completely preventable accident.  Was I so nonchalant about death that I never stopped to make sure that my friend was watching him?  If I had more worry in my life would I have checked to make sure Craig was doing what I asked him to do?  Was I too relaxed with life that I believed no harm could come to my family just because I managed to beat death?  Was I not worried enough??

I honestly do not know the answer to that question.  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Regardless of that question, I can longer say that I do not worry.  Just as my brush with my own demise granted me one perspective on life, the loss of my son finds me faced with a new perspective grounded in the worry of experiencing even more loss.  I worry about my daughters all the time now.  I worry about my wife.  I worry.  Even things that should grant me happiness are now causes for worry:  I constantly worry that I will not succeed with ReesSpecht Life.  My worry makes me feel like I will allow Rees to die again if I cannot grow this movement into something that can meet my vision for it.  I want to provide scholarships for deserving students all over, not just in our local school.  I want people to be kinder to each other, if only a little bit, because my son’s spirit helped inspire them to.  I worry that the children’s book I wrote will not sell and that I will take it as a referendum on what people think about my little boy and what we are trying to do in his name.  I worry that I will not be able to continue to burn the candle at both ends and that either the foundation will suffer, or my students will.  I worry that I am giving too much time to ReesSpecht Life and not enough time to my wife or my little girls – even though they constantly assure me that I am not.  I worry about an unknown future where I have to make a decision between teaching or running the foundation full time.  I worry.

The very last words  I ever said to Samantha in front of Rees were “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”.  I wish I could take my own advice now.  I used to not sweat the small stuff, but now I find that I am obsessed with it.  There are so many hopes that I have for the future and my worry that they will not come to pass makes the little things I used to not sweat seem like insurmountable obstacles to success.  Every fundraiser we do, every post I make on facebook, I worry that people will just lose interest and move on.   Maybe before Rees died I did not worry enough, but now I find myself on the other side of the spectrum.  Hopefully, one day, I will find the balance.  Until that day comes I will continue to move forward as we have – trying to make this world a better place one Rees’ piece at a time.

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Doubt

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I miss my little boy.  The fact that I write that should come as no surprise to anyone, but my reason for writing that may…  You see there are times where I do not miss Rees.  - now before you stop reading and turn off your computer in disgust, bear with me. –  There are times where I forget that Rees is gone.  Times where my life is just as it ever was and my days are completely indiscernible from the days prior to his death.  These times are few and far between, yet I have noticed their duration apparently burgeons on a daily basis.  With each passing day I notice the constant pain that followed immediately after Rees’ passing seems to yield, ever so slightly, to a peace that no longer seems alien to me.  Unfortunately, that peace comes at a price…  All of the sudden, out of nowhere, I am reminded that Rees is gone and I feel that pain all over again and I find myself missing my little man.  It’s a pain that is indescribable and immeasurable.  Every time it happens, I lose my little boy all over again.  Every single time.

Nothing that I described is out of the ordinary for a parent that loses a child.  I know this pain will be a lifelong one, and I realize that what I am going through now is all a part of the grieving process, whose very job it is to ensure that I can go on functioning and be a productive member of society.  Even though I am aware of the process that grieving entails, I find it quite perplexing.  The whole process seems paradoxical in that its designed to heal you by taking things from you…  In the beginning of the process  you find yourself holding on to everything about your lost loved one’s life in a mad scramble reminiscent of someone trying to save a family heirloom from a fire.   Your brain overloads trying to process everything that person was in a vain hope to place it all in a safe location so that you may recall it at a later date.  As the days pass you start to wonder if you are already forgetting parts of their life with you as you face little moments where you accept the fact they are no longer here.  As time continues its inevitable march you stop worrying about holding onto those little things mostly because you start to fear you are forgetting the bigger picture.  Meanwhile, at the same time you find yourself going a greater amount of time without remembering or thinking about your loved one’s absence.  Before you know it, your life sets into a new routine in which that person is simply no longer a major part of your daily life, you accept it,  and  you enter what many call “The new normal”.

I hate the “New Normal”.  For me, it means that my life is in a place where I am supposed to be able to function as I used to, and for the most part I do.  The “new normal” is the place where your friends and family want you to be so that they no longer have to worry is he ok?  When the new normal is reached I think most people assume your life is back on track and you are ready to move forward and all is well.  The kid gloves come off and people expect that you are good to go.  This is really the hardest time in the entire process.  It is the time where the inner you wants to scream “NO!  I AM NOT OK!”, with the outer you belying any such notion.  It’s the time you find yourself crying for no reason in moments of solitude, and often times faking a smile to insulate those you care about from your pain.  I often refer to this phenonomenon as “the hidden me” – as almost no one knows that you are going through it at the time.  The end result of the “new normal” is that, in reality, a new YOU is made…

There definitely is a new me that came into existence on October 27th, 2012.  This new me is less brash, confident and social.  The new me has fears the old me would have laughed off as needless worries.  Recent events in my life which should elicit utter joy, have instead filled me a dread fueled by my knowledge that life can change in a nanosecond – and not everything can be fixed.  To my old self, the new me living in this “new normal” would appear to be a gross aberration of what I once was: broken and not quite “right”.  It’s like a shattered porcelain doll that once glued back together takes up the same physical space and form yet always feels broken due to all the cracks in its visage.  I often wonder how much my cracks are showing to those around me…

Not everything about the new me is a negative change however.  The events that transpired after Rees’ passing, both good and bad, placed me on the course I find myself on today.  I knew early on in this process that Samantha and I needed to do something positive lest we be consumed by our grief and despair.  I had the guidance of those who lost children before me to help steer my course and give me guidance.  I was aware of the challenges and keen to avoid the pitfalls.  It seems that, almost universally, parents who lose a child either transcend the loss with something positive or they fall into the abyss and never recover.  It is almost as if there is literally no middle ground in this situation.  The loss either allows you to magnify your virtues or your vices, never anything in-between.  I knew the course I had to follow and I believe that path was set by Rees.

I used to suffer from terrible night-terrors for years.  Night after night I would awaken from my sleep with an overwhelming fear of the presence of something “else” that was in the room watching me.  I never could place my finger on what it was, but in my stupefied state I seemed to have an awareness of it that faded when true consciousness returned to me.  Sam used to ask me what it was, and I never could explain it – almost like it was something that was just at the edge of my recollection.  Regardless of what the presence was (Sam used to joke it was the aliens from my homeworld that wanted me back), the feeling I got from it was always the same:  I did not succeed in what I was supposed to do and my time was nearing an end.  Often times I would awaken so startled from this experience I would jump out of bed and turn the lights on screaming unintelligibly back at “it”.  Sam would always calm me down and ease me back to sleep.  Of and on this happened for more than 10 years.

It all stopped a week after Rees died.  The last night terror I had was that night.  As I recall it started the same way, but this time there was a difference.  There was no nebulous presence, it was clear this time who it was: Rees.  He wasn’t my 22 month old Rees though, it was his spirit, his essence – his soul that was talking to me.  I remember seeing lights darting across my bedroom ceiling like electrical signals zipping across a circuit board.  I never saw Rees, I just “heard” him and saw these lights.  I remember reaching my hands up towards the ceiling at them, and I recall the message loud and clear:  ”You know your path now, you know what you have to do.”  The commotion woke Sam up and she grabbed my outstretched arms and put them down.  She started talking me down like she always did, but this time I was calm.  This time I was at peace.  I told her what I saw, and that what we had talked about in regards to ReesSpecht life was the path we needed to follow and Rees wanted us to.  She never questioned it and though I know those lights and his voice was not there in the room for her to see, it was for me.  I don’t care if my brain was making all of that up – it was real to me and it was an affirmation of what we were about to do.

I am not a religous man.  I was raised Catholic but I do not practice any religion at all anymore.  I admit that at one point in my life I was a devout Atheist.  I did not believe in anything greater than that which I could observe.  That all started to change after my father passed away (Read Goodbye to see why).  Whatever doubt I had about something greater than me has since vaporized in the wake of Rees’ passing.  Too many things have occurred that I can not write off as merely coincidence.  I believe that Rees was put here by a higher power to change our lives.  I truly, deeply believe it.  I don’t care if people think I am crazy for that thought.  I believe it, it’s what drives my wife and I to do what we do, and in the end  that is all that matters.

A couple of weeks ago we received a really horrible message from someone who accused me of trying to capitalize off of Rees’ death.  She admonished my wife and I for doing what we do merely for a little boy “Who toddled off and drowned”.  To her, our loss was nothing compared to the loss that others have gone through and we seemingly had no right to do what we were doing because we simply did not experience the magnitude of loss that she apparently thought we needed to start something like this.  To her, and anyone else who would question why we are doing this, my answer is simple:  We believe it is what we need to do.  I believe in ReesSpecht Life and the kindness it promotes without any sense of doubt whatsoever because I feel there is something higher telling me this is what I was meant to do.  I don’t have anything empirical that backs this up, but then again that is precisely what faith is all about.  I may have my doubts about whether or not we will achieve our goals, but that is healthy.  Doubt fuels the fire of success.  Without doubt there would be nothing to strive for, because all would guaranteed.  My new normal has me in a place where I am a changed man with doubt; the difference is that doubt is countered by a faith a I never had before.  I miss my little boy… but I thank him every night for the faith he gave me that we can make this a better world, one Rees’  Piece at a time.

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The New York Islanders Night with ReesSpecht Life!

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The New York Islanders and ReesSpecht Life are proud to announce

ReesSpecht Life Night with the Islanders!
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To Order Tickets online:  www.newyorkislanders.com/reesspecht

If you wish to order tickets by mail, you can click the “Ways to pay” image and print it.

Let’s Fill the Nassau Coliseum with Rees’ Pieces!!!  We look forward to seeing you there!

I thought he was with you…

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It has been a while since I have written anything, I think mostly because I really do not find myself with enough time lately.  ReesSpecht Life’s incredible growth in the past few months comes with the consequence of Sam and I having very little down time away from either our Daughters, our careers or the foundation.  I think most people assume that Sam and I have people working for us, helping us out with card orders and all the minutiae of running the foundation – but we don’t.  So far, the majority of ReesSpecht life’s day to day operations, is a two person show.  Combine those time commitments with the normal commitments of everyday life and you find yourself in a position where free time is a nice idea, but not reality.  Luckily, as teachers, we do have “built in” vacations that give us a breather from a large commitment of our time and the past few days finds me re-discovering that missing free time I used to have a lot more of.

It couldn’t come at a better time.  Yesterday was my daughter Abby’s 9th birthday.  When asked what she wanted to do, she requested a day of relaxation – a gift for both herself and us.  She requested that I finally sit with her to watch the final chapter of the Extended edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the two of us sat for over four hours, in our pj’s, watching the final act of Peter Jackson’s masterpiece.  It was awesome.  I cannot describe the feeling of sharing something you love with your child and knowing it is resonating with them in much the same way.  Our reactions to each scene seemed to mirror each other through every part, until the very ending.  It was at the end that our experiences diverged and what left Abby happy and content with the denouement found me sobbing and deeply hurt.

If you have never read the Lord of the Rings, or viewed the film, I cannot possibly sum it up in words that would do it justice without writing a small novel myself.  It is an epic that deals with good and evil and everything in between, yet its central theme is one of the power of true friendship; specifically the friendship between two Hobbits, Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins.  It is their friendship, and its ability to overcome every hardship that it faces, that ultimately allows Frodo to complete his task of scaling Mount Doom and destroying the “One Ring” and save all of Middle Earth.  When Frodo finds himself unable to finish his climb, it is Sam who picks him up, ignoring the danger surrounding him, and carries him without question.  Without this selfless act, and countless others by Sam, Frodo would never have been able to complete his task.  If not for the power of true friendship, Middle Earth would have been destroyed.  The metaphor is powerful: a true friend is one who drops everything, no matter the cost, to carry us up our own personal Mt. Doom, allowing us the opportunity to cast out the evil’s in our own lives.  Friendship is truly one of life’s greatest gifts.

I count myself blessed to say that I am gifted with many friends, both old and new.  Some friends I made in college, some from work and a couple, very special friends whom I met in elementary school.  My oldest friends remain a fixture in my life, though our lives find us in different places geographically.  Out of all these people whom I can call a true friend there was always one that stood out… was different, like a brother:  My friend Craig.  Craig was that friend who you could tell anything to, do anything with and just be yourself.  He shared my interests in the outdoors, video games and just about everything else.  Instead of being mirror images of each other, we were more like two complimentary pieces: I was the Yin to his Yang.  Craig had a free living side to him that always tested my cautious and cerebral approach.  He challenged me to break out and try new things that I would never contemplate on my own.  Conversely, I was a leveling influence on him, helping him to slow down and think more about his actions at times.  Craig was the friend who I could let myself go with, who challenged me to break some barriers I would never think of on my own.  He was a free spirit with a big heart and I can truly say I love him like a brother.

I met Craig back in first grade and we hit it off almost immediately.  There was rarely a weekend that went by from that early time through High School that we did not spend at each other’s house.  Craig became just as much a fixture in my home as I was in his.  We were family, and it never got old hanging out with him.  I recall fondly many a night wasted , well spent , playing games until the sun peaked up, eating chips, drinking soda and laughing (mostly at muted levels so as to not wake our parents) the whole time.  We talked about our future’s and fears, hopes and dreams.  Never in our discussions was there even the slightest expectation that we would not be a part of each other’s adult lives.  Whatever our futures were to hold, we knew that each other would be a part of them.

As we got older and life’s realities ebbed more and more into the forefront of our lives Craig’s and my paths started to diverge.  I went off to College and Craig enlisted in the Navy.  He didn’t last very long in the Navy, as its structured way of living just did not mesh with him at all.  As my life progressed over the years, his stagnated.  He did not hold jobs for too long and got involved with things he never should have.  Through it all, through all of his troubles, I always tried to be there for him.  To help him, to guide him.  To just be there for him.  I felt it my obligation to help him, even when his other friends gave up on him.  He was my brother, and I always tried to do everything I could for him, and when I could not help him solve his problems it tore me apart.  The problem solver in me wanted so badly to fix his problems for him, and often I could do nothing – but I never gave up trying.

Regardless of the issues Craig faced, our relationship changed very little.  Whenever we got together we were still those two boys just enjoying our adventures together.  Those adventures continued through the birth of my three children.  Craig’s arrival at my home was always greeted with raucous excitement.  ”Uncle Craig”, as my children called him, was the ultimate playmate.  I would always marvel at how well he got along with my children.  I know a great deal of their love for him was the fact he was in many ways just a big kid himself – a kid who would do anything to make them smile.

I always loved that my children loved Craig as much as I did; in many ways it gave extra relevance to my feelings for him.  Every time he showed up at our house my children’s eyes lit up.  This was no different on October 27th, 2012.  As I have written about in the past, Rees was in a bad mood that day.  It is the reason he did not go shopping with my wife. .. I told her to leave him with me so that she could have a little less chaos while out shopping.  When I made that suggestion I was not really thinking about the logistics of clearing my lawn furniture with a precocious 22 month old boy – it was only after she left that I realized I would not be able to keep my eyes on him while I was working.  I was in a bind now – the whole reason I was staying home was to do the furniture, but now with Rees in tow it would not be possible.  I contemplated doing the furniture while Rees napped, but I thought the better of it, fearing that something could happen and I would not hear…

Much to my delight, I received a phone call from Craig telling me he was getting out of work earlier than anticipated and that he was coming over early.  He had already volunteered to watch the kids that night and his reprieve from work meant I would have an extra pair of eyes to watch Rees.  When he arrived I asked him to watch Rees while I put away the lawn furniture.  Before I started moving furniture I remember seeing Craig and Rees at the pond feeding the fish.  Rees was so happy to be with his Uncle Craig – and I know Craig felt the same in kind.  When I did get outside to move the furniture I lost track of Rees and Craig as I focused on getting everything away before Sam returned home so that we could go out that night.  It took me about 40 minutes to an hour to finish, and it was at that time when I saw Rees in the driveway with Craig.  That is when I saw Rees playing with that damned toy.  That is when I yelled at my best friend for giving him an age inappropriate toy as well as a collectible.  It is the last interaction I ever had with my boy alive.  He cried because his Daddy took his toy away.  I still can’t get the notion out of my head that the last thing I ever did with my boy was make him cry.

After that I closed the garage doors, not knowing that my attempt to seal those doors sealed my little Rees’ fate.  Craig went inside and apparently left Rees in the driveway.  When I went inside and asked him where Rees was he uttered those six words I will always dread:  ”I thought he was with you.”  Those six words have a much deeper meaning that up until now I have not been able to share with anyone outside of my close friends and family.  Those six words sealed the fate of my friendship with Craig, but not in the way you might suspect.  I never blamed Craig for Rees’ death – I have always viewed it as a tragic accident.  However, while I don’t hold blame over  him, the fact still remains that I asked him to watch Rees and he failed to do so.  He admitted as much to me that night when I returned from the hospital.  He blamed himself over and over again, lamenting his decision to go inside my house and put the truck away and go to the bathroom.  He made a mistake and left Rees alone.  When I asked him where Rees was he said he thought he was with me…  he thought he was with me.  It was not something he did on purpose.  He thought he left him with me.  He made a mistake.  A mistake that was fatal to my little boy.

I embraced Craig that night.  I would not let him leave my home.  I feared for him.  I knew his history and was afraid he would do something he would regret.  I sat with him on our large loveseat and I embraced him.  I told him it was an accident.  I was determined to help him through this like I had helped him so many times before.  He was worried about what the police would do.  We both, separately, spoke with several police officers and detectives who recorded the stories of both  Craig and I.  The policemen all assured me that it was clear that what happened to Rees was nothing more than a tragic accident and their report would reflect that.  Both Craig’s and my versions of what happened were the same, and no foul play was suspected.   Additionally, they informed me that a member of Child Protective Services would come to my home the next day to follow up, but that I had “nothing to fear, it is just a formality”, and that would be that.  Craig needed to be present when CPS arrived so that they could also get both sides of the story.  While I was talking to him I could easily see that he was scared and I tried to reassure him that everything would be ok.  We talked for a little while, we cried and I kissed him on the head.  I promised him that we would get through this.  I know he believed it because he fell asleep and slept through until the next morning..

I remember the following morning waking up and roaming my home as if in a drunken stupor.  I was in shock.  I walked by Rees’ crib to get him at one point only to find the blankets ruffled in the same configuration from the previous day, empty and lifeless – destined to remain that way in perpetuity.  I recall grabbing his Mickey Mouse and holding it as if it were him, hoping that the nightmare would end and Mickey’s facade would shed off and reveal my little boy underneath.  I carried out the very basic of life functions, mindlessly making a coffee and grabbing a bite to eat.  My mind was all at once racing and completely shut down – a paradox that only someone who has been in this position can understand.

“This is the first sunrise without him”, I thought to myself.  I had just witnessed the dawning of a new day, the first of the rest of my new days that would never, ever include my beautiful little boy.  It was the first time I realized that my life was never going to be the same again, and that a giant void now occupied the place in my soul reserved for Reesie.  I was overwhelmed with despair and found it hard to breathe.  I got up from my kitchen table and headed back upstairs, pausing to see Craig sleeping on the couch, twitching every once in a while – his face contorting and moans escaping the gaps in his lips, his body contorted into the fetal position.  I knew what he was seeing.  My poor friend, who witnessed the very worst thing that could possibly happen to me, was reliving that terrible moment in his dreams.  I grabbed his hand and told him it would be ok and I walked upstairs to rejoin my family who were all still huddled in our bed.  What I saw when looking at my family was a stark contrast to Craig.  My three ladies were all asleep and they looked peaceful.  Part of me didn’t want them to wake, as I knew the moment I did they would join me in the nightmare that was our new reality.

The rest of that day was a blur with one glaring exception:  The CPS worker did come to my home to interview Craig and I.  I remember the interview all to well.  I just wanted it to end, as the verbal recounting of the tragedy seemed to exponentially magnify my grief.  The CPS caseworker seemed aware of this and he hastened his questions, thanked me for doing what was nigh impossible to do and he went on his way.  He spoke with some members of my family and informed them that another agent would come by “in a couple of weeks” to check up on us and see how we were doing.  He told my family that there was nothing to fear, that this was clearly just a tragic accident and nothing more.

In the weeks that followed, life started to slowly return to the “New Normal” that my family and I were supposed to get back to.  I continued to talk to Craig, we got together a few times and even took the girls to go see Santa together.  The pieces of both of our shattered lives were slowly coming back together and I was happy that we did not let this tragedy tear us apart.  It was also during this time that Samantha and I were visited by that second CPS caseworker.  We were told to expect his arrival to check up on us and see how we were doing, and honestly we did not think twice about it.  I recall that the sight of him at my door immediately vaporized our expectation that this was a mere “checking up” visit replacing it with a more ominous feeling.  Whereas the first agent elicited a feeling of calm and empathy, this new agent was anything but. Something about this new agent immediately put Samantha and I off.  Whereas the first CPS worker came across as sincere and trustworthy, this person outwardly seemed the antithesis.  At the time, I could not put my finger on it, but I had the gnawing feeling that this was the beginning of something bad.  Disregarding my intuition, we graciously allowed him into our home.

Almost immediately it became clear that this was not merely the “checking up on you” visit we were promised.  Sam and I gave each other quizzical looks as this new CPS worker asked us all of the same questions the first agent did.  He then asked to see the pond, stating he wanted to take a picture of it – and seemed aggrivated by the fact it was already filled in and removed from our world.  He then asked to take pictures of Rees’ room as well as the girl’s bedrooms.  It was at this point I really started to feel intimidated and I asked him why he was doing this, and I got the answer I have come to learn to despise:  “It’s just standard procedure.”

We then returned to our kitchen table and CPS worker explained to us how the process works.  He pointed out that all accidental deaths of children in New York State warrant an investigation by CPS.  He then went on to point out that their investigations can lead to 1 of 3 findings:  1) A charge of child abuse would be “Unfounded”, meaning there was no evidence of negligence or abuse.  CPS’ involvement would end there and I could effectively go on my not so merry way.  2) A charge of “Founded”, meaning there was clear evidence of abuse and negligence and I would be placed on the New York State Child Abuse Registry and could potentially have my children taken away.  3) A charge of “Indicated” , meaning there exists some evidence OR HERESAY, that POTENTIALLY indicates me in the negligence or abuse of Rees.  What he left out and what I found out later is that I would also be placed on the New York State Child Abuse Registry, but they would not take my children away.  He then went on to explain that a charge of founded was unlikely, but that I could be Indicated.  I remember Sam looking at me with real fear in her eyes;  my pursed lip and shaking head reflecting my naive belief back to her that there was no way anyone could come to any other conclusion than “Unfounded”.  As he was leaving, he told me to expect one more visit and that if I had any questions I could call him, or his supervisor.  We both walked him to the door and I escorted him out and Sam immediately asked me if we should be worried.  I replied “No way, there isn’t a person on Earth that would find what happened to Rees to be anything other than an accident”.  I hugged her tight, put the card away in a kitchen drawer and honestly did not think about CPS again until the beginning of December.

The beginning of December is when things really started to unravel. The worker returned for a second time, the third overall visit from CPS.  He again asked us some of the same questions, but this time he had several new ones, most of them involving Craig.  He asked me a lot of personal questions about Craig.  He asked me to state that I had specifically asked Craig to watch Rees while I put away the furniture.  He then asked me if Craig had any history with drugs or alcohol.  He asked me if I ever had any suspicion that Craig was under the influence of any drugs or alcohol the day Rees died and I answered honestly: ABSOLUTELY 100% no way.  He then asked how would I know if he was using or not?  I replied that since I was Craig’s closest, lifelong,  friend, that I was WELL aware of any signs that he was impaired in any way – and I was sure he wasn’t.  The CPS worker then dropped that line of questioning and seemed satisfied with my answer.  At this point I really felt like I was being interrogated.  He asked me again where I was when I saw Rees for the last time.  He asked me if I recalled seeing Craig go into the house – my answer being no, because I had already closed the Garage doors with both Rees and Craig still in the driveway.  He then stopped his questioning of me, and dropped a bomb on me that I will never forget: he told me his report would most likely end up with me being “Indicated in the negligent abuse of Rees”, but that he had yet to speak with Craig, apparently having tried unsuccessfully for the past week to contact him.  His report was waiting on Craig’s side of the story.

After the caseworker left I immediately called Craig.  I told him what was happening to me and that he needed to get in touch with the caseworker ASAP and tell him his side of the story.  I told Craig that they were looking to “Indicate” me and he needed to make sure that he talked to the agent to clear things up.  Craig assured me that he would talk to him and he held true to his word.  Once  I had confirmation that Craig had spoken with him I was sure everything would be ok.  In my mind, all they needed to hear was that Craig’s recollection of events was the same as mine.  I thought everything would be ok.  I thought wrong.

About two weeks after that I got a notice from CPS that I was indeed “Indicated” in the negligent abuse of Rees through a failure to supervise.  Furthermore, their findings stated that I “represented a potential threat to other children” and I would be placed on the New York State Child Abuse registry.  The letter went on to tell me that this finding would prevent me from gaining a license to work with children or adopt them.  The letter went on further stating that I could formally question their findings and request an amendment to their findings with a letter to the New York State Department of Family Services and if that were denied I was entitled to a “Fair Hearing” (held at CPS’ offices with an administrative law judge).  My head was spinning.  I was a teacher.  My first thought was I can lose my teaching license,  my career.  I immediately called a lawyer.

When I met with the lawyer he went over all the facts of the case and asked me a question I will never forget “How good of a friend is your friend, Craig?”.  ”The best” , I told him, “I would walk through fire for him and he would do the same for me, why?”.  My lawyer went on to explain to me that it was simple:  Craig needed to state specifically to CPS that I asked him to watch Rees.  If he did that then the findings against me would be dropped.  I immediately then asked my lawyer if that would implicate Craig for the same thing I was now being charged with and he explained to me that it would not because CPS has to make their report with 90 days of the incident.  In other words, if Craig were to confirm that I asked him to watch Rees their case would be null and we could go on with our lives.  I remember feeling elated at the news.  I couldn’t wait to call Craig and tell him so I could get these ridiculous charges against me thrown out.

I called Craig as soon as I got home.  I explained the situation to him.  I told him exactly what the lawyer said and he told me that he was afraid they would come after him.  I explained to him about the 90 day rule and that it would have no effect on him.  I told him that this was his moment to walk through fire for me after all the times I did it for him.  He said ok, and I went to sleep that night thinking that all would be ok.  I was wrong again.  The next morning I got a phone call from my sister who said that Craig called her and told her he couldn’t do it… that he could not fall on the sword for me.  She told me to call him right away.  It hit me like a truck.  I recall almost being at school when I spoke to my sister and my heart was racing.  I immediately called Craig and asked him about what he spoke to my sister, of all people, about.  His words were cold and distant and he repeated them over and over – like they were rehearsed:  ” I can’t tell CPS that you asked me to watch Rees.  You asked me to babysit that night, that is all I was there to do.”  He repeated that statement several times, over and over again like a robot.

I lost it.  Every pent up emotion that was in my soul from the loss of Rees was unleashed on him.  I cannot describe the fury I felt at that moment save to say it was nuclear in magnitude.  Regretfully, I berated him and insulted him, my rage overriding any attempt at logical discourse.  I blamed him for Rees’ death.  I told him it was his fault, even though I didn’t believe it.  I wanted to hurt him like he had hurt me.  Looking back, I wish I had taken a deep breath and just hung up.  I regret every word I said to him, warranted or not.  My only excuse was the raw emotion I felt and the inability to contain it properly.  Much like my interaction with my little boy found me raising my voice in anger, my last conversation with my best friend ended the same way.

And it is there that I find myself today.  My written request for CPS to ammend their findings was denied, and I had to go the “Fair Hearing” without Craig.  The lawyer for CPS read Craig’s statement that was taken by the second CPS agent and it mirrored the phrase he kept repeating to me that awful morning.  I remember sitting in the hearing, hoping beyond hope that Craig would come through the door and do what was right and set the record straight.  He never came.  I was alone fighting for my career and my name.  Our friendship survived the loss of my little boy, but died when forces bigger than us demanded their pound of flesh.   I will never, ever be able to fathom why he refused to testify that I asked him to watch Rees.  The man who I walked through fire for countless times, refused to do the same for me.  Maybe it is his guilt in having to accept any responsibility, not blame,  in Rees’ death.  Maybe it is something else.  I have said, and always will say that what happened to Rees was a tragic accident.  I don’t know why Craig thought Rees was with me, but he did.  I cannot explain why he chose not to defend me, but my guess is that he did not want to incriminate himself; maybe to protect himself from any other actions.

Craig did not leave Rees alone on purpose.  It was an accident – a tragic accident whose collateral damage destroyed a friendship I held so dear.  It is for that reason I wept yesterday while watching that scene with my daughter.  Sadly,  when it was my turn to climb Mount Doom I was not carried by my friend, I was left alone.  I miss my best friend.  I miss my little boy.  I cannot change the past, no matter how much I wish I could.  What I can do is move forward and I choose to do so positively.  I will continue to pay forward the acts of kindness we received in the wake of the loss of Rees.  My career is no longer in jeopardy and I can adopt if I wish.  My name will not go on that registry.  Regardless of what happened, my friend Craig will always be one of Rees’ pieces.  I saw the joy in my little boy’s eyes when my friend was with him, and I sincerely thank him for all of those smiles.  Maybe one day I can sit down and talk with Craig about all of this – I would like that.  Maybe he will be on the receiving end of a ReesSpecht Life card.  He never did come through that door that day, but I want him to know that door is always open…

 

 

 

 

 

Ozymandias

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I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

-Percy Shelley (1818)

 

If there is anything that those of you who read our blog or follow our facebook page have hopefully noticed is that I am a positive person.  My positivity remains a defining characteristic, despite the events that took my little boy from our world.  It is certainly more difficult to remain positive under such circumstances, and nearly impossible to do it alone.  Thankfully, my family and I never found ourselves in a position where solitude was forced upon us.  It was the kindness of others that lifted us out of our despair and restored us.  The generous acts of people both familiar and strange helped bridge the gap between hope and despair.  It was these acts, both big and small, that opened my eyes to the power of human kindness and its ability to lift the spirit from deepest depths.  It was these acts, not the tragedy itself, not the tragedy of losing Rees, that lead to the creation of ReesSpecht Life.

ReesSpecht Life started with Bill Kelly of Kelly Brother’s Landscaping standing at my door asking if there was anything he could do to help… and help he did.  Not only did the Kelly Brothers take our drab yard and beautify it in a way I could never have on my own, they removed the one reminder of that awful moment.  They would not take any money.  They would not allow me to put up a sign advertising their work.  They did it because they could and that is the essence of kindness.

ReesSpecht Life started with a colleague named Michelle who came over the next morning with a lasagna.  She never saw me, but I heard her.  I knew she was there, I just could not face anyone at the time.  She did it because she could and she knew it would help feed us when we were unable to do so ourselves.

ReesSpecht Life started with my family who found a way to travel around a superstorm to be at my side when I needed them the most.  They did it because they could and they knew I needed their love.

ReesSpecht Life started when my Aunt Barbara, who lost so much in her life including her own young son and her husband, showed up at my side to hold my hand and tell me that it will get better, but maintained a necessary honesty with me about how it would impact my life.  My Aunt did that because she could and she knew what I was going through.

ReesSpecht Life literally started when my friend Brian from work heard me speak at Rees’ memorial and was inspired by my words and apparent “strength”.  Brian gave me the idea (and the name) for a foundation based on a play on Rees’ name and the words I spoke that night.  Brian said that to me because he could and he knew it would give me something to work for in my son’s memory.

ReesSpecht Life started when my High School Choral teacher, Mrs. Linda Contino, came to sing at Rees’ memorial.  A woman with whom I held in the deepest respect and admiration took the time to do what she knew would help heal my soul, even though I had not seen her in almost 20 years.  She did this because she could and she knew her music would lift our souls closer to Rees at that moment.

ReesSpecht Life started when countless numbers of my former students, friends, colleagues and even strangers braved power outages and gas shortages to flood the funeral home and block traffic on route 25a to honor Rees.  They all did this because they could and they knew their presence would remind us of how much they care.

ReesSpecht Life started the night I awoke with yet another night terror (I suffered from them for years) about nebulous creatures coming to take me because I did not do what I was supposed to do…  yet this one was different: This night terror had me reaching at the ceiling above me for Rees’ spirit who told me that I knew what had to be done and to get started.  I have not had a night terror since that night.  I believe that Rees’ spirit reached out to me because he could and he knew what I supposed to do all along…

All of these things, and really so much more, are what started ReesSpecht Life.  ReesSpecht life was not born out of the tragedy of child loss, it was born out of the spirit of human goodness and kindness.  All I want to do is spread that kindness.  I am obsessed with it.  It literally occupies my thoughts nearly every moment I am awake.  The “pay it forward” cards are a direct result of this obsession and it feeds directly into my scientific mind as it represents something that I quantify.  40,000 cards – each representing a potential act of kindness…  that just blows my mind.  Every act of kindness from those cards can trace its genesis to those acts that started this in the first place.  When I get down at night, I think to those cards, and the people they have touched and I smile.  I smile because I know that the spirit of my little boy has touched these people and their lives were made better, however slightly, by the fact his spirit endures.

Nighttime is the hardest for me.  It is when I find myself alone with my thoughts and invariably memories of Rees pop into my head.  Sometimes I smile and other times I cry most times I do both.   Regardless, nearly every night finds me in the same place: sad at the loss of my little man and happy at all the kindness spreading in his name.  It is in those times that I begin to fear that one day the movement, like all things, will fade away and die and it will all be for naught.  It is in those times that I tell myself that I need to live in the present and be happy for what we have done and just hope that we can continue to do more.  Almost every night ends like that for me, except for last night.

Just before I went to bed last night the illustrator for our children’s book, the amazing Adam Smith, sent me over 15 of the completed illustrated pages of the book.  When I opened the book and saw the finished product I was awestruck.  Adam managed to capture the images I had in my head and place them on the pages I was looking at.  More importantly, he captured Rees’ spirit in his illustrations in a way that made him feel alive to me.  My story, written from the heart and staring Rees, came to brilliant life and I cried the happiest tears of my life.  In front of me was the legacy of everything I was trying to accomplish with ReesSpecht Life.  I was witnessing the spirit of Rees and his message of kindness come to life in front of my eyes.  It was in that moment that I realized that one day all of the “Likes” on facebook would be no more, entropy will tear apart every ReesSpecht life card and the money from all of the scholarships will eventually be spent.  All of those things will eventually disappear, but the book and it’s art will live on long after.  It was in that moment that I realized that my dual goal of establishing my son’s legacy and spreading kindness in his name will go on long after I am gone.

I am not sure where things will go with this movement.  Do I wish we had more likes on facebook?  Sure.  I am only human and the validation those likes provide does help fuel my fire to do more.  Until last night I found myself too obsessed with that number.  After witnessing what I saw last night in that book I realized the folly of thinking that way.  Like Ozymandias, one day all of this will all be gone, but through this book Rees’ legacy will go on.  I really cannot wait to share this story with the world and I hope in turn that the world is as touched by it as I am.  I am a positive person, and I know that regardless of whatever happens, Rees’ legacy will live on because I have witnessed the power of kindness and its ability to lift us all up.  Seeing that book last night convinced me that this movement is already a success, regardless of how many people like us on facebook [though a few hundred thousand facebook likes would really help ;)]  or view our website.  Love is truly eternal, I know it is because my little boy lets me know every single day, one little piece at a time…

Enjoy a preview of the dedication of the book:

dedication

 

 

 

ReesSpecht Life Scholarship Update

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We really do wish to make a difference in this world in Rees’ name.  The 40,000 ReesSpecht life Cards that are circulating around the globe are certainly helping us achieve that goal, but that is really only a small part of what we are all about.  Our real goal is to get ReesSpecht Life Scholarships into as many High Schools as we can.  Last May, we awarded our first two Scholarships and we thought it would be nice to check in with the recipients and see what they are up to:  Over the next two nights we will showcase each of our award winners and share with you what they are doing thanks to the help of a little Rees Specht…

adamMy name is Adam Hammer. I am a freshman at the Crane School of Music at SUNY Potsdam. I’m majoring in Music Education (on trombone) and Music Theory. It’s an honor to be a recipient of the ReesSpecht Life scholarship. Without this scholarship, I would not have been able to attend Crane. It has been tough, financially, for my family since my dad passed away. Although I don’t know the pain of losing a child, I do know how it feels to lose a loved one. I think it is amazing that the Spechts have turned this tragedy into a way of giving back to others. It honors Rees’ memory and continues his legacy. Although I’ve had pain in my life, I have done my best to have a positive outlook and to make my father proud. I’m proud to be one of Rees’ Pieces. I do my best to perform a random act of kindness everyday and encourage people around me to do the same.

 

The winners of our scholarships are chosen based on their commitment to their community, compassion and respect for others.  We sorted through hundreds of applications for the scholarships and were amazed at what Adam, and his co-recipient Rebecca, had done for their communities during their time in High School.  It warms our heart to know that Adam is able to achieve his goal of attending the Crane School of Music because of the help of our movement.  It is our sincere hope that Adam and Rebecca are the first of many, many students who can count Rees as a guardian angel who helped them achieve their dreams.

 

 

Paintings

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It is often stated that a picture is worth one thousand words.  While I am not sure if the actual word count necessary to describe a picture is actually quantifiable, I suspect the number 1000 is used merely as a point of reference for comparison.  In comparison to literary descriptions, pictures give the viewer an irrefutable snapshot of a place in time that, unlike words, is tangible and real.  Words on a page cause our imaginations to generate our own, unique, images of the scene described.  The pictures our minds paint may be intricate and beautiful, but they are merely interpretations based on our own personal experiences and are not real.

Pictures, on the other hand, leave little to the imagination – bombarding us with visual facts that our brain doesn’t have to decipher as much as it has to store.   In a very real sense,  pictures perfectly capture time and save it in perpetuity – immutable and unchanging.  Instead of yielding our memories to the inevitable entropy of time,  each picture we make is a tiny victory against its unstoppable passage and the inevitable yielding of our memories to its eraser.  Where words may fail us in trying describe what the eyes see, a picture tells a truth that never changes.

We have many, many pictures of Rees. 100_6777 We have pictures of him that represent nearly every facet of his short life.  In some ways, I feel like we have so many pictures that it would be possible to string them together and splice them with the videos we have and make a moving picture show of his life that would recall all of his important milestones as well as those quiet, “just because”  moments.  Every picture we have of Rees is something I find myself looking over again and again in order to remind myself of what it was like to have him in our life.

Memories fade.  Sam and I talk about how we are forced to stop and remind ourselves of what it was like to have Rees be a part of our world physically.  I forget what it was like to have him sit next to me in his high chair at dinner time. img_0204 I struggle to remember what it was like to hear his infectious giggles every morning and his laughter at night.

I have trouble recalling his intonation of his favorite word: “Tractor!”.

 It feels like  the march of time is washing away the memories of him like the ebbing tide removes our footprints on a beach – and I am as powerless to stop this memory loss as I am to stop the flow of the tides themselves.

 Thankfully, we have those photos and videos to remind us of those fading memories.  When I find myself forgetting what it was like to see his smile I can turn to his pictures and refresh that fading memory.

img_1060  When the sound of his voice stops reverberating through my mind I can watch a video and hear him again.  All of those pictures remind me of what he was.  All of those pictures keep his memory alive.  All of those pictures bring me pain…

Every photograph that we have of Rees shares one thing in common: they are finite, a closed book.  There will never be another photo of him playing. 100_6573 There will never be another photo of his smile.img_0642

The photos we have remind us that all of what Rees was lies in the past.  The photos of Rees tell a story that ends on October 27th, 2012.  I love those photos of Rees.  I hate those photos of Rees.

Photos capture time and save it exactly as it is.  Photos never change.  Photos are the pictures that only tell the side of the story that takes place before the present.  Photos are not the only pictures we have of Rees.

A couple of weeks ago we were presented with a gift that reminded me that Rees is still with us and his spirit endures.  The picture was the first new one of Rees since his passing:rees

I think in our modern world we just assume that pictures mean photographs.  I thought I had every picture I would ever own of Rees.  I thought his story was complete and those finite images were the proof.  I was wrong.  The  portrait of Rees that was commissioned by a Rees’ piece we never met told us that Rees is still here.  He is making an impact in people’s lives and he is present.  When I look upon this portrait I see my little boy.  I see his spirit, I feel his presence.  There would be no reason for someone to paint a portrait of Rees unless they felt the same thing.  A person who never met my little boy – who never met any of us until she presented us with this amazing gift.  When I am down I gaze upon this picture and I only smile.  There are no tears.  There are no sad memories… there is only one thing: Hope.

I know Rees is “out there” somewhere.  I can see what he is doing from afar.  40,000 “Pay it forward” cards bestowing an equal number of acts of kindness are all the proof I need to see it.  Little Red points dotting the interactive globe on our website show that Rees’ spirit has literally reached across the globe to 21 different nations.  If you share our story with others, don’t tell them about our tragedy – tell them about our triumph.  Death is not the end.  The power of human kindness continues to prove to me over and over that the human spirit is something greater than I can quantify.  Our pictures tell us that Rees is no longer with us, but his portrait proves his spirit is.  I love you little man, I know you can hear me.  I know you are out there.  I don’t have to look far to find you, because I can see you in every Rees’ piece you touch.

What if?

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IMG_0670I often hear from people who have heard our story the following words: “I cannot imagine what you are going through.”  I understand where that statement comes from: Losing a child is every parent’s worst nightmare.  This fear is shared by every parent from the moment their first bundle of joy enters the world.   I acutely recall the conflicting feelings of ultimate joy and nebulous fear when my first daughter, Abigail, was born. – Actually I think those feelings actually started from the moment we found out my wife was pregnant!  Regardless of when those feelings started, every parent is intimately aware of their presence – and time does nothing to abate them.  Even though I am 38, I know my Mother worries just as much about me now as she did the day I was born.  Being a parent presents the opportunity for unmatched reward at a significant cost:  A lifetime with your children brings great joy nearly every moment of our lives, yet at the same time provides a continuous source of worry.

These worries manifest almost immediately:  Will he/she meet the milestones they are supposed to reach?  Will they do well in school?  Will they find a significant other?  Will they find a meaningful career? – all of these questions, and more, are the questions we as parents openly ask ourselves and each other.  I often hear parents at  any gathering of children posing these questions to each other, attempting to ascertain whether or not their child is doing well in relation to the other children.  If you have ever spent time at a gathering of parents, especially parents of young children, you find that almost no topic regarding their child is off limits – even topics that in normal conversation would be considered taboo or socially inappropriate.  conversations about fecal color/consistency are just as common as political discussions.  It appears that most parents do not have a problem sharing both their hopes and fears regarding their children with each other save for one, ultimate fear: the potential of losing their child.

The fact that we can lose our children is a gnawing fear that permeates nearly every facet of being a parent, yet it is almost never mentioned among parents and rarely even acknowledged to the self.  Much like Voldemort from the Harry Potter series of books, the fear of losing a child  is omnipresent yet “must not be spoken of”, perhaps out of an additional fear that mentioning it could potentially awaken the fates and place their gaze upon you and your most precious of belongings.  No one wishes to “Tempt Fate”, and as such we keep this fear locked away from its prying eye.  Thankfully, for most us, we never have to face that fear head on.  Statistically speaking, most of us in the modern world, will never face the specter of losing a child – yet we nevertheless fear it constantly.

Statistics do very little to comfort those unfortunate enough to have lost a child.  For those who have lost the most precious thing their world, there is almost nothing that can be done, or said,  that will take away  or even mitigate the pain.  Knowing that the pain is untenable for the suffering parent may cause some to stay away, figuring there is nothing they can do to stop the pain.  The people who fall into this category seem be people with whom you were friendly but perhaps not “friends”.  I have mentioned before that there are still people in my workplace who look down and away when I come down the hallway, when they used to look up and greet me.  I don’t blame them, or judge them…  I think they do it because the very site of me, and what I am going through,  is a reminder that unimaginable can happen – and seeing someone they know go through it hits too close to home.  I believe in their eye’s it is easier to avoid the fear than face it, so they look away, hoping I wont engage them and confirm the reality they dread .    Still, for the vast majority, most will go out of their way to try and help – regardless of how uncomfortable or reality affirming the situation may be.   It is in the conversations I have with these people that the universal refrain is “I cannot imagine what you are going through”…

The real  truth is that everyone who states they have no idea what we are going through is incorrect.  In fact, every parent knows exactly what it feels like to lose a child:  it’s the manifestation of the fear that is always there that we never want to acknowledge.  The feeling every parent has had when a child trips and falls, bangs their head, wanders off out of site – all of these moments illicit the fear of “What if?”.  What if I had not broken their fall?  What if I turned my head for a second longer?  What if they walked out of our view in a crowded place?  What if?…  Every time we as parents face these “What if?” moments, and walk away untouched, we thank good fortune, or God.  We breath a sigh of relief and catch our breath and we regain our relative peace and comfort knowing everything is ok.  In these times we tuck away the “What if?” back into the recesses of our brain where it cannot come out and hurt us or taint the good times ahead.

For a parent who has lost a child the fleeting fear that lived in the backs of our minds as a “What if?”  becomes real.  Like Voldemort,  ”he who must not be named”  attains its corporeal form and becomes an ever present facet of life, haunting you and causing immeasurable pain. This pain permeates every aspect of your life.  Interests that once brought joy are rendered inert.  Activities you used to count on to alleviate the tedium of life now only serve as agents that promote it.  Everything changes, and you are forced to accept a “new normal” that places an asterisk on your life that you cannot shake, ever.   The realization that life will never be the same makes things even worse, as you begin to think that you will never really enjoy life again.  ”What if?” becomes reality, and the reality is something you never, ever want to wake up into again.

My wife and I live the “What if?” nightmare every day.  I wake up every morning to a collage of pictures that will never be added to – a reminder of happier times that also serves to reinforce the permanence of his absence.  In our case the “What if?” morphed from a fear to a longing for what could have been.  Instead of fearing about losing Rees, we lament what could have been.  In my case, my “what if(s)?” are now a recurring cycle of thoughts about what I could have done differently on that October day.  What if I hadn’t played one more video game that afternoon during his nap? –  I could have done the furniture while he was sleeping.  Ironically, it was a “What if?” that stopped me from doing that, as I distinctly remember thinking what if he gets hurt while I am outside not able to hear him?  What if I just closed those garage doors and joined my friend and Rees?  What if I didn’t yell at Craig for giving Rees that toy truck that wasn’t age appropriate?  What if? What if?  What if?…

What if is a double edged sword:  It can drive me mad as my mind computes the permutations of what I could have done differently that day, but it also caused me to aspire to do something audacious.  What if we take the worst thing that can happen to a parent and turn it around?  What if we counter a great negative with an equally strong positive?  For a scientist, the words “what if” are what lead us to the answers of tomorrow.  I no longer worry about what if I did this or did that…  My what if’s are now solely based on what I hope to do with the foundation we started in Rees’ name.  What if we raise enough money to get truly meaningful scholarships in schools that reward students not for athletic prowess or academic acumen, but rather for simply being a good person in their community?  What if we start so many acts of kindness that people begin to think of others first, before themselves? What if I fail at my goal and Rees Specht life does not take off?  What if one day children everywhere are as familiar with Rees Specht Cultivating kindness as they are the Wiggles making fruit salad?    What if people grow tired of our message and move on to the next big thing?  -  There certainly is the possibility for any of those “What if’s?”- yet the beauty of “What if”, is that I can still dream of those possibilities becoming reality.  If that happens I wont look back at the end of my days saying “What if?” –  I will look back and smile knowing that we helped make this a better world, one little Rees’ piece at a time…

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