Here is the Speech I gave at my Middle School’s 8th grade “Moving Up” ceremony. It is all about perspective – and how easy it is to change it.
I cannot keep count of the number of times that people have approached me, or my wife Samantha, and commented on our “strength”. People tell us over and over that what we have done in the wake of our tragic loss is something they themselves could never do given the same situation. My usual response after that comment is “Perspective is a funny thing and you never know what you are capable of until you are in a situation in which you cannot possibly imagine yourself in.” The idea of perspective is something I already wrote about a couple weeks ago, and it was the main idea of the commencement speech I gave on June 21st to my Middle School’s graduating 8th grade class. After I gave the speech countless parents, colleagues, former students and current students sought me out to tell me that I inspire them and that they will try to live their lives by my words. One former student from my school (yet one I never actually taught) took the time to write the following:
“Mr.Specht that speech you delivered today was truly amazing and very inspirational. As i move on to college, graduating high school yesterday, i can now say i never met a teacher like you before. I never got to experience a class with you, but i can still say you were the best teacher i ever had… Mr. Specht you are one strong human being and as i move forward in my life i will forever keep the wise words you spoke in my head…”
I am incredibly humbled by the notion that people listen to me and divine meaning and insight into what I say. It is reassuring to know that because I have “walked the walk”, people will listen to me “talk the talk” . Yet, through all of this – through all of the perception of my apparent strength, there lies a hidden side that no one, not even my wife Samantha, sees. Much like the Moon in which only one side shines resolutely above us most nights, there is a side to me that is cloaked in a perpetual veil and concealed from view. The part of me that everyone sees daily is the side that emanates the strength and resolve. My strength can falter at times and my resolve is not always so steadfast: Yet, much like the moon goes through waxing and waning phases, I have noticed the same holds true for these facets of myself. Regardless of their magnitude, people are still only seeing one side of me through this ordeal and that side belies the inimical half of me.
Strength is a matter of perception and is completely relative. When compared to an ant, a horse is strong, yet relative to the strength of a locomotive it is weak. The strength that people see in me is merely a reflection of the perspective in which they view me and my circumstances. The perception of my strength is further promulgated by the fact that only one side of me is visible to others. No one, not even my wife, is witness to my nightly ritual of walking by Rees’ empty room with my mouth agape as if to bellow the greatest wail possible yet only producing an outward silence. No soul other than my own is privy to the recognition of those times in my mind’s eye when that image of Rees’ that I would rather forget materializes. No one is around to hear my wails in my car when driving by myself. Nighttime is especially difficult, alone with my thoughts and tortured by memories both good and bad. One could not possibly witness these things and perceive them as strength. The picture that people paint of my “strength” is incomplete and lacking half of the narrative.
Interestingly, the “Dark side of the Moon”, is actually a misconception and misnomer. On Earth, from our perspective, the Moon has a side that no one sees and as such we believe it to be dark. What we call the dark side of the Moon, is merely a side of the Moon we never see from our vantage point here on Earth. This obscured side is bathed in as much light from the Sun as the side that faces us – we just lack the frame of reference to see it. The truth is that half of the moon is always in the light of the Sun, we just can’t always see the parts that are and wrongly assume it must be dark. We fear that which we cannot see, and that which we cannot see is often mistaken for darkness. Just because we cannot see the back of the Moon does not mean it is dark. Just because people have witnessed my strength, does not mean I am not also weak.
Perhaps what really matters in all this isn’t my perceived strength, or imperceptible weakness. Perhaps what really matters is that the only time we can see “the dark side of the Moon” is when we change our perspective and look from a place outside of our normal viewpoint. When I stop to think about it, writing in this forum has provided me just such an opportunity to give you a semblance of my perspective. The side you see of me that you may refer to as strength is balanced out by a side you never witness. Both the strength and the weakness are not the truly important thing to focus on. In the end, what truly matters is our perspective. What people perceive as my strength is really just a reflection of what we are all capable of doing. There is no dark side to anything if you change your frame of reference. I have been to my own “Dark Side of the Moon” and what I found there was an unexpected light that has changed my perspective completely…
Those who know me personally are keenly aware that, at my core, I am nothing more than an overgrown child who refuses to let go of the fantasies and hopes that most people jettison long before adulthood. It is not an uncommon site in my home to see me watching a cartoon while simultaneously reading a scientific article about Quantum mechanics or the latest developments in genetic engineering. Even today, at the age of 38, I would rather take a trip to Toy’s R Us than to Home Depot. I can just as easily recite the entire rosters of the Justice League of America and the Avengers (including part timers!) as I can the structural differences between the 20 amino acids that make up all of our proteins. I am a man of science whose major thought processes are structured around the precepts of reason and logic who can still stare at my remote control with my hand outstretched vainly hoping that my latent Jedi powers will allow me to levitate it to my hand. I am a walking dichotomy of fantasy and fact, reason and ridiculousness – and I make no apologies for it.
My father used to often remind me that “you are only young once, but you can be immature forever”. Although his child-like side manifested differently than mine; my Dad, a big kid himself, rarely acquitted himself of this statement. He taught me the importance of being true to yourself, regardless of what others may think. My father passed on to me a zest for life sprinkled with a bit of child-like wonder that I always hoped I would be able to pass on to my children in the same way. I believe my daughters (yes they can name all the avengers and members of the justice league) are testament to this, and it was my hope that Rees would be too.
It is not a coincidence that the costume Rees wore the night before he died was a Superman costume. As a child growing up Superman represented the greatest of all the heroes to me. His combination of strength, honor, wisdom, indomitability and restraint touched a part of me, and continues to do so. Superman represents the very best of what humanity can be. Superman is the personification of humanity’s hopes and dreams. His powers, though not collectively possible biologically, are all within each of our individual reaches in one way or another. Wilber and Orville Wright showed us that a person can fly. Newton and Einstein demonstrated to us the powers our minds are capable of unleashing. Technology allows us to perform physical acts of strength well beyond the limits of our muscles. Courageous men and women like Martin Luther King Jr. and Anne Frank embody the indomitable nature of the human spirit. Who better to dress your son up as for Halloween than someone who is the culmination of all of these things and more?
I remember getting Rees ready that night for his big night of trick or treating dressed as Superman. I held him up and flew him around the house, his giggles an affirmation of his total joy. When we arrived that night at the safe Halloween venue, he sat upon my shoulders and he stuck his arms out straight in front of him, mimicking the classic Superman pose. I am sure in that one moment of time, he felt like he really was Superman, soaring above all the other adults and their children. My last, positive memory, of Rees is of him dressed and acting like my ultimate hero. That moment will forever be an indelible memory of my last time playing with my little boy. If I had to script a final playtime with Rees I wouldn’t have written it any other way.
I do not believe it was a coincidence that Rees’ last picture was of him dressed as Superman. Perhaps it is my inner-child that refuses to accept reality, but I truly believe that Rees, just like Kal-El, was sent here to do something special. My good friend, and former college roommate, Rob Edwards (an author whose first published novel, “An Image of Us”, was just recently published) told me that he believes that some souls are put here on Earth not for themselves, but to change others. He believes that Rees’ sole (or perhaps soul?) job was to change me; to help bring out something in me that had been lying dormant. Before Rees died I had always been a dreamer, but rarely acted on those dreams. I believed in the power of the good of humanity, but did not engage with the collective. His death did stir something in my soul and it has awakened me to the Super powers we all have inside us, but often leave behind as a vestige of our inner child.
My little Superboy may have left this world physically, but his spirit remains perched upon my shoulders – though now it is he lifting me up. Thanks to Rees, I believe that we can all be Super ; we just have to find it within ourselves and awaken it from its dormancy. I have seen the super power of compassion that my little boy’s message has begun to spread through ReesSpecht Life. Just as one, fictional, Superman made a difference in my life, it is my sincerest hope that one, real, Superboy can make a difference in other’s lives and help make this world a better place one piece at a time…
Everything that I have written since Rees’ passing shares one thing in common: it’s from my perspective – the grieving father who lost his only boy. The pages of text I have placed out into cyberspace have documented my struggles and doubts, my ups and my downs. In return, countless people who I do not know, and most likely will never meet, have showered me with support and urged me to continue documenting my grief and sharing my hopes. Through it all I have remained the voice of ReesSpecht Life, and by extension Rees. As much as I may represent the voice of my little boy, there is no doubt about who is ,was, and always will be the living heart of who he was and what ReesSpecht Life is all about; my wife, Samantha.
Samantha and I are a couple that defies the odds. We met in the summer before our first year of High School while on a German exchange program but did not start dating until our senior year. I doggedly pursued her for two and half years until she finally relented and realized that I just do not accept no as an answer. After several break-ups and four years of college later, we married on July, 1st 2000. According to statistics, our marriage should have been doomed for failure as high school sweethearts have a greater than 50% divorce rate within the first decade of marriage.
Never a fan of statistics as a reliable predictor, I never once entertained the thought that we can be torn apart. From the moment that I discovered that I loved her I literally have not spent a moment thinking that anyone else could ever take her place by my side. As cliche’d as the words soul mate are, I can think of no better title for her. Samantha completes me and compliments me in every way possible. Her unmistakable laugh lifts my spirits from the deepest depths. Her wit and steadfastness simultaneously keeps me on my toes and grounds me. Samantha is the most selfless, caring and thoughtful person I have ever had the pleasure to be around. She is simply an amazing woman. It is my pleasure to wake up beside her every morning of my life and my honor to know I will continue to do so until death parts us – and I know it will only be death that does part us.
Statistics also say that up to 80-90% of marriages in which a child dies ends in a divorce. As my reality has so painfully taught me, there is no greater loss that one can suffer than the loss of their child,. I can see how marriages dissolve upon the loss of child as it is exponentially more difficult to deal with this loss when you know that the person you love is suffering a loss of equal magnitude and you are as powerless to take that pain away from them as you are from yourself. This shared pain acts like a hot potato thrown back and forth, over and over, each partner holding the scalding object attempting to keep the pain from the other until the searing pain necessitates the relinguishing of it to the other; burning each in the process. If one person tries to hold the potato too long the burn becomes so severe that they are forced to throw the potato – with the outcome still resulting in two burns, except one is burned to a greater degree. It is impossible to escape the intense heat, but there is a way to mitigate its damage; communication. An approach in which one parter only briefly touches the hot potato and quickly passes it to the partner and vice versa will expose each partner to the thermal energy of the object albeit ever so briefly leaving little time for the skin to burn. This is exceedingly difficult to do, and only careful communication and coordination makes it possible.
I believe the grief of losing a child acts in much the same way as the hot potato. It is only the partners who can recognize and communicate their pain to their partner who are able to keep each other from being consumed by the inferno of grief. Samantha is the single greatest insulator to my pain and I can only hope that she finds reciprocity from me. Samantha proves to me on a daily basis that the power of true love can conquer anything. She is the heart and soul of our family and ReesSpecht Life. She gives of herself without thinking twice about herself and always goes above and beyond. My words may express the ideas and sentiment of ReesSpecht life, but Sam is its beating heart. I know all to well what she lost on October 27th, 2012 and it pains me to know that I can never take her pain away. Samantha is, and always will be, the light that shines for me in brightest day and darkest night. While I know that taking her pain away is not possible I know that I can do for her what she has always done for me: Be there, anytime, anywhere. Samantha, you are my heart, my soul, my Love.
If I accept that death is final, and that there is nothing more, then goodbye should have been my final words to my boy. As a man of science my brain tells me that death is indeed the end of everything we are. Death is the seceding of order from life’s harmony and structure. Death is the ultimate expression of entropy; our dissolution into chaos and randomness – the doorway to oblivion. However, as a father – as well as a son, my heart tells me that there is something more; an intangible, imperceptible spark that continues past the extinction of life’s flame. There was a time where my heart and my brain were in agreement that death was the end of everything. My brain and my heart are no longer simpatico and my father is to thank for that.
About a month before my father succumbed to the cancer that ravaged his lungs, we had a conversation about death. At the time I was incredibly uncomfortable about the topic, as I knew my father’s own end was imminent. My father tried talking to me about his and by extension my own, mortality. I remember my father’s dismay when I told him I believed that when we died that was it – nothing more, a one way ticket to nothingness. Ever the showman, I stood up and turned off the lights in the room and told my father “You want to know what happens when you die? You just saw it. Light’s out. The end.” My father shook his head, but instead of a look of disgust or horror, I saw a smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye that he reserved for when he was keeping a secret that he knew would drive others crazy. My father knew something and he couldn’t wait to prove me wrong.
“You are wrong, Richie”. Those were his simple words – words that anyone who knows me irritate me to know end. “I feel sad that you don’t feel comfortable talking about this, but I KNOW there is something else after I die and I am going to prove it to you, Mr. Science!”, he said. My father then went on to describe his grand plan to prove to me that there was something more after death. He rationed that the only way to make me, the ultimate skeptic, believe that there is more to life after death was proof. I remember scoffing at the idea, asking my Dad how he could possibly prove it to me. As I stared him down, growing more and more frustrated with the direction of our conversation, I saw the light bulb go off in his head. ” Well”, he added with a smile of satisfaction ” we will just have to perform an experiment: Here’s the plan..”
The plan was amazingly simple and effective. My father’s idea was to give my wife, Samantha, a secret password that only she and he would know. Upon my father’s death he vowed he would return to me in some way and utter the password and I would have the proof I required. I remember laughing out loud at the notion and only went along with his plan out of sympathy and a sense of appeasement. At the time I did not realize that I had already forsaken my beliefs in science as I had a preconceived outcome that I was SURE of – a scientific no no. My father told Sam the password after I had left the room completely and went upstairs to our bedroom. I returned only after Sam had given me the ok, and for the remainder of our days together my father and I honestly never spoke another word about his grand experiment.
I was at my father’s side on the day of his death. My memory can paint a perfect picture of my father’s eyes the moment I walked into his room that morning. Though we didn’t speak, my father’s eyes actualized a fear that I had never before seen in them. The man I had looked up to as the epitome of strength and courage, a real life Superman, looked weak and afraid. To see my father whittled down to a husk of his former self and struggling mightily for mere wisps of breath filled me with hopelessness. I am sure my eyes belied the false sense of strength I was attempting to convey to him.
As things settled and my father became aware that both my sister and I were at his side the look of fear resigned to one of contentment. As I stood there comforting him and telling him how much I loved him the look of fear morphed into a look of peace and contentment. Though functionally mute for several days, he managed to hoarsly utter his last words to my sister and I: “I love you”. Not long after I felt the life slip from his large, once powerful hand, and I knew he was gone. I said, “Goodbye Dad, I love you”. I said goodbye to my father without a moment’s hesitation. It was natural, and poignant. According to everything I knew, my smug assurances told me that the light had turned off forever. Everything my father ever was ceased and he entered oblivion. Goodbye, Dad.
Exactly one month after my father passed I awoke from the first dream I had about him and found myself unable to get back to sleep. I quietly and stealthily slipped out of bed and walked down the stairs to our kitchen and sat at our computer. I sat there for about an hour or so before Sam must have awoken to realize that I was no longer in bed with her. She immediately came downstairs and found me at the computer and asked me what was the matter. I told her that I had a nice dream about my father, and went on to describe the dream.
In the dream my father was not dead, far from it in fact. In the realm of my unconscious mind he was alive and well with my family and me seated next to him at his picnic table at his house in upstate New York. In the dream my father was doing exactly what he would have been doing had he been alive: holding court. He was telling jokes, teasing people and playing his guitar. I remember the satisfaction I felt of seeing my father alive and all seemed to be right in the world. Then things changed. Like a storm cloud that sneaks over the top of a tall mountain changing the weather in an instant, my dream clouded over with the realization that my father was dead. All of the merriment ceased and my family all disappeared. I was left at the table with just my father, and in my dream I asked my father what was the password. He never answered. Instead, I was greeted with seemingly nonsensical images of dogs and world war fighter pilots and I awoke in disappointment.
I remember looking at Sam’s face as I described the dream, her sympathetic eyes filling me with an easiness to press on and tell the whole story. She smiled and acknowledged the salient points with a chuckle and continued to smile throughout… that is until I got to the last part. Never before in my life had I seen mere words draw the blood directly out of someone’s face until that moment. Ironically, it is I who would have been able to say I had seen a ghost, as her face took on the alabaster hue of an apparition. Upon hearing my description of dogs and fighter pilots, Sam immediately gasped, placed her balled up hand to her mouth and shook her head as if to dislodge a thought that had no reason being in her head. She hesitated a second and then uttered the words I will never forget: “The password your father gave me, I, I can’t believe this”, she stammered, “the password was Snoopy and the Red Baron!”.
We both stood there in awe and disbelief for several minutes. Ever the skeptic, I asked, and re-asked if she was sure. Samantha said that she wasn’t sure if the password was just Snoopy and the Red Baron, but she knew that was the main idea. She was without doubt on that. Unable to shake my skepticism, I then asked her if my father put her up to acknowledging any password I may have heard or seen just to mollify me and give me a sense of peace. I felt guilty about the inquiry, but needed confirmation. Sam vehemently denied that she would ever deceive me, and honestly her reaction was as genuine as can be. My father and Snoopy along with the Red Barron had given me pause. The reality of the ultimate finality of death that I was so sure of was now shattered and I scrambled to put the pieces together into a new mosaic of reality that incorporated this phenomenon. While I will always stop short of saying that what I received that day was proof (after all some part of my subconscious could have known the password somehow already) I now had evidence to doubt my previous belief. My father didn’t give me faith that there is something more after we die, but he did give me doubt that there isn’t anything at all. For a scientist, doubt is healthy. It keeps us honest. It gives us hope. A month after his passing, my father gave me the greatest gift he ever did while alive: the gift of possibility.
This possibility of something more after we leave the mortal plane is the reason I never said goodbye to Rees. On the day we laid Rees to rest, surrounded by only my closest family and two very special friends, I bid farewell to his corporeal form. I kissed his head, its coldness a stark reminder of his true absence, and ran my hand through his hair one last time. I sang to him my last lullaby and I grasped his tiny hand one last time. In the finality of that moment, I did not say goodbye; I said auf Wiedersehen, until we see each other again. The possibility that I will be with him again, and that he is with me now, is all I need to keep despair from claiming my soul. Thanks to my father, my original Super Hero, I now look for Rees in my dreams, and listen for his giggle in the rustling wind. I look for his smile in my rear view mirror, and close my eyes to see him riding on a tractor with my Dad, their mutual grins telling me everything will be ok. I know one day I will see both of them again in the that same place where Snoopy is flying against the Red Barron…