In many ways life’s journey is much like traveling down an unknown highway complete with detours, speed traps, hazards, unexpected sights, sounds and smells. Each of us starts our trek as an unwitting passenger in our parent’s own journey. At first our own path is indistinguishable for that of our Mother’s and Father’s as we are incapable of forging our own path – our biology ensuring our dependence on them for years. Yet, while we begin tethered to our parent’s own journey, the yearning to forge our path develops almost immediately. As time progresses the yearning to make our own way in the world grows and we begin heading off on our own side travels, stretching the limits of the ties that bind us until, after further and more frequent stretching, the tie is completely severed and we begin the process of forging our own way down life’s highway – though usually never too far from our forebears.
Regardless of when we do break off the path our parents have blazed; there is almost never a time in our lives when we travel this world alone. For most of us life’s road is like a congested highway packed with countless others taking the same route as us, trudging along on the daily grind. While they may not share our conveyance, the others sharing our roadway of life are all on a similar path – and it is in this “life traffic” we find comfort as it reminds us we are almost always in the company of others, strangers though they may be. Aside from these strangers, our social nature ensures that there is a wide array of fellow passengers we take along on our individual ride, with most of us reserving a seat for a co-pilot with whom we intend to spend the balance of our journey. For others, the road may be more like a smaller side street with fewer fellow riders, but by no means desolate. Regardless of which road we travel, there are few who choose a path that is untraveled, and even fewer still who blaze their own path, completely isolated from any other travelers.
Loneliness is a fear shared by every man, woman and child on Earth. We fear being alone almost as much as we fear death – and for many of the same reasons. By itself, being alone exponentially magnifies the fear of the unknown. Without someone to assuage our fears, or pass along our strength we are cut off from one of the key elements of what is to be human: sharing this existence and pondering life’s questions together. Our social nature isn’t a coincidence. Evolution carefully selected our ancestors based on their ability to work together to solve the problems they faced while traveling the often perilous road of life. We know today that another species of Human (Homo neanderthalensis), went extinct some 40,000 years ago precisely because of their solitary ways. The Neanderthals, it would seem, never figured out how to carpool down life’s highway. The Neanderthal’s demise serves as a reminder that loneliness and isolation equals death – two sides of the same coin.
Before Rees died my travels down life’s highway were, for the most part, relatively smooth and rather unremarkable. Sure there were some bumps in the road as I lost older relatives along the way and faced an illness that nearly stopped my journey altogether. As hard as those obstacles appeared at the time for myself, looking around I saw others facing the very same disturbances in their travels, providing me with a sense of comfort that I was not facing these obstacles alone. It is reassuring knowing you are not traveling an unknown road all alone, no matter how difficult that passage may be. That all changed on October 27th, 2012. At that one moment my life’s journey came to a screeching halt. I remember feeling like a detached observer of myself watching others around continuing to zoom along their own paths, some slowing down a bit like a rubber-necker observing a tragic accident along the road. I watched my loved ones take their own detours and stop what they were doing to lend a Samaritan hand to Samantha and myself. I remember watching everyone come and go, wishing that I could go with them and leave this accident behind and just join their journey – forsaking my own path if only to make it easier. I recall looking back down the road, its freshness and relative short distance an agonizing tease of what once was, wishing that I could go in reverse with the sad cruelty being the knowledge it was impossible… life’s road only has one direction: forward.
The hardest part of losing a child, and something no one could prepare me for, was the fact that the impact is not felt immediately. The unknown road ahead doesn’t change; it can’t because it is what it ever was and always will be: unknown. The view from the rear view mirror never changes either – it’s locked in perpetuity – a permanent etching that can never be erased. The present is all we know, and all we have. Even though I lost Richie almost a year ago now, it is here, in the present that I feel the impact of his loss. There are countless moments every day that act as little road signs designed to remind me of his absence spread out at uneven intervals. Some days there are only a few, and the signs are small. Other days the signs are giant, illuminated bill boards that I cannot ignore nor escape. Although my path to the future is not defined, his loss is eternal and it will never change, ever – no matter how far into the future I travel I know his absence will always be there and those signs will never stop appearing.
The loss is felt in so many ways. When I see a father playing with his son I see Rees’ empty seat traveling along the road ahead with me. When I hear my colleagues talking about their children and the milestones they are reaching I ache with the realization those times will never come to pass with Rees. I relive the pain when I clean up around my house only to find a toy, or a shoe or some other trinket that Rees left behind when he was starting his journey with me. I am jealous of smiling parents doting over their families who have thankfully never had to feel the loss I have – who lack the perspective to realize that it can all change in an instant. I smile and cry simultaneously when I see his smiling face plastered on our refrigerator and the walls of our home only to realize there will never be another picture to replace the ones we already have…
Even though my wife and my children have all experienced the same the loss, in reality our pain is unique and that can be incredibly isolating. All of these feelings, all of these reminders, serve to create a sense of loneliness that creates the illusion that you are now heading down life’s highway completely alone – even though, in reality, you are surrounded by those who love you most. If man’s greatest fear, other than death, is to be alone then it is nature’s cruelest trick to feel so desolate in your loss when you are literally surrounded by those who love you.
Thankfully, there is some light on this lonely highway: those who have lost children as well who are willing to share their journey with you. I am thankful for the wonderful handful of people we have met who can unfortunately count themselves a member of the “unfortunate fraternity” of parents whose lives have been shattered through the loss of a child. People like Kathleen B. whose circumstances were so much like our own, and whose strength is a beacon of hope for Samantha and I and whose positive influence on my daughter Abigail when she needed it most came at a time of something more than mere cosmic coincidence. Couples like Deirdre and Jim H. ,John and Jean B. , and Tom and Jeanine S., who were there to share their stories and just listen to ours, helped us feel a little less isolated and alone. There was also the influence of people whom I have never met, yet through their written words and contact through facebook proved to be a source of inspiration for Sam and I as we try to get ReesSpecht Life off the ground. I cannot thank Kate Long, from “Chasing Rainbows“, enough for her kind words of encouragement and support. Her strength through multiple tragedies continues to amaze and enlighten me in my dark times. I also am thankful for Erik Rees, the founder of “NEGU: The Jessie Rees Foundation” for his helpful words and for setting the bar which I wish to reach with ReesSpecht Life. All of these amazing people shed light onto the dark road I find myself now traveling – and I truly believe that without them my current position on life’s highway would not be where it is today.
Not a day goes by in which the thought of where my life would be today had Superstorm Sandy never threatened to cross the path of Long Island last year. I imagine all the happy moments I was supposed to experience with my little man and even find some time to smile about those moments I did have in his short life. Every morning I wake up I look to the wall of pictures next to my bed hoping to find that I awoke this morning in some parallel universe where my best friend told me he was going inside and that he was leaving Rees with me. Sometimes, I check out the window to see if the pond that stole my Son’s last breath, that we filled in almost immediately, is there – its very presence a confirmation that the road I find myself on right now was nothing more than a bad dream. When that morning fog in my mind clears I repeatedly find the same thing; the pictures are there, the pond is gone and so is my little boy. I know that I cannot alter the road already traveled… it can never, ever leave my rear view, but I can set the course for my future. I know the road ahead has more obstacles and detours for me and my family to navigate, but at least I can rest comfortably in the knowledge that I will never, ever be truly alone in this journey. Even though Rees is no longer along for the ride with me here, I know that somewhere out there, where Snoopy is flying with the Red Barron, my little man is riding right beside me on his Tractor helping to keep my course true…