October 25th, 2012, 2 days before the moment that would change my life forever, is a date that I remember for only one thing: It was the day which forecasters confirmed that Long Island, NY would be struck by Hurricane Sandy. I recall constantly checking various weather sites to confirm other’s predictions – and the ominous feeling that multiplied with each identical forecast. It was unanimous, Sandy was on its way and it was going to be BIG. A so called “Super Storm” was on its way and preparations were in order.
The news reports were filled with the usual precautionary warnings of stocking up on essentials and preparing for the worst. Lines at the grocery store were burgeoning by the hour, as anxious islanders attempted to heed the advice of our news anchors. Normally, I would most likely have joined the throngs of people preparing for the worst, but this time I took the storm warnings with a grain of salt. I did not rush out to the store to stock my fridge. I did not feel the need to fill my tub with water. I did not board up my windows or even think about cleaning up my lawn furniture. This time, I was firmly in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” school of thought.
My reluctance to immediately act on preparing for the storm was due in large part to events which transpired a year earlier. The year before we were hit by Hurricane Irene, and though it was not as powerful a storm as the weather prognosticators had predicted, it did do considerable damage to the power grid on Long Island. The entire area around my home lost power with one glaring exception: my street. Hurricane Irene knocked power out to almost all of Suffolk county NY, except a few pockets that stayed powered up and we were lucky enough to be one of those few. During the nights of the outage my home was an illuminated island surrounded by a sea of darkness. I remember thinking that our neighbors must have envied our still intact power, TV and internet connections – and that they were probably cursing our good fortune! I also recall Samantha and I standing outside at night in awe of the darkness that surrounded us and the site of a celestial sphere teaming with points of light we never could see before punctuated by the distant drone of generators powering a handful of homes.
Before Irene arrived I had luckily placed an order for a brand new generator for our property in Upstate NY. The generator arrived several days before the storm was to hit and I felt reassured that in the event that the power were to go out, we would still have the comforts of 21st century living. I was prepared for this storm. I cleared all of the lawn furniture off our deck and from our yard. I made sure to get to the store, parroting the mantra of other concerned islanders: “Gotta get the bread, gotta get the milk!”. I was prepared for Irene in every conceivable way, and waited for her to come and try and blow my house down – or drop a few trees on it. Well, Irene came and went and we escaped unscathed. No damage, nothing whatsoever. My preparations were all for naught. We had a generator, extra bread, milk and batteries and no reason to use them. I remember actually feeling disappointed that I did not have the opportunity to use them.
I recall talking to Sam the night of the 25th of October 2012 about me taking a trip to our property in upstate NY to get our generator. I hemmed and hawed about the prospect of making the trip, hoping that this storm would be no worse than the previous year’s “superstorm”. I rationalized that since Irene was a dud, Sandy would be too. I spent so much time preparing for Irene last year for nothing, I felt like this year would prove just as futile. Still, Samantha ever the voice of reason, argued that I should make the trip anyhow… “Just in case”. I did not want to go. Perhaps it was a false sense of security buttressed by my experience of the previous year, but I felt like I was somehow “shielded” from any harm from this storm. In my mind, this storm would be no worse than Irene – and as such there was no point in taking the time to do all the things I did the year before. Irene’s damage, it turns out, did not manifest physically. Irene’s greatest damage was providing me with a false sense of security…
I eventually, reluctantly, agreed with Sam and I began to make plans to go up to my property and retrieve the generator. I remember asking Sam if I could take Rees with me, as this would have been his first chance to go away with me alone. Sam did not like the prospect of parting with Rees overnight, but gave me the ok – no doubt deferring to my own feelings, knowing this would be a positive experience for both of us. Things were set, I was going to go upstate on Saturday and Rees would be going with me. This should be where my story ends. The following words I should be writing should be a recollection of the great time Reesie and I had while we made our quick trip upstate. I will never be able to write those words. Instead of recounting a tale of a grand adventure of a little boy and his Daddy, the story is the one you know. The decision I made at this point is what precipitated my fall.
I felt no urgency to get the generator. I did not believe that this storm would damage us. I falsely believed that my home was protected in some way and that getting the generator was not a priority. Even with the prospect of spending time with my little man, I did not want to drive 4 hours up and 4 hours back. Being the problem solver I was, I realized that I had another option: the easy way out. It turns out that at this very time, my current student teacher, former student, and eternal friend, Bobby was at his college in Oneonta for the weekend to attend a mandatory seminar for student teaching. Realizing that his school was no more than 30 minutes from my property I asked Bobby for a favor: Could he pick up my generator and bring it home with him when he returned on Sunday? Bobby never hesitated and immediately said “Yes”. Weather be damned, I was getting my generator and I didn’t even have to go get it. The machine that wasn’t going to be necessary would be dropped off on sunday. No doubt it would never be used – but that didn’t matter now because it didn’t take any effort on my part. Problem solved. I think I actually patted myself on my back for my ingenuity: “Take that nature, you can’t disrupt my life!”, I smugly thought to myself.
In the two days that followed, with every hour that passed, the forecasts worsened. Sandy was no Irene, this much was clear. By Saturday, October 27th, there was no doubt Long Island was squarely in the cross-hairs of a monster storm. That morning I decided it was time I took Sandy seriously. I told Samantha that I would make the necessary errands that day to get food, milk and supplies. I also told her that I would take care of the lawn furniture and clear out our yard of any potential Sandy-fueled projectiles.
Originally Sam was going to take Rees shopping with her and the girls, but his unusually cranky behavior was enough for her to leave him with me. I told her I would take him shopping with me and that I would take care of the furniture later, or when they returned. Time was of the essence that day; not due to the immediacy of the impending storm, rather because we actually had plans for a date night that night. Sam asked me to confirm that I could get everything I needed done that day and still be ready for our date night at 5pm. She was stressed, overwhelmed with countless checklists in her mind of the things that needed to be completed before the festivities of the evening and the looming storm. The tension she had in her chest was tangible, augmented by the girls bickering, and Rees’ crankiness. I remember thinking that our date night could not come at a better time to help relieve the stress that was building inside her. She was upset, overstressed and tired. I remember her angrily leaving our house, my last words to her that day to “not stress the small stuff. We will get everything done. Go out with the girls. I’ll take Rees”. I recall Rees crying, banging on the door as she left. Little did I know that would be the last time he would ever lay eyes on his Mommy again…
As it turns out, our own “Superstorm” hit that evening that ravaged everything I was to my foundation. This storm was a force of nature I could never have hoped to prepare for. It left no physical signs of its magnitude and no visible signs of damage. The eye of this storm centered on Sam, the girls and I, with our other family members on the periphery, spared the direct hit reserved for Sam and I. Friends, neighbors and co-workers became on-lookers who did not experience the storm at all – islands sheltered from harm but within viewing distance of the destruction it wrought. This time the roles were reversed: it was Samantha and I shrouded in darkness while others lights kept shining. Even among the throngs of family and friends, we were left marooned on an island of despair.
It is an unusual, and unsettling feeling to be surrounded by family and friends and yet feel so utterly alone. It’s as if the damage from our own superstorm knocked out the power that illuminated my soul, and I was left in the dark – cloaked in a void acting like a one way mirror. I could see out, but no one could see in. That feeling persists, to some extent, to this very day – one year later. At times I still feel like an “invisible man” that people look through to avoid seeing the damage done. Most of the time it is hardly perceptible, but other times it’s blatantly obvious. There are still some people at work whose interactions with me are terse and forced. People with whom I used to joke around with or share stories about being a parent. People I used to tease about their poor choice in sports teams and who teased me right back for mine. Many of these people now just give me a quick hello, head down, eyes focused elsewhere. I don’t fault them for doing it, but it still hurts. The other night while I was out to eat with my Daughter Lori, a friend of a friend who would have normally come up to me and at least said hi, completely ignored my presence. I know they saw me, but they kept their heads down and avoided eye contact with me. I briefly made eye contact with them and they turned their head, feigning a yawn, physically disavowing any acknowledgement of my presence. I thought about going up to them and saying hi and just being me, but it felt disingenuous, so I just left – site unseen, word unspoken.
I have come to expect that there is some damage from my own personal Superstorm that I cannot repair, no matter how much I try. I also find myself on guard now for any signs of an approach of other potential storms. I find myself more protective of my girls than I ever was before – and much, much more concerned about their safety when I am not around them. My pulse quickens with every scratched knee or mild abrasion. I hesitate to let them play outside for fear of some unknown, identified danger taking them from me. It takes all of my composure and resolve to make sure that I do not smother them, yet at the same time remain vigilant in their protection. In a sense, I find myself now ALWAYS preparing for the storm, even when the sun is shining and the skies are clear.
It seems ironic that a day in which I was preparing for a storm now finds me in place where I am constantly preparing for a storm of another kind. Storms, after all, are the manifestation of the chaos in our atmosphere and nature’s obligation to restore balance. Real storms redistribute the energy of our Planet so that nature can regain its equilibrium. Storms are agents of change; a necessary evil that viewed singularly appear to be a terrible disruption but when viewed from a larger perspective are necessary to restore balance overall. It is with this perspective in mind that I now find myself viewing the storm that hit me one year ago today.
Viewed as a single moment that storm seemingly took everything from me, but when looked at from a wider perspective it takes on a new visage. Without my own personal storm ReesSpecht Life would never exist. There would be no emails, letters and facebook messages from people telling me that their lives have changed for the better because of Rees’ story and what we are doing. There would be no stories of a hurting father, lost in self pity, who re-evaluated his perspective on life upon reading our story. There would be no college student whose despair over the tragic loss of her boyfriend put her in a dark place that only Rees’ light was able to pull her out of. There are literally hundreds of positive stories that would not exist today without that storm that befell us. While the damage from the storm done to my family and myself will never be repaired, I must acknowledge the overall good it is doing for countless others. Without the loss of Rees there would never be ReesSpecht life. The winds of change can be at the same time destructive and life-giving. A tree felled by that mighty wind will also spread its seeds over a wide area. It is the knowledge of this that reminds me that the seed sewn in Rees’ death have spread far and wide, and with a little cultivation from those who his story has touched we can reap a harvest of kindness that can change this world for the better…