Whatcha up to Dad?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…

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Tractors:  My favorite!!

Tractors: My favorite!!

There was a time in my life where fall was by far my favorite season of the year.  From the almost daily receding of temperatures from the extremes of summer, to the imperceptible bleeding of the orange, yellow and red hues from a verdant sea,  the majesty of fall and its dynamic changes always left me with a sense of awe and inspiration.  Fall meant football, trick or treating, crisp cool nights, and a return of the warming comfort meals too hot to enjoy during the sweltering days of summer.    No season is more aptly named than fall; its beginning signaling the end of the summer chores of mowing, gardening, weeding, fertilizing and all the other landscaping minutiae – the work of which is literally and figuratively wiped away in a downward cascade of color from the trees above.

From one perspective fall could be viewed as the start of our descent into winter’s darkness and the dearth of warmth; the signaling of decline and the onset of despair.  Fortunately, for most I think, fall’s majestic colors and sights are more like the grand finale of a fireworks display, the experience of which leaves us with an adrenaline rush that carries us through most of winter’s bleak coldness.  Fall’s splendor paints a picture of vivid colors, the after-image of which allows us to see past the barren bones of the leafless trees during the desolation that is winter.  The majesty of fall therefore serves more as a triumphant climax to the splendor that is life,  as opposed to a harbinger of  the bleak times ahead.  For most people this is true – and at one time it was for me, until the season of fall became irrevocably and unmistakably associated with the worst moment of my life.

I remember that day as if it were a digital recording stored in my brain.  Not only are the visuals of that day etched into my brain with perfect clarity, but so are the smells, sounds and feelings.  I recall perfectly the pungent odor of freshly raked leaves mixed with a tinge of exhaust that permeated the air that warm fall day.  I recall the overcast skies belying the unusual warmth of a day that found its position on the calendar closer to winter than to summer.  I recall exactly the outfit Rees wore that day, what he had for lunch and snack, as well as his incorrigible mood that kept him home with me rather than joining my wife and my daughters on a day of shopping.  Every moment of that day that was registered by my senses is stored with  perfect clarity, an HD recording that stands out among a vast collection of lesser, low definition memories of other days gone by.  Everything about that day, and my perfect recollection of it, is intrinsically linked to sensical cues of what would have otherwise been just another fall day, but forever more will now be recalled as the first day of the beginning of my own, personal, fall.

I acutely remember Rees’ nap that day.  He was starting to make the transition from toddler to full fledged little boy, and his nap time had already begun to edge closer and closer to that point where it and bed-time merge together into one.  He had fought off sleep most of the morning and was really grouchy; an anomaly that precipitated Samantha making the decision to leave him home with me to perhaps get an earlier nap than was his then normal nap-time.  I remember contemplating putting our outdoor lawn furniture away during this time, but eventually deciding not to just in case he were to wake or something happened to him and I would not be able to hear.  Instead, I decided to wait out his nap and make the necessary preparations for the looming Hurricane Sandy at a time when someone would be able to watch him.

It was during this time that I received the fateful call that put into place the domino like sequence of events that would eventually lead to my little boy’s death.  Not long after Rees settled down, my best friend (a term I do not use lightly), Craig called me to tell me he was getting off work early and was stopping over earlier than his anticipated evening arrival.  You see, Craig had already agreed to watch my children that night so that my wife and I could go out on a date night – a real treat that only married couples with young children have the pleasure of savoring like a bottle of rare wine.  When Craig arrived Rees was still sleeping and he offered to go get him up from his nap.  “Uncle Craig”, as my children affectionately called him, was the ultimate playmate for my children.  His arrival at my house was always greeted with the revelry reserved for the likes of Santa Claus or Mickey Mouse, and this day was no different.  Rees was excited to see him, and Craig immediately rewarded Rees’ excitement with a trip outside to the pond to feed the fish.  I recall looking out the back window and seeing Rees and Craig tending to the pond and smiling, reveling in the knowledge that my son enjoyed the company of my lifelong friend as much as I.

When Craig and Rees returned inside it was then that I made the fateful request of my friend that would set in motion the tragic series of events that lead to Rees’ drowning.  Realizing that I now possessed the ultimate babysitter for Rees, I asked Craig to watch Rees while I cleaned up the lawn furniture outside.  Craig happily obliged and I went about cleaning up while Rees and Uncle Craig played outside.   About 40 minutes later I had all the furniture put away and I found myself in the final stages of preparing for the storm…

By this time, Rees and Craig were in the driveway in front of my garage as I started sweeping out the garage to get the leaves and dust that had stealthily found their way into my garage out from under the doors.  It was at this time that I noticed Rees was playing with something he should not have – a collectible Mets Truck that was on display in Rees’ room that was out of his reach on a high shelf.  When I questioned Craig about how Rees got the truck he explained to me that when he had taken Rees inside to change his diaper Rees was pointing at it and Craig gave it to him.  I took the truck from Rees’ hand and handed it to Craig and angrily questioned him as to why he would give a 22 month old a toy that was obviously not meant for his age.  Sadly, that was the last interaction I ever had with my little boy.  I took his truck away from him.  I yelled at his favorite uncle.  I made him cry.  The very last thing I ever did to my son was make him cry.

I then proceeded to close the garage doors and spent the next ten minutes looking for a way to fasten my garage doors down so that they would not leak during the torrent of rain and wind I knew would be approaching in under 48 hours.  Once I was satisfied that the doors were secured I left my garage and made the walk from our detached garage to my house.  When I walked through my door to the kitchen I saw Craig sitting on the couch, feet up, watching a movie.  I proceeded to head up the stairs and stopped in my tracks realizing I did not see Rees with him.  When I asked Craig where Rees was he replied with the words that will haunt me until I die:  “I thought he was with you.”

I thought he was with you… six words that I cannot utter without a chill that runs down my spine and a sinking feeling that, when it is at its worst, forces me into a fetal position, unable to respond or react to the world around me.  “I thought he was with you“, the very words uttered to me provided my exact response.  I immediately knew the worst happened.  There was no doubt in my mind.  There would have been some evidence of his life already detectable – a giggle, a toy banging, a squeal of frustration.  Instead, I was met with silence, – a silence so complete that the volume of my heart rate racing felt like a jackhammer.  I knew right where to run to, and run I did.

When I first approached the pond I had a millisecond of relief.  I could not see him, and there was no sign of struggle.  Perhaps he was wandering in the front was my thought – a thought immediately dashed by a glimpse of his still form floating face down among the leaves gathered in the corner of the pond.  I immediately grabbed him, and pulled him up and out in one swift motion, his body flailing, limp and lifeless.  He was cold.  He was grey.  I already knew he was dead.

“My little boy is dead, oh my God, my little boy is dead”, is all I could think of as I ran him, cradling him close to my chest, towards the picnic table my father and I had built together 5 years prior.  I knew first aid and cpr, and I immediately started chest compression’s and if any doubt as to his fate had existed it was erased by the sponge-like response I felt as I compressed his chest.  Water gurgled and no air could enter his lungs.  I tried rescue breaths, even though current CPR guidelines did not call for them, in a vain attempt to force my life force into him.  Craig had already called 911 and the operator was trying to walk me through that which I already knew, but found difficulty in performing properly.  My rescue breaths, it would turn out, became my last kiss to my little boy – and I will never forget the smell of chicken nuggets and trix yogurt mixed with the unmistakable stench of vomit when I did so.

In what seemed to be no more than a few minutes the amazing men and women of the Sound Beach fire dept. descended upon my back yard and immediately went to work on him.  They intibated him, and cleared out as much water as they could.  A glimmer of hope was reignited when I saw Rees take what appeared to be a breath on his own, but sadly was only a reflexive motion of his diaphragm.  They carried my little boy away and I was left alone in the company of many.  The world was spinning, thoughts were racing, and cruelly, my heart was pounding – a stark and vivid contrast to the state my little boy’s heart was in.  I remember thinking right there that I could rip my own beating heart out and place it in his chest.  I could take my life and give him another chance.  He did not deserve to be in that ambulance,  I did.

313035_2544139843746_1786228113_nI remember the police officer who came to take me to the hospital as vividly as every other part of that day.  He was an older gentleman with a greying moustache and he had the unmistakable odor on him of someone who had recently smoked a cigarette.  Oddly those cues all served to comfort me, as it all reminded me of my father, a former police officer who smoked and had a grey beard.  The officer, whose name I do not recall, asked me questions whose sole purpose was to keep me from going over the edge into full blown shock.  I remember waiting for the ambulance to get moving and saying to the officer that “I know it’s bad, they aren’t moving.” , and he replied to me that was actually a good sign.

As we finally got underway I remember pulling out of our block and seeing Samantha’s minivan stopped and I will never forget the look of confusion on her face.  I wanted to jump out and hold her and grab her, but we just kept moving.  I had hoped she would come with me, but the officer said another police officer would take her to the hospital and we made our way to St. Charles Hospital – the very hospital in which I was born.  I held out hope that the place that saw my light enter the world would prove to be the place that kept darkness from entering my son’s.  Hope was all I had at that point, as my knowledge of physiology told me his light was already extinguished.

When we arrived at the hospital they immediately placed me in a waiting room, and for the first time in my life I recognized the meaning of the term “Like a caged animal”.  I was alone, in a room with no windows – an ersatz cell that seemed apropos considering the situation.  I remember a priest came in to talk to me, and I was just not interested in talking about God at the time.  I didn’t want to hear it.  I asked the priest if he knew anything about Rees and he told me that he heard he was breathing… a miracle that my brain just did not believe.

The next person to enter was Samantha.  She was lost.  She was confused.  She didn’t really know what was going on – and it was on me to explain.  I told her what happened and I told her what the priest said and I finished with a statement of the reality I knew, regardless of what the priest said, our little boy was dead.  Immediately two fists banged against my chest as Samantha wailed, “No, no, no,… not Rees, not our little boy!”.  “What did you do?” she cried, and my reply was “it was an accident” and I recounted the story to her.

We waited about five more minutes before a doctor came in to tell us what Rees’ status was.  His heart was not beating.  They were trying everything they could.  I asked the Doctor what his core body temperature was, and she replied 93 degrees.  I knew it was over, and the very question caused the Doctor to give me an acknowledging grimace that confirmed my belief.  My little boy was gone.  I knew it, and it felt surreal.  I kept waiting for that moment where I was going to wake up in a cold sweat from a terrible nightmare and it never came.  I still find myself hoping I will wake up from the nightmare, only to find myself waking into the nightmare every morning.  I remember trying to will time itself backwards, thinking my love and will to save him could break apart the constraints of the space time continuum.  It never happened – though part of me still thinks if I try really hard, or if I just prove my worth, I will still be able to do it.

The next visit from the doctor was about 5 minutes later.  She came in, head hung low and obviously dejected.  It was time to say goodbye.  The doctor escorted Samantha and I past the other ER stretchers and I recall the feeling that every eye was on us.  I felt like a condemned prisoner on his last walk towards the executioner – oblivion faced me and filled me with dread.   When we reached Rees’ bed there was a small army of people around him trying to spark life back into his beautiful little body all to no avail.  I remember making eye contact with a nurse whose face bore the dual agony of knowing she could not save my little boy and having to witness his parents’ grief.  I kneeled down next to Rees and whispered into his ear, “come on little man, you can do this.  Come back to us.  Our story can’t end here.  I love you, please come back…”, my voice trembling and my heart resigned to the inevitable.  I remember Sam encouraging him to come back.  She kept telling him “Mommy is here, Mommy is here”.  “We can ride a tractor, come back, come back,  Mommy is here”.  His little heart just couldn’t do it.  Rees was gone and I fell.

In many ways I am still falling, and fear that I always will be.  His death created a void in my life that I know part of me was swallowed by that day.  I remember a different Priest came over to say a prayer and I accosted him telling him “There is no fucking God, how could God do this to such a beautiful little boy?”  I stood up, walked away and fell again, this time against a wall.  It was the priest who lifted me up.  I apologized to him for my harsh words, and he told me “I understand, and so does God.”  It proved to be a comfort to me, despite my just declared agnosticism.  Soon the army disbanded and were given Rees to hold one last time.  He was swaddled like a newborn, and I recall propping his limp head just like one, carefully positioning it in some subconscious way as to not hurt him more.  Sam held him the longest and she spoke to him and caressed his head – running her fingers through his silky hair one last time.

When I held him I sang to him.  I spoke to him and I spoke my last words to him: “I will always love you”.  I never did say goodbye, the reason for which I have already written about.  They took him away and Sam and I were escorted out of the hospital back to the police officer who drove me to the hospital in the first place.  Not much was said, and the ride home was quiet, save for the phone call I made to my Mother to inform her.  When my Mother heard me say “Richie died”, she thought I was my sister – my agonized and stressed voice apparently raising a few octaves enough to confuse her.  I heard my Mother wail, her pain being mine:  My Mother thought she lost me, Richie.  It did not dawn on her that it was Rees.  I felt my Mom fall the same fall I had just experienced.  I yelled into the phone to tell her it was Rees and it eventually sunk in for her.  Her son did not die, it was her grandson – a terrible pain to be sure, but not the pain of losing your child.  Her tenor changed when she realized it was Rees and not me and her audible realization caused me the briefest moment of jealousy.  For all intents and purposes her Son just died and came back – a comfort I would never know.

By this time my fall reached terminal velocity.  The next few days were nothing more than a blur.  Superstorm Sandy came and went, as did our power and ability to communicate, but I found myself hard pressed to recognize the damage or take stock of the world around me.  I was in a true free-fall, weightless and subject to only action-reaction forces.  It was not until 6 days after Rees passed, and the owner of Kelly Brothers Landscaping came to my door that my free-fall began to decelerate.  When my doorbell rang that day I saw an older, imposing looking man standing at my door.  He introduced himself as Bill Kelly, Co-owner of Kelly Brothers landscaping and he told me he heard what happened and he wanted to help.  He asked if he could do a leaf cleanup in our yard as a gesture of simple kindness.  I was overwhelmed and thanked him over and over.  The Kelly brothers were at our house the night of Rees’ memorial, and we returned to a pristine, clean yard.  The fallen leaves that covered my yard were removed and order was restored to my surroundings.  It was a blessing that induced a lone smile on that most difficult of days.  Little did I know, the kindness of the Kelly brothers had only just begun…

The next day Bill Kelly arrived at my door again.  He asked me if I was pleased with their work and I responded with an emphatic yes and thanked him over and over.  He told me that it was the least they could do, and then made a request of me:  he asked if he could move some of our plants and plant some mums to give some symmetry to our yard.  I told him they had already done so much and I could not accept his offer.  He then looked at me and said that he did not want our money, he just wanted to honor my little boy by making his home beautiful.  I did not know what to say, and thanked him again, over and over.  His workers arrived minutes later (saying no was now clearly never an option) and they began redesigning our landscape.  Not only did they move some plants, they also mulched my entire yard and brought in hundreds of new plants.  The kindness did not stop there.  Bill Kelly appeared at my door one more time and asked me his toughest question; “What do you want to do with the pond?” he gingerly asked.  I told him my plan was to have it filled in, and replaced with a garden so that the literal hole in my world would be more.  He looked at me and said, “We will do it.”  The generosity that Bill and his company had showered upon us was already too much to quantify and here he was offering to remove the one thing that made me hate the home I loved.  I insisted on paying him for it and he again refused, saying that it was his duty and that our little boy deserved a place to be remembered free of the terrible memories that pond would elicit.

The Kelly Brothers crew came in and started early the next morning and throughout the day my entire family was spellbound as machines and workers came and went through our yard, filling in the hole in our world.  I remember trying to tip his workers, and they refused.  I tried to buy them lunch and they refused (though I did sneak up to our local Pizzeria and  left money to pay for lunch from an “anonymous donnor”).  When all was said and done, the Kelly brothers had not only removed the pond and its accompanying gazebo, but they placed down sod and re-landscaped our whole backyard and turned it into a beautiful garden.  They had taken the worst possible physical object in my world and turned it into a thing of beauty – and would not accept a dime from me in the process.  When I asked if I could put a sign out in our yard or something to acknowledge their work, they again refused.  The Kelly brothers performed the first act of kindness in Rees’ name and did so out of the truest sense of selflessness.  That one incredible act of kindness acted like a parachute which slowed my fall and pointed me in the direction I find myself in today.

583_4737447275061_1912985923_nAs I sit here now, almost a year removed from these events, I find that I am still falling.  Not a moment goes by where I do not think of my little boy.  Not a day passes where the image of him in that pond does not sneak its way into my conscious thoughts.  Every night I go to bed I see him on that table. Every. Single. Night.  I feel like I can still taste the remnants of that last kiss.  My perfect recollection of that day makes it feel as though I know the exact  hues of  the oranges, browns, and reds of autumn day and each day that passes brings me one shade closer than the last.  When I look out my window the leaves the Kelly brothers removed find themselves carpeting my lawn once again.  I walk outside now and catch those familiar smells and see those familiar sites.  Everything that was there when I lost my boy is coming back… everything is coming back except my boy.

I fall every time that realization hits me, and I suppose it is now my burden to expect that Autumn will forever cause me to fall just a little bit more.   But, as one of my favorite movies told me,  the reason we fall is so that we can learn to get back up again.  Every Autumn leads to Winter, and every Winter yields to Spring.  When looked at from that perspective, fall is nothing more than part of the the greater cycle of life.  From death there is life.  Perhaps, instead of lamenting the fall, I can accept the role it plays in the grand scheme of things as it grants me the perspective I need to move forward with my mission.  Fall is also known as the harvest season.   My own fall has taught me that kindness is like a seed that can only grow and spread if it is cultivated with a respect for life.   By that measure, I can look to my fall as the beginning of the harvest of kindness that was cultivated by a little Rees Specht.

DSC00491A year ago this time perhaps I was you.  I had everything I could ever need in life, yet the feeling that I wanted more tugged on my brain like a child incessantly pulling their parent’s pant-leg to get their attention.  I deserved more pay for my job.  I needed a bigger home and a better car.  I required the latest and greatest iPhone to uphold my status as a true “technophile”.  My taxes were too high, gas was too expensive, my lawn wasn’t green enough and my bank account not nearly full enough.  Yes, not too long ago I wanted more – and that want filled me with a repressed jealousy of those who had that which I desired.  Family members who took extravagant trips, neighbors with better landscaping, friends with bigger TV’s all served to fuel my desire  on a daily basis.  It wasn’t fair that these people had these things.  I worked just as hard, I faced as many, if not more hardships, and I did everything I was supposed to do, yet I still did not “have it all”.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a bad person.  I gave to charity.  I held doors open for people.  I left tips for my waiter/waitress (and always gave more for exceptional service).  I thanked people who did nice things for me.  I lent tools to neighbors who needed them – and thanked them when they reciprocated in kind.  I did all the “nice” things I was supposed to, yet inside there existed a part of me that  felt an entitlement to niceness from others for no other reason than I was owed it.  In my mind, I truly believed that you should get what you give, and since I was so nice, well dammit – I should get some of that back!

This feeling of entitlement was often exacerbated by other’s rude actions.  If someone cut me off while driving it was my moral imperative to make some rude gesture or lay on my horn to remind them of just how awful a person they were for doing that.  People who I did not care for were afterthoughts – and more often than not, perceived as obstacles I needed to maneuver around so that I could make my way in the world.   If I was in a rush to get somewhere, and and someone in front of me was slowing me down, I was rightfully justified in letting them know they were the cause of my inconvenience.  If someone had the nerve to criticize my opinion,  it was on me to re-educate them because I was confident that my experience and knowledge was superior to theirs and their ignorance must be corrected.  Yes, it was my duty to ensure that people knew what was right, and damned if I wasn’t going to let them know in order to help them see the truth…

386 days ago everyone else but me just did not “get it”, and they deserved  little of my attention because, frankly, my wants and needs were more important.  I walked through life with a Cheshire Cat grin buttressed by my cocksureness.  I had it all figured out until my world came crashing down and the reality of true loss made its presence felt in a tangible way that tears at the fabric of my being to this very day.  Rees’ death was a supernova that destroyed everything I thought I “knew”.  Immediately following his death, the Rich Specht that was ceased to exist.  Rees’ passing gutted me, literally and figuratively.  The pain of his death rendered me and Samantha completely inert – and totally dependent upon others.  I was no longer the smug, know-it-all Mr. Fix-it;  rather I was the broken, humbled and shattered mirror image of myself whose family and friends were left behind to try and pick up the pieces… and put them back together they did as best they could.

I would love to say that the pieces all fit back together again, but that would be a lie.  As I approach the one year anniversary of Rees’ death, there are still pieces that are missing from what once was, leaving gaps in the reflection.  Every once in a while there seems to be moments where I discover those pieces;  sometimes they catch a flicker of light and I have the opportunity to put the piece back myself and other times I seemingly step right on them, their razor sharpness slicing their way painfully back into the mosaic of my shattered being.   Regardless of how many pieces I replace,  the mirror will never be the same, as the cracks remain ever present reminders of event that shattered me in the first place.

I now stand, one year later, a changed person:  The tragic events of October 27th serving as the catalyst of the reaction that produced my current state.  My changed perspective finds me appreciative of what I already have, and sorrowful for that which I lost.  No longer do I believe that happiness and kindness is something I am entitled to.  I look upon others and realize that their own perspective probably means they think the way I used to – and it is no more their fault for feeling that way than it is a tree’s fault for crashing through a home during a storm – it’s just nature.  I now realize that people’s perspectives never change unless the agent of change is wrought upon them by an external force.  In my case the agent of change of was the death of my son.  My good friend, Rob Edwards, told me that some people are put here on Earth to change others, and that it may very well have been Rees’  job to change me and my perspective.  If that is the case, then it only stands to reason that it is now my job to carry on the essence of the hardest lesson ever taught to me and use my experience to help change others’ perspectives.  Regardless of what I accomplish for others, I do know that there are two little girls who see what we are doing and recognize the importance of making it a priority to respect each other.  If ReesSpecht life were to end this very moment, I know that my daughters saw their parents take this awful experience and use it to do something good.  In turn, they will now carry on Rees’ legacy to their family and friends.  This essay my daughter wrote proves it:photo

In losing our little Rees Specht’s life, my family gained a Respect for Life.  Our perspective is not what it was, and our hope is to change that perspective for others, one piece at time.

462942-bigthumbnailIn 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…

 

 

 

 

 

431722_4737461955428_110405206_nThere is a hidden me that no one sees.  He is right next to you in the theater, watching with you but feeling something different.  While you are laughing the hidden me is holding back tears condensed from a fleeting glimpse of something that reminded him of Richie.  The hidden me fakes a laugh so as not to arouse the suspicions of those next me.  The outer me is enjoying the film with you while the hidden me is breaking apart inside.  After  some time passes my facade wrestles the hidden me into a détente – a tenuous truce where the hidden me recedes further into the shadow of my being, waiting for its opportunity to hide in plain sight again.

The hidden me is right next to you in bed, hearing the silence of your peaceful slumber: careful to ensure his sobs don’t disturb the peace you appear to be in; all the while envious of  your unconscious state – unfettered and out of touch with the nightmarish reality that our little boy is gone forever.  Soon those sobs that started as a trickle swell with the growing tide of my despair and the hidden me shudders at your comforting touch – acknowledging its failure to remain in the shadows.   In that rare event in which the hidden me fails, it concedes its discovery to the power of your loving words and gentle caress – a power that only you, my love, has.

For the majority of the time the hidden me is much more successful in in its ability to skulk in plain site; its only feint a quick twitch or head shake belying the seemingly collected and cool facade.  The distant drone of sirens, its burgeoning sound acting like a chisel chipping away my peace, reminds me every time of that last image I have of my little boy – yet my hidden self adeptly hides the pain that terrible sound etches upon my well being.  Swimming in a pool calls forth my hidden self to hide the agony gripping my heart as it invariably calls forth images of that awful moment, carefully masking the inner pain with forced laughter and forged smiles.   Watching fathers playing with their sons is where my hidden self truly hones its theatrical artistry as it displays an outwardly approving grin while under the curtain exists my heart aching for the ability to do that, even just one more time, with Rees. oh yes, my hidden self is a master of his art – so masterful that it conceals my jealousy of every happy father, playing with their sons, behind a veil of smiles and approving grins an act that would place me amongst the upper echelon of great thespians.

I do not wish to be a prisoner of my hidden self.  I want to scream “I’m not ok!” ,  or “No!!!” – yet my hidden self stops me at every turn.   I want to tell people just how low I actually feel, yet my hidden self has me speaking in front of hundreds of people pretending to be strong.  Strength is merely perception… I only appear strong because of the illusion my hidden self has created.  That is precisely why I write:  my hidden self cannot stop my written words.  These writings provide the balance that I require to keep moving forward, and ensure that my hidden self cannot remain  in the shadows forever.  I am not sure if the pain is ever going to subside, but I do know the words I write today  keep my  hidden self from preventing the truth from being exposed.  I am both strong and week, happy and sad.  They say that actions speak louder than words and that is precisely why ReesSpecht life exists:  through action I can ensure that the perception of my strength can be used to help others in a tangible way… And the expression of my weakness can help me.