The New York Islanders and ReesSpecht Life are proud to announce
It has been a while since I have written anything, I think mostly because I really do not find myself with enough time lately. ReesSpecht Life’s incredible growth in the past few months comes with the consequence of Sam and I having very little down time away from either our Daughters, our careers or the foundation. I think most people assume that Sam and I have people working for us, helping us out with card orders and all the minutiae of running the foundation – but we don’t. So far, the majority of ReesSpecht life’s day to day operations, is a two person show. Combine those time commitments with the normal commitments of everyday life and you find yourself in a position where free time is a nice idea, but not reality. Luckily, as teachers, we do have “built in” vacations that give us a breather from a large commitment of our time and the past few days finds me re-discovering that missing free time I used to have a lot more of.
It couldn’t come at a better time. Yesterday was my daughter Abby’s 9th birthday. When asked what she wanted to do, she requested a day of relaxation – a gift for both herself and us. She requested that I finally sit with her to watch the final chapter of the Extended edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the two of us sat for over four hours, in our pj’s, watching the final act of Peter Jackson’s masterpiece. It was awesome. I cannot describe the feeling of sharing something you love with your child and knowing it is resonating with them in much the same way. Our reactions to each scene seemed to mirror each other through every part, until the very ending. It was at the end that our experiences diverged and what left Abby happy and content with the denouement found me sobbing and deeply hurt.
If you have never read the Lord of the Rings, or viewed the film, I cannot possibly sum it up in words that would do it justice without writing a small novel myself. It is an epic that deals with good and evil and everything in between, yet its central theme is one of the power of true friendship; specifically the friendship between two Hobbits, Samwise Gamgee and Frodo Baggins. It is their friendship, and its ability to overcome every hardship that it faces, that ultimately allows Frodo to complete his task of scaling Mount Doom and destroying the “One Ring” and save all of Middle Earth. When Frodo finds himself unable to finish his climb, it is Sam who picks him up, ignoring the danger surrounding him, and carries him without question. Without this selfless act, and countless others by Sam, Frodo would never have been able to complete his task. If not for the power of true friendship, Middle Earth would have been destroyed. The metaphor is powerful: a true friend is one who drops everything, no matter the cost, to carry us up our own personal Mt. Doom, allowing us the opportunity to cast out the evil’s in our own lives. Friendship is truly one of life’s greatest gifts.
I count myself blessed to say that I am gifted with many friends, both old and new. Some friends I made in college, some from work and a couple, very special friends whom I met in elementary school. My oldest friends remain a fixture in my life, though our lives find us in different places geographically. Out of all these people whom I can call a true friend there was always one that stood out… was different, like a brother: My friend Craig. Craig was that friend who you could tell anything to, do anything with and just be yourself. He shared my interests in the outdoors, video games and just about everything else. Instead of being mirror images of each other, we were more like two complimentary pieces: I was the Yin to his Yang. Craig had a free living side to him that always tested my cautious and cerebral approach. He challenged me to break out and try new things that I would never contemplate on my own. Conversely, I was a leveling influence on him, helping him to slow down and think more about his actions at times. Craig was the friend who I could let myself go with, who challenged me to break some barriers I would never think of on my own. He was a free spirit with a big heart and I can truly say I love him like a brother.
I met Craig back in first grade and we hit it off almost immediately. There was rarely a weekend that went by from that early time through High School that we did not spend at each other’s house. Craig became just as much a fixture in my home as I was in his. We were family, and it never got old hanging out with him. I recall fondly many a night
wasted , well spent , playing games until the sun peaked up, eating chips, drinking soda and laughing (mostly at muted levels so as to not wake our parents) the whole time. We talked about our future’s and fears, hopes and dreams. Never in our discussions was there even the slightest expectation that we would not be a part of each other’s adult lives. Whatever our futures were to hold, we knew that each other would be a part of them.
As we got older and life’s realities ebbed more and more into the forefront of our lives Craig’s and my paths started to diverge. I went off to College and Craig enlisted in the Navy. He didn’t last very long in the Navy, as its structured way of living just did not mesh with him at all. As my life progressed over the years, his stagnated. He did not hold jobs for too long and got involved with things he never should have. Through it all, through all of his troubles, I always tried to be there for him. To help him, to guide him. To just be there for him. I felt it my obligation to help him, even when his other friends gave up on him. He was my brother, and I always tried to do everything I could for him, and when I could not help him solve his problems it tore me apart. The problem solver in me wanted so badly to fix his problems for him, and often I could do nothing – but I never gave up trying.
Regardless of the issues Craig faced, our relationship changed very little. Whenever we got together we were still those two boys just enjoying our adventures together. Those adventures continued through the birth of my three children. Craig’s arrival at my home was always greeted with raucous excitement. “Uncle Craig”, as my children called him, was the ultimate playmate. I would always marvel at how well he got along with my children. I know a great deal of their love for him was the fact he was in many ways just a big kid himself – a kid who would do anything to make them smile.
I always loved that my children loved Craig as much as I did; in many ways it gave extra relevance to my feelings for him. Every time he showed up at our house my children’s eyes lit up. This was no different on October 27th, 2012. As I have written about in the past, Rees was in a bad mood that day. It is the reason he did not go shopping with my wife. .. I told her to leave him with me so that she could have a little less chaos while out shopping. When I made that suggestion I was not really thinking about the logistics of clearing my lawn furniture with a precocious 22 month old boy – it was only after she left that I realized I would not be able to keep my eyes on him while I was working. I was in a bind now – the whole reason I was staying home was to do the furniture, but now with Rees in tow it would not be possible. I contemplated doing the furniture while Rees napped, but I thought the better of it, fearing that something could happen and I would not hear…
Much to my delight, I received a phone call from Craig telling me he was getting out of work earlier than anticipated and that he was coming over early. He had already volunteered to watch the kids that night and his reprieve from work meant I would have an extra pair of eyes to watch Rees. When he arrived I asked him to watch Rees while I put away the lawn furniture. Before I started moving furniture I remember seeing Craig and Rees at the pond feeding the fish. Rees was so happy to be with his Uncle Craig – and I know Craig felt the same in kind. When I did get outside to move the furniture I lost track of Rees and Craig as I focused on getting everything away before Sam returned home so that we could go out that night. It took me about 40 minutes to an hour to finish, and it was at that time when I saw Rees in the driveway with Craig. That is when I saw Rees playing with that damned toy. That is when I yelled at my best friend for giving him an age inappropriate toy as well as a collectible. It is the last interaction I ever had with my boy alive. He cried because his Daddy took his toy away. I still can’t get the notion out of my head that the last thing I ever did with my boy was make him cry.
After that I closed the garage doors, not knowing that my attempt to seal those doors sealed my little Rees’ fate. Craig went inside and apparently left Rees in the driveway. When I went inside and asked him where Rees was he uttered those six words I will always dread: “I thought he was with you.” Those six words have a much deeper meaning that up until now I have not been able to share with anyone outside of my close friends and family. Those six words sealed the fate of my friendship with Craig, but not in the way you might suspect. I never blamed Craig for Rees’ death – I have always viewed it as a tragic accident. However, while I don’t hold blame over him, the fact still remains that I asked him to watch Rees and he failed to do so. He admitted as much to me that night when I returned from the hospital. He blamed himself over and over again, lamenting his decision to go inside my house and put the truck away and go to the bathroom. He made a mistake and left Rees alone. When I asked him where Rees was he said he thought he was with me… he thought he was with me. It was not something he did on purpose. He thought he left him with me. He made a mistake. A mistake that was fatal to my little boy.
I embraced Craig that night. I would not let him leave my home. I feared for him. I knew his history and was afraid he would do something he would regret. I sat with him on our large loveseat and I embraced him. I told him it was an accident. I was determined to help him through this like I had helped him so many times before. He was worried about what the police would do. We both, separately, spoke with several police officers and detectives who recorded the stories of both Craig and I. The policemen all assured me that it was clear that what happened to Rees was nothing more than a tragic accident and their report would reflect that. Both Craig’s and my versions of what happened were the same, and no foul play was suspected. Additionally, they informed me that a member of Child Protective Services would come to my home the next day to follow up, but that I had “nothing to fear, it is just a formality”, and that would be that. Craig needed to be present when CPS arrived so that they could also get both sides of the story. While I was talking to him I could easily see that he was scared and I tried to reassure him that everything would be ok. We talked for a little while, we cried and I kissed him on the head. I promised him that we would get through this. I know he believed it because he fell asleep and slept through until the next morning..
I remember the following morning waking up and roaming my home as if in a drunken stupor. I was in shock. I walked by Rees’ crib to get him at one point only to find the blankets ruffled in the same configuration from the previous day, empty and lifeless – destined to remain that way in perpetuity. I recall grabbing his Mickey Mouse and holding it as if it were him, hoping that the nightmare would end and Mickey’s facade would shed off and reveal my little boy underneath. I carried out the very basic of life functions, mindlessly making a coffee and grabbing a bite to eat. My mind was all at once racing and completely shut down – a paradox that only someone who has been in this position can understand.
“This is the first sunrise without him”, I thought to myself. I had just witnessed the dawning of a new day, the first of the rest of my new days that would never, ever include my beautiful little boy. It was the first time I realized that my life was never going to be the same again, and that a giant void now occupied the place in my soul reserved for Reesie. I was overwhelmed with despair and found it hard to breathe. I got up from my kitchen table and headed back upstairs, pausing to see Craig sleeping on the couch, twitching every once in a while – his face contorting and moans escaping the gaps in his lips, his body contorted into the fetal position. I knew what he was seeing. My poor friend, who witnessed the very worst thing that could possibly happen to me, was reliving that terrible moment in his dreams. I grabbed his hand and told him it would be ok and I walked upstairs to rejoin my family who were all still huddled in our bed. What I saw when looking at my family was a stark contrast to Craig. My three ladies were all asleep and they looked peaceful. Part of me didn’t want them to wake, as I knew the moment I did they would join me in the nightmare that was our new reality.
The rest of that day was a blur with one glaring exception: The CPS worker did come to my home to interview Craig and I. I remember the interview all to well. I just wanted it to end, as the verbal recounting of the tragedy seemed to exponentially magnify my grief. The CPS caseworker seemed aware of this and he hastened his questions, thanked me for doing what was nigh impossible to do and he went on his way. He spoke with some members of my family and informed them that another agent would come by “in a couple of weeks” to check up on us and see how we were doing. He told my family that there was nothing to fear, that this was clearly just a tragic accident and nothing more.
In the weeks that followed, life started to slowly return to the “New Normal” that my family and I were supposed to get back to. I continued to talk to Craig, we got together a few times and even took the girls to go see Santa together. The pieces of both of our shattered lives were slowly coming back together and I was happy that we did not let this tragedy tear us apart. It was also during this time that Samantha and I were visited by that second CPS caseworker. We were told to expect his arrival to check up on us and see how we were doing, and honestly we did not think twice about it. I recall that the sight of him at my door immediately vaporized our expectation that this was a mere “checking up” visit replacing it with a more ominous feeling. Whereas the first agent elicited a feeling of calm and empathy, this new agent was anything but. Something about this new agent immediately put Samantha and I off. Whereas the first CPS worker came across as sincere and trustworthy, this person outwardly seemed the antithesis. At the time, I could not put my finger on it, but I had the gnawing feeling that this was the beginning of something bad. Disregarding my intuition, we graciously allowed him into our home.
Almost immediately it became clear that this was not merely the “checking up on you” visit we were promised. Sam and I gave each other quizzical looks as this new CPS worker asked us all of the same questions the first agent did. He then asked to see the pond, stating he wanted to take a picture of it – and seemed aggrivated by the fact it was already filled in and removed from our world. He then asked to take pictures of Rees’ room as well as the girl’s bedrooms. It was at this point I really started to feel intimidated and I asked him why he was doing this, and I got the answer I have come to learn to despise: “It’s just standard procedure.”
We then returned to our kitchen table and CPS worker explained to us how the process works. He pointed out that all accidental deaths of children in New York State warrant an investigation by CPS. He then went on to point out that their investigations can lead to 1 of 3 findings: 1) A charge of child abuse would be “Unfounded”, meaning there was no evidence of negligence or abuse. CPS’ involvement would end there and I could effectively go on my not so merry way. 2) A charge of “Founded”, meaning there was clear evidence of abuse and negligence and I would be placed on the New York State Child Abuse Registry and could potentially have my children taken away. 3) A charge of “Indicated” , meaning there exists some evidence OR HERESAY, that POTENTIALLY indicates me in the negligence or abuse of Rees. What he left out and what I found out later is that I would also be placed on the New York State Child Abuse Registry, but they would not take my children away. He then went on to explain that a charge of founded was unlikely, but that I could be Indicated. I remember Sam looking at me with real fear in her eyes; my pursed lip and shaking head reflecting my naive belief back to her that there was no way anyone could come to any other conclusion than “Unfounded”. As he was leaving, he told me to expect one more visit and that if I had any questions I could call him, or his supervisor. We both walked him to the door and I escorted him out and Sam immediately asked me if we should be worried. I replied “No way, there isn’t a person on Earth that would find what happened to Rees to be anything other than an accident”. I hugged her tight, put the card away in a kitchen drawer and honestly did not think about CPS again until the beginning of December.
The beginning of December is when things really started to unravel. The worker returned for a second time, the third overall visit from CPS. He again asked us some of the same questions, but this time he had several new ones, most of them involving Craig. He asked me a lot of personal questions about Craig. He asked me to state that I had specifically asked Craig to watch Rees while I put away the furniture. He then asked me if Craig had any history with drugs or alcohol. He asked me if I ever had any suspicion that Craig was under the influence of any drugs or alcohol the day Rees died and I answered honestly: ABSOLUTELY 100% no way. He then asked how would I know if he was using or not? I replied that since I was Craig’s closest, lifelong, friend, that I was WELL aware of any signs that he was impaired in any way – and I was sure he wasn’t. The CPS worker then dropped that line of questioning and seemed satisfied with my answer. At this point I really felt like I was being interrogated. He asked me again where I was when I saw Rees for the last time. He asked me if I recalled seeing Craig go into the house – my answer being no, because I had already closed the Garage doors with both Rees and Craig still in the driveway. He then stopped his questioning of me, and dropped a bomb on me that I will never forget: he told me his report would most likely end up with me being “Indicated in the negligent abuse of Rees”, but that he had yet to speak with Craig, apparently having tried unsuccessfully for the past week to contact him. His report was waiting on Craig’s side of the story.
After the caseworker left I immediately called Craig. I told him what was happening to me and that he needed to get in touch with the caseworker ASAP and tell him his side of the story. I told Craig that they were looking to “Indicate” me and he needed to make sure that he talked to the agent to clear things up. Craig assured me that he would talk to him and he held true to his word. Once I had confirmation that Craig had spoken with him I was sure everything would be ok. In my mind, all they needed to hear was that Craig’s recollection of events was the same as mine. I thought everything would be ok. I thought wrong.
About two weeks after that I got a notice from CPS that I was indeed “Indicated” in the negligent abuse of Rees through a failure to supervise. Furthermore, their findings stated that I “represented a potential threat to other children” and I would be placed on the New York State Child Abuse registry. The letter went on to tell me that this finding would prevent me from gaining a license to work with children or adopt them. The letter went on further stating that I could formally question their findings and request an amendment to their findings with a letter to the New York State Department of Family Services and if that were denied I was entitled to a “Fair Hearing” (held at CPS’ offices with an administrative law judge). My head was spinning. I was a teacher. My first thought was I can lose my teaching license, my career. I immediately called a lawyer.
When I met with the lawyer he went over all the facts of the case and asked me a question I will never forget “How good of a friend is your friend, Craig?”. “The best” , I told him, “I would walk through fire for him and he would do the same for me, why?”. My lawyer went on to explain to me that it was simple: Craig needed to state specifically to CPS that I asked him to watch Rees. If he did that then the findings against me would be dropped. I immediately then asked my lawyer if that would implicate Craig for the same thing I was now being charged with and he explained to me that it would not because CPS has to make their report with 90 days of the incident. In other words, if Craig were to confirm that I asked him to watch Rees their case would be null and we could go on with our lives. I remember feeling elated at the news. I couldn’t wait to call Craig and tell him so I could get these ridiculous charges against me thrown out.
I called Craig as soon as I got home. I explained the situation to him. I told him exactly what the lawyer said and he told me that he was afraid they would come after him. I explained to him about the 90 day rule and that it would have no effect on him. I told him that this was his moment to walk through fire for me after all the times I did it for him. He said ok, and I went to sleep that night thinking that all would be ok. I was wrong again. The next morning I got a phone call from my sister who said that Craig called her and told her he couldn’t do it… that he could not fall on the sword for me. She told me to call him right away. It hit me like a truck. I recall almost being at school when I spoke to my sister and my heart was racing. I immediately called Craig and asked him about what he spoke to my sister, of all people, about. His words were cold and distant and he repeated them over and over – like they were rehearsed: ” I can’t tell CPS that you asked me to watch Rees. You asked me to babysit that night, that is all I was there to do.” He repeated that statement several times, over and over again like a robot.
I lost it. Every pent up emotion that was in my soul from the loss of Rees was unleashed on him. I cannot describe the fury I felt at that moment save to say it was nuclear in magnitude. Regretfully, I berated him and insulted him, my rage overriding any attempt at logical discourse. I blamed him for Rees’ death. I told him it was his fault, even though I didn’t believe it. I wanted to hurt him like he had hurt me. Looking back, I wish I had taken a deep breath and just hung up. I regret every word I said to him, warranted or not. My only excuse was the raw emotion I felt and the inability to contain it properly. Much like my interaction with my little boy found me raising my voice in anger, my last conversation with my best friend ended the same way.
And it is there that I find myself today. My written request for CPS to ammend their findings was denied, and I had to go the “Fair Hearing” without Craig. The lawyer for CPS read Craig’s statement that was taken by the second CPS agent and it mirrored the phrase he kept repeating to me that awful morning. I remember sitting in the hearing, hoping beyond hope that Craig would come through the door and do what was right and set the record straight. He never came. I was alone fighting for my career and my name. Our friendship survived the loss of my little boy, but died when forces bigger than us demanded their pound of flesh. I will never, ever be able to fathom why he refused to testify that I asked him to watch Rees. The man who I walked through fire for countless times, refused to do the same for me. Maybe it is his guilt in having to accept any responsibility, not blame, in Rees’ death. Maybe it is something else. I have said, and always will say that what happened to Rees was a tragic accident. I don’t know why Craig thought Rees was with me, but he did. I cannot explain why he chose not to defend me, but my guess is that he did not want to incriminate himself; maybe to protect himself from any other actions.
Craig did not leave Rees alone on purpose. It was an accident – a tragic accident whose collateral damage destroyed a friendship I held so dear. It is for that reason I wept yesterday while watching that scene with my daughter. Sadly, when it was my turn to climb Mount Doom I was not carried by my friend, I was left alone. I miss my best friend. I miss my little boy. I cannot change the past, no matter how much I wish I could. What I can do is move forward and I choose to do so positively. I will continue to pay forward the acts of kindness we received in the wake of the loss of Rees. My career is no longer in jeopardy and I can adopt if I wish. My name will not go on that registry. Regardless of what happened, my friend Craig will always be one of Rees’ pieces. I saw the joy in my little boy’s eyes when my friend was with him, and I sincerely thank him for all of those smiles. Maybe one day I can sit down and talk with Craig about all of this – I would like that. Maybe he will be on the receiving end of a ReesSpecht Life card. He never did come through that door that day, but I want him to know that door is always open…