6042_10207923625549454_1000671961413670549_nTomorrow, December 19th 2015, would have been Rees’ fifth birthday.  It will be the 4th birthday we will celebrate with a somber silence instead of laughter and joy.  Instead of wrapping his presents, we are collecting toys to give to other families that are in need.  In lieu of blowing out candles we will instead find ourselves blowing kisses to heaven – waiting for a small breeze to signify his kiss back to us.  An empty chair will find itself occupied by fleeting glimpses in our mind’s eye of what could have been.  Momentary visions of what could have been will usher anger and anguish into the center stage seating of the darkened theater of our minds.

I don’t wish to be a part of this play, yet I find myself on stage every December 19th.  The script remains agonizingly unchanged even though it is in desperate need of editing.  New characters may be added, and even more find themselves removed, but the star is always the same… the empty chair.  My family and I find ourselves forced, like prisoners, to be a part of it, regardless of our wishes to be in another show.  I want nothing more than to not be a part of this production, but it simply isn’t possible.  No matter what I do, or where I go, the empty chair is always there.

I wish I could say that I am ok with sending out our “pay if forward” cards instead of writing out birthday cards, but that would be a lie. I wish I could say that seeing the movement in his name grow in schools was a good substitute for seeing him grow; it’s not.  I wish I could say “I love you little man” and hear his voice respond “I love you too, Dad.” – but I never will.  All the wishes in the world can’t do anything to change the reality that he is gone forever. Nothing can change that.  No amount of books, animated television series, pay it forward cards etc. can ever bring him back.

Wishes are a tree that bears no fruit.  All the wishing in the world does absolutely nothing, regardless of the problem.  I can wish every moment of my life for Rees to come back, but it simply wont happen.  I often tell the students I speak to that I hate hearing people say, “I wish it was a better world!”…  Don’t wish for a better world, go out and make it one.

I should apply that same logic to the empty chair.  Wishing he was sitting in it does nothing but cause me pain.  Wishing he could blow out the candles on his birthday cake will always end up with the candles burning out on their own.  Wishing he could say the words “I love you Daddy”,  will always end with me being greeted by silence.  I need to stop wishing for the things that I can never have, and keep focused on the things that I have in front of me.

While we celebrate Richie’s brief life tomorrow, instead of focusing on the empty chair, and wishing it filled, I need to look at the four chairs that have my love perched atop them.  If I spend all of my time wishing for that empty chair to be filled I will lose site of the ones already occupied.  Wishing for that empty chair to be filled takes my eye off of what I already have.

Tomorrow I vow to try something different.  Tomorrow, instead of lamenting the empty chair, I will be thankful for all the filled seats at our table.  I need to remind myself that I am not letting Rees go by allowing myself to focus on my family that is here – in fact I am surely honoring what he would want us to do, which is to keep on living life to its fullest.

My God, I miss my little boy more than any words I write can adequately describe.  I know he can’t be with me physically, but I will continue to raise my fist to fate and do everything I can to honor his brief life.  When I imagine the smiles on over 260,000 people who were on the receiving end of an act of kindness inspired by him, a piece of him comes to life and lights up that dark theater of my minds eye.  If I focus on the positive I don’t need to wish for anything…  I can see it right in front of me.  Come to think of it, that empty chair actually isn’t really empty:  It’s filled with the love and kindness of hundreds of thousands of people who know his name and continue to cultivate kindness because of him…

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Our 2015 Toy Drive is on!

Our 2015 Toy Drive is on!

We are happy to announce that our 2015 Toy Drive is now in full swing!  We have over 40 drop-off locations for you to bring a new, unwrapped toy for a child that would greatly appreciate your kindness.  The toys donated to our drive will go to the Family Service League of Long Island and Kids need more.  We are in great need of toys/gifts for teenagers (the drive is for newborns – 16 years old).  Help us make the holidays a special time for children that would otherwise be forced to go without this time of year.  Your kindness makes all the difference to them.  Thank you so much.  Please find below a list of all drop-off locations on Long Island.

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Let's go Mets!

Let’s go Mets!

The sentimentality of baseball is very deeply rooted in the American baseball fan. It is the one sport that is transmitted from fathers to sons.

-Michael Lewis

If there exists something called destiny then I was destined to be a Mets fan since before birth.  My path to Mets fandom did not follow the traditional route, however.  My father was what you would consider a casual observer of baseball, but by no means a fan. If a game was on, regardless of whether it was a Mets or Yankee game, he would watch it but it was never something he prioritized.  I don’t recall now, but I imagine that early on I probably shared my father’s sentiment about baseball as well.  I vaguely remember watching games in 1984 with him, but nothing stands out in particular.  Just like my Dad, I was a casual observer, but I never made time to watch any particular team play, including the Mets.  In fact, there exists out there (but it will never be shared!) a picture of me in a, gasp, Yankees jacket that I got as a birthday gift when I was five or six.  Early on, for the most part, baseball was an after-thought to me.

That all changed in 1985…  It was in the spring of 1985 that my father took me to the first baseball game I could remember.  I don’t remember the game itself, but I do recall it was a Mets-Dodgers game and, more importantly, I remember how special it felt to be there with him.  Every memory I have of that night is not of the game itself, but rather of the moments I shared with my Dad,  I recall pulling up to Shea Stadium and staring in awe at its size.  I vividly remember my father flashing his badge to a fellow police officer who allowed us to park in a spot closer to the stadium, thinking how cool my Dad was to be able to do that.  I remember the awe I felt at the flurry of people everywhere and the buzz of excited anticipation that I unexpectedly seemed to share with everyone else there.  Most importantly, I recall walking out of the gate and catching my first glimpse of the field, amazed at how big it seemed compared to my little league field.  Everything about those early moments seemed larger than life.  My Dad, the field, the crowd, everything – it was like it was magic.  No, it wasn’t like magic…  It was magic.

My Dad, forgetting he was security and rushing the mound right after the Mets won the World Series in 1969.

My Dad, forgetting he was security and rushing the mound right after the Mets won the World Series in 1969.

If those few moments were the extent of my experience that night I have no doubt I would be a Mets fan today as a result, but it was something my father said right after we sat down that really sealed my fanaticism with the Mets forever.  I remember him pointing to the field and telling me “I was on that field when the Mets won the World Series in 1969.”  I recall immediately questioning how my father failed to make any mention in my 10 years of life about his Major League Baseball career.  I don’t recall saying anything to him, but I guess the puzzled look on my face was all he needed to elaborate.  It turns out he was there that night in ’69 serving as backup security at Shea Stadium.  He explained that the head of security for the Mets was from Suffolk County and, as a favor, he brought in Suffolk County Police Officers to serve as extra security for the games.  My Dad was lucky enough to be among the cadre of police officers to be there that night.  He told me he did his job well, right up until the final out of the game and that’s when he became a fan and stormed the mound with thousands of other Mets fans…

My little head was spinning at that revelation.  As I looked in awe out in front of the field in front of me that patch of dirt and grass became something almost mythical.  My father was on that field! MY DAD WAS ON THAT FIELD, was all I could keep thinking.  And if the fact he was on the field wasn’t enough to blow my 10 year old mind, Dad went on to explain that he also joined the Mets in the clubhouse after the game and celebrated with them.  He told me that we had a bottle of champagne from the celebration in our house.  He shared a story of drinking with Jerry Koosman, who literally gave him the warm-up shirt off his back.  He told me about how Yogi Berra bummed a cigarette off of him.  I remember looking at my father in complete shock…  Why didn’t he ever tell me this before, I thought?  I never had the chance to ask him, but the Dad in me knows the answer:  He was saving the magic for me when it would count.  He knew it would make an indelible moment in my life that would never fade.  He was right.  I fell in love with the NY Mets that night.  That love has really never ebbed an iota ever since…

Ever since that moment the Mets have been magical to me.  It never mattered if they won or lost.  The team, my personal connection to them – everything about them was, and always will be, magical.  When the Mets won the World Series in 1986 I watched every at-bat and followed every pitch.  I’ll never forget the crushing despair I had in my heart in the top of the tenth of game six when Dave Henderson crushed a fat pitch from Rick Aquilera over the left field fence.  I vividly recall the animosity I felt towards him when he squeezed the deep flyball off Keith Hernandez’s bat and briefly genuflected, marking the second out of the inning.  I thought it was over.  No way the Mets are going to score two runs with only one out to work with.  The magic seemed to fade just a little bit.  And then Gary “The Kid” Carter came up to bat and the rest is history…

Magic is the only thing I can attribute to how I was able to remain a fan of the Mets from the mid Nineties on.  They had some good moments over those years, but let’s be honest, most of that time was spent with Mets fans like myself suffering through just awful baseball.  I really didn’t care how poorly they played though, I still supported them.  Then in 2005, my daughter Abigail was born.  She was only a few months old when I took her to her first game at Shea.  I repeated the process when my daughter Lorilei was born.

Abby and I at the first game ever played at Citi-field

Abby and I at the first game ever played at Citi-field

Abby went with me to the first ever game played at Citi-field and she was even interviewed by a reporter from the Bergen Record.  It was a special thing to be able to share my love of the Mets with my girls and, to be honest, it added an extra layer of love and magic to my beloved team from Flushing.  I really never thought I would be able to top the feeling of sharing my passion for the Amazin’s with my girls until the birth of Richie in December 2010.  Samantha and I did not plan on having a third child, but as is often the case, the best things in our lives are often unplanned and unexpected.  Having had two girls already, I would be lying if I were to say that I wasn’t hoping for a little boy.  When Rees was born and the Doctor proclaimed “It’s a boy!” I remember the unbridled joy I felt.  All at once I envisioned a future where I would not only be blessed with little girls to dote over, but I now had a son who I could share “boy things” with.  It’s not that I could not share those “boy things” with my girls… it was just different.  I can’t explain it – nor do I want to.  I don’t want to diminish how special it is to share all of my loves (including the Mets) with my daughters.  Suffice to say, it is just different having a boy to share certain things with.  My love for the Orange and Blue was no different.

The Nursery of MY dreams...

The Nursery of MY dreams…

Right after Richie was born I had already laid out our future in my mind. The first order of business was making his nursery everything NY Mets.  I got the official paint colors of the team and made his nursery a shrine to the team I loved – and hoped he would too one day.  I placed the picture of my Dad storming the mound right in front of his crib, with a commemorative picture of Shea stadium adorning the adjacent wall.  I littered the room with many of my Mets collectibles.  I recall a moment, after I finished the room, where I pre-conceived the moment in my mind when I would take him to Citi-Field for the first time he could remember.  I had it planned that I would make it special, just like my Dad did for me.  I was going to hold off on sharing some of those stories, like my father before me, and let the magic of our family’s personal connection to Mets history wash over him.  I was going to coach him in the intricacies of baseball and we would have long discussions about strategy and hot-stove baseball.

Our future was going to be great.  The possibilities were endless and the hope of sharing a World Series victory with him was absolutely tantalizing.  Sadly, that future never came to be.  The enchanted destiny I envisioned for me and my little boy ended on October 27th, 2012 when Richie passed away after a drowning accident in our backyard.  Every magical moment that existed in my foresight was swallowed up by that hole behind my house.Instead of a lifetime of memories with my little boy, I found myself left living an existence tainted by “what if’s?” and “could have been’s”.

To make matters worse, the very thing that set in motion the tragic series of events that lead to Rees’ death was centered around the Mets.  I had asked my friend to watch Rees while I was putting away lawn furniture on the Saturday before Superstorm Sandy was set to arrive.  He graciously accepted the responsibility and he played with Rees while I did what was necessary to protect the things that, in hindsight, meant nothing really.  As I was finishing up I saw Rees playing with something…  A Mets toy truck; one of those collectibles that I littered his room with.  I immediately took the toy from him in anger and disgust – outraged that my friend would allow a 22 month old to play with something that was clearly not meant for his age.  The fact it was a “Collectible” only compounded my fury.  I immediately took the toy away from Rees, which of course made him cry, and admonished my friend for being careless.  That was the last time I saw my son alive.  The last thing I ever did to him was take his Mets toy away from him and make him cry…

It was no longer magic that I associated with the Mets after that moment; it was tragedy.  It was pain.  To be honest, it remained that way for the next two years after he passed.  While my love for everything was diminished in some way by the loss of my only boy, there was a special pain and hurt forever associated with the Mets and that damned truck.  I hardly watched any games in those two years and I only went to maybe two or three games total.  Watching the Mets provided me with a constant reminder of those “what if’s?” and “could have been’s”.  It hurt too much to love my team – and as with anything that causes us pain, I avoided the Mets, almost entirely.

The other thing about pain is that, even when it’s chronic, we eventually begin to build a tolerance.  That tolerance began with the beginning of this season.  For the first time in two years, I renewed my subscription to the cable channel that carries the Mets games.  I started watching them again and I found that the pain was slowly, but surely, replaced with joy again.  I took my family to several games and I even took a road trip and caught a game in Atlanta.

IMG_0099It seemed the more I watched them, the better they played.  It must sound silly to anyone other than myself, but in a very real way I don’t think that it is a coincidence.  It was almost as if my little angel boy was telling me “it’s okay to believe in the magic again, Daddy.”  It all came to a crescendo last night when the Mets clinched their first berth in a World Series since 2000.  As I celebrated in the euphoria of knowing my Mets were going to the World Series, I heard the announcer for Mets point out that game one will be played next tuesday, OCTOBER 27th…  I was actually at a sporting goods store waiting to purchase a Pennant, and I could not hold back tears.  The people around me looked at me funny – their faces indicating that, while this win is exciting, there is no reason to cry over it.  I wasn’t crying because the Mets won.  I was crying because what I heard in my heart was my little boy telling me he was with me through all of this, and will remain with me forever.  This was his way of making that anniversary I dread a day I can now look forward to in some way.  I now know that when my Mets take the field on the third anniversary of that awful day there will be a little angel in their outfield smiling down. It really doesn’t matter to me if they win or lose.  I already won.  The magic is back for me and it was the connection between a father and his son that did it…  Let’s go Mets!  … and If you wouldn’t mind, go out and win it for Rees 🙂

 

When nature finds itself out of balance, a storm erupts to restore equilibrium.  I always found it incredibly ironic that storms, in all of their destructive power, are actually about restoring balance.  As a man of science I inherently understand the role that storms serve in maintaining this equilibrium.  Sadly, understanding something and liking something are not always simpatico.  I may understand the necessary role that storms serve, but the fact remains that I hate them…

Why the disdain?  That is simple… Storms don’t care.  Storms don’t abide by any schedule.  Storms have no mercy.  No remorse.  No memory.  They just are.  They exist because the laws of nature demand that they do… No other reason.  Nature, very simply, is a double edged sword.  For all of nature’s grandeur, there must also be the dull minutiae.  For all of nature’s serenity there must also be disruption. It is said that nature abhors a vacuum.  In terms of storms, that couldn’t be more true: Balance cannot exist without equal parts positive and negative.

Our local news today was dominated by reports that Hurricane Joaquin could potentially be headed this way.  I swear you could almost feel the collective groans of everyone on Long Island upon hearing the news.  “Sandy” was a collective pain shared by all of us; an unwanted visitor that brought misery to everyone.  Even though we are almost three years out, there are parts of Long Island that still have not fully recovered.  The idea that another storm can hit so soon after the last one makes it seem like nature isn’t playing by the rules…

For my family and I the news of the approaching storm is causing more than a groan.  While the physical damage to my world wrought by Sandy was fixed right after the storm, the mental damage will always remain.   Superstorm Sandy will forever be linked with the chain of events that lead to the death of my son Richie. Simple cause and effect tells me that if the storm had never come, there would be no need to expedite the cleaning of my yard and the series of events that lead to Rees’ drowning wouldn’t have happened.

I realized early on that I couldn’t dwell on those “what if’s?”.  For the better part of three years I thought I did a really good job of burying those damaging thoughts deep, where they could never be disturbed.  I was terribly wrong.  It turns out the real storm forming in the Atlantic as we speak has stirred up an equivalent inner-storm in my, and my family’s souls.  Everything I thought I had buried so deep was quickly, and decisively upturned and brought right back to the surface…

All of the sudden I find myself teleported back to a time three years ago.  Here we are in the fall, waiting for a potentially huge storm to hit and having to think about the preparations we must make.  It seems like every conversation I have with my wife is a repeat of the very words uttered 3 autumns ago.  It all hearkens back to a time I would rather forget.

It’s not just words that are the same either.  Just like before Sandy, we have two older daughters and a baby/toddler.  We have a new, wonderful Au Pair who has settled in nicely in the past month.  The track of the storm is similar.  The timing (after a weekend) is almost the same.  Everything feels like it did three years ago, except one thing:  Our little boy is gone.

In a very real way both Samantha and I feel like all the similarities of this storm marks a march towards an inevitable outcome.  While my eyes see radar maps showing the swirling vortex of clouds headed for us, my heart sees the grim reaper with his blades spinning getting ready to take another piece of my family.  It sounds so irrational when I write that, but it is exactly how I feel.  The storm that is coming feels like a march to the inevitable.

The rational me keeps trying to reassure myself that every connection I am making is merely a confirmation bias.  I keep trying to tell myself that my fears are due to the personification I am giving the storm.  Yet for all of that left-brained thinking, how can I understand that a storm is simply a necessary part of nature, and also think it represents death incarnate?  In my mind, these two thoughts have no place together; their mere mutual existence should effectively annihilate each other. For someone like myself, who strives to make logical sense of everything, this is a problem that vexes me even further.

I'm going to keep having faith my little boy is pointing me in the right direction...

I’m going to keep having faith my little boy is pointing me in the right direction…

I think the answer is that sometimes there is no logic to be applied.  There are no equations to solve.  Sometimes life requires faith.  Up until I lost my little boy I never really had faith in anything that I could not quantify or describe.  The signs I have received from Rees in the past two years have instilled a faith in me where none existed previously.   Maybe I need to look at Joaquin as neither a storm, nor death but rather as a test of my faith.  I need to have faith that this storm will pass and everything will be ok.  There is no data to measure – no problem that can be solved.  I simply have to believe that everything will be ok.  My belief in the guiding hand of my little boy’s spirit has not let me down yet.  Every single time my faith has wavered, there has been an equal measure to restore it.  In the end, maybe this inner storm I am experiencing is my soul’s way of restoring balance to the faith I have.  Bring it on Joaquin… You may be powerful, but I have faith – a faith that continues to grow, one little piece at a time…


and no… I don’t plan on taking it this far – but I think I know how Lt. Dan felt now…

 

 

joy

I noticed the similarity of these two pictures as I was putting this blog together. I’ll never forget that moment with Rees and I am thankful I have the opportunity to have those moments with Melina.

My wife, also known as the Saint of Sound Beach (for putting up with me for more than 20 years now), reminds me often that I am a walking paradox. Apparently my ability to solve complex problems yet forget simple things like what days the garbage goes out is something that keeps her up at night.  I must admit, I find it incredibly frustrating that I can remember the most obscure facts about things, and have an uncanny ability to recall them, yet I struggle to remember the names of people I have known for some time.  I love pea soup, but I hate peas.  I love anything strawberry flavored, yet I despise strawberries.  I spend just as much time (ok, probably more) watching cartoons as I do reading papers about quantum mechanics and superstring theory.  I am equally comfortable playing video games with kids as I am discussing the role of entropy in degradation of living systems with my science colleagues.  Finally, I believe in the power of science and the scientific method to unlock the mysteries of the universe, yet I still believe in “magic”…

The oxford dictionary defines magic as: “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”  Arthur C. Clarke, the amazing mind behind 2001: A Space Odyssey, went even further to describe just what “magic” really is in his 3 laws of prediction:

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

-Arthur C. Clarke

To Clarke, and any most other scientists I know, “magic” is nothing more than something that is just waiting for a rational explanation.  I used to believe these three laws and subscribed to them as infallible doctrine.  I was such a firm believer in this doctrine, that I would use it with smug assurance to knock down any view that someone had that was in the least bit irrational in my eyes.  I admit, I used a version of it to explain to my parents why I believed that an afterlife or heaven, or even God for that matter, was all hokum collected in a book written 2000 years ago by ignorant people who could not explain the world around them rationally.  I was unabashedly arrogant in regards to this, and I rarely missed an opportunity to “correct” anyone who made the mistake of professing their beliefs to me.  As I look back now, I find it incredibly ironic that at that time where I was so sure my eyes were open to a bigger picture, they were in reality almost closed; narrowly focusing on only one way of seeing things.

I see things differently now in so many ways.  I’ve written before about how I feel my life has a permanent asterisk attached to it that seems to take a piece of my joy away.  Whatever happy frame I try to picture my life as must now be painted upon a canvas that is tattered and torn.  Regardless of how beautiful any particular moment is it’s impossible to gaze upon the whole picture and ignore the destroyed canvas underneath.  The damage remains a constant reminder of all that can go wrong and I now find I have an unwelcome, prescient sense that foresees all the possible negative outcomes that could follow.  It is impossible to look back on my life without framing it in reference to that terrible moment that robbed me of my little boy.

Losing my son has fundamentally changed how I look at, and respond to, the world around me as a whole.  I realize that I paint a bleak picture of child loss and its effects on the grieving parent.  Here I am, almost three years removed from that terrible moment, and the pain is as intense as the moment I realized he was gone.  Everything I wrote is true about the irreparable damage to my life’s canvas.  It’s true, I cannot look back at the big picture without seeing the damage… but who says I have to look back?  I find that I now possess the ability to compartmentalize my life and look at each moment as it comes, good or bad.  I possess an appreciation for the little moments that, in looking at the big picture, I would have overlooked in the past.  I now see the magic of the everyday moments that previously passed me by…

It’s ironic that in taking my gaze away from the big picture I now find myself seeing so much more than I ever did before.  Nowhere was this revelation more evident than our recent family trip to Walt Disney World in Florida.  I have been to Disney World countless times, and while I always enjoyed the trip, I never had an experience there like I did this past trip.  I admit, I had some trepidation about going this time, considering our last trip there was with Rees and in many ways it represents some of the fondest memories I have of him:

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That trip was the last time I really got to spend quality time with Rees and the whole family.  It was right at the end of the summer and, due to car issues, we actually returned right before school started.  I really didn’t have a chance to even digest the trip, and the memories we made there, since we were thrown right back into the craziness of the beginning of the school year.  Little did I know, but I would only have seven more weeks with my son.  Seven weeks that were unremarkable, mundane and just a part of the grind:  Wasted time that I wish I could get back even one day of so that I could be with my little boy again…

worldsign1As we prepared for this year’s trip to Disney I found my excitement tempered by the constant reminder that Rees would be missing.  No matter what I did to psyche myself up, nothing seemed like it could raise my excitement level to the highs I had previously experienced prior to a trip to “the happiest place on Earth.”  Try as I might, the big picture kept creeping in, keeping my focus off of life’s little miracles.  Just when I thought I would not be able to find the joy in what should have been the highlight of my year, a little magic found its way to me.  The second my eyes saw the sign welcoming us to Disney World, fate stepped in and saw me through to the magic of the moment.  I smiled the same smile I always did when I saw that sign, and in one brief moment, I was reminded to focus on the happiness of myself and my family.  That moment was magical – as was the rest of our trip.

Magic is the only word I can use to describe the feeling I had for those seven days with my family.  My daughter Abby and I rode every ride we could, and made point of making each moment count. I didn’t lament Rees not being there… because he was, in my heart – on my sleeve, the whole time.  My fear that I would compare this trip to the last one with him was completely unfounded.  In fact, I did compare it, but only in a positive way.  The fact I never once broke down, or found myself overwhelmed with melancholic thoughts was magic in and of itself.

As I look back to the trip I realize that another piece of the puzzle of grief has been filled in for me.  I love my little boy with all my heart, but he is gone, at least in a corporeal sense, and I have to focus on what I have.  I have three beautiful daughters who mean the world to me.  I have an amazing wife who inspires me.  I have a little angel above who lifts me up and challenges me to be the best I can be. The memories I have of him will never go away.  The joy he brought to my life can’t ever change.  Yes, his loss did alter my life’s portrait, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t admire the beauty of it as a whole.  While those quiet moments with him will never be again, there are new moments to be made with my three little girls and beautiful wife.  Every day presents opportunities for new experiences (and sometimes even inadvertent repeats of older ones…)  and a taste of life’s magic:

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We left this rider-share (fast pass) because we had no use for it. The couple we gave it to were so thankful. Kindness doesn’t have to cost a thing in many cases… except our time.

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Family is where my dreams begin and end. It all starts there.

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Mickey was Rees’ favorite and it brought a special smile to my face to see my little girl loving her time with her big brother’s hero.

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The girl’s shirts couldn’t have said it better… This trip was all about letting some things go and cherishing others.

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I know he was there with us…

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We made sure Rees was included on our shirts. He was with us the whole time.

That taste of life’s magic is what I think many of us are missing out on.  Our modern world is too full of self-imposed distractions that keep us from finding the wonder in life’s little moments.  My wife and I started ReesSpecht Life with really only two goals in mind: 1) Keep Richie’s legacy alive and 2) Remind people of the importance of kindness and helping one another.  While those two tenants remain as important to our mission as they ever were, I think I need to add a third goal:  Reminding people that goodness and the magic of life is something we should treasure.

It is my hope that by taking our message to schools this year, I can help other’s see the world from a different perspective without having to face the hardships my family and I endured to change ours.  I also hope that our story serves as a reminder to those who have suffered great loss that your life does not have to end with the loss of that loved one.  Life will continue and it is up to you to make that life the best it can be. The events of October 27th, 2012 have forced the perspective on me that no future is guaranteed and that each moment should be savored.  Although, sometimes, my happiness is negated to some extent I find that I am overall much more appreciative of what I have.  I find myself relishing moments that I am sure I would have otherwise overlooked.  And most of all, I now see the magic in everyday moments that the me before would have never even fathomed.  My little boy helped open my eyes to the things that were previously hiding in plain sight.  The kindness of others reinforced that we all possess a little magic in ourselves.  All I wish to do is to help us all recognize just how important it is to believe in that power.  I believe in magic.  I believe in the power of kindness to change the world.  Now it’s time to get others to see that too… one little piece at a time.

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The following is a piece written by my former student, Siobhan Becker, for her Journalism Class.  She reached out to several news outlets to publish it, but they declined.  Since we reach more people than many newspapers, I told her I would post it here.  I added the pictures, but everything else is hers (with the exception of a couple of edits)  It sums up our mission quite well…

At 8:35 a.m., a bell rings, signaling the beginning of second period at Great Hollow middle School in Nesconset. Rich Specht greets his first science class of the day. He’s got 26 eighth grade students to share his love of science with.

Today’s lesson is on the neuron, a specialized cell that sends nerve impulses throughout the body.

“It’s all about regulation,” he explains.

A typical Lesson for Mr. Specht

A typical Lesson for Mr. Specht

He gets a game of catch going with an orange foam ball to demonstrate the speed of neuron reactions- an effective way to teach visual learners. He follows this up with a story about claw machines to help his audio learners. The colorful claw machines we’re all addicted to are rigged to take advantage of humans’ slow reaction times. So if you’ve ever won a prize, you just got lucky.

The 41 minutes of class pass quickly and the bell rings at 9:16 a.m. Class is dismissed, but a handful of students stay after to talk to Rich about their favorite TV shows and to invite him to rehearsals for the school play tonight. Because to them, he’s more than their science teacher. He’s their friend.

And Rich enjoys their friendships. They’re enthusiastic and energetic. They make his job easy. They help distract him from a nightmarish reality that sneaks up on him when he’s alone with his thoughts.

The nightmare began on October 27, 2012. Rich and his family were preparing for Hurricane Sandy when miscommunication between Rich and a friend gave Rich’s 22-month-old son, Rees, an opportunity to wander out of the house and into the Specht’s backyard pond.

Rees was a brown-eyed boy who wore a permanent smile on his face and loved the word tractor.

“Everything to him was a tractor,” Rich says, shaking his head with a smile on his face.

Rees seemed to understand the meaning of kindness even at a young age.

“He would grab a flower and just hand it to you,” Rich says. “What kind of kid does that?”

Life just isn’t the same anymore for Rich, his wife Sam and their two older daughters, Abby, 10, and Lorilei, 8. They think of Rees every day. It’s hard not too. There are pictures of him in almost every room.

“I don’t think there are any of them in the bathrooms,” Rich says, laughing.

He brings extra photos of Rees to work with him. There’s one in his wallet and one on his keyring. Drawings of Rees are hung up around the classroom.

Portrait of Rees, one of many pictures that adorn the walls of the Specht House.  Photo Credit: Rich Specht

Portrait of Rees, one of many pictures that adorn the walls of the Specht House. Photo Credit: Rich Specht

The pictures don’t bother Rich when he’s teaching. He can get through five periods of science everyday without thinking about the day he lost his son, but the grief hits him at odd moments.

It washes over him during his free periods. When he thinks about all the things he was going to do with Rees. They were going to take trips upstate- Rich’s quintessential happy place. They would play sports together. And they were going to spend a lot of time playing video games.

When the grief becomes too much to bear, Rich locks the door to his classroom and turns off the lights. Sometimes he sits in the darkness, waiting for the moment to pass. Sometimes he writes. He shares moments of both despair and joy on his blog.

“I don’t feel like a blogger,” Rich says. “I only write when the mood hits me and I feel the need to.”

Rich writes more about the moments of heartbreak. The moments when he misses his son the most.

“Two years later and I am still broken into little pieces and no, I am not ‘over’ it,”  he wrote on March 25. “It hurts more than I can possibly describe.  There are times where the pain of losing my little boy literally causes me to stagger, forcing me to right myself… My ultimate distraction?  The foundation that Samantha and I founded in Rees’ name.”

The idea for the foundation was born the night of Rees’ memorial- where family and friends gathered to mourn a boy who died two months before his second birthday. Rich spoke, reluctantly at first, about the importance of perspective.

“We worry too much about material things that separate us rather than focusing on things like kindness and compassion that bind us together,” he said.

Brian Costello, Rich’s friend and colleague, was inspired by Rich’s eulogy and came up with an idea of creating a foundation in Rees’ memory. Brian even found the perfect way to incorporate Rees’ name. The foundation’s message would be contained in the foundation’s name- ReesSpecht Life.

The non-profit foundation was built on the values of respect and kindness that Rich and Samantha had hoped to instill in their son. Their goal was simple: to spread kindness through good deeds. Rich and Samantha created business cards that asked people to promote the foundation’s mission and “pay it forward” with a good deed or a kind word. However, the Spechts needed a more comprehensible mission in order to become a 501c3 organization- because for some reason, promoting kindness was a hard concept for some people to wrap their heads around.


The natural fit for Rich and Sam, who both teach in the Smithtown School District, was a scholarship program. The ReesSpecht Life Scholarship is awarded to students who promote a sense of community. It is one of the few scholarships with no academic requirements. The scholarship is now worth $1,000 and is given out in five school districts on Long Island.

Today ReesSpecht Life offers their cards free of charge and sells bracelets, car magnets, T-shirts and a book Rich wrote. All proceeds benefit the foundation and goes to pay for things like  card printing, postage, administrative costs, scholarships, grants and their holiday toy drive. Donations raised on Indiegogo, a crowdfunding website helped cover the book’s publishing costs.

In the book, a smiling Rees, dressed in a red plaid shirt and overalls, performs random acts of kindness that set a chain reaction in motion.

Rich reads his book to younger children on his speaking tour. The tour kicked off in the summer of 2013. Rich’s alma mater, Ward Melville asked him to speak at an assembly. Rich said things went well, and apparently they did. More requests rolled in soon after his first presentation.

So far, Rich has spoken at Ward Melville, Jericho Elementary School, Suffolk County Community College, Stony Brook University and the Phi Theta Kappa Honor Society of New York.  Dozens of schools and organizations have asked Rich to speak in the upcoming school year.

Starting this summer,  Rich will visit a summer camp on the island and travel to Georgia and Florida to share Rees’ tragic story and remind people of the importance of perspective and the power of kindness. Something he feels in his heart that Rees would want him to do.

“Not long after Rees died, I awoke from a dream in which Rees told me that this was what I was supposed to do,” Rich said. “I am literally, and figuratively following my dreams.”

But to pursue this dream, he will have to give up his job teaching science to eighth graders at Great Hollow. He won’t be able to teach kids about genetics or mix chemicals in the lab anymore. And he’ll miss watching his students’ eyes light up when they make a science connection. Most of all, he’ll miss his colleagues.

He sees his coworkers as his family. They rallied around him after Rees died- preparing meals, chipping in to cover funeral costs and even purchasing Christmas gifts for Lorilei and Abby.

His closest friend is James Schiraldi, a 6-foot-4-inch tall math teacher who works in one of the classrooms below him. James remembers standing by Rich’s side during the eulogy– a defining moment in their friendship.

But their friendship was also marked by good times. Weddings. Birthday parties. The Demolition Derby upstate. And most recently, a trip to Atlantic City.

Rich asked James to become a member of ReesSpecht Life’s board of trustees when the foundation was first established. James handles the finances, helps brainstorm ideas, and books many events.

The media started reaching out to the foundation in March of 2013. Rich and Sam made appearances on local news networks and were featured in Long Island newspapers.  But their reach expanded at an enormous rate a few months ago.

"The" Receipt Photo Credit: ReesSpecht Life

“The” Receipt
Photo Credit: ReesSpecht Life

The craziness began on when a Broadway actor left his waitress a $3,000 tip for his $43.50 meal in April. The actor gave all of the money that was in his account. He was one of Rich’s former students.

He left a note for his waitress on the back of the receipt thanking her for supporting him at shows.

“Thank you for your kindness and humility,” he wrote. My teacher in middle school had such a difficult experience a few years ago which has sparked me to do this.”

The story was featured on major networks like CNN, WPIX11, ABC News, FOX, Business Insider Australia, Daily Mail UK, Die Welt in Germany and The Daily Sabah in Istanbul.

News of the 7,000 percent tip reached Zooey Deschanel, star of the Fox sitcom, New Girl. Deschanel shared the story on her Facebook page, and within hours the ReesSpecht Life website went down due to a server overload.

It was after 11 p.m. when Rich got the news. He was alone watching the Mets postgame on his couch. His whole family was asleep, so he told the boy who started it all.

“I ended up speaking to Rees’ picture,” Rich says, with a smile on his face. “I remember saying to him ‘I can’t believe this is what you inspired.’”

On May 6, Rich was contacted by Hollywood producers via email. The producers expressed interest in turning [the children’s book] into a television series.

Rich posted a status on his personal Facebook page shortly after he was contacted.

“Let the crazy continue,” he wrote.

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“Pay it Foodward” is another project the foundation is currently working on…

While recent events have benefitted the foundation, the business’ growth plan needs to be adjusted quickly. ReesSpecht Life is currently growing at such a rapid pace that the Spechts can barely keep up. Rich says he plans on changing the 100 percent volunteer model and will bring on more board members.

A more drastic shift has occurred in the way that Rich sees the foundation. Rich and his family originally used ReesSpecht Life as a coping mechanism. It was a distraction from the dark and quiet moments.

But the birth of their youngest daughter, Melina, six months ago has changed Rich’s mission for the foundation.

“We had experienced pure pain and loss and we literally had the opposite when Melina was born,” Rich explains.

Working on the foundation feels like calling now.

“Now I feel like I’m on the path that I’m supposed to be on,” Rich says, although he admits he thought saving the world was his calling when he was younger.

“I always had these visions of being a superhero,” Rich says.

When he was about 8-years-old, he and his cousin predicted what their lives would be like in the future. Rich told his cousin that he was going to be a superhero.

“I remember as I got older, I would always think back to the night and the conversation and think ‘My god I’m not a superhero,’” Rich says, “But there was a moment not too long ago when I was looking at a picture of Rees (in a Superman costume) and I thought back to my conversation with my cousin and I thought ‘I didn’t become a superhero but he did.’”

-Siobhan Becker

Rees Truly is a Superhero...   Photo Credit: Rich Specht

Rees Truly is a Superhero…
Photo Credit: Rich Specht