Fall (Revised and updated from original post)
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 mind; the images crisp, clear never fading. I perfectly recall the pungent odor of freshly raked leaves mixed with a tinge of exhaust that permeated the air that warm fall afternoon. I remember the overcast skies belying the unusual warmth of a date that found its position on the calendar closer to winter than to summer. I recall in exacting detail the outfit Rees wore that afternoon, 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 an all-day shopping spree.
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 bedtime 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 do not use lightly whom, in an effort to protect his anonymity, I will refer to as Dave) called to tell me he was getting off work early and was stopping over earlier than his anticipated evening arrival. You see, Dave 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 Dave arrived, Rees was still sleeping, and Dave offered to get him up from his nap.
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…someone like a brother: My friend Dave. Dave 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. Dave 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. Dave 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 Dave 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. Dave 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 disclosed our innermost hopes and dreams for the future, both eagerly and anxiously anticipating its arrival, in addition to our deepest and most private fears that we wouldn’t dare share with anyone else. 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 held, we knew that they were undeniably entwined.
As we got older and life’s realities ebbed more and more into the forefront of our lives, our paths diverged: whereas mine forked to the left, leading me to Fredericksburg, Va where I attended college, Dave’s path meandered to the right, delivering him into the arms of Mother Navy. Alas, his tenure in the Navy was brief, as its structure and regimented lifestyle stood in deep opposition to Dave’s free-wheeling, let-it-all-hang-out code of arms. Consequently, as my life progressed over the ensuing years, his stagnated. His foothold in the job market was tenuous at best: he couldn’t seem to hold one for any meaningful length of time, and instead, became involved with things he never should have. Through all of his troubles, I always tried to be there for him, to make myself accounted for in his life, and to assure him that he was still every bit a meaningful part of mine. I wanted to help him, to guide him…to simply be there for my friend in whichever way was most useful. I felt obligated to help him, even when his other friends had turned away. He was my brother. And when I could not help him solve his problems it tore me apart. The problem solver in me wanted so badly to cure what ailed him, but often I could do nothing. I never gave up trying. I battled on…even amidst the encroaching feeling of helplessness. Regardless of the issues Dave faced, our relationship changed very little. Whenever we did see one another we were still those two boys just enjoying our adventures together. Those adventures continued through the birth of my three children.
Dave’s 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. “Uncle Dave”, 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.
Rees’ smile upon Dave’s arrival was all the evidence I needed to know he was excited to see him. Dave 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 Dave 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 Dave 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 Dave to watch Rees while I cleaned up the lawn furniture outside. He happily obliged and I went about cleaning up while Rees and Uncle Dave 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 Dave were in the driveway in front of my garage as I started sweeping it out in an attempt to evacuate the leaves and dust that had surreptitiously found their way inside. 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 Dave 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 he gave it to him. I took the truck from Rees’ hand and handed it to Dave, questioning him as to why he would give a twenty-two 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 forty-eight 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 Dave 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 Dave where Rees was he replied with the words that will haunt me the rest of my days: “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 racing sounded 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, 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 immediately set to work. 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 as air refused to enter his lungs. I tried rescue breaths, even though current CPR guidelines did not call for them, in a vain attempt to force my lifeforce into him. Dave 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 backyard and immediately went to work on Rees. They intubated 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 chest was pounding – a stark and vivid contrast to the state of my little boy’s heart. 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.
I 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.” He replied that it 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 we 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…
I remember my last moments with Rees as vividly as any single moment in my life, perhaps more so. The image of my arms cradling him, supporting his limp head, and running my hands through his hair one last time is permanently affixed to my very being. I explicitly remember the creaky and trembling tenor of my voice as I tried to sing “Mrs. Pussy(cat)” one last time. The words I whispered to him; “I will always love you” , echo loudly in my mind, reverberating in an infinite loop that I “hear” in my solitude. I held him tight with a tenderness that was clinically unnecessary, but emotionally imperative. I sang to him, I spoke to him, I cradled him and caressed him but I never said goodbye to him. Even when the nurse came to take his lifeless body from us I simply could not muster the nerve or the strength to say that word.
Portrait of Rees, one of many pictures that adorn the walls of the Specht House. Photo Credit: Rich Specht
Of all the words that I have written, and all of the feelings I have expressed, the one thing I have yet had the courage to say, (or write) is “goodbye”. I never liked saying goodbye. It always meant the end of something good, something positive. Goodbye’s are often temporary, sometimes forever. We rarely, if ever, say goodbye to things we do not like. In those cases we say good riddance, or “see ya”, but goodbye is reserved for things we wish to see again. I have always found it ironic that the word goodbye is used with the intention of hopefully seeing that person again, though the word itself seems so final and makes no mention of future acquaintances. Interestingly, the expression ‘goodbye’ has analogs in other languages, but their meaning is slightly different and often does reference the hope of future encounters. In German, for instance, the word for goodbye is auf Wiedersehen – which when translated literally means “until next I see you”. When compared to goodbye, the German counterpart seems so much more hopeful and less finite. I wasn’t willing to let my son go forever, so instead of whispering “goodbye” in his little ear, I whispered “Auf Wiedersehen”. Those were my last words to my little boy. In my mind’s eye I can still see the nurse carrying him away, swaddled like a newborn, my arms outstretched and my heart aching, yet unable, or more accurately, unwilling to say goodbye.
If I accepted that death is final, and that there is nothing more, then goodbye should have been my final words to my boy. The man of science in me kept screaming that death is indeed the end of everything we are. Death is the seceding of order from life’s harmony and structure. Death is the ultimate expression of entropy; our dissolution into chaos and randomness – the doorway to oblivion. However, as a father – as well as a son, my heart was telling me that there is something more; an intangible, imperceptible spark that continues past the extinction of life’s flame. That is why even when I knew I was holding him in his final embrace, that “goodbye” was not the right word.
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, her son Richie. It did not dawn on her that it was Rees. I felt my Mom experience the same fall I just did. 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.
As I sit here now, almost four years 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 that autumn day and each day that passes brings me one shade closer to my next fall. The carpet of leaves that will find their way on my lawn will once again cover the ground the way they did that awful day. Every year there will come a time when I walk outside and catch those familiar smells and see those familiar sites. Everything that was there when I lost my boy will fall right back to where it was… everything seems to fall 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 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.
RICH SPECHT is a father of four who holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Mary Washington and a master’s degree in liberal studies from Stony Brook University. Prior to embarking on his career as a public speaker and advocate for kindness, Rich was a science teacher for 15 years at Great Hollow Middle School, in Nesconset, New York. In addition to his speaking, Rich is also the published author of the award winning children’s book A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness. Rich and his wife, Samantha, are the co-founders of the ReesSpecht Life Foundation which they formed in the wake of the loss of their only son, Richard Edwin-Ehmer (Rees) Specht at 22 months old. The acts of kindness that the family received after Rees’ passing inspired them to “pay forward” that kindness; which the foundation does in the form of scholarships for High School seniors who demonstrate a commitment to their community, compassion and respect, as well as the distribution of almost four hundred thousand ReesSpecht Life “pay it forward” cards. The themes and characters from Rich’s book(s) are currently slated to become an animated children’s television series produced by Safier Entertainment. The book and television adaptations of A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness represents the culmination of Rich’s goal to help make this world a little better, one Rees’ piece at a time. Rich currently resides in Sound Beach, New York with his wife, Samantha, daughters, Abigail, Lorilei and Melina as well as his angel above, Rees.