Four years, 390,000 kindness cards and one promise.
Tomorrow, October 27th, 2016 will mark four years since we lost our little boy to a drowning in our backyard pond. That figure seems incalculably large when contrasted against how long each day, hour, minute and second felt right after my son died. Back then, time seemed to possess a cruel irony: Every second after he left us feeling like an eternity, while the 22 months he was here passing instantaneously.
Four years later and I have found that time has yet again managed to impart another cruelty upon me: It feels as though we lost him both yesterday and a lifetime ago. How can it be that time has both moved faster than I can perceive while simultaneously seeming to stand still? My memories of him seem to have faded commensurate to time’s passage, yet my love for him remains as strong as it ever was. It’s a paradox that vexes my, sometimes overly logical, brain.
The paradoxes don’t end there. I often find myself wishing to make this pain go away, only to realize that my pain is a manifestation of my love I cannot directly express to him anymore. Memories of past embraces find me holding nothing but anguish. The echoes of his laughter, physically long gone, still reverberate in my mind. Yesterday’s hope, filled with joy as I watched him grow is replaced with today’s sorrow that he will never grow up.
With each new yesterday gone by, time seems bent on taking little pieces of him away while simultaneously reminding me that he is gone. Time is that travel companion that never leaves your side, never stops talking AND makes you carry all the baggage. I often wish I could simply ditch this unwanted travel-mate, but I know there is nowhere to go in which it wont find me. No matter how much I try to ignore it, time always has a way of catching back up and reminding me of the things I would rather forget…
They say the more that things change, the more they stay the same. I never truly understood that saying until recently. As the strain in my relationship with my temporal companion grows, I see that the linear path I thought we were on together is more like a circle. I feel like I am moving ahead, but time keeps tugging at me, ever so slightly, causing my path to imperceptibly arc and circle back on itself. All I want to do is move forward and time keeps bringing me back to where I started.
It took four years, but I am pretty certain that I just finished my first circuit. Four years ago, as I stood in front of family, friends, and even complete strangers at Rees’ memorial, I unknowingly started on the path I find myself on today. Both Samantha and I were so worried that no one would come that night because of gas shortages, power outages and communications blackouts caused by Super Storm Sandy. We were “lucky” to even find a funeral home that was open, much less get word out that a memorial was being held. We thought we would be alone that night. We were wrong.
I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who made their way out to to support my wife Samantha and I in our most desperate time. So many people showed up that the police needed to direct traffic outside the funeral home and we had to extend the visiting time to accommodate the throng of people who filled the funeral home to capacity and wrapped around the outside, waiting to get in.
Little did I know, but that night was the beginning of the ReesSpecht Life Foundation and the Cultivate Kindness movement. As that evening wore on, my close friend Jim asked me if I wanted to say something to everyone. At first I declined, but he encouraged me to say a few words, explaining that those words would mean a lot to the people who were there and perhaps be healing for myself as well. After a small deliberation, I finally agreed and I spoke to everyone there…
The words that came out of my mouth were unexpected by everyone in the funeral home, including myself. While I thanked everyone there, I didn’t really talk about Rees or myself and my family. Instead, I talked about the people who were there to support us; helping to lift Samantha and I up in our time of despair. As I stood there, looking at all these different people, something struck me. I realized that these were the very same friends and relatives who were, just several days prior, arguing and complaining about (and to) each other about the 2012 Presidential election. I was instantly drawn to the contrast I was witnessing of the disparate group of people all coming together for something they all agreed in: Helping someone in need. Being there to raise a family from the depths of despair. Showing kindness in the wake of the worst thing that can happen to a parent.
I asked everyone there a simple question: “Why are you here?” – which I answered immediately, “To raise Samantha and I up. To be a positive to counter this great negative that has befallen us.”. I then asked the next question that came to my mind. It’s the question that started our whole movement: “Why is it we wait until something tragic has happened to use this power we have to lift others up?” That one question then lead to several more… “Why do wait until something is negative to use the power of positivity to return it to neutral? Imagine if we used this power everyday? A positive charge applied to a neutral system makes the whole system positive.” I will never forget the look on everybody’s faces: A look of acknowledgement and understanding. I ended my brief talk with a simple request to “start to do the little positive things that help make this world a better place for us all.”
That brief talk, which I thought was a fitting ending to what I witnessed that night turned out to be the very seed that started our movement. Brian, a colleague of mine from work, sought me out at the end of the night to tell me that my words reverberated within in him. He pointed out that what I was talking about was the essence of respect for each other and that he couldn’t shake the connection with our little boy’s nickname, “Rees” and his last name, Specht. “ReesSpecht Life”, Brian he suggested softly. “You should start a foundation using his name and promoting the very idea you shared tonight.”
The moment Brian said that a light started to flicker in the darkness of the void Rees’ passing had created. Over the next few weeks that light would continue to grow brighter as I started to share my writings on Facebook. I started a Facebook page called “ReesSpecht Life” and we counted a couple hundred followers who encouraged me to share more about the stories of kindness we received in the wake of Rees’ passing. For the next couple of months I continued to write and share those stories, but it started to feel like something was missing. We wanted to do more to pay back the kindness we had received, except no one would let us pay them back.
We had experienced so many wonderful acts of kindness from the kindest people I have ever known. There were so many acts of kindness for me to share, like Bill Kelly from Kelly Brother’s landscaping completely restoring my yard from the damage Sandy wrought and removing the pond Rees drowned in. He wouldn’t take anything in return. My cousin Peter waiting in a gas-line for hours to get us gas for our generator. My colleague Michelle who organized and gathered together some boys in our community to deliver and stack wood for us to use to heat our home. Friends, family and co-workers who made us so many meals that we literally didn’t have to cook for almost six months. All this kindness, and no one would let us pay them back.
Since no one would let us pay them back we decided to print up our kindness cards so that we could “pay it forward”. Our goal was to perform 500 random acts of kindness and leave the card emblazoned with Rees’ image and name behind for each one of those acts. The cards were part of my promise to my little boy that, in some small way, the world would get to know him through these acts of kindness in his name. Little did I know at the time but our very first act of kindness, using one of the cards at a local Dunkin Donuts Drive-thru, started a chain reaction that continues to grow until this day.
As I write this, over 390,000 of our cards have been distributed, worldwide. In only three and half years our Facebook page went from a couple hundred, local, followers to over 70,000 world-wide today. We have distributed over 10,000 copies of our children’s book. I’ve had the honor of speaking to over 30,000 students about the power of kindness. I’ll admit, as things continued to grow, I really felt like I was honoring that promise to my little boy and making good on my words to add a little positivity to the world. I really thought we were moving forward, until I found myself back where it all started…
Today my Facebook feed and everyday conversations seemed filled with the same vitriol and blaming it was four years ago. I see people openly disparaging others because they don’t share the same views. Here we are again, focusing on that which divides us. Focusing on the negative and placing the blame on others. I see people emboldened to “tell it like it is” and put other’s down because they are “different”. I watch in horror as people look outward for someone else to “fix” all our problems. The fingers of blame seem to be pointed everywhere.
Four years ago I thought I stumbled upon a solution to this very problem that made sense. You cannot lend a helping hand when that hand is already pointing the finger of blame at someone else. I really believed that as people saw what one little idea, one tiny little seed of kindness, could do they would recognize that the power to make this world a better place does not lie in the words and promises of one person… I truly thought they would come to understand that we each play a role in making a change, and that collectively we can make a difference. For once, I thought time was on my side – proving that we could make a real change in only short amount of it. The scientist in me thought that the proof was in the incredible numbers of acts of kindness performed in the name of one little boy.
And it is. The proof is actually there. It was right in front of my face the whole time. I realize the mistake I was making is the same mistake we all make when considering distance and time. We think that as we move forward we do so in a straight line. The reality is that there are imperceptible forces acting on either side of that forward movement. Those forces are the choices we make between positive and negative – good and bad. As we think we are moving forward our good choices pull us slightly to one side, while our bad choices pull us in the opposite direction. If the good equals the bad, then the net motion is in a straight line, but not in the direction you were originally headed. In mathematics this is known as a vector. However, if one force is greater than the other, the line begins to arc. That arc, if allowed to continually propagate, forms a circle…
That circle has us right back where we started four years ago. At a quick glance, it would appear that we accomplished nothing. Nothing has changed. Here we are, right back where we started. People are pointing fingers, insulting each other and focusing on the negative. The circle has closed itself, ready to start the cycle anew. I guess we failed then. Right? Wrong. The truth is something that I need to remind myself of often. The truth is that all of our efforts are a part of what helped make this journey a circle and not a vector headed in the absolute opposite direction.
As humans we tend to focus on the beginnings and endings of journeys but rarely consider the path that took us there. I can lament the fact that in many ways, we are right back at the point we started four years ago, but that would be dismissing the journey itself and our effect on its path. Therein lies the proof of everything we have espoused since day one… that change is made, not in great strokes by one person, but rather through the collective actions of many working in unison. If we want to change the world, we cannot look at it as failure when our efforts find us back at the starting point. We have to understand the role we took in ensuring we made it back to that point in the first place! We need to recognize our actions kept us from falling off the precipice and put us back into the position to try to straighten the circle this time around.
So it is here that I find myself four years out from the moment that changed the trajectory of my life forever. Time, my ceaseless (and often unwanted) companion, is still here by my side. I can sit here and lament that, at a quick glance, nothing has changed in those 126,230,400 seconds… That I am back right where I started. Sure, I could do that. In fact, most people do and they certainly wouldn’t fault me for it. The problem with that is by doing so, I ignore the journey and the effect that journey had on getting us back to this point. The path to success never looks the way we think it should. I made a promise to my little boy four years ago that his legacy was going to help make a difference in this world. As long as time remains by my side, I am never going to stop trying to fulfill that promise. Never let anyone tell you that you don’t matter. We are, each of us, a difference maker. 390,000 kindness cards and we are still here, ready to make even more of a difference, one little Rees’ piece at a time…
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.