The following is something I wrote the night our power turned back on after Superstorm Sandy and almost exactly two weeks to the day after we lost Rees…
Why? – The word that incessantly occupies my waking thoughts and consumes me in my solitude. Why? – A word my students can confirm that I often wax poetic about the importance of asking. I often say, “Why is the very word that separates us from every other life form that shares this world with us. It is what allows us to look at the night sky and not just see twinkling points of light illuminating the endless void beyond, but whose acquiescence allows us to wonder just what they are.” Why stretches a human being beyond the simplicity of cause and effect. Why defines what it is to be human.
We do not start off life asking why. A child approaches every problem simply as an exercise in cause and effect: Problem and hypothesis. Watch a child knock something off a table for the first time and they will undoubtedly repeat it over and over again with obvious glee – seemingly at the expense of their parent’s energy. Despite the child’s inability to utter any words, and before comprehension of the linguistics behind those words, their eyes affirm the question “Will it always fall down?” Repetition and observation of the same result, time after time, without fail, confirms the hypothesis. The object always falls down, in perpetuity, ad infinitum. The question is a simple one, and the solution is equally so. Cause and effect; case closed… or so it would seem.
Sometime after we discover cause and effect, something amazing happens. The child does not accept the simplicity of “it happens because it always happens”. At some point the child asks why? When that moment occurs a new glimmer appears in their eyes. It is the birth of wonder, the dawning of a perpetual search for answers. Eventually the question burgeons into “why does it fall?” Once we start on the path of why it is a ceaseless journey.
From the genesis of our first why, we continue to ask a perpetual cascade of why’s – as any parent most certainly will attest to. Some of these why’s are easy to answer by a simple inquiry of someone or something that possesses that knowledge. The person to whom we personally inquire we call Teacher; a title I proudly hold. When we lack the guidance of a teacher, we consult texts or internet searches. Why’s, in this case, are only satisfied when the answer is unbeknownst to the invidual, but not others. I admit to a certain sense of pride and satisfaction in recognizing that I answer a great many of the why’s that emanate from my student’s minds – and find myself equally frustrated when I cannot.
What then happens when the why is a novel one? What happens when no one or nothing knows the answer to your why? Science tells us we search for the answer. The solution, as science tells us, is to use the scientific method: ruling out all other known variables, we eventually find our answer. Through the scientific method mankind has divined some of the most ponderous why’s ever asked: Why does the sun rise everyday? – answered. Why is the sky blue? – answered. Why do objects on Earth always fall down? – Answered.
Until recently I have always believed that the scientific method could answer any why, provided that the question was predicated upon a specific level of prior accumulated knowledge. In my mind I reasoned that there would be no unanswerable why’s; as their answers were merely the natural progression of the answers to their forebears. I believed this until I faced the seemingly unanswerable question. I now know there is a question that exists that no amount of prior knowledge can ever answer. Why did my son die?.
If life was simply cause and effect, the answer would be appear to be equally simple: a tragic miscommunication between my friend and I lead to my Son, Richie, tragically wandering off on his own, powered by his own innate curiosity, and falling into a pond and drowning. His inability to swim, coupled with the biological imperative of the fight or flight response caused him to panic and take a fatal breath of water. Cut and dry. Cause and effect – simple and clear, the object always falls, in perpetuity, ad infinitum… but why? Just as the child grows to recognize that there is another question after you have answered will the object always fall, there remains the question of “Why did that object fall?” Simple cause and effect are not the only answers to our questions.
Why did my son die? A scientist would not continue to ask this question. To a scientist, that answer is already clear. No need to experiment, the prior knowledge of human biology and reflexes explains everything. Question answered, case closed, move along. If that is the case, then I must accept simple cause and effect, and just as the growing child cannot accept observation of an event as an ultimate answer, the same must apply in the case of my Son’s death. There must be more to this question of why, and there must be an answer as of yet undiscovered.
I believe the genesis of that answer was revealed after the storm that caused this tragic event in the first place. A week after my son died, and the night after his memorial, I wrote the following on Facebook:
“As I stood in front of family and friends last night I spoke from my heart: a broken heart whose pieces the love of all those present began to restore and fortify. Cynicism and doubt defined me for far too long, and the outpouring of support is restoring my faith in humanity. My Son did not die in vain, for I have a new purpose in life; to channel his spirit and try to restore all of our faith in what we can do when we come together. As a society we have moved in a direction too concerned with the material things that do not matter, and I wish to reset our compasses to the intangibles of love, compassion and cooperation. Pass this on to all those who matter to you… And more importantly pass this along to those who you have not considered or thought twice about. ReesSpecht life.”
I then followed that post the next day with these words:
“A tree felled in a storm renews with the seeds sewn in seasons past. A house razed by nature’s wrath will rise again, beam by beam, brick for brick. Material goods, some cherished, others merely admired, are nothing more than trinkets; replaceable with promissory notes. A young boy’s life lost to protect those meaningless things is irreplaceable.
While you lament your lack of electricity to power your “life” – the things you “need” – take the time to reflect on those things that do matter. Remember that life is what we make of it not only for ourselves, but for those around us.
Make your life count, not for yourself and for the meaningless things you wish to accumulate. Make your life count for the lives around you. Do good and be good for the sake of those whose lives you touch everyday, friend, family or a random stranger. In losing my little boy I gained my belief in humanity. ReesSpecht Life.”
Clearly, my Son’s death sparked a change in my view towards not only people, but also my core belief of what I believed to be true. Perhaps I have asked the wrong question all along: Instead of asking “Why did my Son die?” I should ask “Why did my Son live?”. If I ask the right question, the answer becomes clear to me… he lived to change my life. If that is true, then the answer to “Why did my Son die?” also gains clarity: to change other’s lives. ReesSpecht each other. ReesSpecht life. Let’s start to work together to make our lives better. Let us all be Rees’ Pieces. Why? Because we can.
Addendum: (this was added to a facebook post regarding “why?” the next day)
Aristotle once posited that “Nature abhors a vacuum”. In essence a vacuum is negative space – all consuming and uncaring. Recent events presented me with an unfathomable negative; a potentially life consuming vacuum from which I could not escape.
Many people have responded to my writing, commending me for my strength. It is not I who should be commended, it is everyone of you that has, and continues to, buttress me and Sam in our time of great despair. My writing and apparent strength is merely a testament to the deluge of positive support from my friends, family, former students and even complete strangers. You all continue to remind me that a great negative can ONLY be counterbalanced and restored by a superior and unyielding positive.
As such, I refuse to wallow on a throne of sorrow alone, allowing the vacuum to consume me. Rather, I stand among all of you merely a voice reflecting your positive energy. With your help I unyieldingly resist the momentum that leads to the event horizon of that void that threatens to swallow me and the memory of my little boy.
It is evident that the ability to reach beyond this tragedy and turn it into a positive exists: however it can only perpetuate with continued support and reflection upon what I have already written and said. My little boy will never grow up, but with the nurturing of all the people within reach of my words ensures that his message lives on.
I truly believe that big things have small beginnings. Richard Edwin-Ehmer Specht’s existance in the mortal plane was brief, but his legacy is potentially without end. Together, we can ensure his legacy. Let’s get the word out. As a single grieving father there is only so much I can do. My words have no meaning without people to read them and absorb them. A positive can only cancel a negative when the two are brought together. Each of you can ensure Rees’ positive message can trump death and negativity. Help me spread the word about the meaning of his life. We can all be Rees’ pieces. ReesSpecht Life. ReesSpecht each other.