What was the worst day of your life? If you are like most, you likely responded with a date in which a close loved one was lost. In my experience most adults have lost more than one close person to them, so they usually lay claim to multiple days – not wanting to diminish the impact of one loss in comparison to another. For parents who have lost a child that struggle to choose one day does not exist… There is only one day that can lay claim to the title of “worst day ever”.
My worst day ever came on October 27th, 2012; the day I lost my 22 month old son, Richard Edwin-Ehmer (Rees) Specht. One of the truth’s of aging is that the longer we live, the more loss we must endure. In my forty years of life I have lost too many people that I considered close: My father, all seven of my uncles, my grandparents, cousins and even a best friend. All of those losses hurt tremendously and, while I count the days they died among some of my worst days, they simply don’t come anywhere close to the magnitude of 10/27/12. What may come as a surprise is that although October 27th, 2012 is the worst day of my life, it’s not the day that changed my life forever… That day actually occurred six days later.
In between my worst day and the day that changed my life forever was yet another milestone day: October 29th, 2012. You may recognize that date as the day that Super Storm Sandy made landfall on the east coast of the U.S.. Storms don’t get the moniker “Super”, unless they are just that – and Sandy certainly earned her honorific. I recall watching the damage unfold in real time that day. Living in a wooded area, I felt like I had a front row seat to a perverse ballet of trees and debris dancing in the wind. I was transfixed as the trees moved in unison with the unrelenting winds. It was at once beautiful and horrific. Every once in while the dance proved to be too much stress for the trees as their limbs and sturdy bodies fractured in the unrelenting winds.
The front row view of the storm provided a perfect symmetry in my soul between what I was seeing outside and how I felt inside. The world seemed to be taking my emotions and manifesting them before my very eyes. I felt so connected the storm outside that, at one point, I wandered out my door, ignorant to the pleas of my family, to be part of the chaos and embrace it. I remember lying in my backyard prostrate as I challenged the storm to take me to be with my boy. That moment never came, and eventually the cries of my family seemed to slowly ebb into my consciousness as they repeatedly begged me to come in from the storm. I eventually made my way back into my home while the storm outside, and in my soul, kept raging.
When it became clear the storm had passed I made my way outside again, this time with no protestations. My sister Kim joined me as I walked around my house to survey the damage. Trees were down and limbs were everywhere, but my house seemed to avoid any major damage. I looked around my neighborhood and, at first, I could barely make out the damage in the pitch blackness created by the power outage from the storm. As my limited sight slowly began to acclimate to the darkness I began to see the tremendous damage all around me. Once again the world outside seemed to echo the state of my tattered soul. In a very real way it felt oddly comforting to see the world around me reflect my quintessence. The world was as it should be… Shattered. In ruin. Awaiting repair.
The physical repairs began almost immediately after the storm. My soul, it seemed, needed to wait a little longer. Four days to be precise. November 2nd, 2012 stands out in my mind for two, very distinct, yet inexorably linked, reasons. First, it was the day of Rees’ memorial – a day no parent ever wants to live through. Second, it was the day the kindness of complete stranger changed my life forever…
I recall it was about midday on the 2nd when my father in-law alerted us to an unknown man walking to our door. Before those words had a chance to register there came a knock at my door by the “big guy” my father in-law just described. I hesitantly opened the door, not knowing who, or what, to expect to find a tall, older gentleman with a large build. He was wearing a green sweatshirt adorned with the logo for Kelly Brother’s Landscaping on its upper left side. What instantly struck me about our encounter was the man’s inability to make direct eye contact with me initially. Rather than coming across as suspicious, it felt more like his lack of eye contact was a means by which to hide the sadness contained within.
When he was finally able to make eye contact with me his whole body shifted as if the words he was about to utter started deep below and had to work hard to leave his mouth: “I heard about what happened to your little boy and I wanted to know if there was anything I could do to help.”, he said with a reserved assuredness. Those words were not at all what I expected from a man who I thought was just looking for work. A quizzical look must have formed on my face and I think my surprise caught him off guard. He explained to me that he was doing work at my neighbor’s house when he was told about what happened to our little boy. Without hesitation, he felt compelled to come over and offer some way, any way, he could help us in our time of despair.
I was so thrown off by his offer that my first instinct was to decline his offer graciously. I explained to him that I really didn’t need any landscaping work right now, but his offer meant a great deal to my family and I. He explained to me that his name was Bill Kelly and he was the co-owner of the company. As the owner, he had no problem doing this and soon it was clear that Mr. Kelly was not going to accept no for an answer. He reminded me that our yard was just as destroyed as the rest of the neighborhood and it would need cleaning. I tried countering with the fact that I felt bad taking his work when others could use it too. Before I could protest again, some of his workers had already started blowing the scattered debris in my yard into piles. “No” clearly was not an option.
I told Mr. Kelly that we really could not pay him much since most of our money was going to cover funeral expenses for Rees. He didn’t want a dime from us. He just wanted to do “something, anything, to help your family in your time of need.” He quoted his religious faith as part of his motivation, but it was clear to me that he was the type of person who would do this regardless of any religious affiliation. When our conversation ended and I closed the door, my wife and my in-laws sat in stunned silence. No words were necessary as the stunned look on all of our faces said it all.
The beauty of that moment lingered with us the rest of the day. It was so powerful that it almost made us forget that later that very evening we would have to head over to the funeral home for Rees’ memorial service. As the appointed time approached, we begrudgingly headed over to the brand new Branch Funeral Home in Miller Place NY. The funeral home had not even officially opened yet, but they were one of only a few that actually had power and could take us. That night went by in a blur and to be honest, with the literally hundreds upon hundreds of people that showed up, I completely forgot about the fact that the Kelly Brothers were at the house trying to restore some sense of normalcy to our world.
The memorial service ran over by an hour or two because of all the people that showed up and had to wait. The night was so draining, and by the last few visitors Sam and I were completely and utterly exhausted. When the last person came up to give their condolences it was well past the time we had reserved and Sam and I just wanted to go home and try to get the full night’s sleep that had eluded us every night since Richie’s passing. The drive home became a welcome moment of repose in which the two of us sat quietly in the car, our somber thoughts loud enough for both to hear.
As we pulled into our neighborhood I recall being struck by the absolute darkness that the power outage, now in its 7th day, provided. The only source of light was that of the beams of the headlights of my truck. Everywhere the lights shone pinpointed the destruction that pervaded our neighbor’s houses and our block as a whole. The destruction was complete and it was everywhere… Everywhere that is, but the final house that the light shone on: Our house. As we pulled closer to our yard the lights illuminated a sight that, if it were in the movies, would have been accompanied by the Hallelujah Chorus. In front of our eyes was the sight of our yard, perfectly restored – standing out in stark contrast to the shattered world that surrounded it.
It was then, in the shocked and bewildered meeting of Samantha’s eyes with mine, that the supreme power of kindness manifested in the first smile that found itself on our faces since Rees’ passing. One kind act is all it took to put a smile on grieving parent’s faces… If that isn’t the most powerful force there is, I don’t know what is. Mr. Kelly’s magnanimous act made us truly smile. It wasn’t the forced smiles Sam and I had practiced all night. It was an honest to goodness smile: A smile that had no business being on our faces just minutes before. A smile that changed my life forever.
Not coincidentally, that night was the first night since Rees’ passing that Samantha and I both slept through the entire night. I remember that upon waking I immediately rushed to the bedroom window on the opposite side of my room to better gaze upon the work that the Kelly Brothers did. Save for the pond which swallowed up my little boy, my yard was restored to what it was before the storm. Once again I found that my soul and the outside world were simpatico with one another. A part of my world was restored, and it was the kindness of one man who made it possible.
When I share this story with the students I speak to I often tell them that if the story were to end there, it would prove the absolute power that kindness has. But that is not the end of the story… Later that morning we heard a familiar knock on our door. Upon opening it there stood Bill Kelly, again not able to immediately make eye contact, trying his best to force tears back. I remember him stammering a bit as he asked me if we were happy with the job they did. My answer was as concise and appropriate as I could muster; I hugged him – not a little hug, but a great big bear hug meant to transfer some of the energy he provided me with back to him. I was at a loss for words and I thanked him over and over for his incredible act of kindness.
When I broke the hug Mr. Kelly’s smile was all the affirmation I needed that his kind act had lifted us both up. I could see relief and pride in his eyes that only comes from the satisfaction of a job well done. No words were needed between us – the message was loud and clear. When Bill finally did speak, the words that came out of his mouth were unexpected. “When we we were working here yesterday we couldn’t help but notice that your landscaping was…. uhhh – asymetrical”, he said gingerly. His carefully chosen words were his kind way of telling me that my landscaping sucked – and I knew it. He went on to say that they had some extra plants that would otherwise go to waste and he had some ideas about transplanting some of our existing plants to help “spruce up” the yard. Again, I tried to tell him that I could not accept his kindness. Again I protested against his insistence that it was “the least I can do.”. Before I could protest anymore, his workers had already begun the process of altering our landscape forever…
What I figured would be a one day job actually ended up stretching over the course of 5 or 6 days (I honestly can’t remember the exact time-frame anymore). Mr. Kelly was not present on most of the days, but I would spy him every once in a while stopping by and pointing out directions to his employees. What I do remember is that after the second day of work, he did come to my door again. This time I answered the door with a nervous apprehension as I knew It would be the beginning of yet another protest from me and Samantha. When I opened the door he greeted me with those same sympathetic eyes, but this time they looked different… like they were holding back something he wasn’t sure he wanted to say, but couldn’t resist saying anyhow.
“What are you going to do with the pond?”, was his opening statement to me. He wanted to know what I wanted to do with that infernal pond that took my little boy from me. It sat right outside our bedroom window and represented the literal and figurative hole in my world and I responded with the only truth I knew; “I am filling that hole… if I have to do it myself with a garden shovel, I am filling in that damn hole.” Before I could utter another word, Bill told me that they would do it. I put my foot down this time. “No!”, I vehemently protested, “You can’t do that, you have already done too much. That pond is huge and it will cost you too much.” Mr. Kelly didn’t allow another word out of my mouth before his workers rolled up with a Cat dozer and began the process of filling in the void in my family’s world.
During the course of the five or six days the workers from Kelly Brothers were at my house Samantha and I tried to, in some small way, pay back some of their kindness. I asked them if I could tip them and they flat out refused it. When I tried to leave a tip for them, they left it back on my porch for me to stumble over the next morning. When we offered to buy or make them lunch, they graciously declined. I asked if we could, at the very least, put up an advertising sign – which was declined (even to this day they won’t let me advertise*) To be honest, Samantha and I got a little frustrated at trying to do something, anything, for them.
It was on the last full day they were there that I got an idea as to how to pay them back without them knowing (of course if any of them are reading this they will know now…). I noticed that the crew went up to our local Italian restaurant that was literally steps away from my house everyday. Figuring that they would go there again on that last day, I went up to the restaurant and handed the owner, Vinny, $50.00 and requested that he say that “lunch was on them”. Vinny gave me a quizzical look, and I explained the situation. He didn’t question me or my motives at all and took the money. Later that afternoon Samantha and I spied the workers returning with a box of food from the restaurant and we overheard them comment on how nice it was that the owner bought their lunch. Samantha and I high-fived each other, happy knowing that in some small way we paid back the kindness of the Kelly Brothers and their employees.
It wasn’t just the Kelly’s that showed us unbelievable kindness. There were so many acts of kindness from friends, relatives, complete strangers that all served to lift us up in our time of need. The one universal thing they all shared was their uniform denial of our request to pay them back after the dust had cleared. Even the Italian restaurant followed suit, as the first night that our family went to eat a meal there, the owners gave us our money back – and refused to charge us for dinner, despite our protests. Everyone said to us that the kindness we received was not to be paid back… it was simply a gesture meant to raise us up.
The amazing part is that kindness did raise us up. That kindness provided a lifeboat that kept us from being sucked into the whirlpool of grief that Rees’ death created. That kindness was the difference maker. That kindness was the inspiration for everything we do now…
At Rees’ memorial my closest friend, Jim, convinced me to to address the hundreds of people in attendance. I really didn’t want to do it, but he convinced me that it was the right thing to do, and that if I couldn’t he would speak for us. I briefly thought about accepting his offer, but I thought the better of it and addressed everyone. The words that came out of my mouth surprised everyone in attendance that night, including myself. After thanking everyone for their support, the next words I spoke were a lamentation about why so many of the faces that were present were faces I had not seen in a long time. I admitted the fault was equally mine, but I begged everyone there to focus on the things that matter. I then pointed out all of the kindness we had already received at that point and understood its genesis. I challenged everyone there to not wait for tragedy to engage in acts of kindness.
The words I spoke really got me thinking even more. Eventually the science teacher in me took over and postulated that people were doing these kind acts to bring us back to “normal”. I rationalized that their innate compassion wanted to help raise us from the depths of our despair. I likened that to a positive charge countering a negative and rendering the object neutral. “But why do we settle for neutrality?”, I asked. That night I proposed a radical idea to everyone in attendance. “Don’t settle for neutral”, I proclaimed, “for when you apply a positive charge to something already neutral it becomes positive itself. Imagine if we all took the time to perform random acts of kindness to everyday people? Imagine what that would do for all of us? It would raise us all up.”
Little did I know at that time that the hypothesis I proposed was already being put to the test that very night. Just as I was addressing everyone at the memorial the Kelly Brothers were most likely finishing up the yard cleanup they were doing at my house. I didn’t know it at the time, but that act was the act that brought us back to neutral. When Bill Kelly showed up at my door the next morning, he took the next step. His additional kindness, past the neutral point, is what raised myself and my family up to new heights. That exceptional act of kindness charged me in a way that has yet to dissipate. That additional act of kindness supported my hypothesis even further.
What followed in the wake of that exceptional kindness resulted in everything that the Rees Specht Life Foundation and the Cultivate Kindness movement is all about. 260,000 “Kindness Cards” distributed all over the planet and over $35,000.00 in scholarships, grants and assistance is just the start of Samantha’s and my goal of paying back those kind acts. It is our mission to remind people of the power that kindness has to not only restore, but to transform us.
That mission is much more difficult than you may know. From the beginning we have met resistance from everywhere to the IRS, potential donors and everyday people who simply don’t “get” what we are trying to do. Kindness isn’t a cause is the almost universal refrain I get. We aren’t helping one specific problem, such as helping veterans, or feeding the poor. The scientist in me was trained to look at bigger problems and find the root cause of its existence. To me, the root cause of so many of the problems we face today is because we simply lack the inherent understanding of what the power of everyday acts of kindness can do for all of us. In trying to connect those problems to a single nexus, I found that kindness was the answer to almost all of them.
I believe that the reason we faced some opposition to our mission lies in the heart of what makes us all human. Our evolution as a species resulted from actions taken by our ancestors that ensured their survival. Traits such as kindness, compassion and cooperation served as a way to ensure our ancestor’s mutual survival. The problem with that evolutionary path is that the only selective factor is something that ensures basic survival – a net neutral. If we accept this premise then it stands to reason that it is only natural for us to make sure our friends who are suffering are brought back to that state. In an evolutionary sense, going above and beyond is not rewarded as it didn’t specifically increase survival odds. Our instincts exist to provide a baseline for survival. A starting point that tries to maximize our chances to live and ensure the passing on of our essence to the next generation.
I think the time has come for us to stop accepting the “baseline” and rise above those instincts. The real promise of the human heart is its ability to transcend our natural instincts. We have been granted a brain that allows us to see past our problems and devise novel ways to solve them. There clearly exists many problems in our world, and I often hear people lament that they “wish it was a better world”. I’m not a big fan of wishes. Wishes accomplish nothing on their own. Wishes are a way for our brain to feel better about not actually accomplishing anything.
Stop wishing for a better world, and start making it one. This is the point where most people give up, because they feel the world is just too big to change and they are insignificant in comparison. This is where people just come to accept our nature’s inclination towards neutrality. Stop existing along the baseline! I am telling you that you do matter, and you can make a difference in this world. The best part? It doesn’t take a grand act, it just needs to put a smile on someone’s face. The grand acts of the Kelly Brothers, and others, put a smile on the face of grieving parents. Think about that for just a second… It put an actual, honest to God, smile on our faces. Sure, it took a grand act because the act needed to be commensurate with pain we were suffering. Imagine what you can do for someone who isn’t in that place? Kindness is that difference maker. Don’t settle for neutrality. Don’t lean on your natural inclinations. Stop wishing for a better world. Rise above with random, daily, acts of kindness, and you will raise others up with you. That energy you put out there will not be in vain. I promise you it will change the world, one little (Rees’) piece at a time…
-Richard E. Specht
About the Author:
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 guest 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 more than a quarter of a million 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.
*I don’t count this blog post as advertisement for the Kelly Brothers. It is simply a retelling of a story that needed to be shared. Thank you Bill and family for making a difference <3