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 brain. Not only are the visuals of that day etched into my brain with perfect clarity, but so are the smells, sounds and feelings. I recall perfectly the pungent odor of freshly raked leaves mixed with a tinge of exhaust that permeated the air that warm fall day. I recall the overcast skies belying the unusual warmth of a day that found its position on the calendar closer to winter than to summer. I recall exactly the outfit Rees wore that day, 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 a day of shopping. Every moment of that day that was registered by my senses is stored with perfect clarity, an HD recording that stands out among a vast collection of lesser, low definition memories of other days gone by. Everything about that day, and my perfect recollection of it, is intrinsically linked to sensical cues of what would have otherwise been just another fall day, but forever more will now be recalled as the first day of the beginning of my own, personal, fall.
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 bed-time 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 not use lightly), Craig called me to tell me he was getting off work early and was stopping over earlier than his anticipated evening arrival. You see, Craig 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 Craig arrived Rees was still sleeping and he offered to go get him up from his nap. “Uncle Craig”, as my children affectionately called him, was the ultimate playmate for my children. His 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. Rees was excited to see him, and Craig 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 Craig 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 Craig 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 Craig to watch Rees while I cleaned up the lawn furniture outside. Craig happily obliged and I went about cleaning up while Rees and Uncle Craig 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 Craig were in the driveway in front of my garage as I started sweeping out the garage to get the leaves and dust that had stealthily found their way into my garage out from under the doors. 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 Craig 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 Craig gave it to him. I took the truck from Rees’ hand and handed it to Craig and angrily questioned him as to why he would give a 22 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 48 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 Craig 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 Craig where Rees was he replied with the words that will haunt me until I die: “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 rate racing felt 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 him, 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 I immediately started chest compression’s and 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 and no air could enter his lungs. I tried rescue breaths, even though current CPR guidelines did not call for them, in a vain attempt to force my life force into him. Craig 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 back yard and immediately went to work on him. They intibated 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 heart was pounding – a stark and vivid contrast to the state my little boy’s heart was in. 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.” , and he replied to me that 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 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, the reason for which I have already written about. 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, Richie. It did not dawn on her that it was Rees. I felt my Mom fall the same fall I had just experienced. 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.
By this time my fall reached terminal velocity. The next few days were nothing more than a blur. Superstorm Sandy came and went, as did our power and ability to communicate, but I found myself hard pressed to recognize the damage or take stock of the world around me. I was in a true free-fall, weightless and subject to only action-reaction forces. It was not until 6 days after Rees passed, and the owner of Kelly Brothers Landscaping came to my door that my free-fall began to decelerate. When my doorbell rang that day I saw an older, imposing looking man standing at my door. He introduced himself as Bill Kelly, Co-owner of Kelly Brothers landscaping and he told me he heard what happened and he wanted to help. He asked if he could do a leaf cleanup in our yard as a gesture of simple kindness. I was overwhelmed and thanked him over and over. The Kelly brothers were at our house the night of Rees’ memorial, and we returned to a pristine, clean yard. The fallen leaves that covered my yard were removed and order was restored to my surroundings. It was a blessing that induced a lone smile on that most difficult of days. Little did I know, the kindness of the Kelly brothers had only just begun…
The next day Bill Kelly arrived at my door again. He asked me if I was pleased with their work and I responded with an emphatic yes and thanked him over and over. He told me that it was the least they could do, and then made a request of me: he asked if he could move some of our plants and plant some mums to give some symmetry to our yard. I told him they had already done so much and I could not accept his offer. He then looked at me and said that he did not want our money, he just wanted to honor my little boy by making his home beautiful. I did not know what to say, and thanked him again, over and over. His workers arrived minutes later (saying no was now clearly never an option) and they began redesigning our landscape. Not only did they move some plants, they also mulched my entire yard and brought in hundreds of new plants. The kindness did not stop there. Bill Kelly appeared at my door one more time and asked me his toughest question; “What do you want to do with the pond?” he gingerly asked. I told him my plan was to have it filled in, and replaced with a garden so that the literal hole in my world would be more. He looked at me and said, “We will do it.” The generosity that Bill and his company had showered upon us was already too much to quantify and here he was offering to remove the one thing that made me hate the home I loved. I insisted on paying him for it and he again refused, saying that it was his duty and that our little boy deserved a place to be remembered free of the terrible memories that pond would elicit.
The Kelly Brothers crew came in and started early the next morning and throughout the day my entire family was spellbound as machines and workers came and went through our yard, filling in the hole in our world. I remember trying to tip his workers, and they refused. I tried to buy them lunch and they refused (though I did sneak up to our local Pizzeria and left money to pay for lunch from an “anonymous donnor”). When all was said and done, the Kelly brothers had not only removed the pond and its accompanying gazebo, but they placed down sod and re-landscaped our whole backyard and turned it into a beautiful garden. They had taken the worst possible physical object in my world and turned it into a thing of beauty – and would not accept a dime from me in the process. When I asked if I could put a sign out in our yard or something to acknowledge their work, they again refused. The Kelly brothers performed the first act of kindness in Rees’ name and did so out of the truest sense of selflessness. That one incredible act of kindness acted like a parachute which slowed my fall and pointed me in the direction I find myself in today.
As I sit here now, almost a year 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 autumn day and each day that passes brings me one shade closer than the last. When I look out my window the leaves the Kelly brothers removed find themselves carpeting my lawn once again. I walk outside now and catch those familiar smells and see those familiar sites. Everything that was there when I lost my boy is coming back… everything is coming 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 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.