Just over a year ago I wrote a piece titled “My Life*”. It was rather brief but it represented, pretty succinctly, my feelings at the time. The main point was that Rees’ passing cast a shadow over everything I did and never seemed to fade. A couple of days ago I re-read the piece, wondering if my perspective had changed in the year since I wrote it. Interestingly, in writing about my feelings of that time, I posited that the future may hold something different; perhaps a way to shake the shadow and finally edit the asterisk from My Life* out of the narrative of my existence. That future is now…
One year later and I can tell you that the asterisk is still there. All the time. 390 days later I find that while I have come so far in some aspects of my dealing with Rees’ death, I am still at a complete standstill over others. It’s funny how life can move so fast from one perspective but appear immobile from another. Here I am a year later and I feel like very little has changed for me emotionally. I still wake up every morning with a nagging pain that lurks in the corner of my mind, biding its time for a chance to inflict maximum damage. It’s almost as if the pain chooses dawn, the ultimate metaphor for fresh starts and blank slates, as a poignant metric to measure itself against. The pain takes advantage of my morning grogginess to muster its strength in preparation for its strike – and it doesn’t take long.
One look at Rees’ hope chest, his “blanky” tucked under Samantha’s pillow, or his pictures on my wall is that is needed to chip away at the unfettered hope a new day brings. I am immediately reminded of the fact that he is gone, and never, ever, coming back. To some small degree, the hope of a new day is immediately diminished every single morning. From the moment I awaken, the asterisk appears and re-calibrates my expectations of what a “good” day will be.
It’s not just the morning though; every good moment in my life follows this pattern of hope immediately neutralized by the pain: My students just collectively aced their end of the year final! – Oh yeah, my son died. It’s my birthday! – Rees is gone. My sister got a new job! – you will never have your son again. Our former Au Pair Melina is coming to stay with us again! – but she will not bring Rees back. We are having a new baby! – she won’t ever get to know her big brother. ENOUGH!!! – Every good feeling, every single one, is quantified on a new metric with the pain of Rees’ eternal absence as the reference point. Since every good feeling, experience, or thought is dampened by the pain I find cannot have one without the other – and my brain appears to have found its own solution…
I now find myself avoiding the things that would elicit the comparison in the first place. Much like Pavlov trained his dog to salivate at the sound of the dinner bell, I find that my brain often places me in an emotional limbo – a state where neither pain nor pleasure is felt – to keep me from re-living the loss. It is almost as if my mind will not allow me to reach the highs of life because my subconscious fears the fall from them. More and more I find the things that used to bring me immense pleasure now merely satiate me and nothing more. I want to enjoy the things that I used to, but my mind wont allow it. Even when surrounded by my friends and family I now feel trapped by my own mind; isolated and alone.
I was told by many other parents who lost a child that the second year is really the hardest of all. They told me that the first thing you will notice is that your friends and family who initially showed so much concern, and went out of their way to talk to you and spend time with you, will eventually go back to their old routine, leaving you feeling alone. They made sure to point out that it wasn’t the fault of those friends and family – it was merely a function of life. Balance must be restored, and eventually life has to go on. One consequence of this restoration of balance, they warned, was that people would start to treat you like nothing ever happened and think that you are “fine”. As people stop treating you with “kid gloves” and their lives returned to normal, you will still find yourself adjusting to your new normal. Finally, the worst of all the “second year” issues would be the cruelest paradox: the loss of your child becomes more tangible while, at the same time, you agonizingly find you start to forget what it was like to have them in your life. The cumulative effect of this “second year phenomenon” is a depressing sense of isolation and hopelessness that makes it more difficult than the first year.
I remember when I was told this that I initially scoffed at the notion, thinking nothing can be worse than the acute pain you feel after losing the most precious thing in your life. We officially entered the “second year”, in November of this past year. I remember that, at the time, I really felt like I had things figured out and I would avoid the pitfalls that my new friends in our unfortunate fraternity warned me about. The foundation was doing great things – from toy drives, to awarding $6,000.00 in scholarships, to providing meals/christmas dinner for local families in need and the distribution of our “pay it forward” cards. We were doing the positive things that made a difference in other’s lives. It was around that time that the children’s book was coming together and our vision for the foundation was really starting to come into focus. I thought that all of these positives, and the amazing support we had through ReesSpecht Life, were countering the negatives. Through it all, I remained confident that I had solved the problem of the “second year”.
Time is a cruel mistress and it turns out that wasn’t exactly true. Yes, we were doing amazing things with the foundation that we started in Rees’ name. Yes, we had the support of thousands and thousands of people. Reports of kind acts literally came in from all over the world. Our scholarship award winners were doing amazing things in college. The toy drive was a huge success that helped so many families in need. The meals we provided for local families made for happy holidays that may not have otherwise happened. The evidence of Rees’ impact was all around – and it was that positive energy that I attributed to keeping the darkness at bay. I really thought I had it figured out. I was sure I had beaten time and the “second year” phenomenon. I was wrong. Time waits for no one…
It turns out that those positives we accomplished through the foundation, while amazing, were not the reason I wasn’t experiencing the issues associated with the “second year”. In reality, those things really just kept us so busy that we literally did not have time to address the underlying issue. Much like a wound left untreated too long, the reality of the “second year” began to fester, unknowingly, in my soul. No matter how much you try to cover it up, there eventually comes a time when you can longer ignore the wound and it demands your immediate attention. I could no longer ignore time by keeping myself busy. Time had come to collect its dues and I just was not ready to pay off the debt.
It really hit me around April of this past year. It was around the time we were getting ready for our Islanders fundraiser and we had broken the news that Samantha was pregnant. Our book was getting close to being published (or so we thought) and things with the foundation were really hitting their stride. When things should have been looking up, I started feeling more and more down. I just couldn’t shake the feeling. I found myself getting depressed and doubting the future. I grew more depressed as my overtures to my former friend to talk about what happened with Rees fell on deaf ears. My writing, which almost always had some form of a positive spin, seemed tainted with a tinge of that depression which was palpable. I suddenly started to notice the signs of the “second year” and it really hit me hard. The font size of the asterisk in the narrative of my life grew and seemed to become bold. I just couldn’t find a happy place.
The worst part about all of this is that I didn’t tell anyone. Not even Samantha. I just didn’t want to burden her with it – and I certainly did not want to share it with my family and friends in fear that they would think My God, just get over it already… I started to distance myself from them. Avoidance became a very effective way to navigate my way through the pain. Ironically, it wasn’t my friends who were abandoning me, it was me who was abandoning them; I just did not realize it. From my perspective it was they who were leaving me to wallow: confirming the prediction from those who warned me about what was to come. Everything I was warned about was coming true and there was nothing I could do to avoid it.
I wish I could write at this very moment that I am past this stage – that I somehow figured out how to get over this hump, but I cannot. I know the best thing for me to do is ADMIT that I am not okay. I think this is my first step to resolving my self-inflicted problem. My amazing therapist, Paul, told me that the best thing I can do is to feel everything I need to feel in order to move on. Avoidance is not the answer. What I do realize now is that avoiding the issue and trying to hide it behind the commitments of work and the foundation will simply not work. I need to feel the pain I have to feel so that I can move on. I need to cry when I see an ambulance and not repress it. I have to scream out the pain that wells up inside from time to time (I found the top of the mountain of the property we own is an excellent place to do so). I must to admit, to my wife, my children, my friends and family that I am hurting – and it’s ok to still hurt. I need to feel everything, good and bad, or else I will feel nothing at all. I have to take the advice I wrote last year:
“…to use that asterisk to shape my future in a way that I choose, learning from it, growing from it and becoming a better person from it. In my past life I lost my little boy. In the present, and the future, I gained ReesSpecht for life… asterisks and all.”
I need to look at those pictures of Rees every morning and allow myself to smile AND feel sad. I must come to grips with the fact that I will never have any closure with a “friend” who refuses to accept any responsibility in Rees’ death and let me and my family suffer at the hands of CPS due to his cowardice. Some people just don’t have it in them to face the truth – and I need to make sure I do. I must make sure that I am taking the time to reach out to my friends and family to see how THEY are doing and stop avoiding contact due to my fear of feeling. In the end, I need a good dose of perspective: While this is our second year without Rees, in fact we are closing in on a time when he has been out of our physical world for as long as he was in it, I need to also see that this is the second year in which we started on our mission to make the world a little better place, one Rees’ piece at a time. Just as light cannot exist without darkness to contrast it to, happiness cannot exist in a world devoid of pain. You can’t have one without the other. I need to stop looking at my asterisk as a scarlet letter and start looking at it as a reminder that life lies somewhere in the middle of the Good times and bad times – happiness and sadness. You can’t live life without experiencing and acknowledging both. It’s time I learned to live My Life* again, asterisks and all.
p.s. If you know someone who lost a child, or anyone close to them, take the time to ask them how they are doing… even if it is years later. Trust me, it makes all the difference in the world. Remember, you are not going to remind them that they lost someone special – they live with that reality every day. You will remind them that the person lived – and that is all anyone who has lost someone special could ever ask for…