editor’s note: This post was originally published in July of 2014 but has been updated to include recent events.
The first few weeks of grief after losing a child are a mixture of rage, sadness, helplessness and fear: An unstable concoction that can react and explode at any given moment. As someone who can now count himself among the unfortunate fraternity of those who lost a child I am sometimes asked by people to reach out to others who have recently suffered the same loss. The almost universal inquiry that follows is if I can say something , anything, that will help them or guide them along their path. Sadly, it is in those early days that words will have little or no effect. I cannot describe the hysteria that is felt in the immediate aftermath other than to say it is a wheel of emotions in perpetual flux. You are in an unnerving state of constant emotional change and nothing can stop that wheel from making its revolutions. One thing I do tell these grieving parents is that it is important to feel every single one of those emotions in order to begin the process of healing. Just as in chemistry, the reactants must come together to form a new product. As the reaction proceed energy is released – sometimes furiously. The products can only form in the wake of tumult and chaos. There is no other way to produce the end product. Similarly, the grieving parent must experience and acknowledge every ounce of rage, sadness, helplessness and fear, as those feelings catalyze the synthesis of the “new normal” they will eventually find themselves in.
Often times when I speak to grieving parents (myself included) they recognize the fact that their friends and family want to help them – either through actions or words, but that very little resonates; at least at first. Most people’s instinct in the wake of child-loss is to say things that they think will help the grieving parents. Paradoxically, at least to those who never suffered the loss and don’t truly understand it, those first few weeks are the worst time to hear advice on grief. The reaction that child-loss generates is so volatile that our first thought is to “help” our hurting loved ones and try to say anything (and often everything) that we think will “make it all better”. In a way, our loved ones try in vain to keep the reactants of sadness, anger, rage and hopelessness away from the grieving as a means to avoid the combustion that follows. Although the intentions of our loved ones is pure, they really can’t fathom what the grieving parent is going through. For our loved ones recognizing the magnitude of the loss you experienced, coupled with their intrinsic fear of it happening to them, results in the subconscious thought that they don’t want to even imagine what you are going through. This is not an indictment of those we love, rather it is simply a function of the brain’s coping mechanism for something often described as unimaginable.
Outliving our children is not unimaginable, every parent has imagined that scenario and then tucked the thought away as quickly as it appeared. No, losing a child is simply nature’s greatest cruelty and it represents a primal fear we simply do not ever want to face ourselves. When a loved one loses a child there is no hiding, no tucking away of the thought. We are forced to witness a reaction that is explosive and violent: Of course we want to put out the flames, it’s only natural. This natural need to try and fix that which is broken in those we care about leads to statements like: “Look for the signs and you will see he is with you…”. Those very words were uttered by countless people in the wake of Rees’ death. To be honest, at the time and from my perspective, they offered very little comfort and often times just deepened the wound his absence caused. I remember resenting hearing those words from people. I knew they meant well. I know they said it because they cared.
Regardless of intent, the first reason I resented those words was because I was not yet ready to hear it. My mind and heart were not in a place to accept that as an answer. The second reason I despised it was because I simply did not really believe it to be true – at least at that time I didn’t. Despite having an unexplainable experience with “signs” after my father’s death, I was still somewhat entrenched in my belief that death was final and anything that could be considered a sign was merely a coincidence. I was so angry that Rees was stolen from me that I had no reason to believe there could be anything out there to explain his loss other than the cruelty of an uncaring and ambivalent natural order dictated by chance and probability and nothing more. Whatever minimal hopes I previously held regarding the potential of an afterlife seemed to evaporate away like cold water on hot asphalt. It was so bad that I even disregarded the “sign” my father gave me after he passed: (below is an excerpt from my blog entry goodbye and the sign I got from my father)
About a month before my father succumbed to the cancer that ravaged his lungs, we had a conversation about death. At the time I was incredibly uncomfortable about the topic, as I knew my father’s own end was imminent. My father tried talking to me about his and by extension my own, mortality. I remember my father’s dismay when I told him I believed that when we died that was it – nothing more, a one way ticket to nothingness. Ever the showman, I stood up and turned off the lights in the room and told my father “You want to know what happens when you die? You just saw it. Light’s out. The end.” My father shook his head, but instead of a look of disgust or horror, I saw a smile on his face and the twinkle in his eye that he reserved for when he was keeping a secret that he knew would drive others crazy. My father knew something and he couldn’t wait to prove me wrong.
“You are wrong, Richie”. Those were his simple words – words that anyone who knows me irritate me to know end. “I feel sad that you don’t feel comfortable talking about this, but I KNOW there is something else after I die and I am going to prove it to you, Mr. Science!”, he said. My father then went on to describe his grand plan to prove to me that there was something more after death. He rationed that the only way to make me, the ultimate skeptic, believe that there is more to life after death was proof. I remember scoffing at the idea, asking my Dad how he could possibly prove it to me. As I stared him down, growing more and more frustrated with the direction of our conversation, I saw the light bulb go off in his head. ” Well”, he added with a smile of satisfaction ” we will just have to perform an experiment: Here’s the plan..”
The plan was amazingly simple and effective. My father’s idea was to give my wife, Samantha, a secret password that only she and he would know. Upon my father’s death he vowed he would return to me in some way and utter the password and I would have the proof I required. I remember laughing out loud at the notion and only went along with his plan out of sympathy and a sense of appeasement. At the time I did not realize that I had already forsaken my beliefs in science as I had a preconceived outcome that I was SURE of – a scientific no no. My father told Sam the password after I had left the room completely and went upstairs to our bedroom. I returned only after Sam had given me the ok, and for the remainder of our days together my father and I honestly never spoke another word about his grand experiment.
I was at my father’s side on the day of his death. My memory can paint a perfect picture of my father’s eyes the moment I walked into his room that morning. Though we didn’t speak, my father’s eyes actualized a fear that I had never before seen in them. The man I had looked up to as the epitome of strength and courage, a real life Superman, looked weak and afraid. To see my father whittled down to a husk of his former self and struggling mightily for mere wisps of breath filled me with hopelessness. I am sure my eyes belied the false sense of strength I was attempting to convey to him.
As things settled and my father became aware that both my sister and I were at his side the look of fear resigned to one of contentment. As I stood there comforting him and telling him how much I loved him the look of fear morphed into a look of peace and contentment. Though functionally mute for several days, he managed to hoarsly utter his last words to my sister and I: “I love you”. Not long after I felt the life slip from his large, once powerful hand, and I knew he was gone. I said, “Goodbye Dad, I love you”. I said goodbye to my father without a moment’s hesitation. It was natural, and poignant. According to everything I knew, my smug assurances told me that the light had turned off forever. Everything my father ever was ceased and he entered oblivion. Goodbye, Dad.
Exactly one month after my father passed I awoke from the first dream I had about him and found myself unable to get back to sleep. I quietly and stealthily slipped out of bed and walked down the stairs to our kitchen and sat at our computer. I sat there for about an hour or so before Sam must have awoken to realize that I was no longer in bed with her. She immediately came downstairs and found me at the computer and asked me what was the matter. I told her that I had a nice dream about my father, and went on to describe the dream.
In the dream my father was not dead, far from it in fact. In the realm of my unconscious mind he was alive and well with my family and me seated next to him at his picnic table at his house in upstate New York. In the dream my father was doing exactly what he would have been doing had he been alive: holding court. He was telling jokes, teasing people and playing his guitar. I remember the satisfaction I felt of seeing my father alive and all seemed to be right in the world. Then things changed. Like a storm cloud that sneaks over the top of a tall mountain changing the weather in an instant, my dream clouded over with the realization that my father was dead. All of the merriment ceased and my family all disappeared. I was left at the table with just my father, and in my dream I asked my father what was the password. He never answered. Instead, I was greeted with seemingly nonsensical images of dogs and world war fighter pilots and I awoke in disappointment.
I remember looking at Sam’s face as I described the dream, her sympathetic eyes filling me with an easiness to press on and tell the whole story. She smiled and acknowledged the salient points with a chuckle and continued to smile throughout… that is until I got to the last part. Never before in my life had I seen mere words draw the blood directly out of someone’s face until that moment. Ironically, it is I who would have been able to say I had seen a ghost, as her face took on the alabaster hue of an apparition. Upon hearing my description of dogs and fighter pilots, Sam immediately gasped, placed her balled up hand to her mouth and shook her head as if to dislodge a thought that had no reason being in her head. She hesitated a second and then uttered the words I will never forget: “The password your father gave me, I, I can’t believe this”, she stammered, “the password was Snoopy and the Red Baron!”.
We both stood there in awe and disbelief for several minutes. Ever the skeptic, I asked, and re-asked if she was sure. Samantha said that she wasn’t sure if the password was just Snoopy and the Red Baron, but she knew that was the main idea. She was without doubt on that. Unable to shake my skepticism, I then asked her if my father put her up to acknowledging any password I may have heard or seen just to mollify me and give me a sense of peace. I felt guilty about the inquiry, but needed confirmation. Sam vehemently denied that she would ever deceive me, and honestly her reaction was as genuine as can be. My father and Snoopy along with the Red Barron had given me pause. The reality of the ultimate finality of death that I was so sure of was now shattered and I scrambled to put the pieces together into a new mosaic of reality that incorporated this phenomenon. While I will always stop short of saying that what I received that day was proof (after all some part of my subconscious could have known the password somehow already) I now had evidence to doubt my previous belief. My father didn’t give me faith that there is something more after we die, but he did give me doubt that there isn’t anything at all. For a scientist, doubt is healthy. It keeps us honest. It gives us hope. A month after his passing, my father gave me the greatest gift he ever did while alive: the gift of possibility.
The sign my father gave me did in fact give me doubt that I was correct about the finality of death, but it did not convince me. Where doubt is flexible, belief is firm and unyielding. Before Richie died I held out a tenuous hope that my father did somehow visit me, providing me with doubt where once there only existed a belief it was a true end. Rees’ death very nearly obliterated that hope. With all the emotions I was experiencing, with the magnitude of the loss his absence created, I needed more. If I were to believe that some part of us goes on after death I would need proof. The more I thought about it, the angrier I grew as I asked myself, “how could my father reach out to me from beyond the grave to help me, and not do something to save my little boy from wandering into that pond?”. If my father could “visit” me from beyond the grave, surely he could have protected Rees? My doubt was dangerously close to becoming belief again. If I were to believe that some part of us is eternal I would need the very signs I didn’t want to hear about in order to “prove” it to me…
Signs are tricky thing for someone who has been trained to look past coincidence and confirmation bias. A scientist is trained to eliminate as many variables as they can to try and reach the truth. “Truth” is only something a scientist can claim after a series of controlled and reproduced experiments validate it. For a scientist to find the “truth”, they must eliminate the impossible, and whatever remains, regardless of how improbable, must be the answer. Along the same lines of thought is the principle of Occam’s Razor: The idea that the simplest solution to a problem is most likely the correct solution. When you apply this line of thinking to the idea that life somehow persists after death it would outwardly appear that Occam’s Razor slices this idea to shreds. After all, what is simpler than the idea that when you die, ALL of you dies? How does one find the truth in something that is inherently beyond our ability to test? How does one get proof?
Applying Occam’s razor does not in itself answer the question or provide any proof. It is simply a road map of apparent solution. If one wants to prove something they must have evidence to back it up: Proof. Scientists are always cautioned about proof. When analyzing data, a scientist must be sure to look at all sides of the problem and the “proof” that confirms or denies it. One of the most difficult things for a scientist to overcome is their innate confirmation bias that is built into every single human being. A confirmation bias is simply the tendency of humans to look for things that confirm what we believe to be true, and to ignore that which goes against that belief. An example I use with my students when teaching about confirmation bias is the idea that we live on a “Small World”. Say for instance you are travelling overseas and sitting at an outdoor cafe’ in Berlin, Germany. As you are eating your meal you hear someone behind you speaking English with an unmistakable accent that is just like yours. You turn around to the person and ask them where they are from and you find out they are from a town not far from you. As the conversation progresses you find out that you actually know their nephew because he attends the same school as your children and is close friends with them. Amazed at the odds that something like this would happen you proclaim “What a small world this is!”. Indeed, the fact that you had this experience does seem to give evidence that it is indeed a “small world” – as no other explanation would explain it.
In reality it is not a small world. At all. In fact, the Earth is pretty damn big. Here is the fatal flaw in that scenario: The people described in that situation only used their one, isolated, experience based on a previous bias that it is a “small world” to confirm that which they already believed. To think like a scientist would and prove whether or not it is indeed a small world they would need to take samples from EVERYONE gathered at the cafe and see if they had similar findings, or at the very least that the majority of the people their shared something with them that would lend credence to the theory. If you polled everyone else at that cafe’ you would find that you shared just about nothing with them. Would you then feel compelled to proclaim that, because you shared nothing with the majority of the people there, that it was in fact a “large world”? A normal person would not, but a scientist/researcher would. A scientist is trained to look at both sides of a problem and the potential that another answer exists outside of our bias. It is for this reason that the “proof” of something must be thoroughly tested, examined and re-tested to eliminate any bias.
A grieving father who just lost his only son hoping that there exists some possibility that his son’s life-force persists in some way could not be any further from unbiased. If I am told to look for signs that he is there the scientist in me would also be compelled to look for signs that he is not. I was not ready to perform a scientific experiment to prove something I found dubious to begin with and as such I really started to default to the idea that Rees was gone, in every single sense of the word. My own personal Occam’s razor was apparently ready to sever the vestiges of my connection with Rees entirely simply because it was the easiest thing to do.
The first two or three days after Rees passed found me in a dark place that my own thinking was partly to blame. I was angry, bitter and resentful – all the reactants that are expected. I didn’t want to hear about signs, or heaven, or God or anything like that. I didn’t believe there would be any signs, so I didn’t look for them – and of course that is when the first one appeared…
It was three or four days after Rees had passed and a couple of days after Superstorm Sandy that I walked outside and looked up at the moon right outside our kitchen door. It struck me for 2 reasons: First – the moon was incredibly bright and situated right over the walkway that lead from the door. The moon was literally in the “picture perfect” spot for me to see it. Second – the clouds that rolled past the moon that night moved with a haste that no doubt was caused by the remaining turbulence in the atmosphere left in Sandy’s wake. I called Samantha to come outside to look at the moon and the “Peter Pan Sky” as it was reminiscent of nighttime sky depicted in the film. She came out and I put my arm around her and told her that Rees was our Peter Pan now… the boy who would never grow up. It was at that moment that I noticed that there were only 2 stars visible in the sky from our vantage point – and they were directly to the right of the moon. I told her to look to the second star to the right and straight on till morning and that is where we will find our little boy. We hugged, we cried and we smiled. I think it was the first time we really smiled since his passing. There was a comfort to that moment that I cannot describe, and to try and do so would take away from majesty of the moment; suffice to say it was special. As we started to walk back into the house I turned my head over my shoulder again to look up and noticed something else; the stars we could see were actually part of the constellation Orion, my favorite constellation.
I didn’t see that natural spectacle as a sign. It was just a special experience between two parents who needed something special to put our hearts at ease, if only for a fleeting moment. Sam and I never shared that moment with anyone. It was ours and Rees’ and no one else’s. The sign came after the fact… Flash forward a couple of weeks later and the following arrives in our mail from an anonymous donor (and yes, they are still anonymous!):
As soon as Sam showed me I turned to her and asked her if she told anyone about our special moment that night. She replied “No, no one…”. I really couldn’t believe it. I thought, what were the odds that someone would do this and it just happened to be in the constellation Orion? Sam immediately called it a sign. I wasn’t so sure. The skeptic in me still reigned supreme. A sign? Perhaps, but not likely, I thought. Instead I rationed to myself that it was more likely to be some cosmic coincidence; merely a confirmation bias. I did not rule out that it was a sign, but I wasn’t convinced. I guess Rees knows his Daddy, because that wasn’t nearly the only sign he sent me. I guess I am as tough a nut to crack as Samantha says I am.
The next sign was something that shook me. It was a little over a week after Rees had passed and I took a drive, alone, to pick up some items I needed from Best Buy. On the way to the store I turned my radio dial from sports radio to a music station. Anyone who knows me knows that I almost never listen to music in my car. It’s so bad that Samantha jokes that my radio would probably die of shock if I were to change the station. Yet, on that day, I changed the station. I recall that as I did I was talking out loud in the car and asking Rees if he was there. “Can you hear me, Richie?”, I asked, “Will this idea of ReesSpecht Life be a way to honor your life and the kindness we received?”. The song that came on the radio at that very moment was “Hall of Fame” by Will.I.Am. As I listened to the lyrics they fit the very question I asked Richie at that moment. I was in shock… As the song ended I questioned Rees further, “Was that you, Richie? Was that a sign???”. At that very moment I was looking at some of the pictures of him that we printed but did not use for his memorial service the night before that were strewn across the passenger seat in my car. The next song that came on the radio? Photograph, by Nickleback. A song about pictures and saying goodbye… Oh my God, I thought as I arrived at my destination.
I still don’t recall what I purchased that day, but I do remember getting back into the car and hesitating to start the car back up. Would another song be on the radio that held a special meaning? I was afraid to turn the key for fear of not hearing something that fit, thus confirming what I experienced was nothing more than me searching for meaning in something that had none. I finally mustered the strength, turned the key and there was no song on the radio, just an add. I was disappointed and ready to turn off the radio and then the next song played: “Time after Time”, by Cyndi Lauper.
if you’re lost you can look – and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you – I’ll be waiting
Time after time
After my picture fades and darkness has
Turned to gray
Watching through windows – you’re wondering
If I’m OK
Secrets stolen from deep inside
The drum beats out of time –
If you’re lost you can look – and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you – I’ll be waiting
Time after time
As I listened to the song I started to sob uncontrollably. I felt a connection so strong I just could not shake it. It was primal, it was tangible. He was there – so much so that I swear I saw him sitting in his seat behind me, smiling at me with a reassuring smile that everything was going to be ok. He was there. I had my answer. My soul shook, and my brain trembled at the experience. It defied logic and reason. Sure, it still could be dismissed as just another confirmation bias; my subconscious tricking me – but the feeling was so real that even I, the devout skeptic and non-believer, was beginning to rethink my doubts…
A fair amount of time separated those signs from the next ones. Scattered between them were what I like to call “inklings” – not really signs, but things that make you wonder. Among these were reports from friends who saw psychics with Rees coming up in both. The circumstances described in both cases were eerily correct regarding Richie and the events that unfolded that day, and if I actually believed in psychics I would rate them higher than mere “inklings”. Another of these “inklings” occurred during our first family road trip after Richie’s passing. I recalled looking back at Rees’ empty seat behind me, an overwhelming sense of sadness and hopelessness overtaking me. I started to tear up but thankfully my sunglasses masked the waterworks from Samantha and the girls. I recall asking silently “Are you with us Richie?” and immediately getting my answer. Not one second after I asked, a car pulled next to us with a travel container on top made by Reese. The timing could not be more perfect. A coincidence? Maybe, but maybe not.
There have been other “inklings” at different times as well. More recently, on our 14th wedding anniversary, Sam and I went out to register for baby items for baby girl Specht. Just as we started our “scanning” the song “Respect”, by Aritha Franklin came on the radio. It was such perfect timing. A coincidence? Maybe, but maybe not.
Another example was during our family trip to Berlin, Germany last summer. I had just found myself the recipient of an act of kindness by a man who did not need the photo-pass he purchased for a tour of Charlottenberg castle. He turned around and gave it to me because he saw I had a camera. I was so thankful that someone would do something so kind (and generous!). Once we walked into the first room I was ready to take a shot with the camera I was now allowed to use and what do I see out the back window? A tractor. Parked right there for all to see and distactingly out of time and place for a location that transports you to the past. I took the picture below and called Sam over to see it. She was sure it was Rees – especially since once we went to the next room with a window the tractor was no longer there. I thought maybe it was Rees, but maybe not.
Speaking of tractors, I now see them all over. The rational side of me realizes that there are no more tractors now than there were before Rees passed, it’s just that I am now acutely aware of their presence. I never realized how ubiquitous tractors were until Richie passed. At least now I am beginning to understand why he got so excited and said tractor all the time… THEY ARE EVERYWHERE! I don’t see every one of these tractor sightings as signs or inklings, but some are. Just this past weekend, while upstate at our family property, we were out shopping for supplies and I saw this shirt:
Why was this shirt an inkling? While we were in the shop I commented to myself that Rees would have loved it. They had tractors everywhere and I mean everywhere. It would have been heaven for him, I thought – and it made me incredibly sad as I realized he was already there. Of course what was the very next thing I see? That shirt. Tractors never die. Well, I can assuredly attest, neither does love. Doubters can doubt all they want, but I just don’t think they are ALL coincidences anymore. Me, the rational, skeptical, non-believer, now can’t help but see SOMETHING. A coincidence? Maybe not.
I know there have been other little signs here and there that I am leaving out. To be honest, there have been so many now I really cannot keep track of them – they are now a milieu of random happy sights, sounds and fond memories. While I cannot recall all of those little signs, there are four big signs that I can recall with clarity, and by big I mean smack you in the face, punch you in the gut, you can’t ignore me signs…
1) The Rainbows:
I took that picture of THE [first] Rainbow while at my property in Upstate NY over the memorial day weekend of this past year (2014). Why do I call it THE Rainbow? Simple. This rainbow was a sign, plain and simple. For those of you who have read my blogs, or know me personally, you know that the one place on Earth that puts me at ease is “The Hill”; our family’s 76 acre slice of a mountaintop in the Catskills of New York. It is the most special place in the world to me, and nothing made me prouder than to share it with my children – especially Rees. I saw in Richie the chance to share the experiences I had with my own father on that sacred ground and pass a legacy of father and son on to him that he would in turn perhaps pass on to his own son one day too. I know this is the place where Rees found his love of tractors. Every picture I have of him up there his happiness is apparent and palpable:
It was clear, even in his terse life, that my special place and his special place were one and the same. There was a connection up there between my father, myself and him (the three “Richies”) that I cannot describe. Whenever I return to the hill that connection is still present – permeating my being and putting me at ease. It comes as no surprise that one of the biggest signs I have ever received from him came in that very place…
I recall the moment vividly; the smell of the fresh cut grass augmented by the evaporating rain. The squish of my sandals, like the sound of wet noodles being tossed, as they sunk ever so slightly into the water logged ground. The mountains on the horizon, unevenly shrouded in a thin veil of clouds. The revelry and laughter of my cousins and friends as they celebrated in the party pavilion. And, most importantly, my exact thoughts at the time: I wish Rees were with me. Are you with me Rees? How about a sign? I even went so far as to say it out loud, safe in the knowledge that my words would be drowned out by the festivity behind me. I looked up, looking for anything and the ground slid out beneath me. I fell to the ground with a thud, covered in a single streak of mud along my right leg and got right back up. My cousin, John asked me if I was ok and I replied “Yep”… though it was only half true. Physically I was fine, but emotionally I was hurting. I needed something and I all I saw was the grey blanket of clouds above. I walked into our camper, dejected and appropriately covered in the mud.
Not two minutes after I entered the camper and cleaned the mud off of me, my good friend Bobby excitedly burst into the camper telling us we needed to go outside and see the rainbow. He said it stretched unbroken from one mountain to another, and it was the most perfect, full rainbow he had ever seen. For a second I thought that he had overheard me asking Rees for a sign and was trying to cheer me up – figuring that he would tell me “You just missed it” when I went outside. Only half-believing the news, I grabbed my phone and stepped outside the camper to find myself immediately greeted by the most majestic, beautiful natural site my eyes ever had the pleasure of gazing upon. A double rainbow, arcing perfectly across the valley, situated perfectly in the line of site from my vantage point. I walked away from everyone, ignoring them and found myself moving towards the rainbow with one arm stretched out, almost as if I could touch it while the other wiped tears from my eyes. There it was. Rees answered my question. Loud and clear, for all to see. There. Was. No. Doubt. My little boy answered me. Thankfully, I remembered to take out my phone and snap the shot you see above, not for me to remember but for others to witness. That rainbow was a little boy’s smile sent from heaven. It was a sign – and it wasn’t the last time he would send a rainbow to me…
This past August (2014), my family and I made our annual late summer trip to the mountain for the “Delaware County Fair”. The fair holds bitter sweet memories for me as it was most likely the place where Rees really found his affinity for tractors. There are literally tractors everywhere of all shapes, sizes and colors and Rees loved them all. The last time I took him to the fair in the summer of 2012 I recall buying him a little John Deere tractor and the smile on his face when I handed it to him made my heart sing. From that moment on, that little tractor never left his hand for the entire trip and beyond. He took that tractor with him everywhere and whenever he ever lost track of it he would let the whole family know. Richie loved his tractor, and I loved the fact that I gave it to him.
This summer marked the first time we had gone back to the fair after Rees passed. It was yet another one of the “firsts” that a grieving parent has to deal with. I knew it would be difficult to be in a place with so many reminders of the things he loved, but I also knew I needed to face that pain and push through it so that we could continue to forge the positive memories for my daughters. That first day Sam and I did a great job of hiding the pain from Abby and Lori. We walked through the fair, pretending to enjoy it all but in reality both of our hearts were aching with each tractor sighting adding to the pain. We didn’t stay too long and eventually made our way back up to our property for dinner. The girls were not happy that we were leaving, so in order to mildly coerce them, I promised them a ride on our quad when we got back up to the hill.
I really didn’t want to take that ride. My heart was so heavy all I wanted to do was curl up in my bed and hide my pain from the world… but I couldn’t. The girls needed that ride. They needed their Daddy, so I took a deep breath and took them for a ride. Rees was still foremost on my mind. I was missing him terribly and the fact that I couldn’t really say anything to my daughters was making matters worse. I knew I couldn’t share my feelings with my little girls at that time, yet my heart was ready to burst wishing Rees were there with me. I didn’t want to lament his absence to the girls, but I slipped and said out loud to them, “I miss your little brother and Daddy really wishes he was here with us right now.”. Not one second after I said that, as I pulled the quad into the clearing of the fields of our property, does Lori point to the sky to point out a giant Rainbow – in the exact same spot as the one in May. Rees just told us he was there. No doubt in my mind. My little boy let me know he was with us on that ride…
2) The Message: (from my blog entry: Doubt)
I used to suffer from terrible night-terrors for years. Night after night I would awaken from my sleep with an overwhelming fear of the presence of something “else” that was in the room watching me. I never could place my finger on what it was, but in my stupefied state I seemed to have an awareness of it that faded when true consciousness returned to me. Sam used to ask me what it was, and I never could explain it – almost like it was something that was just at the edge of my recollection. Regardless of what the presence was (Sam used to joke it was the aliens from my homeworld that wanted me back), the feeling I got from it was always the same: I did not succeed in what I was supposed to do and my time was nearing an end. Often times I would awaken so startled from this experience I would jump out of bed and turn the lights on screaming unintelligibly back at “it”. Sam would always calm me down and ease me back to sleep. Of and on this happened for more than 10 years.
It all stopped a week after Rees died. The last night terror I had was that night. As I recall it started the same way, but this time there was a difference. There was no nebulous presence, it was clear this time who it was: Rees. He wasn’t my 22 month old Rees though, it was his spirit, his essence – his soul that was talking to me. I remember seeing lights darting across my bedroom ceiling like electrical signals zipping across a circuit board. I never saw Rees, I just “heard” him and saw these lights. I remember reaching my hands up towards the ceiling at them, and I recall the message loud and clear: ”You know your path now, you know what you have to do.” The commotion woke Sam up and she grabbed my outstretched arms and put them down. She started talking me down like she always did, but this time I was calm. This time I was at peace. I told her what I saw, and that what we had talked about in regards to ReesSpecht life was the path we needed to follow and Rees wanted us to. She never questioned it and though I know those lights and his voice was not there in the room for her to see, it was for me. I don’t care if my brain was making all of that up – it was real to me and it was an affirmation of what we were about to do.
This particular sign is unique in that it didn’t seem like a “sign” at first. At the time I wasn’t really sure what to make of it. I thought I was going crazy, but Sam felt otherwise. She never wavered in her belief. I guess I am a slow learner… it took me a while to catch up to her (although I will be honest – I’ll never “catch up” to her!) As time has passes, and as ReesSpecht Life grows, the veracity of this sign becomes clearer and clearer to this former doubting Thomas. I still have not had a night terror since that night. My soul is at ease, even though my heart aches. With the perspective of time, it is now clear to me that this was a sign – undeniable and true.
3) The Meeting: (From my blog entry: Finding Rees’ Pieces on Halloween)
[This past Halloween] we headed out, the whole family including all of the Grandparents, and we made up for the Halloween that did not happen for us last year. I reveled in seeing my little girls go house to house, dressed as superheros, like their baby brother would have been. Fleeting smiles faded to imperceptible grimaces as I imagined Rees joining his big sisters for the first time and what could have been… what should have been.
We proceeded to go house to house for about an hour, and the girls scored quite a haul of candy that should fuel the next three weeks of sugar rushes. Sam and I stayed back for the most part and merely kept a keen eye on them as they progressed door to door, asking politely for candy. It was a nice family moment, the feelings of which eroded away my sour mood that marked the beginning of our trek.
Eventually, Lori started to grow tired and we began to make our way back home. Abby and Lori both took inventory of their new-found candy treasures and their laughter and smiles served to fuel my soul. For that brief moment, all was right in the world and I smiled. It was at this time that I spotted another family making their way down the street. I saw multiple children dressed as fairy tale princesses and various comic book heroes. One hero stood out in particular: Captain America. A little boy, no older than maybe 5 or six was wearing a full Captain America Costume, with one glaring exception: his shield. Without even thinking I approached the diminutive Super Soldier and asked him where his shield was? His parents said he didn’t have one and I immediately removed my Captain America shield and gave it to him. I told him Captain America can’t go far without his shield and wished the family well. As I walked away I immediately thought to give them a ReesSpecht life card and realized that I had left my wallet in my car. Oh well. I thought to myself, it’s the act that matters – Rees knows. As we made our way home the thought that I did not have ReesSpecht Life cards with me tugged at my brain like a child pulling their parent’s pant leg.
I really felt like I had missed an opportunity to share Rees’ message. When we arrived home some 15 minutes later it was time for me to go pick up the pizza we had ordered earlier. I grabbed a couple of ReesSpecht Life cards and decided that I was going to try and find Captain America’s family and give them the cards. I drove around for about ten minutes before I spotted them, and when I did I immediately got out of my car and headed over to them. My first thought was that these people are going to think I was some nutcase, or that I wanted my shield back. I told them that I wanted to give them these cards when I gave their son the shield, but that I did not have any on me. I politely asked them to pay the kindness forward and started to walk away. It was then that Rees’ spirit intervened and the real trick and treat of this Halloween happened…
“Are you the father?” a woman asked. I looked at this woman, who seemed vaguely familiar to me but I could not place her. I replied that no, I was not the Boy’s father. ”No, the cards, Rees – are you Rees’ Father?” she said eyes wide open. If this hadn’t happened to me before I would have been more surprised than I was, but with over 20,000 ReesSpecht Life cards out there, and 11,500 followers on facebook I am finding these moments are increasing in frequency. I told her that I was indeed Rees’ father and what she said next sent a chill through me (rather apropos for halloween). ”I was the nurse in the ER on that day”, she tenderly said, “I was the one who wrapped him in the blanket and gave him to you”. My whole world stopped right there. I realized, in some ways, I was staring at the first Rees’ piece. Her simple act of swaddling our little Boy so that we could hold him one last time was the ultimate gift in an untenable situation. She gave us the gift of saying “Auf Wiedersehen” (I don’t believe in goodbye’s) and a last tender moment. I immediately hugged this woman, whose name I forgot in the intensity of the moment, and thanked her. I did not know what else to say. She told me that what we were doing to honor him was “Beautiful” and I thanked her again and walked away, trying to hide my tears that just burst through the wall of my last reserves of will power.
I got in the car and immediately drove away, blubbering like a little child and thanking Rees out loud. Again, he came to me when I needed it most. Had I not forgotten the cards at home, or had I not had that nagging feeling to get them later this moment would never have happened. Every time that doubt creeps into my mind, glimpses of Rees’ presence make themselves known. In the past year I have seen too many signs, too many pieces of Rees to think that anything else could explain my experiences. Today, of all days, when I faced a trial of life almost as difficult as losing Rees, he made himself known to me. My gaze rarely needs to wander far to find Rees’ pieces – I find them everywhere now. Prior to this past year I believed that every “amazing” or “unexplained” event we gave meaning to was merely a coincidence – a conformation bias we create to make ourselves feel better. Rees’ pieces continue to prove otherwise: I don’t believe in coincidences anymore…
What I left out of that post at the time was something that I was ashamed to admit: I wanted to thank the men and women of that ER and brave EMT’s of the Sound Beach Fire department but I still had not built up the courage to do so. If it were not for this encounter – and that nagging urge to get the cards and find that family, I would not have met that ER nurse and had the chance to thank her. After thanking her, and seeing her gratitude it made my eventual decision to personally thank the entire Sound Beach Fire Dept. that much easier. I have yet to do the same for the ER, but that place still remains a place my heart is not yet ready to return to. I know with each passing day the window for me to thank them in person closes ever so slightly. I hope that those amazing men and women of the St. Charles ER know how thankful Samantha and I are for all they tried to do to save our little boy. I think Rees was appreciative of the nurse who swaddled him and gave him back to us. My finding her on Halloween was his way of saying thank you. I have no doubt.
4) The Nail Salon:
This last sign is one Sam and I did share at any time, or anyone with the exception of mine and Samantha’s Mothers. This experience defies everything I could possibly try to rationalize and fills me with awe. It was such a special moment that Samantha asked that I did not share it with anyone. She wanted this one for us – our little miracle to savor and revel in. It was only upon her discovering I was writing this particular blog entry that she told me I had to share it… it was too perfect not to.
A couple of Saturday’s ago Samantha received an unusual phone call from a colleague in the foreign language department at her school. Just by the way Sam answered the phone I could tell that this conversation was not a typical one. She walked out of the room with phone ( a sign she did not want anyone to overhear her conversation) – and she was gone for some time. When she returned she looked at me with that pursed face you make when you want to say something to someone, but you are not quite sure how to go about doing it. Observing this, I immediately asked her what it was. She sat down on the stairs in front of me and said – ” I just had the craziest conversation and knowing you, you wont believe it”. Of course this totally piqued my interest (as well as my B.S. detector) and I told her to divulge everything…
She explained to me that her friend from work just got back from a brand new nail salon that opened near her home. She was sent to this salon on the recommendation of her daughter, who had patronized the salon the week before and was impressed with them. Based on the advice of her daughter, She went to the salon and when she walked in, the nail technician looked at her quizzically and simply said “Sam?” in a questioning manner. Not responding, the technician changed her inquiry asking “Is your name Samantha?”. Sam’s friend responded that her name was not Samantha – and not making a connection yet she didn’t press any further. The nail technician then asked “Do you know someone named Samantha?” – and at this her friend started picking up on the strange vibe and replied that she worked with Samantha. The technician then went on to ask her if the Samantha she knew lost her Son in a tragic accident. At this point Sam’s friend was a little flabbergasted but managed to reply in the affirmative. The technician told her that she could not shake the presence of “Richie” (not Rees). She said that Richie was telling her to tell Daddy that “It wasn’t his fault.” Furthermore he went on to say that he was safe and happy and that “Daddy should stop trying to reach out to the other man because he would only get hurt more by him.” She then said that Rees (Richie) said that he loves his family and he sent a new baby to us so that we can share the love we have with her.
As Sam was saying this to me, her puffy eyes filled with tears contradicting the smile on her lips, I sobbed. And then, almost immediately, the skeptic in me kicked in. I realized that everything Samantha relayed to me from the story was something I had already written about and expressed to literally tens of thousands of people. I told her that this person read my blogs, knew that Samantha worked in the same school as her friend and it was nothing more than a hoax. Everything seemed to fit until my daughter Abigail asked the key question: “Daddy, who is the other man?” I immediately explained to her that it was my best friend who was there the day Rees died and was watching TV while Rees drowned in our pond. Her inquiry made me realize something about the story: No one, not even Samantha, knew that I was trying, in vein, to reach out to my friend and try to get him to sit down and talk to me.
No one, other than me and my former friend (and a mutual acquaintance) knew that I was texting him at the time. No one else knew I was asking him to meet me at a public place so that we could talk about what happened that day and the rift that CPS placed between us. Every single one of my text’s went unanswered, yet I continued to try and reach out. No one else knew of the several occasions where I sat alone at a Starbuck’s at a specific time that I texted him, hoping he may show up; much like I had hoped he would have shown up the day of my farcical “Fair Hearing” with CPS, only to be greeted with the same disappointment. No other souls on Earth knew I was doing this… On Earth.
5) The Psychic
You would think with all of the signs I have seen the past two years that the burden of proof would be satisfied for the skeptic in me, yet there remains a stubborn part of me that refuses to accept anything unless it is concrete and undeniable. This skepticism met its nadir this past March when Samantha and I met with a psychic at the invitation of a young lady who follows us on facebook. She had invited us almost a year before to meet with “Psychic Sandy” and explained that she had a connection with the “Long Island Medium”. My inclination was to thank her for the offer, but decline. Before I did so I asked Samantha, and to my surprise she said she wanted to go. I deferred to Sam and graciously accepted the invite.
If there was any doubt I had about how the evening would progress it was eliminated the second I walked through the host’s door: A tractor sitting on top of a wood burning stove. It was literally the first thing I saw. It was almost like Rees hitting me over the head with the idea that I needed to open my mind to what was going to happen that night.
By the time the psychic arrived there were already at least 15 people in attendance. I was actually relieved because I figured Sam and I could just lay low and hopefully go relatively unnoticed. Things didn’t work out that way… The psychic looked at me right off the bat and started by saying to me “Your Father is coming through”. That threw me off because it wasn’t the generic “I see a male figure” statement that I expected. She went on to point to her throat and tell me that my father could not speak at the end but wanted to tell me he loved me. No one, other than my sister, knows that when we were with my father in his last moments, he could not speak but he mouthed the words “I love you” to us. No one. She went further explaining he fluid on his chest (which was true – he actually had 2 liters of fluid drained from around his heart – at once). I tried to keep a stone face, but the more she spoke, the more I couldn’t help but feel my Dad was truly coming through. She kept going, stating that my father knows I am changing careers next year (I am leaving teaching to pursue public speaking on behalf of the foundation full time) and that it was a decision that I was vacillating on (also true). Hit after hit about my father kept coming. There were literally no misses. I was in shock. And then Rees came through…
After speaking to some of the other members of the 15 person group, the psychic returned to Sam and I. She saw a little boy. She got his name: Richard. She did get some things about the circumstances of his death incorrect, but only vaguely. She then said something that blew me and Samantha away. She looked at me and said “I see his name everywhere… on trucks and signs. There’s a book, isn’t there?”. I know my mouth hit the floor. Sam and stared at each other and could not believe it. She continued “He wants you to know he was with you when you wrote the book.”. The psychic pointed out that it was difficult for me to get the first one published (it was – I had to self publish through a crowd funder), but that I was either working on, or just finishing the next one (I am in the middle of writing A Little Rees Specht Goes a Long Way). She continued to say that this next book will not face that problem – it will be big. Of everything she said to me, that one statement scared me the most. At this point she had me believing, but the thought occurred to me that if the future proved her wrong, everything I had opened my mind to would be called into question again. Based on recent events involving our movement, I don’t think she was wrong. The future she predicted seems to be coming to light. If ever there was a sign, this was it.
How do I explain these messages? How can anyone call them a coincidence? I am sure there will be people who think I make this stuff up. To them there is nothing I can offer other than my word, so I wont lose sleep over that since I know I am writing the truth. Skeptics will say that I am looking for the relationship in unrelated things to form my own picture of reality. They will claim that what I am experiencing is my mind’s coping mechanism, and nothing more. Doubters will tell me that I am a living Rorschach, finding meaning in that which has none. To those people I say this:
I was you. I never believed in anything because I never had a REASON to. I never saw the things I wasn’t looking for. The only difference between me then and now is the experiences which have forged my current understanding, opening my mind to the POSSIBILITY that perhaps I was wrong about my doctrinal subscription to a belief in only what science has to offer. Before these experiences I never knew what the words “keeping an open mind” meant. I do now. My heart and soul are open now, and I see things anew. Don’t judge me and my beliefs until you have seen the world through my eyes.
I think we can all benefit from stopping every once in a while and trying to view the world from other people’s perspectives. I do not want this essay to be a damnation of science and rational thought – nor an adherence to any particular religious belief. I am a science teacher. I believe in science. Everything we KNOW about the world around us we know because of careful scientific inquiry. Science has allowed us to conquer disease, extend our lifespans and transform ourselves into capable explorers dipping their toes into the heavens and beyond. Theories such as the big bang and evolution describe the world around us – and precisely predict future outcomes in a way that is unmatched by any other CURRENT idea. Science and skepticism are good things – but too much of a good thing can be bad. I find many scientists become so dogmatic in their view of things that they, ironically, lose sight of the very answers they are seeking. There are too many scientists who draw a line in the sand between rational thought and spirituality. To these scientists those two precepts are mutually exclusive; incapable of coexistence.
For instance, there are some physicists/mathematicians who claim that they may have it all figured out with things like M-Theory and it’s sibling String Theory. They propose a model of the universe described by vibrating fundamental “strings” that give rise to all the particles in matter and the energy in the Universe. The interplay of these strings, and their particle offspring, produce 11 dimensions of “reality” of which we can only perceive and interact with 3 dimensions (Length, width and Height) and perceive, but not interact with, a fourth (Time). In their mathematical models they can eloquently describe all the physical phenomena that we can see and calculate. The answers this model gives satisfies all of their questions. It even gives an explanation of a the birth of our Universe from nothing. To these researchers this represents the potential “Theory of Everything” – and here is the kicker… I think they are right, yet they are missing something that their calculations cannot account for. They aren’t asking ALL of the questions.
Physicists may be completely correct about their understanding of the universe. Everything we are, all that we see, may indeed be the effects of vibrating “strings” in the cosmic expanse. A scientist is only concerned with what they can see, touch, manipulate and quantify. Where once I thought this explanation was sufficient to answer all of my “Whys?”, I now find my current experience has me asking a bigger question I would have never thought of without my experiences serving as a benchmark of comparison: “If all matter, energy – the entirety of reality, is just the result of vibrating strings, who then is the virtuoso playing them? Or more importantly who is the conductor guiding them? Maybe the answer to all my questions, all my doubts, isn’t in the how’s of the universe… maybe it’s in the who’s. Whoever, or whatever that conductor is, call it God, Allah, Bahá, Waheguru, Brahman, or The Force – I think they are all one and the same. Something is conducting this symphony we call reality. A violin left to itself remains silent. A musician without an instrument makes no music. Neither can function as intended without the specific, guided, interaction with the other. I think the same is true for us. Life, matter, energy, the entirety of the universe are just a grand symphony. Somewhere out there – where snoopy flies with the Red Baron and Stars shine the way to Neverland, there is a maestro conducting from afar. The signs are all around us, we just have to open our minds to their presence. Somewhere, out there my little Richie is riding on his tractor, smiling, because he knows he taught his Daddy the greatest lesson he will ever learn: Belief. There are no coincidences; only the notes in the symphony of reality with each of us playing our own part – some longer than others. When our solo is through, we sit back down with the orchestra, playing in concert for eternity. All we need to know to prove that our loved ones are still there is to stop and listen to the music, that is where you will find your signs…