Saturday, September 11, 2010

Keith G Fairben: A beloved American son

It was a chilly October day when mum Diane and dad Ken Fairben brought the newborn Keith home for the first time. Dad Ken remembers looking over at Diane holding Keith in her arms and being:

Terrified. Thrilled and petrified. So full of pride, I couldn't wait to show him off. This little munchkin is ours, and now we didn't have the safety net that we had in the hospital. This child is ours. It was overwhelming. I was frightened.

Keith Fairben was one of the first EMS on the scene on September 11, 2001 - EMS Unit "10 David" - and he is listed among the thousands of innocent Americans, and other nationalities, who lost their lives that day. Yes, his name is written forever within the lists of hallowed names, but when you ask Ken and Diane about Keith, it is as their precious son that they talk of him.

I first introduced my readers to Keith, Ken and Diane last year, when I wrote to honour and reflect on Keith's life. You can find that here. At that time, Diane shared a mother's love and memories. This year, Ken shared his father's heart, his Keith, with us all.

As Ken tells of the day that the baby Keith came home, his voice swells with pride, even as with all families adding a baby, there were challenges. Keith was not a good sleeper, was a colic-y baby, as Ken remembers well. Yes, Ken did get up in the night with him, but as a bus driver at the time, sleep was critical for him. Like all newborn babies who don't sleep, Keith was always most comfortable if you picked him up.

Ken tells the story of Keith's baptism which says all about those early days in the Fairben household.

The priest asked 'what do you name this child?'
Ken's reply: 'Depends if it is 2 in the morning or the middle of the day.'

This story also highlights the sense of humour that to this day is evident in the Fairben family.

According to Ken, once Keith settled down, he was a great baby, full of mischief, and always so much fun. He retells of him and Keith kicking balls around , playing baseball, or wrestling, and just fooling around, enjoying each other's company. One of the ongoing giggles among Ken, Keith and Diane was who Keith took after for his size, since Diane is short, and Keith towered over Ken. No, it wasn't the milkman, but they figure it must have been Keith's great uncle Eddy who was a giant of a man.

Ken and his brother were involved as volunteer firefighters in Floral Park, and Keith was only about eighteen months old when he was first taken to the firehouse, which is where the community spirit also shaped the man Keith would become.

The firehouse figures large in Keith's life:

This was Ken and Keith on one of Ken's birthdays. As Ken put it: "Eying the cake. Who gets it?"

Keith was 'horrible in school' (Ken's words) and his bedroom should have had a 'condemned' sign on it. Same with his school locker. Keith was asthmatic, and because of his size - as a 6/7th grader, he was 5'7" and 140lbs - the school football team was very interested in having him play for them. Keith instead went into baseball, which he loved, and the coaches were keen to keep him on the school team. Ken remembers hauling Keith along for a teacher parent conference because Keith had neglected to turn in work for a science teacher. Low grades meant no baseball team. After finding out that there were five labs not turned in, and that Keith would fail this course, Ken and Keith went to Keith's locker to find the lab reports that Keith swore he had done. Just as with his bedroom at home, the locker was a 'disaster', and no lab reports were to be found. Knowing that he had been given one week's grace period to turn in the missing lab reports in order to pass the course, Keith did it.

(Keith and Ken hanging out at the fire hall)

Ken remembers the time, when Keith was 18 years old, and he had planned one of those father and son big, rites of passage, moments. In the back of the firehall, Ken tells Keith that he is going to have a first beer with Keith.

Keith's reply:

"Dad, you've got to be kidding me!"

(Keith presenting Ken with his 25 year fire department service ring)

According to dad, Keith was an average, typical teenager, always on the go with a whole crowd of male and female friends who hung out together. Ken tells a story which describes just how loyal (and maybe naive) Keith could be when it came to his friends.

On a day when Ken and Diane had gone shopping, they came home to find an officer from the Floral Park Police Department waiting for them at the front door. The way Ken tells it, a friend had called Keith and asked for his help at an 'aunty's house.' Ever the loyal friend, Keith agreed, and got in his dad's car, drove over and sat outside waiting as the friend brought stuff out of the 'aunt's' house. Turns out, it was not an aunty's house at all; it was a robbery in progress and Keith was an unwitting accomplice.

Taken to the police station in handcuffs, by the time Ken and Diane get there, Keith is in a back room being questioned. When the detectives bring Keith out to meet with Ken and Diane, the cops, who are towered over by Keith, try and make light of it for Ken and Diane's sake. Laughing hysterically, they hand him over to Ken and Diane, after sharing that Keith has been very forthright in his answers, and no charges are being laid against him. Not so lucky for the others involved, who were apparently well known to the police. According to Ken, who laughs as he tells me this story, the only strike against Keith in the whole sorry episode, was that, according to one of the detectives, he was "dumb as dirt!" Once at home, Ken and Diane sat Keith down and talked to him, where the harshest penalty was Ken telling Keith that he had hurt his mother. But that was Keith: anything for a friend.

Ken shares another story, which also shows the very young Keith's innocence. When Keith was in 4th grade, one night at the dinner table he asks his mum and dad: "what's oral sex?'" Ken laughs as he remembers Diane leaving the table, and he explains to Keith "oral sex is when mummy tells daddy she loves him, and daddy tells mummy that he loves her, too. " To this day, Ken still marvels - and chuckles - that Keith bought that answer.

As Ken talks of this boy he loves so much, he describes an openly affectionate and loving family in small town America.. I ask if he and Keith ever had a 'birds and the bees father/son talk.' Ken says no, but that Keith lived what he saw around him every day; a family where hugs and kisses were the daily norm, always showing love and affection, and always, courtesy and respect for women; never dishonouring a woman. In his life cut short, Keith had only one serious girlfriend, and when that eventually ended, Keith carried on, as he always did, with his huge crowd of friends, a wiser young man.

Keith's mum Diane told me last year that Keith was so like his dad, and a love of helping others is so obviously something they shared. Ken describes Keith as having a 'gentleness, an ability to calm patients, a gift. He was always able to reassure patients that everything would be okay.' If you read last year's column about Keith, you will also remember VJ describing Keith as 'a natural.'

Ken describes a young man who also lived the creed: Give respect and you'll get respect, with not a prejudiced bone in his body. He tells two stories to illustrate the quintessential Keith:

One day, driving his Camarro, Keith was stopped by a policeman. As he was given a ticket for 'obstruction,' because of the many air freshener decals hanging in his car, Keith was very respectful.

Another time, Keith met an African American girl in the cleaners, and they became friends. Always respectful with no room for prejudice. Ken tells me that Keith was hugely respected by the police he worked with, who would often say: 'Thank God it's Keith' when he showed up on a rescue call.

The serious work Keith did, first as an EMT and later a paramedic, didn't ever quash his love of silliness, and good laughs. At a three day retreat that the FD went to a dude ranch, for a weekend of giggles, there was a softball game begun. Ken and Keith were on opposing teams.

I'll let Ken tell the story:

Keith was on 2nd base. Next batter hits to the outfield. Keith runs towards 3rd base and instead of staying there, decides to run 'home,' towards me. Runs straight into me and knocks me right over. Someone tells Keith: "You damn near killed your father!" to which Keith replies: "He was in my way!" You just never knew what to expect from Keith!

Just like his father, Keith had (has!) a sharp sense of humour, and could always see the funny side of situations. This served him well, especially in the work place. One time Keith was dispatched to a domestic situation. Taking the male into the kitchen to talk with him, Keith laughed as he tells Ken what the guy had said to him: She hit me with a smoothie. [Ken had to explain to me what a 'smoothie' is. Before he did, I still found this one funny. ] As with most who work in such service professions, Keith has a very sick sense of humour. For all who see the darker side of humanity in their chosen professions, such humour is a safety valve, and Ken shared more than a few 'Keith stories' with me, that show a young man who loved to laugh. Ken: 'Keith made light of everything. It was all a giggle.' Another classic that lives on, is the time Keith and his co-workers greased the door handle of boss Jack Delaney's office. Ken stresses though, that Keith never, ever, lost his sense of compassion.

This is one of the few pictures of Ken, Diane and Keith together. Diane tells me Keith hated having his picture taken, but was always happy to be the photographer. This picture was taken in April, 2001, at the annual Communion Breakfast, a service is held to honour all those who have fallen in the line of duty the previous year.

Ken tells me that his son had to show him how to use technology. Always either on his cell phone, on the computer, Keith had to show Ken how to work his own new cell phone. Ken laughs as he retells that story, but his sorrow shows when he describes his last call with Keith on 9/11. It has been written of before:
... called him on his cell phone at 9:10, minutes after he heard about the plane crash. "I knew he would be there," he said. [...] He wasn't surprised when his son answered the phone and said: "Dad, I'm really busy. I'm at the World Trade Center. I can't talk now." Be safe, his father said. "Call us later." (source: Newsweek, September 20, 2001)

About that last call, Ken now says he wishes he had kept the same service, as he would give anything to hear his son's voice again. He called the server, to see if they could somehow retrieve those last few words - his last call with Keith - but they couldn't help, and Keith's cell phone has never been found.

The last time Ken got to be with his son one on one was a couple of days before 9/11. Ken called Keith and told him he was going into Manhattan. When he got there, he called Keith and they met at a street corner. They spent 5 to 10 minutes 'chewing the fat', and then Keith got a call and had to go.

After the early morning call on 9/11 when he told Keith "Be safe," Ken says he spent all day making light of events, being optimistic. He tells me that throughout that terrible day, he had no sense that Keith was gone. Even when Keith didn't call, Ken made a joke that he was probably in Krispy Kreme, a favourite hangout. Ken kept hope until two days later when, after a day of searching Ground Zero for Keith, he had to return home that night without Keith. A few days later Ken and Diane went over to the hospital where Keith worked. At New York Presbyterian Hospital, Jack Delaney (Keith's boss) took Ken aside while Diane was busy, and showed him Keith's ambulance. Ambulance Unit "10 David" was recovered and removed to NYPH. Ken says that when he saw it, he knew Keith was not coming home.

The values that Keith learned within his family, are those same core values he took into his work life. Initially after high school, he went to a local community college to take hotel and restaurant management, since Diane and Ken insisted he needed to find a direction to his life, a niche. As soon as he was old enough, Keith volunteered at the Floral Park Fire Department.. Going to school during the day and volunteering at night, he eventually transferred to the rescue company, and with a busy social life, Keith was constantly on the go. But it was within the rescue/medical area Keith found where he belonged, his niche, what he was destined to do: people. He enrolled in an EMT course. and loved it. You gotta work at the EMT course. Very demanding, but Keith loved it. He would eat, sleep, breathe it.

That became his career, his passion, and he went on to be professionally trained as an EMT-P, who was highly regarded by all who knew him, or met him. Enrolled in paramedic school, which was 3 or 4 nights a week at North Shore University Hospital, Keith completed his training in May 2001. It was only after 9/11 that Ken and Diane found out just how well Keith had done in that course; very well, and passed with flying colours. Keith missed the ceremony, but Ken and Diane were presented with his parchment in a special ceremony.

There have been many ceremonies and many memorials since 9/11 which speak so loudly of how much Keith was loved - IS loved - and respected. Scholarships were also formed in Keith's name by Ken and Diane. (See more details on those here.) Ken and Diane also attended the commissioning of the USS New York last November:

The ship’s motto is Strength forged through sacrifice. Never Forget.
The ship is not only special because of its name; [ USS New York] it is also special because 24 tons of scrap steel from the World Trade Center was melted down in a foundry in Amite, La., to cast the ship’s bow-stem section, which is the foremost section of the hull on the water line that slices through the water. (More in my original column here)

One annual event is the Keith G Fairben Memorial Old Fashioned. I actually found a video of last year's fun and frolics:

That Keith is special is beyond doubt. To listen to anyone who loves him, or even met him just briefly, is to know that this young American hero touched many lives.


...'picture him beside you, helping you. Even if you are a total stranger, he would have reached out to you. He had an amazing ability to forgive and forget. A true friend who truly cared. He had an ability to walk into any room and fit right in. People gravitate towards him...'

There is not a day goes by that Ken and Diane don't think of Keith, and they are vigilant in their determination to ensure that Keith is never forgotten by the rest of us. They ARE his voice. The community has also kept Keith alive with ongoing memorial events and lasting tributes. Within the FPFD there is Keith's locker - with his gear - which Ken sees, and talk to, every time he is there. There is Lieutenant Keith G Fairben Way, a street renamed in Keith's honour. There is a memorial garden, which the community came together to create:

Keith Fairben Memorial Garden (Floral Park)

Dedicated to: Keith Fairben
Type of Memorial: Garden
Location: Centennial Gardens
Address: Raff Avenue & Floral Parkway
City: Floral Park
Description: A lovely garden planted in memory of Keith Fairben who perished on September 11, 2001. (From Voices of September 11th)
'...that used to be a nasty sump, and through grants and donations and volunteers, it was made. Inside is a bridge that spans over a little low area, a bird garden, butterfly garden, and paths. People were invited to donate trees, benches, flowers, shrubs etc, and many did it in memory of others. Quite a few for Keith, enough so that they made that planting. It's actually outside the entrance to the gardens.
The gardens are on the other side of town, in Floral Park...Every spring I go and plant - only 'manly' colours like purple and orange. NO pinks, because Keith would be disgusted!'

There is a memorial rock set in front of Ken's company firehouse:
A Community Remembers A Hero

With heavy hearts Monday evening, the Floral Park community remembered and honored a fallen brother almost one year after the fateful day he made his last call. Members of Reliance Engine Company #2 unveiled a monument in 1st Lt. Keith Fairben's name Monday evening alongside Keith's parents, Ken and Diane.
Reliance Fire Co. in Floral Park unveiled a monument Monday evening in honor of 1st Lt. Keith Fairben, who lost his life last September 11. "Dedicated in memory of our fallen brother 1st Lieutenant Keith Fairben who made the supreme sacrifice 9/11/01" is inscribed on the monument.
Captain David Maickel said he'd never forget the sacrifice Fairben made that day. "There will be a permanent void in our hearts forever," he said. "Keith, we miss you. God speed."
Dozens of residents came out to pay tribute to a local hero said to be embracing someone he was trying to save when he was found. Fire Commissioner Tom Tweedy was in attendance, along with fellow trustees and Mayor Ann Corbett.
Rev. Albert Martin of Christ Evangelical Lutheran Church shared the thoughts he had when asked to attend the dedication. "I wish, Kenny and Diane, that we weren't here tonight because us being here means Keith is not," he said, "and the terrible pain we feel is a pain that continues to go on, day by day, as we remember him.
"But I'm also happy we're here. I'm happy that Keith was such a faithful and dedicated servant to the department. For a young man found embracing a person he was trying to save, he is now embraced by God's love."
In its traditional manner, the department honored four members who died over the past year, including Fairben, during a breakfast months back, which was followed by a brief ceremony at the firemen's monument (corner of Tulip Avenue and Caroline Place) and a Mass at Our Lady of Victory. The families of the honored firefighters were presented with plaques acknowledging the selfless service of their loved ones.
In addition to working with Reliance Engine Company #2, Fairben also served as a paramedic with New York-Columbia Presbyterian Hospital's Emergency Medical Services in Manhattan. Mayor Corbett recently welcomed Keith's mother as a new member of the Floral Park Fire Department.
First Assistant Chief Kloepfer spoke of Fairben's commitment to the Floral Park community, his humor and thoughtfulness, saying, "I'm proud to have worked alongside Keith."
(From the Floral Park Dispatch here)
There are also many online memorials for Keith, and to read any of the comments written, is to know how much Keith is loved. Here and here are just two of them.
Many people carry Keith in their hearts, every single day. At the top of this column are two tangible symbols of the ongoing love for Keith. I am honoured to constantly wear both the bracelet and the pin, as a reminder of the special bond shared with those who know and love Keith.
This precious son, who was such a gentle giant, also has a teddy bear that was created in his honour. Ken calls it the Keith and Mario bear because it honours both Keith and his partner that day, Mario Santoro, who was also lost on 9/11. (For a short piece on Mario, go here, or to learn more here and here. A combat medic also has a tribute page to the EMS heroes of that day here.)

To me, who never knew Keith while he was here, this teddy bear is the essence of him, and all he stands for. This 6'4 man, based on all I have learned about him, is the epitome of a gentle, always dependable teddy bear.

These are all very public memorials to a well-loved and cherished member of his community. Yes, Ken and Diane attend many of the public ceremonies, but no mistaking the pain in Ken's voice when he shares his private pain with me. I ask about God and whether Ken still has any faith in God:
I don't forgive God. He took one of the two most precious things in the world away from me. Keith was our gift from God, and He took him from us. I am angry and confused. WHY did God take Keith? I have asked priests, and they have no answers. Yes, I was raised a Catholic. One of the memorial services Diane and I went to, a priest stood at the altar and said 'we have to forgive, we have to heal our wounds,' but I do not forgive and I do not forget. Diane and I got up and walked out from that service.. There IS no healing for us. How do you celebrate? There are never going to be grandkids for us, there ARE no holidays, just an emptiness. There is never going to be 'closure', no 'getting over it and moving on,' as some have said to us. I know people mean well, but...I still have a faith in God, even though sometimes it is so hard. I pray that God has Keith safe in His arms.

Following 9/11, Knights of Columbus, a well established Catholic based organisation, honoured Keith in a blood drive, and were very supportive of Ken and Diane. Ken eventually joined them as a fully active member, to honour his son, and because, as he puts it: I wanted to give something back. Ken also recently again took part in a 9/11 Memorial Ride. He tells me he rides his motorbike - something he had never done before 9/11 - for Keith. And yes, he talks to Keith all along the hundreds of miles of the ride. He knows Keith rides with him.

Ken's motorbike is something he gets some comfort from. On those bad days, of which there many, Ken goes for long rides on his bike. When he needs to go be by himself, he rides. Ken and Diane have a rock solid marriage, but the passing of Keith does, of course, from time to time, become unbearable for both of them. Because they know each other so well, they know when hugs are needed, or when distance is the answer, and they both respect each other's way of handling the overwhelming sorrows.

Prior to 9/11, neither Ken nor Diane were too politically aware. As Ken tells it, yes, they followed local issues but that was it. Since 9/11, many families who lost loved ones that day have formed various groups. Ken and Diane are on a few of their mailing lists, to keep informed on matters relating to Keith. They rarely speak out publicly as some of the other 9/11 family members have chosen to do. They are not comfortable with that, and Ken says that is not what Keith would want them to do..

Back in October, 2001, Diane did give an interview to the Daily News:
Monday, October 1th 2001, 2:23AM
You can't see his face in the photograph, but Diane Fairben says she can tell by a bracelet that it's her son, Keith, a paramedic.
"I recognized the silver bracelet," the New York City schoolteacher said from her home in Floral Park, L.I. "You can see his shirt. . . . Wherever that picture was taken, it was minutes or seconds before the collapse."
Keith Fairben, 24, is one of three paramedics from New York-Presbyterian Hospital among the missing in the World Trade Center disaster. The photo turned up in last week's Newsweek.
"At first, we had a lot of hope," she said. "But now, through the days, we've digested the reality of what's happening and what's not going to happen." (More here)

These days Diane chooses to stay away from the media spotlight, referring most enquiries to Ken. Recently though, both of them did agree to be part of a video ad organised by Keep America Safe, one of the most visible 9/11 families' groups. This video was their response to the current 'debate' about a planned muslim mosque at Ground Zero:

As Alison Vadhan, daughter of a Flight 93 passenger, says in this video:
As long as they need us, I'll continue to speak for them. I'll continue the fight they began.

And so it is for Ken and Diane. They DO speak for Keith, and will continue to do that, in their own low profile way. They went to GITMO to bear witness for Keith as the murderers responsible for 9/11 began a preliminary trial phase under the military commission. They have been to the White House, and saw AG Holder, as part of a group. Again, doing it for Keith. They have signed letters sent by 9/11 families to various politicians to voice their opposition to the BHO proposal to transfer these war criminals to civilian court. This is not a path they would have willingly chosen, but they are determined that Keith's voice will be heard.
I ask Ken about his favourite memories of Keith; memories he revisits in his worst moments, when he can find no solace. He tells the softball story, above, and also relates:
One time Diane, Keith and I went to the Bahamas. I am into scuba diving, and Keith was always willing to try anything. There we were diving together. Keith with his asthma was beginning to look uncomfortable. I held onto his bouyancy vest, and we were holding each other, looking into each others eyes. ...
...Keith would always leave me notes. I remember them, and still have one...
Ken laughs as he shares another precious memory:
One day, when we lived right across from the firehall, Keith ran out the front door with me right behind him as we were answering a call.
One of the kids from next door saw us and ran into his parents and said: 'Boy! Keith is in BIG trouble now. I just saw his dad chasing him, trying to catch him!
Both Ken and Diane have shared stories with me, which reaffirm for them that Keith is always close by. They feel him. He always gets blamed when it rains on official events in his honour, and they always ask him 'Did you have to make it rain, again, kid?' When anything unexpected - unplanned - happens, Keith gets blamed.

Every time Ken sees a penny on the sidewalk, he knows that is a sign from Keith, picks it up and says 'Thanks, bud.' Ken swears that Keith smiles at that.
Many of us see those who gave their lives on 9/11 as heroes. I ask Ken how he thinks Keith would feel about being called a hero.

Keith would say 'I am not a hero. I just wanted to able to help someone.' I don't think he would like being called a hero. He was just a caring human being, doing what he loved to do. I am embarrassed when people say that. Keith would be, too. But, I speak for him as I think he would want me to.
There is not one day goes by that Ken and Diane do not miss Keith, even as they know his spirit, the love that is him, will always live on. I also know this to be so, because Keith IS such a beloved American son who will always remain in the hearts of those who love him.

Thank YOU Ken and Diane for not only raising such an amazing young man, but sharing him with me. I promise you that Keith will be remembered. You, and Keith, all have my heart. Always.

(c) 2010 Ken and Diane Fairben


MsMarti said...

Very fine post.

Thank you for sharing about Keith with us!

Unknown said...

You have honored Keith so beautifully again this year, thank you. To Diane and Ken....thoughts and prayers are with you, now and always.

Storm'n Norm'n said...

Thanks...I read most of it and watched the training video then I tried to read a little more...its a great post believe me but my daddy was a fireman and the memories just took hold of me...

Anonymous said...

I have noticed Keith's photo on your sidebar for the longest time so I knew that he was someone very special and that his parents loved and missed him deeply. Keith's memory will live on in our hearts. This was a beautiful tribute, and I thank the Fairbens for sharing their beloved son with us.


CT Cindy said...

So very beautiful memories of a fine human being!

Unknown said...

A myriad of emotions fill this day, but the most important thought is my memory of Keith. I was his fifth grade teacher and grew to love Keith, Diane, and Ken. Keith reminds me to continue to cherish my students so that they, in turn, will grow to make the world a better place....just as Keith did.