‘It was just so unexpected’: Family finds there’s no mathematical formula to grieving loss

‘It was just so unexpected’: Family finds there’s no mathematical formula to grieving loss

As Michael Klibaner watched his bride-to-be walk down the aisle in Puerto Rico during their wedding in 2004, he burst into tears.

Klibaner had a reputation for being analytical — especially at the science and math high school where he met both his future wife and this reporter — and logic would dictate that he had seen Amy enough in the 13 years that they dated to maintain his composure.

Only, that large brain was often overshadowed by an even bigger heart.

“Mike was a huge sap,” said Amy Klibaner, his wife of nearly 17 years. “He’s the guy who would be crying over Hallmark card commercials.”

These days, however, it’s everyone else’s turn to cry.

Klibaner died of complications from Covid-19 on April 14 — less than a month before he would have turned 48.

What makes the loss more devastating for his family and friends is that he seemed to be recovering from a relatively manageable case of the virus at his home in New York City, relieved not to need an emergency trip to a swamped hospital during the early weeks of the pandemic. When he collapsed in the bathroom of the apartment he shared with his wife and their 9-year-old daughter, he was brushing his teeth to get ready for his first walk outside in two weeks.

He went into cardiac arrest as the paramedics were taking him down the stairs, the result of what would later be determined as a massive pulmonary embolism.

“They took him to the hospital, and I got a call about an hour later that he passed away,” Amy Klibaner said. “It was just so unexpected.”

The loss was so sudden, so devastating, that it’s only 10 months later that his family can speak about it. It’s only now that this reporter could bring himself to ask the questions.

His daughter, Sidney, who will turn 10 in June, likes to look at a photograph from her infancy in Shanghai in which she is propped up on her father’s lap, one hand grasping for his bowl of noodles “to steal his food,” as she puts it. The picture reminds her of her dad’s smile. He smiled a lot.

“My favorite moment with him is when we swam together because we would race and I would always win, but sometimes I would let him,” she said by email.

Michael Klibaner with his daughter, Sidney.Courtesy Amy Shiu Klibaner

Born May 7, 1972, in Brooklyn, Klibaner was destined for a life of learning as the son of two science teachers.

In some ways, he grew up a regular suburban kid on Staten Island, riding his bike, watching baseball and collecting trading cards. Less typical were his elaborate science projects in middle school. One first-place project that particularly stands out for his father, Edwin: a study of how different wavelengths of light affect a mold that grows in horse manure.

“We went around Staten Island,” he said. “There were people who had horses, and we would ask them if we could take some of their manure.”

During summers, the Klibaner family would pack up their car and head across the country for epic camping trips to national parks. And that’s when Michael really seemed to be in his element.

“We were always at the back of the pack, and Michael and his sister, Alyssa, were always at the front of the pack with the rangers, and he was always asking questions,” said Klibaner’s mother, Roberta. “He always needed to know everything.”

So it was no surprise that Klibaner ended up being accepted to Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan.

Even at a magnet school that attracted so many other science and math prodigies, Klibaner stood out as a student eager to learn more. “We hung around in the math team circles, and I remember being impressed that he was teaching himself knot theory,” classmate John Ledwith said.

The resulting project in that befuddling field of advanced mathematics earned him a finalist berth in the prestigious Westinghouse National Science Talent Search.

In high school, Michael seemed to know everyone — including Amy, who at the time was just a friend of a friend. That changed once they bumped into each other again on the Staten Island ferry the summer after they graduated. Their relationship also graduated.

“We just sort of saw each other as different people once we started getting a chance to know each other,” Amy said.

In 1994, Klibaner graduated from Princeton University, where he majored in applied mathematics and in which he kept a lifelong school pride.

Michael Klibaner with his wife, Amy, and their daughter, Sidney.Courtesy Suzanne Goodwin

After graduation, Klibaner began a career in finance before finding a niche consulting for dotcoms. A year after they were married, the couple moved to Shanghai. Klibaner, who could start up a conversation with anybody on almost any topic, had made a good enough first impression with a guest at a friend’s wedding to get a job offer at the reception.

Two years later, he was hired by the Asia Pacific office of Jones Lang LaSalle Inc., a real estate company, where he rose to be the head of research for Greater China.

“He was a natural coach and mentor to the staff, which is a strong quality, particularly in China, where at the time we had a very young local workforce who were eager to learn,” said Klibaner’s boss for five years, Anthony Couse, the CEO of the company’s Asia Pacific office.

One of Klibaner’s favorite interview questions for the young workforce: How many cows are there in all of China? He didn’t care about the answer; it was all about the reasoning.

“Michael was also not shy of the media,” Couse said. “I could always count on him to take on the tough TV interviews at 5 a.m.”

Klibaner’s lifelong love of talking kept him in demand as an expert on Asian real estate on Western outlets like Bloomberg and CNBC.

Sidney was born in 2011, and the family moved to Hong Kong two years later.

In Asia, the family had the opportunity to indulge in Klibaner’s biggest passion — traveling all across the continent and beyond. Instead of a tent in a national park, however, he opted for a wine house in Capetown, South Africa.

Klibaner kept other hobbies. He may have outgrown baseball cards, but he stayed very much a collector. He kept elaborate databases that required a degree in advanced mathematics to decipher — whether they cataloged fancy bourbon, contemporary Chinese art or even the movies he watched.

He also loved to debate politics, and he found a lot about President Donald Trump to argue about. “He knew something about everything in the world,” his mother said. “And if you read his Facebook postings, you know had an opinion on every single thing.”

By the summer of 2019, Klibaner was between jobs when he attended his 25th-year college reunion. Being so close to their families made Klibaner and his wife consider moving back. They did so that August.

While they were here, Klibaner looked forward to passing on his own love of learning to his daughter.

“When we moved back to New York, we got family memberships to the zoos, the museums and stuff like that,” Amy said. “And so we were really looking forward to taking advantage of all the cultural institutions here.”

They didn’t get much of a chance before Michael got sick.

Then everything changed.

These days, his sister, Alyssa Geibel, comforts herself watching YouTube clips of the media interviews Klibaner did in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

“Just to see him alive and well and doing his job brings tears of happiness,” Geibel said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, that’s my brother.'”

There’s no mathematical formula for how to handle the grief — even almost 10 months later.

“I often find myself bogged down with focusing on the loss,” Amy said, “and forget to remember the quirks that made Mike who he was.”

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