I don’t think I had ever smelled so bad, felt so tired, or been so dirty in my entire life. If this was what home ownership was all about, I was ready to sell.
I had just purchased my house about a month earlier, and although the inside just needed some fresh paint without any major renovation, the outside was a completely different story. Standing there with sweat dripping down my brow, I knew I had grossly underestimated the amount of yardwork that needed to be done, or I had overestimated my ability to be a green-thumbed workhorse.
The list of things that needed to be done was both exhaustive and exhausting. Cut the grass and spray for weeds. Cut down numerous overgrown trees and shrubbery. Pull the layer of weeds that had almost created a natural green carpet covering over the large brick patio. Pull more weeds from all of the flowerbeds, which were many. Take out some of the flowerbeds to prevent me from having to pull that many weeds next time. Pray that there were no snakes inhabiting any hidden areas in the yard (that prayer was not granted). My yellow legal pad ran over with chores to complete. I wondered if I would ever get to complete them before I paid off the mortgage.
But my real nemesis was the pond. Or at least the hole in the backyard where the pond had once been.
The previous owners of the house had been wonderfully nice people, but their landscaping credentials were questionable. When they inherited the house, they were welcomed by a beautiful tiered pond directly off the back patio. Two small pools resided at the top of a flat-rock covered raised bed, with rushing water flowing into a 15 foot by 20 foot main pond. There were lily pads, Koi fish, and all the other amenities that make a pond peaceful and relaxing. Trees hung over the water, shading the fish as they scurried through the slightly green water. Frogs would croak at night, and birds would bathe by day. I rarely remember seeing many backyard ponds that could match the majesty and naturally-disguised beauty of this one. It rivaled many postcard ponds that I had seen!
In nine years of owning the house, the previous owners never took a liking to pond maintenance (and in their defense, there isn’t much to like about it). Slowly, the pristine nature of the pond gave way to algae and plant growth, and eventually, the owners relented to Mother Nature. They let the pond go—completely. As a matter of fact, I don’t think the previous owners had even touched the interior of the pond for a period of at least six years.
I remember trying to conceal my shocked face when I toured the house with the owners the first time. I didn’t want to let them know that I was appalled by the overgrowth of the pond, but I have the worst poker face in the history of the game. I remember standing at the sliding glass door looking out over the back yard and saying something to the effect of “Wow. This is really bad.” I’m really good at sugarcoating my feelings, if you can’t tell.
“I know, I know…we are so embarrassed!” the owner exclaimed to me. “We just didn’t think it would be as much work as what it was. We hate what it’s become.”
Despite my better judgement and lack of interest in all things landscaping, I bought the house and inherited all the yardwork that came along with it. And to think I was only indebted to the bank for 30 years because of this! The pond was on the top of my list of things that needed to be tackled immediately. But looking at the pond as an owner brought on a whole new level of doubt as to whether or not I could actually make this happen.
I know that people often exaggerate when they talk about the height of plants, but I’m not making this up—the weeds and cattails growing in the pond were taller than I was. A huge root mat at least a foot and a half thick had tangled itself in the bed of the pond. The root mat looked like a 15 foot by 20 foot package of Ramen noodles. It was impossible to pull any one weed. It had to be all or nothing. And in the midst of all the overgrowth, there didn’t appear to be a drop of water in this entire pond.
I can’t take credit for eventually getting that pond back to its original working order. There were two people who helped me get things under control.
The first, to no one’s surprise, was my Dad. While every ounce of my soul absolutely despised yardwork, my Dad seemed to find a quiet stillness and peace when he was working in the yard. The sun was his fuel. Sweat and dirt were his tools. His hands were calloused and dirty, and he wouldn’t have them any other way. Planting, chopping, growing, and maintaining came naturally to him, while complaining, procrastinating, and accusing my Dad of child slave labor were my natural responses to any yard-related chores I was assigned. When I bought the house, Dad didn’t hesitate to jump in and help any way he could—even when it included yard work after a long day in a hot steel warehouse. There were even days when I would find him digging up plants or weeding when I hadn’t even asked him. I was lucky to have a green-thumbed Dad.
The second person to help me with the pond and many of the other chores when I bought the house was my good friend, Steve Adams. I met Steve in 6th grade. We shared a study hall table by virtue of our last names being at the beginning of the alphabet. All throughout high school, we become good friends. Steve and I would often leave school together for an afternoon trip to Skyline for a few coneys, and then make our way to Fairfield Lanes where we would bowl (albeit pathetically) a few games. Over the years, we continued our friendship, playing in weekly poker games and attending Reds’ games as often as we could.
Steve went away for college, but ended up transferring back home and attending Miami at the start of his junior year. Steve was a logical roommate for a number of reasons, ultimate among those being his desire for cleanliness, which honestly borders on the level of OCD. I have never seen anyone keep a cleaner and more organized apartment than Steve Adams. I’m sure that our parents must have thought we had girls living with us because our apartment was so clean, but I can assure you from the multitude of rejections I received from the bulk of the female student body at Miami that that was definitely not the case. Steve would vacuum constantly, clean any surface, and straighten any item that was askew. As a matter of fact, I would often move things around on our kitchen or bathroom counters just to see how long it would take him to put everything back (maybe this kind of stuff is why I was constantly rejected by females). In most cases, it was within the hour that he had returned everything to its original place. Unbelievable.
Steve eventually graduated, got a job as an engineer, bought a house, and kept it as clean as it was the day he moved in. Fortunately, his house was just down the road from mine, and we were able to maintain a great friendship. Steve and I would usually see each other four or five nights a week, and I was lucky to have a friend as true as him in my life.
Aside from being a clean freak, it’s more important that you know that Steve is one of the most hardworking and genuinely helpful friends that I’ve ever had in my entire life. Steve has an attention to detail that is absolutely remarkable, which has made him an exceptional engineer and a talented DIYer. His methodical approach to his job translates into being able to do a variety of things around his house, from constructing furniture and hanging televisions to remodeling entire rooms and repairing broken equipment. This is a handy trait to have, but it’s even more powerful when you couple it with his thoughtful heart.
We all have one of those “anything you need” friends. The person who will drop whatever he or she is doing to be by your side and help you when you need it. And when I bought my house, Steve was definitely that person. He jumped right in, so much so that I felt guilty for my name being on the deed instead of his. Every night after work without fail, Steve would drive over to my house in a cutoff and cargo shorts, ready to work. He did absolutely everything. He helped me paint. He helped me move furniture. He helped repair things that had been broken when I had tried to do them myself and failed tremendously. He was an absolute life saver.
And when it came to yardwork, Steve had two green thumbs and an unbelievable amount of energy. He often pushed me when I felt like I was too tired to work. He would shake my shoulders and tell me to “man up” and that we had too much to do to sit still. Steve would pull weeds until his hands were raw. He would work in the hot July sun until it set and had completely zapped him of his energy. If there was something I needed to do in the yard, he would do it right alongside me until the job was done. I was lucky to have him by my side.
And on this particular night, to all of our glee, Steve, my Dad, and I were all standing in the nearly weed-free pond with our hands on our hips and sweat covering our faces. It was another brutally hot night, but we were so close to completing the work in the pond that we pushed through. The root mat was so thick and so tangled that we actually had to saw through it with a machete (which my Dad owned for reasons I will never know or understand), hauling out chunks of weeds that weighed nearly 75 pounds. We eventually ended up with two trailers full of weeds from the pond alone. We were proud of the work we had done because it was unbelievably exhausting, but we also knew that the end product—a beautifully glistening pond right on the back patio—would be well worth the time and sweat we invested. We surveyed the pond and the surrounding landscaping, which was full of trees and ornamental grasses as we tried to catch our breath. Then, my Dad pointed at a bare spot just to the right of the upper pond and the rear waterfall.
“Hey boy. That would be a great spot for a bench. It would be a perfect place to sit,” he said.
“Yeah, that would be really nice. Maybe I’ll look for something the next time I’m out shopping,” I replied.
“No, don’t do that,” he said. “I’ll build you something. I’ll make you something really nice.”
It was just like my Dad to promise to build something we could just as easily buy, but I agreed because I knew anything he built would be top of the line, beautiful, and perfectly crafted in every way.
And with the vision of a bench fresh on our minds, we went right back to work. All the while, Steve stood silently and listened to our normal, commonplace conversation. And like he always did, he started pulling weeds right along with us when we started to work again. Typical Steve—thank goodness.
My Dad never got a chance to build that bench. He died nearly a year from the date that I had bought my house. I felt his absence in every facet of my life, but especially when it came to repairs and projects around the house. My Dad was the handyman, and I was the son who reaped the benefits of having a handyman father. I didn’t know how to build anything. I didn’t know how to fix a dishwasher when it failed to wash dishes. I would go to Home Depot, pick up a “Plumbing for Dummies” book, and ask the store clerk if they had anything that was easier to read. Needless to say, that spot where my Dad had proposed we construct and place a bench would remain vacant until I could buy something…and pray that it was already assembled upon purchase. It saddened me to sit by the pond and reminisce on all the hard work we had put into it, because Dad hadn’t been able to enjoy it long enough. It wasn’t fair. And there were so many nights where I would stand on the shore of that pond where the bench should have been as my salty tears fell endlessly into the churning water.
But one Sunday morning, my tears began to splash into the pond for an entirely different reason. I woke up that morning tired and emotionally exhausted from the day before. Our neighbors, who had also been childhood friends with my Dad, were kind enough to put on a benefit for my family after my Dad’s death. They went to so many businesses collecting items for silent auction baskets, getting more donations than I ever thought would be possible. Hundreds of our friends and families, as well as many of my Dad’s old friends and coworkers, came out to show my Mom and I how much we were loved. And even through our desperately painful heartache, we felt their love.
As I prepared to start my day, I went through my familiar routine. I left my bedroom, brushed my teeth, and proceeded to the family room where I would throw open the curtains and survey the back patio and the pond.
But what I saw that day stopped me dead in my tracks.
As I looked out across the water, in the exact same spot my Dad had identified a year ago, sat a beautiful wooden bench.
I rubbed my eyes because I thought I was hallucinating. This couldn’t be real.
I threw open the door and ran across the waterfall of the front pond, splashing water into my flip flops. I clambered across the rocks towards the bench with my mouth wide open and tears streaming down my face.
I touched the bench, and it was real. I ran my hand across the smooth wooden armrests. I admired the rich brown stained wood and the tremendous craftsmanship. Precise, functional, and completely perfect—all qualities that my Dad would have put into anything that he had created.
And there, at the top of the bench’s backrest, a beautiful silver plaque was mounted:
In Memory of
1963 – 2013
I lost all composure as I ran my hands across the engraved words. I wanted the pain that those words inflicted to disappear, but I never wanted to let this plaque or this bench go. I was simply astounded—and I had no idea how the bench got there or who put it on the banks of my backyard pond.
I ran back into the house and grabbed my phone, dialing my Mom’s number. She answered the phone, already in tears herself, most likely anticipating my call.
“Mom,” I sobbed, “How did this bench get here? Who did this?”
She immediately responded, “Steve. I can’t believe this, Ty, but he built that bench by hand. He brought it over yesterday while we were at the benefit.”
Mom and I cried together for a few minutes, talking about how much we missed my Dad. After hanging up with her, I immediately called Steve and, through tears, tried to tell him that I couldn’t believe what he had done.
“You’re so welcome, buddy,” Steve said in his ever-gracious and reassuring tone of voice. Then, he said a phrase that I’ll never forget that captures the essence of his heart.
“I couldn’t let your Dad not fulfill a promise he made to you, so I built the bench in his place.”
If I wasn’t emotional enough at this point, I lost all control when I heard those words. Steve had remembered what was probably an unmemorable conversation we had on a busy day of landscaping work. He had remembered a moment in time and a promise my Dad had made me when even I had begun to forget about it.
I shared with Steve how lucky I was to have him in my life, and how I couldn’t imagine navigating the tragedy of my Dad’s death without his unbelievable support. I thanked him over and over again, and after hanging up the phone I went back outside and took a seat on my new bench.
I sat there looking out over the water with my hands clasped around my mouth, still in a state of utter shock and bewilderment. I sat alone and cried, wishing beyond belief that my Dad could have been there sitting next to me.
He was right all along. It was the perfect spot for a bench.
And then I prayed, and I thanked God. I told Him how much I missed my Dad and how I didn’t understand why he was gone so soon, but I thanked Him for positioning so many amazing, caring people in my life to help support me when I was weak—just like Steve. I thanked God for being able to see down the road much further than I ever could. I thanked Him for bringing us together so many years ago, knowing that I would need someone with his steadfast trust and courage to help pull me from the depths of my own despair. I thanked God for giving Steve a heart that sought after Jesus—a heart that desired to turn God’s words into tangible actions in the lives of those around him. I thanked him for giving Steve both the talent and the compassion to give me such an extravagant gift.
And after saying “Amen”, I did what my Dad would have done. I sat and I enjoyed the sound of pond water rushing over a rock ledge. I admired the glory of a perfect pond-side perch. And I smiled as I admired God’s creation and the heart of His people.
It’s a few years down the road from that wonderful morning, and the bench has some slight signs of typical wear. The stain has started to fade a bit, and the wood has started to age—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
That bench has character and it tells a story. A story of a friend so true and dedicated that he taught himself to build a bench to help heal a friend’s broken heart. I have no doubt that that bench is exactly what my Dad would have built me, which is another reason why it’s so special to me.
On occasion when I am feeling low, I’ll traipse out onto the back patio and spot the bench—and I’ll know that I just need to sit on it and rest. But I rarely sit there without having a conversation with my Dad. I will talk with him about my day, toss about my problems, and just tell him how much I miss him. He may not answer, but I know that he’s there with me. That bench is a constant and tangible reminder that no matter what his headstone may say, my Dad will always be right here with me.
But of all the things I hear my Dad say when I sit on that bench, more than anything I hear him saying “thank you”. Not to me, but to my friend Steve. A friend who stepped in for my Dad and built a bench to fulfill a promise to a son when he couldn’t be here to do it himself.
I’ll always be thankful—both for a Dad who knew where a bench belonged, and for the friend who built it after he was gone.
Dad, I’m so sad that I never got to see you build the bench that would have sat by my pond, but I’m thankful that I got the next best thing. I know how much you thought of Steve and how grateful you were for him being such a good friend to me. I see a lot of your character in my friend Steve. He is hardworking, trustworthy, and caring—just like you. You inspired so many people why you were here with us. I wish you were still here to keep building benches for all the people who need you most, but I’m thankful that God has dispensed his angels here on Earth to carry on where you can’t. One day, I know you and I will be sitting on a bench by the water again, talking about all the wonderful times we shared. But until then, seeya Bub.
“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Romans 12:10 (NIV)