Since the time I was little, I’ve always liked rocks.
(If that isn’t a captivating intro, I don’t know what is. And now that I think about it, this could have something to do with my struggles in social settings…)
When I was a kid, I was like a little geologist. I have deeply entrenched memories of one of my favorite vacation activities growing up—mining for rocks!
(Once again, the implications for my social life are becoming clearer and clearer.)
As a kid, our family vacations often included trips to places like Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Brown County, Indiana. We often went there so my Mom could do lots of shopping and so my Dad and I could do…well, anything but shop.
No matter the destination, Mom and Dad always made our family vacations so special. As an only child (the social struggles continue), I was fortunate enough to often be the center of attention for my Mom and Dad. Looking back, I realize how truly lucky I am for that. My parents both worked very, very hard to provide for our family. They really deserved a vacation to be able to relax and unwind, but they always made sure to keep me bouncing from one fun activity to the next to make our vacations memorable. They obviously did their job, as those trips are still some of the happiest moments of my life.
Back to the rock obsession. Many cities like Gatlinburg often have a rather simple attraction for individuals like me who are interested in rocks. These little makeshift mines are all over the state of Tennessee for would-be-gemologists like me. You walk in and it feels like a real mine. Running water troughs, mining buckets, lanterns, mining carts. Often on display are huge geodes with beautiful purple crystals sparkling inside when they’ve been halved.
I have so many childhood vacation memories of my parents taking me to these little amateur mines and watching me as I explored the store. Then I got a chance to become a real miner, which was the most exciting part of the trip. Mom and Dad would walk up to the counter and buy a bag of dirt…
Wait…we actually paid for dirt?!
Stay focused, Bradshaw.
What made the dirt valuable was not the dirt itself, but the shiny gems that lay nestled within it. When I was little, I always daydreamed that my bag of dirt would include the scoop fresh from the mine that had a huge chunk of gold in it. Looking back, I see how gullible I really was, but what kid isn’t?
My favorite part of the day was when I would get to slowly pour my bag of dirt into a miner’s box with thick, screen netting across the bottom of it. Then, I would take my miner’s box and jewel-filled dirt over to the flowing water stations, and I would slowly rinse away the dirt to reveal the treasures underneath. I would then pick out the gems from the box and place them into a bag so I could take them home and…stare at them? I really don’t understand my fascination anymore, but I’m sure it was probably super cute.
As a kid, I always mined for rocks slowly and deliberately to maximize my time. I would pour tiny clumps of dirt into the box bit by bit and wash them away, because there was something super exciting about watching these dirty rocks turn into stunning gems with just a rinse of water. I wanted to milk the excitement for as long as I could. I remember going on vacation one time with my Mom’s side of the family when my little cousin (more like a little brother) Jake went mining with us. Always a bit impatient, he dumped his entire bag of dirt into the box at once and plunged it into the water, finishing everything in about thirty seconds flat. Rookie…
More than any rocks I ever found, I remember my Mom and Dad always being there with me and making the day even better. Mom and Dad would always sit on the bench next to me in front of the water troughs as I sat up on my knees and mined for gemstones. Mom’s face would light up anytime I found a purple amethyst, as that always seemed to be her favorite color. Dad, always a bit of a nature enthusiast, would use the charts on the wall to try and help me identify the rock names. One year, he even bought me a sectioned container that the gentleman at the store helped me label so I could sort my rocks accordingly. Wow, just writing that sentence made me realize what a little nerd I truly was…
Dad was also really good at finding the little, tiny gems that I likely would have missed. I can still picture his fingers crushing little clumps of dirt to reveal a shiny piece of gold (of the fool’s variety of course) for me to take home. Next to swimming in the hotel pool, mining for gems was always one of the highlights of my vacations as a kid, and I had my Mom and Dad to thank for it.
Those childhood trips are long gone, but the memories are still there. Now, I can put those memories in perspective when I think about the sacrifice my parents must have made for those vacations, and I can appreciate them even more.
After losing Dad, I worried that I’d never be able to enjoy another vacation or trip again. But I knew that vacations and trips were inevitable.
My job as a recruiter at Miami takes me to some pretty unique places. I’ve had the opportunity to recruit all throughout Ohio, but I’ve also been fortunate to travel to places like New York, Colorado, Texas, and most recently California to talk to students about their college dreams. I’ve had the chance to go to cool locations for professional conferences as well. I am also fortunate that God has given me the personal resources to travel and see and experience many amazing moments.
Although each trip is a little different, I often find myself saying the same thing over and over again…
“Boy, Dad really would have loved to see this.”
When I first started traveling after Dad’s death, I didn’t know how to handle this sadness. Oftentimes, I couldn’t. I would be in the middle of doing something touristy and I would just breakdown and sob. I would completely fall apart anytime I saw something cool that I wished I could have shown my Dad. There were numerous moments in the immediate aftermath of his death when I would actually take my phone out of my pocket and begin to dial his number before realizing he would never be able to pick up. It would tear my heart apart every time this would happen. As sad as I would feel, I would also feel extremely guilty. Guilty that I had never made enough time to see all of these things with him while I still could. The pain was paralyzing.
On one trip, however, an unexpected new tradition started that’s helped me cope with Dad’s loss. I had travelled to Aspen, Colorado and had some time to do some exploring of the natural beauty there. I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that some of God’s most beautiful handiwork is evident in the hills of those mountains. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen any landscape that can take my breath away like that of Aspen. The views are beyond stunning, and it only takes one visit and a hike to the top of a mountain to realize how truly small you are in light of God’s entire creation.
I decided to take one afternoon to hike up a mountain whose foothills were right behind my hotel. The guest services representative at the hotel warned me that the altitude would be a bit of an adjustment, and to give myself plenty of time to stop and breathe on the way up. I smiled and assured him that I had been working out pretty intensely recently, and started my trek.
As I sat on a rock huffing like a multi-decade smoker about seven minutes into the hike, I silently cursed the hotel representative for not warning me more vigorously of the pain I was going to endure.
Eventually (and very, very slowly) I made it to the top of that mountain. I looked down over the valley and the town of Aspen, and I couldn’t look away. I felt closer to God on that day. I felt closer to my Dad. And I said to myself, “Boy, Dad would have loved to see this.”
And I cried. I wept. I thought about all the good times we had and all the good times we wouldn’t. I wanted him there with me, even though he always has been. I wanted to feel his presence.
As I looked down at my shoes to wipe the tears from my eyes, I remembered seeing a rock. It was nothing fancy. Just an everyday rock at the top of a mountain. It was yellowish and a bit oddly shaped. When I held the rock in my hand, it looked like a little mountain. It was the type of rock that my Dad, a sometimes-annoying nature enthusiast, probably would have noticed.
And I felt Dad saying, “Hey, Bub. There’s a good one.” Just as he had said to me on so many of our rock mining expeditions together.
I picked up that rock, put it into my pocket, and eventually made my way down the side of the mountain. And ever since then, on every trip I go on, I’ve been picking up rocks for my Dad.
I have rocks from many different states. I grabbed a bright stone in Denver at Red Rocks Amphitheater. I picked up a rounded stone at a recent trip to the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama that had been weathered smooth by the crashing waves. And just this past week, I snagged a yellowish rock from the craggy shores of a beach in Santa Cruz, California to commemorate the first time my feet ever touched the waters of the Pacific. This particular piece had broken loose from the large rocks that made up the shore, and taking it with me made it feel like I was holding onto something much bigger than a tiny stone. This was a piece of a huge and beautiful shoreline puzzle, and that piece was mine.
(Note: I have not investigated the legality of taking rocks from these areas, so if there are any environmentalists or rock cops reading this blog, please forgive me for my thievery.)
I have these rocks scattered around my house and, for the most part, I can look and tell you where each one came from. I remember the trips, and I remember the feeling of wanting my Dad to be there with me.
Those rocks remind me that he is—and that he always will be.
My Dad absolutely loved nature, so I think it’s only fitting that one of my testaments to him would harken back to something so primitive and so basic. It might be crazy, but I think about these rocks as being placed there for me to find by God and by my Dad. I think about them working together to design rocks that will grab my attention and placing them in cool spots that they want me to see. I think it’s their way of telling me not to feel guilty for living life without my Dad.
More than anything, these rocks help me cope. It might sound stupid, but we all grieve in our own unique ways. For me, those natural rocks are a connection to my Dad. They harken back to the days when my family, complete with him, would sit on a wooden bench in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and mine for little tiny gems to study in the backseat of the car on the way home. I would eagerly get home and show people the rubies and emeralds and pyrite and obsidian pieces I had discovered, and my Mom and Dad never made me feel nerdy or ashamed (maybe the should have!). These rocks are tangible reminders of my Dad. They remind me that his memory lives in on my life each and every day, and like a rock, they provide a strong foundation.
I have a feeling that I’ll be grabbing rocks until the day I die. It’s simple, and to some it may not seem like anything spectacular, but it helps me feel at ease. It’s helped me defeat the guilt that Satan wants me to irrationally experience. Yes, my Dad is gone, but all of the rocks—his rocks—are still here. They are scattered across the world, waiting for me to discover them. As he did many times when I was a kid, my Dad is beckoning me towards adventure. He’s telling me to live and to enjoy the living. He’s telling me that there are beautiful things we might not have seen together, but that we will get to experience the most beautiful scenery ever when we reunite again.
For those of you who are suffering and hurting and dealing with loss of any kind, I encourage you to find your rocks. Find the tangible thing that allows you to hold onto your loved ones and that reminds you that those individuals are always with you.
And parents…if your kid has a thing for rocks, rest easy. They’re cheaper than video games.
Dad, I have such fond memories of my childhood because you and Mom always made them so special. I remember all the wonderful trips we went on together, and I remember all of the things we used to do together that made those moments so memorable. I loved mining for rocks when I was little, and as nerdy as it might have been, you always encouraged me and kept the excitement at an all-time high. Dad, there were so many things I wish we could have had the opportunity together. I hate that we can’t do them now, but I am thankful that I’m able to remember you simply by grabbing a rock off of the ground. You are an amazing Father, both in life and in death, because you always made life worth living and you left an impression on everyone who knew you. Thank you, Dad, for always being my rock. Thank you for giving me the love I needed every day. Until I can thank you in person, seeya Bub.
“God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken.” Psalm 62:6 (NLT)