I live my life with a perpetual and terribly unrelenting case of The Should Haves.
It’s been over five years since my Dad’s death, but I was fortunate enough to spend 26 amazing years with him on this Earth. In those 26 years, I’m blessed to say that we experienced lots of wonderful, amazing moments together as Father and Son. We swam in our backyard pool nearly every evening during the summer, jumping and diving and splashing late into the night. We wore our arms out tossing a baseball on the sandy beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama while the sun browned our shoulders. We went to Reds Opening Day together and weathered the cold that always accompanies the early-April debut, and he was right by my side as we suffered through the agony of watching our Redlegs get their hindquarters handed to them in a playoff sweep by the Phillies. We watched movies together, biked together, went to church together, and rode in trucks together.
But no matter how much time we spent together, and no matter how many memories we made, I’m still left wanting more. I’m left with a case of The Should Haves—a nagging voice that constantly reminds me that although our story as Father and Son was vibrant and full, there was more story left to be written. There was more to do together that we never got the chance to do because of his premature and avoidable death.
I rarely live a day in this life without thinking of something we could have done together had he not died on that July morning in 2013. It’s hard for me to experience the beauty of my own life without recognizing that Dad should still be experiencing it as well.
There are always the things that we didn’t have the chance to do—things that only exist with the passing of time, and things that weren’t available to Dad and I when he was alive. New restaurants always evoke this feeling. I’m a self-identified foodie, and I definitely inherited this love for food from my Dad. Dad always enjoyed a great meal, and he and I shared a lot of them together. Since his death, new restaurants have opened and I’ve discovered more great places to gradually expand my waistline. There are countless burger places and barbecue joints and other hole-in-the-wall dives that I know Dad would have enjoyed, and when I’m savoring a great meal, there’s usually an endless thought that loops through my head: “Boy, Dad really would have loved this place…” Each and every time, it pains me to know I can’t enjoy it with him.
And then, there are roller coasters. My Dad loved roller coasters—the wilder and more insane, the better. Even though it took me longer than I’d like to admit to overcome my fear of thrill rides, I eventually did and got to ride a lot of them alongside my Dad. Our extended family always spent a summer day at King’s Island, and I always looked forward to that day of the year. Together, Dad and I got to experience the weightlessness of the first drop on Diamondback, the seemingly-incomprehensible height of Delirium, and I can’t even begin to count the number of nighttime shrieks of excitement we let out as The Beast tore through the woods.
But new coasters have popped up since he died. There are new adventures to be had, and new memories to be made at Kings Island and lots of other theme parks across the country. I remember riding Banshee for the first time and thinking how much Dad would have loved the seemingly never-ending loops and twists. After riding Mystic Timbers, I wondered what Dad would have thought of the surprise in The Shed (I hear you’re not supposed to go in there, by the way…). I can still envision his huge smile at the end of a great ride. I can still hear his laugh, yells of “YEEHAW!”, and jokes about how the wind of the ride had thoroughly ruined his hairdo. I miss those moments. I miss those memories.
These moments, these desires to keep living life with Dad, are painful. But these aren’t really “Should Haves” when it comes down to it; these are “Wish I Could Have” moments. It’s inevitable that life will go on and the Earth will continue to spin after a loved one leaves us. There was more life for us to live together, and things were naturally going to happen that I wished I could have done alongside my Dad. My Dad was a victim of suicide at only age 50, and regardless of the mechanism of death, leaving this Earth unnaturally with (likely) many, many more years to live leaves many chapters unfinished. But deeper than the truth of life continuing to go on, there is a reality that haunts me night in and night out. There is a nagging feeling of guilt that will likely follow me to my grave—a feeling that hinges on the things we could have done while he was alive but we failed to do. It is the idea that I took time with my Dad for granted. It is the belief that there were things I should have done with my Dad while he was still here. Things that I likely told myself I would get around to. Things that, had I known then what I know now about the fragility of life, I should have done with my Dad. It feels awful to think that I squandered time with my Dad, but I know
The “Wish I Could Haves” are painful; but the “Should Haves” are much, much worse.
If Dad had a bucket list, I never knew about it. I often attribute this to the fact that he lived life to the fullest every chance he had, so there was no need to keep a list of things he wanted to do—he just did them. But I do know there were things that Dad mentioned to me that he hoped, someday, we’d have the chance to do together. He wanted to go to a Luke Bryan concert together (please note, this was when Luke Bryan sang actual country music and before he became a complete sellout). There were other beaches I’m sure he wanted to see. There were other air shows I’m sure he wanted to attend. But for the most part, Dad lived his life free of any regrets.
However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t live with many, many regrets now that he’s gone.
For his entire life, Dad was a nature lover. He was constantly hiking and biking and traversing the woods of nearby Rentschler Forest Preserve, and he didn’t need headphones or even the company of others to keep him entertained. He didn’t just love nature—he was in awe of it, bewildered by it. His sense of adventure was something I was always envious of, and for the last few years of his life, he always talked about another adventure he wanted to take up: kayaking. Dad knew of a number of waterways that were nearby our house, and he would often talk to me about wanting to grab a kayak and a paddle to see how far he could take himself. Dad often talked about this desire around me, mostly in the hopes that I might reciprocate his excitement. I’m ashamed to say I never did, and there were many times when Dad asked me to spend time outdoors with him and I declined his invitation. I hate to think of the times when I could have taken a bike ride with him but decided to stay on the couch watching yet another mindless sitcom rerun. I think of all the nights that he asked me to sit with him near a backyard bonfire and I decided to stay inside for no reason while Dad sat there by himself, likely a bit lonely but still happy to be outside. I had many opportunities to appreciate nature and my Dad together that I didn’t take him up on. But I should have.
Then there were the chances to share my feelings with Dad that I failed to lean into. I think of the song we played at Dad’s funeral, a deeply-powerful country song by Will Hoge called “Strong.” It was the perfect song to play at Dad’s funeral—a testament to a life well lived—but it was a song I discovered well before his death. Although it provided a lot of healing to those of us who heard it at Dad’s service, I desperately wish I had played that song for Dad while he was alive. I should have played it for him and told him how the lyrics about a loving, devoted, hardworking, and strong father made me think of him every time. I often wonder if it would have made a difference. Would hearing that song and the way I felt helped to heal his feelings of depression and inadequacy? I should have played the song when it could have warmed his heart, but my desire to avoid emotional vulnerability kept me from doing this until he was already gone. I didn’t share my feelings with him. But I should have.
The moments when purely stupid pride and arrogance kept me from just being around him, however, are the most sickening. I think of all the times, especially as a teenager, when I avoided spending time with my Dad. I’m disgusted by the lame excuses I fabricated, and I wish I could take each and every one of them back. There were so many times when Dad would ask me to hangout or do something that I didn’t want to do. Being a typical, moody teenager, I found lots of reasons to close my Dad out of my life. Too tired, too busy, perceived to be too-cool. And yes, those times when I thought I was too cool to hang out with my Pops haunt me most. I should have spent more time being with him. I should have spent more time realizing that my Dad deserved my time more than anyone else. I didn’t do that, but I should have.
The should haves plague my soul. I remember sitting awake one night after Dad’s death. It was rare for me to find sleep in those immediate nights after losing him, and my mind would race with doubts; concerns that I had missed easily-perceptible signs about Dad’s illness and the feelings that were high jacking his mind. On one of those nights when I couldn’t get the thought of losing Dad out of my mind, I began to think back to all the moments when I had failed to spend time with him. I thought of all the dinner invites I had declined. All the phone calls I had ignored. I even thought of all the times over the past year when Dad had stayed at my house later than expected, and I, being so selfishly-consumed with my own schedule and routine, had silently wished that he would leave.
And on that night, a few nights after losing him, I sobbed and said “I’m sorry, Dad,” in the hopes that my apologies and grief could carry themselves up through the clouds to Heaven.
I stood at Dad’s casket just a few nights later and tried my best to express my love to the people who had loved my Dad in this life, and among many wonderful condolences I heard from those who came to grieve and show their support to Mom and I, I heard “Don’t feel guilty, Tyler,” over and over again. I listened intently to those family members, friends, and loved ones, and I assured them that I wouldn’t feel guilty. I assured them that I wouldn’t let regrets take my mind captive.
But I didn’t for a second believe I would actually be able to live free of guilt; and now that Dad has been gone for over five years, I’ve begun to understand how the Should Haves can actually be a confirmation that my grief is justified and natural.
Even though it ended prematurely, my Dad lived a big, full, exciting life. He treated each day as a gift as best he could, just as God directs all of us to do. As I’ve experienced my own grief and suffering, I’ve realized that the gaping hole my Dad left behind in this world could only be filled by his big heart; and although I’m in severe pain because of this loss, I would take the pain for a hundred eternities to spare the alternative. Had Dad invested minimally in the people that he loved and life in general, his loss would have been easier to overcome. But that isn’t my Dad, and that wouldn’t have been an authentic life. I feel my Dad’s loss more because he made life that much better while he was in it. I would rather experience the pain of losing him knowing that he lived a life that made a difference. The pain is worth the love I experienced for 26 years while he was here. I’d much rather have that love, even if only for a short time, and experience the pain of losing it than the alternative of never having him at all.
Although it’s difficult, I’m also learning to cope with the Should Haves better because they are showing me that I’ve learned something from my Dad’s death. They are showing me that, although he shouldn’t have died, his death was not in vain. They show me that, even in death, my Dad is still my greatest teacher. Dad’s absence has taught me the importance of never taking time for granted. Dad’s death has taught me that time is my most valuable resource. It is the only resource in this live that can never regenerate. Dad’s death has taught me an important lesson: By the time I get to the end of my own life (which will be a very, very long time from now), I want to be able to look back and say that I made a wise investment with the days God gave me. I want to be left with very few instances of things I should have done.
In my grief, I decided that one of the best ways to fight back against the Should Haves was to go out and do the things I should have done with Dad, even if he’s not around to do them with me. A summer or two after losing Dad, I decided to do something that I likely wouldn’t have done while he was alive. With my friend, Steve, I went out and bought a kayak. We each bought one, and shortly after buying them we decided to take them out on the water. We dipped the kayaks into the Great Miami River at Rentschler Park—the same exact spot my Dad had vowed to kayak but never got the chance to.
The kayaking excursion was filled with lots of things that Dad would have appreciated. Namely, he would have really enjoyed the fact that my kayak tipped and tossed me into the water the exact second I stepped into it (Note to self: always step into the middle of the kayak, not the side). I flopped around in the mud and water while Steve laughed, and all I could see was an image of my Dad laughing hysterically as I tried to regroup. After I recovered from the capsizing, we paddled up the beautiful, wooded shoreline and soaked up the rays of sun as they beat down upon our shoulders. After paddling upstream for an hour or so, we turned around, kicked our feet up, and floated back to our drop in location. All the while, tears streamed out slowly underneath my sunglasses as I wished, deeply, that I had had the opportunity to enjoy this moment alongside my Dad. I should have done this with him. In the actual moment, he wasn’t there; but in a spiritual sense, he was right by my side.
I know that the Should Haves are a natural part of grief, which is why I try not to avoid them. No matter when my Dad would have died, I would have always been left wanting more time with him. More experience, more adventure was what I always would have wanted and what he always deserved. Had he died at 117, I would have wanted him to be around for another 117 years. And in my mind, that overcompensates for any guilt I might feel. In my mind, a life that feels too short and a life that induces “should haves” is the sign of a life well lived.
Dad, I’m sorry for all of those moments that we should have spent together. I’m sorry for all of those times that I wasted when we had the opportunity to just be together, but I didn’t realize the value of those moments. Ultimately, I’m just sorry we didn’t have more time. Dad, you brought such joy to my life—and to everyone’s life that you interacted with. Any amount of time with you would have failed to be enough. There are so many things we should have done together, and I’m sorry I didn’t make a more genuine effort to make those things happen. Dad, I hope that I’m still learning from your life. I hope that I am taking the time that God has given me and using it more wisely than I did before you died. It still doesn’t erase the pain of losing you and the desire to have more of you in my life, but I hope that I’m realizing the fragility of life and the need to invest my time in the things that matter—the things associated with loving God and loving other people. Dad, please continue teaching me. Thank you for living a vivid life that still feels important each and every day. And Dad, I’m keeping a list of all those things we should have done. Someday, we will have the opportunity to do them all, and I can’t wait. Until that day and the glorious reunion that awaits, seeya Bub.
“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” James 4:14 (NIV)