A Pat On The Head

Life’s treasures are held in the simplest moments, the everyday routines of uncomplicated love. I miss those expressions of love from my Dad the most, and I’d give anything to find those treasures again, because there is indescribable joy wrapped up in those moments.

My Dad was not a man driven by routine—but there was one routine that drove his mornings, and it’s a routine that I dearly, deeply miss.

Out of necessity, my Dad was mostly an early riser on work days. Working as a maintenance technician in a few different steel plants throughout his career, Dad was always required to get up and get going at often odd hours of the day. If he found himself working a first shift job (which he always appreciated), he was often at work by 7, leaving the house around 6:30 or so. During those horrible second or third shift years, he found himself sleeping and rising at very odd hours. As a maintenance technician, however, the hours weren’t always so predictable. Machines often choose to break at the worst time of the day or night, and there were many times when Dad’s cell phone would ring at 2 or 3 in the morning, beckoning him to work for a long shift to make a repair. I really hated the moments when Dad’s phone would ring shortly after he had gone to bed. I knew how tired he must’ve been, and I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to get a phone call only fifteen minutes into your slumber that you have to come into work.

Those odd hours often put us on opposite sleep schedules. Whether he was on day shift or night shift, it always seemed that he would have to rise and shine at a time when I was sound asleep. If he went in during the morning hours, it was too early for me to get up; and if he worked a third shift, his departure usually occurred long after my bedtime. While Dad was ready to work, I was already asleep—or at least he thought I was.

I was a fairly light sleeper as a child, and there were occasions when my Dad’s relatively simple and rapid pre-work routine would disrupt my sweet dreams. It didn’t take Dad long to get ready, as he would always lay out the familiar navy coveralls with his stitched name that he wore the night before. He would dress, brush his teeth, rub his hand across the now shiny head where his thick hair used to be, eat a small breakfast, grab his keys, and lumber out the door. It was a rather simple routine that reflected the life of a beautifully simple man.

But before he left the house, there was always one part of his routine that was my absolute favorite. Every morning, after he was dressed and right before he left to get into his truck, Dad would quietly make his way into my room. Never turning on the light, Dad would delicately tread across my royal blue carpet, attempting to dodge any stray toys I might have left out from the night before. Finding my bed, Dad would reach down, rub my hair from side to side, and quietly whisper “Seeya, bub.”

Even though I was a light sleeper, I’m sure there were many days in which Dad said goodbye to me this way that I didn’t notice. But some mornings, if he had made a little extra noise downstairs in our kitchen, or maybe dropped something on the floor in the bathroom down the hall, I was awake for the daily hair tussling, even if still dozing in and out. Some mornings, I would return the greeting with a simple “Seeya, Daddy” or “Bye Dad” just to let him know that I loved him and appreciated him saying goodbye to me. But other mornings, being the only little boy who loved attention from his parents, I would close my eyes, pretend I was asleep, and let Dad go on with his routine without letting him know I knew it was happening. There was something pleasant about pretending to be asleep, because it showed me that Dad wasn’t doing this for my approval—he was truly saying “Seeya, bub” to me every morning because he loved me, whether I was able to reciprocate that love or not.

I craved this greeting, even if I didn’t know how much I craved it at the time. On the mornings that I was awake, I would often lay calmly in my bed and wait for it to happen, knowing Dad would leave the house about 25 minutes before his shift was to begin. As a kid, the morning minutes felt like an eternity. But finally, like I knew he would, Dad always made sure he came to say goodbye to me. And it was so special, and so full of love. I used to jokingly think he only came in to rub his hand through my hair because his own hair had disappeared so many years before, but I knew better. It had nothing to do with my healthy head of hair, but everything to do with his overflowing heart.

And then, one day, it didn’t happen.

Every now and then, we all slip from our routines. We forget to floss one morning, or we forget to take a multi-vitamin. We forget to grab our lunchbox, or we leave the garage door open. It happens to the best of us. But there was one day that Dad faltered in his routine that I never let him live down. And to my knowledge, he never did it again after that.

Around the time I started high school, Dad’s morning routine had to be slightly adjusted when we welcomed our new dog into the household. Willow was an Airedale Terrier given to us by our neighbors. They were moving to a condominium in Florida, and knew a nearly 90-pound pooch wouldn’t be happy cooped up in a crowded space. So as much as it broke their hearts to leave their dog behind, it made ours soar because we were able to have a new family member.

Willow brought a lot of joy to our house. She was a lively dog—curious and intelligent, loving but mischievous. I called her “Honey Bear” and she answered to that nickname just as much as her actual name. Oftentimes, I was the first one home each day to greet her after an afternoon of lonely solitude. As I would go to unlock the door, I’d jiggle the handle and wait for a response. Willow, wagging uncontrollably on the other side of the door, would bang her nose into the handle so it would jiggle back on the other side. The clunk-clunk of that golden handle still plays in my mind anytime I open the front door, even though she hasn’t jiggled back for many years. I loved that dog.

But she loved my Dad more. No question about it. I’m almost positive the word “slobbering love affair” was created after watching how the two of them loved one another. Yes, I was the one who let Willow outside after a long, boring day inside the house. Yes, I was the one who fed her every night around 5 ‘o clock, trying not to gag as I dumped horrible, reeking canned dog food into her bowl. She loved me well-enough for those things, but when my Dad came home, it was like I never even existed.

My Mom and I would always comment about how horrible it was to not be the favorite of your family pet. No matter how much we tried to hide it, it hurt deep down when my Dad would get home, because Willow wanted nothing to do with us. Like I often did as a child, Willow would run to the door, wagging more than she ever did with me, jiggling the door knob so viciously that I thought her wet dog nose would be permanently damaged. Dad would throw open the door and go crazy petting her, laying down on the floor so Willow could place her two paws right above my Dad’s shoulder. Then, in something I’ve rarely seen a dog do, she would bend down, nuzzle her long snout underneath his neck, and lay there in her own version of a doggy hug. She showed him such wonderful affection, and he never failed to give it right back.

For the rest of any evening after Dad had arrived home, Willow’s entire attention was focused solely on my Dad. If he moved, she moved with him. If he laid down, so did she. If he went into the restroom, she waited patiently outside the door. And if he went into the garage or outside, there was a form of doggy depression that would set over her entire body. I had never seen a dog worship its owner the way she did. Remember—I was the one who fed her!

My Dad loved to joke that Willow was the favorite child. And one morning, I seriously questioned if he was joking. Willow’s bed was positioned right outside my door and right in front of my parents’ bedroom. A watchdog at heart, it was a perfect watch tower. She could keep an eye on my Mom and me, but most importantly, she could be alerted the second my Dad would wake up in the morning.

In most cases, no matter how early his alarm clock sounded, Willow would follow my Dad around. She became a part of his morning routine. He would let her outside while he ate a small breakfast in the kitchen, and she would come bounding in the house shortly after, often the recipient of his leftovers. Eventually, as he continued to ready himself for the day, Willow would make her way back to her bed, still watching my Dad’s every move.

When Willow joined the family and became my four-legged, Father-adoring sister, she also got a “head pat” in the morning before Dad left for work. He would crouch over her as she lay on her bed in the hallway, rub her head a few times, and say “Bye, pretty girl” or “Bye, honey” or “Bye, favorite child” (okay, that last one was probably made up). Then, as he’d always done, he would make his way into my room, toss my hair around, and give me the familiar “Seeya, bub.”

I loved this routine because it was steady, reliable, predictable.

Until the day it wasn’t, that is.

On the morning in question, Dad’s routine was a little louder than it had been normally. I think the favorite child got distracted by a squirrel in the backyard a few minutes earlier, waking me from deep sleep before I left for school. I heard Dad continuing his routine downstairs as I feigned sleep in my upstairs bedroom. I heard the familiar clang-clang of dishes as he pulled a cereal bowl out of our jam-packed kitchen cabinets. I heard the shoosh-shoosh-shoosh-shoosh of his toothbrushing in the bathroom down the hall. I heard the rustling of denim as he pulled on his coveralls, and the jingle-jangle of keys as he neared the end of his morning rituals. All the while, I laid in my bed, eyes closed but fully conscious, pretending I heard none of his early-morning antics and eagerly waiting for his visit.

The finale was coming—the familiar Head Rubbing of the Children ceremony where the village chief blessed his offspring (human and canine alike). Eyes still closed but mind wide awake, I heard the floorboards creek as Dad crouched down to pet Willow’s head and bid her adieu. Then, pretending to be asleep with the acumen of a seasoned actor, I heard a noise from the routine that was unfamiliar, out of place, and in the wrong sequence. It was the thud/creak, thud/creak, thud/creak, thud/creak of Dad going down the stairs. My eyes flew open and I stared at the red ambient glow of the alarm clock in horror.

“Wait a second!” my mind screamed. “Where’s my hair tousle? Where’s my ‘Seeya, bub’? Where’s my morning goodbye?” I couldn’t go back to sleep! For the first time that I had ever noticed, Dad had forgotten about his only son, and his only child with opposable thumbs at that! I was starting to think this whole favorite child thing might be more than a joke…

I obsessed over it at school, thinking of ways I could get back at him. After getting home from school that day, I stewed a little bit, thinking of how I would bring up this egregious treason with my Dad when the workday concluded. “Stewing” might be a bit of an exaggeration, as I wasn’t really mad. But my Dad and I had playfully teased each other for years about Willow being the preferred child, and I knew that I would have the upper hand for quite some time with this story.

Dad and I loved picking on one another, and this opportunity was too perfect to pass up!

In the midst of my scheming that evening, I heard the familiar click-click-creeeek of the front door. All Willow had to do was hear the first click, and she was off. Her ears would perk up, her head would snap forward, and suddenly she would explode from whatever resting position she had been in, lunge up the stairs, and attack my Dad at the front door. I followed her this time, and stood right around the corner from our front door. I heard him loving all over Willow. “Hi puppy! Are you excited to see me? Yeah? Are you excited to see me? Oh that’s a good girl! Goooooood girl!”

He came around the corner, with Willow tagging along at his feet, and when he saw me he instinctively said “Hey, bub” as he continued to roll through his after-work rituals—sitting his keys on the bench, unlacing his steel-toed work boots, emptying his pockets, and of course, continuing his love fest with Willow.

“Oh, you’ve got time to say that now, do you?” I said with feigned anger. My arms were crossed as I stared at him, doing everything I could not to break character. I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t let my face show it.

“Do what?” he said, realizing it wasn’t our typical exchange.

“You heard me” I said, with the severity of a Wild West standoff.

“What are you talking about, boy?”

“You forget to do anything this morning before you left for work?”

“Shampoo my hair?” he said with a smile. I had to admit, this was a solid comeback. He had gone bald at least ten years before.

“Don’t try to be cute. You know what you did.” I was playing my part really, really well.

“I honestly don’t,” he said, “but it must have been pretty bad.”

I turned up the heat. “You honestly don’t remember forgetting to do anything this morning?”

“No! What are you talking about?” I could tell he was starting to get really confused. I had him right where I wanted him. Vengeance was mine, and it was going to be sweet. And unrelenting.

“Well you remembered to tell some of us goodbye, but that must be reserved for favorite children only.”

He was starting to connect the dots, but I could tell the moment of realization was still a few steps away. His mouth was agape, and he just stared at me.

“This morning, I’m laying in my bed as you’re getting ready for work. You came down the hallway, and told Willow goodbye, and patted her head, and probably kissed her, maybe even on the mouth because you two are sick like that. And then, while the least favorite child is waiting patiently in his bed for a little goodbye, you just take off down the hallway like I didn’t even exist. You said goodbye to the dog and not me!” Boom.

He threw his shiny head back and laughed hysterically. When Dad was really amused, he got a higher pitch to his laugh. It was something I had to work hard to earn—only the funniest of jokes would bring out the high-pitch laugh, and I had just done it in record time. I couldn’t help but crack a smile, while still continuing in my role as the offended and overlooked child.

“Are you sure I didn’t say goodbye? I thought you were asleep!” he said, trying to outrun his forgetfulness.

“Oh, so now you want to try and deny your treason? I can’t believe this!” I threw my hands into the air in an exasperated fashion and stormed into the kitchen while his laughter still filled our living room. “You’re not even trying to deny that she’s your favorite! You’re just trying to get off the hook! Not this time, buddy boy. I’m gonna remember this for a long, long time. The first chance I get, you’re going in one of those bad nursing homes. I’m never letting you live this down.”

“Well, she is a lot cuter than you are” he said, and I couldn’t help but laugh back.

It became a recurring joke between Dad and I, the infamous day when he patted the pet and circumvented the son. I even started telling the story at big family events to try and embarrass him, and the high-pitched laugh never dissipated. He laughed with the same intensity each and every time. It was one of my absolute favorite moments, even if there was a kernel of envy rooted deep within me that was jealous of my “baby sister.”

The next morning, Dad returned to my room with a “Seeya, bub” and an added chuckle, and I made it a point to be awake for that one. I acted as if I was asleep, but right after Dad offered his familiar farewell, I kept my eyes closed and grumbled under my breath “Glad to see you remembered I exist today.” He laughed again, rubbed my hair with a little more vigor than usual, and left my room. As long as I lived in their house, which was longer than most kids, Dad never forgot to come say goodbye to me in the morning. And as difficult as it was for me to wake up early, I loved hearing him call me “Bub” and say goodbye to me because I knew it was love in its purest form.

For years, this became a running joke in the Bradshaw home. I never let Dad live down the fact that he had said goodbye to the dog and not me on that morning, even though he never failed again. We would still joke about it and laugh together thinking about that morning, and I’m glad that we found humor in that moment. We only found humor in it, however, because I never, ever questioned how much my Dad loved me.

As life moves on and tragedies, like my Dad’s death, inevitably happen, you start to appreciate all of the little things you took for granted in life. The simple dinners. The afternoon truck rides. The arguments over television shows. The moments of laughter. The hugs. The head pats. The morning goodbyes. At the time, these things don’t seem as valuable; but as life changes and loss occurs, you realize that life’s true treasures lie in those very moments, those simple interactions.

I desperately miss those morning goodbyes. I think about how impatient I was as an adolescent. I think about all the times that I wished life would move faster. I wanted the wheel to turn faster towards graduation, and then another graduation, and the next job, and the next fun moment; and in those moments, I see now that I was so often looking forward to the “next” moment instead of appreciating the “now” moments for what they were. I’m trying to learn from my Dad’s death, and I’m trying to find ways to give those little expressions of love to others because I know how much they mean—and how much I miss them once they’re gone. I’ll spend a lot more time cherishing the treasures wrapped up in those everyday expressions of love, all the while wishing for just another pat on the head and a “Seeya, Bub” from the man who continues to teach me about life, even in his death.

Sitting in Dad's Lap with SB LogoDad, I know you were a busy man, but it meant so much to me that you would come into my room each and every morning to say goodbye before you went off to work. I don’t know if I told you at the time, but I look back on those moments and realize how lucky I was to be able to start each and every morning knowing that I was loved. I’m so glad that we can laugh about the time that you forgot about me (I’m going to tease you about this on the other side, too), but more importantly I’m glad that the absence of a morning goodbye wasn’t routine for you. Dad, your life routines were based in love for other people. Your interactions with those around you were always rooted in care, grace, and a desire to let people know how you felt about them. I know that I don’t always live this lesson out, Dad, and I’m thankful that I have your life and plenty of those little moments to continue teaching me how to live in love with others. Dad, I pray that you never stop teaching me through your example. I pray that your life is a beacon to me and the multitude of people who knew you, and I hope that we never forget the ways in which you showed love to others. More importantly, I pray that we have a greeting rooted in love when Eternity calls, because I’ve missed you so very much. Thank you, Dad, for living a life led by love. Until I can get another pat on the head (after Willow, of course), seeya Bub.

“Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” 1 Peter 4:8 (NIV)

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