Lucy (Part 3)

This post marks the conclusion of a special, three-part series at SeeyaBub.com. Before continuing, be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 of “Lucy”.

I couldn’t sleep. Insomnia was pretty typical in the immediate aftermath of losing Dad. He had been gone for only a few days, and although I desperately wanted to sleep, rest of any form completely eluded me. I would lay in the bed for hours on end, physically and mentally exhausted, and I would close my eyes as tightly as I could, hoping, praying that the pain of Dad’s death would fade. It rarely did. I didn’t know how life would ever feel normal again.

I tried to lay down on the mattress in my spare bedroom. Mom was staying at my house, and likely would be for the next few weeks. I was glad that I lived next door and could provide a place for Mom to stay. I knew she would eventually have to go back to the house, but I didn’t know how. Dad had died in the house, and I didn’t know how Mom would ever be able to go back in with the circumstances of his death. I knew that she eventually would; I just didn’t know how. Nonetheless, I was happy that Mom could stay here with me. Even if it just provided a temporary relief from the heartache of losing her husband, it was worth it.

While she stayed, I relocated myself to the twin mattress in my spare bedroom to let Mom stay in my room. At night, I would lay flat on my back in the dark and stare upwards towards the ceiling. On most nights, I would lay there helplessly for hours, wondering how my Dad—a happy, jovial, loving man—could have possibly become a victim of suicide. There wasn’t much I could do to stop my racing thoughts. They would swirl around and consume me, and on many nights I’d find myself drenched in a flood of tears.

There was always one thing I could count on to help, however. Always one thing that I knew could make the pain slightly recede.

And that help came from Lucy, who would poke her snout through the partially-opened door at just the right moment.

IMG_0399Most nights, Lucy would make her way into my room, usually at just the right moment. She would push the door open with her snout, tail wagging feverishly, and climb up onto the bed. After arriving, Lucy would place a paw on either side of my shoulders and lick my face until I begged her to stop. A twin mattress doesn’t provide much room for a grown man and a 70-pound dog, but Lucy made a way. She would curl up alongside me and lay her head across my chest. And in those moments, even though she was a dog and might not have understood human emotions, Lucy soothed my heart in ways I’ll never be able to describe.

Having Lucy there alongside me was like I had a living, breathing piece of my Dad still with me. When you tragically lose a loved one, you hold onto anything—big or small—that reminds you of that person. I held onto many of my Dad’s things, especially thanks to my Mom’s thoughtfulness. Scratchpads with his handwriting, t-shirts, tools, baseball equipment, his cologne—they all became precious treasures.

But having Lucy was different. Lucy was like an extension of my Dad because her personality was so similar to his. Lucy was fun-loving and playful and hilarious—just like Dad. She reminded me of him in so many ways, and every time I looked at her, my mind forgot about the pain of losing Dad and instead recalled images of the two of them playing together in the backyard. Her presence alone helped distract my mind from the disaster that had been the last few days. My focus shifted from the terror and heartache to the 26 wonderful years I had enjoyed with my Father in my life.

DSCF0842Lucy also helped soothe my pain because of the fact that Dad had wanted her so badly in the first place, despite my stubborn protests. Dad had insisted we get another dog after losing our family pet, Willow, and even though I felt it was too soon, Dad knew that the time was right to bring another puppy into our house. Looking back, it was easy to see how wrong I was to claim we shouldn’t get another dog. Having Lucy was a reminder that life does move on—if you let it. In a sense, her presence alone was reassurance that I would get through this difficult, disastrous storm, even if I couldn’t see the entire journey.

On that night, and on many other nights, Lucy would stay with me until I fell asleep. Other nights, she stayed with Mom. It’s uncanny, but it was like she knew which one of us needed her most. I never knew what people meant when they talked about dogs having an unusual knack for picking up on human emotions until I saw Lucy helping our family heal after losing Dad. Seeing how much that puppy loved us was a reminder that, even in the darkest moments, love still prevails—especially from our four-legged companions.

DSCF0797It was that puppy companionship, along with many other wonderful people and things, that helped me heal and grieve my Dad properly. I had so many wonderful people who knew exactly how to minister to me after losing Dad—my Mom, my grandparents, my church family, my friends, my coworkers, my neighbors, and even complete strangers. I also found little things I could do to help me grieve for Dad properly—things to help me forget about the pain of losing him. I read my Bible frequently in my study. I wrote feverishly—some of those scrawlings eventually turning into the foundations of this project. I exercised frequently, although the Ryan Gosling physique (or anything IMG_0133remotely close) still eluded me.

But being around Lucy was a more powerful salve than I ever thought it would be. Among other things, being around Lucy saved my life and helped me see that life was always worth living.

Lucy and I would take long walks together quite often, just as she had done with Dad on so many occasions. We would escape to Rentschler Park near our home and, surrounded by the beautiful natural setting that my Dad had loved so much, we were able to find peace and joy, even if only for a few moments. I would let Lucy off the leash in the soccer fields and toss a Frisbee over and over and over again until she grew too weary to continue. Then, I would sit next to her in the summer-scorched grass, petting her gently as she would pant and slurp water.

IMG_0848On other days, I would let Lucy hop up into the passenger seat of my car and we would take a drive together. Lucy really enjoyed driving around town, and her excitement created smiles and laughter in neighboring vehicles as she sat calmly next to me in the car with her seatbelt on. I would make a conscious effort to go through drive-thrus with Lucy to show her off to anyone who would remark about what a cute pup she was. She was cute—she deserved the adoration!

And during most evenings, a long game of fetch or a bottle-rope-tugging battle in the backyard were enough to distract me from the pain of losing Dad. Lucy loved playing, and Mom and I loved watching her. It reminded us of the simplicity and joy that life provided. It reminded us of easier times when Dad was still alive and full of happiness. It reminded us how much he enjoyed life. It reminded us how much we loved him.

When you lose a loved one—to suicide or any other mechanism of death—there are lots of unpredictable emotional storms. In the months after losing Dad, I found myself suffering through a lot of those unpredictable and uncontrollable moments. Randomly, I would find myself suffering from flashbacks of Dad’s death that would hijack my mind. I would immediately retreat to the terror of finding out what had happened, and the feelings of loss—the feelings of having Dad’s life stolen away—would overcome me. As I would ruminate on these thoughts, I would begin to cry. That crying would well into sobbing, and before I would know it, I was deeply enmeshed within the throes of a full-blown fit. Sometimes, the storm would pass quickly. Other times, it might continue for hours into the night.

But no matter how long or short the attack, Lucy was always there when I needed her.

IMG_0627It’s hard to describe, but in those moments, Lucy would nervously saunter up to my side when she knew I was hurting. It was like she understood that she needed to be by my side. And that’s what she would do. She would hop on the couch and lay her head in my lap. She would leave all her toys (and boy did she love toys) to just lay near me. I would gently pat her head or her back, and slowly, her presence would help me escape from that immediate terror. She did more for me in those moments than I could ever tell her. Lucy showed me what it meant to be “man’s best friend.”

Whether she was playing, barking, frolicking, doing silly things, or simply sitting next to us, Lucy provided a steady companionship that helped all of us grieve. For me, Lucy provided stability. Her never-ceasing presence was a constant reminder of God’s love in the midst of difficult, turbulent times. It was an ever-present reminder that even dark days, the light finds a way to shine through.

I had no idea how quickly that light could be snuffed out.


Shortly after beginning my job at the Oxford Campus, about a year removed from Dad’s death, I felt my phone vibrating. I saw my Grandpa’s name flash across the screen, and I nonchalantly answered his call. Grandpa and I talked regularly, so his call didn’t seem out of the ordinary.

Everything I thought I knew about ordinary vanished in that moment.

“Ty,” Grandpa said. “I need to tell you something.”

I immediately knew this was bad. Grandpa was speaking in the same voice I had heard him use about a year earlier when he told me that Dad was gone. My chest tightened. My palms and forehead began to sweat. I started having flashbacks to that awful July morning, and I worried that something just as bad had happened again.

“I don’t really know how to tell you this,” he said with a boding despair, “but Lucy died.”

“What?” I said with controlled shock. “What do you mean she’s dead? What happened?”

Grandpa then began to tell me the horrible story of what had happened. Dad had always groomed our family dogs, but when he passed away, Mom had to begin taking Lucy to the groomers. Neither one of us were prepared to groom a dog, and Mom had no choice. She tried a few groomers in the area, and one day, I spotted a groomer on my way home from work called Ruff 2 Fluff. They were located in Liberty Township, and they had a number of signs advertising their services. I told Mom about the groomer and mentioned that she should try taking Lucy there.

Like she had done a few times before, Mom took Lucy to Ruff 2 Fluff for her somewhat-monthly haircut. Lucy had been to that groomer a few times, and although we had minor concerns about the attitude of her groomer, we still trusted them with our precious family pet. We shouldn’t have. On that day, Lucy’s grooming appointment had turned into an unnecessary disaster. The groomer—a negligent, inattentive individual named JJ—had tied Lucy to the grooming table. Like most dogs, Lucy was nervous and full of anxiety when she had to go to the groomer’s, just like humans often grow anxious when they have to go to a doctor’s appointment. At some point during the appointment, JJ neglected his responsibility to care for our dog, our family pet. He walked away from the table that Lucy was leashed to and she jumped, fatally injuring her neck. According to the groomer and the business owner, neither of whom deserve my trust, both tried to resuscitate her but were unsuccessful. They rushed Lucy to a nearby animal hospital, but there was nothing they could do to save her life. She was gone. The pet that my deceased Father had brought home to brighten our family, the four-legged friend that had been by our side since losing Dad, had passed. Lucy was only three years old—full of life, and full of love that my family desperately needed.

Grandpa grew more and more emotional as he told me what had happened. Even in the midst of my own loss, my heart broke for him. This was the second time in under a year that my Grandpa had needed to deliver devastating news to Mom and me. At the same time, I knew how much he was hurting in that moment as well. Grandpa had loved Lucy just as much as any of us. Oftentimes, he would come out to our house in the middle of the day when Mom was away at work just to spend a few hours playing with Lucy. My Grandpa is a strong man, but even the strongest of men have deep and important feelings of love and loss. I wished he didn’t have to be the bearer of awful news again, but he did it with a compassion and directness that I’ll always appreciate.

I shut my office door as Grandpa continued to try and explain the inexplicable. I ran my hand across my clammy forehead, trying to get my brain to process this awful news. After hanging up with Grandpa, I sat in my office and began to cry. Tears slowly streamed down my face as I tried to make sense of this heartache. Immediately, I began to reflect on the bigness of the situation. I called out to God pretty quickly. “Isn’t it enough that I’ve lost my Dad?” I questioned. “Now our dog? Is it ever going to stop?”

Weakly, I gathered my things and told my colleague at our front desk that I would need to leave for the day. I explained what happened, hopped in my car, and drove towards the animal hospital in Trenton. The drive was a silent, horrible experience where I kept trying to convince myself that my world was not real. I told myself that I would get to the hospital, and there’d be a miracle. Lucy would be there, tail wagging, ready to greet me. It was hard for me to believe the spunky dog I had just seen was now lifeless. I would escape the thought for a few seconds, and then the pain would immediately re-invade.

It felt like it took a few hours to make a twenty minute drive. When I arrived at the animal hospital, I could feel the sense of dread from the folks who worked there. They led me back to a private room, and I saw my Mom and Grandpa gathered in the corner, teary-eyed and full of dread. Mom walked to me, sobbing, and threw her arms around my neck. We both cried and tried to console one another, but there was just nothing we could say or do to make the other feel any better. This situation was bad, and as we had learned from Dad’s death that there were no shortcuts through grief.

Then, Mom turned, and I saw her. Lucy was lying on a nearby medical table, void of the spirited life that had made her so special.

I broke down. I walked over to her slowly, as if I could somehow avoid the inevitable sorrow that lay ahead. My hands were shaking, but I slowly stroked Lucy’s side. Lucy had always loved petting, but there was no response this time. My pain began to overwhelm me. I was fully of misery and sorrow that I can’t even articulate. The longer I saw her laying there lifeless, the more uncontrollable my sadness became. I spent a few minutes there next to Lucy, until I knew it was time to say goodbye forever.

I spoke to Lucy in that moment, and I told her how much I loved her. I told her how thankful I was that she had come into our lives. I thanked her for helping me during all of those difficult days after losing Dad. I told her how she had helped me get through so much, and that I couldn’t have done it without her. I apologized for my initial stubbornness when she came home as a pup. I told her how much I had enjoyed playing fetch with her, taking her on walks, and carrying her around the house. I told her that I wasn’t mad about her ripping my dress pants any longer. I told her how much I would miss her, and that life wouldn’t have the same brightness without her. I told her how much I loved her, and how I was sorry that I hadn’t protected her.

I pulled myself up from the table and walked out of the room, nauseous and completely overtaken by the emotion of the moment. I drove home to a darkened bedroom, and found myself reliving the nightmare of the past few hours.

I couldn’t believe she was gone.


Over the next few days, my grief took many different forms. Ultimately, I found myself in a deep depression—over losing Dad, and over losing Lucy. Every day was different and full of completely different emotions, but sadness was always at the root of it.

IMG_0941That sadness would often give way to anger. Lucy’s death was completely avoidable and unnecessary. A groomer that we had trusted—a groomer who knew the despair of our family situation—had cared so little about our family and our pet that he let her die as a result of his negligence. As you might imagine, the story of Lucy’s death attracted the attention of a local news station. Mom and I had agreed to talk with the reporter, mainly because we wanted to spread the word about this business’ carelessness to prevent a similar situation for other families. The callous, irresponsible, half-hearted apology from the business owner, Karen Eikens, complicated our grief even more. To this day, I don’t think she truly understands the pain she caused our family. To our dismay, we found out that Lucy wasn’t the first animal to die or be injured after visiting Ruff 2 Fluff. It’s clear that this business was soulless and callous when it came to understanding the trust their customers gave them.

Over the next few weeks, my anger would amplify as I drove by the groomer’s business and saw them still operating as if a precious family pet had not died in their care. Believe it or not, this business is still open and operating despite my attempts to spread the word about their carelessness. I’ll never quit trying to tell people about what happened to our dear, sweet Lucy. I feel like I owe that much to Lucy and her memory. It angers me that the business is still open. Deep down, I hope the owner of Ruff 2 Fluff reads my words and understands the severity of the pain she caused to my family. I’m not a vengeful person, but the lack of sympathy she showed to my family after losing Lucy scarred me and my entire family in ways I can’t describe. It complicated our grief and made the grieving process even more difficult than it already was. I hope Mrs. Eikens realizes the heartache she is directly responsible for, and although I’ve long since forgiven her for Lucy’s death and her cold insincerity after the incident, I’ll never stop doing everything I can to try and redeem Lucy’s death by spreading the word about her business’ negligence.

That anger consumed me early on, but it’s been easier to control as time has passed. Over time, that anger has been replaced with a love and appreciation for Lucy and the role she played in helping our family heal after losing Dad.

Sometimes, the sadness of losing her hits in unexpected ways.

Like when I’m eating licorice.

Those of you who know me well know that I’m quite the candy fanatic. I can down a box of Sour Patch Kids in 47 seconds flat. I’m constantly popping peppermints, and those little tiny boxes of Nerds are definitely my kryptonite. But I’ve always loved a good Twizzler.

Twizzlers are one of my favorites, and my Mom always knew this. Being a gracious and loving mother, Mom would always keep a bag of Twizzlers in a bowl on our family room coffee table. When I came home or when I was laying on the couch, I would reach into that bowl and grab a few sticks of licorice. It was always a delicious treat, and a bad habit I keep up with to this day.

Lucy always had the tendency to beg for human food, and one day I made the mistake of giving her a Twizzler of her own. Apparently, licorice addictions are contagious because Lucy went nuts. After downing that first Twizzler, she jumped onto the couch and tried to grab the remaining pieces of licorice that I had in my hand! I didn’t know dogs liked licorice—but Lucy loved it. Every time I had a Twizzler, I had to make sure that Lucy got one too.

Lucy’s addiction was so bad that her ears were even attuned to the candy. If Lucy was in another room of our house, all I had to do was give the Twizzler bag a slight touch. The crinkly plastic would crunch a bit, and before I knew it, Lucy was barreling down the stairs and jumping onto my lap. Lucy could even be asleep in my parents’ bedroom, and her ears would perk up at the slightest touch of the licorice bag. It was hilarious, and as a result, she often got to eat way more licorice than any dog ever should.

Just a few months ago, Paige and I visited a new retro candy store in Hamilton. I was in heaven for the fifteen minutes we spent perusing all of the amazing candy selections. Chocolate covered peanuts. Single-flavored gummy bears in a multitude of options. Sour belts. And my all-time favorite: Red Licorice Scottie Dogs.

Red Licorice Scottie Dogs.jpgI bought a pound of the licorice dogs (and a few other goodies, of course), and the second Paige and I got into the truck, I opened the bags and started chowing down. I tasted the licorice, and it brought back all the memories of Lucy and how funny it was to watch her eat licorice. I began recounting the story to Paige, and before I knew it, I was flashing back to the moment I lost her. All of the sadness and despair of her death was as real then as it was on the day I lost her—all because of a piece of licorice that reminded me of her.

A great dog has an unbelievable impact on your life—and when they’re gone, the pain lingers for a long, long time.

I grieve that dog every single day. She’s been gone for four years now, and I don’t think I’ve ever really gotten over losing her. I don’t know that I ever will.

When I lost Lucy that day, I also lost one of the last, living, tangible pieces of my Father. That’s what made her death so tragic and heart-wrenching. That’s what made the callousness and thoughtlessness of the Ruff 2 Fluff owner even more painful. My Dad had been the one to bring Lucy into our lives. My Dad had trained her and loved her and instilled many of his own unique quirks and personality traits into her. Dad had taught her how to play and how to catch a Frisbee, and after he died, a piece of him lived on through her. I think that was why it was so wonderful to be consoled by her. Because she reminded me of Dad, it was almost like he was there with me, telling me that it was okay. Telling me that I would get through his death. Telling me that he still loved me.

Over time, I began to think more about the happy moments than the day I lost her. Although I never forgot—and likely never will forget—the awful pain of losing her, I began to think of that less and started to think of her love more. Even though she wasn’t there to help us in the same way she did in the year after Dad’s death, she was always there. And every time I see a Frisbee or find a tennis ball, I think of her.

Mom eventually got a new dog—another Airedale Terrier named Sadie—who has been a wonderful addition to our family. She’ll never be able to replace Lucy, but she has her own unique spunk and character (and tendency to want to nip at you) that brings a great dose of happiness to our lives.

But even still, I think of Lucy. Even still, I think of how lucky we were to have her in our life.

Lucy and Ty on PatioOn occasion, I’ll put on that navy blue, pinstriped suit that Lucy bit a hole in…although I’ve got to squeeze into those pants with a lot more difficulty than ever before (maybe it’s the licorice?!). When I eventually stuff myself into that suit, I’ll look down at the left thigh and see a bit of a disruption in one of the light pinstripes. There’s a gap in that stripe with a bunch of navy-blue threading that one of our family friends sewed in as an attempt to repair the hole. It’s not a perfect fix, but enough to not be noticeable. It reminds me that life isn’t perfect, but sometimes the imperfections and disasters can blossom into beautiful memories. When I wear that suit, I often run my hands over that patch of thread and think happily of Lucy. I think about how much I loved her—I think about how much I still do.

I’ll always love Lucy—because she loved us all when we needed it most.

Dad Lucy and Me at Christmas with SB LogoDad, I need to tell you that I’m sorry and that I’m thankful. I’m sorry that I acted so stubborn when you chose to bring Lucy into our family. I’m sorry that I acted like a “little jerk” (your words…and mine) when you were just doing what was best for us. Ultimately, I’m so grateful that you chose Lucy. I’m grateful that you raised her and trained her and taught her to be a fun, family dog. We had no idea how much we were going to need her fun-loving, thoughtful companionship after losing her. In a way, I feel like Lucy carried on so many of your personality traits after you were gone. She was a constant reminder of the zest and excitement you had for life. She was there to help us grieve in so many ways after you left us. I think Lucy was your angel here on Earth for us. I think that she was your way of telling us that life, even when it’s painful, can still have a lot of joy and happiness. Losing her was like losing you all over again. It was as if another piece of you—a very important piece—was gone forever. But Dad, I know that we will never lose you entirely. Your memory will always live on in our hearts and in our minds because you made such an indelible mark on all of us. Dad, thank you for Lucy. Thank you for teaching her to love us when we needed it most. Although I miss you both dearly, I hope that you are together again in heaven—and I hope there are plenty of Frisbees to toss. You deserve paradise, Dad. You deserve the greatest things that God can offer, and I can’t wait to experience that joy alongside you. Until that day where you and I are together again in a life that knows no end, seeya Bub.

“And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: the livestock, the creatures that move along the ground, and the wild animals, each according to its kind.’ And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals according to their kinds, the livestock according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good.” Genesis 1:24-25 (NIV)

Lucy (Part 2)

This is the second post in a special three-part series at SeeyaBub.com. Be sure to read “Lucy: Part 1” as a prelude to this installment.

After Dad and Mom brought Lucy home, I held firm in my commitment to be loyal to Willow and I resisted any sign of adoration for our newest puppy.

At least for a solid ten minutes or so.

dscf0377.jpgFrom the moment she came home, Lucy was impossible to resist. I have a weak-constitution for puppy cuteness, and Lucy melted my defenses rather quickly. Airedale terriers are adorable puppies. What will eventually grow into a 60 or 70-pound dog starts out as an eight-pound ball of fur with a shortened snout and gangly legs. Lucy looked like most Airedale pups I had seen in photographs, but there was one defining characteristic that was different. Lucy had a tiny little white patch of fur right on the middle of her chest. I had never seen an Airedale with any color fur other than black and brown. Immediately, she was different from the rest; and the more I got to know her, the more wonderfully different I discovered she was.

On the night of her arrival, Dad brought Lucy down into our family room, wrapped up like a baby in a fuzzy pink blanket. I tried to act like I wasn’t interested in her because I was so resistant to getting another dog after Willow’s recent death…but I was interested. Very interested. I had never had an actual puppy before. Muffin was older than I was, and Willow had come into our family when she was two. I had always wanted a little puppy, and now that we had one, I was acting like a stubborn jerk entirely because of my ego and pride.

DSCF0380Dad sat the blanket bundle down on his lap, and Lucy poked her head out from the blanket mound and peered around our family room. She looked straight at me with her dark eyes, and when she made her way down onto the carpet and slowly meandered towards me, I knew that I was done. My resistance would have to fall, because this pup was just too cute. With the pain of losing Willow momentarily fading, I reached down and scooped Lucy into my arms. For the rest of the night, she and I spent our time on the couch as she adjusted to her new surroundings. A few times, I glanced at Mom and Dad and saw them giving one another that familiar “I told you he’d cave” look. I tried my best to not let them get any satisfaction from defying my gutless order to not bring home another family dog, but it was useless.

Eventually, I decided to lay down on the couch. I laid on my stomach with arms tucked underneath my chest as I always did, and Lucy looked at me a bit confused about what she should be doing. That’s when she hopped up on my calves and nestled herself in between my ankles.

DSCF0407And from that moment on, I don’t think I ever quit loving Lucy. Even if my stubborn pride wouldn’t let me admit it.


I tried to find ways not to like Lucy, and early on she gave me plenty of ammunition. Anyone who has raised a puppy knows the pain of those first few weeks. Any cuteness they possess is outweighed by their inability to follow the simplest of instructions. You literally have to follow them around like a four-legged baby trying to prevent them from doing things that they shouldn’t be doing. Their razor-sharp baby teeth nibble and nibble and nibble—always on things they shouldn’t be nibbling.

And don’t even get me started on the potty training.

Even the best dogs start out as four-legged-terror-mongers that disrupt your home and your life, and Lucy was no different. As the newest member of our family, she did not always put her best paw forward—especially on the day when her puppy misbehavior caused me to erupt like Krakatoa.

Early on in my sports broadcasting career, I would regularly wear a suit and tie to announce a game. It was a bit of a trademark for me, and even as a young man I always enjoyed wearing suits. They made me feel like I knew what I was doing in life—when most of the time I had no idea what I was doing!

One blustery winter afternoon, I was headed to announce a basketball game and thought a suit was fitting for the occasion. I pulled one particular suit out of my closet, and looked at it with a smile. It was a suit I had just recently purchased—navy blue with a very subtle pinstripe. The fabric was silkier and smoother than most of the fabric on the other suits I owned, and apparently that silky fabric costs a whole lot more money because I had paid dearly for this one. I didn’t have much money to my name as a young professional, and I had spent quite a bit more than I had wanted to on this suit. I was proud of it, and this would only be my second time wearing it. I picked out a perfect light blue shirt, and a bright orange tie that would pop (I’ve always had a thing for those bright ties). After suiting up and tying the perfect knot, I made my way down the stairs, secretly hoping my parents would notice me and compliment me on my flashy style.

Instead, I heard Lucy bouncing up the stairs to meet me in the living room. As my Mom toiled away in the kitchen, Lucy noticed me and gleefully bounced towards me. I reached down to pet her, and she looked at me with a puppy-dog smile and a panting tongue.

And then, she did the unthinkable.

She looked right at me, cocked her head, ran up to me, and bit straight into the pant leg of my new suit, tearing a shred out of the expensive, silky fabric.

I exploded with fury. I yelled “YOU STUPID DOG!” as loud as I possibly could, and went in with a swipe to swat her away from doing any further damage. She moved away from me with a look of fright and confusion, and my Mom ran out from the kitchen.

“What happened?!” she said.

Your dumb dog just ripped a hole in my brand new suit!” I yelled back, being sure to emphasize the fact that Lucy was not my dog.

Mom looked on, not quite knowing what to do. My sun-deprived thigh was gleaming through the hole in my suit pants, and I could feel the heat of anger flooding my face. Meanwhile, Lucy stood in the corner, just far enough from me so I couldn’t make any sudden movements. My Mom just stood there, without saying much to her comically-angry son.

“WELL, AREN’T YOU GOING TO SAY ANYTHING?!” I shrieked. This was not a time for silence; this was a time for justice! Wrong had been done, and right would need to be swiftly restored! I wanted restitution! I wanted this four-pawed-perpetrator to pay for her crimes!

I don’t even remember what Mom said to me in that moment, because anger has a tendency to cloud your mind and your memory. I do remember storming up the stairs, changing into a suit that was older and stiffer, yet hole-free. I grabbed my bag and stormed out of the house as our tiny puppy cowered in the corner.

I seethed the entire day, and when I came home and saw Lucy playing with my Dad in the family room like nothing had ever happened, my fury grew even more intense.

And years later, when I look back on this moment, I’m ashamed at how foolish I acted. I’m embarrassed at my immaturity, my materialistic greed, and my pathetic self-righteousness.

Eventually, and taking much longer than it ever should have, my frustration gave way because…well, it’s simply impossible to resist a puppy, no matter what stupid thing they might do. And if a puppy has a special personality, it’s even more difficult.

IMG_0010Lucy had that in abundance. Lucy’s calm demeanor during the first 24 hours of her life in my family was a well-executed mirage delivered by a sneaky infiltrator. When I came home on Lucy’s second day in the Bradshaw house, the docile, pleasant pup that I had left that morning was replaced with a rambunctious, mischievous, four-legged fur-covered peddler of destruction. When I came home that day, my poor Mother looked like she had barely survived a hurricane. She looked at me with a frazzled exasperation as Lucy, with toys strewn all across our normally-clean family room, bounced and barked and bolted to every corner of the house. She was worse than a baby because she was faster. I couldn’t believe she had fooled us! Lucy had spunk—and a whole lot of it.

Over time, Lucy learned how to control that spunk, and we learned how to control her. But even with her spunk in-check, Lucy was just different—and we loved her because she was different.

From the moment she set foot (and foot and foot and foot) into our house, Lucy was treated differently than any other dog we had ever had—especially when it came to her presence in the home. Those of you who know my Mother know that she has many wonderful traits and talents. One of those talents which I’ve grown to appreciate since becoming a homeowner is my Mother’s ability to keep a clean home. From the time I was little, we always had the cleanest home imaginable—even if I didn’t always realize it as a child. My Mom is an immaculately-clean individual, and I think that one of the ways she showed love to Dad and I was by always giving us a clean house to come home to. I probably didn’t tell her how much I appreciated it then. In fact, I likely told her how much having to clean up my toys annoyed me. Now, I’m extremely thankful and gracious.

That’s why Lucy’s complete reign over our house surprised me so much!

Our first dog, Muffin, was only allowed inside the house during the winter months or particularly hot days. Even then, she was confined to stay only in the lower quarters of the house. When Willow came into our family, she had always been raised as an indoor-dog. Mom knew that she would have to let Willow into the house most of the time, but even then there were parameters. Under no circumstance whatsoever would Willow be allowed to be on the furniture; couches, beds, and chairs were for two-legged creatures only. (Mom, I can admit to you now that on summer days when I was home by myself, I would often let Willow onto the couch to sit next to me. And she absolutely loved it. And your couches are fine. And I love you!).

DSCF0396But with Lucy, it was different from the start. She was immediately allowed onto the couch—and I was shocked! And then, the unthinkable happened; Mom actually let Lucy sleep in the bed with her! What world was I living in?! Who had abducted my Mom and who was this woman that now gladly beckoned the dog onto the furniture?

If Lucy could turn my Mom, the master of cleanliness and housekeeping perfection, into a woman who allowed a dog onto the furniture…that meant she had powers I didn’t quite understand. And she used those special puppy powers to work her way into our hearts in some pretty unimaginable ways.

Lucy and Ty on PatioWhen Lucy was little, I used to carry her around the house quite often. And unlike most dogs, she really enjoyed being carried! After a little while, it got more and more difficult to carry her around as she continued to grow. And by the time she reached 40 pounds, our little puppy, who I affectionately called “Monkey”, was a bit to heavy to carry with one arm. So I did what any normal person would do.

I started carrying her around like a child.

DSCF0631I would actually pick Lucy up by her front legs and toss them over my shoulder. Then, Lucy would wrap her hind legs around my waist, and I would comfortably carry her around as she nuzzled her snout on my shoulder. Looking back, it’s the most ridiculous thing I could ever imagine doing as a dog owner.

And I loved it.

We all loved Lucy. I loved her, and my Mom loved her, and my Dad loved her. And she loved all of us equally, unlike the other family dogs we had owned that adored my Dad at Mom and I’s expense.

But Dad, just as he had done with all of our other dogs, absolutely loved Lucy and devoted as much energy to her as he possibly could. .

Dad with Baby LucyThankfully, my Dad, our dog-whisperer-in-residence, was there to take care of most of the discipline and direction when we first got Lucy. My Dad loved working with animals, even when the animals weren’t easy to work with. I think he saw teaching pets as a challenge that he wanted to conquer, and he had a way of showing love through firmness. Quickly and efficiently, Lucy was housebroken and learning how to sit, lay down, and yes…play hide and seek with Dad. My Dad had a special talent, and we all benefited from it.

That’s what I loved about watching Dad with a new dog. As frustrating as puppy-parenting might have been, he never let that frustration outweigh his joy and frivolity. Lucy and Dad truly were a match made in heaven because they both had such silly personalities. Early on, Dad discovered that Lucy really enjoyed chomping on plastic bottles. So, Dad did what any thoughtful, wise puppy Dad would do. He took a plastic bottle, tied it to a fishing pole, taped the bajeezus out of it, and cast it out into the yard for Lucy to retrieve.

I could watch Dad’s puppy-fishing expeditions for hours. Over and over again for hours into the evening, Dad would cast the bottle deep out into our yard. Lucy would sprint to retrieve the bottle, and just as she would get near it, Dad would start pulling the line in, jolting the bottle all over the yard just out of reach of her sharp little puppy teeth. The best part of the act was when Lucy would finally catch the bottle. Dad would start grunting and pulling on the fishing line, shouting “Oh boy! I got a big one this time! I bet it’s a 20-pounder!” Dad would then feign reeling the line in with difficulty until Lucy was eventually within his grasp. He would then throw down the line and start petting her and getting her all excited for the next round. Again, the bottle would go out, Lucy would retrieve, and Dad would laugh uncontrollably over and over until one of them was worn out. As Lucy grew, Dad had to abandon the fishing line. In its absence, he created a toy for Lucy that I still think he should have patented. Even dogs that visited our house were instantly attracted to this simple toy! He took a Pure Leaf tea bottle, filled it with rocks, drilled a hole through the cap, and threaded a heavy-duty rope through it that was tied with black electrical tape at both ends. Lucy would grab the bottle, and Dad would tug on the rope. This was a bit more strenuous, but Dad and Lucy could play with this toy for hours. Lucy would grunt, and Dad would shout out ridiculous taunts towards her. I can still picture them playing together and the fun they had with one another. When Dad wasn’t around, Lucy would grab the bottle and whip it around, spinning in circles and growling as she spun herself into dizziness.

Lucy was a puppy that played, and her playfulness made our home better.

Our entire family loved Lucy’s playfulness, and more than anything, I loved the fact that she would play fetch. My entire life, I had wished and prayed for a dog that would fetch. For the longest time, my prayers were unanswered. In the thirteen years I shared with our first dog, Muffin, I never saw her fetch anything. Willow would fetch…once or twice until she grew tired of it. But Lucy was the exact opposite. Thanks to my Dad’s conditioning, Lucy would fetch just about anything: bottles, Frisbees, tennis balls, household items that were not meant to be turned into playthings.

My Dad and I would both spend hours in the backyard playing fetch with Lucy. We especially enjoyed watching her fetch a Frisbee because of the suspense it created as it hung in the air. My Dad was an excellent Frisbee thrower, and Lucy was the perfect playmate. He loved throwing lofting, high tosses that would spiral in the air and hang over Lucy’s head, watching her spin and contort until she was within receiving distance.

And boy could Lucy catch. In all the years that she was in our home, I rarely saw her drop a Frisbee—even if it looked like it was going to be well out of her range to catch. Lucy could play fetch for hours and hours in the backyard, taking only short breaks every few minutes. But taking a break look it pained and personally annoyed her. Even if she was panting heavily, she would try to crawl towards you to hand you the Frisbee so she could run and play again. It was a joy to watch a dog who played the way she did.

DSCF0400Dad, being a playful guy, did everything with Lucy. If he was home, he wanted to be near her. If he had a bonfire in the backyard, Lucy was with him. If he was eating dinner, she was patiently waiting for a scrap nearby. If he was taking a nap, she was on the couch cuddled next to him. There were hour-long walks to the park, trips to the dog beach at Hueston Woods, and countless other memories that the two of them created together. They are memories filled with laughter and companionship, but joy more than anything else.

In fact, it was just a joy being around her. Lucy exuded joy. She spread it into our entire home. We had no idea how much we would need her joy, however, until a day that cold-cocked our entire family.


When July 24, 2013 came, I was standing on the front lawn of my family home with police cruisers to the left of me with lighted-sirens flashing across the concrete driveway. My Mom’s boss, Tom, was standing in the doorway of our home, holding open the screen door as an EMT rushed behind him. Minutes earlier, Tom had told me that there had been an accident in the house. An accident, involving my Dad. That accident had put his life in perilous danger. I didn’t know how close to or far away he was from death, but I knew from the urgency of the emergency responders that it couldn’t be good. Looking back, I’m sure my reaction looked peculiar to Tom because, on the surface, I reacted without much acknowledgement. My outward emotions did little to reflect my inner thoughts. On the outside, my shock looked like paralysis; on the inside, it looked like frenetic craziness.

After Tom went back into the home to help as best he could, I was in a world all by myself in the front yard. I began pacing back and forth, back and forth, as the summer-scorched grass crunched beneath my feet. I was beginning to sweat as my lungs grew tight and felt as if they were closing in. I tried to control my breathing, but there were no breathing exercises to help prepare me for this moment. Nor was there anything I could do to stop my racing mind. Horrible thoughts about the past and what could be my new reality in the future began to hijack my brain. I couldn’t see myself surviving if my Dad’s attempt at suicide was successful.

Tom had shared a little information about the nature of what had happened in the house when he gave me the news. I knew things were bad, but in the crisis moment, I believe my mind tried to hold onto any semblance of positivity that was within grasp. I knew that my Dad had been injured as a result of the suicide attempt, and even though there was a chance he wouldn’t survive, my mind still behaved as if he was going to pull through this—just as he had overcome every other challenge that he had ever faced. I began to think about what his recuperation process might look like, and how I would need to help. I told God, in that moment, that I would do anything to make sure Dad was well again.

I began to think about what life would look like in the next few hours, and the next few days, and then the next few years. Compounding thoughts of doubt and hope and confusion were already swirling in my brain. Using the little information that Tom had given me, I began to wonder about what had happened in the house over the last hour or so—between the time I had last seen Dad in the family room and now. I had gone home after talking with Dad, Mom had gone to work, and…

And then, it hit me. Lucy. My Dad and Lucy were in the house alone. And I worried that she had been caught up in the destruction.

Judge if you must, but let me first explain my grief-induced thoughts as best I can—even though I don’t understand them today and don’t know that I ever will. I know that some will read my words and wonder why or how I could even think of a dog when a human life was at stake.

At no point does thinking about the well-being of one life—human or animal—mean that I am automatically ignoring the status of the other. I was thinking about my Dad and praying for him feverishly and intensely—and I was simultaneously praying for Lucy. Not knowing about my Dad’s status created a panic within me; and not knowing about Lucy’s status also created a panic. It was okay for me to be concerned about my Dad and Lucy; and yes, my Dad was always my primary concern, but that didn’t diminish my love for Lucy. I was trying to hold onto the normal life as I had known it; and Lucy was part of that normalcy.

You might also judge my worries because, on the surface, they might have been accusatory towards my Father. My Dad had always been an animal over, and he especially loved Lucy. “How could you even think that Dad would do something to hurt one of our pets?” I’ve often thought to myself.

Let me present an imperfect defense. I never thought that my Dad would become a victim of suicide; but I stood there in that moment faced with the reality that his life was hanging in the balance because of a suicide attempt. I never, never would have thought that my Dad was so enmeshed within his depression that he could feel as if he wanted his life to end. If that thought could so feverishly consume my Dad, and if it could push him to do something this unthinkable, was it really so outlandish to think that something else could have happened in that moment of despair that Dad, in his right mind, would never have done? Mental illness had forced my Dad to do something unthinkable and completely out of his character, and there was always a chance that the mental illness could have forced my Dad to do other things that were unlike him. I didn’t know Lucy’s whereabouts when the attempt happened. It was completely feasible that she could have been hurt unintentionally.

Even writing these words is difficult because I don’t like what it implies about my Dad and his love for Lucy, but for better or for worse, it’s an accurate retelling of my inner thought processes.

Back and forth I continued to pace in the front yard, wondering about Dad. Wondering about Lucy. Wondering about what life was going to look like in this new, horrible normal. Even if Dad pulled through, life was going to be painfully different. There was no turning back.

And then, in the midst of my anxiety and prayers, I heard a familiar bark in the backyard. I walked towards the sunroom and glanced through the windows into the backyard, and I saw her. I saw Lucy, looking somewhat panicked herself, running from side to side in the backyard—completely healthy and looking for someone to love.

I breathed a short sigh of relief as one small wave subsided, and I prepared my mind and heart to face the tsunami that I feared would crash in moments later.

Lucy’s presence in that moment was a gift in the midst of a terrible, terrible storm. A few moments later, I would learn that my Father, my hero in this life, had died. Far too young, far too soon, far too unexpectedly. In that moment, I began life without Dad.

DSCF0516And Lucy was there to help me—and all of us—find a small ray of light in the midst of the dark clouds that enveloped our family. Lucy—sweet Lucy—would help to save us as best she could.

Stay tuned for the conclusion of “Lucy” in the coming weeks at SeeyaBub.com.

 

Lucy (Part 1)

“Dad, I told you. I don’t want another dog!”

Dad gave me a mocking smile and placed his hands on his hips to feign being an adolescent know-it-all. “Well guess what? We’re getting one anyway!”

Dad continued to smile, and I stomped out of the room with righteous indignation. It was the opposite image of what a grateful son who’s getting a new puppy should look like—but I played that part really well. And leave it to my Dad to do the thing I didn’t want—which ended up being the completely right thing to do.


My family has always been a dog family, mainly because my Dad was always a dog person. Don’t get me wrong—we all loved dogs; but Dad had a special connection with the canine world. Throughout our family life, we’ve always had dogs.

In fact, my parents got our first puppy, a dog named Muffin, before I was even born. Some of my earliest baby photos show Muffin trying to climb into my baby carrier to get a sniff of her new housemate. I don’t even remember what breed Muffin was, but she was one of the kindest and gentlest dogs I’ve ever met.

Muffin was definitely Dad’s dog. She loved him more than she loved any of us, and she would follow him around throughout the backyard any time he was home, always traipsing within a few steps of him everywhere he went. And Dad loved Muffin, and he always tried to make her feel special. Dad used his carpentry talent to build Muffin a beautiful, sturdy doghouse in our backyard—which I saw her use only a handful of times throughout her long life as the inaugural pup of the Bradshaw family. Muffin loved Dad, but if it was even possible, I think Dad loved her more.

Even though I am a dog person, I must admit that Muffin and I never had an extremely close connection. Maybe it was a function of my age and youth, and my failure to recognize any other needs outside of my own. Or maybe she didn’t like me because I was the human baby that knocked her off the pedestal of parental adoration. Muffin wasn’t an extremely active dog, which probably contributed to our lack of connection. She didn’t fetch or run, and all the dogs I saw on TV fetched and ran, so I was jealous. I still have great memories of Muffin, like seeing her pass our family room windows in the well-worn path that she repeated thousands of times in our backyard. Or the moments when I would entice her into the house on cold winter days using miniature Reese Cups (who knew chocolate was bad for dogs?!).

Muffin lived for an impressive 16 years (maybe that whole dog/chocolate thing is a myth…), and when I was in 8th grade, my parents had to face the difficult decision of having Muffin put to rest. Her hearing had completely disappeared, and a large tumor on her leg made it painful to walk and maneuver around. I can only imagine how hard it was for my parents to make this decision. Muffin had been their first real “child” until my arrival disrupted the family two years later. She was their very first dog as a married couple. What an emotional loss it must have been to know that she was approaching the end of her life.

On the day she would be put to rest, I remember my Mom signing me out of school early so I could come see her one last time and say my goodbyes. When I got home, the scene that I witnessed is one that is still burned into my memory bank. I saw my Dad laying on the floor next to poor Muffin, tired and beleaguered, gently stroking her coat as the occasional tear rolled down his weathered cheek. Dad had decided to give Muffin the most perfect dog day she could ever have. Having taken an entire day from work (a rarity in Dad’s life), he had cooked her breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast and hand fed it to her from a plate in our family room. Dad had spent the entire day petting Muffin and combing her coat, telling her how much he loved her. Midway through the day, he grilled her a steak and fed it to her bite by bite. They had eaten snacks throughout the day and spent time resting nearby one another. My Dad wanted to be there next to her to let her know that he was there until the very end, in good times and in difficult times.

I said my goodbyes to Muffin and even told her how much I enjoyed giving her all those Reese Cups when my parents weren’t looking. But my memories of that day aren’t nearly as much about my own pain. Instead, I vividly remember seeing my Dad suffering more than I had ever seen him suffer before.

Dad was rarely helpless in his life, but in this moment I saw how much it pained him to know that there was truly nothing he could do to help. Dad just laid next to Muffin, staring at her and slowly patting her head. My Dad didn’t cry very often, which made it even more difficult to see tear after tear drip from his eye without him ever making a sound. I could tell that all of the pain about Muffin’s death was bottling up inside of him, and it broke my heart to see how affected he was about having to put Muffin to rest.

As the time for the veterinarian appointment approached, Dad eventually collected sweet Muffin in his arms. He put her in the front seat of the truck, and drove off down the street. The car vanished in the distance, and Mom and I cried back at the house, but I often wondered what that last ride was like. I wonder what Dad said to Muffin.

A few hours later, Dad returned home with Muffin’s lifeless body. For the next few hours and deep into the night, Dad toiled away digging a proper grave in one of our backyard gardens. In a way, I think that my Dad doing physical labor was his way of grieving, so Mom and I tried not to disturb him as he labored deep into the night. From an upstairs window, Mom and I watched Dad dig with work lights shining over his shoulders, and we talked about how sad he must have been. Long after the sun had set, Dad had buried his pup and said goodbye to the dog he loved so much. And I wondered if we would ever have another dog again after watching how hard it had been on him.

I don’t remember how soon it was after losing Muffin, but something very unusual had happened. Our neighbors, Jim and Deena, had recently approached us about their beautiful puppy—an Airedale terrier named Willow. Willow was a much bigger dog than Muffin was (around 80 pounds), and she had a very different spirit and personality as well. Our family had admired Willow from the fence line since Jim and Deena had brought her home. She was less than two years old, and she was one of the most beautiful, friendly, playful, intelligent pups we had ever interacted with. Numerous times while doing yardwork, I would see Dad reaching over the fence to pet Willow’s bristly coat. Or I would find him grabbing a tennis ball from her mouth and throwing it deep into her yard. Deena had trained Willow to sit and lay down and do other commands, which always impressed my Dad. In fact, Deena had even trained Willow to retrieve the newspaper from the end of the driveway each and every morning! Dad had always talked about how beautiful she was. Airedales were a breed we were unfamiliar with, and we loved watching Willow run and frolic in the yard adjacent to ours.

Jim and Deena—wonderful neighbors and even better dog parents—had approached us with a unique situation and one that no one in our family had expected. Jim was being transferred to Florida for a new job, and the family was planning to move. Knowing that Willow was used to having her space and plenty of room to play and be active, Jim and Deena were worried about confining her to their new Sunshine State residence—a smaller condo. So, completely unexpectedly, they asked my Mom and Dad if we would be interested in taking Willow. They wanted to give us their dog!

I honestly could not believe it! I was so excited about the thought of having another dog, and both of my parents were too after they thought it through. I think their hesitancy faded because they knew what a great dog Willow was and how perfectly behaved she appeared to be. My parents thought things over for a few days, but they excitedly told Jim and Deena that we would love to have her.

And boy am I glad they did.

Willow was a tremendous dog. We had a few “trial runs” before Jim and Deena moved to make sure Willow liked us and that we felt comfortable with her, and she took to our family quicker than anyone anticipated. In fact, I remember Deena feeling so saddened because, after only a few of our brief afternoons together, Willow began to sit at the back door of Jim and Deena’s home, staring towards our house and waiting for us to come get her again! It truly was treasonous behavior, even for a dog. Deena had even fed Willow with a bottle when she was a tiny puppy, so I can only imagine how that betrayal must have felt!

After Jim and Deena said goodbye and made their way down South, Willow immediately came into our family and changed it for the better in so many amazing ways. I enjoyed taking Willow for walks—except for that one time she saw a rabbit, pulled me face down onto the street, and took off running for what felt like 47 miles. After about 30 minutes of complete terror thinking I had just lost our new family dog, she eventually came back. Willow’s excitement when we arrived home each day was so memorable. Upon hearing us on the porch, she would begin slamming her nose into the doorknob repeatedly until we opened the door. Typically, we would stand on the other side of the door for a few seconds, jiggling the handle and waiting for her to jiggle it back. Her wiggles and waggles would bring a smile to anyone’s face. Willow was also very affectionate and always gave “hugs.” If you laid down on the floor and told Willow to come give you a hug, she would run over and put each of her front legs around your shoulders. Then, she would lay her head down and nuzzle her snout in your neck and give you kisses, all the while leaving her constantly-wagging tail high up in the air. Getting hugs from Willow was the best feeling ever. I can still picture it—I can still feel it.

Willow was a funny dog who was extremely intelligent and had unique little quirks that made her personality so charming. A reluctant fetcher, Willow always knew how to make me laugh while fetching one particular toy. She had an oversized, squeaking set of rubber dentures that she would fetch in the backyard. All of a sudden, you would have an 80-pound dog running at you with these televangelist teeth and a smile from ear to puppy ear. I can still picture Dad laughing at her while she galloped through our backyard.

Or there was the bone-shaped toybox that we kept for Willow in our family room. Willow would attack that plastic toybox with her paws and snout until it popped open and she got what she wanted. She was the fun dog that I had always wanted, and she brought so much life to our house.

More than anything, I loved watching my Dad’s games of hide and go seek with Willow. You read that right, folks—hide and go seek. With a dog. It was the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen. Dad would tell Willow to sit, and then he would scurry up the steps. Sometimes Willow would break from her typically-obedient nature and sneak after him, but Dad would return until he got her to sit and stare at him as he made his way upstairs. You could almost see the panic setting in on Willow’s poor little puppy face as Dad made his way up the stairs. Once he made it upstairs, Dad would choose one of a few hiding spots: behind the door, under the bed, or in the shower. Then, just when poor Willow couldn’t stand his absence any longer, Dad would shriek “OKAAAY PUPPPPPY!” in a high-pitched squeal, and Willow would go charging up the stairs. She would run around from room to room searching for my Dad. Sometimes, she would find him quickly; but most of the time it took a few minutes of sprinting around looking for him. On occasion, she would miss him entirely and charge right back down the stairs, looking for him everywhere. Eventually, she would find him; and Dad would go crazy. He would start yelling “You found me, Puppy! You’re so smart!” He would hug Willow and rub her ears, and she would try to lick his face and jump around in excitement. The two of them would keep this up for longer than any dog and human should be able to, and the joy never dissipated.

You haven’t seen joy until you’ve seen a grown man play hide and go seek with his loyal companion.

Whether they were playing hide and go seek, or taking walks, or sitting by bonfires in the backyard together, there was no mistaking one fact that was irrefutable—as much as Willow loved me and my Mom, she loved my Dad more than anyone else. End of story. No debate necessary.

Willow’s love affair with my Dad was stronger than any other human-dog relationship I had ever witnessed. Willow was always wonderful to Mom and I when we were at home; but the second my Dad got home from work, my Mom and I ceased to exist in Willow’s eyes. She would follow my Dad around for the entire night, rarely (if ever) leaving his side. If he laid on the couch, she laid right at his feet. If he got up to go the kitchen, she went. If he went to the bathroom, she would sit right outside the door and whine and occasionally claw at the door frame until he came out. If Mom and I would call for her, she would lay even closer to Dad. It was unbelievable—and Dad absolutely loved it. It’s fun to the be the favorite, and only my Dad knew just how much fun it was.

And now that Dad’s no longer around, I can admit this truth: Mom and I were very, very jealous. We wanted Willow to like us just as much as she liked Dad! In fact, I was the one who fed her dinner every single night, nearly puking every time I had to empty out a tin of that disgusting dog food in a can. How was it that I provided the food, but she still liked my Dad better?

Looking back, it’s easy to see why. My Dad always had a connection with animals—especially dogs. I think it was because he had a ridiculously tender heart. My Dad was a gentle man when it came to any human interactions, but he was just as gentle when he interacted with animals. Whenever we would visit a friend or neighbor’s home that had a pet, Dad instantly became the favorite guest. He would constantly pet them and play with them, and he never got tired of being an animal’s best friend. My Dad did a lot of construction side jobs where he would work on people’s homes, and if the homeowner had a dog, Dad was in heaven. During the time he would spend there, he would get to know the dog of the house, and he would always come home and tell Mom and I stories about the animals he interacted with. He would even bring pictures! His tender heart allowed him to establish an immediate connection with any animal he met.

Dad also had a mature patience that made him the perfect companion for a dog. If you know me well, this may not come as a surprise: I’m a rather impatient individual. I don’t always have the most even-keeled temper when things don’t go my way. I can say this with the utmost certainty: I did not inherit Dad’s patience, and I really wish I had. Dad was one of the most patient individuals I’ve ever known. Sometimes to the point where his patience was annoying to me! (See, I wasn’t lying…)

Dad’s patience really paid off when it came to animals and pets, however. Dogs, like humans, are imperfect—but in their own unique way. They bark when they aren’t supposed to. They pull and jerk when they’re supposed to walk calmly. They get afraid of fireworks. They use the restroom in non-restroom locations. Any of these things were enough to send me over the edge; but Dad rarely lost his cool with our family pets. He was stern when he trained them and disciplined them, but that direction always came from a place of love, not frustration. He understood that it might take a while for a dog to learn a particular command or behavior, and he never went ballistic if a dog behaved in a dog-like fashion. I know that made pet ownership fun for him.

But more than tenderness or patience, Dad always made our dogs’ lives fun. He never got tired of the cute and adorable things that dogs would do. Their tricks never ceased to amaze him. Their playfulness never got boring. If Willow wanted to walk further, he walked with her. If Willow wanted to play tug with a rope in the backyard, Dad would play until his arms were sore. If Willow wanted to play hide and seek for the 83rd time, Dad would just keep going. He had a sense of wonder when it came to dogs that I don’t see in many people.

That sense of wonder he had with Willow never faded over the many years that she ruled over our home, which made losing her many years later that much harder.

Let me start by saying this: there is never a good time for your dog to pass away. No matter how long they live, you just want more time. No matter how much they might frustrate you, you long for their eternal companionship. No matter how many squirrels they bark at, you never want that bark to cease. There is no good time to say goodbye—ever.

Losing a dog is hard at any time—but it’s especially hard around the holidays. Especially on Christmas.

Willow was 14 years old on Christmas Eve a few years back, and when I awoke that morning and saw my Mom enter my room with tear-filled eyes, I knew something wasn’t right. She came in and told me that Willow was not well. Her respiratory issues were making it nearly impossible for her to breathe, and after a consultation with the veterinarian over the phone, my Dad had made the decision that it was time to have Willow put to rest. As I sat in my bed and cried, Mom hugged my shoulders and told me that we didn’t have much time. In the time we did have left, she wanted me to have an opportunity to say my goodbyes.

I walked out of my room and down the hallway, stepping over Willow’s bed which sat right outside of my bedroom door. For the past twelve years since she had become ours, she slept outside my room on a pillow-style bed, waiting for my Dad to rise each morning so she could traipse behind him until he left for work.

I wondered what that next morning would be like. I wondered how horrible it would feel to walk about of my room and not see Willow laying there. To not be able to reach down and pet her head.

But as much as I worried about me, I worried so much more about my Dad.

Willow had been his best buddy in life. For twelve years, they had been inseparable any time he was in the house. In fact, my Dad always had a favorite Dad joke related to my sibling rivalry with Willow. He would grab me by the shoulder and look me square in the eye and say “You know, if it wasn’t for Willow, you would totally be my favorite child.” (I think it was a joke. I think…) I was worried about Dad losing his best friend.

As I came down the stairs, I saw Willow and I could tell that she was clearly in pain. She could only sit for a few seconds without getting up and needing to move, but she couldn’t move without being unable to breathe. It was so difficult to see our once vibrant, active dog experiencing such pain and feeling completely helpless to do anything about it.

And when I looked over by her side, I saw how much pain my Dad was in watching her suffer. Dad had clearly been crying—hard. His eyes were swollen behind his oval-shaped frames. With our family Christmas tree glistening nearby, he sat next to Willow, gently stroking her side and telling her it was going to be okay. I’ll never, ever be able to erase that image from my mind. I’ll never be able to unsee the pain my Dad was in during that moment.

I had my final moments with Willow where I told her how much I loved her. I told her what a wonderful dog she had been for so many years. I apologized to her for yelling at her when I got frustrated, and I told her how much joy she had brought to all of our lives. I told her that she had been the absolute best dog I had ever had—and I meant it, even if she did like Dad better.

I hugged my Dad and told him how sorry I was. I remember him saying that he just didn’t want to see her in pain anymore, and I could tell what a difficult decision this had been. Dad asked me if I wanted to go with him to the veterinarian’s office, and I told him I didn’t think I could. He understood, and told me Mom would be going with him. I watched as he loaded poor Willow into his truck like he had done for so many rides around town together (which she loved), and when he and Mom were clearly out of site, I completely lost it.

But just as he had promised, Dad stayed with Willow until the end. He just couldn’t leave his best friend—that was the type of man my Dad was.

Needless to say, Christmas that year was tinged with an unbelievable sadness. My entire family—my Grandpa and Grandma, my aunts and uncles, my cousins—had all loved Willow just as much as we did. We didn’t feel right having our normal Christmas Eve celebration, so we had to postpone it for a few days until the initial grief wore off. That Christmas was a rather bleak one, because Willow had always made Christmas so much fun for us—especially Dad. One of her favorite things to do was opening Christmas gifts. Dad and Mom would buy Willow all kinds of wonderful doggie Christmas gifts—snacks, toys, collars, more snacks—and they would wrap them with ribbons and bows. Somehow, Willow seemed to be able to sniff out which presents were hers. She would grab them and put them between her paws and unwrap them with her teeth one-by-one, leaving little shreds of wrapping paper all round her.

I have never seen my Dad as entertained as he was when he was watching Willow unwrap Christmas gifts. He would laugh, and laugh, and laugh some more as she pulled tiny strips of paper from her gifts. He would tell Mom and I over and over again to look at her—and we would tell him we were watching as he smiled along. I swear the man took more pictures of the dog opening her gifts than he did of his only son! But he loved it—and I knew this particular Christmas was going to feel so empty without her. We had to remove her gifts from around the tree before Christmas morning because we couldn’t bear the thought of finishing our morning and seeing only her gifts left behind.

Dad loved Christmas, but he just wasn’t the same that year—rightly so. He still enjoyed the holiday with his family, but his sadness was palpable. He just wasn’t himself that year because he missed Willow so very much. I even offered to open a few gifts with my teeth on Christmas morning. Dad laughed, and then we both talked about how much we missed Willow. He talked about how his mornings just wouldn’t be the same without having her follow him around. My heart broke for Dad.

Which is why I was so surprised when, just a few short weeks after losing her, Dad said he wanted to get another dog.

Surprised probably isn’t the right word. Because I was a know-it-all young adult, I was actually outraged. Furious. Upset that he could just “forget” about how special Willow had been.

Mom and Dad had told me sometime in January that they were talking with a breeder who had a litter of Airedales being born soon. They were planning to get one of the puppies. I couldn’t believe it! We had just lost Willow a few weeks earlier, and I didn’t see how it would ever feel right to replace her so quickly. I was still grieving her, and I didn’t understand why they wanted to get a dog so quickly.

So, I did what any self-righteous adolescent would do—I told them they could get a dog, but I refused to be nice to it or accept it. I told them that my days of scooping retched dog food out of a can were done. I told them that I was going to stand my ground, and that no amount of puppy eyes would ever be able to sway me. I may have even called my parents heartless for wanting to get another dog so quickly (talk about dramatic!). I told them that I wouldn’t budge.

And when my Dad brought Lucy home and I opened the front door, I saw two little black eyes peeking out from inside a tightly wrapped bundle held in my Dad’s arms. And I didn’t budge.

I completely caved.

Dad with Baby Lucy and SB Logo

Stay tuned for the continuation of the “Lucy” series in the coming weeks at SeeyaBub.com.

“Selfish”

As I was driving into work this morning (I began writing this post on June 8), I received an alert from my phone from CNN. Just a day prior, I had received a similar alert regarding the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) recent study release, which found that suicide rates have increased by 25% over the past two decades in the United States.[1] It hit home in ways I never predicted it would.

On that next morning, I looked down at my phone, and I really couldn’t believe what I saw. Television star Anthony Bourdain was dead at the age of 61 from an apparent suicide. Just earlier in the week, fashion designer Kate Spade also died from an apparent suicide.

Before I write any further, I want to first say a few things about my context in regards to these two situations. During his life, I don’t want to claim I was a fan of Bourdain’s work. I never watched his shows (not out of hostility, more just a lack of interest). In the same vein, I don’t want to portend that I was a huge fan of Kate Spade either. I’ve never carried a Kate Spade bag…or any bag for that matter. I don’t want to posthumously conflate any feelings I had towards these two individuals while they were alive. I also don’t claim to know much about their lives (other than the few things I’ve seen in the news), and I don’t claim to know all of the things they were dealing with in their lives. Unfortunately, I don’t know much about either of their lives, other than the sad, untimely ways in which they ended.

Nonetheless, it doesn’t lessen the sadness I feel when I read about these two talented individuals who are gone too soon and unnecessarily. Just because Bourdain and Spade were celebrities doesn’t make their death any more tragic than anyone else who dies from suicide. It also doesn’t make it less tragic. Behind the celebrity façade are family members, friends, colleagues, and neighbors that are left behind with questions—questions they will have for their entire lives.

What I’m writing about, however, is not Bourdain’s death, but a reaction to it. An unfortunate reaction that I think pervades most of our society when issues related to suicide arise. A reaction that is all too common. And a reaction that we must discourage in order to remove the stigma behind mental illness and suicide. Let me tell you the story.

A local radio personality in Cincinnati who I follow on Facebook (and won’t name here) reacted to the news. This individual posted the news of Bourdain’s death along with a short comment:

“So sad. Such a talent. We all have our demons. #anthonybourdain”

Shortly thereafter, a woman I’ll call Jean responded:

“I agree, but I am also ragingly ANGRY. He leaves a daughter. HOW SELFISH can someone be?!? I hope she [his daughter] is shielded from the publicity…”

And, the radio personality wrote back:

“I can’t disagree.”

He can, and he should. He should disagree. Dear friends, we need to talk about this type of reaction because it’s ill-informed, harmful, and ignorant.

First, let me say this. Although social media has many wonderful benefits, I largely despise it for what it has created in our lives. It creates an unbelievable sense of competition because it falsely projects the image that “everyone but me is living the perfect life.” In fact, I have no doubt that the increase in suicide rates in our country is largely influenced by the prevalence of social media in our lives. In many cases, I think social media disconnects people more than it actually connects them.

Along those same lines, I don’t often see the value of litigating every single comment made on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or any other network. I sure hope that every single comment I ever made on Facebook isn’t brought back to vilify me years after I wrote it. I’m not writing this post to vilify the radio host or Jean (neither of whom I’ve ever met) or anyone else. I’m writing this post as a contemplation on the larger societal attitudes towards suicide as a “selfish” act.

However, I do think it’s important to recognize that this type of attitude and speech surrounding suicide is common. I hear it often—mostly from people who don’t yet know that my own life has been darkly wounded by suicide.

Search the web for “suicide is selfish” and you’ll find any host of authors or commentators who agree with this sentiment. You’ll find articles written by people like Lesly Salazar that read “I still think suicide is selfish and no, I’m not ignorant for believing so.”

Again, my goal is not to vilify these individuals. I vehemently disagree with them. I disagree with everything they believe about suicide and mental illness. I think their positions and their statements are ill-founded, ill-conceived, hurtful, damaging, and dangerous. I think that, had their lives been touched by suicide like mine was (and I’m glad theirs hasn’t been), they might think differently and more compassionately. I write this not to tear them down as human beings. I write this to hopefully educate them. I write this post to hopefully share with them a different understanding of suicide—from an individual who lives with the pain it creates each and every day.

Suicide is not selfish, because mental illness is not selfish. It’s as simple as that.

Those of us who have lived with and loved individuals who suffer from mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or any other host of illnesses know that those individuals do not consciously choose their illness. People do not choose to be depressed. People do not choose to be anxious. People do not choose to hear voices in their head that tell them they aren’t enough and never will be. People do not choose to be mentally ill.

We know that we don’t choose to be mentally ill because we can’t explain why we feel the way we do in regards to mental illnesses. And although we don’t have an extremely thorough understanding of the physical factors and mechanisms behind mental illness, we do know that there are often biological mechanisms at play. We know that there are regulating chemicals within our brain that can change over time, and the incorrect balance of those neurochemicals and transmitters can create or prolong a mental illness. And if we know that mental illnesses can have a biological root, why in God’s name would we ever, ever accuse someone of being selfish if they die as a result of their illness?

If you’ve ever had a family member die from cancer, would you ever call that person’s death “selfish”? If you’ve ever had a friend die from heart failure, would you ever call them “selfish” for their weak heart? If you have ever had anyone in your life die from an inexplicable physical illness, would you ever dare insult that person’s memory by calling their death “selfish”?

No, you wouldn’t.

And no, we shouldn’t.

I can already anticipate the retort from individuals who disagree with me: “But if we don’t say that suicide is a selfish act, it will encourage other people to do it. There will be no penalty against it. The belief that suicide is selfish actually keeps people from attempting suicide.”

Tell that to the CDC. If that’s the case, why hasn’t the stigma worked up to this point? If most of society thinks this way (and I believe they do), why have suicide rates risen by 25% in just two decades? The belief that suicide is selfish doesn’t discourage people from attempting suicide; it actually exacerbates their feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, and unworthiness.

Dad and Grandma Bradshaw
My Dad with my Great-Grandma Lucille Bradshaw.

My Dad’s story is the perfect example. My father was the most selfless man who ever walked the planet. He did nothing for personal gain, notoriety, or ambition. My Dad was a giver. My Dad was the man who would take an entire Saturday to help someone build a porch on their back deck. When my Grandfather had a stroke that left him largely immobile, my Dad was the man who spent weeks completely redesigning his home bathroom so my Grandpa could easily navigate his wheelchair into the shower. My Dad drove a truck, and I can’t even begin to count the multitude of times that people would need my Dad’s truck to haul something. And every single time, they got the truck—and they got my Dad to help. He gave money to those in his life who needed it, even when prudence likely told him he would never see a dime of that money again. But more than anything, my Dad gave of his most precious resource—time. There was no such thing as a conversation going too long. My Dad could (and did) talk with anyone he came in contact with. His conversations were never about him, but making others around him feel loved.

Dad Mom and I After All Star GameAnd my Dad was a completely selfless Father. As a child, he spent every minute he had making sure I was entertained and happy in life, even on days when he was likely tired and exhausted from work. When I was in high school, my Mom and Dad took an entire weekend to redo my bedroom to make it more appropriate for a young man in adolescence (the motif went from childhood baseball to vintage baseball—and I loved it!). If my truck broke down in high school (which was a semi-regular occurrence), my Dad was the first person there to help me. And although I’m sure there were many other exciting places he would have rather been, he was always in the stands anytime I announced a basketball or baseball game.

He was selfless. Not selfish. And the mechanism of his death doesn’t change this.

It wouldn’t make sense for someone who has lived their entire life with a code of honor that embodies selflessness to all of a sudden abandon that. My Dad’s death was out of character because, on that morning, he was not himself. His depression had so deeply overtaken his mind that his proper thought processes were disabled. I was there that morning. I saw my Dad before he died. And I can tell you, he wasn’t acting selfish. He was acting hurt, and scared, and completely debilitated.

And here’s the key. As crazy as this may sound, the truth is that it was actually my Dad’s misguided selflessness, not selfishness, that ended his life.

Let me be clear: None of this makes my Dad’s death right, acceptable, or just. None of it. It also doesn’t make it selfish.

My Dad was such a giver that he couldn’t imagine letting those around him down. He couldn’t imagine admitting failure to those he loved and took care of. He couldn’t imagine not being able to help himself after his entire life had been dedicated to helping others. Again, none of this is an excuse. None of this justifies his death. None of this makes his death right because his death isn’t right. It was unnecessary, and premature, and unwanted.

But it wasn’t selfish.

I don’t place the blame at my Dad’s feet—nor should anyone else. Are there things I would do differently? Yes. Are there things I wish my Dad had done differently? Absolutely. Do I wish my Dad’s story wouldn’t have ended on that fateful July morning? I pray this every single night.

But his death wasn’t selfish. And no one has the right to condemn his character (or anyone else’s) with such unjustifiable certainty. They do damage to that person’s legacy; but they also do significant damage to all of those left behind.

It’s not just the person who dies from suicide that is disgraced and discouraged by a “suicide is selfish” attitude—it’s the survivors left behind to grapple with their grief that are just as negatively impacted by this type of attitude.

I want you to imagine this scenario as you read and feel the intensity of the moment I’m describing. Your Father, the man you loved with every fiber of your being, has just died. From suicide. A vibrant, enthusiastic life has just been ripped away without warning. One minute, you’re hugging the broad shoulders that have carried the burdens of your entire family for a generation, and the next you’re standing next to his casket. You look down at that casket and the hundreds of people who have gathered to say goodbye, and you wish more than anything that your Dad would just get up—but he won’t. He’ll never come home again. You’ve cried more tears in a few days than you ever have in your entire life combined, and your pain and grief are inexplicable and inescapable. You’ve had many sleepless nights, and you’ll continue to have them for as long as you live. Just when you think life is establishing a new normal, you’ll wake up in the middle of the night screaming in terror as the horror of those moments replays over and over and over again. All of this is ahead of you as you stand at that funeral, and the weight is crushing.

And then, someone comes up to the casket. They shake your hand, express their condolences, and then say this:

“What a selfish act.”

How do you feel? Did it help?

No, it doesn’t—and it never will.

I’m thankful that this type of reaction never happened to me directly, but reading comments filled with a self-righteous fervor that accuse a suicide victim of being selfish from people I don’t even know is just as hurtful. I’ll return to Jean’s comment and ask you this: If she was so concerned with the well-being of Anthony Bourdain’s daughter, why would she immediately castigate his memory by completely minimizing his suffering? If Jean was so concerned about Anthony Bourdain’s daughter, why would she make a comment that will do absolutely nothing to help this young woman grieve? I have no doubt that Anthony Bourdain’s daughter, like me, loved her Father. By calling his unfortunate death “selfish,” Jean’s comment doesn’t help the grieving—it hurts and wounds them.

I go to bed every single night wishing that my Dad was still around. If people, like Jean, think that somehow letting me know that my Dad’s death was selfish will heal me from my grief, I’m here to tell them it won’t.

Suicide is not selfish, but that doesn’t automatically make it selfless either. An act can be neither selfless or selfish, and we shouldn’t be tricked into the fallacy of outright-certainty in an area as delicate as this.

But suicide is devastating. And it’s life-altering. Suicide is debilitating. It’s irreversible. It’s awful. And terrible. And it’s never, ever okay.

But it’s not selfish. And it’s not selfless. It’s just awful.

I don’t believe individuals who die from suicide are selfish at their core. They are suffering. Suffering from a disease that is awful and confusing. A disease we don’t understand.

So, when we don’t understand the complexities of this life, we shouldn’t self-righteously claim that we do.

I don’t know Jean’s story, but based on her attitude, I highly doubt that her life has ever been touched by suicide. And guess what? I’m really, really thankful for that. I don’t want anyone to ever have to live through the pain my family has endured after losing my Dad. But because we’ve lived through it, and because we knew the man my Dad was, we don’t talk about suicide like she does. We don’t say my Dad’s death was selfish because it wasn’t. Don’t get me wrong—we pray and wish every single day that it hadn’t happened. But it wasn’t selfish.

I’ve written this before, but I’ll say it again: Your words matter. The words you choose each and every day have tremendous power—power to heal pain, but also to inflict it. But words are more than just words. They reveal an attitude. They reveal beliefs. They reveal core values. When self-righteous individuals scream with certainty that suicide is selfish, it causes the survivors of suicide to question everything about our loved ones. Did they really love us? Did they really mean it when they said they cared? Were they selfish?

Survivors of suicide have enough to deal with when it comes to grief. We don’t need the haughty judgement of individuals who claim to have all the answers to explain why our loved ones are no longer here. We feel that pain every single day, and it’s actually selfish for others to minimize our loved ones’ suffering.

My faith in Jesus Christ teaches me that I’m not meant to have all the answers in this life. I shouldn’t claim to be all-knowing, because when I do, I’m claiming to be God. I don’t know why suicide happens. I don’t know why God allows mental illness to persist. So, I don’t claim to have all the answers. Corrie ten Boom said it best: “A religion that is small enough for our understanding would not be big enough for our needs.” 

So, unlike all the people shouting about the selfishness of suicide, I won’t stand on the mountaintop and claim to completely understand the suffering in the world around me. Instead, I’ll attempt to be compassionate. Instead, I’ll try and realize that individuals—selfless individuals—are hurting without being able to explain why.

And as hard as it might be, I won’t give up on people like Jean. Or anyone who currently believes that suicide is selfish. Even though their words cut through my heart like a knife, I’ll still believe that they can learn and grow. Because as hard as it is for me to admit, there was probably a time in my life before my Dad died from suicide where I thought just like they did. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve changed and I’ve grown—and they can, too. I’ll still believe that Jesus is not quite done with them yet, just as he’s not yet done with me. I’ll still believe that they will someday realize that suicide isn’t a willing act, but one that occurs when the body and mind are in a frenetic, uncontrollable, irrational state. Because I’m still a work in progress, I’ll believe they are too.

But more than anything, I’ll just keep loving my Dad because he selflessly loved me.

Dad and I on Scrambler at Kings Island with SB LogoDad, It hurts my heart tremendously when I think that there are people out there who think your death is selfish. It pains me when I hear individuals say that death from suicide is selfish because they didn’t understand your pain. They didn’t see the despair in your eyes on that last day. They didn’t see the years that you suffered. They didn’t see how badly you wanted to be healthy. They didn’t live with the unnecessary shame that you lived with for so long. Dad, none of this makes your death and absence any easier. None of this makes the pain of losing you any less real. And yes, I wish things had gone differently on the morning of July 24, 2013—for you, for me, and for all of us. But you suffered from a disease that you didn’t understand. A disease that not even medical professionals completely understand. You died because this disease took over your brain, and I hope you know that I understand this. It doesn’t make your death right, and more than anything I wish you were still here, living the life you always lived to the fullest. But I’ve never been angry with you for your death. I’ve never loved you any less—and I never will. Dad, you are not defined by your death, but by the tremendously selfless life you led. I’m so sorry if you ever felt like you weren’t enough for us, Dad. You were always enough. You lived a completely selfless life, and I wish I was able to remind you of that. Until that day, I’ll keep fighting for your legacy. I’ll keep fighting, alongside God, to redeem the pain of losing you in an effort to try and prevent this pain in the lives of others. And until that day when I can tell you just how selfless you were, seeya Bub.

“Those who think they know something still have a lot to learn.” 1 Corinthians 8:2 (GW)

[1]https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/suicide/

I’m Here

I think the college crisis is worse than the mid-life crisis.

I mean, come one, at least you get a motorcycle out of the latter.

I was in college. Away at college. And I felt like I just needed to get away.

I think I’ve always dealt with anxiety to a certain extent. In a sense, I think I’ve had those moments where the world just feels too overwhelming at different points throughout my life. It’s likely that I’ve suffered here and there from anxiety before I could even put a name to it.

But even though I didn’t quite know what was going on or why, my Dad seemed to know. And he seemed to understand.

And most importantly, he was there.

The Fall of my junior year in college was not the Fall I had anticipated. I was living in an apartment in Oxford, and I was navigating one of those difficult moments of my life where the road was not only less-traveled, but it was windy and curvy and full of potholes and empty of any road signs. A road that had once seemed so straight and so predictable was suddenly anything but. It was treacherous, and I was trembling.

For the few months leading up to this moment, I had been questioning so much about my journey, mainly my vocational call. For my entire life, for as long as I could remember, I had said I wanted to be a teacher (except for that one weird phase when I mysteriously wanted to be a park ranger… too much Yogi Bear I guess…). When I was little, I would actually make-believe that I was a teacher in a classroom before I even started going to school myself. Once I went to school, I took an immediate liking to it. I enjoyed being in classrooms, and I always got along with my teacher and had deep admiration and respect for them.

As a youngster, I said I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher—mainly because kindergarten was all I knew. And it was awesome. We had fingerpaints, and snacks, and we were home by noon. Even as a little kid, I would often think about all of the fun activities I would someday replicate for my own students. I pictured the joy they would experience, all the coloring we would do, and the impact I would have in their little lives.

But then, once I got into middle school, I began to really enjoy my English and Social Studies and Science classes (no offense, math teachers), and my dream of teaching kindergarten began to fade. I was slowly warming up to the idea of teaching a single subject and working with older students. Also, Barney had lost his appeal…thank God.

And just when I thought I had everything figured out, I made it to high school…and, go figure, I decided I wanted to be a high school teacher. Specifically, I wanted to teach high school English. I loved my English classes. I loved reading, and I enjoyed writing, and I really appreciated the opportunities to be creative, explore different worlds, and express myself in ways that only literature and the written word could provide. I dreamt of sharing that excitement with my high school students. I longed for the days when I could choose the books they would read. I thought intensely about lectures I would give, activities and discussions I would lead, and the hundreds of students I would be able to reach.

It was no surprise to people who knew about my dream that I decided to go to Miami University and pursue a degree in teacher education. What was a surprise to those who knew me best, however, was my decision to leave it all behind and run in a different direction.

At the end of my sophomore year, I was having serious misgivings about my vocational choice. I had taken a number of education courses, and I just didn’t enjoy them nearly as much as I enjoyed the content-focused courses in the English department. Especially one class, taught by an arrogant and demeaning faculty member who was supposedly an “expert” in classroom techniques, even though he had spent only one year in the field actually teaching (wow, I guess I’m still bitter about that!). I learned I would rather be reading fiction novels than reading about how to teach them. I realized I wanted to work in education, but not the education I had always known.

So, I changed majors. To American Studies. The study of America. It sounded interesting. And…it happened to be the first major listed alphabetically in Miami University’s course catalog. The divine providence of the English alphabet still amazes me.

I dug into the curriculum, and the major looked perfect for me. I could take courses in all the areas I was passionate about and largely self-design a major that met my academic interests and desires. Literature. Communications. Political Science. Media and Journalism. History. Psychology. Nothing was off the table. It was a perfect mix.

It was also completely terrifying. People who got teacher education degrees became teachers. People who got American Studies degrees became…professional American Studiers? I had no idea what I was going to do with this degree, but I knew that studying those particular topics would make me extremely happy. Even though I was confident in my content choice, however, it didn’t diminish the employability concerns I had.

All of those feelings then decided to collide in the Fall of my junior year. Classes had only been in session for a few weeks, and I was unbelievably worried that I had made a huge mistake by dropping out of the teacher education program at Miami. Being a teacher was what I had wanted to do forever. Now, I was taking great classes, but also closing myself off from what had been my lifelong dream. Had I made a huge mistake? An irreversible one?

I was also dealing with many other huge life changes. I had made the transition from Miami’s Regional campus in Hamilton to the main campus in Oxford, and life on a residential campus was great—but it was also much different from what I was used to. Any transition, no matter when it happens, causes some anxiety. Making this transition into adulthood while simultaneously questioning the only dream I had ever known collided together in a wave of desperation and doubt, and on a random Wednesday night, I could only think of one thing…

I needed to get away.

I had been sitting in my apartment all day attempting to study. Instead, I was obsessing over the decisions I had made and convincing myself that they were all mistakes. At that time, I wouldn’t have even known what an anxiety attack was; nor would I have ever believed I was having one. Now, knowing what I know about mental illness, it’s easy to see that I was in the midst of a really severe period of overwhelming, paralyzing anxiety. The worst part is that I had kept all of this to myself. Like my Dad, I wasn’t crazy about letting people into my world far enough to see my darkness. I didn’t like the idea of telling other people I was hurting or confused or overwhelmed. I would internalize all of these feelings and endlessly ruminate over them, which likely fed a vicious loop of self-criticism and doubt that paralyzed me emotionally. And near the end of that night, I decided to get in the car and drive for a bit because getting away was the only thing I knew to do.

I got in the car and didn’t really know where I was going. In the age before smartphones or GPS devices, this was always a bit of a scary endeavor for a directionally-challenged individual like me. So I told myself to turn right out of my apartment complex, drive in a straight line, and see where it would take me.

As I drove in my silver Envoy, I passed cornfields and….well, cornfields. I began to think about everything, and my emotions started to get the best of me. Before I knew it, with the radio turned all the way down, I was beginning to tear up. I started to call myself names, questioning how I could have been so stupid to do what I had done over the past few months. How was it possible that one person could make so many idiotic decisions? And…why did that person have to be me? I drove across the Indiana state line—which sounds super dramatic to those who don’t know the geography of Oxford. Indiana was only about ten minutes away from campus, but there was something metaphorically significant about crossing a state line that made this drive feel scary. I felt like I was running away from something. I felt like I was giving up.

It was in the midst of all of these thoughts and doubts when my cell phone (a sweet Motorola Razr) began to buzz. I looked at the screen and the caller ID read “Incoming Call, Dad.”

I hesitated to pick up the phone, but after a few seconds I knew I had to. I collected myself and flipped the phone open (remember when phones used to flip?!) and put it to my ear. “Hey, Dad,” I said lightly.

“Hey, Bub. I’m here. Can you let me in?”

“You’re where?” I replied nervously.

“At your apartment. I’m standing outside,” he said.

“Oh, uh….I’m not home,” I answered.

“Where are you?” he questioned, a bit surprised.

“I….I don’t know,” I said. And then, I started to fall apart again.

I told my Dad how I just needed to go on a little drive. That I didn’t know where I was going, both on this drive and in life. I shared everything with Dad, and I let him in.

My situation hadn’t changed, but there was an immediate relief in being able to finally tell someone that I was having serious doubts.

“Bub, why don’t you come back and we will sit together and talk?” he said to me.

I listened. And I turned around. And I drove in a straight line until I was back at my apartment where I saw my Dad standing on my front porch.

The reason this story is so important is because I hadn’t told my Dad anything about how I was feeling before he drove to Oxford to visit me that night. And driving to Oxford on a whim like that was not a regular occurrence. My Mom and Dad were always planners. They came to visit me pretty often when I lived in Oxford, but they always scheduled it ahead of time. Even in college I kept a really busy schedule, so we usually had their visits to Oxford scheduled in advance.

Which is why Dad’s visit on that night was all the more special—because Dad had picked up on the fact that something was wrong. We had talked earlier in the day, but I thought I had concealed my feelings pretty well. I thought I had been able to keep my sadness to myself.

But Dad had realized that something wasn’t right. He could pick up on the fact that there was something troubling me. He knew that I wasn’t okay.

And because I wasn’t okay, he was there. He was there without warning. He was there in a moment’s notice. He was there as long as I needed him. And he was there at just the right moment.

Eerily, I look back on that night and it is strangely reminiscent of the last conversation I ever had with my Dad, even though our roles were reversed. On this night, I was the confused wanderer, perplexed by my inexplicable emotions. Dad, on the other hand, was the encourager. The trusted confidant. The Father full of wisdom and, most importantly, love.

We sat in my apartment and talked through all of the things I was feeling. I told him about my concerns for an eventual job after graduation, and Dad told me not to worry. He told me that I could major in anything, and that I would find a way to be successful. “You’re too talented,” he would say, “and any career you decide to pursue will be a good one.” Dad built up my academic confidence, reminding me that I had many years of success in the classroom that were proof of my ability to conquer the road ahead. Even in the midst of our serious conversation, Dad found a way to land a perfect joke or two at just the right moment at my expense. “How many girls have you had over to your apartment OTHER THAN the ones in that Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition calendar you have?”

Comeback? Anyone? I had nothing.

I don’t remember all the things that we talked about on that night, but I do remember this: I felt better. None of my circumstances had changed, but I felt relief. None of my decisions were any better or worse than they had originally been, but I felt hope. I felt security. I felt confidence.

And I felt all of this because of two simple words my Dad had spoken.

“I’m here.”

It was more than just physically being in my apartment. When Dad said “I’m here,” he meant he was there. He was in my corner. He was rooting me on. He was leading the way on that windy, curvy, confusing road when I couldn’t see far enough ahead to make sense of the journey. He was giving me all of the support and encouragement I would need. I don’t know whether or not my Dad agreed with my major switch, and I’m thankful for that. Instead, I know that Dad said he trusted my ability to make my own decisions. He trusted that I would find success. He empowered me to believe in myself.

Dad stayed at my apartment for a few hours that night. If my memory serves me correctly, he eventually coerced me into going out for dinner against my will. We came back to the apartment and watched television together for a little while. And then, when the night was nearing its end, he hugged me and told me that he loved me before he left for home.

My Dad didn’t have all the answers that night, so he did something even better.

He was there.

And I wish he was still here because there have been so many moments, just like this one, where I still need him.

There have been moments in my life, and there will always be moments, where I will revert to that same young college kid from many years ago—a young, lost, and wandering boy who just needs his Father for a little encouragement and advice. There have been moments when I’ve been at a crux in the road with an important decision to make that I’ve grabbed for my phone (no longer a Razr) and began dialing those familiar numbers, only to realize that he will never again pick up on the other line. There have been moments when I have felt his loss so deeply that I break down inexplicably, unable to escape the grief of losing him so suddenly, unexpectedly. Those moments are completely paralyzing. They rob me of my joy; but they can never rob me of my Dad’s memory.

That’s because even though Dad isn’t here, he is here. Even though he has been gone from this Earth for nearly five years now, I still feel Dad’s gentle hand guiding me and directing me on a daily basis. Although I can’t experience his physical embrace, I feel his watchful eye from up above, encouraging me when I doubt, celebrating with me when I find joy, and telling me that he is proud of me over and over and over again. When I open my eyes, I only see his absence; but when I close them, I see that beaming smile, those kind eyes, and a Father who is still with his wandering son.

I still feel my Dad saying “I’m here” in those moments where I crave his presence most. I hear him reminding me that he is here with me in each and every moment. There will be crises and good moments and desperate moments that fill the pages of my own life story, but it will be my Dad’s spiritual presence that is the common denominator in all of those moments. I am fortunate that I have a Heavenly Father who guides and directs me in the God I serve, but I’m lucky because I have another Father in Heaven doing the same exact thing.

My Dad may be gone, but he is still here.

Me Dad and Lucy at Picnic with SB LogoDad, There were so many moments just like that night in college where your presence alone was all I needed to find happiness. You had an uncanny way of knowing the moments when people needed you most, and you responded with grace and unconditional love each time you were called. Nearly every day, Dad, I experience a moment when I just wish more than anything that you were here. I miss your smile, your voice, your heart, your shiny bald head, and everything that made you so very special. But in those moments where I experience your loss most severely, I try and remind myself that you are here. You are still watching. You are still listening. And you are still loving me and all those who feel your absence. Dad, thank you for always being there and for still being here. Thank you for being at my side at a moment’s notice–both in the moments when I knew I needed you, and especially in those I didn’t. I’ll never be able to say thank you enough. But, until that day when I try my best to let you know how much you are missed and how much you are loved, seeya Bub.

“Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Genesis 28:15 (ESV)

Faith Answered

Childhood time is interesting.

Think back to your days as a grade schooler. Do you remember staring at the calendar thinking about how eagerly you anticipated the beginning of Summer vacation? And then do you remember staring at the calendar in August? The starting day of school stares at you, looming in the horizon. Grade schoolers stare at a calendar that is short on time but long on intimidation. I remember that feeling. I remember those fears. And I remember a summer when the fear almost got the best of me, and the lesson it taught me many years later when I would need it most.

“Auntie,” I said, “I don’t want to go to fifth grade.”

My Great Aunt Vivian, or “Auntie” as she’s always been to me, is the most faithful, steadfast, encouraging woman I’ve ever known. I’ve always heard that I should look for strong examples of faithful women all throughout the history pages of the Bible, but I’ve honestly never had to search or wonder because I’ve always been able to watch Auntie. My Aunt Vivian is an example of faith that knows no bounds or limitations.

Dad and AuntiePositive, upbeat, and always smiling, my Aunt Vivian was more like a grandmother to me when I was younger. Both of my parents worked (and worked hard) to provide for our family, which meant I was often in the care of family members like my grandparents. And of course, Auntie was always in that rotation—and I couldn’t have been more thankful. Early on in my life, and during the summer months as I aged, I spent many a day under the loving and watchful eye of my Auntie. I’m a better man today because of all those days I spent with her growing up.

And probably a bit more spoiled as well….

When I went to Auntie’s house during the summers, I was a little prince. Each and every morning, shortly after my arrival to her home, Auntie would give me a great big hug, lead me back to her corner television room, and ask me what I’d like to eat for breakfast. Since the time I was little, I’ve always loved food. Where most babysitting aunts and grandparents might offer a simple breakfast. Auntie offered a delicious menu unlike any other. Nearly every morning Auntie would set up my TV tray and bring me a hearty breakfast: a cheese omelet, perfectly cooked strips of bacon, two slices of buttery toast under the broiler, a bowl of strawberries or fresh fruit, and an ice-cold Dr. Pepper on the rocks (my addiction started young, and I never shared this part with my Mom). After eating breakfast, I would lounge in front of the TV or play with toys, occasionally following Auntie around her house until The Price Is Right came on. After acting like I actually knew the price of cars and everyday grocery items as a grade schooler, Auntie would eventually bring me a lunch just as delicious as the breakfast that I had consumed earlier. We would then spend the afternoons playing games, napping, and eating ice cream. Auntie’s wonderful husband, my Uncle Ray, would return home in the afternoon from his job as a barber on Main Street in Hamilton. Just like me, Auntie always took care of Ray and made him feel special. I remember all these days so vividly—and my taste buds can still take me back to one of those wonderful summer days. While my Mom and Dad worked hard at their jobs, I lived the life of luxury at Auntie’s house. It’s good to be prince.

This particular summer, however, wasn’t as luxurious as the past ones had been. As we turned calendar page after calendar page, I eventually saw August and could feel the anxiety building in my young heart.

This wasn’t just any summer. This was the summer between fourth grade and fifth grade, and in Fairfield, that signaled a big year. In the fifth grade, I would move into a new school. A new school with new teachers and new kids and new challenges. Although I would be in a regular classroom all day, there would be sixth graders with lockers and changing classes. Because the school was so much bigger, I had no idea if I would see my friends from Fairfield North Elementary. I had always been a pretty nervous, anxious, cautious kid. This big change, however, took everything to a whole new level.

I hadn’t let on to anyone—including Auntie—that I was nervous. For the most part, I had always enjoyed school. I was a good student. I always liked my teachers. I enjoyed learning and reading and all the things that go along with school. I couldn’t share with them how scared I was. Even as a little guy, I knew that weakness is bad. Weakness should be hidden.

Auntie, however, wasn’t just a caretaker. She was a caring caretaker. She loved me, and it showed in everything she did for me each and every day. And she was there right when I needed her. I can look back on that time, and I think that Auntie could see something was wrong with me. I think she knew that she could help.

Eventually, the day that all school children dread arrived. That particular Friday would be my last day at Auntie’s for the summer. The following Monday I would go back to school. Not just any school, but the new and scary school. During our morning conversation before breakfast, Auntie asked me if I was excited to start school. Never the greatest actor, I could no longer hide my fear.

“Auntie,” I said, “I don’t want to go to fifth grade.”

“What’s wrong, honey?” Auntie said as she came and sat next to me with the loving, careful tenderness that I’m sure she’s been doling out to members of our family her entire life. That tenderness made me feel safe and secure, and I let it all out. I don’t remember if I cried (knowing me, I probably did), but I shared all of my fears. I shared all of my apprehension. I told her that I just wanted to stay with her every day. I had planned to make it to at least 8th grade before dropping out, but maybe I could strike it rich as a contestant with Bob Barker. I mean, I had those laundry detergent prices memorized perfectly…

As I talked, Auntie listened. And she didn’t make me feel silly. She made me feel like I mattered. She didn’t minimize my feelings. She validated them. But she also told me that there was something bigger and more true to help me overcome those feelings.

Then, Auntie did something that was completely perfect. She did something that she did with me before every single meal I ate. She did something that I’m sure she has done so many times in her own life—both when the sun was shining or when the storms were rolling through.

“Ty, let’s pray for you,” she said.

Auntie came over and put her arm around me. I don’t remember the words of that particular prayer, but Auntie has always had a beautiful voice for prayer that I’ve admired since I was a youngster. For me, prayer has always been difficult. I stumble over my words, I am easily distracted, and I try to use flowery language that God probably can’t even decipher. My Aunt, however, is a prayer dynamo. She speaks to God the way we all should—she simply has a conversation with Him. She expresses her love for him. She thanks him for watching over us. And then, she boldly asks God to provide. She prays audaciously, without reservation or doubt. And that day, as an apprehensive and scared fifth-grader-to-be, she prayed for me as tears streamed down my suntanned cheeks.

I don’t remember how long she prayed, and I don’t even remember all the things she said; but I will always remember the way I felt. As Auntie asked God to watch over me, naming me directly to the Ruler of the Universe, I felt the mask of pretend courage I had created begin to melt away. The fears I had were all bubbling to the surface, and although the anxiety was still real, it felt less threatening because it was being exposed to the light. As Auntie acknowledged my fear, she asked God to give me the real courage and capability to overcome it.

My Auntie kissed me, she told me that she loved me and that she believed in me, and most importantly she told me that God would watch over me—in fifth grade, and in every grade that followed thereafter.

After that prayer, I made my way into her back yard to sit in the grass and soak up the last few rays of summer sun before the docile confines of a school classroom would rob me of my golden-brown skin. I sat there in the grass staring at the sky and looking into the clouds, trying my hardest to picture God resting above them and looking down over me. I wondered if He had heard the prayer that Auntie had just prayed for me—and I wondered if He would actually do all the things she had asked Him to do.

Eventually, the cloud gazing got boring and I shifted my attention lawn-ward. I looked at the green grass that surrounded me, and here and there I noticed tiny patches of clover. I combed my fingers through the clover slowly, wondering if there were any four leafers in the midst of all those threes. As I ran my fingers through the dewy lawn, something perfectly miraculous happened. I jumped onto my shins and tried to locate what I had just saw.

There, on that summer afternoon, I found my very first four leaf clover.

I couldn’t’ remember ever having found one before, but on that morning when I felt ridiculously weak, I felt like I found a symbol of encouragement. I plucked it from the ground, ran inside the back door, and saw Auntie standing near the stove.

“Auntie!” I exclaimed. “Look what I found!”

Auntie took the four-leaf clover from my hand and smiled. “See Ty,” she said in that same loving voice that had called out to God just a few moments earlier. “This is a sign of good luck, and it’s a sign that God is going to answer your prayers.”

As a ten year old with an ounce of wisdom and a million pounds of fear, there was something unbelievably reassuring about having found this sign of good luck. I believed it, but just in case it was a fluke, I turned to Auntie and said nervously… “Think there might be another one out there?”

Auntie did what only a loving great aunt would do. She went out into the August heat with me, got down on her hands and knees, and helped me search the entire backyard for another sign of good luck.

And because God loves to encourage His people….Auntie helped me find another four leaf clover. For all the fears I had on that day, I also had eight little green leaves worth of encouragement.

I was beaming because, in that moment, I felt like I had an army of angels on my side. I was overjoyed because I felt like this was a sure sign that things were going to go well. And on that day, even if it was just for an hour or so in the backyard as we searched for a four-leaf clover, Auntie put all of my fears and nerves out of sight and out of mind.

Auntie took those four leaf clovers and said she would keep them safe until the end of the day for me. I didn’t pay much attention to what she was doing with them, but I’m thankful that I had an aunt who understands that love packaged in a simple gesture can change a heart forever and ever.

I counted down the minutes anxiously as the day ended, knowing that my Mom’s arrival to pick me up and the end of summer were imminent. A few minutes before the day was set to end, Auntie came back to the television room and sat down on the couch next to me.

“Ty,” she said sweetly, “before you go, I want to give you this.”

With a glowing smile on her face, Auntie handed me a tiny card. Knowing that I loved dogs and puppies, Auntie picked a notecard with two Dalmatian puppies resting cutely in a fireman’s helmet. I opened the card, and inside I saw the two, four-leaf clovers we had found earlier in the day perfectly preserved under a sheet of plastic wrap. Underneath the good luck clovers, I saw a message written in Auntie’s familiar cursive writing.

“Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered and no one was there. Always remember this Tyler. I love you. Auntie.”

IMG_0631

Who needs good luck when you have an Auntie like mine?

With God’s love and Auntie’s prayers, I left her house that day still nervous but encouraged. I left her house believing that there was a greater power on my side, rooting for me and pushing me along. I read that card the entire way home. I put it on display on the bookshelf in my bedroom. I read it again the night before I was set to start fifth grade. I went to bed loved by so many, including God and Auntie, and I felt that love wrap its arms around me. Love was real because of that card, and so was my faith.

And guess what? I survived fifth grade! Although I did have to have my tonsils removed, nonetheless…

I don’t write this post because of my fifth-grade struggles, however. I write this post because that card would carry me through so many more difficult times. The card, its message, and the love of my Auntie would last for a lifetime—especially in the moments when I needed it most.

I awoke on a different summer morning years later with a sense of dread much worse than the one I had felt as fifth grade approached. I pulled my black suit and dark tie from my closet. Slowly and wearily, I found myself getting dressed and trying to understand how life could have fallen apart and shattered so unexpectedly. I was readying myself for a pain I had never experienced before.

In just a few short hours, I would be standing next to my Dad’s casket.

I didn’t know how I was going to do this—the funeral, or life in general. How could I ever live life without my Dad? Life with Dad was all I had ever known. Life with Dad was all I ever wanted. I didn’t want to enter this new chapter of life without him. His death from suicide had put me in a very dark, very anxious place. The fear of fifth grade seemed so distant and so inconsequential compared to what I would now have to go through.

Back then, fear had knocked at the door, faith had answered, and no one was there. Fear, however, was knocking again.

I knew that although the situation was much, much worse, the same faith would always be there. The same God that carried me through that trial would carry me through this much bigger one.

Thankfully, I still had that card and those clovers to remind me of His power.

The day of my Dad’s funeral, I carried two items in my suit pocket: a handkerchief that had once belonged to my Dad, and the card that Auntie had give me many years before. The clovers have since browned (although they’re still amazingly well-intact), and the corners of the card are slightly bent, but the words written by my loving Auntie are still as bold and powerful as they ever were. I opened it on that July morning, and cried when I read her words again:

“Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered and no one was there. Always remember this Tyler. I love you. Auntie.”

Standing next to my Dad’s casket, I just kept repeating the words that my Aunt had given me. Fear knocked. Faith answered. No one was there. Fear knocked. Faith answered. No one was there. Fear knocked. Faith answered. No one was there.

Occasionally, I could close my eyes and visualize it. I could picture the spiritual battle. I could see Satan with a crafty, wry smile on his face, rapping his knuckles on the door of my soul. Then, I could see that door creak open as the bright rays of faith in a loving Savior exploded through the door frame. I could see Satan, once cocky and arrogant, shielding his eyes from that blinding light of faith. I could see him running away from that doorway.

Fear knocked. Faith answered. No one was there.

Satan had hoped to defeat me and my entire family through the death and suicide of my Father. But if faith had answered back then, faith would answer again. And my entire family would find a way to answer with faith.

There were many moments standing by that casket when I would tap on the chest of my suit pocket, knowing the power of the card that was held near my heart. I would look at my Auntie, who was there for my Mom and I each and every moment we needed her in those days after losing Dad. I would see her and I would know that, although life looked dark in the current morning, faith was waiting just on the other side of the door to shine its light. Faith would answer. And fear would flee.


IMG_0629I have a few prized and cherished treasures in my possession. They aren’t the things I’ve spent the most money on. They aren’t the name-branded and logoed sweaters I can’t afford but buy anyway. They aren’t the pieces of sports memorabilia I have accumulated. They are things that are truly irreplaceable. One of a kind. Sacred.

They are items like this card—a simple card with two aged four-leaf clovers and a message that will last a lifetime. Just like Auntie’s love. Just like God’s love for me and all His people.

That card and the message that Auntie inscribed within it carried me through the days, months, and years after losing Dad. I’m not trying to sugar coat life, because in the aftermath of a traumatic loss it isn’t always easy. There are days that are near impossible to make it through successfully. There are days when I don’t want to get out of bed. There are days when I obsess over how all of this could be part of a redeemable plan from God. There are days when I can’t eat, nights when I can’t sleep, and seasons when the heartache overtakes me.

After my Dad’s funeral, I remember feeling completely paralyzed. I had been in bed for many hours, and I just couldn’t bring myself to even stand. That’s when Auntie came into my room, pulled up a chair, and did what she had done back then. She prayed. She prayed with all the power and belief and courage of a time-tested prayer warrior. She called upon God to do what He said He would do. She called on Him to help my entire family answer with faith and chase fear away.

Auntie and GrandmaEventually, I got out of bed. Although there have been other days when I can’t. And during every one of those moments, I remind myself. Fear is knocking at the door. Faith must answer. My faith has led me through the challenge of my Dad’s death on days when I just couldn’t do it. It breaks my heart to watch families impacted by suicide or traumatic loss who turn away from their faith, because I know that my faith and the love of Jesus Christ has been the most important component of my survival in life after Dad.

And on days when I need that reminder that my faith will always answer, I slip that card into my pocket. My Auntie’s inspiration and her amazing faith mean more to me than any four-leaf clover (or twin set) ever could. Fear will continue knocking. I’m grateful that I have my Auntie and a wonderful reminder of her faith to chase it away.

Dad and Auntie with SB LogoDad, There have been so many days after your death that have been full of fear. I didn’t know what I would ever do without you, because you were such a rock for our family. While you were here with us on Earth, however, you gave us all a great example of what faith and courage looked like. Dad, you fought so hard for so long. I can’t imagine how many painful days you must have had and how many times you pushed through when life seemed unbearable. I wish that I could have done more to help you. I’m thankful that we’ve had wonderful family, like Auntie, to help us in your absence. But I know you’re still watching over us. All of us, each and every day. I love you, Dad. I continue to be afraid of what life will be like without you in the years and decades to come, but I know I’ll see you again. Until that day, seeya Bub.

“God didn’t give us a cowardly spirit but a spirit of power, love, and good judgment.” 2 Timothy 1:7 (GW)

Dad’s Song

“I hate that I have to ask you this so soon, but…is there a song you would like played or performed at the service for your Dad?”

My Dad had only been gone for a day. Just a few days earlier, we were making the final plans for our family vacation to the beach. Now, we were making plans to say goodbye to my Dad for the final time. Oh, how life changes in an instant. One horrible, irreversible instant.

Harville, my pastor, was sitting in a chair in the corner of my darkened bedroom. We had been talking for the past thirty minutes or so about the tragedy of the past few days. My pastor had a tender kindness that was so very important to my family in the aftermath of Dad’s death. He came into the room that day to see how I was doing and to tend to my spirit, which had been bruised and battered since that awful Wednesday morning. As tender and thoughtful as Harville was in those tumultuous few days, there were some painful questions that just couldn’t be tenderized. I knew that Harville had to ask questions like this. The reality was that my Dad was dead, and that there would be services to honor his life within the next few days—that unfortunate truth was fixed, unchanging. We couldn’t put it off for too long. We were going to have to come face to face with this horrible reality and plan a service fitting for a life well-lived.

I am still very thankful for Harville, my Mom, and my Grandpa Vern (among many others) who really took control of the funeral planning and shielded me from the heavy lifting. I had very little to do with the wonderful funeral service we were able to hold for my Dad, but when Harville asked a question about music and a song, I had an immediate answer.

“Yes,” I said to Harville, “There is a song.”


Just a few months before that fateful July morning, I found myself in the basement of my friend Steve’s home watching the Super Bowl on his jumbo projection screen. There was nowhere better to watch a football game, especially if it was the big game of all big games. Steve had engineered a projector in his basement to project the cable feed onto his entire wall. If you think you’ve watched a great game on a beautiful television, try watching it on an 8×12 foot wall projection. You’ll take your 70-inch flatscreen and chuck it out the window (don’t do that).

Even though the lights in the Superdome went out that night, it was still a fun game to watch. And, like most who tune into the Super Bowl, I kept a sideways glance at the screen when the commercials came on to make sure I didn’t miss something funny that all my friends would be talking about the next day. Per usual, there were commercials that made you chuckle or pulled at your heartstrings. The Gangnam Style guy was apparently a big fan of pistachios. There was the Budweiser baby Clydesdale. There was also a weird Dorito’s commercial about a goat that made me never want to eat Doritos again.

But there was one commercial in particular that grabbed my attention from the opening chord. As I sat in the glow of the giant wall projection, there was a beautifully-elegant, simple, and rustic guitar intro that caught my ear. It had a country-simplicity to it that I loved. This was the type of country song that existed before most of the current country artists began to ruin country music (You heard me, Rascal Flatts…).

He’s a twenty years straight get to work on time… He’s a love one woman for all his life…

I loved it already.

Then, my love for the commercial turned into complete infatuation when I saw the product that was being advertised: the Chevy Silverado.

The Silverado was the truck of all trucks, in my opinion. It was rugged. Versatile. Reliable. And my Dad always drove one. I trusted his taste in many things, but I especially trusted his taste in trucks.

As the commercial rolled on and my eyes glazed as flashy Silverado after Silverado rolled across a field of amber grain or a windy mountain road, the lyrics of the song continued to speak to me.

He’s the shirt off his back, Give ya his last dime, He’s strong.

It was unbelievably ironic to hear this song paired with this particular product. This was the exact truck that my Dad drove, but it was also a song in which every line spoke to the man he was. This was a song that told the story of my Dad and how he lived his life.

I remembered hearing the song through the first verse during the commercial and immediately getting to my phone to Google the lyrics. After a few seconds, I found the song. Strong by Will Hoge. It was a song I had never heard before, sung by an artist I had never heard of. His voice, however, made it feel like I had been listening to him sing my entire life. Mainly because he was singing about a topic that was so familiar to me. The name “Scott Bradshaw” is never mentioned once in the song, but I felt like every lyric was about him.

I listened to the song on the way home from Steve’s that night. I downloaded it from iTunes and added it to my phone. And each time I heard it or listened to it, I said the same thing to myself: One day, I’ll play this song for Dad and let him know that I think of him every time I hear it.


I had no idea that our time together was running so short. When I thought about playing that song for my Dad, I envisioned playing it many years into the future, possibly when my Dad was in an advanced age and balder than he currently was (not possible). I thought, naively, that I would have a ton of time to play that song for my Dad and share it with him, along with my feelings.

I never got a chance to play that song for my Dad and tell him what it meant to me—what he meant to me. His death from suicide shattered our lives unexpectedly, and now I would have to settle for playing the song at his funeral. I just couldn’t believe it. I am fortunate that God has blessed me more than I deserve and that I have very few regrets in my young life. This, however, is one of my greater regrets. I wish that one day, while riding around together in his Silverado, I would have taken the time and shared the song and my emotions with him. I had the opportunities, but I also thought we would have so much more time together. There were many more drives with the windows rolled down and the radio up to be had.

Alas, we didn’t.

So, the first time I was able to play that song for my Dad was in his memory. Sitting in the first pew of the dimly-lit church our family had called home, Mom and I gazed upon the cherry casket resting a few feet in front of us. As we sat there with hundreds of our family and friends sitting behind us while the clock neared 10:00am, the familiar guitar strum began to emanate from the speakers.

I ask you to place yourself in that moment. I ask you to close your eyes, imagine that day, visualize that church, and listen to the song that I chose for my Dad.

Strong

Will Hoge

He’s a twenty year straight get to work on time
He’s a love one woman for all his life
He’s a shirt off his back give you his last dime
He’s strong

He’s a need to move something you can use my truck
He’s an overtime worker when the bills pile up
Everybody knows he ain’t just tough
He’s strong

Strong

He’ll pick you up and won’t let you down
Rock solid inside out
Somebody you can trust
Steady as the sun
Ain’t nothing gonna knock him off the road he’s rollin on
He’s strong

It ain’t what he can carry what he can lift
It’s a dirt road lesson talkin to his kids
Bout how to hold your ground and how to live
Strong

He’s strong

He’ll pick you up and won’t let you down
Rock solid inside out
Somebody you can trust
Steady as the sun
Ain’t nothing gonna knock him off the road he’s rollin on
He’s strong

Strong
Like the river rollin’
Strong
Gonna keep on going
Strong
When the road runs out
They gonna keep on talkin about

How he was strong

Strong

He’ll pick you up and won’t let you down
Rock solid inside out
Somebody you can trust
Steady as the sun
Ain’t nothing gonna knock him off the road he’s rollin on
He’s strong

Everybody knows he ain’t just tough
He’s strong

Songwriters: Ashley Gorley / Miller Crowell / Will Hoge / Zach Crowell

Strong lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, BMG Rights Management US, LLC

 I stared resolutely ahead at the casket, defiant, trying to deny the fact that my Father was gone as that song played through the sanctuary. I tried my best to hold in my emotions and remain stoic, but that weak dam eventually gave way. Every bit of pain I had felt over the last few days tore through me when I heard that song, because it was everything I wanted to be able to tell my Dad, face to face, one last time. I can vividly remember sitting there in that pew with tears streaming down my face as the song played, wishing more than anything that in that moment I could have just one more with my Dad. One more to play that song for him, look him in the eye, and tell him how strong I thought he was. To tell him that he was stronger than he ever thought he could be. To tell him that he was strong enough to beat this.

Mom wept next to me as the song played. She raised her hand towards the heavens as the second verse picked up because she realized, like I did, that although this song may have been written with some other inspiration in mind, it really was written for my Dad. The song was written for this man and this moment. The words spoke to everything he was to us.

After the funeral, I had so many people ask me about that song. It made me feel good that we had been able to pick a song that resonated with so many people and their memory of my Dad. It made me feel relief that people saw past my Dad’s mental illness and his death from suicide to see the man we saw. A man who fought courageously for so long. A man who smiled and loved those around him with beautiful abandon, even though he might not have felt smiley or lovely on the inside. A man that pushed through his own sadness to provide for his family and give them a home life full of wonderful memories. People loved the song because they loved the man whose memory it brought forth. People loved he song because they realized that my Dad’s final chapter was not a true reflection of the beautiful story he wrote in this life for himself and so many others.

Yes, my Father died from suicide. And yes, he is still the strongest man I’ve ever known.

My Dad, Scott Bradshaw, was strong. And he still is. And this song, whenever I need it, is my reminder.

On occasion, particularly when the weather is warm and the sun is shining, I’ll take a detour in my truck—which is ironically the very same Chevy Silverado that my Dad drove. I’ll find myself feeling particularly lonely on those difficult days. Although time may pass from the moment we last said goodbye, the heart never completely heals. And there are moments, tremendously painful but necessary moments, when I need to hear that song again. So, like my Dad would have done, I’ll roll down the windows, crank up the volume, and hear that old familiar chord rattle through the truck speakers. In my mind, I’ll look over towards the passenger seat and see my Dad sitting right next to me with a huge smile on his face. I’ll see him begin to bob his head as the music picks up. I’ll see him thumping his thumb on the middle console between us the way he always did when a particularly good song warmed his ears. And I’ll see his face turn towards me through his sun-darkened spectacles, beaming with that beautiful smile of his.

And I’ll look back over at him, with tears streaming down my face, and I’ll let him know that this song was for him—and that for as long as I live, it will always be his. It will always be the song that helps me remember him. As long as I live, this will be my Dad’s anthem. When my future children and grandchildren ask about my Dad, I’ll play this song for them. This will be the song that reminds me of the love I felt for an amazing Father. It resurrects tremendous pain when I hear the words of that song, but at the same time it reassures me that the man I knew and the man who raised me will never truly leave. Because his heart lives on in me. His memory will never die as long as lyrics like this tell the story of the life he lived.

And that song, a song of love for my Dad, will always play in my mind and in my heart. I’m grateful for a beautiful song and the hearts and minds who wrote it, but I’m even more thankful that I had a Father who lived out the lyrics every single day.

“When the road runs out, they’re gonna keep on talkin’ ‘bout how he was strong.” Will Hoge, truer words have never been written. I’m still talkin’. And I always will be

Dad with Baby Lucy and SB LogoDad, You have no idea how I wish I could wind back the clock and play this song for you. I wish that I could play it, watch you listen, and then say to you that whenever I hear the words I immediately think of you. I desperately wish I could see you thumping your thumb on the console of your truck like you always used to do. I’m sorry that the first time I had a chance to play this for you was at your funeral. So many people have heard the song and told me how perfect it was for you, which is the best testament to your life. It’s what you deserve. Dad, people still talk about how strong you are. People still talk about how courageous you were for fighting through your mental illness for so many years. I know you were hurting desperately, Dad. I know that your soul was troubled. But I pray that you’re able to hear this song in heaven and know that I think of you each and every time I hear it. I’ll always love you, Dad, and I’ll always admire how strong you were. I’ll try to live up to example you gave me—the example that you gave all of us—each day for as long as I live. Someday, I’ll look you in the eyes again and tell you that you were the strongest man I’ve ever known. Until that reunion when we can listen together, seeya Bub.

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NIV)

Check Please

Both my credit card statement and the ever-tightening waistbands on all of my dress pants will confirm one thing about me: I love Cracker Barrel…possibly, a little too much.

In many respects beyond my diet, I’m a 65 year old man trapped in the body of a 30 year old (although my physique is also more resembling of that elderly man than the young one…). Old men like television game shows. I’ve probably seen every episode of Family Feud that’s ever been recorded, and I definitely scream answers at the television and claim I would be a better contestant than…just about anyone. Old men hate it when kids are on their lawns. I am in a never-ending battle with the young neighborhood whippersnappers who think that my corner lot is public congregation space when they get off the bus. A privacy wall is coming.

One look around in any Cracker Barrel will show you that old men love it…and so do I.

I can get breakfast anytime of the day I want to. They have a fireplace. They have rocking chairs and a checkerboard. They have pancakes and fried chicken and hashbrown casserole and everything that is bad for you. And if that weren’t enough, I can eat all of those foods at once and still go buy a bag of old fashioned candy and some ridiculous house decoration that I don’t need right in the lobby!

I think America just needs a little more Cracker Barrel to solve all of our problems.

Just last week, I had some downtime and decided to make a stop at Cracker Barrel for breakfast with the intent of ordering something moderately healthy. An order of cinnamon streusel French toast and bacon later (I said “intent”), I found myself scanning the restaurant because Cracker Barrels are the absolute best for people watching.

My eyes settled in on the table right next to me. It was a Father and his young (probably 5 or 6 year old) son. My heart sank, but it always does that when I see a father and son. It’s happened ever since Dad died. No matter where I am, if I see a dad and a son out together by themselves, it draws me back to what I don’t have. It reminds me of what I miss most. It makes me wish my Dad was still here.

This particular young boy immediately grabbed me because he was just a cute kid. He wore a flashy Under Armour hoodie and some cool tennis shoes. He had a toothy grin, freckles, and enough gel in his hair to spike up his light brown bangs. He had a gray bubble coat draped across the back of his chair, and he smiled at me when our eyes connected.

I looked across my own table and saw an empty seat—the spot where my Dad should have been sitting. My mind went back to all the times that he and I and Mom had sat at Cracker Barrel tables together—Dad always ordering chicken and dumplings, but always making time for a quick game of checkers by the fireplace before the food came out.

I see that empty seat quite often, and it makes me nauseous. I’ll immediately feel myself tearing up, and I often have to tell myself that I need to think about something else instead to fight off the waterworks. It’s not that I don’t want to think about my Dad—believe me, I do. Mostly, I just don’t want people to stare at my while I’m getting upset at a table by myself.

So, on this particular day, I decided to focus on the boy and his Dad sitting at the table next to me. Little did I know that this would probably make me just as upset as thinking about my own Dad would have.

The boy and his Father placed their orders shortly after I did. I paid particular attention to the little boy’s order: pancakes and bacon. I knew I liked this kid.

After the waitress left, I saw something that I see way too often. The boy’s Dad, sitting at a table with just his son, given the perfect opportunity to be an engaged Father, instead decided to pull out his cell phone. Apparently, there was something more entertaining on that tiny screen than the tiny and interesting human sitting right across from him. I’ve always been bothered by sights like these, mainly because my parents always taught me that time at the dinner table was insanely precious. We always engaged with one another. Little did I know just how valuable it would be when we couldn’t have it anymore…

I watched for a few minutes, and then a few minutes more, as this Father poured every ounce of attention he had into the small phone he held in his hands. The young boy tried to engage his Dad at first, as most young boys will do, but there was no reaction. This particular Dad wanted everything to do with his phone and nothing to do with his son. Absurd.

As young boys will do, this little guy began to get restless. He would occasionally spin around and rest his chin on the back of his chair and his coat, staring at the other families around the restaurant. Before long, he jumped up from his chair and walked over to his Dad, probably to see what was so interesting on that phone of his. That’s when my fury reached a brand new level.

The Dad snapped at this cute, innocent little boy, admonishing him sharply and telling him to sit down. The look on his face was pure meanness. I have an absolutely terrible poker face, so I’m sure my jaw was dropped onto the table by this point. With a force that no young boy deserves, the Dad thrust his son back towards his chair. My heart broke as I watched the young boy’s head hanging in shame, eyes glued to the floor. He kicked his legs back and forth slowly as his face turned red, probably worried that people in the restaurant were staring at him. There are few things more uncomfortable than feeling shame as a young child. It’s debilitating. He looked like he was on the verge of tears, and so was I.

But I was more than sad at this point. I was angry. I was furious. I wanted to get up and tell this Dad off. I wanted to tell him that he had no idea how precious this time was with his son. I wanted to tell him that he should cherish every moment—every single moment—that he has with this young boy. I wanted to tell them that he won’t have these opportunities forever. I wanted to tell him that he has a God-given responsibility to instill values and character into that young boy’s mind and heart, and that he wasn’t going to do that acting like a complete and total jerk.

Somehow, I restrained myself. I clenched my fists, studied the salt shaker, and even gave the Peg game on the table a go (I’m attributing my poor score of three remaining pegs to the low blood sugar of not having yet received my French toast). I tried to ignore what was happening (or not happening) at the table next to me, but after a while, I had to look again.

There sat the little boy, chin resting on his chair back, staring at the other families in the restaurant. And there sat the father, eyes still locked-in on the mobile screen in front of him.

Finally, the Dad looked up at his son. “Finally,” I thought to myself. “It took him long enough, but he’s going to talk to the little guy. Good for him.”

“You wanna put your straw in your water?” he said.

It wasn’t profound, but I told myself it was interaction nonetheless. Baby steps.

It was amazing and a bit saddening to watch the little boy’s composure change just because his Dad recognized him. Just because his Dad finally paid a little bit of attention to him. I thought things might be looking up. With his little hands, he grabbed the paper-wrapped straw from beside his tiny cup of water. Then, he did what most youngsters will do. He began to bang the end of the straw against the table until the paper would slide off.

With a level of anger completely unwarranted by the situation, the Dad reached across the table yelling “Give me that!” from the young boy. He grabbed the straw from his little hands and opened it in a more “dignified” manner. Having opened the straw, he put it in the boy’s cup as his little eyes looked on, head hanging low once again.

Then, the Dad took things to an entirely new absurdity level. He shook his head back and forth a few times as his face began to grow red (from anger, not embarrassment) and said “I don’t understand why you do things like that.”

It took everything I had in me to not stand up from the table, bash his head with the oil lantern, and see myself expelled from every Cracker Barrel in North America. I had a few bottles of mini maple syrup, and I was pretty sure no one would have blamed me had I poured them right over this jerk’s head.

I was furious. Even more furious than this Dad was when his little boy didn’t know how to “properly” unwrap his straw.

“That’s it,” I said in my mind. “I’m saying something to this guy. He deserves it! Before I go, I’m going to tell them exactly what I think of his parenting. And he’s not that big so I can take him if he tries something funny. Or I can knock over a display of candles in the lobby and run really, really fast.”

In that moment, I looked across my own table—the empty table—and got even more upset than I had previously been. My Father was more than a father—he was a Dad. When I was little, he made me feel like I mattered. He talked to me and had conversations with me. He made me feel so important and so loved. He taught me things and was legitimately interested in me. And yes, it may have been a different time, but nothing as silly as a cell phone would have ever gotten in the way of a conversation with his son.

I got angry because my Dad was gone. I began to wallow in my own self-pity, thinking selfishly that it wasn’t fair that Dads like this still got time with their sons when Dads as deserving as mine had lost theirs way too soon. It’s a feeling I get quite often.

When the Dad and his boy finally received their food, the little boy didn’t even get any help from his Dad. He put his own syrup on the pancakes. He clumsily navigated a knife and fork to cut his pancakes into bite-size pieces. I grew even sadder watching him enjoy his little breakfast in unnecessary silence.

So, I did what I often do in moments like this. I began to talk to God. And I began to talk to Dad.

I don’t pride myself on being a theological expert, and I don’t know whether or not it’s even realistic, but when I think of what’s happening in Heaven while I’m down here on Earth, I will often picture my Dad and God standing right next to one another. Their elbows rest on a shelf of clouds, and they are looking down at me, watching over me, and encouraging me. They talk with one another. They roll their eyes when I do something foolish (there’s lots of eye rolling, by the way). They laugh at me. But more than anything, they send me lots of love from above.

The nice part of this visual is that, when times get tough and I don’t know what to do, I’ll often turn my face to the sky and simply ask them. I’ll cry out. I’ll say “Tell me what I should do here. I need you. I need you both.”

And that’s exactly what I did. In the middle of a Cracker Barrel, I looked upwards with my palms facing skyward on the wooden table, and mouthed the words “Tell me what you want me to do here, because I’m lost and I’m angry.”

I expected them to tell me to get courageous. To harden my resolve. That it was time for me to stand up for what I believed in. That I needed to be a man, tell this guy that he needed to be a man too, and walk out with my shoulders back and my head held high. I waited eagerly for their response, and I nearly threw up my French toast when I heard it.

“Ask for their check,” was what I heard. “Ask for their check,” was what came to my mind.

Apparently, people in Heaven are perfect but can still say crazy things.

My eyes must have been as wide as cornbread muffins as I stared across the table at the empty chair opposite me. My mouth was agape, and I was beginning to sweat a little bit. I looked at the spot where my Dad should’ve been sitting, and I told him exactly what I thought about his suggestion: “That’s probably your dumbest idea yet.”

I was angry that this was the solution that came into my mind. I was mad that this was the best solution that the Lord of all mankind and my Dad could come up with. I wasn’t about to reward bad behavior. I wasn’t going to give this guy any of my hard-earned money as he sat there and wasted the best gift he could have ever received—a relationship with his son. No way. I’m sorry, God. I’m sorry, Dad. It’s not happening. Try again.

But the phrase just kept coming back to me. “Ask for their check. Ask for their check. Ask for their check.” Over and over again I kept hearing this phrase. No matter how hard I fought it, it was like God and my Dad were telling me that there was no other way out. There was no other solution to what was happening in that moment. I knew this was a spiritual test, but I also knew it was bigger than that.

I asked God to tell me why. I asked God to explain to me why this was His solution. He didn’t tell me straight out, but He gave me some wisdom to think through this. And I knew that it was wisdom that both God and my Dad would appreciate.

First and foremost, I reminded myself that I was only seeing a snapshot of this family’s life. I hoped it didn’t get worse than this, but I had no idea what their morning had been like. I had no idea of this man’s story or anything he was dealing with at the time. I didn’t know what brought him to that table on that morning, what things were weighing on his heart, or the insecurities he might have been feeling as a father in that moment.

Then, I thought of my Dad. I thought of the types of things he would have done. My Dad was the type of man to pick up someone’s check. My Dad was the type of person to not judge people, even if he didn’t like their actions. My Dad gave people the benefit of the doubt in every circumstance, even when they upset him. My Dad was a giver, and he believed that you could teach people more through kindness as opposed to anger, retribution, and holy discipline. My Dad was a big fan of New Testament love. I was a fan of Old Testament fire and brimstone.

I also remembered something that I saw my Dad live out many, many times during his 50 years here on this Earth. Little actions of love can have big, lasting implications. Little interactions that show kindness can change a life and many more. Little moments of tenderness can spread like wildfire. Maybe, just maybe, I would pay this man’s check. And maybe, just maybe, it would put him in a good mood and change how he interacted with his son on that day. And maybe this little boy, who deserved it, would have a good day. And that good day would lead to other good days and a different relationship between these two. It was stupidly optimistic…and it was exactly the type of thing my Dad would have believed.

I did what I thought was unthinkable. I called upon the Holy Spirit to help me, and summoned some courage from my Dad. When the waitress came by, I signaled her, leaned over, and said to her… “Can I ask you for a Diet Coke to go?”

Just kidding. I said “Can I ask you for a Diet Coke to go? And, also, can you bring me their check without letting them see it?” I nodded towards their table.

“You want the check for the little boy’s table?” she responded.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, feeling like a wimp. Feeling like I had lost the battle by not telling this man exactly what I thought of him.

“Absolutely,” she said with a huge smile across her face. She returned a few minutes later with a Diet Coke (I felt I deserved this much) and a check a few times larger than the one I had originally received.

I grabbed it, got up from the table, and walked past the man and his son.

As was expected, the Father was a bit too enamored with his chicken fried steak to notice me. But I didn’t want to look at him anyway. I looked at the boy. The little boy with the hoodie and the hair gel and the pancakes. He looked at me and I smiled and winked, walking out of the restaurant without saying a word. I paid my bill. Then I paid for their bill. I grabbed my to-go cup, walked out of the Cracker Barrel towards my car, and looked up towards the sky.

“There. Are you two happy?” I said begrudgingly.

I imagined that both God and Dad were smiling down nodding their heads yes, and laughing that I could get so frustrated showing love to someone else.

While I sat in my car, I began to cry a bit, feeling the emptiness of not having my Dad here with me. But it’s moments like these that remind me that he is always here. That his memory can live on each and every day, as long as I live my life the way he would have. His life and legacy live on in my heart. I know I’ll never be the man that my Dad was. The bar is just too high. But I’ve accepted that. I’d rather aim high and miss a little lower, though, than not try at all. It’s my duty to my Dad to do the things he would have done. If he can’t be here to do them, I need to be the one to live like my Dad. I didn’t pay the bill on that day. My Dad did.

I pray that my Dad’s gesture made that little boy’s day a little better. And I pray that it warmed that Dad’s heart. And I desperately hope that they had a wonderful day together. I mean…it started at Cracker Barrel so how could it be bad?!

I thank my Dad for inspiring me to do things in moments like that. I thank my Dad for helping to change my heart. Initially, I had hoped this man would choke a bit on his chicken fried steak, and just a few minutes later I was paying for his meal. Well played, Dad. Well played.

And, more than anything, I pray that for as long as I live, my Dad keeps guiding me. That he keeps giving me instructions. That he keeps forcing me to do things I would never, ever do on my own.

I’m a better man because my Dad was here for 26 wonderful years, and I’ll be a better man because he will always be in my mind and in my heart for as long as I live.

And next time, I’ll try a bit harder to order the fruit and yogurt.

Sitting in Dad's Lap with SB LogoDad, Even though you’re not here with me, I know you’re always with me. I know you’re always watching over me and guiding me and pushing me to be a better Christian. On the days when I feel sad that you’re not around, it’s always moments like this one that remind me that you’ll never leave. Yes, we haven’t talked face to face since that horrible July day in 2013; but I feel like we’ve been talking ever since. Little things happen in my life that allow your memory to shine through, and I’m so grateful for that. Dad, you would be so proud to know that your story is inspiring people to live better lives. You have no idea how many people miss you and love you and wish you were here. Remind them, and remind me, that you’re always here as long as we live life the way you did. Remind us all that love is more important than absolutely anything. I’m reminded each and every day how much I love you. Thank you for teaching me what it means to be a Father. Thank you for giving your entire self to me. And thanks for never taking it easy on me when we played checkers. I love you Dad, and I miss you terribly. Until we can share a seat at a table even better than one at Cracker Barrel, seeya Bub.

“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” Luke 6:35 (NIV)

Bonfires

The picture is still sharp into my brain. I can conjure it up with vivid realness—especially as the leaves begin to burn bright orange and yellow and red before they fall to the ground this time of year.

It’s a silhouette of my Dad sitting in a chair staring into the flames of a backyard bonfire.

My Dad loved the simple things in life. A good meal. A good country song. A relaxing ride in the truck. The feel of the sun on his skin. A new Dewalt power tool (most of which I’ve inherited and have no idea how to use).

My Dad had a long list of things he loved about life. Although he never wrote this list down, I have a pretty good idea of one thing that would be near the top:

Bonfires.

Yes, bonfires. My Dad was a firebug. He loved setting things on fire. I mean, not in a crazy pyro sort of way. It was always controlled and safe…well, most of the time.

I know why my Dad loved bonfires. He loved the popping and cracking of the logs as they turned into ash. He would be mesmerized by the flames. He would sit in a chair near the firepit he built in our backyard and be completely hypnotized by the fire. On a cool night, he might sit there for two or three hours and let the flames warm his skin, and he was in his happy place every time he was there. He didn’t need music. He didn’t need a cellphone for endless and pointless scrolling. He just needed a chair, a can of Coke, our dog Lucy by his side, and a stack of logs that he could burn through the night.

For as long as I could remember, Dad had an almost-nightly ritual of retreating to the backyard after the sun would set. Rather than settle in front of the glow of the television, Dad would often park a chair near our backyard firepit, load some wood into the wheelbarrow, and prepare for a relaxing night. And he always had a smile on his face.

As he spent more time near the firepit, his techniques and methods became more and more elaborate. Dad had always started his fires with a blowtorch, which is plenty effective enough for anyone who needs to start a fire. But for my Dad, a blowtorch just wasn’t good enough. Not quick enough. Not exciting enough. Not ridiculous or dangerous or powerful enough.

So Dad did what any man who watched way too many episodes of Home Improvement might do. He built a device that would start the fire quicker.

And by “device,” I mean a flamethrower.

That’s right. A flamethrower. And a homemade one at that.

What does a homemade flamethrower look like, you might ask? It’s basically a wand-torch device with a trigger that is attached to….a propane tank.

Of all the things I’ve inherited of my Dad’s, this might be my favorite. I’m completely terrified to operate it in the instance that I might burn all the hair off my head in a fiery explosion, but at least I have it. (My Dad didn’t have to worry about things like this because of that whole “bald at 30” thing he had going on…). Here’s a picture of me actually getting up the courage to use it one time after he died. Note…I mask the terror pretty well: Using Dad's Flamethrower

Dad was really proud of this flamethrower. I’m pretty sure Mom was utterly terrified that he was going to be that guy on the news with ash all over his face after a backyard explosion saying “I had no idea that my homemade flamethrower attached to a propane tank would actually explode…” I would often laugh and roll my eyes every time I would hear the roar of that flamethrower in the backyard. I knew Dad was at it again…and that I would have the family room television to myself for a few hours.

Dad’s experimentation extended far beyond starting devices, however. He also experimented with materials. At first, his goal was probably to find things to burn that would help the fire last longer. Then, that grew into an obsession with which natural materials would make the most interesting and loud noises if he threw them into the fire.

In a fit of excitement one year, my Dad and our neighbor Shawn planted a small patch of bamboo in our backyards. That small patch eventually grew into a bamboo plantation that could feed an entire zoo full of pandas.

One evening, my Dad got a bright idea to chop down some of the bamboo (which, by the way, makes it come back even faster and in ridiculous amounts) and see what would happen if he tossed it into his firepit. In a fit of childlike amusement, my Dad nearly lost his mind when the bamboo made an exploding pop that sounded like a firework. So, my Dad did what any mature, grown adult would do.

He chopped down stalk after stalk of bamboo for about three hours and tossed them all into the fire, laughing his head off every single time they exploded. The pattern became all too familiar if you were sitting inside the house listening: Pop from the bamboo, a series of vicious barks from Lucy at the popping noise, and a chuckle from my Dad. Over and over and over again, all throughout the night.

And sidenote…if you throw about thirty stalks into the fire at once, you might want to warn the neighbors that they are not being shot at first.

In addition to the bamboo burns, Dad also loved setting a good Christmas tree on fire—after Christmas, of course. For my entire life, we always had real Christmas trees in our house. My Dad refused to buy an artificial tree. Although he said that he always had real trees because they looked better, I think he also looked forward to January 15th when it was time to dispose of the dried out evergreen.

Dad would take the ornament-stripped tree to the backyard, dig a small hole in his firepit, and stand the tree up for its ceremonial cremation. Then, Dad would take a blowtorch (or eventually his flamethrower), and light the tree from the bottom. Within 45 seconds, the entire tree would be completely engulfed in flames, the reflection burning bright off my Dad’s glasses as he smiled and laughed. He never seemed to tire of this after-Christmas tradition. Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree, how lovely is your fiery death….

I think back over all those nights that Dad would spend camped out next to our backyard fire, with our dog Lucy barking at every single popping bamboo shoot as if it were some invisible enemy she could silence. I think of all the nights where Dad wouldn’t even have time to change out of his work coveralls because he had worked so long to provide for our family. I think of all the times when Dad would be mad that it had rained for a few days in a row, interrupting one of his favorite rituals.

And I also think of all the times when Dad would ask me to come sit with him by the fire and I would say no.

I wish that I had spent more time with my Dad near the firepit when I had the chance to do it. Dad would often invite me to come sit with him. I would occasionally take him up on his offer, but not as often as I should have. Most times, I would be too busy. Or doing something stupid like watching television. I desperately wish I could give back all of those reruns for a few hours and a stack of felled bamboo with my Dad in the backyard…

I think that my Dad sat by the fire so often because it was peaceful and relaxing. Dad could shut the world off and connect with his primal side: a man, his fire, and the stars and moon overhead. Life was simple when Dad was sitting around the fire, and Dad loved simple. Dad was at peace when he was surrounded by crackling flames, chirping crickets, and the beauty of God’s creation.

But now, after losing my Dad to suicide, I think those fire nights were even more important for my him. I never realized the extent to which the noise and cloud of depression had overtaken my Dad’s mind. The feelings of doubt and shame and fear had to be so loud every single day for my Dad. I’m sure there were so many times when my Dad just wanted to silence the world around him. When it came to the internal voices that told my Dad he wasn’t good enough or wasn’t worthy of love, I am sure that my Dad wished he could hit a button or flip a switch and turn those voices off.

I think a night by the bonfire was my Dad’s way of silencing those voices.

My Dad could sit by the fire and let the worries of the world and his depression melt away. There’s something strangely mesmerizing about a good fire, but there’s also something about a fire that takes humans back to our earliest roots. Sitting by the fire, I imagine, allowed my Dad to return to the parts of his life that were simpler and easier and happier and better. My Dad had many, many dark days in his life; but I’m so glad that he had many, many bright nights when he could relax, let his worries down, and sit in the warmth of a roaring fire.

I’ve grown to appreciate bonfires more and more since losing my Dad. Like I’m sure he experienced, they also calm my mind and quiet my soul. More importantly, in the life after Dad, a bonfire helps me return to the moments of happiness in life when my Dad was here on Earth. I’ll sit and laugh when I think of his flamethrower. Or his obsession with exploding bamboo. Or his Christmas tree infernos (I sold my soul to the Devil and use an artificial tree, which I’m sure upsets Dad even in Heaven, but someday I’ll buy a real tree and make sure I set fire to it just like Dad would have wanted). I’ll smile when I picture the look of happiness that was always on his face when he sat in a high patio chair with a glass of Coke in hand. I simultaneously cry and happily remember how Dad would stoke the fire with a rake or pitchfork while Lucy ran around him wildly grabbing sticks and chewing them into a million pieces as he laughed at her craziness.

This Fall, I’ll burn a fire in honor of my Dad. I’ll remember all the great times he shared around the flames, and I’ll long to relive and correct all those nights when Dad sat by himself and I should have been next to him. If there’s a firepit in heaven, I’m sure Dad has a chair camped nearby.

Let’s just hope God has a few forests full of bamboo for Dad to play with.

Dad and Lucy Standing at Pumpkin Patch with SB LogoDad, When I think of the things you enjoyed, I always think of bonfires. They provided you with such amusement, but deep down I think they also provided you with a lot of peace. Your mind and soul just seemed to be quieter and happier when you were sitting around a good fire. I wish I could take back all of those days when you’d ask me to come sit with you and I said no. I wish I had spent more time with you around the fire, but there never would have been enough time with you because you made life so exciting and full of love. It may not be around a fire, but I’ll spend more time with those I love because I realize that I should have spent more time with you when I had the chance. I love you, Dad. I miss you like crazy, although I don’t miss the constant bamboo explosions. Okay, who am I kidding…of course I miss those. Thanks for all the fires we did share, but more importantly thanks for keeping the fire in my heart going even after you’re gone. I’m looking forward to that first bonfire together on the other side…I’ll bring the flamethrower. But for now, seeya Bub.

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28 (NLT)

Last Words

As you may have done, I woke up this Monday morning with a barrage of CNN alerts on my phone. After trying to blink the fuzziness from my eyes and shake my brain awake, I sat up with my back against the headboard attempting to wake myself earlier than I wanted to—always a difficult task for me.

It was a little before 6am, and I was reading words on the screen of my phone that I didn’t think could be true. Shooting in Las Vegas. 20 confirmed deaths. Over 100 people injured. My heart immediately felt pain. Could this really be true?

Traveling for work that day, I found myself glued to the television set in the lobby of my hotel as I ate a good breakfast and chugged a few glasses of orange juice. I saw the same footage you likely did. I watched as innocent people attempting to have fun at a country concert ran in terror, hearing blasts but not knowing what they were or from where they came. I saw people huddled like school children in a tornado drill, attempting to seek shelter behind concrete barricades. I saw bodies lying scattered across the Vegas strip and wondered how, again, we found ourselves as a nation in the midst of brutal and senseless violence.

“Isn’t this just awful?” An elderly man who worked at the hotel serving breakfast came around to my table, motioning towards my empty plate that he planned to clear.

“Yes sir, it is,” I responded. “I just can’t wrap my head around why someone would do something like this.”

“I can’t either,” the man said. “It just don’t make sense anymore. Used to be when you had a disagreement with someone you could talk it out or settle things differently. Now, people just get mad and start killing and shooting. Even the church ain’t safe. People go get mad and shoot people in church.”

“It’s a scary world. It really is.” The man and I continued to talk. We watched the developments on the screen in front of us. It was still early, and the reporters on screen were still trying to make sense of what had happened in Las Vegas as I did the same with the man from the hotel.

As I drove from high school to high school that day for my job, I spent my time in the car listening to the radio station, and my stomach grew ill as the numbers steadily rose. 30 dead, 250 injured. Then 40 dead. And then, a staggering 59 deaths with over 500 people injured.

Whenever these tragedies occur, and God knows they occur all too often, I find myself looking at the pictures of the victims and reminding myself that those aren’t just pictures. Those are faces. Faces that belong to human beings with lives and families and stories that are important to tell. I’ll often find myself trying to learn more about those individuals. I’ll wonder about their families. Their careers. The things they would have accomplished had it not been for senseless violence. I think desperately about the loved ones they are leaving behind.

And yes, tragedies like this often remind leave me wondering about last words. What were the final things they said to those they loved? What are the final memories those loved ones will have of those they have to say goodbye to?

It reminds me to leave those I love with love at every chance I get.

It reminds me of how I left my Dad.

I am fortunate. Yes, fortunate. Yes, I lost my Dad. His death was unbelievably tragic and completely unnecessary. I wake up every single day wishing that losing my Dad was just a bad dream. I wake up every day wishing that things would go back to the way they were. That my Dad would still be alive. Still living, and still loving.

In spite of all of this, I am fortunate.

I am fortunate that my last words to my Dad were “I love you, Dad.”

And I am thankful that his last words to me were “I love you too, Bub.”

I will be forever grateful that my last words to my Dad were words of love.

I didn’t know those were going to be the last words I ever said to my Dad. In my heart of hearts, I believed I would leave my Dad that day and see him later that afternoon. I knew that things weren’t good in terms of his mental stability, but I didn’t know they were that bad. Never in my wildest nightmares would I have guessed that a morning conversation with my Dad on July 24, 2013 would be the last conversation we would ever share.

Just like those going to a country concert in Las Vegas never thought that they would be saying goodbye to their loved ones.

Monday’s massacre offered the reminder that I should never need. The reminder that life is amazingly scared and unbelievably fragile. Monday was a reminder that tragedy is often tragic because it’s so unexpected, so unnecessary, and so completely avoidable.

I’m not writing anything original. I’m probably not writing anything that you haven’t heard from a parent, grandparent, friend, pastor, or teacher. But it’s so important. And this weeks horror in Las Vegas is an unfortunate reminder.

I didn’t always leave my Dad with words of love. I think back over the times when I would get mad at my Dad or frustrated with him. Usually, it was because I was being a petty, annoying teenager. I would get mad at my Dad (like most teenagers do) for very, very stupid things. He made a comment about my driving. Who was he to comment about my driving?! He had all the family speeding tickets! Or he would use my laptop and inevitably screw something up. I would get mad at him and say something insensitive and then remind him of his transgressions every time he used my laptop in the future. Or the most egregious of all offenses: while I would be watching television in our family room, he would lay on the couch. And fall asleep. And snore. Loudly, annoyingly, and obnoxiously. Yes, I would actually get mad at my Dad for snoring. And I would yell at him and wake him up…or (my favorite move) I would pinch his nose until he woke himself up while I pretended like I had done nothing at all.

I see how petty, irrational, and insensitive I could be towards my Dad at times, which makes his unrelenting and unconditional love even more impressive.

My Dad was the man who understood the “last word” principle better than anyone. My Mom and I can both attest to this. There was rarely a time where my Dad would let a disagreement last longer than a few minutes. It was annoying for someone like me who likes to hold grudges. Dad and I would bicker about something, and thirty minutes later he would be talking to me as if nothing had happened. As a matter of fact, Dad had the uncanny ability to actually be even sweeter to people who were mad at him. I’m still trying to master this, but I’ll never be as good as he was.

My Dad lived his life as if his goodbyes might be his last. And I’m so thankful that he did, because it makes that last goodbye all the more special.

I have many regrets in my life, and many associated with how I treated my Dad when I didn’t get my way. I wasn’t a perfect son. But I am thankful that our last words, the words I’ll remember with amazing vividness, were simple expressions of love for one another.

In trying to understand my grief, I’ve talked with many other people who have lost their loved ones unexpectedly or prematurely. For every person I talk with that shares a similar story of their final conversation with a loved one, I also talk with folks who have deep-seated regret over the things they forgot to say. The angry comment on the way out the door. The argument over leaving a wet towel on the bathroom floor. Forgetting to say I love you. The things said in regret and the things unsaid in pride can be unbelievably detrimental to our souls when life gives way to tragedy and loss.

The horrible violence in Las Vegas this week is a reminder that we just don’t know when our words to a loved one might be our last. As the news reports rolled in on Monday, I stopped and said a prayer. I said a prayer for those 59 lives. I said a prayer for those 59 families. There are 59 people dead who didn’t deserve to have their last conversations with loved ones, but I prayed that those conversations were full of messages of love. I prayed that those who are now grieving are able to look back and remember saying or hearing “I love you.” I prayed that the memories they have are full of wonderful, loving moments. I prayed for peace at the soul level for these grieving families.

I currently sit in another hotel room, and as I write I am watching Bob Patterson and Amanda Patterson speak (courageously) on CNN. Lisa Patterson, Bob’s wife and Amanda’s mother, is among the 59 who are no longer with us for no reason whatsoever. I can see their heartache. I don’t know their pain, but I can feel it. I’m angry at this killer. I’m angry at the man who stole Lisa Patterson and so many others away from their loved ones. I’m angry at true villains, like murder and suicide, that take our loved ones away from us prematurely. I hope the families of the victims feel love and can remember the love from those they lost. It will be that lingering feeling of love that our loved ones leave behind that sustain us through the heartache and sorrow.

This week’s tragedy is a reminder. A reminder to always let our loved ones know we love them. It’s a simple lesson and a reminder we shouldn’t need, but how many times do you hear stories of individuals who lose a loved one who wish they had said “I love you” just one last time? We hear it all too often. Let’s make sure we refuse to let our last words be anything but expressions of love.

Love is nothing if it isn’t expressed. And I’m thankful my Dad taught me that each and every day.

Dad and Seagulls with Seeya Bub LogoDad, I miss you every single day. I replay our last conversation together in my head so frequently. I can see your face, I can hear your voice, and I can feel the warmth of our last embrace before I left the house that day. Dad, I’m so thankful that we told each other that we loved one another one last time before I left that day. And I’m sorry for all the days when I didn’t tell you I loved you. When I didn’t express my gratitude and appreciation for all the things you did for our family. When I didn’t tell you how proud I was of you for fighting so hard. Your death has proven to me just how fragile life really is. I hate that it took losing you for me to learn this lesson. Dad, you are still teaching me important life lessons every single day. I pray for those who are hurting this week in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, and even though their departure (like yours) was far too soon, I hope that you are welcoming those 59 brave souls home in Heaven. I love you, Dad. Until our last words can be our first on the other side, seeya Bub.

“How then can evil overtake me or any plague come near? For he orders his angels to protect you wherever you go.” Psalm 91:10-11