Dad’s Rules: Last One Up

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(This is the newest feature in “Dad’s Rules”, a recurring series at SeeyaBub.com. To learn more about the “Dad’s Rules” series, check out my first installment.)

Dad’s Rule #143: The last one up at the end of a beach day wins.

I have a lot of visual images of my Dad that will randomly pop into my head from time to time. Whenever I think of him, I get recall visual snapshots of him playing with our dog in the family room floor. I can picture him kicking a playground ball high into the air and watching him laugh as I would frantically (and unathletically) attempt to catch it. I can picture the sweat dripping off his brow as he worked in the yard wearing a gray work t-shirt, his infamous navy-blue workpants, and steel-toed boots. I can see his silhouette surrounded by the orange glow of backyard fire.

Nearly everywhere I look, I see my Dad.

But the first picture that always comes to mind when I think of my Dad is an image of him in a beach chair, watching the waves roll in across the shoreline. I’ll never quit seeing that image—and I’m so thankful for that.

Dad on the BeachWhen I was extremely young, my family never took beach vacations. To this day, I’m not sure why because we all loved the beach so much. My very first time seeing the ocean was on a family trip to Panama City, Florida as an eighth grader. Our entire family (grandparents and cousins included) spent a wonderful week on the Gulf Coast, and I remember the momentous nature of that trip, even as a middle schooler. A 12-hour, multi-day car ride had finally concluded, and my Mom and Dad walked me out towards the ocean once we arrived. With my parents, I saw the ocean for the very first time and I got to experience its magnitude. I got to touch sand, and taste saltwater, and splash in the world’s largest pool. Even as a young kid, I appreciated the significance of this experience.

And from that point on, the hook was set.

Each year, I would dream of going on a beach vacation. And, for the most part, my family tried to make that a regular occurrence. We had fun at Panama City, but dreamt that there was probably something better out there. As all good Ohioans will do, we made a trip to Myrtle Beach…and as we spent an hour on the main drag trying to get to dinner one evening, we vowed to find another beach for our family trips.

I ended up finding that beach when I asked my Mom if we could go to Gulf Shores, Alabama.

“Alabama?” I remember her saying to me. “Is there even a beach in Alabama?”

Truth be told, I didn’t know either. But, I had seen a commercial that talked about a beach in Alabama, and I desperately wanted to go. (For those of you who work in the marketing and branding fields, this should be undeniable proof that commercials still work on some people.)

We talked about it as a family, and Dad seemed excited. So Mom and I spent some time locating a condo in Orange Beach (which runs along the Gulf strip in Alabama), and just like that, our vacation had been booked!

Dad Mom and I at San Roc CayAfter a really, really long drive, my family finally arrived to our condo in Gulf Shores. Shortly after arriving, I think we all knew then that we had found our family vacation spot. There was something about it that made us feel like we were home.

And when it came to being by the beach, Dad was never more at home.

The beach was where my Dad belonged. It was the perfect culmination of awe-inducing nature, relaxation, and playfulness that my Dad deserved to experience. I got to spend many wonderful beach vacations with Dad over the years, and they are always so memorable because of the joy I saw my Dad experience every day. Dad always worked so hard, and I remember thinking how much he deserved every vacation we took. He enjoyed those vacations so much for so many different reasons, and I’m glad I have so many cherished memories of Dad near the beach.

He was the king of the beach walk. Dad could kick off his flip flops and walk for miles along the coastline. Sometimes he would walk with me, sometimes he would walk with Mom, and sometimes we would all walk together; but no matter who he was walking with, Dad was always talking. He would look out into the waves and point out things he saw in the distance: dolphins, oil rigs, sandbars. He would look down and grab shells before the tide pulled them back into the ocean. He would take those shells and turn them over and over with his rugged hands, marveling at the beauty of a small piece of God’s creation. He would stare up at the sky and take in the clouds, predicting what the weather would be like for the rest of the day.

And always the talker, it seemed that Dad would inevitably find someone along the shoreline and strike up a conversation with them. He made friends everywhere he went, and the beach was the prime breeding ground for finding new friends. Dad would often spot something unique about someone through his darkened glasses: a team’s logo on a beach tent, a nifty device that helped someone scoop up shells, a crafty beach sculpture, or just a friendly smile and wave from a stranger. I even saw him start a conversation with someone who was fishing on the shore once—and my Dad did not fish regularly! Dad would use those seemingly mundane things to get to know people. He would find out about where they came from, what they did for a living, their families, and what they loved about the beach.

On the beach, as he talked with complete strangers, Dad taught me that people love talking. And I think his mission in life, even when he was on vacation, was to listen to them and get to know them.

Although Dad could nap with the best narcoleptic, he rarely used his time at the beach to nap. “Why would I want to close my eyes and sleep when I’ve got all this to look at?!” he said to me once. Sure, he might nod off every now and then, but most of his time was spent having fun and doing playful things. And I’m thankful that no matter how old he got, Dad never lost that sense of playful whimsy when he went to the beach together.

Dad Throwing a Frisbee at BeachAs I’ve written before, Dad was a tremendous athlete. And also as I’ve written before, I was a horrible one. But Dad never let my lack of athleticism curb an opportunity to play. At the beach, Dad and I could throw a frisbee for hours—as long as the wind cooperated. We would warm up close to one another and gradually step back as we threw until we would finally hit a point where we had to wind our torsos like a corkscrew to get the frisbee to sail over the white sand. Dad and I would leap and dive into the sand to catch a frisbee—his leaps and dives always significantly more graceful than mine—and we would yell at each other for not being able to properly hit our target. “Did you actually expect me to catch that?!” we would yell across the beach at one another. “You’re gonna kill a kid with that thing if you don’t learn how to throw it!”

And of all the essentials that needed to be packed for a beach vacation, our gloves and a baseball were at the top of the list. In fact, Dad and I never had a single beach vacation together without our gloves in tow. We loved standing in the sand and tossing back and forth, even though Dad’s arm was always a bit stronger than mine. Okay, more than a bit. It was so peaceful, and so rhythmic. The beach, in my mind, is the perfect place to throw a baseball. On occasion, I’ll still shake my glove out and feel grains of sand fall out of the leather. It reminds me of all those wonderful hours we would spend near the ocean tossing a baseball back and forth.

But Dad’s fun was never limited to what people “his age” should be doing because he never let adult expectations overshadow his inner youngster. Dad would dig holes in the sand for absolutely no reason other than to see how deep he could dig. Sweat would drip from his bald head and sand would stick to his arms, and just like a child he would constantly beckon Mom and I to see how deep he was able to dig. “See that water down there?” he’d say with the excitement of a young boy eager to show off his accomplishments. And Dad didn’t have time for cheap, plastic, inefficient beach-store shovels. Dad started bringing his own shovels from the barn back home, attempting to beat his own personal record year after year.

He would build sand castles. And he would make silly sunscreen patterns on his tanned head. And he would feed seagulls, and I would yell at him that birds were created by Satan and that I hoped they would peck his eyes out after he ran out of Cheez-Its just to teach him a lesson.

And Dad, as he always did, would laugh about everything. And on the beach, he always taught me that you’re never too old to be a kid again. He taught me that in order to make memories, you have to make life fun.

Mom and Dad at BeachAnd at the beach, Dad never played it safe. More than anything, I think Dad and I probably got the most enjoyment of our daily game of “See Who Can Swim the Furthest Out from the Shore and Make Mom Freak Out the Most” (catchy, no?). Much to my Mom’s displeasure, Dad and I were notorious for jumping into the water and swimming straight ahead until our arms gave out. The water would grow colder and colder the further we would swim, and periodically Dad would stick his arms high above his head and straight-dive down to see if he could still touch the bottom. If he could, we still weren’t out far enough. All the while, my poor Mother would sit anxiously in her beach chair watching our bobbing heads grow smaller and smaller in the waves. The best version of the game was on the beaches where there were life guards on duty, and in those scenarios, we tried to see how loud we could get them to blow their whistles at us! We knew we were really killing the game if we could swim far enough to encounter a deeper sandbar, and if we did, we would sit out on the sandbar and rest until it was time to swim back in. Dad would wave to Mom on occasion from the depths of the mighty ocean, and it was amazing how peaceful the deep ocean water can be. All the ambient noises of the beach fade away when you’re that far out (you especially can’t hear life guard whistles or motherly-shrieks).

I loved it. And I miss it to this day.

Dad found fun things to do when he was at the beach, even if those fun things could’ve risked personal injury. He would usually find a day to rent a wave runner and skip across the glistening waves, going entirely too fast. And he only ran that wave runner onto a hidden sandbar that one time. He went parasailing once with my Grandfather, and they joked about whose weight would create more drag, making it harder to get the sail in the air. At the urging of my Grandpa on a full-family vacation, Dad was one of the four brave individuals who took a ride on the infamous Banana Boat. If you’ve ever ridden a Banana Boat, you know that the goal of any Banana Boat driver is to mercilessly throw the passengers into the ocean as many times as possible. My Dad, Grandpa, Uncle, and Aunt were only flung into the ocean about six times, and my Uncle Lee only threatened to remove himself from the family once. Dad laughed every single time he retold the story of being on the Banana Boat and Lee’s raging anger at my Grandpa for making him do it in the first place, and Dad never let go of the wild and uncontrolled joy he felt any time he was doing something fun near the ocean.

On the beach, Dad taught me that sometimes, in order to do something fun, you’ve also got to do something that might have an element of danger to it. As a kid who was pretty risk-averse, Dad knew I needed that reminder.

And although he was busy with hole-digging projects and shell-collecting expeditions, Dad never let the busyness of home invade his vacations. Unlike some Dads I watched on the beach, my Dad was rarely on his phone. He didn’t see the need to take phone calls—the world back home would function just fine without him, and he had more important things to focus on. He was there to love his family and make our lives more enjoyable. He was there to create lasting memories with all of us. We were on vacation, which meant home could wait.

But Dad had one rule at the beach that trumped all others. One central rule that was most important, and one rule that he lived out every single day that he was shoreside:

He would always, always, be the last one up.

My family’s routine at the beach has always been very simple, very consistent. Each day we are at the beach, our schedule always looks the same.

Morning: Go to the beach.

Afternoon: Enjoy the beach. And eat lunch at the beach so you don’t lose valuable beach time.

Late Afternoon: Stay at the beach.

Evening: Go out to dinner.

Late Evening: Go to sleep so you can wake up and do it all over again.

“Beach, Eat, Repeat” has always been the mantra of our family vacations, and none of us would have had it any other way. There is too much to witness at the beach to even think about doing anything else.

But around 4 or 5 o’clock, the stomach begins to growl. And all of the wonderful seafood restaurants of Gulf Shores begin to beckon the hungry Bradshaw’s. So, reluctantly, we would pack up our beachside oasis and make our way back up to the condo.

Mom was always first, because she took the longest to get ready. I would follow next. And Dad was always last.

And it wasn’t even close.

Getting Dad to leave the beach each day was like trying to pull a lion out of a freezer of fresh Kobe steaks. Dad loved everything about the beach, but he especially loved the beach at dusk. Always the nature buff, Dad enjoyed watching the sun set into the ocean. He loved watching the orange glow dance off the tops of the unrelenting waves. But even though he was a people-person to the millionth degree, I think the thing he liked most about the beach at dusk was that he felt like he had it all to himself. All those suckers who went up to their rooms at 4 or 5 were missing out on having solitude along the shore. Dad would sit there with his chair in the shallow water, digging his toes into the sand and staring out across the Gulf.

Dad Grandma and Grandpa at BeachMy Grandpa even told a story at Dad’s funeral about his love for always being the last one up. On occasion, my family would take vacations with our extended family, which included my Grandpa Vern, Grandma Sharon, my Uncle Lee, my Aunt Beth, and my two cousins Jake and Megan. Those were always wonderful vacations, and every day, my Grandpa and my Dad were always the last ones up to the condo. But even my Grandpa couldn’t hang with my Dad.

“Scott,” he’d say, “I think I’m going to head on up so we can head out for dinner. You coming?”

“Okay. Yeah, I’ll be up in a minute,” Dad would respond.

And 45 minutes later, he’d still be sitting there, camped on the shore looking out over the blue water.

And had it not been for my impatience, he probably never would have left.

As Mom and I grew hungrier and hungrier, I would pace on the balcony and look down at my Dad. From a distance, all I could spot was the back of his shiny bald head, and I would grow angrier and angrier that he wasn’t coming up to get ready. Didn’t he know all the families of 18 with annoying kids went to dinner at 6?! If we didn’t get in the truck within the next 10 minutes, there was a good chance that the entire slew of restaurants in Gulf Shores would simultaneously run out of seafood and we’d be stuck eating lunchmeat and peanuts in the condo for dinner?!

So, I would do what all impatient sons do; I annoyed the bajeezus out of my Dad. I would call his cell phone repeatedly, and he would rarely pick up. On the times he did, I would tell him that Mom and I were tired of waiting and that if he didn’t get up here within the next ten minutes we were going to leave without him. Hearing my threat, Dad would laugh and tell me that he was very, very scared, and he would sit back down in his chair as I fumed from my balcony overlook. If he waited long enough, I would even begin yelling from the balcony—which is a really mature thing to do, by the way.

Eventually, although never quick enough, Dad would come up. And he would take way too long in the shower (how does a guy with no hair still take a thirty minute shower?!). And all the while, my stomach would slowly eat away at itself. And then, we’d go out to dinner, and they’d still have seafood, and my hangriness would fade, and I’d feel bad that I had treated my Dad that way.

And now that he’s gone, I feel horrible for the way I acted. And I wish I could apologize. But more than that, I wish I could just sit next to him again and not worry about the clock.

I feel bad because I think, deep down, my Dad understood how precious his time at the beach was. No matter how long he lived, he would never be able to spend enough days at the beach. He would never be able to get enough of God’s most beautiful creation. And no matter how long he stayed there, I think he knew that he would only have a limited number of those sunsets in his life. So, he stayed there as long as he could to soak them all up.

I’m glad he was always the last one up, because it made him happy. And I’d do anything to stare down from the condo balcony and see him parked in a beach chair again.

Most people don’t know, but my family was actually scheduled to go on a beach vacation at the end of July 2013—the week after my Dad’s death. We had the trip booked for months. In fact, the night before he died, Dad was shopping online for a cap for his truck bed to protect all of our luggage. After he passed away, some people told Mom and I that we should have went on the vacation anyway to get our mind off things, but how do you get your mind off of losing an immediate family member? And do you even want to get your mind off of that? Mom and I didn’t even entertain the idea of going to the beach without Dad. His absence was palpable, but it would have been magnified and exacerbated in unbelievable ways had we gone to the beach without him.

Mom and I decided to stay home, and secretly I wondered in my head whether or not I’d ever be able to go back to the beach again. The grief I felt in that moment scared me. I was afraid that every time I went to the beach without my Dad, I’d feel that same sense of pain and despair. The thought alone was debilitating.

About two years after losing Dad, my good friend Steve asked me if I wanted to go to the beach for a week as a Christmas gift (talk about having good friends!). I had wanted to go, but I was still worried about going. I was worried that, emotionally, the trip might be too much. I was worried that I hadn’t given myself enough time or space to grieve properly. And in the back of my mind, I still worried that I might not ever be able to go to the beach without thinking of Dad and picturing him there.

And guess what? I was right. I was right about the fact that I would never, never go to the beach without thinking of my Dad and conjuring up images of us there together. But I was wrong in assuming that those reflections would always be grief-inducing. Yes, there would be plenty of sadness, but there were also so many wonderful positive memories of Dad at the beach that brought a smile to my face even while I was upset. Going to the beach had the effect of flipping through a photo album after losing a loved one; yes, there would be tears as you turned each page, but it would also remind you of happy moments that you tend to forget in the midst of your loss.

I took Steve up on that offer, and I remember seeing the ocean for the first time after Dad’s death. When we grieve a loss, we tend to divide every aspect of our lives into before and after chapters. Instead of having the “first time” with any given activity, you have two first times. There’s the real first time, and then the first time after the tragedy. The first time after life changes permanently. Standing on the shore for the first time and touching my toes in the Gulf for the first time in my life on Earth without Dad was a pretty monumental and overwhelming experience. I remember standing there and thinking about Dad, and I began to tear up as I watched the sunset—a sunset that Dad certainly would have loved.

Dad and I At the BeachStanding there at the beach, I told Steve how much I missed my Dad. I really didn’t have to say anything, because Steve knew—and he was experiencing the grief himself. Steve had been tremendously close with my entire family, and my Dad treated him just like he would treat his own son. Instead of only crying, though, I was able to share tremendous memories and stories of my Dad, telling Steve all about the funny things he had done at the beach on our family vacations. I shared stories about Dad’s Banana Boat expedition, his wave-runner sandbar collision, and how he was always the last one up for dinner. Little by little, the tears were slowly replaced with a smile and laughter. I didn’t miss him any less; I just had a different focus. Instead of focusing on the loss, I was able to focus on his life. Instead of focusing on the time we didn’t have together, I focused on all the wonderful times we did.

I’ve been to the beach a few times since losing Dad, and whenever I go, memories of Dad are always in tow with me. There will never be a day when I go to the beach and don’t think about my Dad. But instead of just thinking about him, I try my best to live by his beach rules. I get up extra early so I can watch the sun rise. I swim out as far as I possibly can into the ocean—much to Paige’s dismay—and once I’m far enough out, I talk to my Dad and tell him how much I miss him. I talk with complete strangers on the beach and get to know them because that’s what Dad would have done.

And of course, I’ve taken up Dad’s throne of being the last one up.

Megan Jake Ty and Dad at BeachI spend a lot of time on the beach during dusk as many of the families on the shore will begin to retreat to their condos. And I do this for a simple reason: that’s what Dad would have done. I’ve learned why he loved it so much. As the beach starts to quiet down from a busy day of frivolity and fun, there’s a quiet stillness that begins to wash across the shore. That stillness is enticing and comforting, and it’s in those moments that I often feel closest to God. And I think about how peaceful those moments must have been to a man who struggled with depression. Dad treasured that peace. And now, I treasure the memory of his life during those peaceful moments, and I try to live it out every chance I get.

So, when everyone else starts to pack up their chairs, I plant mine a little closer to the water to honor my Dad. I let the waves wash across my sand-worn feet. I look out across the beach, and I smile. And in my heart, I thank my Dad for all those wonderful summer vacations. And I thank him for showing me the beauty of being the last one up.

Dad Burying My Head in Sand with SB LogoDad, there has never been a time when I’ve gone to the beach without thinking of you—and there never will be. You made our time at the beach together so memorable, but more than that, you taught me so many important life lessons while we were there. You taught me to slow down and relax. You taught me to soak in God’s beautiful creation. You taught me to be kind to people and get to know them, because God created them, too. You taught me to let go of all the busy things from back home and simply enjoy the life that was in front of me in that moment. I take these lessons with me everywhere I go, but especially when I go to the beach. Even though I’m still able to have fun when I go, it just isn’t the same without you. I miss our throwing sessions, and sometimes I’ll just carry a baseball in my backpack to turn over and over in my hands and think of the time we spent together. I miss trying to see who could swim the furthest out, and watching you beckon me further even when I felt like I couldn’t keep swimming. I miss walking along the shoreline with you and listening to your stories about oil rigs in the distance or planes flying overhead. You had an inquisitive, appreciative spirit for all life had to offer. And more than anything, I miss watching you enjoy those moments on the shore by yourself being the last one up. It’s strange, but sometimes it’s like I look down from the balcony and I can still see you sitting there. Dad, I know you’re still with me. I know that you’re guiding me and watching over me in everything that I do. Thank you for always being my best teacher. Thank you for being a Dad unlike any other. And thank you for always teaching me that the last one up wins. I love you, Dad. I miss you tremendously. I sure hope there are beaches in heaven, because if there are, I promise I’m going to swim further out than you. Until that day when we can be beachside together again, seeya Bub.

“O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your possessions—This great and wide sea, in which are innumerable teeming things, Living things both small and great. There the ships sail about; There is that Leviathan which you have made to play there…You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the earth.” Psalm 104:24-26, 30 (NKJV)

A Jar of Sand

I opened my desk drawer at work and pulled out a jar of sand.

To the outsider looking in, the jar is nothing special. It’s a simple mason jar filled with gray sand. On top of the sand, there rests a handful of seashells. The seashells range in color, shape, and size.

But to me, that jar is a truly cherished possession. A gesture of love and compassion. Something that means more to me than most people would ever know. This unsuspecting jar of sand was a treasure that helped me get through some of the most difficult emotional obstacles of my life.

And it came from a student I’ll never forget.


Swimming trunks? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Shades? Check.

I ran through the list as I had done so many times before, as my family geared up for our summer vacation to Gulf Shores, Alabama. Mom, Dad, and I were heading down to the beach for a week. We hadn’t been in a few years as a family, so we were all looking forward to the opportunity to get away for a week and soak up the sun in our favorite seaside haven.

It was July of 2013.

In a week or so, my family would be leaving for our beach vacation, and we couldn’t be more excited. We all needed a break from the everyday routines we had established, and in my family nothing was more peaceful than parking a chair in the sand along the coast and staring out into the endless waves.

We were anticipating so many great times together in Gulf Shores, and we were also anticipating a very long and very uncomfortable ride in the truck. My Dad’s truck may have comfortably sat four riders, but that was without luggage. But even a family of three should have been able to fit in the truck somewhat-comfortably with plenty of luggage to last throughout the week.

Not my family. Specifically, not my Mom. Although Dad and I were pretty efficient packers, Mom always believed that we should bring anything and everything that we would possibly need or want during that week—and to be safe we should probably bring two of them.

The night leading up to our departure was always interesting, as Dad would try to solve the most complex game of Tetris he had ever encountered—piecing all of our luggage into the back of the truck without obstructing his view out of the rear window. I would always help my Dad as he put the luggage into the vehicle we were driving, and we would both shake our heads and bite our lips when we saw how much stuff we had packed. Dad would typically find at least one thing to grow endlessly frustrated about that my Mom had packed.

“Becky, do we really need to take a gallon sized plastic pitcher with us?” he would yell through the door.

“What am I going to make lemonade in if we don’t?” she would yell back.

Dad would turn around, mumble under his breath about how there were pitchers in the condo kitchen that she could probably use, and then he would do what any good husband would do. He put the pitcher back in the truck and packed it anyway.

But this summer, Dad had his new truck. In an effort to make us all a little more comfortable, he was scouring the Web for a new cap or toolbox he could put in the bed of his truck so we could store all of the luggage in there instead of cramming everything into the cab. Each night, Dad would spend some time looking at the newest name-brand contraptions that would turn the bed of his truck into the premium luggage hauler for our nearly 700 mile drive. He would slowly read things on the Internet, pondering reviews and printing out possible solutions.

He did this all the way up until the night before his death. I would like to think that my Dad was looking forward to that trip. I have no idea whether the suicidal thoughts he would feel the next day had already invaded his mind, but it’s very hard to imagine that my Dad would have been looking at options to increase his packing capacity had he not envisioned going to the beach.

What a great trip it would have been. Dad absolutely loved the beach. We had spent so many summer vacations sitting shore-side in chairs under umbrellas soaking in the sun and admiring what we thought was God’s most beautiful creation. My Dad always seemed to be at peace at the beach. He would lay calmly on a beach towel in the sand as the sun beat down on his back. He would dig holes and build sand sculptures. He would swim out as far as he possibly could into the ocean while my Mom looked on nervously from her chair.

But he was never isolated at the beach. He and my Mom would take long walks along the shore, talking and looking at the sea gulls as they flew by. He and I would toss a baseball back and forth until our arms got tired or we overheated, and then we would jump into the waves and toss a ball there instead. And Dad, always the chatterbox, would make friends with the strangers who had set up camp near us on the beach. He would get to know people from all over the country and learn about their lives. If he met them early on in the trip, he would be sure to get to say hello to them every day of the trip.

Dad just seemed so happy at the beach. It was his little slice of heaven on earth. And I often wonder if he’d still be sitting here next to me today had that trip been a week or so earlier. I can’t help but imagine…


Instead of spending that week on the beach, it was more than a month after my Dad’s death and I was sitting in my office chair at Miami University Middletown, staring aimlessly at my computer and pondering my new life. My work days, when I could actually get the strength to go in, were full of daydreaming, pondering, and distraction. I would try to commit my mind to projects and tasks before the start of the semester, but it was nearly impossible. I could only seem to think about my Dad and how desperately I missed him.

Mom and I hadn’t seriously entertained the idea of going on vacation without Dad after his funeral, even though many people had encouraged us to go anyway as a way to escape the reality of our new life. We both knew that it was just too early to go on a family vacation when we felt like our family wasn’t whole. Going to the beach without Dad was just too much for us to take on so soon. So, we stayed home and eventually tried to get back to normal life—or our new normal. I knew I couldn’t go so soon, and seriously wondered whether I would ever be able to go back again without him.

As I sat at my desk one afternoon trying not to cry, I heard a knock at my office door. It was Gillian Maxfield, one of my campus tour guides and a student I had grown to adore during her time at Miami.

“Hi there, Gillian,” I said, pronouncing her name with a hard “G” (like Gilligan), an inside joke between she and I that traced back to the first time I met her. I had read her name off of a roster of campus tour guides shortly after I took over the role at Miami, and when I pronounced her name the way I did, everyone laughed as she corrected me.

“It’s Gillian! Like with a ‘J’!” she laughed.

“But it doesn’t have a ‘J’,” I said with a look of mock confusion on my face. Honestly, I had never seen that name spelled that way! “It has a ‘G.’ Therefore, I’ll call you Gill-ee-en.

Everyone laughed, including Gillian, and for as long as I worked at Miami I nearly always pronounced her name that way.

Gillian was the type of student that every educator dreams of—resilient, willing to take chances, and always appreciative of the opportunities she was given in life. Gillian came to Miami with a healthy dose of nervousness towards college, but she immediately started to embrace leadership opportunities all across the campus. She started participating in the wealth of student activities that were offered, and eventually joined the student organization that planned all of them. She held a campus job as an administrative assistant in the Dean of Students’ office. She was a dynamic student leader for the new student orientation programs held at the campus. And she became one of my most reliable, dependable, and engaging campus tour guides during her time there—not to mention a favorite for many of the families who came to explore.

Gillian always seemed a little nervous when she started giving tours on a regular basis after I began supervising the tour guides, but she was courageous and took every opportunity she could to improve her communication skills. She did it with great success, because her tour groups would always return from their stroll around campus with big smiles on their faces and plenty of compliments for their guide.

“Gillian was absolutely tremendous! She did a great job!” This was a common refrain from the visitors who would come to our campus. Gillian, always humble and never boasting, would smile, blush, and laugh nervously. She never failed to disappoint.

Seeing Gillian stand in my office doorway shortly after my return to work after Dad’s death was so comforting. She walked around my desk as I rose from my chair.

“I am so sorry to hear about your Dad, Tyler,” she said as she gave me a hug. “I know this must be a very difficult time for you.”

Her words were filled with compassion and generosity. She was always so genuine, and I appreciated this most. We both sat down and talked about how kind and supportive everyone had been during my return, and how I was slowly but surely learning to cope with a new world that my Dad was absent from.

Then, Gillian gave me one of the most genuine memories from that difficult chapter of my life that I still hold near and dear to my heart to this day. Gillian reached into her bag and pulled out a mason jar, handing it to me across the desk.

“I know that you weren’t able to go the beach this summer,” Gillian said, “and I know how much you were looking forward to going with your Mom and Dad. I wanted to bring you some sand and seashells from one of my family vacations as a way for you to remember the good times you had with your Dad at the beach.”

Jar of Sand

I looked at the mason jar as tears filled my eyes. I got up from my desk again, giving Gillian another hug as I attempted (unsuccessfully) not to break down. We sat back down as I turned the jar around in my hand, appreciating the beauty of the seashells and sand in front of me. Gillian was right—having that jar in my hand did bring back so many wonderful memories of the times that my family and I had spent together on the beach. I shared some of those stories with Gillian, and she sat in my office helping me grieve in ways that she never even knew. We talked for a while, and she let me express my feelings with the patience and maturity of someone far beyond her years. As we neared the end of our conversation, I got up to give her another hug as she left the office.

“Thank you, Gillian,” I said, pronouncing her name correctly for the first time in many years. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”


Just a few weeks ago, I was looking at that same jar of sand, yet again with tears in my eyes but for a very different reason.

I sat the jar down on the table, and walked out of my house in a black suit and shirt. After a short drive, I walked into the funeral home. I was there to attend Gillian’s funeral.

Gillian MaxfieldHealth complications had taken her too soon. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years after I left the job at the Middletown Campus, a fact that I now felt very guilty about. It’s so easy to say that we will all stay in touch when jobs or other circumstances change, and I hate that time makes these promises so difficult to maintain.

I used to have such difficulty attending funerals, but being on the receiving end of one changes everything. Thousands of people came out to show their love and support for my Dad during his funeral, and it made my Mom and I feel so loved and cared for. Ever since then, I’ve learned how wonderful it can feel to have people attend a funeral and tell stories about their loved ones.

I went for Gillian, but I also went for her family. Before approaching the casket, I had a chance to share the story of the jar of sand with Gillian’s heartbroken parents, once again with tears in my eyes. I told them how that gesture of love had warmed my heart and helped me survive the most difficult loss of my life. I told them how proud I was of all Gillian had done at Miami.

“I’ve kept that jar in my desk ever since that day,” I told them. “Every now and then, I pull it out and think about that day when she came to my office and gave it to me. She is the type of student every educator dreams of. Thank you for sharing her with all of us.” We discussed all of the memories we both shared of her, and Gillian’s Dad even remembered the day she had gathered the materials for the jar. We smiled together through tears—a reflection of a life well lived.

We hugged, and I approached her casket, preparing to say my respects one last time. Although her body was in front of me, I could only see the Gillian in my memories, full of life and flashing that familiar smile that had warmed so many hearts on our campus during her time there.

“Thank you, Gillian, for the jar of sand,” I said to her in my final goodbyes. “Thank you for being you.”

That jar of sand will always be one of my most treasured possession—not because of the shells and sand it contains, but because of the love it represents. More than I could ever express to her in person, Gillian went out of her way to help me grieve. But when I attended the funeral that day, everyone had their own “jar of sand” story about Gillian. We could all recollect moments when Gillian had touched our hearts so deeply in completely extraordinary ways.

I hope I can be more like Gillian as I go through this life. I hope I can exude the same zest for life she showed each and every day. Tragedy is inevitable, and I hope that in someone else’s moment of distress I can provide a “jar of sand” for them. I will never, ever forget how much that loving gesture strengthened my courage and resolve to deal with tragedy, and I’ll always be grateful for Gillian—a student who, just like a seashell, was truly one of a kind.

dad-and-seagulls-with-seeya-bub-logoDad, I often envy the fact that you are meeting so many wonderful people who are in Heaven, and I hope you’ve had an opportunity to meet Gillian. She helped me remember all the wonderful moments you and I had shared together with Mom and our family at the beach. She was one of God’s angels here on Earth who helped me cope with your loss, and I have no doubt that you are thanking her in person for that jar of sand she gave me. Thank you for giving me so many great memories. Until we can share all of those memories again together, seeya Bub.

“So, encourage each other and build each other up…” 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)