Crashing

My Dad loved riding a bike. I loved it too—but I did not love the crashing part.

When we moved to our house on Headgates Road, I started noticing my Dad’s interest in biking. Always the one to buy the most tricked-out, high-tech equipment associated with anything he did, my Dad went out and bought a 21-speed mountain bike shortly after we moved into the neighborhood. Before long, he would affix a headlight and a speedometer to the bike, upgrade the seat, and buy tires that would allow him to bike through the deepest of snow, the muddiest mud, or the gravelliest gravel.

The Headgates Road neighborhood really is a biker’s paradise—even more so now than it was when we first moved in. There was minimal traffic throughout the neighborhood, and it offered a ton of side streets and cul-de-sacs that were free of everything but the local traffic. The neighborhood was always pretty well-lit, and as more and more people desired to move to that part of town, the development of new homes brought with it more streets and sidewalks for my Dad to ride on. Our neighborhood was also perfectly located adjacent to Rentschler Park, a forest-like preserve with plenty of hiking and biking trails. Eventually, an expansion of the neighborhood connected our home to the park via a service road, and now, it’s even more grand. Many folks take advantage of the new bike path that connects Rentschler Park in Hamilton/Fairfield Township to Waterworks Park in Fairfield—a path that winds for about 12 miles along the Great Miami River.

Even before all of the paths were added in, though, Dad was a biker at heart. Oftentimes, that was how he relaxed after dinner. He would scarf down a delicious meal cooked by Mom, guzzle down a can of Coca-Cola (or two), and then hop on his bike for an evening ride as the sun would set.

Dad was always willing to have me—his “little buddy”—along for the ride. From the time I was little, I always had a bike, and Dad always encouraged me to ride it. I remember how happy he was when I ditched the training wheels, and how he always threw caution to the wind and encouraged me to be adventurous. He was that Dad who always encouraged me to pedal faster, pop a wheelie, or jump on a ramp, even though that call to “go wild” never really sunk in. I was always a pretty cautious little biker. I enjoyed it, but I also appreciated the bones in both my arms and legs and didn’t want to do anything to put their operational ability in peril.

On those nights when I did join Dad for a bike ride, he was always patient. He always waited for me to catch up to him. He never treated me like I was a nuisance or annoyance, even though in hindsight I can see that I probably was. If I went on a ride with Dad, it actually worked out for him because he ended up getting two rides in that night. After dropping me off at the house to grab a post-pedal-popsicle, he would hop back on the saddle and cruise out again for a few more miles in the setting sun.

Dad loved everything about a bike ride. He loved the exercise. He loved the rhythm. He loved the wind in his hair; and then, when his hair was gone, he loved the wind on his scalp. He loved spending time in nature, and a bike allowed him to cover more ground and appreciate even more of it. Of all the times that I saw my Dad on a bike, I don’t think I ever saw him without a smile.

Except for that time when I went over the handlebars.

Have you ever flipped over the handlebars of a bike? It sounds more fun than it is. I mean, I guess the element of flight is fun; it’s the crashing part that’s brutal. Usually there’s some kind of painful cracking or bruising or loss of fluids that doesn’t sound like my idea of a good time. But it’s the risk you take when you ride a bike, and if you’re as uncoordinated as me, it’s a risk that comes with pretty bad odds.

My Dad was always the parent leader when it came to bike rides with all of my neighborhood friends, and there were many times that Dad would effortlessly lead a group of seven or eight grade schoolers—all with different biking skill and capability—on a trail ride through the hills at Rentschler Park. There were a number of different neighborhood playmates that I biked with: Devin, Brittany, her brother Jeremy, brothers Matt and Ryan (or “Peanut” as we always called him), and Anthony and Greg (otherwise known as “The Twins). It was funny that my Dad was often the adventurous “leader of the bike pack” considering that I was the absolute least adventurous kid on that list. All of my friends were much more risk-attuned than I was, and I think that’s why my Dad liked hanging out with them and liked that I was around them as well. Deep down, he had to secretly hope that some of their no-fear-nature would rub off on me.

As a kid, Dad always made these bike rides so fun and so enjoyable. Like he did at any family gathering, vacation bible school playtime, or church softball game, my Dad was a consummate entertainer. He was always on board for whatever silliness it took to propel my little legs on that bike. If it meant he had to pretend that he was a villain and I was the good guy chasing him, he’d do it. Or if he had to pretend that he was a rabid wolf that had somehow learned how to ride a bike and give me a 20-second headstart to get away as he foamed at the mouth and snarled, he’d do it. Dad loved having fun, he loved being outdoors, and he loved making people laugh—and taking me and all the neighborhood kids on a bike ride was pure joy for him.

Dad would often take us on a bicycle caravan through the infamous “Pinecone Trail” at Rentschler Park, a beautiful mile-and-a-half-or-so trail that includes hills, bridges, stairs, and narrow pathways that wind through tall trees along a stunning creek bed filled with rocks and calmly cascading water.

There’s not a caution sign to be had on that trail, and Dad absolutely loved it.

I don’t know how he did it, but Dad would ride that entire trail without getting off his bike seat once. He would pump his pedals up steeply-graded hills. He would whip through hairpin turns nearly skidding into tree stumps. And staircases? He didn’t even get off his bike at staircases!!! He’d either skirt the staircase and ride down the hill to the left of the stairs, or in a dangerous “kids, don’t try this at home” fashion, he’d just find a way to ride down the staircase on the bike.

It’s a good thing I didn’t have a daredevil spirit as a kid, because my Dad would have been a really bad influence on bike rides.

It didn’t stop him from trying though. Deep down, although he never would have admitted it, I think my Dad always wished I had a bit more of a rebellious streak in me. I think that my Dad wanted me to not be so cautious, to get a few more bumps, knicks, scrapes, and bruises. I know that my Dad loved me, but I also think that he often wondered how his only offspring could have ended up being so timid. Dad would goad me on during most of those bike rides, as I was inevitably the kid at the back of the line slowing down the entire chain of young peddlers and praying to my God and any others who would listen for a juice break. “Come on Bub,” he’d yell. “We gotta get home before it gets dark….heck, at the rate you’re going, we gotta get home before the sun comes up again!”

Every now and then, I’d get frustrated with Dad for pushing me to be a bit more adventurous when we rode bikes. I’d yell back at him and tell him that there was no way I could possibly pedal any further, and then tell him to just leave me for dead (did I mention that I had a flare for the dramatics as a kid?). Dad would bid me adieu and tell me to say hello to the coyotes that came out at night, and I’d pick up and pedal frantically to catch up to him.

But every now and then, the adventurous streak would flare up. It wasn’t much of a streak, but a streak nonetheless.

I don’t remember how old I was on this particular trip, but Dad had taken my friends and I out for a bike ride through the woods, and we were making our way home. The paths had been cleared and redirected as a result of some new housing developments in the area, and to Dad’s glee, the woods had been cleared to provide a new exit from Rentschler Park that involved speeding down a long, sloping hill, coming up another hill, and then flying down a much steeper hill on the other side to link up the newly-paved bike path.

It was a daredevil’s perfect ending to a long bike ride.

And I almost peed my pants just looking at it.

Per usual, Dad went first, hooting and hollering the entire way. My more adventurous friends followed, and before I knew it, I was the only kid at the top of the hill. I could feel the cold sweat forming across my body, and for a momentary second, I flirted with the idea of pretending to faint and collapse. However, I was afraid there might be snakes in the grass, so I ditched that plan quickly.

“Come on, Bub! It’s fun—you’re gonna love it!” Dad and all my friends continued to yell. After a few moments of back-and-forth in my mind, I decided I’d give the hill a chance. I’d keep a steady hand on the right brake, but it was worth a shot. No one else in front of me had injured anything, so I figured it had to be okay.

Slowly, I let go of the brake handle and gravity started to work its magic. I added a little pedal power to the proceedings, and before you knew it, I was gone faster than the Cincinnati Reds in the playoffs. There was no point in peddling because my silvery-blue Mongoose would have busted apart at the bolts had any more speed entered in the equation.

I sailed down the first hill, hit the trough at the bottom, and went up the hill in front of me. To my surprise, I had picked up so much speed that my bike barely slowed as I went up that hill. Upon reaching the crest, I didn’t even have time to pause and soak up the view from the apex, and before I knew it, I was cruising down the other side at an impressive rate of speed as a smile started to emerge on my face.

Maybe Dad was on to something about this whole “safety be damned” approach to living!

But then, it happened. The grass near the bottom of the hill hadn’t been mowed in quite a few weeks, and burrowed within that tall, green grass was an elevated manhole cover for a nearby water processing building. Unlike the manhole covers you see in the city that are flush with the ground, this one stuck up out of the ground by about a foot.

That’s enough to send you flying if you don’t see it. And I didn’t see a thing.

With an unsuspecting smile on my face from the happiness of finally overcoming a fear and finally feeling triumphant, I nailed that manhole cover without even realizing what had happened. The momentum flung me over the handlebars of my bike, and I landed flat on my back atop that manhole cover. Then, as if the crash itself wasn’t enough embarrassment, the bike continued to flip into the air and then landed on top of me with a thud.

For what I lack in grace, I can make up for in my ability to let out a guttural shriek of pain—which I promptly did after regaining my breath.

The disastrous display left me unable to breathe. My wind was completely knocked out, and I wretched and convulsed on the ground grasping at my chest like I needed an octuple bypass. That was, of course, after my friends and my Dad had run to my side and flung the bike off of me.

All joking aside, I was in about as much pain as you could imagine one would be in after smashing into a manhole cover on a bike and landing atop an unmovable metal and concreate structure. My back had bent in a way that it shouldn’t have bent. I was sore immediately, and knew that this pain was going to last for a couple days.

Aside from the physical pain that I was in, my little ego had also been bruised. It’s never fun to do something stupid; it’s definitely not fun to do something stupid in front of friends that you want to admire you at such an impressionable young age. I had put my lack of athletic ability on display, yet again, in front of my friends who already teased me for being as uncoordinated as a baby giraffe in high heels. I couldn’t help but cry in this moment, and I was waiting for my Dad to ride up and laugh as well.

But good Dads don’t tease when they know that their child is bruised—physically and emotionally.

Without a word, Dad threw his bike to the ground and ran to me. He picked me up into his strong arms, and just held onto me until I could catch my breath again.

“It’s okay, Bub,” he just said until I could breathe again. He started to ask me what was hurting, and I told him that my back really was in a ton of pain. Because my Dad knew me well, he knew when I was faking and when I wasn’t—and in this moment, he knew that I wasn’t.

Without missing a beat, Dad sprung into action mode. I was amazed at how quickly and expeditiously he organized the troops and got us on the move.

“Alright guys, I’m going to need one of you to grab Ty’s bike and walk it home, along with yours. Who’s got it?”

One of my friends piped up and made their way over to my bike, and before I knew it, Dad had picked me up and rested me atop his bike handlebars. We still had about a mile to go to get home, but Dad pushed me cautiously and carefully while cradling me the entire way. I whimpered a bit (because that’s what wimpy little kids like me did), and Dad just kept talking to me to try to get my mind off of things as the hot summer sun started to set.

“Well, Bub,” Dad said, “if it counts for anything, you got some real good height on that front flip!”

Even in the middle of tears, you can’t help but laugh at a line like that.

Eventually, we made it home. Over the next few days, both the bruises to my back and to my ego started to fade—and, in time, my friends and my Dad never let me live down the “bike flip” incident. Every time we saw a manhole cover within 300 feet of us on a ride, they made sure to warn me.

But a good Dad swoops in, picks you up, and carries you when you’re not able to walk. That’s what I felt with my Dad on that day, and more importantly, that’s what I felt from him every time I crashed—both physically and metaphorically.

My Dad was always there to pick me up when I crashed. He did it that day of the bike debacle, and he did it on so many other days. He did it when in moments when I didn’t feel confident in my abilities. He did it after I would fail at an athletic event (he sure had a heck of a lot of opportunities to come to my aid in that category). He did it when I was in college and started having an identity crisis after giving up on my career trajectory of becoming an educator that I had professed since I was young. He did it when I suffered from my own, paralyzing, nine-month bout with clinical anxiety.

Dad never judged. He never criticized me or accused me of wrongdoing or fault when I was hurting. He just swooped in, picked me up, and carried me until I could walk again.

That’s what great Dads do. That’s what my Dad always did—both for me, and for others. That’s what I wish I had done for him more often.

When my Dad crashed as a result of his depression, it was a hard crash. Over time, we were able to see a pretty predictable pattern. My Dad would succumb to his clinical depression, he would shut down, and would even escape by leaving without telling anyone where he had gone. He was afraid to let people know that he was hurting. He was afraid he’d somehow disappoint them. I hate that Dad felt such shame—he didn’t deserve to.

Quote Tile - CrashingOver time, I learned—we all learned—how to support Dad when he crashed, and I think we learned by watching how he supported all of us. We didn’t get it right every time, but we tried to be there for him because that’s what he always did. My Dad was the guy who was just there for people. He listened, he didn’t judge, he empathized, and he gave us all reassurance and confidence that the crash didn’t define us. That’s what we all tried to do to support Dad. It was imperfectly executed, especially by me, but we tried. We gave it our best effort.

And even though my Dad isn’t here any longer to support me or the people he loved when we inevitably crash, I think one of the best things we can do to honor his memory is to just continue being there. To swoop in when we see someone who is crashing. To serve them. To bolster their spirits, their mind, and their attitude. And, even though it takes a lot of work, we should be there to pick them up and carry them until they feel good enough to walk again.

That was the Scott Bradshaw way. It wasn’t my Dad’s crash that defined him; it was the way he helped others who were crashing that captures his true story.

I love my Dad and miss him desperately, especially in those moments where I’ve felt the same pain of crashing like I did on that day many years ago when I sailed over the handlebars. In a different way, I have felt my Dad there carrying me in all the years that he’s been gone. I have felt him, in those awful moments, continuing to carry me when I can’t walk. When you live a life as big as the one my Dad did, the love doesn’t stop when the heart does. I’m thankful for a Dad that was there to let me crash—because I learned from it. I’m thankful for a Dad that encouraged me to take risks, even if there was a high likelihood that a crash would occur. But more importantly, I’m thankful for a Dad that never turned his back on me when I did crash.

And…I’m pretty thankful for helmets, too.

Dad and I on Dirtbike with SB LogoDad, The comfort I felt in your arms walking home after my failed-and-unintentional-bike-stunt was a feeling that I can instantly snap back to at any moment—and it’s a feeling that I desperately miss. You were my rock. You were my safe haven. You provided protection from the dangers of the world, but you encouraged me to not play it safe. Dad, thank you for giving me the feeling of safety that allowed me to ride freely. Thank you for being there on all those days when I needed you most. I never questioned whether or not you were at my side, and even since your death, I’ve known that you were there. I think about you each day and wonder what life would look like if you were still here. Even though there’s sadness at that longing, I know that you’re in a place where the pain you experienced here exists no more. I’m thankful that you’re basking in the glow and warmth of Eternity where the pain of crashing is no more. Dad, I love you, and I miss you like crazy. Thanks for always being there for me—both in this world, and in the next. Until I can thank you face-to-face, seeya Bub.

“…and if you give what you have to the hungry, and fill the needs of those who suffer, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your darkness will be like the brightest time of day.” Isaiah 58:10 (NLV)

The Portrait

“Of course, Tyler. I’d be honored to do it.”

I couldn’t believe it. I simply could not believe what I was hearing.

My side-gig as a sports announcer has given me some pretty amazing opportunities, and my work with the Joe Nuxhall Miracle League Fields has taken that to a whole new level. As a result, I get to connect with some pretty amazing people. I’ve had the opportunity to become friends with some of my broadcasting idols. I’ve had chances to meet Cincinnati Reds players that I grew up cheering for….and a few that I may have booed at one point or another (I’m from Cincinnati, it’s what we do). I cherish all of the wonderful folks I’ve met over the years, but there are none more special than renowned illustrator C.F. Payne.

CF Payne PhotoWhether you know it or not, you’ve seen C.F. Payne’s work. You’ll find his art on the covers of Time MagazineReaders DigestSports IllustratedThe New York Times Book ReviewMAD MagazineU.S. News and World ReportThe Atlantic MonthlyTexas MonthlyBoys Life and more. He has illustrated popular children’s books, and his art hangs in art museums all across the country.

CF Payne Obama CoverIf you’re somebody, C.F. Payne has likely captured you in one of his illustrations. President Barack Obama, Joe Nuxhall, Magic Johnson, Albert Einstein, President Ronald Reagan, David Letterman, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Andy Griffith, Katie Couric, President Thomas Jefferson, the Pope…heck, he’s even done Santa!

 

CF Payne Santa

His style is beyond recognizable. I’m not an art expert, and I am probably not using the right terminology, but C.F. Payne’s work is Americana to me. He takes an image, adds emotion to it, and let’s that emotion shape his representation. He uses wonderfully bright colors, and the texture pops off the page. C.F.’s portraits have such depth and such character. There is no other artist who can do what he does. His gift is simply breathtaking.

But his heart is even greater than his gift.

I’ve come to know C.F. Payne through the work he does for the Joe Nuxhall Miracle League Fields. C.F. has done a number of wonderful illustrations for us each and every year, including portraits of Marty Brennaman, Sean Casey, Anthony Munoz, and others. Just last year, C.F. created one of my favorite pieces when he did a waving illustration of my broadcasting idol, Joe Nuxhall, that was installed on the monster wall of the Miracle League Field complex. Joe is smiling and waving as he watches over the baseball facility that bears his name. I know that Joe has been gone for ten years, but when I look at that illustration, I feel like he’s there with us. C.F.’s work warms my heart.

CF Payne Joe Nuxhall Cutout

On this particular night, though, my heart was racing. I was standing across from C.F. before our annual Miracle League benefit, and a crazy idea had just crossed into my mind.

I wanted to ask C.F. to do an illustration of my Dad.

The event was in early November, and for a few months I had been thinking frantically about a gift that I could get for my Mom that might help her remember my Dad. For a few Christmases, my Mom had given me unbelievable gifts to commemorate my Dad: the phenomenal quilt made of his old shirts, gifts with tags that he had written with his own hand and that she had saved, and ornaments that had reminded me of my Dad to grace the branches of my Christmas tree. Each and every year her gifts got more thoughtful as my heart continued to grieve. I missed him all the time, but I especially missed him at Christmas. Being able to have a gift that celebrated my Dad gave the pain a different feeling. The unbelievable hurt was still there, but there was a warm comfort in the presence of his memory that helped me cope.

I was standing across from C.F. before the event began when the idea came to me.

Tell him your Dad’s story. Tell him how much you miss him. Ask him to do a portrait.

C.F., in typical C.F. fashion, came up to me with a hearty hello and handshake and asked me how things were going. We had met numerous times at the Miracle Leagues, and it was so good to see him again. At some point, our conversation crossed the topic of the impending holiday, and I told him how hard it was to enjoy Christmas after losing my Dad. We began to talk about my Dad, and what impressed me most was how caring and sympathetic C.F. was as I told my story. He listened intently. He asked me questions about my Dad, and his sorrow was palpable. He genuinely wanted to get to know my Dad, to understand what happened, and show me that he cared. I felt a kinship with him in that moment because of the compassion he showed me. We talked about mental illness and my Dad’s suffering, and how his life had ended so unnecessarily and so prematurely, and we talked about the horrible impact of suicide on families like mine. All throughout, C.F. made me feel like my story mattered. He made me feel like my Dad mattered. He made me feel loved.

I don’t know how I ever got the courage to ask a world-renowned artist to create an illustration of my Dad, and I’m sure I did it nervously, but I told C.F. about the wonderful gifts my Mom had given me over the past couple years. As my hands began to sweat, I thought about backing out. But I wanted to do this for my Mom. I cushioned my statement by saying I wanted to ask him something, and that he could feel free to say no if he was too busy, but I wondered, just maybe, if he would be willing to do a portrait of my Father.

C.F. looked at me with the tender smile of his I’ve seen so many times before and he touched my shoulder.

“Of course, Tyler. I’d be honored to do it.”

I immediately began to tear up. This Christmas would be different. Yes, it would still be sad and emptier without Dad there, but he would be there with us in a very different way.

Over the next few weeks, I sent C.F. pictures of my Dad. I told him about the things he liked and his character so he could get a feel for the type of man he was.

I loved getting to see inside C.F.’s mind and how he approached his work. Early on when I was sending him photos, C.F. asked me to make sure I sent photos of my Dad from a variety of different settings so he could get to know his life, and he also asked me to send more than just my favorite pictures of my Dad. He asked me to send photos that were imperfect and candid because they would capture all of my Dad’s features—including his imperfections. I thought this was so fitting, because it was those very same imperfections that had made my Dad who he was. When I think of my Dad, it isn’t glamorized. It’s real, and that’s what I hoped this portrait would be. I had seen the whole picture of my Dad, and I wanted that whole picture to be captured in his portrait.

As the calendar drew closer to the end of December, I began to grow more and more anxious in anticipation of the gift C.F. would give to my Mom and my family. C.F. sent me a few of his initial sketches, and I cried each and every time I got a new message from him. In his studio, C.F. was toiling away as he tried to capture my Father’s likeness.

Then, one day, I got a message from C.F. that he had finished the portrait and couldn’t wait to show it to me. That weekend, I drove to Lebanon and C.F. invited me into his lovely and historic home to show the finished product of his hard work. We walked across the hard wood floors into his dining room, and I saw a white cardboard portrait frame sitting on his table. My heart grew tight when I saw the frame, knowing what was inside it would be so special. We approached the table together, and C.F. opened the frame, pulled back the tissue paper, and revealed his most recent creation—a piece of artwork that would breathe life back into my Father’s memory.

CF Payne Illustration of Dad

I looked at the portrait, into the bespectacled eyes of the man who had given me life and guided me through it, and I saw the smile that I had missed for so long. There, on the table in front of me, was my Dad, illustrated by the caring hands and compassionate heart of the greatest artist I’ve ever known.

I crossed my arms and raised my hand to my mouth as tears began to well up in my eyes. C.F. reached over and grabbed me by the shoulder.

“Well, did I get him?” he said.

“Yes, C.F. You got him, and more. This…this is my Dad.”

I couldn’t take my eyes off the portrait. It was stunning and captivating. My Dad felt so alive when I stared at that piece of paper. I wanted more than anything for him to be alive again. This was my way of still holding onto him. He had even taken the care to include a picture of Lucy, our dog that we had tragically lost just a year earlier, into the picture because he knew how much she meant to us and how much my Dad loved her. I looked at both of them and wished for those Christmases we had spent together as a family.

C.F. hugged me. We talked about my Dad. We talked about how this Christmas would be different. I thanked him as much as I could. And when I got in my truck, I lost it. I completely fell apart. The fact that someone as talented, busy, and important as C.F. Payne would take the time to help me and help my Mom hold onto my Dad was just overwhelming. There are so many people who are talented in this world…but how many of them are kind? Kind to the point that they will give of their talent to help hurting hearts in the world around them?

I know of at least one.

C.F. Payne is just that man. His portfolio runs deep, but his heart runs deeper. He is an inspiration and Godsend for my grieving family, and nothing proved that more than the Christmas morning that would follow a few days later.

I am horrible at keeping secrets, and I had a better chance of playing third base for the Reds than I did to keep this under wraps for those few months. By the grace of God however, I did it. I showed the portrait to only a few folks, and like me, they all cried when they saw it. But they also smiled because it reminded them of the happiness my Dad always sent out into the world. I told them the story and I told them about C.F., and they were amazed by his talent but even more impressed by his generosity.

On Christmas Eve, I hid the portrait behind the couch. I was terrified that this priceless artifact would somehow get damaged before I could give it to my Mom. I had a nightmare that Sadie, Mom’s new dog who can be a bit rambunctious and squirrely, would chew it up. Thankfully, she couldn’t fit behind the couch.

I had a great plan. I was going to wait until we had opened all of our gifts, and then miraculously pull the portrait from behind the couch pretending I didn’t know what it was. I would then hand it to my Mom with a look of complete surprise. This was a good plan. I knew I could do it.

So about halfway through our gift-opening, I’m handing the portrait to my Mom. You can’t be surprised by this if you know me.

Christmas is no time for perfect plans (ask Jesus about that whole manger deal). I just could not contain my excitement and nervousness. I wanted Mom to feel the way I felt when I saw it. I wanted her to be able to smile when she looked at Dad as he smiled back. She deserved that.

She opened the portrait, and her tears burst forth. In that special moment, I could see the pain and anguish in the heart of a grieving widow. I could feel the weight of longing for Christmases of yesteryear. In an instant, I could see how happy my Mom was to see my Dad immortalized, but how sad she was to no longer have him on the couch next to her as we basked in the glow of our family Christmas tree. There was pain in losing him, but tremendous joy in his memory.

mom-with-dads-portrait.jpgMom slowly ran her hands over the paper. “Oh, Scott…” she said. She cried as I put my hand on her shoulder, and I recounted the story of how that portrait came to be.

My Mom must have stared at the image of my Dad for so long without taking her eyes off of it. I admit I did the same. It was hard not to because the portrait had such character, such vividness.

And now, this Christmas, things will be a little different. For the past few years, the living room of our family home has always had that eerie absence. My Mom and I both know it’s there, but we try not to focus on it. We miss my Dad coming down the stairs (usually after we had been yelling at him to do so for quite some time). We miss how excited he would get watching our dog open presents (he was definitely more excited than that than watching me. I had thumbs. Dogs didn’t. Their feat is immediately more impressive). We miss how he would lounge around all day watching Ralphie almost shoot his eye out. I miss the days when I was little and he would spend all day playing with me and the toys I received. He never complained about having to put something together or install batteries. He just enjoyed the day with his family. And now that he’s gone, we desperately miss his excitement.

But in that same living room that has felt less full for the past few years, life is a little bit different. Now, when I miss my Dad, I need only look over at the wall by the window. There, in a beautiful frame, hangs a picture of my Father and his pup looking over all of us smiling with that familiar smile that we long to see again. He watches over everything we do, and you can feel his presence there with us each and every time you look at it.

In the months that have followed, I’ve told C.F. how thankful I am for the art he created for my family, because that portrait has become one of my family’s most cherished heirlooms. You could put my Dad’s portrait next to the Mona Lisa, and I would choose my Dad’s portrait each and every time…and not just because my Dad had a better smile. It’s more valuable to me than the most expensive painting or sculpture that has ever existed, because the man depicted in that illustration meant so very much to me and everyone whose life he touched.

In the time between C.F. giving me the portrait and me giving it to my Mom on Christmas morning, I would talk with people (very secretly) about what I was doing and show them a picture of the portrait on my phone. The week before Christmas at my church, I showed the portrait to my pastor, Dave. Like everyone who knew my Dad and saw the portrait, Dave began to tear up and smile simultaneously (which is a testament to C.F.’s great talent). I remember shaking my head in awe as I told Dave about C.F. and the work he did and how thoughtful he was to me all throughout, but also at my feelings of unworthiness.

“Dave,” I said, “This is a man who has illustrated Time Magazine covers. He has illustrated American presidents. Celebrities. Hall of Fame athletes…”

“And now,” Dave said without missing a beat, “He’s doing someone even more important.”

He was exactly right. My Dad was a tremendous man, and now he had a tremendously deserved commemoration on behalf of the most talented artist I’ve ever met.

The true talent of an artist resides not in his hands, but in his heart. And as valuable as C.F.’s artistic talent might be, it’s his heart that is made of pure gold. I will never, ever be able to say thank you enough to C.F. How do you say thank you to someone who gives your family such a priceless gift? You cherish their work. You appreciate the beauty they’ve given to your life. You gaze upon their art and you thank God for the talent they have, but more importantly for the talent they share.

This Christmas, I’ll look forward to seeing that portrait near the tree on Christmas morning. I’ll say a silent thank you again to C.F., and I’ll wish his family the Merry Christmas that they deserve to have. As we open presents, I’ll look over my shoulder, and I’ll see those familiar glasses. I’ll see that familiar bald head. I’ll see that familiar smile.

And in those moments, I’ll love my Dad and the artist who has helped me hold onto a little bit of him forever and ever. It’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever been given and had the pleasure to give, and I’ll never stop admiring that portrait.

CF Payne Illustration with SB LogoDad, Christmas mornings aren’t the same without you. We miss your smile. We miss your silly Dad humor and goofiness. We miss everything about having you there with us. But deep down, in our hearts, we know you’re there. And now, we have a beautiful portrait to remind us that you’re always there. I know what a humble guy you were here in this life, and I’m sure you would feel completely undeserving of having your own portrait done by C.F. But Dad, this is exactly what you deserved. Your life was more important and consequential for me and those whom you loved than most people could ever hope to have. Your life was incredible. Your character was impeccable. And you made people feel loved each and every day. And now, I can gaze upon a beautiful portrait of your face and remind myself that those things have never left us. Keep watching over me, Dad. I miss you terribly, and I long for another Christmas morning like the ones we used to have. I know it’s going to be a long time until we have that again, but oh what an amazing day that will be. Until our first Christmas morning together again, seeya Bub.

“Each of you should give whatever you have decided. You shouldn’t be sorry that you gave or feel forced to give, since God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Corinthians 9:7 (GW)

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