Wondering

My Dad’s death from suicide has left me in a constant state of wondering.

On Father’s Day, Paige and I found ourselves enjoying lunch at one of our favorite spots: Chuy’s. As I’ve written about previously, Father’s Day is an extremely difficult day for me to navigate. Every Father’s Day leaves me wishing I had just one more to celebrate with my Dad. He deserved a bigger celebration than any I ever gave him on this Earth, and each year that passes brings its own unique challenge and struggle within my emotions. Some years, it’s a tremendous sense of loss and grief that overwhelms me. Other years, its anger and frustration that mental illness stole my Father away from a world that loved him beyond words.

But this year, it was a sense of wondering—constant, ever-present, answerless wondering—that overtook my capacities.

While I plowed down a basket of chips and salsa (and then another…and maybe one more), I noticed a table nearby with about ten family members around it. There were mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, and one very adorable baby who smiled at me every now and then as she rested her head on her Mom’s shoulder. There were a number of young adolescent boys who all seemed to be extremely respectful of their parents, aunts, and uncles, which always warms my heart—especially when I see children who talk to their parents and adults in their lives over a meal instead of staring aimlessly into an iPad. I’ve always enjoyed people watching, and this was a fun family to watch. From the outside looking in, they looked like a near-perfect family in many respects.

My interest during most of the lunch, however, was drawn to the head of the table. Sitting there was an elderly man in a wheelchair. He had mostly-graying hair, glasses, a cheerful smile, and a hearty laugh that would bellow out every few minutes. Wearing a bright orange short that appeared to reflect his happy personality, the man was intensely present with every one of his family members sitting around the table. Although he seemed to be enjoying the chips and salsa just as much as I was, he listened to the stories of his family members, responded, asked them questions, and listened some more. In every moment, he seemed extremely invested in the conversation and the people he was talking with, and generally, he appeared to be so happy to be at the table with all of them.

I don’t know how the man got to the table that day, or the story of his family, but I could tell that he was a man who had earned the respect of those who were sitting near him. He was a patriarch who had clearly established a family built on love, trust, and loyalty.

I was extremely distracted during that lunch, and as much as I tried to look away from this man and his family, I was transfixed. I found myself struggling to focus on anything else but watching this man, the way he behaved, and the way his family treated him. I kept trying to imagine the years and decades full of wonderful life experiences that had brought them all together—both the moments of joy and the sadness of defeat or tragedy that they had likely experienced as a family.

And all throughout, I wondered.

I wondered what could have been within my own family, and I saw it pictured with the family in front of me.

From the moment that I heard my Dad was dead, my mind immediately had to make an important shift. Unfortunately, all the things that were “want to’s” with Dad—the bucket list of things we had always planned and wanted to do together—became “should haves.” Instantaneously, thoughts of how I had squandered or ignored precious time with the man who meant everything to me flooded to the forefront of my grieving mind. Because my Father had passed away so suddenly at the age of 50 without any prior warning that his final days were nearing, there was a feeling of the rug being pulled out from underneath me in a horrible, violent, life-altering way. I felt as if I had been robbed of a treasure that I didn’t even know I had. All of a sudden, that “thief in the night” scripture in 1 Thessalonians held a whole new, all-too-real significance.

And from that moment on, I began wondering.

A permanent sense of questioning and fruitless speculation began to take over my life on that July day in 2013, and it continues to manifest itself in so many different facets of my life; but it’s especially present on Father’s Day. Father’s Day is the day that I reflect on all the great moments that I shared with my Dad and all the lessons that he taught me; but it’s also the day in which I wonder about the rest of his life that he deserved to live. The life he should have had but never did.

As I looked at the grandfather sitting nearby our table, I wondered what it would have been like to watch my Dad grow old. It was clear that the man at the table next to me had suffered some type of difficulty that required him to use a wheelchair, but he also had remarkable, quick movements as he ate—I think at one point he even surpassed my chip/salsa intake! Clearly, some of the effects of aging had taken away a few of the liberties that he had once enjoyed, but he seemed to not let those obstacles get in his way.

It was stupendous to watch, and I wondered, silently, if my Dad would have aged with the same grace and determination that this man embodied. I have no doubt that my Dad would have aged well, as he rarely found himself in a situation where negative health effects overtook him. Yes, he likely would have gotten a few more wrinkles. Yes, his vision would have likely gotten a bit worse. But I knew that I would always be able to tease him about not being able to lose any more hair than he already had!

I’m sure the aging process wouldn’t have been all fun and games for Dad, but it would have been fun for me to watch the man that I had first known in his late-20’s and early-30’s grow and age into an elderly man—a patriarch. Sitting at the table that day, I wondered what Dad would have looked like. I wondered what clothes he would have worn. I wondered if his beard would have grayed entirely. I wondered about every seemingly simple and stupid detail of his life. And I grew frustrated knowing I would never have those answers.

I also wondered about the more profound things. How long would Dad have lived had mental illness and suicide not robbed him of the life he deserved to experience? I don’t have much evidence to back up my assertion, but I always believed my Dad would have lived into his nineties or hundreds, and I believe he would have been largely independent and self-functioning the entire time. That’s just the way he was. Dad had a zest and an appetite for life that led me to believe he would have wanted to hold onto every ounce of it for as long as he could—which is what makes his untimely death from suicide all the more perplexing. On this day, and on many others, I found myself drifting into a daze where I pictured my already-bald, wrinkled, bespectacled Father sitting across from me with his familiar laugh and twinkling smile shining through the weariness of time. It hurt me deeply to know that the vision I had imagined would be as close as I would ever get to seeing my elderly Father in front of me.

But as I watched this man at the restaurant, I began to wonder about more than encroaching wrinkles and receding hairlines. As the meal wore on, this Father/Grandfather took a keen interest in his family members who were sitting around the table. He listened and laughed as his sons and daughters told stories, just as my Dad had always done when I talked with him. He lowered his gaze and leaned low to meet the eyeline of his handsome, well-behaved grandsons, asking them questions about the sports they played, their schooling, and their friends and classmates. He made silly faces at his newborn granddaughter, and his entire face melted into a deep smile every time she clapped at him, reached for his arm, or offered a newborn giggle or coo.

You could tell that this man wasn’t here for a sympathy lunch or a meal born of obligation. This man was sitting at the head of the table because, in the eyes of those who loved him, he had completely earned that head spot and they wanted to celebrate him. Each family member assembled at the table had a sense of reverence for the man they were likely honoring at lunch, and it was heartwarming to watch their actions in a world where these types of selfless behaviors are all-too-infrequent.

I couldn’t help but picture my Dad in that man’s seat. I couldn’t help but flash-forward to a world that will never exist, wondering what life would have been like for my Dad as a Father, Grandfather, and patriarch of his family. As I enter a new chapter of my life with an impending wedding date on the calendar, I often wish that Dad and Paige could have met to share life with one another. In so many ways, they would have been peas in a pod. They would have appreciated one another’s humor—especially humor at my expense. He and Mom together would have treated Paige like the daughter they never had, and although it’s been a true blessing to watch my Mom enjoy welcoming Paige into our family, I also wish that my Dad could have experienced that same blessing. I know that Dad would have taken an interest in everything Paige did, and he would have been amazed by her talent, knowledge, and determination. On many days, I find myself wondering how they would have enjoyed growing together as father and daughter-in-law, and I constantly wonder what their relationship would have looked like. And it pains my soul to know they never had a chance to experience life with one another.

And although I joke about the nervousness I feel at the thought of becoming a Father myself someday, I know that God has a plan for me to raise children; and I know with more certainty than anything else that my Dad would have been an outstanding Grandfather. Even with this certainty, however, I wonder about the things I’ll never know. What would Dad have wanted to be called? Grandpa? Grandad? Papaw? Pops? Just wondering about the nickname his future-grandchildren would have bestowed upon him brings tears to my eyes. I wonder about all of the fun moments he would have been able to share with them—likely doing things that Paige and I would have told him they were not allowed to do. Candy consumption would have been at an all-time-high. Punishments would have been nonexistent with Grandpa. Trips to the amusement park and trick dives from the deck into the swimming pool would have been everyday occurrences. My Dad would have taken the charge for grandfathers to spoil their grandchildren to heart as his personal life mission. I have no doubt that he would have showered them with gifts and treats and experiences, but more than anything, he would have given them every ounce of love he had. He would have loved them, and I have no doubt that they would have loved him just as much.

And unfortunately for me, and for those future grandchildren of his, we will never, ever get to see him fulfill that duty. And it’s absolutely heartbreaking.

Suicide (or any tragic, untimely death for that matter) creates many unique grief-related emotions within those who are left behind, but most prevalently it creates the sensation that the victim and their loved ones have been robbed—robbed of time and of a future together. After losing Dad to suicide, I remember telling people that I felt like the victim of a theft. It may have been a strange analogy, but it accurately conveyed the grief better than any other example. One day, I had a loving Father with the promise of having him in my life for a very long time, and the next day all I had to cling to were memories and the broken pieces left behind.

That unnatural feeling of being robbed, at least in my life, likely occurs because suicide in and of itself is unnatural. As a Christian, I firmly believe that suicide runs counter to God’s desire for our life. In no way do I believe it is an unforgivable sin (a common myth which I’ve addressed previously and will continue to address in posts to come), but I do believe that God’s heart breaks when one of his children loses a battle to depression. Although God can redeem bad things, like suicide, I think he also had grander plans for my Dad. I believe God wanted to see him grow old. I believe God wanted to see him become the patriarch of our larger family and become a grandfather. I believe God wanted to see my Dad enjoy retirement and many more years of marriage to my Mom. I wanted these things. We all did. I believe God wanted these things.

And I know, deep down in the innermost parts of his being, my Dad wanted them too.

My Father’s death from suicide prevented him from ever experiencing a whole new phase of joy and prosperity that he so unbelievably deserved, and my heart breaks for him because he was robbed unfairly. I know that we don’t earn God’s blessings because He freely gives them; but if there was a way to earn them, my Dad had done everything in his life necessary to fulfill his end of the bargain.

Instead, suicide and mental illness stole those opportunities away from my Father; and they stole the joy of knowing and experiencing life with him away from all of us who loved him so deeply. It’s left all of us, including me, in a constant state of wondering that will never, ever be satisfied on this side of Eternity. I’m thankful that I know, one day, I’ll be able to see my Dad again and the pain of his absence will be a memory that is long and forever forgotten. That promise keeps me moving ever-forward; but it doesn’t diminish the pain I feel in this moment. It never fully eradicates the confusion, guilt, and loss that pervades every minute of my existence.

I continued to watch the family on this last Father’s Day at the restaurant, and my attempts to avoid the pain of Father’s Day were futile. Although it was painful to think about what I had lost as I watched this family, there was also beauty in the reassurance of God’s promise that I will, someday, greet my Father again. I will, someday, run to the arms that cradled me as a baby and tell my Dad how much I’ve missed him. Like that family, I’ll enjoy a meal with my Dad that will be grander and greater than any we ever shared together on this Earth. We will laugh together again. We will bond together again. We will experience a love stronger than this world could ever provide, together as Father and son.

And in that moment, a moment I’m patiently yet desperately longing for, I’ll wonder no more.

Dad HS Yearbook Photo with SB LogoDad, You lived a big and vibrant life while you were here with all of us, and your absence is even more noticeable and painful because the void left behind is so great. You deserved to live a fuller life than the one you experienced, and I’m sorry I didn’t do more to make that dream reality. Dad, I would have loved watching you grow old—even though it might not have been as much fun for you as it would have been for me. I would have loved seeing you on my wedding day, and you have no idea how much I would have appreciated your wisdom about navigating this new chapter in my life because you were such an amazing husband for Mom. And yes, I would have loved watching you become a grandpa more than anything else. I know you would have been silly and goofy and ridiculous—and completely adored by your grandchildren. But Dad, as much as I wanted to watch those things for myself, I’m ultimately saddened because you earned the right to experience all of those wonderful things. I hate mental illness and suicide for robbing you of these life chapters. Mental illness separated you from us and from many wonderful, beautiful moments that awaited your future. And although I won’t get to watch you enjoy life, and although I’ll always have questions about why this happened to you, I do find peace knowing that you’re not suffering any longer. I find a sense of comfort knowing that the unjustified feelings of shame and embarrassment that you experienced in this world are completely gone and fully redeemed. And I know that as great as any experience you could have had here with us might have been, you’re experiencing a joy and beauty beyond any other as you bask in the glory of Heaven and God’s everlasting love and paradise. Dad, keep watching over me, and keep reassuring me that you were called Home for a reason. I love you, and I wish we could have experienced more of this life together; but I know there’s a greater reward and an unbelievable reunion awaiting us. Thank you Dad, and until the day when we are reunited forever, seeya Bub.

“Yet God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11 (NLT)

Father’s Day

From about mid-May until the middle of June, I take a different route through my local Target.

On a normal visit to Target (which I make all too frequently), I’ll always head to the hardlines side of the store before I go check out the clothes. I stroll through the everyday home products, then to the groceries, through the home goods, and then back to the electronics.

Okay, fine. Yes, I also go through the toys. Because I still feel like I’m a six year old in many respects.

But during this particular season of the year, I reverse my route. I’ll usually go through the clothes first. Not because I’m looking for something to wear. I actually do this for what I’m trying to avoid.

If I follow my traditional path during this particular time of the year, I’m hit in the face with the grief of my loss. If I make the familiar turn in the store, the first thing I’ll see for that entire month is a large rack of Father’s Day cards.

My eyes usually fixate on a bright, multi-colored banner that screams “Happy Father’s Day! Buy a card for Dad!” Families flock around the display and comb through cards, from the humorous to the serious, trying to find the perfect message for their Dad.

As they are looking at cards, however, I look at the display and my chest starts to feel tight. My eyes well up, and I can feel my heart begin to race. No matter how hard I try to ignore the display, it jumps out at me and reignites my grief and sorrow.

I remember that first Father’s Day without him, and seeing the display of cards. It hadn’t even occurred to me that I would no longer have a Father to celebrate with. I froze as I walked into the store on that day. When I realized what was going on, I actually turned and walked out of the store, got in my car, and started sobbing. I couldn’t stop the uncontrollable wave of emotions. I couldn’t stop thinking about how my Dad deserved another Father’s Day. Many, many more…

I’ve written many times about the difficulty of holidays in the aftermath of a traumatic loss or death, and out of all the pain I feel, I don’t know if I feel any pain more severe or crippling as the pain I feel on Father’s day. This is a day built to honor Dads, but what do you feel when you don’t have your Dad by your side? When you can’t tell him, face to face, exactly how you feel about him?

I feel deep sorrow because I still want to buy him a card. Sometimes, I walk past that display and think that this has all just been a bad dream. I think that my Dad has been here all along, and that losing him on that July day couldn’t have really happened. But I know it happened and I’m reminded of it every single day—but especially on this day.

On Father’s Day every year, I wish for one simple thing: I wish to have my Dad back. I know that it can’t happen in this life, but like a little kid I long for the thing that I know I can’t have.

I haven’t been able to look at that card display without crying ever since losing him. My heart hurts every time this time of the year comes rolling around. And I get angry because my Dad deserved to be here. He deserved a card this year, and he deserved a card for many years to come. He was robbed of his day by a disease and a sickness we don’t yet understand like we should. It hurts to know that he’s not here today even more than it does every day when I wake up and think about losing him.

I feel this pain coupled with regret for the years that I didn’t make a big deal out of Dad’s day. One of the challenges of growing up is learning to care for others while still caring for yourself. As we learn this delicate balance, we are prone to look back over our lives and see that we’ve made mistakes. When I look back over my life and the mistakes I’ve made, my wrongdoings are amplified on the Father’s Days of years gone by. And I feel tremendous, gut-wrenching guilt.

I can think of so many years, especially during those tumultuous teenage years, where Father’s Day was a mere afterthought for me. Wow, is that hard to admit—but it’s painfully true. I think of the years when I remembered, usually at the last moment, that the upcoming Sunday was Father’s Day. I would scramble to get my Dad a last-minute gift and a card, and there were so many years when I put such little thought into his gift that it embarrasses me when I think about it today.

I think of so many years when I should have planned something spectacular to celebrate my Dad, but I didn’t. I think of all the years when I should have cooked him lunch on the grill, or planned an outdoor trip for him to enjoy. I look back at those years with the pangs of regret, because I know that they were wasted opportunities. It’s almost cruel that I have so many ideas now for how to properly celebrate Father’s Day, but I have no Father to celebrate them with.

I look back on those years and wish desperately, more than anything, that I could go back and redo them. I wish that I could have abandoned my selfishness and let go of my self-centeredness to celebrate the man who gave me everything good in this life. I wish I could go back and tell him, face to face, how much he meant to me on that day—and every day.

I feel joy when I remember the Father’s Days that I did right. In spite of my failings, I’m glad that there were a handful of years when I celebrated my Dad on Father’s Day with the level of excitement and significance that he deserved. I think of one year in particular when my friend Steve and I decided to do a joint Father’s Day gift for our Dads. We decided to purchase a zip-lining trip for each of them, and we planned a day at Camp Kern in Oregonia, Ohio for the four of us to zip through the trees of the beautiful forest there.

I’m confident that when my days on this Earth are numbered, I will look back on the day of that zip-lining trip as one of my absolute best. It was such a wonderful, wonderful day—from start to finish. We had a perfect day to zip line—a little hot, but a slight overcast to keep us cool enough to enjoy our trip. None of the four of us in our group had ever been zip-lining before. This was an entirely new experience, and we had a great guide who helped us understand the mechanics and safety components of the activity, while still letting us have a tremendous amount of fun.

I remember one line in particular on that day—the River Line. A 1,300 foot line stretches across the rushing water that cuts through a canyon-like setting of trees. For over a minute, you fly down the line, landing in a tree stand on the other side of the riverbank. I remember going first, and I couldn’t quit smiling! But what was even more rewarding was standing on the tree stand and watching my Dad sail in from across the water. My Dad knew how to have fun and he knew how to appreciate the joyous moments of life with a sense of wonder and appreciation. Dad was so very happy when he finished that line. He got unhooked and came up and high-fived me as he laughed. “That’s what I’m talking about! That was awesome!” he said in a goofy voice. He so loved that trip, and I so loved watching him enjoy it.

I wish I had made every Father’s Day like that one. I desperately wish I had started thinking about a great gift for him every single June, giving it the foresight it deserved. But I’m thankful that on that year, and a few others, I gave Dad a special day. He deserved so many more.

I feel that regret because I know that I didn’t always make it a priority to tell my Dad how I felt about him. A card is a tremendous gesture, but what’s even more powerful than a card are words straight from the heart. I love getting cards, but more than anything I love getting a tender, handwritten message that usually accompanies it.

Let’s face it—emotions are tough. They are uncomfortable at times. Vulnerability is so very difficult. There are so many times in our lives when we know what we should tell someone, but we don’t have the courage to say it to them—even when it’s a compliment or a tender and encouraging word. Especially for men, it’s difficult to share how we truly feel with one another. I’ve lived through the awkwardness of not telling people how I truly feel about them, and as I look back on my life I know that I never want to live like that again.

There were so many things I should have told my Dad. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I’ve started this blog. In lieu of being able to tell him in person, I’ll tell him here.

On Father’s Day every year, I should have told my Dad how much I loved him. I should have told him how thankful I was to have a Father who I could confide in when life was difficult to understand. I should have told him how lucky I was to always be provided for and to never have to worry about the material things in life. I should have told him how I appreciated the zest he had for life because it made life all the more fun. I should have told him that I was in awe of his talents and skills, especially when it came to building or constructing things. I should have told him that I appreciated that he was more concerned with being a good Father than a good friend. That, even though I didn’t always act like it, I was thankful that he wasn’t afraid to teach me right from wrong, even when it wasn’t “cool” to do so. I should have told him that every day, I strove to be more like him. That I wanted to emulate his humility and love of serving other people. That (other than having a shiny bald head), every day, I wished I could be just like him.

And that every single day, I still do want to be more like him.

My Dad was my hero—and he still is. I wish I had made him feel like the hero he was each and every day.

I feel and experience the pain of jealousy. As I walk by that card display at Target, I often see young boys and teenagers picking out cards for their Dads. I will watch some who, just like me a few years ago, will search frantically for a card and grab the first one they see. I’ll watch them as they do the same things I once did, and I desperately want to warn them.

It takes everything in me not to go up to those young men and tell them how lucky they are to have a Father and how they should cherish every single moment with him. I want to grab them by the shoulders and let them know that they should do something really, really special for the man who gives them everything in this life.

I think I feel this way because of regret, but I’m also extremely jealous of them. I’m jealous that they will get to hand that card to their Dad. I’m jealous that they will get to do something special with their Dad on that day. Or even something so seemingly-everyday as taking a walk together or tossing a baseball in the yard. Yes, I miss the big moments like Father’s Day, but I also miss the small, everyday interactions. The phone calls and texts. The dinners at LaRosa’s. The nights around the bonfire. The peaceful moments in the water at the beach. The wave he would give from his truck window as he drove by. I miss every single moment. Every one. Everything. And I’m jealous of those sons who still get to buy that card for their Dad.

Ultimately, there’s no card that I could ever buy that would accurately sum up how much I loved my Dad and how important he was—and still is—to me. On this Father’s Day, I’m reminded of the joy that it was to have Scott Bradshaw as a Father. My Dad was an amazing man, and his memory still inspires me each and every day. On this Father’s Day, and on the many more that will inevitably come, I will be thankful and grateful that for so many years I had a Father so good and so wholesome. A Father who told me how much he loved me and that he was proud of me.

And when I see him again, I won’t need to buy him a card. Because I’ll just tell him, face to face, exactly how I feel about him. Who needs Hallmark anyway?

dad-and-me-in-pool-with-sb-logoDad, There isn’t a single day that goes by when I don’t think about you, but on Father’s Day I miss you even more. You were everything a Father should be. You taught me so much about life and how to live it, but I think the true testament to your life is that you’re still teaching me what it means to be a great man even after your gone. I learned something from you every day when you were here with us, and I’m still learning something from you every single day as I think back over the life you led. Dad, there were so many Father’s Days that I would redo if I had the option. There are so many moments and things I said (or didn’t say) that I would take back and change if I had the ability to do it. I wish that I had made you feel as special as you truly were on every Father’s Day and every other day. You deserved more, because you were the most loving, thoughtful, caring, and generous man I’ve ever known. And although I feel so much hurt when I can’t celebrate Father’s Day with you now, I rest easy knowing that we will get to celebrate together again someday, together with our Heavenly Father. Thank you, Dad. Thank you for everything. I’ll never be able to say thank you enough for all you’ve given me in this life. Happy Father’s Day, Bub.

“The righteous man walks in his integrity; His children are blessed after him.” Proverbs 20:7 (NKJV)