Waiting

If you’re an impatient kid, the wait for Christmas can always be a bit of a struggle. If you have a parent who is slow to get out of bed on Christmas morning, however, that struggle escalates to an epic, herculean test of the human will.

For as long as I can remember, Christmas morning in our family home was always tremendously special. As an only child, Christmas was particularly fun because…I didn’t have to share it with anyone else! Nothing says “Season of Giving” like relishing in the fact that you get to keep everything for yourself, am I right?! As an only child, there was never that moment of frantically grabbing a package only to have the smile fade from my face after seeing a sibling’s name. On occasion, our family dogs might have got an interesting package, but because my parents wanted to make Christmas so special, they always had plenty of gifts around the tree for me. I felt like a little prince on Christmas, but in all honesty, my parents made me feel loved and valued every day.

In my childhood, I was always a bit of an early riser. I would often wake around 6:30 or 7 on most days—what I wouldn’t give to rise with that same ease and energy as I had as a child. Nonetheless, I learned early on that it was always best to let my parents—both of whom had jobs and worked hard—sleep in a little later if they wanted to, especially on those precious Saturday mornings. Being an only child often teaches you how to entertain yourself, and I got pretty good at that on those early Saturdays. I would turn on the TV and watch Saturday morning cartoons, play with toys, draw and color, or entertain myself with any other activity that was quiet enough to not disrupt my slumbering parents. I was a good kid, and I knew my parents worked hard and deserved as much time to rest as they wanted, so I tried my best to make as little noise as possible.

On Christmas morning, however, there was no chance I would ever sleep in to a reasonable hour, and there was an even lesser chance that I would let my parents sleep in either. The excitement and nervous anticipation would wake me up long before the sun would rise in the hopes I might catch a glimpse of Santa’s sleigh has he scurried to the next home. Sometimes, I’d lay in bed and try to force myself to go back to sleep so the hours wouldn’t drag on at a soul-crushingly slow pace. On most Christmas mornings, I would give up and head downstairs immediately. I would turn on the TV and watch Christmas shows and movies until I heard movement from my parents.

Let me rephrase that: I stayed out of their hair (or the spot where Dad’s hair should have been) until I heard the slightest movement from my parents, and that would serve as excuse enough to wake them up. If I heard a cough, a tussle, or a snore that I could mistake for a parental foot stepping out of the bed, I would bounce up the stairs, stand in the doorway, and stare at my parents as they lay there, still sleeping. Then, after a few minutes of realizing they were still asleep, I would make some type of innocuous noise that I thought might be enough to wake them up. Oftentimes, a repeated heavy sigh was my course of action. I’d fake a cough, or a sneeze if I was feeling particularly ambitious. I might be able to get a door or floorboard to creak loudly to create enough noise that I couldn’t be blamed for.

No matter what mechanism of noise-creation I used, Mom was always the first to wake up. She would always come down the stairs, wish me a Merry Christmas, and kiss me on the forehead or on the cheek as I played in the family room and pretended not to know where all those disruptive noises had come from. For as long as I can remember, Mom would usually head straight to the kitchen on Christmas mornings to whip up a special breakfast for all of us. Her famous breakfast quiche was always a tradition, with a nice big glass of sparkling cider poured into our family Christmas glasses that were decorated with red and green holly berry. Meals which are that good always leave an impression, and those flavors will always taste like Christmas morning to me.

But after she got a good start on breakfast, the waiting game would often continue because Dad was always the last one up on Christmas morning. Always. I can’t think of a single Christmas when my Dad was the first person to wake up. Don’t get me wrong—my Dad wasn’t lazy, and he wasn’t usually a late sleeper. When it came to work, my Dad worked very difficult schedules his entire life, laboring as a steel plant maintenance technician. His shifts would change from first to third and back again, yet he never complained about having to rise or fall at these different hours. But when Dad did have the opportunity to sleep, he savored it—just like he savored everything in his life. He enjoyed sleep, and if he had the opportunity to sleep a little later, he was going to enjoy it, Christmas morning or not.

The mind of a child, however, doesn’t recognize that perspective on Christmas morning. The mind of a six-year-old child is screaming “Why are you not waking up?! There are presents to be torn apart and insanely complex toys that need to be put together and broken within minutes of receiving them!” Dad’s leisurely pace on Christmas was infuriating for a child who enjoyed opening presents.

On Christmas, and in life generally though, Dad operated on his own clock. Dad reserved speed for the times when he was behind the wheel in his truck; in most other segments of life, Dad rarely sped things along. He took his time doing the things he loved, because why rush happiness to simply get on to something else? If Dad ate a good meal, he ate it slowly and drank a second can of Coke so he could linger a bit longer. If Dad was at a family get-together, he was always one of the last ones to leave the company of a family he loved. If Dad was at a baseball game, there was rarely a time when he left before the last pitch was thrown. And especially when wrapping Christmas gifts, Dad took all the time he needed to make sure the gifts were intricately wrapped, creatively inspired, and adorned with just the right mix of bows, ribbons, and other decorative elements. In all things, Dad took his time—and on Christmas morning, he took his time to make his way down to the tree, which drove me absolutely bonkers.

Dad would sleep in for a bit on Christmas morning. Looking back, I realize just how few days he had to actually sleep in, but Christmas creates an unbridled impatience within the heart of a child that is difficult to squelch. On those Christmas mornings when he slept in past 8:00, I would sit on the couch with my arms folded, huffing and puffing as loud as my young lungs would allow, hoping my sighs of frustration would drift up the stairs and cause such guilt that my Dad would immediately come downstairs and encourage me to rip open every gift and a few of his while I was at it. When the aggressive breathing technique failed to work, I’d simply yell up the stairs. “Dad! Are you ever going to come down here?”

“Maybe by next Christmas,” he’d joke back, turning over to see if he could squeeze out another few minutes of rest.

As the minutes ticked on, each one seemingly more painful than the one before, I would roll my eyes and shake my head with fury, channeling the impatience of a man 80 years my senior. Even as a child, I was a bit of an old soul—an old, cranky, impatient little soul.

Eventually, after much pestering that didn’t affect him whatsoever, Dad would eventually come down the stairs. Every year, regardless of how much pestering I had done, it was largely the same image. Same dark, matching sweatsuit. Same thick, woolly socks. Same oval-rimmed glasses. Same wide smile when he saw the tree, his wife, his dog, and his red-faced, annoyed son eager to become a human gift-paper shredder. Dad would hug us, and he would keep smiling, and he would soak up every single moment of time we spent together on Christmas morning.

And then, after all of those presents were open, I’d start waiting for the next Christmas.

And now, here I am, many years removed from those Christmases of my childhood, and I’m still waiting. I’m waiting on something I know I’ll never have on this Earth again.

It’s strange to wait on a Christmas that I know will never come. I’m waiting on a Christmas when my Dad comes down the stairs in his elastic-ankled sweatpants and takes way too many pictures on his camera. I’m waiting on a Christmas that occurred so many years ago—a Christmas I likely took for granted as a child. A Christmas that I likely thought would occur forever and ever and ever, but was suddenly and unfairly ripped from my life forever. It’s absolutely maddening to know that, when we are young, we beg for time to move on; but once we age and lose the things that really matter in this world, we beg for God to turn back the clock.

That guilt of taking those Christmases for granted tears my heart into pieces every time I think about it. I think of all those Christmas mornings where I would get annoyed with Dad’s extra 15 minutes of sleep, or his obnoxious obsession with taking pictures of our family dog opening gifts. I would give just about anything to spend another Christmas with him, and even though we had 26 wonderful holiday mornings together, I desperately yearn for 26 more.

This will be my sixth Christmas without my Dad. I keep thinking that Christmas without him will get easier, and more normal, but it never does. There’s always an awkward absence when he doesn’t come down the stairs. There’s always a longing to give him another gift, to share another laugh, to just be in his presence once more. On certain years, that sadness and waiting for Christmas with him again has completely overtaken and overwhelmed me to the point when I couldn’t enjoy the things that were right in front of me. During certain years, those moments of sadness have paralyzed me.

But there are also beautiful, loving moments when I’m able to remember him again and smile happily as I think back on those splendid Christmas mornings we spent together. Mom still uses tags that my Dad wrote out in his precise, all-capital print, so I still get a gift labeled from my Dad every Christmas. Just seeing his handwriting soothes my soul in ways that are hard to describe because it reminds me how real he was. I’ll look around the tree and see ornaments that he always hung, like the Elf Carpenter, and it reminds me how much humor and personality he brought to all of our lives. I’ll hear a song from the Christina Aguilera Christmas album—yes, you read that right—and I’ll laugh thinking about how much he enjoyed listening to that while he decorated the tree (he said he just listened to it because Mom liked it, but somehow he mysteriously knew all the words and ridiculous runs in every single song). There are lots of wonderful memories around this time of the year that, fortunately for me, have yet to fade.

Coupled with those happy recollections, however, is an extreme pain. There is a pain every time I look at the staircase leading to my parents’ bedroom, knowing that he won’t come bouncing down the stairs on this morning or any other. There is a pain knowing that I won’t be able to watch A Christmas Story six or seven times with him, and knowing I won’t hear his bellowing laughter every time Flick sticks his tongue to the flagpole. There’s a pain knowing that I won’t be able to see him unwrap gifts and eat Christmas cookies and nap on the couch. There’s a pain knowing that, no matter how many gifts might be under the tree, the only gift I really want is one that I’ll never have in this life.

There’s joy, however, in knowing that we will celebrate a more perfect Christmas once this life is over. That day is a long, long time away, and I won’t let the anticipation of a Christmas to come completely overtake my desire to experience the life I’m living. My Dad’s death has taught me that I can live in the moment, simultaneously experiencing happiness with the people I have in my life and sadness with he ones who are gone. I can know that there is a joy to be experienced in the life to come and joy in the here and now. Life is not divided into purely happy and purely sad—and neither is Christmas. Life after losing a loved one is perpetually characterized by that dichotomy: a happiness rooted in the memories that fill our hearts, and a sadness that those same memories will fail to come to life again. That balance between legitimate joy and deep despair has been difficult for me to navigate in the years since losing my Dad, but it’s especially tough on Christmas morning.

For these past six Christmases, I’ve tried to slow down. Partly to honor my Dad, and partly to give myself the time to experience Christmas in the moment, just like my Dad always did. I know that Dad wouldn’t want Christmas to be less enjoyable for his family, but the reality is, he lived a life that was so big that it inevitably leaves a gaping hole now that he’s gone. There will always be a tremendous sadness in a season known for joy, but joy will always prevail. And joy will prevail because, although I’m waiting for a Christmas with my Dad now, there is a promise in Heaven that, someday, I’ll never have to wait again.

Dad Lucy and Me at Christmas with SB LogoDad, I really miss Christmas with you. I miss so many things about the Christmas mornings and holiday seasons we spent together. I miss seeing your smile as you opened tools and other gifts that Mom and I bought you. I miss watching you laugh at and take videos of Willow or Lucy as they tore open dog bones and puppy toys wrapped in shiny paper. I miss the elaborate and precise details of your gift wrapping, and I really miss watching you try to explain why you bought Mom certain gifts that puzzled us all. You showed all of us how to find joy on Christmas, and you never took a moment for granted on those special holiday celebrations. For that matter, you never took any moment in life for granted, and I’m trying to do that more and more each day. Thank you for teaching me, in the way you lived your life, how I should live my own. Thank you for helping me remember, even in your death, that the moments we have in this life are meant to be savored and enjoyed. Dad, I’m really looking forward to that first Christmas that we will have together in the life after. I’m looking forward to a reunion unlike any other. And I’m so excited to see you again, that I might even let you sleep in an extra fifteen minutes. Thank you for being a great Dad on Christmas, and a great Dad every single day of the year. Thank you for continuing to watch over me, and thank you for always reminding me what matters most. Love for God, love for family, and love for life are lessons you’ll never let me forget. One of the best Christmas gifts I’ve ever received is having a Father who made life count each and every day. I love you, Dad. Merry Christmas, and until we can celebrate again, seeya Bub.

“As the angel choir withdrew into heaven, the sheepherders talked it over. ‘Let’s get over toe Bethlehem as fast as we can and see for ourselves what God has revealed to us.’ They left, running, and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby living in the manger. Seeing was believing. They told everyone they met what the angels had said about this child. All who heard the sheepherders were impressed. But Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself.” Luke 2:15-19 (MSG)

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)

CF Payne Banner

Happy Birthday, Dad

On Sunday May 21, 2017, my Dad would have celebrated his 54th birthday.

It tears me up inside to have to say “would have”.

My Dad never made a big deal out of his birthday. He was always happy if Mom made one of his favorite home cooked meals and a tasty dessert. We would all get him a few gifts, and we would usually spend the night at home together. We would usually get one of his favorites—a Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream cake—and he would eat one big piece. And then another. And then usually another before bed. My Dad enjoyed the simple moments in his life, and a birthday didn’t need to have a bunch of extravagance to enjoy the day any more. A good meal, good family, and good cake and ice cream. I love that my Dad loved life’s simplicity. I strive to be more like him in this way.

Now that those moments are gone forever, I would give anything to go back to those days and make a ridiculously big deal out of his birthday. I would give anything to have another birthday to celebrate with him. I don’t know if it’s even what he would have wanted, because he really enjoyed life at a low-key pace and volume. Extravagant to Dad would have been two Graeter’s cakes instead of one. No matter what we did, I would have wished we had a huge blowout on his birthday. Looking back, that’s probably more about me than it is about him, and I’m ashamed to say that, but it’s all about the love I feel for him.

I’m sure this is a common sentiment to anyone who has lost a loved one, and it probably isn’t relegated to just birthdays. Christmas feels emptier. Thanksgiving feels emptier. Mother’s or Father’s days feel emptier. Yes, every day will feel a certain level of emptiness, but that emptiness is really magnified on those “big days”.

Losing a loved one to suicide (or losing a loved one prematurely) also brings on a new layer of feeling: the feeling of being robbed. The feeling of having one of life’s greatest treasures stolen prematurely.

My Dad deserved more birthdays. He deserved birthdays into his eighties and nineties and triple-digits. He deserved to celebrate his birthdays not just with me and Mom, but with his grandkids and maybe even great grandkids. He deserved more.

I experience a whole host of emotions on my Dad’s birthday, and it’s hard to predict what I might feel in any given moment throughout the day.

I feel sadness. Sadness that I can no longer say “Happy Birthday” to my Dad face to face. Or give him a gift or buy him a card. Sadness that I’ll never get to see the smile on his face or hear his familiar chuckle when he opens up a birthday card that I bought to poke fun at his age. Sadness that I’ll never be able to eat another birthday meal with him. Sadness that I’ll never be able to rub his bald head and make a joke about him having nothing else to lose since his hair was already gone years before. There’s so much sadness now on a day that was once all about being happy. It’s difficult to fathom.

I also feel distance. As each year passes by, I feel more and more distance from my Dad—and it scares me. Instead of celebrating his 52nd or 53rd or 54th birthday, I find myself celebrating the second, or third, or fourth birthday since he’s gone. I find myself dividing my life into Before Dad and After Dad, and there’s a pain that invades my heart as I accumulate more birthdays and big days without him. I feel like the further away I get from the last conversation he and I shared, the more of him I’m losing. I feel like the more years that rack up since he’s been gone, the more I will forget. I don’t want my Dad to become a memory, but I’m worried that all I have left of him are memories which I’m bound to someday forget. The distance between then and now scares me tremendously.

I feel guilt. Tremendous guilt. Guilt for all of his birthdays that I took for granted. Guilt for all the birthdays of his that I likely treated as just another day. Guilt for all the birthdays where I scrambled at the last minute for a gift when I should have spent more time being thoughtful and considerate. Guilt for all the birthdays where I had something on my calendar other than spending time with the man who deserved it. I know, I know. It’s easy to be a Monday Morning Quarterback. It’s easy to have these feelings in retrospect, and I’d likely have them regardless of how I acted while he was here. I would always want more. But that doesn’t negate those feelings. That will never erase them. They are there, and they likely always will be.

I feel, oddly enough, like the victim of a robbery. Because my Dad died when he was only 50, I feel like something irreplaceable has been stolen from me. I never, ever, imagined that my Dad would be so overcome by his depression that it would threaten the existence of his life. I never thought that my family would join the unfortunate group of millions of Americans who are affected and impacted by suicide. My Dad’s life and my family’s life were not on course for this. This was not meant for us. But it happened anyway. And now, I’m left dealing with the repercussions of not having him here. I’m not trying to make this about me. It’s about my Dad’s life being stolen by a terrible disease—not mine. And that’s what I feel was stolen.

And yes, I feel anger. Immense anger. Not at my Dad—never at my Dad. I feel anger at the pressures that caused him to think life wasn’t worth living. I’m angry at depression, a disease that stole my Dad. I’m angry at all the things that shortened my Dad’s life unnecessarily. I’ve never felt anger at my Dad—something that not every survivor of suicide can say honestly. I’m not saying they shouldn’t be angry at the victim in their situation—I’m just sharing that I’ve never felt that way. Every situation is just so unique and so different. I’m fortunate that I can say this honestly, but I do have anger. Anger at the things that caused my Dad’s life to end and mine to change so dramatically. But I’ll never, ever be mad at my Dad.

I’ll admit—I haven’t yet found a good way to deal with losing my Dad on his birthday. I’ve tried different things every single year. I’ve tried writing him a letter. I’ve thought about visiting his grave site. I’ve thought about trying to do something he would have enjoyed, like eating a great meal or spending time outdoors in the park. Or eating an entire Graeter’s ice cream cake by myself—I think he would have advocated for this option. I’ve tried to ignore the magnitude of the date entirely (unsuccessfully I might add).

It’s a day on the calendar that will always be there for me, regardless of whether my Dad is here to celebrate or not. And honestly, I don’t know that these emotions that I feel today will ever subside. I will always miss my Dad, and that date will always be there. As a result, I think I’ll always experience all of these emotions—some years more, and other years less. I’ll always long to spend just one more birthday with him—knowing darn well that at the end of that birthday I would have still been asking for more. I’ll always dream of how he would have looked on his 60th, 70th, 80th, and 90th birthday. I’ll always long for the moments that were stolen from our family—the moments he should have had but never will.

But, I guess, there’s an alternative that I don’t wish for either. I could have lived a life without a father like the one I had. I could have been free from the pain of losing him, but that would have meant I would have had to been free of the love and joy that it was to spend 26 years with him here in this world. It’s so hard and so difficult to say goodbye to those we love, but it’s only hard and difficult if those people made a tremendous impact on our lives before they left. And I would choose the pain any day over if it means I can have the joy and love.

And boy, did my Dad do that. Not just on birthdays, but each and every day. He made me feel loved. He told me he was proud of me. He spent time with me when his busy workload and schedule offered him thousands of other alternatives. He did everything a Father should do, each and every day.

I wish I could give him more birthdays. I wish I could go back and redo the birthdays I did give him. I wish I had the perspective then that I do now so I could show my Dad how much he meant to me while he was here to experience it.

But, as I have to remind myself, he is experiencing it—just from a distance. Although I don’t always live this way, I know that my Dad is watching over me in heaven. I know that he knows my heart and that he doesn’t want me to experience any of these feelings I’m feeling on his birthday. I know that he’s watching over me, saying gently, “Bub, we will have plenty more birthdays to celebrate in Eternity—and they’ll be even better than anything we’ve ever had before.”

I don’t know what I’ll do this year. I don’t know how I’ll remember my Dad, and I don’t know what feelings I will feel.

But I can guarantee this. Even if it’s clouded in sadness, I will feel love. And appreciation. Love and appreciation for a Father who deserves it. Love and appreciation for a Father who gave everything he had, each and every day, to make people feel valued. Love and appreciation for a Dad whose absence brings a pain I never thought I could feel.

And love and appreciation for a man who had great taste in ice cream cakes.

Dad Smiling Against StairsDad, It still doesn’t seem right that this is the fourth birthday that’s passed since you left us. It doesn’t feel right that life is going on without you. There are times when my heart feels so much pain that I can’t imagine ever celebrating anything without you again. But, in a weird way, I’m thankful for this pain because it reminds me how special you made life feel while you were here. You brought a vivid color and energy to my life each and every day that I don’t know I’ll ever be able to experience until I see you again. But I will see you again. I’ll make up for all those birthdays that I wished I could do over. You and I will, one day, celebrate our new birthdays in heaven. And fortunately, we will never, ever, see those birthdays come to an end. Happy birthday, Bub. You live on in my heart each and every day. Until I can tell you this face to face once again, seeya Bub.

“I tell you the truth, anyone who believes has eternal life.” John 6:47 (NLT)

The Bench

I don’t think I had ever smelled so bad, felt so tired, or been so dirty in my entire life. If this was what home ownership was all about, I was ready to sell.

I had just purchased my house about a month earlier, and although the inside just needed some fresh paint without any major renovation, the outside was a completely different story. Standing there with sweat dripping down my brow, I knew I had grossly underestimated the amount of yardwork that needed to be done, or I had overestimated my ability to be a green-thumbed workhorse.

The list of things that needed to be done was both exhaustive and exhausting. Cut the grass and spray for weeds. Cut down numerous overgrown trees and shrubbery. Pull the layer of weeds that had almost created a natural green carpet covering over the large brick patio. Pull more weeds from all of the flowerbeds, which were many. Take out some of the flowerbeds to prevent me from having to pull that many weeds next time. Pray that there were no snakes inhabiting any hidden areas in the yard (that prayer was not granted). My yellow legal pad ran over with chores to complete. I wondered if I would ever get to complete them before I paid off the mortgage.

But my real nemesis was the pond. Or at least the hole in the backyard where the pond had once been.

The previous owners of the house had been wonderfully nice people, but their landscaping credentials were questionable. When they inherited the house, they were welcomed by a beautiful tiered pond directly off the back patio. Two small pools resided at the top of a flat-rock covered raised bed, with rushing water flowing into a 15 foot by 20 foot main pond. There were lily pads, Koi fish, and all the other amenities that make a pond peaceful and relaxing. Trees hung over the water, shading the fish as they scurried through the slightly green water. Frogs would croak at night, and birds would bathe by day. I rarely remember seeing many backyard ponds that could match the majesty and naturally-disguised beauty of this one. It rivaled many postcard ponds that I had seen!

In nine years of owning the house, the previous owners never took a liking to pond maintenance (and in their defense, there isn’t much to like about it). Slowly, the pristine nature of the pond gave way to algae and plant growth, and eventually, the owners relented to Mother Nature. They let the pond go—completely. As a matter of fact, I don’t think the previous owners had even touched the interior of the pond for a period of at least six years.

I remember trying to conceal my shocked face when I toured the house with the owners the first time. I didn’t want to let them know that I was appalled by the overgrowth of the pond, but I have the worst poker face in the history of the game. I remember standing at the sliding glass door looking out over the back yard and saying something to the effect of “Wow. This is really bad.” I’m really good at sugarcoating my feelings, if you can’t tell.

“I know, I know…we are so embarrassed!” the owner exclaimed to me. “We just didn’t think it would be as much work as what it was. We hate what it’s become.”

Despite my better judgement and lack of interest in all things landscaping, I bought the house and inherited all the yardwork that came along with it. And to think I was only indebted to the bank for 30 years because of this! The pond was on the top of my list of things that needed to be tackled immediately. But looking at the pond as an owner brought on a whole new level of doubt as to whether or not I could actually make this happen.

I know that people often exaggerate when they talk about the height of plants, but I’m not making this up—the weeds and cattails growing in the pond were taller than I was. A huge root mat at least a foot and a half thick had tangled itself in the bed of the pond. The root mat looked like a 15 foot by 20 foot package of Ramen noodles. It was impossible to pull any one weed. It had to be all or nothing. And in the midst of all the overgrowth, there didn’t appear to be a drop of water in this entire pond.

I can’t take credit for eventually getting that pond back to its original working order. There were two people who helped me get things under control.

The first, to no one’s surprise, was my Dad. While every ounce of my soul absolutely despised yardwork, my Dad seemed to find a quiet stillness and peace when he was working in the yard. The sun was his fuel. Sweat and dirt were his tools. His hands were calloused and dirty, and he wouldn’t have them any other way. Planting, chopping, growing, and maintaining came naturally to him, while complaining, procrastinating, and accusing my Dad of child slave labor were my natural responses to any yard-related chores I was assigned. When I bought the house, Dad didn’t hesitate to jump in and help any way he could—even when it included yard work after a long day in a hot steel warehouse. There were even days when I would find him digging up plants or weeding when I hadn’t even asked him. I was lucky to have a green-thumbed Dad.

The second person to help me with the pond and many of the other chores when I bought the house was my good friend, Steve Adams. I met Steve in 6th grade. We shared a study hall table by virtue of our last names being at the beginning of the alphabet. All throughout high school, we become good friends. Steve and I would often leave school together for an afternoon trip to Skyline for a few coneys, and then make our way to Fairfield Lanes where we would bowl (albeit pathetically) a few games. Over the years, we continued our friendship, playing in weekly poker games and attending Reds’ games as often as we could.

Steve went away for college, but ended up transferring back home and attending Miami at the start of his junior year. Steve was a logical roommate for a number of reasons, ultimate among those being his desire for cleanliness, which honestly borders on the level of OCD. I have never seen anyone keep a cleaner and more organized apartment than Steve Adams. I’m sure that our parents must have thought we had girls living with us because our apartment was so clean, but I can assure you from the multitude of rejections I received from the bulk of the female student body at Miami that that was definitely not the case. Steve would vacuum constantly, clean any surface, and straighten any item that was askew. As a matter of fact, I would often move things around on our kitchen or bathroom counters just to see how long it would take him to put everything back (maybe this kind of stuff is why I was constantly rejected by females). In most cases, it was within the hour that he had returned everything to its original place. Unbelievable.

Steve eventually graduated, got a job as an engineer, bought a house, and kept it as clean as it was the day he moved in. Fortunately, his house was just down the road from mine, and we were able to maintain a great friendship. Steve and I would usually see each other four or five nights a week, and I was lucky to have a friend as true as him in my life.

Aside from being a clean freak, it’s more important that you know that Steve is one of the most hardworking and genuinely helpful friends that I’ve ever had in my entire life. Steve has an attention to detail that is absolutely remarkable, which has made him an exceptional engineer and a talented DIYer. His methodical approach to his job translates into being able to do a variety of things around his house, from constructing furniture and hanging televisions to remodeling entire rooms and repairing broken equipment. This is a handy trait to have, but it’s even more powerful when you couple it with his thoughtful heart.

We all have one of those “anything you need” friends. The person who will drop whatever he or she is doing to be by your side and help you when you need it. And when I bought my house, Steve was definitely that person. He jumped right in, so much so that I felt guilty for my name being on the deed instead of his. Every night after work without fail, Steve would drive over to my house in a cutoff and cargo shorts, ready to work. He did absolutely everything. He helped me paint. He helped me move furniture. He helped repair things that had been broken when I had tried to do them myself and failed tremendously. He was an absolute life saver.

And when it came to yardwork, Steve had two green thumbs and an unbelievable amount of energy. He often pushed me when I felt like I was too tired to work. He would shake my shoulders and tell me to “man up” and that we had too much to do to sit still. Steve would pull weeds until his hands were raw. He would work in the hot July sun until it set and had completely zapped him of his energy. If there was something I needed to do in the yard, he would do it right alongside me until the job was done. I was lucky to have him by my side.

And on this particular night, to all of our glee, Steve, my Dad, and I were all standing in the nearly weed-free pond with our hands on our hips and sweat covering our faces. It was another brutally hot night, but we were so close to completing the work in the pond that we pushed through. The root mat was so thick and so tangled that we actually had to saw through it with a machete (which my Dad owned for reasons I will never know or understand), hauling out chunks of weeds that weighed nearly 75 pounds. We eventually ended up with two trailers full of weeds from the pond alone. We were proud of the work we had done because it was unbelievably exhausting, but we also knew that the end product—a beautifully glistening pond right on the back patio—would be well worth the time and sweat we invested. We surveyed the pond and the surrounding landscaping, which was full of trees and ornamental grasses as we tried to catch our breath. Then, my Dad pointed at a bare spot just to the right of the upper pond and the rear waterfall.

“Hey boy. That would be a great spot for a bench. It would be a perfect place to sit,” he said.

“Yeah, that would be really nice. Maybe I’ll look for something the next time I’m out shopping,” I replied.

“No, don’t do that,” he said. “I’ll build you something. I’ll make you something really nice.”

It was just like my Dad to promise to build something we could just as easily buy, but I agreed because I knew anything he built would be top of the line, beautiful, and perfectly crafted in every way.

And with the vision of a bench fresh on our minds, we went right back to work. All the while, Steve stood silently and listened to our normal, commonplace conversation. And like he always did, he started pulling weeds right along with us when we started to work again.  Typical Steve—thank goodness.


My Dad never got a chance to build that bench. He died nearly a year from the date that I had bought my house. I felt his absence in every facet of my life, but especially when it came to repairs and projects around the house. My Dad was the handyman, and I was the son who reaped the benefits of having a handyman father. I didn’t know how to build anything. I didn’t know how to fix a dishwasher when it failed to wash dishes. I would go to Home Depot, pick up a “Plumbing for Dummies” book, and ask the store clerk if they had anything that was easier to read. Needless to say, that spot where my Dad had proposed we construct and place a bench would remain vacant until I could buy something…and pray that it was already assembled upon purchase. It saddened me to sit by the pond and reminisce on all the hard work we had put into it, because Dad hadn’t been able to enjoy it long enough. It wasn’t fair. And there were so many nights where I would stand on the shore of that pond where the bench should have been as my salty tears fell endlessly into the churning water.

But one Sunday morning, my tears began to splash into the pond for an entirely different reason. I woke up that morning tired and emotionally exhausted from the day before. Our neighbors, who had also been childhood friends with my Dad, were kind enough to put on a benefit for my family after my Dad’s death. They went to so many businesses collecting items for silent auction baskets, getting more donations than I ever thought would be possible. Hundreds of our friends and families, as well as many of my Dad’s old friends and coworkers, came out to show my Mom and I how much we were loved. And even through our desperately painful heartache, we felt their love.

As I prepared to start my day, I went through my familiar routine. I left my bedroom, brushed my teeth, and proceeded to the family room where I would throw open the curtains and survey the back patio and the pond.

But what I saw that day stopped me dead in my tracks.

As I looked out across the water, in the exact same spot my Dad had identified a year ago, sat a beautiful wooden bench.

Steve's Bench

I rubbed my eyes because I thought I was hallucinating. This couldn’t be real.

I threw open the door and ran across the waterfall of the front pond, splashing water into my flip flops. I clambered across the rocks towards the bench with my mouth wide open and tears streaming down my face.

I touched the bench, and it was real. I ran my hand across the smooth wooden armrests. I admired the rich brown stained wood and the tremendous craftsmanship. Precise, functional, and completely perfect—all qualities that my Dad would have put into anything that he had created.

And there, at the top of the bench’s backrest, a beautiful silver plaque was mounted:

In Memory of

Scott Bradshaw

1963 – 2013

I lost all composure as I ran my hands across the engraved words. I wanted the pain that those words inflicted to disappear, but I never wanted to let this plaque or this bench go. I was simply astounded—and I had no idea how the bench got there or who put it on the banks of my backyard pond.

I ran back into the house and grabbed my phone, dialing my Mom’s number. She answered the phone, already in tears herself, most likely anticipating my call.

“Mom,” I sobbed, “How did this bench get here? Who did this?”

She immediately responded, “Steve. I can’t believe this, Ty, but he built that bench by hand. He brought it over yesterday while we were at the benefit.”

Mom and I cried together for a few minutes, talking about how much we missed my Dad. After hanging up with her, I immediately called Steve and, through tears, tried to tell him that I couldn’t believe what he had done.

“You’re so welcome, buddy,” Steve said in his ever-gracious and reassuring tone of voice. Then, he said a phrase that I’ll never forget that captures the essence of his heart.

“I couldn’t let your Dad not fulfill a promise he made to you, so I built the bench in his place.”

If I wasn’t emotional enough at this point, I lost all control when I heard those words. Steve had remembered what was probably an unmemorable conversation we had on a busy day of landscaping work. He had remembered a moment in time and a promise my Dad had made me when even I had begun to forget about it.

I shared with Steve how lucky I was to have him in my life, and how I couldn’t imagine navigating the tragedy of my Dad’s death without his unbelievable support. I thanked him over and over again, and after hanging up the phone I went back outside and took a seat on my new bench.

I sat there looking out over the water with my hands clasped around my mouth, still in a state of utter shock and bewilderment. I sat alone and cried, wishing beyond belief that my Dad could have been there sitting next to me.

He was right all along. It was the perfect spot for a bench.

And then I prayed, and I thanked God. I told Him how much I missed my Dad and how I didn’t understand why he was gone so soon, but I thanked Him for positioning so many amazing, caring people in my life to help support me when I was weak—just like Steve. I thanked God for being able to see down the road much further than I ever could. I thanked Him for bringing us together so many years ago, knowing that I would need someone with his steadfast trust and courage to help pull me from the depths of my own despair. I thanked God for giving Steve a heart that sought after Jesus—a heart that desired to turn God’s words into tangible actions in the lives of those around him. I thanked him for giving Steve both the talent and the compassion to give me such an extravagant gift.

And after saying “Amen”, I did what my Dad would have done. I sat and I enjoyed the sound of pond water rushing over a rock ledge. I admired the glory of a perfect pond-side perch. And I smiled as I admired God’s creation and the heart of His people.


It’s a few years down the road from that wonderful morning, and the bench has some slight signs of typical wear. The stain has started to fade a bit, and the wood has started to age—and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

That bench has character and it tells a story. A story of a friend so true and dedicated that he taught himself to build a bench to help heal a friend’s broken heart. I have no doubt that that bench is exactly what my Dad would have built me, which is another reason why it’s so special to me.

On occasion when I am feeling low, I’ll traipse out onto the back patio and spot the bench—and I’ll know that I just need to sit on it and rest. But I rarely sit there without having a conversation with my Dad. I will talk with him about my day, toss about my problems, and just tell him how much I miss him. He may not answer, but I know that he’s there with me. That bench is a constant and tangible reminder that no matter what his headstone may say, my Dad will always be right here with me.

But of all the things I hear my Dad say when I sit on that bench, more than anything I hear him saying “thank you”. Not to me, but to my friend Steve. A friend who stepped in for my Dad and built a bench to fulfill a promise to a son when he couldn’t be here to do it himself.

I’ll always be thankful—both for a Dad who knew where a bench belonged, and for the friend who built it after he was gone.

Dad Turned Around in Chair with SB LogoDad, I’m so sad that I never got to see you build the bench that would have sat by my pond, but I’m thankful that I got the next best thing. I know how much you thought of Steve and how grateful you were for him being such a good friend to me. I see a lot of your character in my friend Steve. He is hardworking, trustworthy, and caring—just like you. You inspired so many people why you were here with us. I wish you were still here to keep building benches for all the people who need you most, but I’m thankful that God has dispensed his angels here on Earth to carry on where you can’t. One day, I know you and I will be sitting on a bench by the water again, talking about all the wonderful times we shared. But until then, seeya Bub.

“Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Romans 12:10 (NIV)

Merry Christmas from SeeyaBub.com!

 

A few months ago, I decided to launch this blog thinking that a few people would stumble across it and that it might help someone who is struggling with depression or the loss of a loved one to suicide. I didn’t quite know what to expect, but I didn’t expect what all the readers, and God, have provided in these few short months.

Over the past two months, Seeya Bub has had a few thousand views and has reached individuals in the United States, China, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Philippines, India, and a whole host of other countries.

To those of you who read each post, what’s been more important than any number or marker on a map, however, has been the overwhelming response of your heart. I can’t tell you how many nights I sit at my desk with my mouth agape, baffled at the work God is allowing this blog to do.

There have been the conversations with those of you who struggle with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. Hearing you open up and tell your story has been the privilege of a lifetime. From the moment I started this blog, I knew I wouldn’t be able to provide simple answers—but I could provide comfort, an open ear, and a shoulder to cry on when needed. You matter. Your story matters. And your life here on this earth is vitally important and consequential. I am honored to walk with you and share my Dad’s story in the hope that it might change and improve yours.

There have been the messages from survivors of suicide and individuals who have a friend or family member that struggles. There’s so much confusion, especially when a parent is suffering from a mental illness. How do we go from that person being our ultimate provider to suddenly having to take care of the caretaker? Your confusion is real, and it’s maddening, and it’s frustrating—but it’s a lot less overwhelming when you share that burden in community. I hate that you and your loved one are suffering, but I love that God has connected us so we can struggle and suffer together. Hearing so many people deal with their loved ones more tenderly after reading this blog has made it all worth it.

And to those of you who have lost a parent, regardless of the circumstances around their death, your pain and love for your loved one has touched the deepest parts of my heart. The loss of a parent is so profoundly painful. They’ve always been there, and they’ve always known just what to say when times got tough. And when they aren’t around anymore to say those things, the void hurts so deeply. I’ve found comfort in your experience and your journey, and I’m learning from you how I can continue living life when life seems unlivable.

To those of you who have shared stories about my Dad, all I can say is thank you. You have no idea how comforting it is to hear stories about my Dad. You would think, having known him my entire life, I would know everything there is to know about him. But I don’t, and as time goes on, one of the most difficult and troubling realizations is that I might be forgetting things about my Dad. When you tell me stories about my Dad and the things he did in this life, it’s like he’s right there next to me again. He’s still living in on your memory, which makes him even more vivid in my own. I can’t wait to share these stories in future posts.

This Christmas season, I simply say thank you. For reading, for sharing, and for connecting. For validating my story while processing your own. You’ve inspired me to make this the mission of my life—promoting a message of hope in the face of fear, light in the presence of darkness. I am completely astounded by the response, and I promise to continue serving all of you, and God, with all my heart and energy.

Dad and I were fans big fans of Garth Brooks…well, let me rephrase that. I was (and still am) a HUGE fan of Garth Brooks, and Dad liked him up until that whole “retirement” stunt. Recently, Garth (yeah, that’s right, we’re on a first name basis….well, at least I am) released a song with his wife Trisha Yearwood and the legendary James Taylor that is simply dubbed “The Thanksgiving Song”. The lyrics spoke to me at a heart level, and I wanted to share some of them with you:

What I’m thankful for ain’t on no list

For it only in my heart exists

For time has helped me understand

The things I can’t hold in my hand.

 

For those that came before my turn

Oh, from whom I’ve gathered lessons learned

That light the path that lies ahead

I see them as I bow my head.

 

Yes I’m thankful for the Lord above

The gift of His unending love

The promise kept that there is something more

These are the things I’m thankful for.

To all of you, I’m thankful that you’ve agreed to walk alongside me and all those who suffer from mental illness and grief. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours, and thank you for making the start of this journey such a remarkably blessed experience.

Dad, You would be astounded by all of the people who have visited this blog and read your story. You wouldn’t want the credit for any of it, but I give you so much credit for all the good things that have happened in my short life. You taught me all the things a Father should (and then some), and although the lessons didn’t always set in (I still can’t change my own oil in the truck), the important things you taught me will always be there. I miss you more than anything, and especially around Christmas it’s hard to think that you won’t be there to enjoy all the fun and food and family. But you are there, in my heart, and I’m thankful that you made me the man I am. Until that first Christmas that we spend together in heaven, seeya Bub.

Shopping for Dad

“Dad would really like that for Christmas this year.” It’s a pretty normal thing to say. That is for someone who isn’t me, because this is the fourth Christmas I’ve had without my Dad, and I still find myself saying that as I fight my way through the shopping malls filled with aggressive soccer Mom’s ready to fight over a hatching robotic bird (come on, America—we are better than this). But I still say it, and there’s part of me that probably always will.

When Dad was alive, he could be really hard to buy for. He was a man who had everything. And there was always a good chance that he had two of everything and they were both brand name.

When I look back on Christmases gone by, there were some years where I really struggled to find a good set of Christmas gifts for my Dad. One year, I fell for a TV infomercial for a set of screwdrivers that you never had to remove from the screw while you turned—as if they one thing my Dad could really use was another set of screwdrivers to add to the hundreds he already owned. The Kobalt Double Drive Screwdriver set–complete with magnetic tool belt pouch and free shipping and handling. I don’t even remember the benefits to this particular purchase, but they had a fancy name and I’m pretty sure Bob Vila or a Bob Vila impersonator had endorsed them. And they were sold at Lowes’. And if I called within the next 15 minutes, they would give me two of them. I could give one to my Dad and keep one for myself in case I wanted to send the impression to a visitor that I actually knew how to complete a home repair.

There were also years, however, when I was able to find really cool gifts for my Dad. It usually had something to do with an experience we could share together. I’ll never forget the year I got him tickets to a Miami University hockey game for Christmas. Dad wasn’t an avid hockey fan, so I think he was kind of confused when he opened up the tickets (even though he would never let me see that). But once he got to the game, everything changed. A carpenter and builder by trade, Dad was completely enamored with the intricate architecture of the Goggin Ice Arena in Oxford. He especially loved the white marble floors that make up the concourse, inlaid with silver trim in figure eight patterns to mimic skate cuts in the ice. And although he didn’t really understand the rules of the game, he was a competitor at heart who loved the energy of a Miami hockey game. By the end of the game, we were both into it, cheering on the RedHawks even though he didn’t always know what he was cheering for. It’s a night I’ll remember for a long time. One that was very special for both of us.

No matter what gift I eventually settled on, the process of finding something for Dad was always rather difficult. For as many possessions as my Dad owned, he never let those possessions define him. Sure he loved gifts, but he loved the gift-givers even more. My Dad found true joy in community and loving other people. He loved spending time with people on the holidays and making others smile. The special charm of Christmas was never about what awesome gifts he might receive—which made shopping for him a particularly frustrating task. I could’ve found peace in the fact that my Dad would have loved any gift I got him, but I often found myself stressing out to try and blow him away with something he hadn’t even thought of. Over the years, I don’t know how many times I succeeded.

Now, the Christmas shopping is still frustrating, but for an entirely different set of reasons. The Christmas season used to feel like a warm embrace, but now it feels like a slap in the face—and Christmas shopping has become one of the primary experiences that makes the season so emotionally difficult.

For all the years he was alive, I struggled to find Christmas gifts for Dad. Now that he’s gone, however,I see hundreds of things in the stores that I would have loved to buy for him. Sweatshirts he would have worn well. Tickets to events he would have enjoyed. Movies he could have laughed at. Tools that he could have….well, added to his other tools.

The exhilaration of gift-giving has been stolen from me. It’s been irreparably tainted. The tradition is now enveloped with sadness, and it’s difficult for me to accept that. With every item I pass in the stores that makes me think of my Dad, I grow wearier and feel like I’m losing him more and more. I’m always trying to find ways to cope, but I’ve been largely unsuccessful. The joy, albeit stressful, of giving my Dad a gift is gone. The tradition is extinguished. And it’s really, really tough to admit that.

So, this year, I’ll start a new tradition, but I’ll still buy for Dad. A few months ago, I started a new job in Downtown Cincinnati. I have to park about fifteen minutes away from my office building, which gives me some time to pay attention to the city around me. As I exit the building and start to walk down Main, the sights of the city hit my square in the face. The ballpark, the skyscrapers, the streetcar…and then, the homelessness.

There is a man who leans against a light pole on most days as I walk by. I’ll confess—I’ve never spoken to him. I’ve made eye contact a few times, but his glazed and vacant expression never connects with mine. He holds a sign, which I’ve never taken the time to read. And as the Cincinnati winter settles in, I notice his coat always looks a little thinner than all the other streetwalkers. He never chats with anyone, but stands with his sign and a few belongings in a backpack. I never see him eating, even though I usually walk by him with an apple in my hand for the ride home. I never see him drinking a Starbucks coffee like so many of the other pedestrians. He is the city that the city doesn’t see. A man loved by Jesus but ignored by the world—including me.

This man deserves a Christmas. This man deserves a Christmas as much as I ever will or my Dad ever did.

So, this Christmas, I’ll still buy for my Dad—but I’ll give it to this man. I’ll pick up a coat or some gloves that my Dad would have loved. I’ll get him a gift card for a local restaurant. I’ll box this all up and wrap it with the same love and attention to detail that my Dad always wrapped his gifts with. And a couple days before Christmas, I’ll stop and have Christmas with this man. I don’t know if I’ll tell him about my Dad, or just hand him the gift and let him know that I want him to have a merry Christmas. And although I know that a coat and a gift card can’t change the world, I hope they give this man an ounce of brightness in his seemingly difficult life.

But let’s remember—Christmas gifts can change the world. Think of the one that was given over 2,000 years ago in the form of God’s only Son. Think about the difference that gift made. Who knows where this one will go, but I’ll just trust that God wants me to give it—I’ll let him figure out the rest.

I’ll give this gift because I’m thankful for the one that was given to me—the gift of a Heavenly Father who loves me every day, and the gift of an earthly Father who made that love tangible to me for so many years. I believe that God sends Dads to this world with a very special mission—to have them exemplify the type of love he shows us in an earthly body. Not every Father answers the call; but for 26 years, my Dad answered it each and every day. I’m so thankful that I had a Dad who made Christmas special, but more importantly, a Dad who took the spirit of Christmas and lived it out throughout the year. I want to be more like him this Christmas, and this new tradition will be a big step in that direction.

I know the joy that I get when I open a Christmas present, and I know the joy my Dad used to get as well—even if he was opening yet another set of TV infomercial screwdrivers. But I don’t know the pain this man on the street experiences in his everyday life. I don’t know if he’ll even be able to enjoy opening that gift because of all the overwhelming things that make up his life. But this is something my Dad would’ve done. And I just trust that God wouldn’t be putting this on my heart if He didn’t have a plan for it.

As much as I’ve tried to make the Christmases stay the same after Dad, I’m learning that a more appropriate response (for me at least) has been to change them into new traditions. My Dad changed my life for the better, and his memory should do that as well. My life should be a testament to the man he was, and so should my Christmas traditions. So I’ll hold onto as many traditions as I can without him, and I’ll make new ones in his absence that honor his legacy. I’ll make traditions inspired by his love for all of us, and I’ll continue to shop for him even though I’ll give the gift to someone else.

As much as I hope this gift to the man I walk by will help him, selfishly I hope it will also help me. When I make my Christmas shopping list, I can still have a category for “Dad”. When I go out into the stores and have that “Oh, Dad would really like this” moment, I can still make a purchase. I can buy a gift for Dad. I can wrap a gift for Dad. And I can give it to someone who could really, really use it.

I’ve learned that new traditions aren’t all about missing my Dad; instead, new traditions are about doing things that he would have done. My Dad was the type of guy who would have bought a few gifts for a homeless man he didn’t know. My Dad was the type of guy who would have wrapped that gift delicately and put a unique tag on it. My Dad was the type of guy who would have walked right up to someone he didn’t know, but someone who he knew needed a hand-up, and given it to him without hesitation. I’m not that type of guy, but because my Dad was, I’ll try to be.

For those of you who miss your loved one this Christmas, I hope you’ll go out and shop for them. I hope you’ll find a way to give your loved one’s gift to someone who could really use it.

“Dad would’ve liked this,” I say to myself as I shop. “He really would’ve enjoyed opening this gift.” Now, in the eyes of another man, I hope I’ll get to see a glimmer of the same glistening sparkle I always saw in my Dad’s eyes on Christmas morning. I may be saying goodbye to him again this Christmas, but I’ll say hello to someone else who just might need it.

dads-christmas-angel-with-sb-logoDad, It’s so hard to believe that another Christmas has gone by and you’re not here to experience it. You always made the holidays so special for Mom and I, and the tree is always a bit emptier when you’re not around it. There were so many things you enjoyed around Christmas—especially watching our family dogs open gifts and tear them apart. We were all joyful around the holidays because you made it that way for us. In your absence, I hope we are keeping the spirit alive that you always gave to us. And, I’m sorry for all the screwdrivers. Merry Christmas, Dad, and until we celebrate together again, seeya Bub.

“They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph with the baby, who was lying in a manger. When they saw the child, they repeated what they had been told about him. Everyone who heard the shepherds’ story was amazed. Mary treasured all these things in her heart and always thought about them.” Luke 2:16-19 (GW)

The Christmas Quilt

It’s really hard to think of a present you’d like to have on Christmas when all you want is your Dad to come back.

2014 marked my second Christmas without Dad. My second Christmas without seeing his smile as he opened gifts. My second Christmas without watching him laugh at A Christmas Story over and over and over again. My second Christmas without him snoring loudly as he napped on the couch after eating entirely too much holiday food. My second Christmas without the sound of his laughter, the presence of his joy, and the love of his heart.

I fought desperately (and still do) to hang onto those memories of Christmases now gone. On the surface, the holiday season looked the same. The Christmas trees, the lights, the presents, the cookies, and the family get-togethers. But Christmas now felt different. The feelings of joy and anticipation had given way to the pangs of loss, regret, and overwhelming sadness. All the emotions I had once felt around Christmas were so clouded by loss that it was nearly impossible to enjoy any part of the season. I thought a second year in the rotation might take off some of the rawness of the pain, but in actuality, it didn’t. It still hurt, and the pain still ran just as deep.

There was a guilt in time progressing, in life moving on. How could I just continue to exist without my Dad? How could I just continue celebrating Christmas after Christmas without him? It didn’t feel right, but I also didn’t know what other option I had. Christmas was going to come whether I wanted it to or not. Man is in an eternal fight against time, and I was on the front lines.

I couldn’t stop these thoughts from racing through my mind as I created my makeshift bed in the family room of my parents’ home. Our yearly tradition of a Christmas Eve celebration with my Mom’s side of the family had just concluded, and I was settling in for the night in the family room where I last saw my Dad alive. Even though I had bought my own house, I had made it my tradition of staying with my parents on Christmas Eve so we could all wake up under the same roof for Christmas morning. If anything, Dad’s death had made me want to do this even more, to hold on to some sense of tradition and normalcy as much as I could.

As I was laying out the sheets and pillows on the couch, Mom made her way down the staircase with a wrapped package. As an only child with a devilish smile, I had often been able to convince my parents to let me open just one present the day before Christmas. Even into semi-adulthood, I had still been able to work my magic to get at least one gift the day before. But since Dad had died, there wasn’t the same fun or eagerness in opening gifts.

Seeing her come down the stairs with that package made me remember so many unique gifts that my Mom and Dad gave me over the years. There was the year when they bought me a Fischer Price castle playset with action figure knights and boulder slingshots and a working drawbridge, which became the breeding ground for countless hours of imagination as a child. Another year, my parents bought me a wonderful art desk with a revolving marker and crayon stand, and a bottom-lit desk surface for tracing. I felt like a real cartoonist when I sat at that desk! Against Mom’s better wishes, I’m sure, there was the year that Dad bought me a dirtbike. Although I never got very good at riding it, there was something about being a kid and getting a motorcycle on Christmas morning that made me feel really, really cool. And now, I sit and think back to all those wonderful gifts and want nothing more than to have the gift of my Dad back on Christmas.

I could tell from the look on Mom’s face that this gift would be a little different from the hundreds of toys I had probably received as a child. As she came down the steps with the package, I noticed she had been crying. Unfortunately, this wasn’t much of an anomaly in our home around Christmas, for either one of us. We cried at Christmas, sometimes together and sometimes alone. There was no getting around it.

“Ty,” she said, “I’d like for you to go ahead and open this gift tonight.”

She laid it on my lap, and the child inside me from years gone by couldn’t resist the temptation to guess what was underneath the wrapping. “It feels soft, and definitely feels like clothing,” the inner child said to me. Much too big to be socks, thankfully.

In the soft glow of the Christmas lights strung across our mantle, I unwrapped what has since become my favorite Christmas gift I’ve ever received.

As I pulled back the paper, I immediately recognized one of my Dad’s old t-shirts. I began to cry before even realizing what the gift actually was. Suddenly, I realized that what I thought might have been a jacket or a coat was a quilt—but not just any quilt.

What lay in my lap was a quilt made up entirely of my Dad’s old clothing.

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Fighting through tears and a complete loss of words, I threw the paper to the side and cleared out room on the floor. I spread the quilt out across the floor of our family room, admiring an item that was more valuable than any treasure I could ever receive. Mom had found someone who lived in our local community who had made the quilt–a strong Christian woman who took the time to learn about my Dad, pray over his clothing, and create a beautiful keepsake that would allow me to hold onto him forever.

There was the Carhart t-shirt I had seen him in so many times. Always the working man, I had grown used to seeing my Dad in Carhart clothing, especially coveralls, any time he was working around the house. Seeing that shirt again reminded me of his strong and calloused hands, often darkened and dirty from a project around the house. It took me back to those moments instantly.

img_0068Then, I spotted a patch made of his softball pants and the stitched name and number (always 11 for symmetry) from the letterman’s jacket of our church team. Dad was a tremendous athlete. Known as “Scooter” since before I was born, Dad was always fast—real fast. I loved watching him play softball, and when I saw that patch, my mind immediately went back to the familiar smells and sounds of a softball field, watching my Dad scoot around the bases as I cheered from a splintered wooden bench behind home plate.

img_0064I noticed his dark blue coveralls from Matandy Steel, the job where he worked for what was nearly the last decade of his life. So many times, I had seen Dad come home weary and exhausted from a long day at work, his hands and face smudged with grease from the machines he worked on all day. But my Dad loved his job, and he loved working, and I always associate those coveralls with pride and loyalty. My Dad was proud of his work, and we were all proud of the work he did.

My eyes drifted over to a green shirt with a soccer ball on it in the upper left corner, and I flashbacked to my short-lived career as a youth soccer star participant. Dad had coached my team—the Green Machine—in a local YMCA league. I saw the shirt, and remembered him running up and down the sidelines, yelling out instructions. I remembered his perfectly drawn out substitution sheets, which I eventually replicated when I started coaching. I remembered the smiles on the faces of all my teammates who, like so many other children, were drawn to my Dad’s goofy sense of humor. He didn’t know much about soccer, but there was never a better coach.

Then I noticed the shirts from Gulf Shores, Alabama (our family’s vacation spot) along with the red “Lifeguard” swim trunks he had worn on so many wonderfully sunny beach days. Dad loved going to the beach, and I loved going there with him. Our days were never boring at the beach. We would lounge in the sand and eat snacks. We would swim deep out into the ocean and see how far we could go before Mom would start freaking out. With our gloves always in tow, we would toss a baseball back and forth for hours as the sun baked on our shoulders. From early in the morning until the sun deemed our day done, we relished those moments together near the water. They were the happiest of times.

There were the Hamilton Joes t-shirts he had worn to all the games that I announced. I am confident that I am one of only a few sports broadcasters at any level whose parents attended nearly any event I announced. I saw those shirts, and I immediately flashed back to the countless times I had looked out from the press box window and saw my Dad completely at peace in the stands of a baseball game—watching the players, talking to his friends, and listening to his son. I loved having him there.

The UFC shirt I had made fun of him for wearing so many times after being completely dumbfounded regarding his fascination with the “sport”. The “Miami Dad” shirt I had bought him a few Christmases ago when I was an undergrad. The Cincinnati Reds t-shirt he had worn to so many games we attended together. They were all there. Everything I had remembered my Dad wearing was stitched together in front of me in a beautiful testament to the life he lived here on Earth. To anyone who didn’t know my Dad, it would tell them all about him. And to those of us who knew him, it brought out the best of his memory.

I cried. And I thanked my Mom. And I hugged her. And I told her how much I missed Dad. The flood of emotions I had been trying to hold back that entire day suddenly burst forth when I realized that wrapping myself in this quilt would be as close as I would ever get to hugging my Dad on this side of Eternity.

And that’s exactly what I do. When I miss my Dad, I wrap myself in that quilt. I wrap myself in the lifetime of wonderful memories he gave to me. I wrap myself in the knowledge that I will see him again someday, and that we will celebrate many more Christmases together. My Dad gave me so many great gifts while he was here with me, but I am so thankful that he gave me a Christ-like model of fatherhood—one where joy, humility, and unconditional love always prevails.

This quilt was a gift from my Mom, but I know that it was a gift from my Dad, too. I can feel his presence in every stitch. I can hear his laughter when I look at the patches. I can see his face and hear his voice every time I’m near it. A great quilt is nothing without a story to go behind it, and this one has a story I’ll tell for years and years to come.

Maybe you’re reading this blog having just lost a Dad or a Mom or a loved one. Maybe you’re reading this blog in the midst of unmistakable tragedy. Or maybe you’re reading these words years down the road from a loss but still reeling from the heart wrenching loss that feels as if it will never end. Maybe for a variety of reasons, you find yourself alone on this Christmas, and you can’t help but feel as if no one understands your desperation. If that’s you, I have a simple message.

God gives us quilts. For me, it was a quilt, but for you it might be something else. A photo. A family keepsake. A bottle of cologne or candle that reminds you of the person you miss. I don’t know what it will be, and I don’t know when you’ll receive it; but I do know that when we hurt, God’s heart hurts as well. And as a loving God, I know He will find ways to ease your pain.

I find so much comfort in the words of Psalm 139:13. “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb” (NLT). If our God has known you so intricately and for so long, we have to believe that He knows exactly what we need in our deepest moments of hurt. And we also must believe enough in His promises that what we need will be provided.

Maybe it will be this Christmas, or maybe it will be months down the road, but I pray that you receive your quilt, and I pray that you receive the comfort that comes with it. Pray to God that He gives you your quilt, and believe, deep down, that He can provide.

And God gives us people who know we need a quilt. God uses His people to do extraordinary things, and he always positions them in our lives for the moments where we might need each other most. I didn’t ask for a quilt—mainly because I didn’t know I needed one. But God knew I needed one, and put the idea in my Mother’s heart to have one made for me.

This Christmas, I’m thankful that my God has put a mission in my Mom’s heart—a mission to help preserve the memory of her husband, my father. When it comes to gifts that honor my Dad, my Mom is an all-star. She thinks of ways to honor him that I never would. I’m confident that God has been developing that type of attitude in her throughout her entire life, knowing that our family would face a storm unlike any other.

I don’t know who will give you your quilt, but I’m confident that if you open your heart to grace and community and fellowship, God will give you an army of people who will help you walk through the wind and rain of life’s storms. He’s given it to me, even at times when I didn’t deserve it—and no matter how far I might stray from him at times, I rest easy knowing He will always be putting “quilt-givers” in my life to pick me up when I fall.


History records the day when the White House was attacked by the British in 1814. As the home of our nation’s most powerful executive burned to the ground, First Lady Dolley Madison grabbed the official portrait of our first President, George Washington, in an effort to preserve our national history. She escaped from the flames with the portrait intact, and made her way to safety.

Although I never want my house to burn down, I’ve already made up my mind about what I would grab on my way out, and it’s not a presidential portrait (Sorry, George).

The quilt my Mom gave me on that Christmas Eve is my most cherished family heirloom. For generations, that quilt will be able to tell the story of a man my children and grandchildren will never have the gift of knowing on this Earth. But more than that, it’s a reminder to me of the tremendous life I spent with my Dad for 26 years. Now, on Christmas Eve, I have a new tradition, and even though it’s not the one I want, it’s the one I will settle for until better days. On Christmas Eve, on that same couch where I said goodbye to my Dad, I wrap myself in his quilt, and it’s like he’s still there with me in some way. A quilt provides comfort, and so does a loving Father—and I’m thankful that I have both wrapped up together in the warmest of memories.

dads-quilt-with-sb-logo-1Dad, I would love for you to see this quilt, but I would give anything to see you wearing the clothes that make up the patches again. You would be so proud of Mom for finding such a wonderful way to honor your memory. When times get tough, I grab that quilt and think about you. I press my face against your work uniform, and remember how those patches used to feel on my face when I’d hug you as you came home from work as a child. I remember how sweaty those softball uniforms used to get after you had played a game on a hot summer night. I remember all the days we lounged together on the shores in Alabama, and how we all felt closer to God and each other being close to the ocean. I long for those days—and I know we will have them again, only better. My quilt only has meaning because of the meaning you gave to our lives when you were here. That quilt tells a story because you made life so special, each and every day. And although it will be sad to go through yet another Christmas without you to provide the fun and laughter, I feel you watching over us each and every year. Until our first Christmas together again, seeya Bub.

“And this same God who takes care of me will supply all your needs from his glorious riches, which have been given to us in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:19 (NLT)

The Gift Tags

Christmas is exciting, and this was no different—but how could that be when everything about life was suddenly so different? The tree was glowing in our living room with all of the familiar ornaments we had put on it since I was a kid. The presents were wrapped underneath, ready to be opened. Our dog was running around like crazy, because she knew there were definitely a few toys wrapped up for her to open as well. It was Christmas in our home again—no different, but different.

The anticipation that Christmas always builds was building for all the wrong reasons. Apprehension clouded over the entire morning. It was Christmas 2013—the first Christmas without my Dad. And no matter where I looked, even though he wasn’t there, all I saw was him.

I sat on the couch where I always sat when we were opening gifts. Mom came down the stairs and sat in the chair across the living room. And we just sat there for a moment. We were usually always waiting on Dad. He would wake up, and just lay there for a while, and change his clothes, and brush his teeth, and after 15 minutes of harassment from me as I held back from ripping the presents apart, he would eventually come down the steps. But on this Christmas, no matter how long we waited, I knew he wasn’t coming. But I didn’t want to admit it.

I loved Christmas, but in that particular moment I wanted to be anywhere but sitting around the foot of our Christmas tree. It felt wrong. How could we even celebrate Christmas? Dad wasn’t here, and it wasn’t Christmas without Dad. How could we even bring ourselves to smile when we opened presents, knowing that this was Christmas from now on? I felt guilty—beyond guilty.

For better or for worse, however, I kept a brave face on for my Mom—even though I knew, deep down, she was having the same exact feelings of guilt, emptiness, and sadness.

We just didn’t know how to do this. There’s no manual or textbook on how to celebrate a holiday after you lose a loved one. It felt like we should be doing something different, but it also felt like we should be holding on to everything we had done previously so the tradition would always be there, even if my Dad wasn’t. Everything we did felt wrong, even if it was probably the right thing to do. Christmas had taken on a whole new emotion—I went from loving Christmas to just wanting to get it over with as quickly and painlessly as possible. It was heartbreaking.

And it was heartbreaking because Christmas was always such a wonderful, wonderful time in our home. It was a perfect balance of excitement and tradition that all Christmases should be. Mom would make our favorite breakfast quiche and cinnamon rolls, filling the house with the smell I’ll always associate with the holidays. We would stay in our pajamas all day long and play with the toys and games my parents had bought me. We would watch A Christmas Story way too many times, and my Dad would laugh at the same jokes over and over and over again (especially when the lead up to the tongue-on-pole fiasco). It was Christmas the way Christmas was supposed to be.

And now, all of that was gone. The food and the gifts and the movie-marathon were still there, but a dark cloud of emptiness enveloped the whole thing. It was now everything that was wrong with Christmas—going on without my Dad and still celebrating. It felt wrong to want Christmas to just be right again.

But I looked at Mom, and she looked at me, and we both knew that we had no choice. We couldn’t simply abandon the tremendous memories we have of the 25 Christmases we got to spend as a complete family. Those were important treasures, and we couldn’t hate the previous holidays because we weren’t enjoying the current one.

So, we went on. We passed gifts between the two of us, interjecting a few for the dog, Lucy, as she grew restless. We smiled when we opened presents, and thanked each other just like we always had. It felt strange just giving gifts between the two of us, but if I closed my eyes periodically, I could pretend that my Dad was still there with us. And even with my eyes open, I could still feel him there with us in that moment. A few minutes into the gift-giving, however, I found my Dad right there with me in a much different fashion.

Dad had always been the professional gift wrapper in our household. His attention to detail and desire for perfection bled into every aspect of his life, and Christmas gift wrapping was no exception. It may have taken him a ridiculously long time to do, but his creases were perfect. Each gift was a work of art, and each gift wrapping had its own personality. He was very creative when it came to unique bow combinations. He would use ribbon in interesting combinations and patterns to create different effects on the boxes. On occasion, he might try and trick you by taking a small gift and putting it in a huge box (or multiple boxes set inside each other like Russian nesting dolls). I never gave him enough credit for how well he wrapped presents, probably because I was so jealous that mine looked like they were wrapped by a three year old.

The gift tags were always his finishing touch. Dad would always label each package, but it was rarely a simple “To: Ty / From: Dad”. There was only usually one tag that would have that standard moniker, but the rest were all creative. Each one had to be goofy or silly or different. “To: Ty / From: Santa.” “To: The Boy / From: The Dad.” “To: Tyrone / From: Pops.” “To: Bub / From: Papa Elf.” Although each tag was familiar in that it was written in Dad’s recognizable, precise, ALL-CAPS handwriting, each tag was distinct and had its own personality. Most of the time they were goofy and corny, just like most of my Dad’s jokes. I’m sure, over the years, there were a few eye rolls from me, an embarrassed son, but my Dad never quit smiling when he saw me read them.

But on that first Christmas morning without him, my eyes grew wide when I grabbed a seemingly normal package. I looked down at the tag, and thought my eyes had to be playing tricks on me. There it was. The precise handwriting in all capitals that I had begun to emulate as a seventh grader. The sharpie that he always used to label his gifts. I looked at the package, and there it was—a label, written by him, that said “To: Ty / From: Dad”.

I looked up at Mom, completely astonished. She looked backed at me as tears streamed behind her glasses. “I found a few of them when I was getting out the gift wrapping stuff. It makes it feel like he’s still here with us, doesn’t it?”

Then, I lost it. All the emotions I had been trying to hold inside burst forth. All the hurt and emptiness and sorrow I was feeling in that moment exploded to the surface, and there was no holding it back. “I miss him so much,” was all I could get out, over and over.

Mom got up from her chair, walked over to me, and just hugged me. We cried together, as the reality of our new holiday tradition set in.

Each year, I get a few packages that have my Dad’s Christmas tags on them. And each year, it’s gotten easier and easier to look at them and remember the great Christmases we spent together, rather than obsessing over the heartache that I so often feel. It’s gotten easier to watch A Christmas Story and laugh at the parts we would have laughed at together. But just because it’s easier to deal with doesn’t mean it hurts any less. The pain is still just as real as it’s ever been, but over the years since Dad’s passing, I’ve learned to appreciate the great times we had together rather than obsessing over the time that was stolen from us. And I’m thankful that I have a Mom who loved me enough, even in the midst of her own heartache, who still wanted Christmas to be a special time filled with love for one another.

I rest easy in the midst of the pain when I remind myself of the reasons why we celebrate Christmas. Even though my Dad might not be there to open the gifts and enjoy the food, I have a Heavenly Father who sent his Son to this Earth so I wouldn’t suffer alone. I celebrate because God knew I would encounter this pain, and he cared enough to do something about it. I have no doubt those little Christmas tags were a gift from God when He knew I would need them most. They were the reminder I needed when life felt too tough.

And I also rest easy knowing that I will celebrate Christmas again with my Dad, and it will be an even better celebration than the ones we had when we were together here. That’s really hard for me to come to terms with! Those Christmases growing up felt so perfect, but God tells me that the ones I spend when we are reunited in heaven will be even better? When I read my Bible, it convinces me that every day in Heaven, not just one day a year, will be like Christmas. My mind can’t fathom that level of happiness. My heart can’t contain that type of love. But my soul longs for it, and I know that I’ll be laughing again with my Dad someday and celebrating Christmas with him again. I can’t imagine how God could make his gift-wrapping skills any better. But as long as those old familiar package tags are there, I’ll be happy.

Until then, I’ll make the most of the Christmases I’m given with the other people that I love. I’ll laugh when I’m having fun, and I’ll allow myself to cry when I miss my Dad. But most importantly, I won’t feel guilty or ashamed for experiencing either emotion. I’ll thank God that I long for those Christmases of long ago, because they must have been pretty tremendous for me to want them back so badly. It’s a weird thing to long for something you know you can never have, but it’s reassuring when you know, deep down, you’ll have something so much better to celebrate on the other side.

Dad, Every time another Christmas tree goes up, I shake my head and shed a tear because it feels like it was just yesterday we celebrated our last Christmas together. You loved that time of the year. You made the season so special for Mom and me, and I’ll never forget the tremendous memories we made together. At times, it really doesn’t feel right to even celebrate Christmas. I feel guilty having fun and smiling without you here to join in. But I know you’re watching, and I know you’re still smiling and laughing. Dad, thank you for giving this boy a lifetime of memories that are more valuable than any other gift you ever gave. Thank you for showing me what it’s like to love other people the way God loves us. The sacrificial love that God showed us when He sent His Son to this world is the same love you showed to everyone you came in contact with, whether it was Christmas or not. This season, help me live more like Him and more like you. Until a better Christmas, seeya Bub.

“Every good present and every perfect gift comes from above, from the Father who made the sun, moon, and stars.” James 1:17 (GW)