Jealous

A few days after my Dad’s death, I found myself roaming around a clothing store at the outlet malls. It sounds like a rather trivial thing to do after a traumatic loss, but I needed something, anything to find temporary relief from the sadness I felt. Attempting to escape from my grief, I was doing anything and everything to just keep my mind off of the horror that had filled the past week. I was trying to do little things, step by step, that I had done in my life before losing Dad, even though I experienced unrelenting guilt anytime I engaged in an activity that felt like I was “moving on.” Life was moving on to a new, emptier normal as much as I didn’t want to admit it. I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t stop it.

As I walked around the clothing store attempting to distract myself with shirts and hats and things that felt absolutely pointless now, I realized that my mind was super attuned to the many fathers and sons inside the store. They had always been there, but my mind had never had a reason to pay much attention to them before. Today, however, was different. Today, there were fathers and sons seemingly everywhere inside the store, and I was fatherless for the first time in my life. No matter which way I turned, they were constantly in my face.

I watched them all—closely and intently. I noticed how they interacted with one another. I watched as they showed one another different pieces of apparel. I saw how they joked together. I listened to their conversations, from the seemingly mundane to the more serious and complicated.

Realizing that I was without my Father in a public setting for one of the first times in my life, I did my best to try and get away from the different groups of fathers and sons that I saw throughout the store; but no matter where I moved, I couldn’t escape them. Everywhere I went, I seemed to encounter another father and son.

After a few unsuccessful dodging attempts, I found myself standing at a t-shirt rack with a father and his teenage son nearby, and I began to listen to their conversation back and forth, as much as I really didn’t want to. I knew, immediately upon looking at them, that his son was extremely disinterested—in both the activity of shopping, but more painfully, disinterested in his father.

To his credit, this particular father was doing everything he could to engage his son in a conversation; and his son, as some teenagers are prone to do, looked like he wanted to be hanging out with anyone else but his dad in that moment. Although he was trying to mask it, I could tell that this father was deeply hurt by the way his son was acting. I could see a level of longing for a previous chapter in life—a chapter during which his son had once adored him. There was a longing to be a father of a young, innocent boy again—a longing that would never be resolved. I could tell that this father, as unsuccessful as his efforts might have been, refused to give up on recapturing his son’s love and adoration. His efforts, however, were largely fruitless, and his son did everything he could to escape his dad’s presence.

I kept watching, and as the dad attempted to engage his son more and more, the son grew angrier and more hurtful. He began rolling his eyes at his dad behind his back. He snapped at his dad whenever he was asked a question that he perceived to be ridiculous—which just happened to be every question that his dad asked. Eventually, the young man started disrespecting his father at a level that was unconscionable and uncomfortable for those of us standing nearby—especially me.

And I just couldn’t take it anymore.

Without even realizing what was happening, I found myself getting emotional. My face was red and hot, and tears were forming at the corners of my eyes. I wanted to get away from them, but I also couldn’t stop watching them and wishing that this young boy would just shut up. I was anxious and uncomfortable and angry all at the same time.

I hung the shirt I was holding back on the rack and briskly walked out of the store, leaving the disrespected father and his disrespectful son in the rearview mirror.

I walked quickly through the parking lot, making a beeline towards my car as I felt more tears coming on. Within a few seconds, I got in the driver’s seat and slammed the door shut, and I began sobbing hysterically and pathetically. I sat there, slamming my fist against the steering wheel multiple times and letting out more than one anger-laced yells. It was embarrassing and humiliating, but these were raw emotions that I just couldn’t hide in that moment, just a few days removed from my Father’s tragic death. I was furious. I was deeply saddened.

More than anything, I was jealous.

After losing Dad, jealously was not one of the emotions I expected to struggle with, but it had hit me hard just a few days after Dad’s death. I didn’t realize how cognizant I would be of all the fathers and sons in the world around me. I didn’t expect that every single time I saw a father and son walking around a mall doing something as simple as shopping could well up deep-rooted feelings of grief-induced jealousy—but it did. I was going to the mall that day to try to escape from my grief, and the mere sight of a father and his son together made that impossible. I wondered when this would start to fade, but I knew that although the frequency might lessen, the feelings themselves would likely never entirely disappear.

My Dad was gone. It was a new, horrible reality that hadn’t yet sunk in, but I kept saying it to myself that day in the car, as if repeating it over and over again would make the reality of my new life less emotional. “Dad is gone. Dad is gone.” Over and over again, I found myself repeating what I had lost in my life—my Father, my mentor, my friend. My heart filled with despair as I thought about all of the great times that we had together during his life—times that would never, ever be repeated.

And I admit it—I was extremely jealous of those young men I had seen throughout the mall that day. Many of the fathers and sons I saw in the mall that day were happy. I saw young children laughing as their fathers chased them between stores or made funny noises. In the food court, I saw dads sharing meals with their children just like Dad and I had done so many times before. I saw fathers with their adolescent children talking and chatting and carrying on good conversations. I saw older fathers with their adult children (and even grandchildren) just appreciating one another’s company.

And I was really, really jealous of those families and what they had together.

I was longing for moments that I felt were stolen from me. My Dad was a loving Father, and we deserved to have more time with one another. True, no amount of time with a man like my Dad would ever be enough, but I just knew that I wanted—and deserved—more. We deserved to be able to enjoy different phases of life together that were still to come. I wanted to see him on my wedding day (and the look of disbelief that would be on his face when I would tell him that I was getting married). I wanted to be able to, someday, tell him that he was going to be a grandfather. I wanted to watch his childlike antics as a grandfather, and I would have appreciated everything he would have done to be silly and goofy and funny with little ones running around him. I wanted to be able to see him get a promotion—which he so desperately deserved—at work, and I wanted to be able to honor him when he eventually celebrated his retirement. And yes, I wanted to watch him grow old.

That day at the mall was like a flash-forward into the life I could have had, the life that would never be but should have. With every father and son I observed, I was reminded of those moments of life that had either passed too quickly or were stolen from us too hastily. With every father and son, I saw a vignette into the world that, for some reason, I would not be blessed with.

I sat in the car trying to process my feelings. It was tough to admit, but in those moments, some of the nastiest emotions of jealousy bubbled to the surface, and I wondered why an undeserving brat like the young man I had witnessed was still allowed to have his father while mine was buried just a few days earlier. I found myself wanting to say something to that young man. I wanted to walk up to him and tell him to quit acting like such a little jerk, because he had no idea how lucky he was to still have his father in his life. I wanted to tell him that he should think twice about being so disrespectful to a man he had likely once idolized and would someday miss. I wanted him to feel a sense of regret for his despicable, thoughtless, self-centered behavior.

I also wanted to tell him that I spoke from experience, because I now found myself regretting all of the moments when I had treated my Dad similarly; and in that moment, I realized that I wasn’t as angry at that young man as I was angry at myself for not always giving my own Father the respect he rightfully earned.

I was a largely respectful kid, but I was also a teenager. As most teenagers do, I went through my “too cool for parents” phase. Although my Dad was fairly non-intrusive compared to most parents I had seen, he definitely enjoyed being around me and my friends, even when I didn’t always enjoy or appreciate his company. There were times when my Dad would be around, innocently and joyfully, and I just wanted to be with my friends—not him. It’s so painful to admit this; especially considering the fact that, now that he’s gone, I would give up just about anything to have a few more precious minutes and moments with him.

Time teaches us important and sometimes painful lessons, and it took losing my Dad to realize the true gifts of life, albeit too late to appreciate it with him. Losing my Dad has taught me to appreciate those who are in our lives while they are here. It’s a simple lesson, and I’m definitely not the first person who had to learn it the hard way. Unfortunately, it is a life lesson that many of us learn entirely too late because we don’t often learn it until the pain of loss sets in.

Although I’ve grown in many ways since losing Dad, those feelings of jealousy are still just as real almost six years removed from his death. I still have moments similar to that day at the outlet mall when I will spot a father and son and those feelings of jealousy will creep to the surface. I still observe interactions—mostly beautiful ones—between fathers and sons that will bring me to inexplicable tears. I want what they have, and I don’t understand why God felt that calling my Dad home to heaven so prematurely was necessary. There are many days when I long to be a little boy again. I wish desperately for those moments when I could swim in the backyard pool with my Dad, or ride bikes with him, or laugh at television shows with him, or just be with him.

But I know that whatever that ultimate plan may be, and no matter how jealous I might feel of other fathers and sons at times, I cannot lose sight of the fact that I spent 26 wonderful years with a simply amazing Father in my life.

I remember talking with one of my Pastors, Dave Hicks, shortly after losing Dad. At the time of our phone conversation, I was worried about going back to work. My job requires me to meet with lots of students and families who come to campus. Oftentimes, those meetings are pleasant, but on occasion, there will be instances where students grow visibly frustrated with their parents asking embarrassing questions—as all parents are prone to do in the college admission process. Students will roll their eyes, or sometimes even admonish their parents when they grow extremely frustrated with their actions. In my early career, I became rather accustomed to these types of meetings; but now, things were different. I had lost my Father, and I knew that I would likely react differently when I observed these interactions. I was worried that I might start to get inside my own head when I saw students treating their fathers with disrespect, and I was afraid that these scenarios would trigger unpleasant memories, making it hard for me to do my job. On the flip side, it was also difficult for me to watch parents who might come in and are disinterested in their children, because I lost a Father who was always, always interested in my life.

I was sharing these concerns with Dave, and I finally broke down and told him what was at the heart of my worry and anxiety.

“What am I going to do when I interact with a student being mean to their Dad? I know that I’m going to be jealous and it’s really going to upset me,” I said.

“You’re going to rejoice in the fact that, for 26 fantastic years, you had the best Father the world has ever seen—and no one, not even death, can take that away,” Dave responded.

That comment shifted my perspective on that day, and it’s been an important reminder in the years of recovery after his death. Although jealousy is a natural feeling when losing a loved one, we also can’t lose sight of what we were fortunate enough to have. Although natural, I also realize how selfish my primal feelings of jealousy were after losing Dad. It was true—I didn’t deserve to lose my Dad at such a young age. But Dad didn’t deserve to die the way he did. And the father I saw in the store didn’t deserve to be treated the way he was. And, in most every situation of life, none of us deserve the pain we are subjected to.

But we also don’t deserve God’s love—yet He still continues to love us anyway. Our actions often run counter to the life He designed and taught us about through his Son, Jesus Christ. No matter how undeserving we might be, God continues to pursue us—and I will always be thankful for that message. When it comes to loving God, there have been sinful times in my life when I’ve been absolutely no different than that punk in the clothing store. In spite of all my transgressions and selfish attitudes, God has kept loving me; and it’s a reminder that not time, not space, and not even death by suicide can separate me from the love my Father gave me while he was here on earth.

I’m thankful that, albeit shorter than I would have liked, I had a Dad who loved me unconditionally each and every day of his life. I’m fortunate that I had a Father who took an active interest in everything I did, even though there were times when I didn’t give him the respect that he deserved. And I’m thankful, more than anything, that my Father’s memory and legacy continue to guide and teach me each and every day of my life. My heart is hurt, and it’s still hurting years removed from the day that the pain of losing him was inflicted; but my heart is only full of jealousy because of the magnitude of my loss. I lost my Father on that day, but I’ll never, ever lose my love for him.

Dad and Me Stump Picture with SB LogoDad, Of all the difficult things that have happened since losing you, watching other fathers and sons has likely been the hardest. I still get jealous when I see other fathers and sons enjoying life together, because deep down I feel that you and I were robbed of precious time spent with one another. I don’t always know how to deal with these feelings, but you taught me to appreciate what we have in life more than longing for what we don’t have. And for all the experiences and moments that we might not have been able to share with one another, the 26 years that we did spend together as Father and Son here on earth were always filled with life, adventure, appreciation, and love. You taught me that it’s okay to be hurt and to not know all of the answers, but that in spite of that hurt, we should strive to love others at all times. And Dad, in spite of the pain I still feel to this day, I often ask God to teach me how to love others like you did. Although I still experience jealousy, it’s always coupled with an unfailing sense of longing for what is to come—a heavenly reunion in which I’ll be able to tell you, again, how much I loved you. Thank you, Dad, for always modeling hope. Thank you for giving me indelible memories that will never, ever be erased by the pain of jealousy. And thank you for loving me and everyone in your life with gusto. I love you, Dad, and until we can enjoy the gift of being near one another again, seeya Bub.

“A heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones.” Proverbs 14:30 (NIV)

The Should Haves

I live my life with a perpetual and terribly unrelenting case of The Should Haves.

It’s been over five years since my Dad’s death, but I was fortunate enough to spend 26 amazing years with him on this Earth. In those 26 years, I’m blessed to say that we experienced lots of wonderful, amazing moments together as Father and Son. We swam in our backyard pool nearly every evening during the summer, jumping and diving and splashing late into the night. We wore our arms out tossing a baseball on the sandy beaches of Gulf Shores, Alabama while the sun browned our shoulders. We went to Reds Opening Day together and weathered the cold that always accompanies the early-April debut, and he was right by my side as we suffered through the agony of watching our Redlegs get their hindquarters handed to them in a playoff sweep by the Phillies. We watched movies together, biked together, went to church together, and rode in trucks together.

But no matter how much time we spent together, and no matter how many memories we made, I’m still left wanting more. I’m left with a case of The Should Haves—a nagging voice that constantly reminds me that although our story as Father and Son was vibrant and full, there was more story left to be written. There was more to do together that we never got the chance to do because of his premature and avoidable death.

I rarely live a day in this life without thinking of something we could have done together had he not died on that July morning in 2013. It’s hard for me to experience the beauty of my own life without recognizing that Dad should still be experiencing it as well.

There are always the things that we didn’t have the chance to do—things that only exist with the passing of time, and things that weren’t available to Dad and I when he was alive. New restaurants always evoke this feeling. I’m a self-identified foodie, and I definitely inherited this love for food from my Dad. Dad always enjoyed a great meal, and he and I shared a lot of them together. Since his death, new restaurants have opened and I’ve discovered more great places to gradually expand my waistline. There are countless burger places and barbecue joints and other hole-in-the-wall dives that I know Dad would have enjoyed, and when I’m savoring a great meal, there’s usually an endless thought that loops through my head: “Boy, Dad really would have loved this place…” Each and every time, it pains me to know I can’t enjoy it with him.

And then, there are roller coasters. My Dad loved roller coasters—the wilder and more insane, the better. Even though it took me longer than I’d like to admit to overcome my fear of thrill rides, I eventually did and got to ride a lot of them alongside my Dad. Our extended family always spent a summer day at King’s Island, and I always looked forward to that day of the year. Together, Dad and I got to experience the weightlessness of the first drop on Diamondback, the seemingly-incomprehensible height of Delirium, and I can’t even begin to count the number of nighttime shrieks of excitement we let out as The Beast tore through the woods.

But new coasters have popped up since he died. There are new adventures to be had, and new memories to be made at Kings Island and lots of other theme parks across the country. I remember riding Banshee for the first time and thinking how much Dad would have loved the seemingly never-ending loops and twists. After riding Mystic Timbers, I wondered what Dad would have thought of the surprise in The Shed (I hear you’re not supposed to go in there, by the way…). I can still envision his huge smile at the end of a great ride. I can still hear his laugh, yells of “YEEHAW!”, and jokes about how the wind of the ride had thoroughly ruined his hairdo. I miss those moments. I miss those memories.

These moments, these desires to keep living life with Dad, are painful. But these aren’t really “Should Haves” when it comes down to it; these are “Wish I Could Have” moments. It’s inevitable that life will go on and the Earth will continue to spin after a loved one leaves us. There was more life for us to live together, and things were naturally going to happen that I wished I could have done alongside my Dad. My Dad was a victim of suicide at only age 50, and regardless of the mechanism of death, leaving this Earth unnaturally with (likely) many, many more years to live leaves many chapters unfinished. But deeper than the truth of life continuing to go on, there is a reality that haunts me night in and night out. There is a nagging feeling of guilt that will likely follow me to my grave—a feeling that hinges on the things we could have done while he was alive but we failed to do. It is the idea that I took time with my Dad for granted. It is the belief that there were things I should have done with my Dad while he was still here. Things that I likely told myself I would get around to. Things that, had I known then what I know now about the fragility of life, I should have done with my Dad. It feels awful to think that I squandered time with my Dad, but I know

The “Wish I Could Haves” are painful; but the “Should Haves” are much, much worse.

If Dad had a bucket list, I never knew about it. I often attribute this to the fact that he lived life to the fullest every chance he had, so there was no need to keep a list of things he wanted to do—he just did them. But I do know there were things that Dad mentioned to me that he hoped, someday, we’d have the chance to do together. He wanted to go to a Luke Bryan concert together (please note, this was when Luke Bryan sang actual country music and before he became a complete sellout). There were other beaches I’m sure he wanted to see. There were other air shows I’m sure he wanted to attend. But for the most part, Dad lived his life free of any regrets.

However, that doesn’t mean that I don’t live with many, many regrets now that he’s gone.

For his entire life, Dad was a nature lover. He was constantly hiking and biking and traversing the woods of nearby Rentschler Forest Preserve, and he didn’t need headphones or even the company of others to keep him entertained. He didn’t just love nature—he was in awe of it, bewildered by it. His sense of adventure was something I was always envious of, and for the last few years of his life, he always talked about another adventure he wanted to take up: kayaking. Dad knew of a number of waterways that were nearby our house, and he would often talk to me about wanting to grab a kayak and a paddle to see how far he could take himself. Dad often talked about this desire around me, mostly in the hopes that I might reciprocate his excitement. I’m ashamed to say I never did, and there were many times when Dad asked me to spend time outdoors with him and I declined his invitation. I hate to think of the times when I could have taken a bike ride with him but decided to stay on the couch watching yet another mindless sitcom rerun. I think of all the nights that he asked me to sit with him near a backyard bonfire and I decided to stay inside for no reason while Dad sat there by himself, likely a bit lonely but still happy to be outside. I had many opportunities to appreciate nature and my Dad together that I didn’t take him up on. But I should have.

Then there were the chances to share my feelings with Dad that I failed to lean into. I think of the song we played at Dad’s funeral, a deeply-powerful country song by Will Hoge called “Strong.” It was the perfect song to play at Dad’s funeral—a testament to a life well lived—but it was a song I discovered well before his death. Although it provided a lot of healing to those of us who heard it at Dad’s service, I desperately wish I had played that song for Dad while he was alive. I should have played it for him and told him how the lyrics about a loving, devoted, hardworking, and strong father made me think of him every time. I often wonder if it would have made a difference. Would hearing that song and the way I felt helped to heal his feelings of depression and inadequacy? I should have played the song when it could have warmed his heart, but my desire to avoid emotional vulnerability kept me from doing this until he was already gone. I didn’t share my feelings with him. But I should have.

The moments when purely stupid pride and arrogance kept me from just being around him, however, are the most sickening. I think of all the times, especially as a teenager, when I avoided spending time with my Dad. I’m disgusted by the lame excuses I fabricated, and I wish I could take each and every one of them back. There were so many times when Dad would ask me to hangout or do something that I didn’t want to do. Being a typical, moody teenager, I found lots of reasons to close my Dad out of my life. Too tired, too busy, perceived to be too-cool. And yes, those times when I thought I was too cool to hang out with my Pops haunt me most. I should have spent more time being with him. I should have spent more time realizing that my Dad deserved my time more than anyone else. I didn’t do that, but I should have.

The should haves plague my soul. I remember sitting awake one night after Dad’s death. It was rare for me to find sleep in those immediate nights after losing him, and my mind would race with doubts; concerns that I had missed easily-perceptible signs about Dad’s illness and the feelings that were high jacking his mind. On one of those nights when I couldn’t get the thought of losing Dad out of my mind, I began to think back to all the moments when I had failed to spend time with him. I thought of all the dinner invites I had declined. All the phone calls I had ignored. I even thought of all the times over the past year when Dad had stayed at my house later than expected, and I, being so selfishly-consumed with my own schedule and routine, had silently wished that he would leave.

And on that night, a few nights after losing him, I sobbed and said “I’m sorry, Dad,” in the hopes that my apologies and grief could carry themselves up through the clouds to Heaven.

I stood at Dad’s casket just a few nights later and tried my best to express my love to the people who had loved my Dad in this life, and among many wonderful condolences I heard from those who came to grieve and show their support to Mom and I, I heard “Don’t feel guilty, Tyler,” over and over again. I listened intently to those family members, friends, and loved ones, and I assured them that I wouldn’t feel guilty. I assured them that I wouldn’t let regrets take my mind captive.

But I didn’t for a second believe I would actually be able to live free of guilt; and now that Dad has been gone for over five years, I’ve begun to understand how the Should Haves can actually be a confirmation that my grief is justified and natural.

Even though it ended prematurely, my Dad lived a big, full, exciting life. He treated each day as a gift as best he could, just as God directs all of us to do. As I’ve experienced my own grief and suffering, I’ve realized that the gaping hole my Dad left behind in this world could only be filled by his big heart; and although I’m in severe pain because of this loss, I would take the pain for a hundred eternities to spare the alternative. Had Dad invested minimally in the people that he loved and life in general, his loss would have been easier to overcome. But that isn’t my Dad, and that wouldn’t have been an authentic life. I feel my Dad’s loss more because he made life that much better while he was in it. I would rather experience the pain of losing him knowing that he lived a life that made a difference. The pain is worth the love I experienced for 26 years while he was here. I’d much rather have that love, even if only for a short time, and experience the pain of losing it than the alternative of never having him at all.

Although it’s difficult, I’m also learning to cope with the Should Haves better because they are showing me that I’ve learned something from my Dad’s death. They are showing me that, although he shouldn’t have died, his death was not in vain. They show me that, even in death, my Dad is still my greatest teacher. Dad’s absence has taught me the importance of never taking time for granted. Dad’s death has taught me that time is my most valuable resource. It is the only resource in this live that can never regenerate. Dad’s death has taught me an important lesson: By the time I get to the end of my own life (which will be a very, very long time from now), I want to be able to look back and say that I made a wise investment with the days God gave me. I want to be left with very few instances of things I should have done.

In my grief, I decided that one of the best ways to fight back against the Should Haves was to go out and do the things I should have done with Dad, even if he’s not around to do them with me. A summer or two after losing Dad, I decided to do something that I likely wouldn’t have done while he was alive. With my friend, Steve, I went out and bought a kayak. We each bought one, and shortly after buying them we decided to take them out on the water. We dipped the kayaks into the Great Miami River at Rentschler Park—the same exact spot my Dad had vowed to kayak but never got the chance to.

The kayaking excursion was filled with lots of things that Dad would have appreciated. Namely, he would have really enjoyed the fact that my kayak tipped and tossed me into the water the exact second I stepped into it (Note to self: always step into the middle of the kayak, not the side). I flopped around in the mud and water while Steve laughed, and all I could see was an image of my Dad laughing hysterically as I tried to regroup. After I recovered from the capsizing, we paddled up the beautiful, wooded shoreline and soaked up the rays of sun as they beat down upon our shoulders. After paddling upstream for an hour or so, we turned around, kicked our feet up, and floated back to our drop in location. All the while, tears streamed out slowly underneath my sunglasses as I wished, deeply, that I had had the opportunity to enjoy this moment alongside my Dad. I should have done this with him. In the actual moment, he wasn’t there; but in a spiritual sense, he was right by my side.

I know that the Should Haves are a natural part of grief, which is why I try not to avoid them. No matter when my Dad would have died, I would have always been left wanting more time with him. More experience, more adventure was what I always would have wanted and what he always deserved. Had he died at 117, I would have wanted him to be around for another 117 years. And in my mind, that overcompensates for any guilt I might feel. In my mind, a life that feels too short and a life that induces “should haves” is the sign of a life well lived.

Dad, Jeff and I at Kings Island with SB LogoDad, I’m sorry for all of those moments that we should have spent together. I’m sorry for all of those times that I wasted when we had the opportunity to just be together, but I didn’t realize the value of those moments. Ultimately, I’m just sorry we didn’t have more time. Dad, you brought such joy to my life—and to everyone’s life that you interacted with. Any amount of time with you would have failed to be enough. There are so many things we should have done together, and I’m sorry I didn’t make a more genuine effort to make those things happen. Dad, I hope that I’m still learning from your life. I hope that I am taking the time that God has given me and using it more wisely than I did before you died. It still doesn’t erase the pain of losing you and the desire to have more of you in my life, but I hope that I’m realizing the fragility of life and the need to invest my time in the things that matter—the things associated with loving God and loving other people. Dad, please continue teaching me. Thank you for living a vivid life that still feels important each and every day. And Dad, I’m keeping a list of all those things we should have done. Someday, we will have the opportunity to do them all, and I can’t wait. Until that day and the glorious reunion that awaits, seeya Bub.

“Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” James 4:14 (NIV)

Lucy (Part 1)

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And boy am I glad they did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I completely caved.

Dad with Baby Lucy and SB Logo

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

The Portrait

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

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

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

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

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

 

CF Payne Santa

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

But his heart is even greater than his gift.

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

CF Payne Joe Nuxhall Cutout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CF Payne Illustration of Dad

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

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

“Well, did I get him?” he said.

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

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

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

I know of at least one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Church Must Speak (Part 1): Silence

From the time I was little, I grew up in churches where the pastor would beckon for prayer requests from the pulpit. Over those next few minutes, the pastor would look out over the congregation and field requests from the flock. Physical ailments, family struggles, and difficult job situations always prevailed.

Usually, about halfway through the list of prayer requests, someone would raise their hand and ask for prayer for an “unspoken request.” Then, the pastor would ask the congregation if there was anyone else with an unspoken request, and a spattering of hands would shoot towards the rafters.

I remember people asking for prayer for sick family members and neighbors. I remember prayer requests for job situations. But in the litany of prayer requests that were offered, I can’t remember a time in my life in the church where someone asked God to heal their particular struggles with mental illness, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, suicidal ideations, or any of the other brain illnesses that plague our society.

But I heard and saw the requests for prayer regarding unspoken (and apparently unspeakable) issues. And it wasn’t until my Dad died from suicide that I began to connect the dots between mental illness and unspoken prayer requests.

The Christian church must speak.

God’s people need to hear it.

I need to hear it.

And God wants His Church to speak—I’m confident of that.


I grew up in the Christian church and I am still a proud member of the Christian church, and I’ll be the first one to admit this unfortunate fact: Largely, the Christian church in America remains silent when it comes to the issue of mental illness.

My accusation is not an original one. Listen to Perry Noble, the former pastor of NewSpring church and author of the book Overwhelmed: Winning the War Against Worry. Noble has had his own struggles with depression, and the church wasn’t a place that was equipped to heal his suffering:

“In late 2008, I sank into a black hole that I now know was depression. It was the darkest time of my life, and I honestly wanted to die. I was so desperate to find relief that I seriously thought about ending my own life. And it wasn’t because I didn’t love Jesus, but rather because I had allowed my life to get out of control.

Believe it or not, people [who belong to the church] on the right side of the cross struggle with depression.

The sad thing is that in all my years of church work, I can’t recall hearing a single message on the subject of depression. I’ve even heard church leaders say that if a person is dealing with depression, it’s because of some unconfessed sin that needs to be dealt with.”[1]

Listen to Dr. Frank Page. Page is the president and CEO of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a pastor for more than three decades. Personally, Page knows the pain of depression in a way few others could understand, as his daughter Melissa tragically lost her life to mental illness and suicide. In a special study I taught at my church, Paige writes:

“We readily pray for one another when we’re dealing with sickness, surgeries, cancer, or some chronic illness. Mental illness, on the other hand, is not often mentioned. Mental illness can take many forms, and it is estimated that 1 in 10 people suffer from depression. People suffering from mental illness are all around us, including the church. Instead of ignoring the issue, let’s consider a far more positive approach.”[2]

(Both of these authors have amazing books that I’ve listed in the Library section of Seeya Bub if you’d like to check them out and read more.)

Listen to nearly any pastor in the Christian church today, and I think that if they’re being honest they will readily admit that mental illness is often something that is either ignored or could be discussed more within their own congregation…until it’s usually too late for someone.

Listen to the numbers. Lifeway Research conducted a comprehensive survey in 2014 where they talked to pastors about mental illness and the response of the church to these issues. In that survey, Lifeway asked how often pastors speak to the church in sermons or large group messages about mental illness.

  • 3% of the pastors surveyed said that they spoke about the topic of mental illness several times a month.
  • 4% said they spoke about mental illness at least once a month.
  • 26% said they spoke about mental illness several times a year. And an overwhelming 66% of the pastors surveyed said that they spoke about mental illness once a year, rarely, or never at all.[3]

So…7% of pastors are speaking about mental illness regularly, and 92% either infrequently or never discuss a topic plaguing a large number of Americans and certainly congregation members.

The reality is this: People who sit in the pews week in and week out are suffering from these issues. I’ve suffered, my Dad suffered, and countless Christians that I’ve had conversations with have had these same struggles. But for some reason, the church doesn’t speak to them.

And I believe people all throughout Biblical history have suffered from depression, even if they didn’t have a formal name to put to it. In the book of Psalms, David swings back and forth from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. And boy, are those lows really, really low. Take a look at Psalm 6 where David says:

Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint;O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish. How long, O LORD, how long? Turn, O LORD, and deliver me;
…I am worn out from groaning; all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears. My eyes grow weak with sorrow; they fail because of all my foes. (v. 2-7, NIV)

Sounds a lot like some stories I’ve read from those suffering from mental illness…

The Apostle Paul accomplished more than any man in the church after Jesus Christ, in my opinion. He had more to boast about and be happy in than anyone, but some propose that even he suffered from a period or bout of mental illness. 2 Corinthians 12:7-9 shines some light on this claim:

Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (NIV)

And don’t even make me get started on that poor Job fella…

I’m confident that God included these Biblical examples in our history to offer comfort to those who are suffering centuries later. If men like Paul and Moses and David and Job and Noah could suffer and still be loved and used by God, so can I. So can you. So could men like my Dad. I think God is telling us that it’s okay to not be okay…but that it’s not okay to stay that way. That’s where the church should come in.

Whether they are talking about mental illness or not, our churches are all sending a message about mental illness; unfortunately, the signal sent through silence is not the one that I believe Jesus wants us to send. When the church is silent on the topic of mental illness, it sends the message that the church doesn’t care. Or worse, that the church knows people are suffering but refuses to do anything about it.

This all comes back to my belief (not my original words) that the Christian church should be a hospital for broken people, not a museum for perfect people. If there is anywhere that people with mental illnesses should feel free to talk about their struggles, it should be the church. If there are any people that should be trusted confidants and judgement-free sources of help and support, they should be God’s people. If there is anyone that should be able to tell those with mental illness that God loves them and wants to see them healed, it should be God’s mouthpieces here on Earth doing the encouraging.

Jesus makes it clear in Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” (GW). I know my Dad and the millions of others who suffered from mental illness felt tired. I know they felt weary. Jesus didn’t tell them to take their problems somewhere else because the church isn’t equipped. He said to bring those troubles to His feet.

We can’t be silent anymore. Jesus doesn’t want us to be silent. He wants His church to speak. And speak we must.


In the next few weeks, I am going to embark on a journey through this blog to encourage the Christian church and all believers to reflect on what they can do in the fight against mental illness, depression, and suicide. This is an important fight. It’s a fight for our lives and the lives of those we love.

In the next part of this three-part series, I will talk about the faulty thinking that I feel is at the root of the church’s silence. I will dig deep into the myths of mental illness that have paralyzed the church’s progress in this fight.

I’ll conclude this series by talking about solutions. I think Jesus commands His church to serve those who are suffering, including the mentally ill. I’ll talk about the practical solutions that will make the church relevant in this battle, and the need for all churches to stand up and speak out.

Above anything I write, I ask in this moment and in the weeks to follow for your prayers. I am not trained or educated in theology. I am not a pastor. I am, however, a hopefully-humble servant of Jesus Christ, and a grieving son who longs to protect others from the fate that found my Father. I ask that you pray for me in the days and weeks to come as I write, share, and engage. I hope you will ask God to direct my hand in everything that I do through this series. I’m speaking because I wish the church had spoken to my Dad. I speak because I want the church that I love dearly to speak, too.

I speak with the hope that some other boy will be able to sit in the pew next to his Dad longer than I did.

Family Easter Photo with SB LogoDad, Since the time I was a little boy, you always taught me the importance of my relationship with Jesus. But you always taught me that my relationship with Jesus always needed to be reflected in my relationship with other people. I can’t imagine how many times we must have went to church together when you were hurting more than I ever knew. I wish I knew what to do then. I hope that I know what to do now. I’m trying my hardest to change the world around me, to make it a better place for those who are suffering like you did. Thank you for giving me a lifetime of inspiration, Dad. I’ll never get over losing you, but until we are together again, seeya Bub.

“Come to me, all who are tired from carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28 (GW)

References:

[1]Overwhelmed: Winning the War Against Worry by Perry Noble (2014), p. 35.

[2] Bible Studies for Life, Fall 2014 Leader Guide: Ministry in the Face of Mental Illness by Frank Page (2014), p. 161.

[3] http://lifewayresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/Acute-Mental-Illness-and-Christian-Faith-Research-Report-1.pdf

Killing a Snake

I believe that in our darkest hours, when despair surrounds us, we are put in situations that show us how courageous and brave we truly are. Even if those situations are not fun or easy to deal with.

I believe this because God has shown me that it’s true.

It was hot and I was tired. It had only been 3 days after Dad’s funeral when I set out to cut the lawns for the first time. I did not enjoy cutting the lawn as a general rule of thumb, but the idea of cutting two lawns was very, very tiring. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I live next to my parent’s house, our yards adjacent to one another. Compared to the newer subdivisions that offer a backyard the size of a postage stamp, our neighborhood offered very spacious and comfortable yards for each resident. But with a bigger yard comes bigger responsibility…and on a hot day comes a bigger pain in the rear end when you have to cut your grass in the stifling July heat and humidity.

My Dad did a great job of taking care of the lawn. In fact, unlike his son, he actually enjoyed yardwork (there are so many better things to enjoy in this life, but I digress…). My Dad was always planting new trees, adding new pots of flowers, building patios and firepits, and doing something to improve the essence of our backyard at my childhood home. It was a backyard paradise, and I think I often took it for granted when he was around. When I bought my own home, I definitely had a greater appreciation for his green thumb.

But now, the thought of increased yardwork combined with the trauma I felt in my heart after Dad died was difficult to bear. I couldn’t stop thinking about the fact that my Dad had finally lost his battle with depression, a victim of suicide, and the reality and weight of that truth was still setting in. I was exhausted, emotionally spent, and questioning everything—including my ability to be successful in this new chapter of my life.

I was feeling overwhelmed and very scared—how was I going to manage not one, but two huge lawns all by myself? And would I have to do it forever? It might sound like a trivial concern in the context of the larger loss we were suffering, but when you are in the midst of a family crisis, you tend to amplify all of the minor obstacles into major challenges. Life seems unbearable without your loved one, so molehills always look like mountains in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic loss.

Fortunately, some friends from our old church were buzzing around my lawn and my Mom’s lawn. They had shown up on that day to help me take care of the lawns, and I don’t know that I’ve ever been more grateful. I remember feeling so relieved when they all showed up with a trailer that hauled three riding lawnmowers. I had dispatched them to different areas of our yards, and I had taken on the unpleasant task of trimming with a weedeater.

Let me preface the rest of this story by saying this: If I hate mowing the lawn, I utterly loathe and despise trimming with a string trimmer. It is probably my least favorite lawn chore of all. I’m constantly being pelted with rocks and sticks that get caught in the whipping strings. My shins get whacked over and over again, and I usually mumble unsavory words under my breath and curse Mother Nature. And I am in a constant, ongoing battle with how to properly load string onto the head of the string trimmer without it getting tangled (I’ll gladly take any suggestions from my green-thumbed readers).

Reluctantly I took on the trimming, starting with my yard first. As I was walking through the yard, my mind would not stop racing. I felt overwhelmed without my Dad. I had cut my yard many times, but there was something about doing it knowing that I wouldn’t see my Dad smiling and waving from the yard next door. I wouldn’t get to see him stop over and chat about things I could do to improve the landscaping. My face was streaked with both sweat and tears. He had taught me how to mow the grass and how to maintain the yard, and now I had have to do it without him. I didn’t like this new reality.

Then, as I was getting ready to trim around a large boulder in my side yard, I looked down at my feet and nearly fainted.

A snake slithered its way between my feet. Right in between my legs.

I hate snakes. I hate them. I hate snakes more than string trimmers. I hate snakes more than anything. Folks, I don’t think it’s any coincidence that it was a snake that tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden causing the subsequent Fall of Man. Those animals are pure evil, and they have been since the day God created them. I haven’t liked them since I was a kid and that one snake, Kaa, tried to hypnotize poor Mowgli in The Jungle Book. I used to be attracted to Britney Spears. Then she did that thing with the snake at the MTV awards, and I could never look at her with the same admiration that I once did. They are corrupt, vile, sneaky, horrible creatures, and in my opinion are the embodiment of the devil on earth.

The snake that slithered through my legs on that day was a massive, hulking, likely-venomous son-of-a-gun that could probably swallow a small child with one gigantic gulp. Okay, I’m embellishing slightly because I think it was a common black garden snake…but that’s how they get you! They look all small and get you to let your guard down and before you know it….BAM! They’ve got their fangs in your neck and you’re a goner. I had no doubt this snake was out for the kill.

I needed a plan. I had nearly dropped the string trimmer when I saw the snake, and I was frozen, unable to move as I watched it raise its sneaky little snake head off of the grass. Suddenly, panic set in. When I thought to myself “What do I do?” the first thing that came to my mind was “Go get Dad!”

In the past, anytime I had encountered a snake, I would run to my Dad and have him catch (and hopefully kill) it. He would laugh at my fear of snakes and tell me that it wasn’t going to harm me. I would then tell him that he was not a snake mind reader and he had no idea what it was going to do to me. In most cases, my Dad would catch the snake and release it in the canal by our house, laughing and shaking his head the entire way.

But in that moment, the gravity of the situation suddenly washed over me. My Dad wasn’t going to be there to catch that snake. He would never be there again to catch that snake. To help me with anything. My Dad was gone, and he was gone forever.

I wanted to collapse. I really wanted to give up. I felt a pit in my stomach that is very hard to describe. The weight of all of my emotions was triggered by a seemingly mundane situation in the yard. If I couldn’t handle this, I thought, how would I handle all of the challenges that would face me in the aftermath of losing my Dad?

As scared as I was, I wasn’t about to let my Dad’s death defeat me. I knew that I had to use that moment to start taking a step up the mountain. I knew what Dad would want me to do.

*Note: If you are a snake lover, you might want to skip this next part of the story because it gets a little graphic.

**Note About the Note: If you are a snake lover, you should also have a psychological evaluation or an exorcism to take care of that problem.

I found an untapped source of fury and an anger that bubbled up from deep within me, and I found a courage to face my fear. Rather than run from the snake, I ran towards it. I took the string trimmer, gave it some gas, and got the strings spinning at full speed.

I hit the snake with the string trimmer. And then I hit it again. And again. And one more time, just to make sure the strings were doing their job. #MowglisRevenge

After that, I threw the string trimmer down onto the ground, and I sprinted into the greenhouse in my backyard. I grabbed a shovel and returned to the area of the attack, and just to make sure that snake was good and gone, I gave him a few nice little love taps with the shovel. His slithering days were done. His reign of terror had ended. Our long national nightmare was over.

I sat on the boulder nearby, and cried from exhaustion. For some reason, I just fell apart. There was something about not having my Dad by me to help me face one of my fears that made the situation very overwhelming.

Then, I looked to the Heavens, and I cried out with a decent sense of anger and frustration. All I could think in that moment was “God, why are you doing this to me? In my darkest hour, why would you let me see this snake which you know I fear?” I’ll admit that I felt anger towards God in that moment. “Isn’t it enough that my Dad is dead?!” I remember yelling. “Isn’t it enough that I’m hurting? Now you have to scare me, too?” It felt like God was kicking me when I was down. When everything already seemed so scary and so hard to deal with, God threw a snake into the mix.

But I sat there and thought, and I began to pray and talk with God as I tried to collect myself. In the conversation that ensued, I started to see my encounter with the snake in a new light. I started to understand that God was showing me that I was stronger than I thought. By bringing that snake into my yard, God was showing me that I could face my fears, and that I underestimate my abilities. God was showing me that I will be able to survive without my Dad. And there were many days after his passing where I thought I wouldn’t be able to. Satan wanted me to be afraid of that snake, throw in my cards, and give up in that moment. But God was helping me place a foothold on the mountain. God knew my breaking point, and he wanted me to overcome it.

By allowing me to go after that snake, I think God was not kicking me when I was down, but that He was allowing me to experience a victory when I needed it most. He was showing me that, yes, life was going to be difficult in the days and weeks and years to come. There were going to be snakes that slithered into my life and moments that seemed completely unbearable. But God was showing me that he would always be there to give me the courage and strength I needed to kill those snakes and tackle my fears.

I think God was also showing me that it’s okay to release my emotions when I feel them. I had heard so many people tell me during the funeral that I needed to “stay strong” for my Mom and my family. But I just didn’t feel strong. I wanted to cry and I wanted to yell and I wanted to throw things. God knew these emotions were real, and he knew I needed an outlet to let them escape. I think God was showing me that it’s okay to grieve, and that in my moments of desperation he actually wants me to cry out to him. I did on that day, and I’ve been doing it many days since then.

I needed God to push me to the limits so I would realize that all my weaknesses and emptiness would be completely fulfilled through Him. I am stubborn, and God has to work a little harder with me than He should have to in order to get the truth to set in. God was telling me all throughout my Dad’s death that I would get through it, and I refused to believe Him. So He showed me, in a small, seemingly simple encounter with a snake, that I would do more than just get through it. I would thrive. I would conquer. And I would win.

I sat on that rock in the yard, and the defeat I felt began to give way to a new sense of empowerment and inspiration. I began to feel a wave of bravery wash over my heart—not because of my own strength, but because of the strength of the God I believed in. When I was too afraid to chase after the snakes, God would give me the courage (and momentary insanity) to do it anyway.

As days gave way to weeks and weeks gave way to months, I continued to experience those little victories. I found little victories when I least expected them, and in moments of darkness and despair, I would find ways to put on the armor of God and fight on through the storm when I never thought I could. I constantly thought about that day after Dad’s death and my battle with the evil snake. I remembered that when I am weak, my God is strong, and that when I ask for the courage to overcome the heartache I felt, God would provide. In my Dad’s absence, my Heavenly Father would always provide. I’m still reminding myself of that each and every day. And I think I’ve been able to chase the devil away. And I’ll point out…I haven’t had a single snake in my yard since (that I know of…).

I imagine that God and my Dad are in heaven having a good laugh watching me pound on this snake with a shovel more times than I needed to. But after their laughter, I also imagine that they look at each other and say how proud they are of their son—and that gives me a really, really good feeling. I am thankful to have a Father on Earth who fought the snakes when I couldn’t, and I’m glad to have a Father in heaven who reminds me that I can.

Dad on Porch with SB LogoDad, There have been so many days when life has seemed unlivable without you in it. There have been moments when I’ve completely collapsed under the weight of my own worry and troubles, and I wish more than anything that you were here to encourage me in those moments of doubt and frustration. But in a sense, you are here with me. The lessons you taught me throughout my life were always lessons of empowerment. You taught me that I am always stronger than I think I am, and that when I am weak God is strong. You also showed me that it’s okay to have feelings and emotions and that I can express those when I feel them. You showed such bravery in your life, and I hate that in your final moments you doubted your own courage. Dad, you were the most courageous man I’ve ever known. You fought so hard for so long, and I’m glad you’re not fighting anymore because that enemy that you faced is defeated once and for all. I’m so thankful that you are completely at peace, completely healed, and completely perfected in God’s love and image. Dad, you deserve eternal rest in paradise (hopefully free of snakes), but boy do I wish you were still here with me to help me in this imperfect world. Keep giving me that courage when I need it most. And until I can thank you in person, seeya Bub.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Ephesians 6:10-11 (NIV)

A Letter From Dad

A good teacher will teach you something that you didn’t previously know. A great teacher will teach you how that knowledge can make your life better.

And a spectacular teacher will change your life in ways you might not immediately recognize.

I’m thankful that in my many years as a student, I’ve had some pretty spectacular teachers—and one absolutely spectacular teacher who gave me an assignment that has helped me hold onto my Dad, even after I can’t hold on to him in person.

Of all the nicknames my Dad enjoyed giving to me over the years, I think he probably enjoyed my 9th grade school year more than any other because for an entire year, he was able to call me “Freshie.” Nearly every day when I was getting ready for school, I can remember Dad calling me “Freshie.” He loved it, mostly because I hated it. He could see the annoyance on my face every time he said it…which basically encouraged him to keep saying it. My Dad had a thing for nicknames.

I have many memories of that year as a Freshie. My first struggles with Algebra and Spanish happened that year. I met friends that would last far beyond my high school graduation. That was the year I started playing golf, and also the year that I would learn some fancy new adult words on the golf course that I would never use around my Mom! My freshman year of high school started in 2001, and I remember being in Art class when another teacher ran in and turned on our television, and for the rest of the day in every class we watched as the horror of September 11, 2001 unfolded before our very eyes. I knew on that day that my world would change, and it was probably the first time I really felt the pain of death, even though I didn’t personally know any of the people who died. My year as a freshie, in many respects, was extremely monumental.

But of all the things I remember from that freshman year, I remember and am eternally grateful for an assignment in my Work & Family Life Class.

My third block of first semester was Work & Family Life with Ms. Schultheiss. Ms. Schultheiss was a caring, personable, and relatable teacher who I immediately knew that I would like right away. She taught with a simple kindness and a sense of humor that made her immediately endearing. Having been pretty nervous about my first semester in high school, I was so appreciative that I would have a teacher who could help calm my nerves and validate me when I needed it most. Over the semester, Ms. Schultheiss would help me learn many things: how to cook, how to sew (I made my own stuffed lizard), and how to prepare for my journey after high school. These were all extremely valuable skills that I draw on quite often…well, maybe not the sewing as much as she would have hoped. But I remember walking away from that class with a feeling that I had grown tremendously as a student and as a person.

As the summer before that year drew to a close, I was extremely nervous about the anticipated academic difficulty of life as a high schooler. Not having an older sibling or any older friends, I didn’t really know what to expect. I had heard horror stories about hours and hours of homework, papers that stretched on for pages, and material that was difficult to grasp and comprehend. And then there was that whole Shakespeare guy. As a naturally nervous and neurotic little freshie, I worried that I wouldn’t be able to live up to the expectations of my teachers and parents.

That’s why I was surprised when Ms. Schultheiss shared our first assignment in Work & Family Life. It was not what I had expected high school work would be.

And I was thankful because…I really didn’t have to do much!

Ms. Schultheiss gave us a simple handout that explained our assignment. We were to ask a few adults in our life to write us a letter. Simple as that. These loved ones were to write us a letter that would share why they loved us. They would highlight our character, our good qualities, and why they thought we were special. Our loved ones would put the letters in an envelope, seal them, and give them to us. We would then bring the letters into class, show them to Ms. Schultheiss, and the assignment was complete. She wouldn’t even read the letters—we just had to show her that we received them.

I immediately knew who I would ask to write me a letter. I asked my Grandpa Vern and Grandma Sharon to each write a letter, which they readily agreed to. I also asked our neighbors and close family friends Shawn and America to write a letter. They both joked about all of the embarrassing things they would share in their letter, and they too agreed to write.

And, of course, I asked my Mom and Dad.

A week or so later, I collected the letters from each of my loved ones, took them into class, and showed them to Ms. Schultheiss. She checked my name off of the list indicating I would receive full credit (score!), and I returned to my desk, probably in my Nike sandals and a shortsleeve plaid button down, with six little envelopes in my hand. Ms. Schultheiss then told us that she was going to give us some quiet time to read our letters to ourselves at our desks.

I opened my Mom’s letter first, and if you know me well, you can probably guess what happened next…I began to cry. Yes, that shouldn’t be a surprise. I’m an emotional guy, and I’ve always been pretty sensitive.

But this was no time to be sensitive! I was a freshman in high school! The cool freshman weren’t sensitive. I could already tell that my sense of style and natural tendency to get lockjaw any time an attractive girl so much as stared at me were already going to make it difficult to make friends. If I started crying in class during my third week of high school, I would need to start lifting weights quickly to fight off all the butt-kickings I would receive over the next four years.

So I did what any mature, wise, and confident high school freshman would do…I became a complete coward. Like I’m sure many of my classmates did, I opened each of the letters, stared at the blank space in the corner of each page and pretended to read, and put the letters in my binder completely void of any tear stains.

But when I got home that afternoon, I could hardly contain the excitement of reopening each letter and reading the words my loved ones had written about me. I went through each letter and let the tears I had successfully contained in the classroom earlier that day pour freely.

I’ll never forget getting to my Dad’s letter. Always the jokester, Dad had even taken the envelope as an opportunity to show off his humor. In his familiar and precise all-caps handwriting, Dad wrote his full name and address in the return corner of the envelope. Then, he addressed the envelope to “Tyler S. Bradshaw (Same Address).” And if this wasn’t enough, in the postage stamp corner of the envelope, Dad wrote “No postage required if mailed to same household.” Typical Dad. #dadjokes

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I opened the letter to find a typed page from my Dad, emblazoned with the header “A Letter to My Son.” I read through his letter, and I cried like a baby at the words he shared with me.

And I still cry today every time I read it.

Yes, I still have all six of those letters that my loved ones wrote to me, but obviously my Dad’s letter took on a whole new meaning after his death. I remember going to the keepsake box where I kept some of my most valuable personal mementos shortly after Dad’s death. In the constant buzz and coming and going of family and friends in the days after Dad died, I knew that I would need to find a moment to myself to uncover that letter and read it before I said goodbye at Dad’s funeral.

So, one evening a few nights after Dad had passed, I locked myself in my home office, threw open the closet door, and took out my box of mementos. I shuffled through cards and drawings and photos, and then my chest tightened when I saw it.

Dad’s writing on the outside of the envelope. His message to me. Right there in my hands.

I cried before I could even get the letter open. Just seeing his handwriting there and knowing that his hands would never write those words ever again on this earth made the pain of his death impossible to comprehend.

There was lots of hysterical crying that night on the floor of my home office, but I was eventually able to collect myself enough to open the envelope and read the words my Dad had written to me.

In the midst of all the heartache and all the loss I felt in that moment, I also felt like my Dad was still there. Like he was still speaking to me. And that he was there telling me that, although my heart was bursting at the seams with pain right now, I would get through this.

Of course, Dad couldn’t just contain his humor to the envelope. He would have to make some jokes inside the letter too, and as I sat there with tears streaming down my face, I also couldn’t help but laugh. He told me that he liked me because two-thirds of my name was also two-thirds of his name. He also pointed out that I had captured many of his physical features and, as a result, had become a “fine-looking young man.” I would point out to him after first reading it that I still had a full head of hair, but that’s not the point…

Dad then went on to share how he admired me for my ability to be compassionate, and how he admired my intelligence. Dad also told me how he admired the fact that I was different from most children of my age.

Dad shared a lot of other things with me in that heartfelt letter. I could tell he had taken a lot of time to think through what he would write and how he would write it. His letter had touched my heart, and now it would continue to do that long after he was gone. I hugged the letter close to my chest, and rocked back and forth as I continued to cry, wishing he was next to me.

When I made the decision to start this blog, I knew that I would have to abandon the nervousness that had plagued me as a young freshie. I knew that I would have to become extremely vulnerable and share pieces of my life that I hadn’t previously shared before; all in an effort to help people who are suffering.

In that midst of that drive for vulnerability, however, I also knew that there would be areas of my life that would be off-limits. There would be things that I would not share. There would be things that were private and stories that would be just between my Dad and I. And to respect the intimacy of the letter he wrote to me, I’m choosing not share the content of that letter (and I hope you can respect my decision). Dad wrote that letter to me, and I’d like to keep it that way. I hope you can respect that.

And I’m also making that decision for this important truth: What matters is not what’s in the letter. What matters is that I have the letter.  

I am so thankful to Ms. Schultheiss for giving us that assignment. I am so appreciative that she found a creative way to teach us a lesson, while at the same time giving us a priceless artifact, a family heirloom that would be much more than a simple assignment. Ms. Schultheiss, you gave us a touchstone that we could come back to when times got tough and when life seemed unlivable. I’m sure that this particular assignment doesn’t satisfy a governmental decree or a requirement of No Child Left Behind, but it’s an assignment that every student should be fortunate enough to complete in their life. I’ve written many papers and essays throughout my life as a student, but I’ve never read and re-read an assignment even close to the amount of times that I’ve read my Dad’s letter and all the other letters I was written on that day. What I got in that assignment was even more important than the self-esteem boost that I’m sure Ms. Schultheiss had intended. I got a piece of my Dad that I could hold onto forever and ever. I’ll never be able to say thank you enough for that gift from a loving, wise, and brilliant teacher.

Even though I’ve chosen not to share the entirety of my Dad’s letter to me, I will share the closing sentences of my Dad’s letter, even though it’s so very, very difficult for me to read those sentences and write about them.

At the end of my Dad’s letter, right before he told me that he loved me, Dad wrote “I hope that sometime you will have to write a letter to your Mother and I for extra credit. It’s nice to see it on paper so that you can read it from time to time.”

Yes, Dad, it certainly is. And I’m sorry that I never wrote you that letter.

I’m ashamed to admit that in the midst of my self-absorbed freshiness, I never got around to writing my Dad a similar letter. It hurts my heart to know that the letter I would write to my Dad was not the one he hoped for, but one to include in his casket at his burial many years later. Amidst many of the regrets I have in my life, I think that not writing my Dad a letter is chief among them.

Nevertheless, and a bit selfishly I might add, I am grateful that my Dad was as mature and compassionate as he was. Compassionate enough to sit down and type a letter, even though I’m sure it took him longer to type it with his “hunting and pecking” approach. I’m thankful that my Dad was loving enough to be emotionally vulnerable to tell me, in words, exactly what I meant to him. I’m unbelievably happy that my Dad encouraged me to be who I was and live a life consistent with my values and faith.

I will cherish that letter for as long as I live. I hope to be able not only to pass that letter on to my future children who will never get to meet there Grandad, but to someday write them a letter—hopefully without the provocation of one of their teachers. I want to write them a letter to make them feel the way I do when I read my Dad’s. I want to be able to give them the words they deserve to hear. It’s amazing how a simple letter can touch one’s heart in such a profound way. Although depression might have taken my Dad, nothing could ever take away his love, his memory, and the words he wrote to me that day.

And in this post, I encourage you to write letters to those you love. Even if you don’t have a teacher who was as awesome as mine was, take the time to write letters to your loved ones. Let them know how much they mean to you…and when it’s in writing, it will be there forever.

I’m thankful for the teacher who assigned the letter, I’m thankful for the Father who wrote it, and I’m thankful that even though he might be gone, I can hear him speaking to me each time I read it.

dad-in-easter-suitDad, In lieu of the letter I should have written to you before you died, I have been writing letters to you ever since. Letters that share my love for you and my sadness that you are no longer here. There isn’t a single day that goes by when I don’t miss you. You writing such an honest and authentic letter to me as a young freshie is just one of the many spectacular gifts you gave me as your son. I read your words, and although they still bring tears to my eyes as they did on the first day I read it, they also bring a sense of gratitude that I had you as a Father here on earth for all the years I did. I wasn’t just lucky to have you as a Dad—I was blessed beyond belief. Your words in that letter are so important to me because I know they aren’t just words. They are reflections of your innermost beliefs, and you lived and loved me in a way that made those words come to life. Thank you for writing that letter, Dad. I’m sorry that I never wrote you the one you deserved to read. It breaks my heart knowing that I never handed you a letter in return, but it gives me hope knowing that I’ll get to tell you exactly how much I love you face to face someday. Until that wonderful day, seeya Bub.

“Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other.” John 13:34-35 (MSG)

Father’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, He Loves Me

The tiniest, simplest books are often the best books.

Love Is CoverWhen I was a kid, one of my favorite books was one that my Mom bought for me at a library book sale called “Love Is Walking Hand in Hand.” The 1965 book is about as simple as you can get. Written by the famous illustrator Charles Schulz, the book features the Peanuts gang (Charlie Brown and Snoopy and all your other favorites) with simple but practical examples of what love can look like in our everyday lives. Each page features a new example: “Love is walking hand in hand,” “Love is having a special song,” “Love is messing up someone’s hair,” “Love is wishing you had nerve enough to go over and talk with that little girl with the red hair,” “Love is letting him win even though you know you could slaughter him” (There’s more awesome gems from this book at brainpickings.org).

I loved that book because it was easy. I loved that book because it took a complex and nebulous idea, like love, and made it easy for me to see and understand. That book put hands and feet on love for me. That book didn’t just tell me what love was—it taught me how to love other people.

Isn’t it funny how we often come back to those simple little lessons as we age to deal with some of life’s most complex issues?

It’s true, my life after Dad’s death has been vastly more complicated, but the answers to those complicated questions can sometimes be beautifully, wonderfully simple.

Lately, I’ve been reading and revisiting a number of different books and articles written by survivors of suicide. Some of these books resonate really deeply with me, but others describe scenarios that I’m truly unfamiliar with. And it should be that way. The experience of each survivor of suicide is entirely different, and we all struggle with different feelings at different seasons. There’s no manual or “right way” to grieve. There’s no perfect way to do this because each person who suffers is imperfect in their own way.

One thing that we all have in common as survivors of suicide loss, however, is dealing with questions. And one of the worst ramifications of a suicide involves the many unanswered (and sometimes unanswerable) questions it creates in the lives of those left behind.

There is one question in the “life after your loved one” that is particularly haunting. It’s a question that gets to the roots and the motivations of suicide in general.

Oftentimes, whether reasonable or not, suicide survivors often wonder “If my loved one died by suicide, did they ever really love me?”

It’s heartbreaking for me to even write these questions down, mainly because this is a question that I’ve always been able to answer easily. Yes, I know that my Dad loved me. I know that he suffered from a debilitating brain illness that warped his mind and hacked his thought processes. I know that his decision was not a reflection of his love or lack thereof. It was uncontrollable. It was out of his ability to handle. He loved me so much that he couldn’t bear the thought of letting me (and the rest of his friends and family) down.

But even the most rock-solid faith in God and love can be subject to temptation and doubt. No matter how strong my belief, I have to admit…there have been moments in the three-and-more years since Dad passed where Satan has gotten the best of me. There have been moments so sad and heartbreaking that it’s made it hard to function, physically and emotionally. And yes, although I hate to admit it, there have been moments where (even temporarily) the pain of losing my Dad so suddenly and tragically have called into question everything I believe.

Alright, I’ll say it…I’ve always been the guy who rolls my eyes a bit at a wedding whenever the minister says “Our reading is from the 13th chapter of the book of 1st Corinthians…” Mainly, I used to think that people chose this particular passage because it’s the easiest one to understand. It’s easy to reprint on a coffee mug or desk sign. (Don’t act like I’m the only one who’s thought this.)

But suicide changed my life in dramatic ways, and that particular passage of Scripture took on a whole new meaning after Dad died. You’ve heard it before, and just to help you prepare for the Summer wedding season, you’ll hear it again here:

“Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (ESV)

I think people love this verse because, just like my Charlie Brown book from my childhood, it makes love a tangible thing. It puts hands and feet to love. We can look at any scenario in our life, evaluate it against these standards, and judge accurately whether or not love is there.

For this reason, I often go to the version in The Message (MSG) that I think puts a perfect “Charlie Brown” picture with the original text:

“Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always ‘me first,’ doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, doesn’t revel when others grovel, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end. Love never dies.” 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8 (MSG)

So, like I’ve done so many times when the storms have come upon my soul after Dad died, I did just that to help reaffirm and strengthen my beliefs. Did my Dad really, really love me? Of course he did. Did he love me even though he died from suicide? Yes, undoubtedly. Even though life might have seemed unlivable to him, did he still love me?

Yes, yes, yes. I can answer that question with the firmest of faith. And it’s not just a whim or a feeling. It’s a fact. I can evaluate my Dad and his actions as a father against this beautiful, poetic Scripture, and I can know beyond a shadow of a doubt that he loved me…and loves me still.

“Love is patient…” (v. 4) Boy, was my Dad ever patient…with me and with everything in life. All throughout my childhood, my Dad never tired of doing things that I’m sure weren’t all that exciting for him. I think specifically of the hours we used to spend each night wrestling on the floor of our family room. Much to Mom’s chagrin, I would often jump off of the stairs or the arm of a couch and Dad would catch me and body slam me. I think of all the times that Dad would take me to the playground or toss me off the deck of our backyard swimming pool. I’m sure that there were other things he would have rather done as an adult. But he always took the time to let me be a child. He was always patient with my constant pleas for entertainment. He was patient in everything he did, but I never once felt like I was a burden or distraction for my Dad.

“Love is kind.” (v. 4) I remember from a very young age, that my Dad always taught me how to be gentle. He didn’t tell me what being gentle was; he simply showed me in the way he lived his life. My Dad had a heart for other people. In my opinion, kindness is often judged by how you treat people who can’t ever pay you back for your kindness. My Dad had a heart for those people—especially the physically disabled. I remember how special his relationship was with Madelyn, a young girl from our church who suffered from Down’s Syndrome. He loved seeing her and each time, he would bend his neck to let her rub his bald head as she smiled. My Dad also loved pets and animals of all kinds. Dad was never too busy to pet a dog or play fetch with it. He got so much enjoyment giving joy to other people (and many four-legged creatures as well).

Whenever I think of my Dad’s kindness, I think most about the times when I was hurt or injured as a child, and how he could make me feel safe, secure, and steady again. Dad often took me and my friends on bike rides to Rentschler Park when we were kids. My friends and I loved it, because Dad would often take us on the most challenging trails, encouraging us to pop wheelies, ramp small hills, and navigate particularly treacherous trails. One evening, I rode down a very steep hill, and the overgrown grass had concealed a rather large and raised manhole cover. I hit the manhole cover hard, went head over handlebars, and landed on top of the manhole cover on my back as the bike slammed down hard into my chest. I got the wind knocked out of me, and I had a lot of cuts and bruises to show for it. Without blinking, my Dad threw his bike down, came and scooped me up in his arms, and carried me all the way home. He enlisted my friends to help push our bikes so he could carry me. That’s kindness. That’s love. That’s my Dad. I miss feeling the kindness of his hug.

“Love does not envy or boast. It is not arrogant or rude.” (v. 4) The message translation of this portion says “Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head” (v. 4-5). I love that! My Dad was one of the most humble men I’ve ever met, and his entire life was centered around telling people how proud he was of me—sometimes to the point that it embarrassed me! Although he didn’t have much to brag on when it came to athletic achievements, there were the few miraculous Saturdays where I had a good day in the net as the keeper and he would tell everyone about my achievement. Whether it was a great report card, an award I won at the school, or a particularly strong drawing I had made as a child, I always knew that Dad was my biggest fan. He loved me for who I was, and he loved telling people about the things I was doing. It made me feel important. It made me feel special. My Dad’s love was always, always about other people.

“It does not insist on its own way.” (v. 5) My Dad always gave me the freedom to figure things out on my own. He loved me by letting me make mistakes. Ultimately, he loved me by letting me be me. Dad and I were similar in many ways, but we were also very different. Dad was a stellar athlete. I was…less than stellar. Dad was a builder and knew how to work with his hands. I complained about most physical labor and threatened to call Children’s Protective Services if he forced me to work. Dad enjoyed riding dirtbikes and motorcycles, and although he bought me my own to ride many times, I was often too nervous to ride them well. But Dad, in spite of all these differences, always loved me. He never made me feel inadequate because I enjoyed books or puppet shows or coloring or things that I’m sure he didn’t have an interest in. I think Dad loved that I was like him in many ways, but I know that he also loved me because I wasn’t a carbon copy of him.

“It is not irritable or resentful.” (v. 5) I am a lucky child in that I can’t really remember my Dad ever losing his temper with me. I look back on my life, and yes there were times where he was upset with me, but I never felt unloved. For the most part, I was a pretty good kid—but even the best of kids do something every now and then to send their parents into the stratosphere. Even when I made mistakes, Dad never let those mistakes influence how he felt about me or how he perceived my character. My Dad was the parent who could get his point across just by saying he was disappointed in me and the way I behaved. He loved me, and yes he disciplined me when I needed and deserved it, but he never lost his temper. I strive to be more like him in many ways, but especially in this way. I know I need more of his coolheadedness.

“It does not rejoice at wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.” (v. 6) In everything he did and taught me, my Dad encouraged me to be a good person. I know that sounds simple, but because he loved me, he wanted me to love other people and do what was right by them. Dad’s actions were always evaluated in the context of how it might affect other people. It might sound like a minor lesson to some people, but my Dad refused to litter. And he also refused to let his son do the same thing. At the time, I didn’t understand how throwing a gum wrapper out the car window could be a big deal, but Dad cared too much about the planet and other people to make his garbage their problem. And yes, if I threw down a candy wrapper or Coke can behind my Dad’s back, he would make me walk all the way back and pick it up. In even the minor, day-to-day actions of life, my Dad taught me to think about other people. He loved me by helping me love others and care for their well being.

“Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things…” (v. 7) The Message translation from this portion of the passage says that love “always looks for the best” and “never looks back.” My Dad was an eternal optimist, especially when it came to seeing the goodness in other people. I’m thankful that my Dad always saw the best in me, even when I didn’t always show him my best. When it came to emotions and arguments that happen between a father and son, my Dad had an unbelievably short memory. If Dad and I had a disagreement on Friday night, Dad would be completely back to his normal, smiling self by that Saturday morning. He never, ever withheld his love, because he knew love could solve all of our problems. He knew that he could reach me by loving me, not by shunning me. He let love cover every interaction we ever had. I wish I had always done the same.

“Love endures all things.” (v. 7) I can think of few things that could have devastated my life more than losing one of my parents, but strangely enough I still felt that the love my Dad showed me each and every day could carry me through the pain of losing him. Strangely, the love he showed me helped prepare me for eventually losing him. I watched the way my Dad treated me when I was hurting, and in turn I learned how to better comfort my Mom and other family members when they were grieving. My Dad had the uncanny ability to nurture me authentically, and when he died I knew that one of the central callings of my life would be to love people the way he did.

“Love never ends.” (v. 8) My Dad’s life here on Earth might have ended, but I know that his love never has. It’s still with me. I feel it every single day. On certain days, I can still feel him talking to me. I don’t know if it’s Scripturally or theologically sound, but I’ve felt messages of love from my Dad numerous times since he died—especially in the dark moments where I needed them most. I think this is the greatest reflection of a person’s capacity to love—the body may be gone, but the heart and the soul are still here when you need them. When I lack confidence or feel nervous, I can still picture my Dad standing there with a huge smile on his face saying “I’m proud of you, Bub.” That’s all I need. That’s all I’ll ever need.

I’ve often heard that the best way to fight the Devil and the doubt he creates is to attack him with Scripture. This battle tactic isn’t a speculation…it’s directly evidenced when Jesus was tempted in the wilderness (Matthew 4 or Luke 4). When Satan tempted Jesus with food or power, and even pushed him to test God’s love for him by jumping from the Temple and calling on Angels to rescue him, Jesus fought back by quoting the word of God. Satan tried to create doubt, but Jesus relied on the unfailing truth of God’s Word to bolster his spirit. And it worked.

Doubt is, unfortunately, natural in the life of a suicide survivor. When something as unthinkable as a suicide happens to someone we love, it’s easy to question everything that previously seemed to be real or true. “If that could happen,” the suicide survivor says, “then how can I trust anything else I’ve ever believed?” It sounds dramatic, but I’ve experienced it myself…as have millions of others who are left behind with this heartache.

I’m so thankful, though, that in the midst of all my heartache and doubt and confusion I can know without question that, yes, my Dad loved me and that, yes, he still loves me.

My Dad’s death from suicide was not a conscious decision, but one that occurred in the middle of a terrible storm and illness that took over his thought processes. If anything, I think my Dad’s love for us might have been so strong that he didn’t want his illness to be a burden to me or Mom or the rest of our family. I wish that I had told him that he would never be a burden, and that one of the greatest gifts in my life was receiving his love.

Why would I ever let one defeat like my Dad’s death erase a lifetime of evidence that proves he was loving and caring and kind? One moment does not define a person’s entirety. Suicide, although permanent and irreversible in this situation, does not tell my Dad’s story. The love he showed is what defines him. The love he gave made him the man he was. It’s making me into a better man even though he’s gone.

So yes, amidst all the doubt and confusion that a suicide creates, I know my Dad loved me. I know that he still loves me. It’s there in the pages of my Bible. It’s reflected in the moments of my life. It’s in everything I do, and it always will be.

Me Dad and Lucy at Picnic with SB LogoDad, I hate that the confusion over your death would even lead to any doubt about whether or not you loved me, but I’m glad that I can quickly rely on the truth of God’s Word and the example you gave me each and every day to reaffirm your love. You were the epitome of a loving Father. I try each day to love people the way you did, and no matter how hard I try I know that I’ll always fall short—that’s how high you set the bar. You made love your mission. You made love your calling. You let God show you how to love, and then you showed God’s people how to love in everything you did. I pray that I’m able to become more and more like you as days go by. As those days pass, I rest assured knowing I will get to see you again. I’ll get to feel your hug and see your smile and know that everything about you is right, even though your circumstances here on Earth weren’t. Keep loving me, Dad. Keep watching over me and pushing me to be a better man. I’ll never stop loving you. Until I can tell you in person, seeya Bub.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NIV)