I’m Here

I think the college crisis is worse than the mid-life crisis.

I mean, come one, at least you get a motorcycle out of the latter.

I was in college. Away at college. And I felt like I just needed to get away.

I think I’ve always dealt with anxiety to a certain extent. In a sense, I think I’ve had those moments where the world just feels too overwhelming at different points throughout my life. It’s likely that I’ve suffered here and there from anxiety before I could even put a name to it.

But even though I didn’t quite know what was going on or why, my Dad seemed to know. And he seemed to understand.

And most importantly, he was there.

The Fall of my junior year in college was not the Fall I had anticipated. I was living in an apartment in Oxford, and I was navigating one of those difficult moments of my life where the road was not only less-traveled, but it was windy and curvy and full of potholes and empty of any road signs. A road that had once seemed so straight and so predictable was suddenly anything but. It was treacherous, and I was trembling.

For the few months leading up to this moment, I had been questioning so much about my journey, mainly my vocational call. For my entire life, for as long as I could remember, I had said I wanted to be a teacher (except for that one weird phase when I mysteriously wanted to be a park ranger… too much Yogi Bear I guess…). When I was little, I would actually make-believe that I was a teacher in a classroom before I even started going to school myself. Once I went to school, I took an immediate liking to it. I enjoyed being in classrooms, and I always got along with my teacher and had deep admiration and respect for them.

As a youngster, I said I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher—mainly because kindergarten was all I knew. And it was awesome. We had fingerpaints, and snacks, and we were home by noon. Even as a little kid, I would often think about all of the fun activities I would someday replicate for my own students. I pictured the joy they would experience, all the coloring we would do, and the impact I would have in their little lives.

But then, once I got into middle school, I began to really enjoy my English and Social Studies and Science classes (no offense, math teachers), and my dream of teaching kindergarten began to fade. I was slowly warming up to the idea of teaching a single subject and working with older students. Also, Barney had lost his appeal…thank God.

And just when I thought I had everything figured out, I made it to high school…and, go figure, I decided I wanted to be a high school teacher. Specifically, I wanted to teach high school English. I loved my English classes. I loved reading, and I enjoyed writing, and I really appreciated the opportunities to be creative, explore different worlds, and express myself in ways that only literature and the written word could provide. I dreamt of sharing that excitement with my high school students. I longed for the days when I could choose the books they would read. I thought intensely about lectures I would give, activities and discussions I would lead, and the hundreds of students I would be able to reach.

It was no surprise to people who knew about my dream that I decided to go to Miami University and pursue a degree in teacher education. What was a surprise to those who knew me best, however, was my decision to leave it all behind and run in a different direction.

At the end of my sophomore year, I was having serious misgivings about my vocational choice. I had taken a number of education courses, and I just didn’t enjoy them nearly as much as I enjoyed the content-focused courses in the English department. Especially one class, taught by an arrogant and demeaning faculty member who was supposedly an “expert” in classroom techniques, even though he had spent only one year in the field actually teaching (wow, I guess I’m still bitter about that!). I learned I would rather be reading fiction novels than reading about how to teach them. I realized I wanted to work in education, but not the education I had always known.

So, I changed majors. To American Studies. The study of America. It sounded interesting. And…it happened to be the first major listed alphabetically in Miami University’s course catalog. The divine providence of the English alphabet still amazes me.

I dug into the curriculum, and the major looked perfect for me. I could take courses in all the areas I was passionate about and largely self-design a major that met my academic interests and desires. Literature. Communications. Political Science. Media and Journalism. History. Psychology. Nothing was off the table. It was a perfect mix.

It was also completely terrifying. People who got teacher education degrees became teachers. People who got American Studies degrees became…professional American Studiers? I had no idea what I was going to do with this degree, but I knew that studying those particular topics would make me extremely happy. Even though I was confident in my content choice, however, it didn’t diminish the employability concerns I had.

All of those feelings then decided to collide in the Fall of my junior year. Classes had only been in session for a few weeks, and I was unbelievably worried that I had made a huge mistake by dropping out of the teacher education program at Miami. Being a teacher was what I had wanted to do forever. Now, I was taking great classes, but also closing myself off from what had been my lifelong dream. Had I made a huge mistake? An irreversible one?

I was also dealing with many other huge life changes. I had made the transition from Miami’s Regional campus in Hamilton to the main campus in Oxford, and life on a residential campus was great—but it was also much different from what I was used to. Any transition, no matter when it happens, causes some anxiety. Making this transition into adulthood while simultaneously questioning the only dream I had ever known collided together in a wave of desperation and doubt, and on a random Wednesday night, I could only think of one thing…

I needed to get away.

I had been sitting in my apartment all day attempting to study. Instead, I was obsessing over the decisions I had made and convincing myself that they were all mistakes. At that time, I wouldn’t have even known what an anxiety attack was; nor would I have ever believed I was having one. Now, knowing what I know about mental illness, it’s easy to see that I was in the midst of a really severe period of overwhelming, paralyzing anxiety. The worst part is that I had kept all of this to myself. Like my Dad, I wasn’t crazy about letting people into my world far enough to see my darkness. I didn’t like the idea of telling other people I was hurting or confused or overwhelmed. I would internalize all of these feelings and endlessly ruminate over them, which likely fed a vicious loop of self-criticism and doubt that paralyzed me emotionally. And near the end of that night, I decided to get in the car and drive for a bit because getting away was the only thing I knew to do.

I got in the car and didn’t really know where I was going. In the age before smartphones or GPS devices, this was always a bit of a scary endeavor for a directionally-challenged individual like me. So I told myself to turn right out of my apartment complex, drive in a straight line, and see where it would take me.

As I drove in my silver Envoy, I passed cornfields and….well, cornfields. I began to think about everything, and my emotions started to get the best of me. Before I knew it, with the radio turned all the way down, I was beginning to tear up. I started to call myself names, questioning how I could have been so stupid to do what I had done over the past few months. How was it possible that one person could make so many idiotic decisions? And…why did that person have to be me? I drove across the Indiana state line—which sounds super dramatic to those who don’t know the geography of Oxford. Indiana was only about ten minutes away from campus, but there was something metaphorically significant about crossing a state line that made this drive feel scary. I felt like I was running away from something. I felt like I was giving up.

It was in the midst of all of these thoughts and doubts when my cell phone (a sweet Motorola Razr) began to buzz. I looked at the screen and the caller ID read “Incoming Call, Dad.”

I hesitated to pick up the phone, but after a few seconds I knew I had to. I collected myself and flipped the phone open (remember when phones used to flip?!) and put it to my ear. “Hey, Dad,” I said lightly.

“Hey, Bub. I’m here. Can you let me in?”

“You’re where?” I replied nervously.

“At your apartment. I’m standing outside,” he said.

“Oh, uh….I’m not home,” I answered.

“Where are you?” he questioned, a bit surprised.

“I….I don’t know,” I said. And then, I started to fall apart again.

I told my Dad how I just needed to go on a little drive. That I didn’t know where I was going, both on this drive and in life. I shared everything with Dad, and I let him in.

My situation hadn’t changed, but there was an immediate relief in being able to finally tell someone that I was having serious doubts.

“Bub, why don’t you come back and we will sit together and talk?” he said to me.

I listened. And I turned around. And I drove in a straight line until I was back at my apartment where I saw my Dad standing on my front porch.

The reason this story is so important is because I hadn’t told my Dad anything about how I was feeling before he drove to Oxford to visit me that night. And driving to Oxford on a whim like that was not a regular occurrence. My Mom and Dad were always planners. They came to visit me pretty often when I lived in Oxford, but they always scheduled it ahead of time. Even in college I kept a really busy schedule, so we usually had their visits to Oxford scheduled in advance.

Which is why Dad’s visit on that night was all the more special—because Dad had picked up on the fact that something was wrong. We had talked earlier in the day, but I thought I had concealed my feelings pretty well. I thought I had been able to keep my sadness to myself.

But Dad had realized that something wasn’t right. He could pick up on the fact that there was something troubling me. He knew that I wasn’t okay.

And because I wasn’t okay, he was there. He was there without warning. He was there in a moment’s notice. He was there as long as I needed him. And he was there at just the right moment.

Eerily, I look back on that night and it is strangely reminiscent of the last conversation I ever had with my Dad, even though our roles were reversed. On this night, I was the confused wanderer, perplexed by my inexplicable emotions. Dad, on the other hand, was the encourager. The trusted confidant. The Father full of wisdom and, most importantly, love.

We sat in my apartment and talked through all of the things I was feeling. I told him about my concerns for an eventual job after graduation, and Dad told me not to worry. He told me that I could major in anything, and that I would find a way to be successful. “You’re too talented,” he would say, “and any career you decide to pursue will be a good one.” Dad built up my academic confidence, reminding me that I had many years of success in the classroom that were proof of my ability to conquer the road ahead. Even in the midst of our serious conversation, Dad found a way to land a perfect joke or two at just the right moment at my expense. “How many girls have you had over to your apartment OTHER THAN the ones in that Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition calendar you have?”

Comeback? Anyone? I had nothing.

I don’t remember all the things that we talked about on that night, but I do remember this: I felt better. None of my circumstances had changed, but I felt relief. None of my decisions were any better or worse than they had originally been, but I felt hope. I felt security. I felt confidence.

And I felt all of this because of two simple words my Dad had spoken.

“I’m here.”

It was more than just physically being in my apartment. When Dad said “I’m here,” he meant he was there. He was in my corner. He was rooting me on. He was leading the way on that windy, curvy, confusing road when I couldn’t see far enough ahead to make sense of the journey. He was giving me all of the support and encouragement I would need. I don’t know whether or not my Dad agreed with my major switch, and I’m thankful for that. Instead, I know that Dad said he trusted my ability to make my own decisions. He trusted that I would find success. He empowered me to believe in myself.

Dad stayed at my apartment for a few hours that night. If my memory serves me correctly, he eventually coerced me into going out for dinner against my will. We came back to the apartment and watched television together for a little while. And then, when the night was nearing its end, he hugged me and told me that he loved me before he left for home.

My Dad didn’t have all the answers that night, so he did something even better.

He was there.

And I wish he was still here because there have been so many moments, just like this one, where I still need him.

There have been moments in my life, and there will always be moments, where I will revert to that same young college kid from many years ago—a young, lost, and wandering boy who just needs his Father for a little encouragement and advice. There have been moments when I’ve been at a crux in the road with an important decision to make that I’ve grabbed for my phone (no longer a Razr) and began dialing those familiar numbers, only to realize that he will never again pick up on the other line. There have been moments when I have felt his loss so deeply that I break down inexplicably, unable to escape the grief of losing him so suddenly, unexpectedly. Those moments are completely paralyzing. They rob me of my joy; but they can never rob me of my Dad’s memory.

That’s because even though Dad isn’t here, he is here. Even though he has been gone from this Earth for nearly five years now, I still feel Dad’s gentle hand guiding me and directing me on a daily basis. Although I can’t experience his physical embrace, I feel his watchful eye from up above, encouraging me when I doubt, celebrating with me when I find joy, and telling me that he is proud of me over and over and over again. When I open my eyes, I only see his absence; but when I close them, I see that beaming smile, those kind eyes, and a Father who is still with his wandering son.

I still feel my Dad saying “I’m here” in those moments where I crave his presence most. I hear him reminding me that he is here with me in each and every moment. There will be crises and good moments and desperate moments that fill the pages of my own life story, but it will be my Dad’s spiritual presence that is the common denominator in all of those moments. I am fortunate that I have a Heavenly Father who guides and directs me in the God I serve, but I’m lucky because I have another Father in Heaven doing the same exact thing.

My Dad may be gone, but he is still here.

Me Dad and Lucy at Picnic with SB LogoDad, There were so many moments just like that night in college where your presence alone was all I needed to find happiness. You had an uncanny way of knowing the moments when people needed you most, and you responded with grace and unconditional love each time you were called. Nearly every day, Dad, I experience a moment when I just wish more than anything that you were here. I miss your smile, your voice, your heart, your shiny bald head, and everything that made you so very special. But in those moments where I experience your loss most severely, I try and remind myself that you are here. You are still watching. You are still listening. And you are still loving me and all those who feel your absence. Dad, thank you for always being there and for still being here. Thank you for being at my side at a moment’s notice–both in the moments when I knew I needed you, and especially in those I didn’t. I’ll never be able to say thank you enough. But, until that day when I try my best to let you know how much you are missed and how much you are loved, seeya Bub.

“Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Genesis 28:15 (ESV)

Masks

“We had no idea.”

When you’re standing next to a casket at a visitation, you hear lots of comments over and over again. “We will be praying for you.” “Is there anything we can do?” “If you need anything at all, please let us know.” “You’ll be in our thoughts and prayers.”

In reality, who knows what to say? Is there anything you can actually say to take the pain of losing a loved one away? I find myself saying the same things to grieving friends when I attend funerals or visitations. I don’t like that I say it, but I don’t know what else I could possibly say in its place. It’s what we do to show that we love.

My Dad’s visitation, however, was a bit different. My Dad had passed from suicide, and there was a certain shock of losing someone suddenly who, just a few days prior, had seemed completely healthy. I heard one particular comment more than any other from the more than 1,000 people who came to pay their respects to my Dad.

“We had no idea.”

Over and over and over again, friends and loved ones and coworkers and neighbors and childhood acquaintances made their way through the line, some waiting upwards of a few hours (which still touches my heart in ways I can’t possibly describe). Just a few minutes after the service had started, I remember looking up and being completely overwhelmed by what I saw. Our extremely spacious sanctuary had a line that clung to the entirety of the wall, streaming through the back doors and into the foyer. Who knows how far it went from that point, which was beyond my vision. There were folks sitting in the pews, catching up with one another but I’m sure also trying to figure out why this gathering had even needed to occur.

I tried sincerely to look into the faces of those who came. I tried to assess how people were feeling. I looked out at the other people who had known my Dad—other people who were hurting, too—and I saw the same look on their eyes. Shock. Confusion. Pain. Bewilderment.

My Father had died from suicide, and the flabbergasted looks I saw the night of my Dad’s visitation were justified. Although my Mother and I (along with a close circle of family members) had known of my Dad’s struggle with depression, neither of us thought it would ever get this bad. Neither of us believed that my Dad was hurting as bad as he was. Neither of us believed that the depression could create a stranglehold strong enough to make my Dad feel that life wasn’t livable.

Unlike those folks, we knew; but like those folks, we didn’t.

Many of the people who loved my Dad didn’t know because my Dad wore a mask. I’ve heard that phrase used so many times to describe the coping mechanism that individuals suffering from mental illness will use. They hide their true feelings. They bury the anguish down deep below the surface. They put on a happy face when happiness eludes their heart. That mask metaphor has helped me understand how my Dad was able to hide his depression from those he loved. But more importantly, it’s helped me understand why he would feel the need to hide his depression in the first place.

I anticipated the shock of my Dad’s death in the hearts of those who knew him because so many people knew my Dad as a happy, jovial man. That’s how I knew him, too, even though I would occasionally see into the dark egresses of his depression. Those were usually brief moments confined to a short amount of time. Eventually, that depression would pass—or at least I thought it did. As I reflect on those moments, I am beginning to understand that the depression never truly disappeared. My Dad just got better at coping with it at times. And sometimes, unfortunately, he got better at hiding it.

But most of the time, he was happy.

It’s more than that though. My Dad wasn’t just happy. He was one of the happiest men I’ve ever known. Happy to the point where, as a kid, I just wanted to see him get mad about things to know that he could. My Dad was the guy who could keep a smile on his face in any situation. The man who, in the most difficult moments, could tell the perfectly timed joked to make people laugh. In every circumstance, dark or light, my Dad was cheerful when he interacted with those around him. He had a bright smile, a twinkling eye, and a glistening personality that could instantly comfort other individuals and cheer them up.

Which is why depression confuses me so much. How could a man who could so instantly and effortlessly encourage and lift up others not do it for himself?

His entire life, my Dad worked in labor-intensive jobs. He worked in plants that were often entirely too hot during the summer and entirely too cold during the winter. He built things, and he fixed complex machines, and he worked long hours (a gene for which I have yet to inherit). And no matter the job, my Dad was always happy. He always had a smile on his face. His coworkers absolutely adored him. He was the guy you hoped would join you on a project because you knew you would not only get the job done but have fun while doing it. I wish I could tell him how much he meant to those he worked with.

Then, he would come home. And although he would find ways to relax, he would also find work to do there. He would spend hours sweating in the yard planting flowers and repairing the house. He loved gardening and outdoor work (once again, a gene I have not inherited). He would remodel bathrooms and fix electrical issues. And all the while, Dad would have a smile on his face. All the while, Dad would tell you that he was good, and that he was enjoying life. I wish I could tell him how much that meant to Mom and I. I wish I could go back and tell him that he didn’t have to work so hard.

And it wasn’t just work—his happiness invaded every corner of his life and his soul. Dad would go to church, and he would have a smile on his face while he stood around and chatted with folks for 45 minutes after the service as I rolled my eyes and tugged on his sleeve in an impatient effort to beat the Baptists to Frisch’s for lunch. He would go to my soccer games, which offered very few opportunities for smiles during my short-lived athletic career; but he would smile, and cheer, and even admit to other people that the horrible right fullback was actually his son. When we would go out to dinner and the food or service left something to be desired, Dad would smile and find ways to enjoy the time with his family. It was a contagious happiness that my Dad embodied. And it’s that contagious happiness of his that I miss every single day.

I don’t doubt that in many cases my Dad was simply happier than other people. I think he just had an appreciation for life and the simple things that make it wonderful which few of us are able to truly appreciate. This may sound strange considering that he eventually died from suicide, but my Dad found ways to appreciate life that I’ve yet to tap into.

However, I am also confident that there were likely times in my Dad’s life when he was extremely unhappy underneath the surface but felt as if he couldn’t let people see him in a state of weakness. I know that in the midst of his own personal turmoil, Dad was probably afraid to let people know that he just didn’t feel like himself. He was afraid to let them know that his depression was getting the best of him. He wanted to be a happy, smiling Superman to everyone at all times…and that is an unattainable expectation for anyone, even for my Dad, as great a man as he was.

My Dad was the man who was able to bring joy to other peoples’ lives whenever they needed it most. After his death, I heard countless stories of my Dad’s ability to help others find happiness. I heard stories about times when my Dad would take time out of his day to visit people, to talk with them, and to generally make them feel like someone cared. I heard stories about lunches that he bought for folks, repairs that he made at their homes, and silly things he had done to just get others to laugh a little.

I heard those stories and I believed them. Every single one. I believed them because he did the same thing with me in my life each and every day. There were so many times when I would feel down and my Dad would pick me up. Oftentimes, he didn’t even have to know I was down. I think he could simply sense it. Dad never made me feel ashamed or weak if I wasn’t feeling happy. Dad never judged me or told me to “snap out of it.” Dad gave me compassion. My Dad gave me unconditional and unabated love every single day.

More than anything, I think this is why I hated the fact that my Dad felt as if he couldn’t share his mental illness with the folks around him who loved him. Those folks loved him deeply, and had he shared his struggles, I’m confident that they still would have loved him. And they would have helped him. And they never, ever would have given up on him.

Instead, my Dad felt it was necessary to wear a mask. My Dad felt that he should hide the feelings he couldn’t explain from those he loved most. My Dad wore that mask because he couldn’t bear to let people see the depths of his depression, which he perceived as a personal weakness.

I wish I could tell him that he wasn’t weak. I wish I could tell them that he had no reason to be ashamed. And I wish, more than anything, I could tell him that he didn’t have to wear that mask anymore.

The mask, however, is not a tool of deception; it’s a weapon against embarrassment and shame. My Dad was not a deceitful man, and that’s the point I try to get across to individuals when I talk about depression or mental illness. He didn’t hide his depression because he was attempting to lie or mislead people. He hid his depression because he loved them. He masked his depression because he didn’t want others to worry about them. He buried his depression because he was ashamed of it. And unfortunately, it’s that very shame that led us to bury him.

Dear people, we must arrive at a point in this world where there is no shame surrounding depression and mental illness. And we should do this because…there is no reason for those individuals to feel ashamed. There is no reason for us to wear those masks, and there are other survival mechanisms that actually lead to true healing.

When I think of my Dad on the morning of July 24, 2013 (his last day on this Earth), my heart breaks when I picture how broken he was. He stared at the floor, unable to make eye contact with me. He looked disconnected and detached from everything around him. When I asked him about all of the pressures he was dealing with in life—and boy did he have a lot to deal with—he was even ashamed to admit he couldn’t handle all of those things. At one point, he even said to me, “Yeah, but I should be able to deal with this.”

No, Dad. You shouldn’t have been expected to deal with everything easily. You shouldn’t have been expected to be Superman in every moment of every day.

As much as it tears me apart to think of my Dad on that last day, it also causes me deep pain to think of the weight that must have burdened my Dad’s life from wearing that mask each and every day. This is a heavy mask that those with mental illness are wearing. This is a difficult load that they carry. That mask may hide fear and shame, but it doesn’t eradicate it.

I also know this from personal experience. Although much less severe than my Father’s struggle, my own struggles with anxiety have helped me understand this principle. Dealing with anxiety (or any mental illness) on its own is difficult enough; feeling like you have to lie and convince everyone around you that you’re fine when you’re really not takes that exhaustion to a whole new level. And that exhaustion just continues to fuel the mental illness in a vicious cycle, and before you know it the mask is not merely a coping tactic but a necessary tool for survival.

My Dad’s life may be finished, but his story is not. And what can we do about it? What can I do? What can you do? What can all of those shocked, hurting people who attended my Father’s visitation and funeral do to redeem his story?

Let people know that it’s okay to take off their mask. When individuals are suffering from mental illness, we have to let them know that it’s okay to let down their defenses. We have to let them know that taking off their mask is an act of bravery, not an admission of weakness. We have to let them know that their inexplicable feelings of sadness, despair, nervousness, or guilt are real but remediable. We have to make them feel that there are so, so many more solutions to ease their pain than suicide. Simply, we have to make people feel loved—and not just loved, but unconditionally loved. Loved regardless of their feelings. Loved regardless of their circumstances. Loved regardless of the things they can’t control or fix. Unconditional love is the true mask destroyer.

In order to love others, however, we have to make sure we love ourselves.

That’s why it’s ridiculously important to take off your own mask, too. We can’t tell people to take off their masks if we aren’t willing to take off our own. The best way to promote mental health is to model it. Removing our own mask requires courage and bravery, but it takes the most dangerous weapon mental illness wields—the unjustified humiliation—and completely removes its power. We show others who aren’t okay, in those instances, that we aren’t always okay either.

And we teach them, more than anything, that it’s okay to not be okay…but that it’s never okay to stay that way.

As time moves on from my Dad’s death, I am beginning to see his mask in a new light. I see it as a coping mechanism, not an act of deceit. I see it as an act of love. Yes, an act of love that I wish we could have redirected. But even though he wore that mask, I know that love existed underneath. I know it’s there. I feel it every day—and I’ll never forget it.

Mom and Dad at Church with SB LogoDad, You didn’t have to wear a mask. I think I know why you did. You wore a mask because you loved me and you loved all of us. And you couldn’t bear the thought of letting us down. Dad, you never would have let any of us down. Even in your death, you aren’t letting me down. You could never disappoint me. I would never be ashamed of you, no matter how sick you felt. Dad, you were courageous. You were brave. And you always had a huge smile on your face because you wanted others to smile, too. I know you were trying to be brave, but I wish I could have told you that being vulnerable and getting help was one of the bravest things you ever could have done. Thank you, Dad, for making my life happier. Thank you for teaching me how to enjoy life. And Dad, thank you for being the fighter that you were. Your story is teaching us all so much. Thanks for teaching me how to share it. Until I can say that I love you in person, seeya Bub.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (ESV)

The Inside Cover

Usually, I only write my last name on the inside cover of the books I own (which is too many). Mostly in bright red pen, I emblazon “BRADSHAW” in all capital letters in the top left hand corner of most of my books. Just in case I decide to lend my precious books out and they don’t find their way home, I want the perpetrator to be haunted with the guilt of their thievery forever and ever.

But my Bible? Well, that’s a different story…

Since shortly after graduating from Miami, I’ve carried a hardcover Zondervan Bible. It’s a TNIV (Today’s New International Version) men’s Bible called Strive that I picked up at Half-Price Books. I love it, and I always have. It has great inserts with thought-provoking questions, profiles of historical figures from my faith’s past, and counters to modern-day myths associated with a man’s journey as a Christian.

This is the Bible I’ve always read since I started drawing closer with my faith after college. I read all the way through this Bible from cover to cover, which was a big accomplishment for me. I’ve marked that Bible up with underlinings and notes and circles of passages that grabbed my heartstrings or caused me to think of my faith in a new light. This was the Bible I was reading before my Dad died that has a deeply significant timeline drawn between Psalms 68 and 69—the before and after line marking my Dad’s death during my reading journey. It’s the Bible that I’ve carried with me to church each and every Sunday—on the days that I’ve wanted to go, and on the days when I’ve been so shattered by the grief I feel that I have to drag myself there. This Bible has traveled with me in countless rental cars and hotel rooms when I travel for my job. The thin plastic protective cover has started to peel, and some of the pages might be creased, but it’s never diminished the value of the precious words inside.

The words in the Bible tell the story of my faith; but the words I’ve written on the inside cover help remind me why I believe.

A year or so before my Dad passed, I made a decision about the inside cover of my Bible. I told myself that I was going to wait for the most poignant, thought-provoking, powerful statements about my faith in God and lodge them there. Once I heard those phrases, I would write them on the inside cover of my Bible. It was a pretty simple premise, but one that I took seriously.

I took it seriously because the inside cover of my Bible is precious real estate. It’s the first thing you see when you open the book. Once you use up all the space on the inside cover of your Bible, it’s gone. You can never get another inside cover.

That first quote on the inside cover of my Bible is still my favorite one.

I didn’t write the date (an addition I would add to future quotes). I didn’t note the particular sermon. I didn’t even write it in red pen! (My coworkers probably are probably shocked to see my writing in anything but red pen.) I do, however, remember the speaker who introduced that quote to me.

It was my pastor, Reverend Harville Duncan. I always loved Harville’s messages because they were intellectually challenging, thought-provoking, convicting yet hopeful. His messages always had powerful themes and nuggets of wisdom all throughout that challenged me in my faith in ways that I didn’t think was possible. He also made a somewhat-weekly LA Fitness reference which I conveniently tallied on a post-it note in the back of my Bible (and just in case you’re curious, he told 67 LA Fitness stories between 2013 and his retirement in 2016, with a +/-3% sampling error for the services I missed).

More important than any LA Fitness reference, however, was the quote from Reverend Duncan that founds its way into my Bible:

“You should not go to the Lord and tell Him how big the mountain is. You should go to the mountain and tell it how big your God is!”

It wasn’t an original quote, but it was new to me—and it was beautiful. I had never heard that phrase, but I loved it. It gave me courage that I never thought I’d need. It helped me visualize strength in the midst of difficult circumstances. I just loved it, and I knew the second that I heard it where it should belong.

I grabbed a pen from the pew in the middle of his sermon, and I inscribed the quote in my typical all capital (albeit blue) writing on the inside cover of my Bible.

It’s been there ever since; but more importantly, it’s been in my heart and mind every single day since I wrote it down.

I loved the quote—and in a few months, I would need that quote.


When I decided to speak at my Dad’s funeral, I honestly had no idea what I was going to say. I had no words for what had happened just a few days prior. What could I possibly say at that lectern to capture the love I felt for my Dad and the grief I felt in losing him? It just wasn’t possible. I didn’t have the courage.

I did something on that day that I have rarely done when it comes to public speaking. I didn’t prepare at all. I didn’t write out any notes. I didn’t rehearse my eulogy like I typically would any other time I spoke in public. I didn’t even have a general outline. I played a few things through my head during the few quiet times I had in the days after Dad’s death, but nothing would stick. I just prayed that God would give me the strength to say what He wanted me to say in that moment. I didn’t know what to say—but He did.

In an effort to try and prepare, I sat down at my desk the morning of my Dad’s funeral. Adjusting my black suit as I sat down, I said a quick prayer and asked God for guidance, perspective, and a courageous spirit. I told him how beat down I was. I told him that I had never felt this kind of pain before, and that I didn’t know what to do with any of it. I told him that I was completely lost, and insecure, and doubting whether or not I could live life without my Dad.

And then, I opened my Bible. And there it was:

“YOU SHOULD NOT GO TO THE LORD AND TELL HIM HOW BIG THE MOUNTAIN IS. YOU SHOULD GO TO THE MOUNTAIN AND TELL IT HOW BIG YOUR GOD IS.”

Bible Inside CoverGod wanted me to hear that message the day that I originally wrote it down, but he wanted me to live it in this new storm. That was the message God gave to me in a moment of ease to prepare me for a lifetime of perplexing grief. That was the message that God put on Harville’s heart, knowing he would need to pass it along to the members of the flock he cared for. That would be the message of my life, given to help save it.

And that would be the message I would need to say goodbye to my Dad.


I spoke at the funeral that day, and although I didn’t have a clear framework of where I wanted to head with my message, I knew that God wanted me to share this one truth. He had put it on my heart (and on my Bible cover) for a reason. This was that reason.

I didn’t talk long that day. I physically couldn’t. I talked about my Dad and how much I missed him. I talked about the sadness we felt as a family and the gaping hole we would feel in his absence. I shared some stories about his sense of humor. And I was honest with the few hundred friends and family members who had gathered to say goodbye to my Dad. The truth that, deep down, I didn’t know how my Mom and I would ever get through this. I was deeply confused, and I had questions that I feared would never be answered.

But I told them that Harville had shared an important quote with me and our church shortly before my Dad’s death. “We should not go to the Lord and tell Him how big the mountain is,” I said with slowly mustering confidence. “Instead, we should go to the mountain and tell it how big our God is.”

I looked out across the darkened sanctuary, and although I saw tear-stained faces, I also saw nods. I saw people nodding, and smiling through their grief, and encouraging my Mom and I to never give up. I saw people believing that my Dad’s death would be a huge, looming mountain; but I saw them believing that God could help us climb that mountain and conquer it with the strength only He can provide.

The mountain of grief we were facing would never, ever go away; but neither would the Almighty God who could help us climb it.


A few weeks after the funeral, as life began to ease its way into a difficult new-normal, I got an unexpected gift from my Uncle Lee. Lee was my Mom’s only brother, my Dad’s only brother-in-law. Dad and my Uncle Lee may have been brothers-in-law, but they had a bond of brotherhood that was enviable to this only child. They grew up as teenagers playing softball together. They played pick-up basketball together with members of our church from the time I was little. They would always count on one another for help with big household projects, appliance repairs, and the ever-occurring backyard swimming pool problems. I think Uncle Lee and my Dad always got along with one another because they are unbelievably similar—for all the right reasons. They are two of the most hardworking individuals I’ve ever known. They provide for their families without ever begrudging the hard days and long hours. They are each humble to a fault, never boasting or seeking credit for the amazing work they do. I know that when my Dad died, Uncle Lee was just as devastated as anyone else—and rightly so. My Dad had been the brother that he never had, and now he was gone.

In the immediate aftermath of losing my Dad, Uncle Lee was one of the first people on the scene—and one of the last to leave. He stayed with my Mom and I anytime we needed him. He helped us with countless chores and projects around our homes, cutting our lawns and helping with other repairs. He was there for emotional support, even though he was grieving himself.

His personal grief was real, but he always found a way to make sure he was a source of strength for my Mom and I whenever we needed him. I’ll never be able to thank him enough for the support he gave us, and his gift to me after losing my Dad inspires me in new ways every day.

His gift was a sign—a beautiful sign. Uncle Lee wanted to give me a reminder that the words I spoke at Dad’s funeral were more than just words; they represented an undeniable truth. He knew that I would need to do more than remember those words—I would need to live them. So, to help me remember, Uncle Lee made me a beautiful sign that read: “Don’t tell GOD how big the mountain is, Tell the mountain how big GOD is!”

Sign from Uncle Lee

I cried like a baby when I saw that sign for the first time. I ran my hands to and fro across the sign as I read the words and wept at the thought of losing my Dad and living life without him. But I also smiled and nodded my head through the tears because I knew those words were absolutely true. I knew that those words would guide me through the unchartered waters of grief and loss. I would go to that mountain of grief and despair, and I would let God guide me to the peak. This sign was an overflowing of the love in my Uncle’s heart. I’ll always be thankful to him for loving my Mom and I, and I’ll always have this sign to remember the courage and belief he had in us to overcome.

And let me tell you…I’ve needed the reminder many, many times.

Those words would become a mantra to me in the months and milestones that passed after losing Dad—and they still are. Especially in the weeks that followed after losing him, I would recite those words to myself over and over and over again first-thing every morning. I would wake up from a restless, nightmare-laden night. I would take a few deep breaths, trying to shake away the reality of losing my Dad. I would dread having to face the world without my Dad by my side. And on those days when it was hard to believe, I recited the words that I knew would carry me through: “Don’t tell God how big the mountain is; tell the mountain how big God is.”

On nights filled with paralyzing pain, I would have trouble peeling myself off of the couch. There were many nights when I would collapse in the floor of my living room, convulsing and weeping at the mere mention of my Dad’s name. And in those horribly painful moments, I would say those words again: “Don’t tell God how big the mountain is; tell the mountain how big God is.”

And on days when Satan crept into my mind and tried to convince me that my Dad’s death from suicide was unforgiveable, I would beat back his ploys with the truth of God’s love. I would remind myself that God doesn’t just love a chosen few. He chooses to love all of us—including my Dad, mental illness and all. And I would say, with a smile on my face and an eye towards the heavens “Don’t tell God how big the mountain is; tell the mountain how big God is.”

That beautiful sign hangs above the window in my home office, my favorite retreat nestled in the back corner of my home. It’s the office my Dad helped me paint. It’s the office where he installed a beautiful chair molding to help me execute the vision I had for a lovely baseball-themed workroom. And there, above the window where I stare out and daydream, hangs the sign that my Uncle Lee made me with the words that have carried me through my grief. I look at it often, especially when I write. I let it remind me God has a bigger purpose for our pain. He doesn’t demolish the mountains in our lives. He grabs us by the hand and helps us navigate the terrain until we reach the mountaintop.

I live my life relying on those words. I live those words knowing that they were written in the inside cover of my Bible for a reason. That reason is bigger than anything I’ll ever be able to explain on this side of Eternity; but I still trust them. I believe that they are true because they’ve carried me this far. No mountain will ever be too big for my God, and every time I open my Bible that truth jumps out at me—both on the inside cover, and in every single story those pages tell.

Dad in Easter SuitDad, You were always so courageous and so brave, and I wish I had more of that in me. You never let a daunting challenge intimidate you. You believed in your ability, and you believed in your God. Ironically, it was watching your brave example that prepared me to survive the grief of losing you. You taught me that I could do anything if I believed in God and let Him lead my way. Dad, I don’t focus on the one battle that you lost with depression. Instead, I focus on the many years that you fought successfully and conquered your sickness. You tried so hard—for me, for Mom, and for those who loved you. You fought the hardest fight of your life each and every day, and you were unbelievably brave. I’ll always remember that. I’ll always live my life through your example. And until I can see you again and tell you just how courageous you truly were, seeya Bub.

“Then David continued, ‘Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Don’t be afraid or discouraged, for the Lord God, my God, is with you. He will not fail you or forsake you. He will see to it that all the work related to the Temple of the Lord is finished correctly.’” 1 Chronicles 28:20 (NLT)

Dad’s Song

“I hate that I have to ask you this so soon, but…is there a song you would like played or performed at the service for your Dad?”

My Dad had only been gone for a day. Just a few days earlier, we were making the final plans for our family vacation to the beach. Now, we were making plans to say goodbye to my Dad for the final time. Oh, how life changes in an instant. One horrible, irreversible instant.

Harville, my pastor, was sitting in a chair in the corner of my darkened bedroom. We had been talking for the past thirty minutes or so about the tragedy of the past few days. My pastor had a tender kindness that was so very important to my family in the aftermath of Dad’s death. He came into the room that day to see how I was doing and to tend to my spirit, which had been bruised and battered since that awful Wednesday morning. As tender and thoughtful as Harville was in those tumultuous few days, there were some painful questions that just couldn’t be tenderized. I knew that Harville had to ask questions like this. The reality was that my Dad was dead, and that there would be services to honor his life within the next few days—that unfortunate truth was fixed, unchanging. We couldn’t put it off for too long. We were going to have to come face to face with this horrible reality and plan a service fitting for a life well-lived.

I am still very thankful for Harville, my Mom, and my Grandpa Vern (among many others) who really took control of the funeral planning and shielded me from the heavy lifting. I had very little to do with the wonderful funeral service we were able to hold for my Dad, but when Harville asked a question about music and a song, I had an immediate answer.

“Yes,” I said to Harville, “There is a song.”


Just a few months before that fateful July morning, I found myself in the basement of my friend Steve’s home watching the Super Bowl on his jumbo projection screen. There was nowhere better to watch a football game, especially if it was the big game of all big games. Steve had engineered a projector in his basement to project the cable feed onto his entire wall. If you think you’ve watched a great game on a beautiful television, try watching it on an 8×12 foot wall projection. You’ll take your 70-inch flatscreen and chuck it out the window (don’t do that).

Even though the lights in the Superdome went out that night, it was still a fun game to watch. And, like most who tune into the Super Bowl, I kept a sideways glance at the screen when the commercials came on to make sure I didn’t miss something funny that all my friends would be talking about the next day. Per usual, there were commercials that made you chuckle or pulled at your heartstrings. The Gangnam Style guy was apparently a big fan of pistachios. There was the Budweiser baby Clydesdale. There was also a weird Dorito’s commercial about a goat that made me never want to eat Doritos again.

But there was one commercial in particular that grabbed my attention from the opening chord. As I sat in the glow of the giant wall projection, there was a beautifully-elegant, simple, and rustic guitar intro that caught my ear. It had a country-simplicity to it that I loved. This was the type of country song that existed before most of the current country artists began to ruin country music (You heard me, Rascal Flatts…).

He’s a twenty years straight get to work on time… He’s a love one woman for all his life…

I loved it already.

Then, my love for the commercial turned into complete infatuation when I saw the product that was being advertised: the Chevy Silverado.

The Silverado was the truck of all trucks, in my opinion. It was rugged. Versatile. Reliable. And my Dad always drove one. I trusted his taste in many things, but I especially trusted his taste in trucks.

As the commercial rolled on and my eyes glazed as flashy Silverado after Silverado rolled across a field of amber grain or a windy mountain road, the lyrics of the song continued to speak to me.

He’s the shirt off his back, Give ya his last dime, He’s strong.

It was unbelievably ironic to hear this song paired with this particular product. This was the exact truck that my Dad drove, but it was also a song in which every line spoke to the man he was. This was a song that told the story of my Dad and how he lived his life.

I remembered hearing the song through the first verse during the commercial and immediately getting to my phone to Google the lyrics. After a few seconds, I found the song. Strong by Will Hoge. It was a song I had never heard before, sung by an artist I had never heard of. His voice, however, made it feel like I had been listening to him sing my entire life. Mainly because he was singing about a topic that was so familiar to me. The name “Scott Bradshaw” is never mentioned once in the song, but I felt like every lyric was about him.

I listened to the song on the way home from Steve’s that night. I downloaded it from iTunes and added it to my phone. And each time I heard it or listened to it, I said the same thing to myself: One day, I’ll play this song for Dad and let him know that I think of him every time I hear it.


I had no idea that our time together was running so short. When I thought about playing that song for my Dad, I envisioned playing it many years into the future, possibly when my Dad was in an advanced age and balder than he currently was (not possible). I thought, naively, that I would have a ton of time to play that song for my Dad and share it with him, along with my feelings.

I never got a chance to play that song for my Dad and tell him what it meant to me—what he meant to me. His death from suicide shattered our lives unexpectedly, and now I would have to settle for playing the song at his funeral. I just couldn’t believe it. I am fortunate that God has blessed me more than I deserve and that I have very few regrets in my young life. This, however, is one of my greater regrets. I wish that one day, while riding around together in his Silverado, I would have taken the time and shared the song and my emotions with him. I had the opportunities, but I also thought we would have so much more time together. There were many more drives with the windows rolled down and the radio up to be had.

Alas, we didn’t.

So, the first time I was able to play that song for my Dad was in his memory. Sitting in the first pew of the dimly-lit church our family had called home, Mom and I gazed upon the cherry casket resting a few feet in front of us. As we sat there with hundreds of our family and friends sitting behind us while the clock neared 10:00am, the familiar guitar strum began to emanate from the speakers.

I ask you to place yourself in that moment. I ask you to close your eyes, imagine that day, visualize that church, and listen to the song that I chose for my Dad.

Strong

Will Hoge

He’s a twenty year straight get to work on time
He’s a love one woman for all his life
He’s a shirt off his back give you his last dime
He’s strong

He’s a need to move something you can use my truck
He’s an overtime worker when the bills pile up
Everybody knows he ain’t just tough
He’s strong

Strong

He’ll pick you up and won’t let you down
Rock solid inside out
Somebody you can trust
Steady as the sun
Ain’t nothing gonna knock him off the road he’s rollin on
He’s strong

It ain’t what he can carry what he can lift
It’s a dirt road lesson talkin to his kids
Bout how to hold your ground and how to live
Strong

He’s strong

He’ll pick you up and won’t let you down
Rock solid inside out
Somebody you can trust
Steady as the sun
Ain’t nothing gonna knock him off the road he’s rollin on
He’s strong

Strong
Like the river rollin’
Strong
Gonna keep on going
Strong
When the road runs out
They gonna keep on talkin about

How he was strong

Strong

He’ll pick you up and won’t let you down
Rock solid inside out
Somebody you can trust
Steady as the sun
Ain’t nothing gonna knock him off the road he’s rollin on
He’s strong

Everybody knows he ain’t just tough
He’s strong

Songwriters: Ashley Gorley / Miller Crowell / Will Hoge / Zach Crowell

Strong lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, BMG Rights Management US, LLC

 I stared resolutely ahead at the casket, defiant, trying to deny the fact that my Father was gone as that song played through the sanctuary. I tried my best to hold in my emotions and remain stoic, but that weak dam eventually gave way. Every bit of pain I had felt over the last few days tore through me when I heard that song, because it was everything I wanted to be able to tell my Dad, face to face, one last time. I can vividly remember sitting there in that pew with tears streaming down my face as the song played, wishing more than anything that in that moment I could have just one more with my Dad. One more to play that song for him, look him in the eye, and tell him how strong I thought he was. To tell him that he was stronger than he ever thought he could be. To tell him that he was strong enough to beat this.

Mom wept next to me as the song played. She raised her hand towards the heavens as the second verse picked up because she realized, like I did, that although this song may have been written with some other inspiration in mind, it really was written for my Dad. The song was written for this man and this moment. The words spoke to everything he was to us.

After the funeral, I had so many people ask me about that song. It made me feel good that we had been able to pick a song that resonated with so many people and their memory of my Dad. It made me feel relief that people saw past my Dad’s mental illness and his death from suicide to see the man we saw. A man who fought courageously for so long. A man who smiled and loved those around him with beautiful abandon, even though he might not have felt smiley or lovely on the inside. A man that pushed through his own sadness to provide for his family and give them a home life full of wonderful memories. People loved the song because they loved the man whose memory it brought forth. People loved he song because they realized that my Dad’s final chapter was not a true reflection of the beautiful story he wrote in this life for himself and so many others.

Yes, my Father died from suicide. And yes, he is still the strongest man I’ve ever known.

My Dad, Scott Bradshaw, was strong. And he still is. And this song, whenever I need it, is my reminder.

On occasion, particularly when the weather is warm and the sun is shining, I’ll take a detour in my truck—which is ironically the very same Chevy Silverado that my Dad drove. I’ll find myself feeling particularly lonely on those difficult days. Although time may pass from the moment we last said goodbye, the heart never completely heals. And there are moments, tremendously painful but necessary moments, when I need to hear that song again. So, like my Dad would have done, I’ll roll down the windows, crank up the volume, and hear that old familiar chord rattle through the truck speakers. In my mind, I’ll look over towards the passenger seat and see my Dad sitting right next to me with a huge smile on his face. I’ll see him begin to bob his head as the music picks up. I’ll see him thumping his thumb on the middle console between us the way he always did when a particularly good song warmed his ears. And I’ll see his face turn towards me through his sun-darkened spectacles, beaming with that beautiful smile of his.

And I’ll look back over at him, with tears streaming down my face, and I’ll let him know that this song was for him—and that for as long as I live, it will always be his. It will always be the song that helps me remember him. As long as I live, this will be my Dad’s anthem. When my future children and grandchildren ask about my Dad, I’ll play this song for them. This will be the song that reminds me of the love I felt for an amazing Father. It resurrects tremendous pain when I hear the words of that song, but at the same time it reassures me that the man I knew and the man who raised me will never truly leave. Because his heart lives on in me. His memory will never die as long as lyrics like this tell the story of the life he lived.

And that song, a song of love for my Dad, will always play in my mind and in my heart. I’m grateful for a beautiful song and the hearts and minds who wrote it, but I’m even more thankful that I had a Father who lived out the lyrics every single day.

“When the road runs out, they’re gonna keep on talkin’ ‘bout how he was strong.” Will Hoge, truer words have never been written. I’m still talkin’. And I always will be

Dad with Baby Lucy and SB LogoDad, You have no idea how I wish I could wind back the clock and play this song for you. I wish that I could play it, watch you listen, and then say to you that whenever I hear the words I immediately think of you. I desperately wish I could see you thumping your thumb on the console of your truck like you always used to do. I’m sorry that the first time I had a chance to play this for you was at your funeral. So many people have heard the song and told me how perfect it was for you, which is the best testament to your life. It’s what you deserve. Dad, people still talk about how strong you are. People still talk about how courageous you were for fighting through your mental illness for so many years. I know you were hurting desperately, Dad. I know that your soul was troubled. But I pray that you’re able to hear this song in heaven and know that I think of you each and every time I hear it. I’ll always love you, Dad, and I’ll always admire how strong you were. I’ll try to live up to example you gave me—the example that you gave all of us—each day for as long as I live. Someday, I’ll look you in the eyes again and tell you that you were the strongest man I’ve ever known. Until that reunion when we can listen together, seeya Bub.

But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 (NIV)

Trees Will Tip

“What the heck is wrong with the tree?”

I stood a few steps down the staircase, pajama-clad and ready to make my Dad regret the hours he spent perfectly wrapping all those presents. I was seven or eight years old, still in love with our new house, and just as excited for Christmas as I was each and every year.

I was excited because Mom and Dad always made Christmas so special. Mom would spend hours unpacking the 37 boxes of Christmas decorations that she had Dad lug down from the spare bedroom (who needs a sibling when you can have a room filled with box upon box of Christmas decorations?!). Mom had a perfect spot for each and every decoration that she owned, and there was no spot in the house that didn’t have a decoration. Even the bathroom had decorations! It’s always a little bizarre to look over and see a smiling Santa while you are….expelling your eggnog.

The kitchen was where my favorite Christmas tradition was cooked up. The house was always filled with the smell of Christmas cookies around the holiday season. Mom would bake. And bake. And bake and bake and bake. Every type of Christmas cookie known to man would be delicately crafted by my Mom’s gentle hands. And Dad and I? Well, we would eat! We definitely preferred the eating over the baking, and we were glad to do our part.

Decking the halls would eventually extend to decking every inch of the outside of the house as well. Dad would spend hours on a usually-frigid November Saturday stringing lights across the façade of our family home. The strand lights eventually evolved into icicle lights. And twinkling lights. And bubble gum lights. It was always interesting (and rather expensive) to hear about the difference in the electric bill for the month of December, but my Mom and Dad always said it was worth it.

And then, there was the tree. A real tree. My Dad absolutely refused to give into the trend and ease of an artificial tree. He wouldn’t even call them trees—it was against his religion. “That’s a fake,” he’d say with a voice of disdain each time he saw one of those holiday imposters. Each year, Mom and Dad would spend hours on the day after Thanksgiving searching for the perfect Christmas tree. For a period of years, we went to a Christmas tree farm and cut our own down. Then, probably during my annoying, “too cool” teenage years, Mom and Dad would go out on their own and find the perfect tree for our home, scouring Lowes after Lowes to find the right evergreen.

The problem with finding a perfect tree? There is no perfect tree. No matter how good a Christmas tree might look, there will always, always be an imperfection. It leans to one side. It isn’t symmetrical. It has a weird bare patch in the back that is eerily reminiscent of Grandpa’s bald spot.

And even the tree that starts out perfect doesn’t always stay that way for an entire month. The best looking trees can be water hogs—always thirsty and unusually dry. The best looking tree might shed its needles faster than a bad gambler sheds money. Or it starts out bright green and turns brown within a few days. I thought pine trees were resilient—how is it they only seem to last a few weeks around Christmas?!

Even after many years of observing the fragility of a real tree, my Dad refused to give in. He accepted the imperfections. He and Mom had fun looking for the perfectly imperfect tree. Any fights over trees (these trees even cause conflict!) always faded quickly when our family started stringing lights and ornaments across this decorative fir.

But this year, as I came down the stairs, something was very, very different about the tree I saw in front of me. The imperfection of this particular tree was a little more noticeable than other years. It was a story our family would tell for many, many years. And the remnants of this particular Christmas morning would be more permanent that we ever thought.

The night before Christmas, Mom and Dad were staying up late wrapping presents for the next morning.

READER’S NOTE: If you are younger than 12 and reading this post, ignore the last sentence and replace it with “Mom and Dad were downstairs waiting to help Santa get down the chimney.”

They sat there talking and wrapping in the glow of our cozy family room, when all of a sudden their conversation was interrupted with a tremendous….CRASH!!!

“Please tell me that’s not the tree,” one of them said to the other.

They stared at each other with wide eyes and open mouths, and eventually threw their wrappings to the side and scrambled up the stairs. They looked in horror at the scene unfolding in front of their eyes: A tree, once standing tall and proud, now lay horizontal and weak across our living room floor. The bright lights had darkened. Family ornaments had crashed and smashed. The water from the tree base now stained the carpet, and I can just picture my Mom, always a meticulous housekeeper, thinking about the hours she would now spend picking ornament shards from the carpet.

“Well, we can fix this,” my Dad said.

I’m sure my Mom could see the wheels turning in his head, growing anxious of the plan he was bound to cook up. No repair job was ever simple with my Dad. His solutions could not be temporary. They needed to be strong and soundproof. My Dad was a builder, and he refused to build anything weak or small.

So, my Dad did what any Dad who has watched too many episodes of Home Improvement would do. He went to the garage, grabbed a (more)power drill and his tool belt, and set out to make sure that our tree would rue the day it had ever began to lean.

Just like one of Santa’s elves equipped with a DeWalt, Dad set to work fixing our family tree. And that next morning, standing at the top of the staircase, I saw the end result of Dad’s overnight labors.

With a premium on functionality and a complete disregard for visual appearance, Dad had taken two thick, black, metal cables and drilled them into the trunk of our Christmas tree. Then, he took those black cables and ran them back to the wall where (I’m sure to the vehement objections of my overly-neat Mother) he screwed the cables into the wall using oversized bolts. Yes, emanating from our Christmas tree were 2 six-or-seven foot black cables that took away the elegant charm of a free-standing Christmas tree.

It wasn’t pretty, but the tree was standing. And I had a feeling we could leave it there for thirty years and it would still be standing tall thanks to my Father’s ingenuity.

When the tree came down that year, the bolts did not. They were actually plugged into the wall for about ten years or so until my Dad decided to paint the living room. Mom, rightly so, would complain about the bolts in the wall regularly. Dad would just smile and say “What if I need them again if our tree ever falls?” You can’t argue with holiday preparedness like that.

This year as Mom and I sat around the tree opening gifts along with her pup, Sadie, I stared at the areas of that front wall and pictured the spots where the bolts used to be. I thought back to that Christmas and the metal cables sprouting from the trunk of that Christmas tree. It made our Christmas tree look like it had arms, and I could picture that morning as clear as any other.

And I sat there, many years removed from that date, and I chuckled.

I couldn’t help but think of that Christmas-gone-by, and laugh about how perfect it was.

Like all of our Christmases, it was perfect. Perfectly imperfect.

The reality is, Christmases are never 100% perfect. Lights would go out, and Dad would spend hours trying to figure out which strand caused the outing. Ornaments and decorations would break. Toys would be bought, but batteries would be forgotten. And oh, the assembly. My poor Dad would spend hours attempting to decipher instructions and put together ridiculously complicated toys so I could play with them for an hour, get tired of it, and move on to something else.

But those Christmases, with all their imperfections, were absolutely perfect for our family. When Christmas trees came crashing down into the floor of our living room, Christmas was still perfect. When bolts and cables had to hold up our Christmas tree, Christmas was still perfect. When my Dad would buy my Mom ugly pajamas that I knew she didn’t like, Christmas was still perfect. When Dad would take forever to come down the stairs and I would have a near meltdown as I yelled up the stairs and threatened to put myself up for adoption if he didn’t come down within the next seven minutes, Christmas was still perfect.

And although Christmas is so much emptier than it has ever been in the years since losing my Dad, Christmas is still perfectly imperfect.

This year, I experienced my fifth Christmas without my Dad. There are more tears than those other Christmases. There are more unexpected moments of solitude where I have to peel myself away from the frivolity of a family function to cry on my own because of the heartache that I feel. There are moments when the pain is almost unbearable when I think about losing my Dad, and there are moments when I wish that I could give up every gift I’ve ever been given if I could just have one more Christmas with him.

But in spite of all that sorrow and pain, there are also moments of tremendous joy that still exist amidst the grief each and every year since losing him. This year was no exception. There was the excitement I felt when I opened a precious and beautiful nativity scene that my Mom gave me this year. There was the fun of getting to spend Christmas with my girlfriend, Paige, and establishing new traditions, like going to see Christmas plays and coincidentally buying each other the same exact book. There’s the happiness of getting to spend time with each of our families and realize how blessed we all are to have one another. There’s still the twinkling glow of Christmas lights, the sappy songs that play on the radio, and the beauty of an Advent candle burning. Yes, Christmas is different now, and at times it’s very sad. But there are also glimpses of the happiness that once was that I realize still exist and always will.

Perfectly imperfect.

I think that’s the message that God is trying to teach me—the message that he tried to teach all of us two thousand years ago. Think about all the things that were imperfect about the birth of Jesus Christ. “Hey Mary, you’re pregnant. How about a ridiculously long trek on the back of a donkey for a few days?” Hotel after hotel flashes a “No Vacancy” sign until the young, scared, yet faithful couple find refuge in a manger. That’s a fancy was of saying barn. All the usual manger amenities are there—donkeys, sheep, and their “remnants” are scattered across the hay-strewn manger floor. And there, in that imperfect manger, the perfect Son of Man was born, given to the world as a gift—a perfect sacrifice.

Perfectly imperfect.

Just like that first Christmas, every Christmas that came after was full of imperfection. Trees will tip. Cookies will burn. Toys will break. Family members will fight. The lonely will grieve. And in spite of all that imperfection, goodness still exists. Happiness can still be found. Joy still reigns.

God is using the lesson of His Son’s birth, the tipping Bradshaw tree, and every other unplanned and imperfect moment to teach me that, yes, Christmas will have lots of sorrow without my Dad, but it can never put out the light of love that He has given us.

I’ve done my best (not always successfully) to keep finding happiness in these past five Christmases without my Dad. I miss looking over and seeing him on the couch smiling from behind his glasses as he watched me open gifts. I miss Dad laughing at the same parts of A Christmas Story as he watched it on a loop all throughout the day. I miss how much he enjoyed eating the breakfast quiche Mom always made and drinking a few ice cold Coca-Colas to wash it down. I miss his laughs in the morning, his snores during the midday nap, and his “Night, bub. Merry Christmas” as I went off to bed.

I miss those Christmases because I miss him so.

After losing my Dad to suicide, I think about how Christmas may have helped my Dad cope. I’m sure there were many years when his depression was particularly overpowering around Christmas. I also know, in my heart of hearts, that there were many years when a family function, a beautiful Christmas tree, or some delicious Christmas cookies may have helped him overcome that darkness. That’s how powerful a perfectly imperfect Christmas can be. I bet that’s why my Dad loved Christmas so much.

I’ll always miss my Dad. When I am celebrating Christmases in my nineties, I will still cry whenever I see Ralphie shooting his eye out on the screen because I’ll wish my Dad could be there to see it too. I will long for those Christmases when trees fell over, because even in the disastrous moments my Dad and our family always had the faith to find happiness. His untimely and unnecessary death has rocked me to the core, but it will not defeat me. Like that toppling Christmas tree, my Dad would want me to get back up, find my strength, and shine in the midst of tremendous tumult.

During this Christmas I found my own unique ways to grieve, and in all the Christmases to come, I will undoubtedly grieve, and I will cry, and I will hurt. But I will also smile at the memory of a Father I miss desperately, and a Heavenly Father who still gives me reason to celebrate each and every year.

Family Christmas at Church with SB LogoDad, Christmas hasn’t been the same without you. I have such wonderful memories of the special Christmases we spent together as a little family. You bought thoughtful gifts for all of us. You laughed as our family pup would open up gifts, just like you always taught them. You put amazing detail into the wrapping and the decorating, and you had a smile on your face no matter how hectic things got. You made us especially happy around Christmas, but you honestly did that each and every day. Now, your memory and your spirit get us through the tough times and remind us to continue celebrating in spite of our grief. Dad, please continue reminding us how we can make the Christmas season special. Continue watching over us as you rest among the angels. I miss you so much, Dad. I know that I still have many wonderful Christmases ahead of me, but I desperately long for that first Christmas with you in heaven. Until that day when we can celebrate together again, Merry Christmas, bub.

“ So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.” Luke 2:4-7 (NIV)

Always Thankful

Dad,

It’s always this time of year that I get really, really homesick.

I know. I still live in my hometown. I’m home with family every holiday. That’s not the home I’m talking about.

I get homesick for the home I used to have when you were here. It’s not that life isn’t good. Thankfully, there are so many wonderful, wonderful moments and occurrences that happen to me almost daily. There are so many tremendous loved ones and friends who still make life special. God still speaks to me and directs me, and most importantly He still loves me. And on account of all these things, I shouldn’t feel a need for anything. I shouldn’t want.

But I do. Each and every day. Each day since you’ve been gone, I wake up and wish that you were still here. I wake up thinking about what home used to be when you were around.

And even though it hurts tremendously to think of those moments, I’m thankful. Always thankful. Always thankful that you created such a splendid life for all of us. That you gave us something we could long to have back again. In order to experience the pain I feel now, there had to be some point of reference that was pleasurable and filled with joy. And for 26 years of my life, you gave me that. For 26 wonderful years, you set the bar so high for what life should be. That’s why I’m always thankful, even though I long for those days again.

I’m sure that I’m not the only one who feels your absence. I think of Mom and how different the holidays must be for her without her life partner, and how she must long for those first holidays that you spent together. Even though you didn’t have much when you first got married, you made the most of the love you shared and always made one another feel so special.

I think of your family members who have known you since you were a child, and I think of how different the holidays must feel for those individuals because you aren’t in them. As loved ones leave us, the traditions we once had are tinged with an unyielding sadness. You always made the holiday traditions so bright, and now that you are gone, so is some of the glimmer that made those traditions what they were. We’ve tried to enjoy the holidays in your absence, but I think everyone who loved you would say that they just aren’t the same without you here smiling, and laughing, and loving.

I even think of all the people that you came into contact with. I can picture your smiling face as you wished them a “Happy Thanksgiving.” I can vividly imagine the sparkle in your eyes, hidden behind your wire-framed glasses, as you asked people about their holiday plans with a genuine concern for their answer. I can think of all the times when you would share with extreme happiness that you would be spending time with your family during the holidays. You didn’t care about meals or football games or shopping advertisements. You enjoyed all of those things, but you knew there was more to life and love than that. What really mattered to you on those holidays was spending time with your family…okay, and maybe the occasional post-turkey nap.

My feelings of homesickness are only outweighed by one other emotion, and that is a deep sense of gratitude. I’m thankful for you, Dad. Always thankful.

I’m thankful that you and Mom taught me how to say “thank you” in the first place. From the time I was little, I remember the constant prodding. Each time I was given something by a friend or family member or acquaintance, I remember you and Mom both asking me “Did you tell them thank you?” As a kid, it just seemed like the thing that all parents did. As I’ve grown, however, I see just how few parents encourage a level of gratitude and a heart of thankfulness in their children—probably because they don’t feel it in their own hearts. I’m thankful that you never stopped telling me to tell people thank you. And if I didn’t tell you then, I’d like to say it to you now. Thank you, Dad.

I’m thankful for all those years that you and Mom made Thanksgiving so special. I know (only now) that we didn’t have much when I was little—but I never would have known that because you made our family feel like royalty. You made sure that we were never, ever in need of anything. You were a provider, most times at your own expense. Dad, I have never seen or met anyone who worked harder than you did. Always with a smile on your face, you worked long hours and late nights and countless weekends to make sure that you provided for your family. You didn’t do this out of obligation. No, you did this out of love. And if I didn’t tell you then, I’d like to tell you now. Thank you.

I’m thankful for all those times you brought a turkey home from work to share with our entire family. I think of how fortunate we were to always have a Thanksgiving meal together. I think of how much you enjoyed Mom’s cooking, and Thanksgiving was the perfect chance for you to celebrate her talent. You always told me that you had married a woman who could out-cook anyone else—and you were absolutely right. I know that you gorged yourself on Thanksgiving because you loved her cooking so much, but also because you were able to show her how much you loved her. You taught me to appreciate a good meal prepared by great hands. And if I didn’t tell you then, I’d like to tell you now. Thank you.

I’m thankful that on Thanksgiving, no football game or Black Friday deal ever got in the way of time with your family. I’m thankful that no matter how full you might have been from an excellent meal, you were never to full to turn down an impromptu wrestling match on the family room floor with your son. I’m thankful that when you sat down at the Thanksgiving table, the food was always second to the conversation. I’m thankful that you taught me (and everyone) that the holidays are not about tradition, but about the families who make them. I’m sorry that I never told you how much I appreciated your devotion to your family. I’m sorry for the handful of teenage years when I probably rolled my eyes or acted inconvenienced by a family get-together. I’m thankful that you never gave up on me. And if I didn’t tell you then, I’d like to tell you now. Thank you.

I’m thankful for all the times you called me “Turkey” on Thanksgiving morning. Even your Dad jokes were seasonal–impressive. I’m thankful for all the corny jokes you made before dinner. And during dinner. And for hours afterwards.

I’m thankful that you taught me that driving to multiple family get-togethers is not an inconvenience, but one of life’s deepest treasures. You always reminded me that there were many people who had nowhere to go.   

I’m thankful for all the board games you played with me and the rest of our family, and as much as I may try to forget, I’ll always remember your goofy victory dances at the table.

I’m thankful for you on Thanksgiving, and every other day of the year. I’m thankful that we got to spend 26 wonderful Thanksgivings together.

And I’m homesick. Homesick for the day when we can all be together again. Homesick and longing for the moments where we can share a delicious meal and a game of Scattergories and a good conversation with one another. I long for those days, Dad. I’m enjoying my life and each exciting moment that God gives to me, but I treasure the promise that you and I have not celebrated our last Thanksgiving together. There will be more, for all Eternity. And that promise, more than anything, is what I’m most thankful for.

Dad with Flat Stanley and SB LogoDad, I’ll never stop being thankful for you. I’ll never stop being thankful for the man you were, and the memory you left behind in my heart and the hearts of everyone you met. I’ll never look back on the days and moments I once took for granted without feeling a deeply profound appreciation for all the good times we shared. I’ll always be thankful for a Dad beyond compare. I’ll always be thankful that my Father was an example of what fatherhood should be. Someday, I’ll be thankful when I raise my own children. Yes, I’ll be tremendously sad that they won’t be able to meet and enjoy the presence of their Grandpa, but I’ll make sure they are thankful for you, too. More than any other tradition you might have encouraged, Dad, the most important tradition you established for me is having a thankful heart. I’ll hold onto that for as long as I live.

And until I can say thank you in person, seeya Bub.

“Give thanks in all circumstances.” 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NIV)

Check Please

Both my credit card statement and the ever-tightening waistbands on all of my dress pants will confirm one thing about me: I love Cracker Barrel…possibly, a little too much.

In many respects beyond my diet, I’m a 65 year old man trapped in the body of a 30 year old (although my physique is also more resembling of that elderly man than the young one…). Old men like television game shows. I’ve probably seen every episode of Family Feud that’s ever been recorded, and I definitely scream answers at the television and claim I would be a better contestant than…just about anyone. Old men hate it when kids are on their lawns. I am in a never-ending battle with the young neighborhood whippersnappers who think that my corner lot is public congregation space when they get off the bus. A privacy wall is coming.

One look around in any Cracker Barrel will show you that old men love it…and so do I.

I can get breakfast anytime of the day I want to. They have a fireplace. They have rocking chairs and a checkerboard. They have pancakes and fried chicken and hashbrown casserole and everything that is bad for you. And if that weren’t enough, I can eat all of those foods at once and still go buy a bag of old fashioned candy and some ridiculous house decoration that I don’t need right in the lobby!

I think America just needs a little more Cracker Barrel to solve all of our problems.

Just last week, I had some downtime and decided to make a stop at Cracker Barrel for breakfast with the intent of ordering something moderately healthy. An order of cinnamon streusel French toast and bacon later (I said “intent”), I found myself scanning the restaurant because Cracker Barrels are the absolute best for people watching.

My eyes settled in on the table right next to me. It was a Father and his young (probably 5 or 6 year old) son. My heart sank, but it always does that when I see a father and son. It’s happened ever since Dad died. No matter where I am, if I see a dad and a son out together by themselves, it draws me back to what I don’t have. It reminds me of what I miss most. It makes me wish my Dad was still here.

This particular young boy immediately grabbed me because he was just a cute kid. He wore a flashy Under Armour hoodie and some cool tennis shoes. He had a toothy grin, freckles, and enough gel in his hair to spike up his light brown bangs. He had a gray bubble coat draped across the back of his chair, and he smiled at me when our eyes connected.

I looked across my own table and saw an empty seat—the spot where my Dad should have been sitting. My mind went back to all the times that he and I and Mom had sat at Cracker Barrel tables together—Dad always ordering chicken and dumplings, but always making time for a quick game of checkers by the fireplace before the food came out.

I see that empty seat quite often, and it makes me nauseous. I’ll immediately feel myself tearing up, and I often have to tell myself that I need to think about something else instead to fight off the waterworks. It’s not that I don’t want to think about my Dad—believe me, I do. Mostly, I just don’t want people to stare at my while I’m getting upset at a table by myself.

So, on this particular day, I decided to focus on the boy and his Dad sitting at the table next to me. Little did I know that this would probably make me just as upset as thinking about my own Dad would have.

The boy and his Father placed their orders shortly after I did. I paid particular attention to the little boy’s order: pancakes and bacon. I knew I liked this kid.

After the waitress left, I saw something that I see way too often. The boy’s Dad, sitting at a table with just his son, given the perfect opportunity to be an engaged Father, instead decided to pull out his cell phone. Apparently, there was something more entertaining on that tiny screen than the tiny and interesting human sitting right across from him. I’ve always been bothered by sights like these, mainly because my parents always taught me that time at the dinner table was insanely precious. We always engaged with one another. Little did I know just how valuable it would be when we couldn’t have it anymore…

I watched for a few minutes, and then a few minutes more, as this Father poured every ounce of attention he had into the small phone he held in his hands. The young boy tried to engage his Dad at first, as most young boys will do, but there was no reaction. This particular Dad wanted everything to do with his phone and nothing to do with his son. Absurd.

As young boys will do, this little guy began to get restless. He would occasionally spin around and rest his chin on the back of his chair and his coat, staring at the other families around the restaurant. Before long, he jumped up from his chair and walked over to his Dad, probably to see what was so interesting on that phone of his. That’s when my fury reached a brand new level.

The Dad snapped at this cute, innocent little boy, admonishing him sharply and telling him to sit down. The look on his face was pure meanness. I have an absolutely terrible poker face, so I’m sure my jaw was dropped onto the table by this point. With a force that no young boy deserves, the Dad thrust his son back towards his chair. My heart broke as I watched the young boy’s head hanging in shame, eyes glued to the floor. He kicked his legs back and forth slowly as his face turned red, probably worried that people in the restaurant were staring at him. There are few things more uncomfortable than feeling shame as a young child. It’s debilitating. He looked like he was on the verge of tears, and so was I.

But I was more than sad at this point. I was angry. I was furious. I wanted to get up and tell this Dad off. I wanted to tell him that he had no idea how precious this time was with his son. I wanted to tell him that he should cherish every moment—every single moment—that he has with this young boy. I wanted to tell them that he won’t have these opportunities forever. I wanted to tell him that he has a God-given responsibility to instill values and character into that young boy’s mind and heart, and that he wasn’t going to do that acting like a complete and total jerk.

Somehow, I restrained myself. I clenched my fists, studied the salt shaker, and even gave the Peg game on the table a go (I’m attributing my poor score of three remaining pegs to the low blood sugar of not having yet received my French toast). I tried to ignore what was happening (or not happening) at the table next to me, but after a while, I had to look again.

There sat the little boy, chin resting on his chair back, staring at the other families in the restaurant. And there sat the father, eyes still locked-in on the mobile screen in front of him.

Finally, the Dad looked up at his son. “Finally,” I thought to myself. “It took him long enough, but he’s going to talk to the little guy. Good for him.”

“You wanna put your straw in your water?” he said.

It wasn’t profound, but I told myself it was interaction nonetheless. Baby steps.

It was amazing and a bit saddening to watch the little boy’s composure change just because his Dad recognized him. Just because his Dad finally paid a little bit of attention to him. I thought things might be looking up. With his little hands, he grabbed the paper-wrapped straw from beside his tiny cup of water. Then, he did what most youngsters will do. He began to bang the end of the straw against the table until the paper would slide off.

With a level of anger completely unwarranted by the situation, the Dad reached across the table yelling “Give me that!” from the young boy. He grabbed the straw from his little hands and opened it in a more “dignified” manner. Having opened the straw, he put it in the boy’s cup as his little eyes looked on, head hanging low once again.

Then, the Dad took things to an entirely new absurdity level. He shook his head back and forth a few times as his face began to grow red (from anger, not embarrassment) and said “I don’t understand why you do things like that.”

It took everything I had in me to not stand up from the table, bash his head with the oil lantern, and see myself expelled from every Cracker Barrel in North America. I had a few bottles of mini maple syrup, and I was pretty sure no one would have blamed me had I poured them right over this jerk’s head.

I was furious. Even more furious than this Dad was when his little boy didn’t know how to “properly” unwrap his straw.

“That’s it,” I said in my mind. “I’m saying something to this guy. He deserves it! Before I go, I’m going to tell them exactly what I think of his parenting. And he’s not that big so I can take him if he tries something funny. Or I can knock over a display of candles in the lobby and run really, really fast.”

In that moment, I looked across my own table—the empty table—and got even more upset than I had previously been. My Father was more than a father—he was a Dad. When I was little, he made me feel like I mattered. He talked to me and had conversations with me. He made me feel so important and so loved. He taught me things and was legitimately interested in me. And yes, it may have been a different time, but nothing as silly as a cell phone would have ever gotten in the way of a conversation with his son.

I got angry because my Dad was gone. I began to wallow in my own self-pity, thinking selfishly that it wasn’t fair that Dads like this still got time with their sons when Dads as deserving as mine had lost theirs way too soon. It’s a feeling I get quite often.

When the Dad and his boy finally received their food, the little boy didn’t even get any help from his Dad. He put his own syrup on the pancakes. He clumsily navigated a knife and fork to cut his pancakes into bite-size pieces. I grew even sadder watching him enjoy his little breakfast in unnecessary silence.

So, I did what I often do in moments like this. I began to talk to God. And I began to talk to Dad.

I don’t pride myself on being a theological expert, and I don’t know whether or not it’s even realistic, but when I think of what’s happening in Heaven while I’m down here on Earth, I will often picture my Dad and God standing right next to one another. Their elbows rest on a shelf of clouds, and they are looking down at me, watching over me, and encouraging me. They talk with one another. They roll their eyes when I do something foolish (there’s lots of eye rolling, by the way). They laugh at me. But more than anything, they send me lots of love from above.

The nice part of this visual is that, when times get tough and I don’t know what to do, I’ll often turn my face to the sky and simply ask them. I’ll cry out. I’ll say “Tell me what I should do here. I need you. I need you both.”

And that’s exactly what I did. In the middle of a Cracker Barrel, I looked upwards with my palms facing skyward on the wooden table, and mouthed the words “Tell me what you want me to do here, because I’m lost and I’m angry.”

I expected them to tell me to get courageous. To harden my resolve. That it was time for me to stand up for what I believed in. That I needed to be a man, tell this guy that he needed to be a man too, and walk out with my shoulders back and my head held high. I waited eagerly for their response, and I nearly threw up my French toast when I heard it.

“Ask for their check,” was what I heard. “Ask for their check,” was what came to my mind.

Apparently, people in Heaven are perfect but can still say crazy things.

My eyes must have been as wide as cornbread muffins as I stared across the table at the empty chair opposite me. My mouth was agape, and I was beginning to sweat a little bit. I looked at the spot where my Dad should’ve been sitting, and I told him exactly what I thought about his suggestion: “That’s probably your dumbest idea yet.”

I was angry that this was the solution that came into my mind. I was mad that this was the best solution that the Lord of all mankind and my Dad could come up with. I wasn’t about to reward bad behavior. I wasn’t going to give this guy any of my hard-earned money as he sat there and wasted the best gift he could have ever received—a relationship with his son. No way. I’m sorry, God. I’m sorry, Dad. It’s not happening. Try again.

But the phrase just kept coming back to me. “Ask for their check. Ask for their check. Ask for their check.” Over and over again I kept hearing this phrase. No matter how hard I fought it, it was like God and my Dad were telling me that there was no other way out. There was no other solution to what was happening in that moment. I knew this was a spiritual test, but I also knew it was bigger than that.

I asked God to tell me why. I asked God to explain to me why this was His solution. He didn’t tell me straight out, but He gave me some wisdom to think through this. And I knew that it was wisdom that both God and my Dad would appreciate.

First and foremost, I reminded myself that I was only seeing a snapshot of this family’s life. I hoped it didn’t get worse than this, but I had no idea what their morning had been like. I had no idea of this man’s story or anything he was dealing with at the time. I didn’t know what brought him to that table on that morning, what things were weighing on his heart, or the insecurities he might have been feeling as a father in that moment.

Then, I thought of my Dad. I thought of the types of things he would have done. My Dad was the type of man to pick up someone’s check. My Dad was the type of person to not judge people, even if he didn’t like their actions. My Dad gave people the benefit of the doubt in every circumstance, even when they upset him. My Dad was a giver, and he believed that you could teach people more through kindness as opposed to anger, retribution, and holy discipline. My Dad was a big fan of New Testament love. I was a fan of Old Testament fire and brimstone.

I also remembered something that I saw my Dad live out many, many times during his 50 years here on this Earth. Little actions of love can have big, lasting implications. Little interactions that show kindness can change a life and many more. Little moments of tenderness can spread like wildfire. Maybe, just maybe, I would pay this man’s check. And maybe, just maybe, it would put him in a good mood and change how he interacted with his son on that day. And maybe this little boy, who deserved it, would have a good day. And that good day would lead to other good days and a different relationship between these two. It was stupidly optimistic…and it was exactly the type of thing my Dad would have believed.

I did what I thought was unthinkable. I called upon the Holy Spirit to help me, and summoned some courage from my Dad. When the waitress came by, I signaled her, leaned over, and said to her… “Can I ask you for a Diet Coke to go?”

Just kidding. I said “Can I ask you for a Diet Coke to go? And, also, can you bring me their check without letting them see it?” I nodded towards their table.

“You want the check for the little boy’s table?” she responded.

“Yes, ma’am,” I said, feeling like a wimp. Feeling like I had lost the battle by not telling this man exactly what I thought of him.

“Absolutely,” she said with a huge smile across her face. She returned a few minutes later with a Diet Coke (I felt I deserved this much) and a check a few times larger than the one I had originally received.

I grabbed it, got up from the table, and walked past the man and his son.

As was expected, the Father was a bit too enamored with his chicken fried steak to notice me. But I didn’t want to look at him anyway. I looked at the boy. The little boy with the hoodie and the hair gel and the pancakes. He looked at me and I smiled and winked, walking out of the restaurant without saying a word. I paid my bill. Then I paid for their bill. I grabbed my to-go cup, walked out of the Cracker Barrel towards my car, and looked up towards the sky.

“There. Are you two happy?” I said begrudgingly.

I imagined that both God and Dad were smiling down nodding their heads yes, and laughing that I could get so frustrated showing love to someone else.

While I sat in my car, I began to cry a bit, feeling the emptiness of not having my Dad here with me. But it’s moments like these that remind me that he is always here. That his memory can live on each and every day, as long as I live my life the way he would have. His life and legacy live on in my heart. I know I’ll never be the man that my Dad was. The bar is just too high. But I’ve accepted that. I’d rather aim high and miss a little lower, though, than not try at all. It’s my duty to my Dad to do the things he would have done. If he can’t be here to do them, I need to be the one to live like my Dad. I didn’t pay the bill on that day. My Dad did.

I pray that my Dad’s gesture made that little boy’s day a little better. And I pray that it warmed that Dad’s heart. And I desperately hope that they had a wonderful day together. I mean…it started at Cracker Barrel so how could it be bad?!

I thank my Dad for inspiring me to do things in moments like that. I thank my Dad for helping to change my heart. Initially, I had hoped this man would choke a bit on his chicken fried steak, and just a few minutes later I was paying for his meal. Well played, Dad. Well played.

And, more than anything, I pray that for as long as I live, my Dad keeps guiding me. That he keeps giving me instructions. That he keeps forcing me to do things I would never, ever do on my own.

I’m a better man because my Dad was here for 26 wonderful years, and I’ll be a better man because he will always be in my mind and in my heart for as long as I live.

And next time, I’ll try a bit harder to order the fruit and yogurt.

Sitting in Dad's Lap with SB LogoDad, Even though you’re not here with me, I know you’re always with me. I know you’re always watching over me and guiding me and pushing me to be a better Christian. On the days when I feel sad that you’re not around, it’s always moments like this one that remind me that you’ll never leave. Yes, we haven’t talked face to face since that horrible July day in 2013; but I feel like we’ve been talking ever since. Little things happen in my life that allow your memory to shine through, and I’m so grateful for that. Dad, you would be so proud to know that your story is inspiring people to live better lives. You have no idea how many people miss you and love you and wish you were here. Remind them, and remind me, that you’re always here as long as we live life the way you did. Remind us all that love is more important than absolutely anything. I’m reminded each and every day how much I love you. Thank you for teaching me what it means to be a Father. Thank you for giving your entire self to me. And thanks for never taking it easy on me when we played checkers. I love you Dad, and I miss you terribly. Until we can share a seat at a table even better than one at Cracker Barrel, seeya Bub.

“But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” Luke 6:35 (NIV)

The Church Must Speak (Part 2): Stigmas

This is Part 2 in a special three-part series on the Christian church and mental illness. Please make sure you check out Part 1: Silence.

Unspoken prayer requests are unspoken for a reason.

I know that not every unspoken prayer request is related to mental illness; but I do think that a large majority of those who suffer from mental illness are afraid to make it known.

And the last place they should be afraid is the Christian church.

But they are.

When I started this series, the easy part was realizing that the Christian church largely stays silent on the topic of mental illness. The difficult part was understanding why. Why would a caring, loving church stay silent on a topic that affects so many parishioners who sit in the pews week in and week out? Why would the church choose to stay silent when people are broken and hurting? When lives are being lost? When families are being torn apart?

There’s a reason why those unspoken requests continue to remain unspoken.

The stigmas that surround mental illness, although mostly untrue, are just as pervasive in the church as they are in any other institution in our society. And these stigmas are preventing people from finding the peace they deserve—and the love that Christ wants them to experience.


So what are these stigmas? What are these faulty thoughts surrounding mental illness and suicide? Why are they still alive in the modern church? How foolish are they? And what can we do to counter them? I have my ideas.

To prevent these stigmas from spreading, we’ve got to understand just how faulty they actually are. So, for the rest of this post, I’m going to ask you to engage in a bit of a metaphor with me.

I want you to imagine that a man comes to your church with a broken leg. He hobbles in on crutches. A huge, fiberglass cast holds his shattered bones into place. After some uncomfortable shuffling, he eventually finds a pew near the back of the church in an attempt to avoid the eyes of his fellow worshipers.

Now, imagine that you notice this man. And imagine that you immediately judge him negatively because of his broken leg. Or you question his walk with God. Or worse…you completely ignore him and his pain.

Crazy, right?

If someone has a broken leg in the church, we don’t ask any questions about why their leg is broken, but we offer to help. In any way we can.

If someone in the church has a brain function or thought process that is broken, however, our reaction is very, very different. And this differentiation is at the heart of the stigmas that prevent the Christian church, largely, from serving the mentally ill.

That, my friends, is the heart of my argument. Although the response and treatment for an injured leg and an injured brain are vastly different, our Christian response to each of those injuries should operate from the same exact place of love and compassion, not judgement. We must counter the stigmas; but to counter them, we have to call them out, one by one. Although there are many stigmas about mental illness that run rampant in both the church and everyday American society, I believe these three are the most particularly dangerous and damaging.

STIGMA 1: If you suffer from mental illness, your spirit is weak, your faith is low, or you are distant from God. Situate this stigma in the context of the conversation we had just a moment ago. Imagine if I had the audacity to question the physical or spiritual fortitude of the man with the broken leg. “Man, you must have some pretty weak bones there fella,” I would say to him. Or “That’s what you get for not drinking enough milk!” Or worse, imagine if I said, “Wow, what did you do to make God so mad that he broke your leg?!” If I ever responded to anyone with a broken leg with an attitude like that, everyone in the church would immediately call me a hypocrite. They would call out my lack of compassion—rightly so!

But there are believers in the Christian church each and every day who make those same judgments about their brothers and sisters who suffer from mental illness. They secretly call them crazy. They avoid interaction with these people. They question whether or not they actually believe in God at all.

This type of thinking is completely unacceptable.

I can’t speak to the root of each and every person’s own individual struggle with mental illness. I can’t say with 100% certainty that all cases of mental illness have nothing to do with a larger spiritual battle. But I can say that believing every case of mental illness stems from a person’s personal walk with Christ is foolish.

And I can also say I’ve encountered this stigma.

No, I’ve never interacted with someone after my Dad’s death who comes right out and says, “Your Father must have been mad at or distant from God,” but they don’t have to come right out and say it. I can see it in their eyes. I can tell that they don’t want to engage because they think of my Father as someone who must have had little faith in God.

But I can tell you that my Dad believed in God. He believed in the power of the Cross. He loved Jesus—and more importantly lived his life in a way that showed people how much he loved Jesus. But my Father’s mind was highjacked by a horrible, complex, and devastating disease. Just like someone who loses a family member to cancer or heart disease, I lost my Father to suicide. Suicide, a debilitating disease that clouds the mind and warps the senses stole my Father. In fact, I think my Father’s faith is probably the thing that allowed him to fight as successfully as he did for so long.

I think one of the most Christ-like things we can do is admit that sometimes, we just don’t know why certain things happen. And I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t always understand depression and mental illness. It could be spiritual, for some. It could be neurochemical and physiological for others. It could be brought on by dire circumstances or a whole host of other influences. But, like Jesus, I want to listen to people who are hurting. I want to listen to people who are suffering, hear their stories, and help them find comfort in the arms of Christ. And if I automatically assume that every battle with depression is entirely spiritual in nature, I’m missing the point of Jesus’ ministry—and so is His church.

STIGMA 2: Suicide is the unforgivable sin, and if you’ve ever entertained it or had suicidal ideations, you’ll never be forgiven. As a Christian, you should just know this isn’t an option. Somehow, we’ve come to believe in the church that suicide is a sin that is elevated above any other—and, unfortunately, we lump mental illness into this bucket of “unforgivable sins” that don’t actually exist.

Go back to the poor man I described in the previous section with a bum leg. Put yourself in his shoes (and cast). Imagine if someone told you that your struggle to stay healthy must be a punishment from God for some sin you had committed. Would it make you want to serve Him? Or would it scare you?

I don’t know about you, but I serve a loving God. I serve a compassionate, forgiving God. And I serve a God who says I have swept away your offenses like a cloud, your sins like the morning mist. Return to me, for I have redeemed you” (Isaiah 44:22, NIV).

Unfortunately, there are a whole host of people in the larger Christian church who, whether consciously or underneath the surface, believe that there is something unforgivable about mental illness and suicide. I don’t understand this, and I never will.

Charles Stanley is one of the most knowledgeable Christian speakers and scholars of our time, and I remember being given a copy of his book Emotions by my pastor, Harville, after my Dad’s death. I tore through page after page because I loved Stanley’s approach to dealing with our emotions (more on Stanley’s book in the Library section), but then my heart froze when I got to page 243 in a chapter entitled “Despair.” My eyes fixed on the word “suicide”, and I began to panic. My palms began to sweat because I was afraid of what might come next. Stanley is a Baptist minister who started his career behind the pulpit in the 1970’s, and I made assumptions about his beliefs on suicide. I worried that a man like Stanley—a studied and learned man—was going to tell me something about my Father’s eternity that my heart couldn’t bear to hear.

And then, with the tenderness I needed in just that moment, Stanley penned the words that my broken heart needed to hear. He wrote:

“Now, before we move on, let me clear up a misconception I frequently hear repeated. If you or someone you love has attempted suicide, please be assured that it is not the unpardonable sin. Some believe it is because the person does not have the opportunity to repent, but nothing in God’s Word suggests suicide will not be forgiven” (p. 246).

I put down the book, and I began crying. God knows my heart, and He knows I’m a natural skeptic, and he knew that I would need the perspective of a Biblical scholar like Charles Stanley to convince me that my Dad’s heart—and his Eternity—belonged to the Lord and Savior he served.

And it’s not just Stanley. After reading his book, I sought out more and more perspectives. And everywhere I looked I found the same thing from Christian scholars I knew I could trust—mental illness and suicide are not the unpardonable sin.

But the words of men shouldn’t be enough to convince us. Those of us in the Church should let everything we do be dictated by the Word of God, and nowhere in the Bible am I able to find evidence that those who suffer from mental illness or suicidal ideations are not welcome at the foot of the Cross.

In fact, I find example after example of broken, hurting people finding comfort in the arms of Jesus Christ.

Don’t miss what I’m saying—I don’t want to minimize the devastating impact of suicide. It’s horrible and it’s irreversible. It leaves a chaotic imprint on the hearts and minds of those who are left behind to deal with the trauma, anguish, and confusion. My Dad’s death has put questions on my heart that I know I’ll never have answers to on this side of Eternity. This one isn’t easy. We have to find a way to talk about mental illness and suicide in the Church without encouraging emotionally vulnerable and hurting people to do something they might regret. We have to let them know that even though all of our sins are forgiven, it doesn’t erase the collateral damage that a suicide might inflict. In showing God’s love, the suffering and potentially suicidal person will hopefully see the love of a fellow Christian that will encourage them to find help.

But in order to even bring those people into the conversation, we have to make them feel loved. And sending them the signal that their pain is unforgivable will immediately close off their path to the Cross.

STIGMA 3: I want to help you, but I don’t know how. In the Lifeway study that I shared last week, a large number of pastors who said they don’t regularly talk about the topic of mental health in their churches brought up a common reason for avoiding the subject: they said they aren’t prepared to help those people who are suffering. They worried that they didn’t have the knowledge or academic background or expertise to aid the mentally ill and potentially suicidal, so they avoided the topic all together.

Guess what? You’re more equipped than you think you are. We all are.

Let’s jump back to my metaphor once more. Imagine going up to the person with the broken leg in your church and saying “I would love to help you, but I’m not a doctor and I don’t know anything about how to mend bones. So best of luck!” It’s ludicrous, but it’s also what we are doing with mental health.

Pastors and church leaders, you are right. I don’t expect you to have the same knowledge as a trained clinical professional in the field of psychology. I also don’t expect you to have the medical knowledge of a physician, but I do expect you to talk about dealing with tragic illnesses. I don’t expect you to have the training and knowledge of a financial planner, but I do expect you to talk to Christians about their finances and God’s perspective on money and wealth. I don’t expect you to have the scientific background of Einstein, but I do expect you to talk about how Christians should treat the gift of God’s Creation.

So yes, I expect you to talk about mental illness, even if you don’t have all the answers.

You may not have the academic training or credentials, but you do have the wherewithal and perspective on the power of the Holy Spirit to direct hurting and broken people to the resources they need. No, you may not be able to fix the problem yourself—but isn’t that the point? Isn’t the true message of following Christ a desire to let the Holy Spirit work in our lives to pick us up when we can stand no longer? Isn’t the point of the Church to bring together people with different talents and functions and backgrounds to serve God and serve one another? You might not be able to solve the problem for that person, but you can pray for a solution. You can pray over their problem with them and pray for answers from above. Those answers may come in the form of a Christian counselor, a medical physician, or a clinical psychologist or therapist who can help that suffering person find the treatment they deserve.

I’ll say it as clearly as I know how: A lack of knowledge is not an excuse for a lack of empathy.

And that help is exactly why I write. I don’t point out the faults of the Christian church’s approach to mental illness purely as a critic. I come to the table desperately seeking solutions. I come to this conversation with a positive and optimistic belief that, together, God’s people can unite as a strong army in the fight against mental illness, depression, and suicide. I believe that we can counter these stigmas head on in our congregations and communities, and I believe we can change the world, just like our Father calls us to do.

I recognize the silence. I know there are stigmas.

What do we to counter all of this?

I’ll offer those solutions in next week’s conclusion.

Dad, I’m ashamed to say that it took your struggle and your death for me to realize just how hard the struggle to overcome mental illness really is. And it took losing you to soften my heart for other people who are hurting. It took watching you suffer to realize that mental illness is complex and hard to understand. It took your hurt for me to understand that mental illness is unpredictable and so very difficult to counter. It took losing you for me to understand how the judgement of mental illness weighs on an already heavy heart. It took losing you for me to realize that there are simple ways to help hurting people that might make all the difference. Dad, I think about you each and every day, and I think what more I could have done as a son and as a fellow follower of Jesus Christ to help you find the comfort and peace that you deserved. But I know, deep down, you’ve found an abundant and everlasting peace in Heaven. I would do anything I could to have you back here with me, but for now I’ll fight to help others who, like you, are hurting and fearful that they will never find acceptance. I love you, Dad, and I miss you dearly. Until my fight is complete, seeya Bub.

“The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” Psalm 34:18 (NIV)

Regrets

“Tyler, you can’t blame yourself for what happened to your Dad. You can’t live with any regrets. Your Dad loved you so much.”

In some variation, I probably heard this hundreds of times in the days and weeks and months following my Dad’s death. As friends and family members poured through the visitation line, most of them said something to this effect. When I would talk with fellow Christians in deep conversation about my sorrow, they would always reassure me with this truth. Over and over again, whether from those who had lived close to grief’s shadow or those who were far away, I heard the same encouragement to press on and to live without regret.

And I’m glad I heard this, because the regret and the questioning entered my thoughts moments after hearing that horrible news of my Dad’s death. I immediately started to second-guess myself. I panicked that I had not done enough to save my Dad from the darkness that invaded his mind. I quickly grew nauseous over the thought of all the missed opportunities to spend time with my Dad, knowing that these would likely haunt me for the rest of my earthly existence.

I tried to convince myself, deep down, that I had done all I could. That I had lived life, in every moment, to the fullest when my Dad was around.

But it’s only natural to have regrets. Yes, regrets are natural, and I think that although it may not be easy to think about your regrets when you’re grieving, it’s completely okay to do it when you’re ready. In a perfect world, we would all live lives without regrets, but everyone who reads this blog knows that life isn’t perfect. It’s messy, and complicated, and extremely difficult at times. As a result, we don’t always do things perfectly, which makes regret natural in the aftermath.

I think that the intensity of our regrets are often amplified in the immediate aftermath of a tragic loss. Naturally, we begin to ponder a desired alternative—and in order for that desired alternative to come true, we often envision ourselves making different choices.

Suicide amplifies these regrets to another level. Suicide, above so many death mechanisms, is preventable. It is unnecessary. I’m not saying it’s any more or less tragic than any other type of death, but I do think suicide is unique in that it brings with it an entirely unique set of circumstances.

I live with these regrets, each and every day. I live with the questions of what I could have done differently. And I pray that both God and my Dad might forgive me, in the hopes that I will, someday, be able to forgive myself.

I regret not doing more to let my Dad know that I didn’t blame him for his depression. I know that my Dad was ashamed of his depression. I know that it made him feel weak. I know that he didn’t want to admit that it was getting the best of him. And although I grew to have a more mature understanding of mental health and depression as I aged, there were many times when I, whether consciously or not, failed to recognize the severity of Dad’s depression or the lack of control he had over it. I expected him, as he did with so many things in his life, to find a way to control the way he felt. I didn’t always understand that, of course, if my Dad had the ability to change the way he felt, he would have done it in an instant.

I think back to the times that my Dad’s depression would get the best of him. I’m thankful that there were moments when I let him know that I cared deeply for him. That I understood the nature of his depression was intense, and entirely not his fault.

But there were other times, like the first time I learned of my Dad’s depression, where I was ruthless, unforgiving, and even cruel. I expected him, unwisely, to find a way to “snap out of it.” I regret that I ever considered my Dad weak because of his depression, because I know looking back that he showed tremendous, unbelievable courage to fight for as long as he did. He was unbelievably strong—and definitely stronger than me.

Eventually, I found the proper lens to view my Dad’s depression through. I realized that someone with depression, just like a victim of a physical illness like cancer, should never be blamed for the problems they are plagued with. But I regret those moments, in my immaturity and stubbornness, that I wasn’t more compassionate to a Father who was nothing but compassionate to me whenever I needed it—even though I didn’t always deserve it.

I regret not being more forceful in my plea for Dad to find help. My Dad was a fixer. He was a man who built things with his hands, and as a maintenance technician at a local steel plant, his job was to fix things—huge machines, specifically. Big, complex, very complicated machines. Most people would look at those machines and be immediately overwhelmed and intimidated—but not my Dad. He could take the most complicated problem and break it down, piece by piece, arriving at a solution quicker than most. Dad was smart, intelligent, and very talented. There were very few problems that could whip my Dad.

And I think it was exactly that fixer’s mindset that made depression so difficult for my Father to cope with. If he could fix huge, multifaceted, million-dollar machines with nothing more than his brain and his own two hands, I’m sure he wondered, then why couldn’t he figure out the solution to his own depression?

Of all the regrets I live with, I think what I regret most is failing to encourage my Dad to seek appropriate medical attention from a counselor to help him cope with his mental illness. As I’ve written about before, the one thing my Dad always resisted was going to speak to a mental illness counselor or therapist. I think that his resistance was part pride, part embarrassment, and part a lack of knowledge for what a therapist actually is and the difference this person could have made in his life and thinking.

The first time I really encouraged my Dad to go speak with someone and shared my own experiences with my counselor was, unfortunately, on the last day of his life. I wish that my Dad and I could have had more honest, deep, and heartfelt conversations about our struggles with mental illness. This would have given me the opportunity to share with him how helpful my therapist, Jeff, had been to me. And maybe, just maybe, it would have encouraged Dad to find a counselor. And maybe that counselor would have helped my Dad avoid his untimely death.

I regret not asking my Dad if he was feeling suicidal tendencies. In our final conversation together, I asked my Dad a lot of questions about how he was feeling and why he might be feeling the way he did. Some he could answer, but others he couldn’t.

But there’s one question that I couldn’t bring myself to ask him—partly because I didn’t want to know the answer, and partly because I already thought I knew. But I was wrong on both accounts.

I regret not asking my Dad whether or not he was feeling so depressed that it might lead to suicide.

It’s so tough to even write that question because of the regret I feel. As much courage as I might have been able to muster on that morning, I don’t think I could have ever have built up enough strength to ask him that question—but it doesn’t change the fact that I wish I would have. And now that I know how he died, I definitely would have asked him.

Yes, so much of this is Monday-morning quarterbacking, because in all of my Dad’s struggles with depression, he had never once attempted suicide or led us to believe that suicide would enter his mind. So many people who knew my Dad were utterly shocked at his funeral because they never suspected he might succumb to something so tragic. Those who lived closest to him, like me, were just as shocked.

I wonder if I would have behaved differently that morning had I asked that question. I wonder how Dad would have responded. Would he break down and confess that, indeed, he was feeling suicidal? And would I have been able to save him? Call a doctor? An ambulance? Anything? Or would he have masked his inner sadness as he had done so many times before, unable to tell his son the true answer? Would me asking that question have opened up a new avenue for our conversation on that day? Would I have been able to convey to my Dad that life would be almost unbearable without him? And whether it was guilt or responsibility, would either of those emotions or thoughts been enough to deter him in those final moments?

I live with regret because I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. And, unfortunately, I never will. But I know, given the opportunity to live my life over again, I would have at least asked. Yes, it would have been the toughest question I would have ever asked my Dad—but it would have also been the most important.

I regret not living life more with my Dad. I am fortunate to live in a country of surplus, but no matter what tangible blessings I might accumulate in my life, I will never, ever be able to accumulate more time. And more than anything, I regret all those moments where I chose less meaningful things over precious time with my Father.

There were so many things that Dad wanted to do with me, and that I wanted to do with him, that we never got a chance to do. Dad wanted to go to a country concert together, but we never got the chance to make that happen. Dad had always wanted to go on a kayaking trip together, but we never got that opportunity. Dad would often beg me to go watch UFC fights with him. I would stop dead in my tracks, roll my eyes, and then tell him how much I hated UFC fights more than…anything else in this life (that’s right UFC fans, you heard me). There were so many times when my Dad would ask me to do something with him, and I would be too busy or too preoccupied to make it happen. And boy, do I regret ever saying no to him.

Now, instead of doing those things with my Dad, I do them in his memory. I do them because I know he would have wanted me to do them. I had never kayaked before Dad died, but about a year after his death, I bought a kayak and I’ve fallen in love with being on the water. The rowing calms my mind and the beauty of the surrounding nature soothes my soul, but all the while I usually think about my Dad. I think about how much he would have enjoyed being out on the water with me. I think about all the great laughs we would have enjoyed together, especially the first time I ever got in my kayak and abruptly tumbled into the water on the riverbank and flopped around like an idiot for a few seconds. I laugh about how many times he would have pointed out a certain type of tree on the riverbank or a bird that would fly overhead. I wish I was doing things like this with Dad, not in his memory. I regret that we never had the opportunity to do it together in this life, but I’m hopeful for an Eternity where we can do them together, forever.

But this regret, as powerful as it is, would be there no matter how fully I had lived life with Dad. As much as I regret these specific things, I know that there were so many times when I did live life to the max with my Dad. When death strikes, the one thing we all wish we had was more time with our loved one—even if we had spent every single waking hour with that person. Coupled with this regret is an appreciation for all the dinners we had at LaRosa’s, all the hours we spent in the truck together singing country music, the trips to the beach, the zip-lining excursion together for Father’s Day, and all the episodes of The Office we watched together on our family room couch. Yes, there would have always been other times I could have spent with Dad, but I’m thankful that looking back on our lives together, we were there for each other more often than not. I don’t necessarily regret the opportunities which I said no as much as I long for more of the opportunities when I did say yes.

I think that regret can only be natural if a deep, abiding love was there at one time—and I’m tremendously grateful for that. I’m thankful that life with my Father was so good and so amazing for 26 years that it made me desperately yearn for more and more of it. Yes, when we look back on our lives we would all make changes—some minor, and some significant. And although I try my best to live without regret, it’s a natural part of the grieving process brought on, only naturally, by the love I have for my Father.

And as much as I may do in his memory…I think I’ll still pass on those UFC fights.

Dad in Hoodie with SB LogoDad, Even though I know you would tell me not to feel regret, I do wish that I had the chance to hit the “do-over” button on so many things in my life. I wish I had been more of a support to you when you needed me. I wish that I had spent more time with you doing the things you loved to do. I wish that I could have done more to help you find peace and solace in the tumult of your depression. I don’t know the answer to why this terrible tragedy happened, but I do know that God has a plan to make something good out of it. I often wonder what could possibly be better than more time with you, but I know that although I feel a horrible separation from you in these moments, there will come a day when you and I can both live completely free of regret and goodbyes. I long for that day, but until then, seeya Bub.

“No, dear brothers, I am still not all I should be, but I am brining all my energies to bear on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead.” Philippians 3:13 (TLB)

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)