Wondering

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And all throughout, I wondered.

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

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

And from that moment on, I began wondering.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

The Portrait

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

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

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

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

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

 

CF Payne Santa

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

But his heart is even greater than his gift.

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

CF Payne Joe Nuxhall Cutout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CF Payne Illustration of Dad

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

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

“Well, did I get him?” he said.

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

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

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

I know of at least one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bringing Back the Magic: Guest Blog by Christian Morrow

Ty: We were standing near a weight bench, and I couldn’t help but feel tremendous sorrow as Christian talked. He was thanking me for the blog and sharing his deeply personal story—one that I had never known in the interactions we had with one another. It broke my heart to watch him try and fight back tears. His heart was grieving intensely, and I could tell his mind desperately searched for an explanation for his grief. Like so many people I encounter, I had no idea he was carrying such pain. In all of our previous exchanges, I never knew that he had been impacted by such unfortunate trauma and loss.

Christian Morrow is one of those friends who comes into your life in a very unexpected way. One of those friends that walk into your life seemingly by happenstance, but you realize later through divine intervention. One of those friends that God knows you will need down the road when you can’t see for yourself.

And in this case, God connected me to Christian over my need for a Chrysler 200.

My job requires that I do a lot of traveling and driving, which has also led me to be a frequent customer of the local Enterprise. I get to know the local Enterprise folks pretty well…I mean, they’re the people who pick you up. I usually try to get to know the people who work at Enterprise and treat them as kindly as possible because…I really don’t want them to give me that lime green Kia Soul.

Christian knew I worked at Miami, and when he asked me how I liked my job. In the conversation that followed, he shared with me how he, too, hoped to someday work in student affairs. I handed him my business card and told him to call or e-mail if I could do anything to help, and unlike so many people, he took me up on it. It was amazing that our paths hadn’t crossed before: we graduated from the same high school, went to the same college, had the same undergraduate mentor, and lived just a few minutes away from one another.

But God connected us at the right moment. At the moment we could help each other most.

And it’s in this moment that I hope his story and his example can help you as much as it’s helped me, especially for those of us who are grieving during this holiday season.


Christian: Here I sit, at my parent’s cherry wood roll top desk, a tear-stained piece of college ruled sitting in front of me on this fall morning. As I search for the strength and courage to write this, the steam from my mom’s favorite Christmas coffee cup rises into the brisk air that inhabits the top floor of my modest Cape Cod home. This very desk is the same in which my mother built an empire, where my mom spent countless hours doing payroll for her staff of teachers at her school, paid bills and relentlessly navigated Christmas as a single mother every year.

“Thanksgiving is over and I can’t run away from the fact that Christmas is right around the corner.” I think to myself.

More than two years have passed since I lost my mom, yet every year I still have to invest every ounce of energy and focus into mentally preparing myself for this time of year. It can be anything from the simple smell of a cinnamon-scented candle at Yankee, to a cheesy rendition of a Christmas classic from The Carpenters that can send me into one of those heart-sinking, jaw tightening moments of: “Okay, don’t cry. Your daughter is watching you.” You know the kind.

Life can be hard for a single parent like my Mom, but I can only imagine it’s especially hard during the holidays. My mom lived for Christmas, and if we’re being completely honest here, I think Christmas was designed especially for her. She went all out for Christmas every year and not in a tacky, load your house up with hodgepodge decorations-kind of way. I’m talking a 12 foot tree that my sister and I ceremoniously topped off from the balcony…on the second floor, garland wrapped around every inch of the banister going upstairs, and of course the crystal angels and deer that I was never allowed to touch. If there was some sort of holiday activity happening, we were there; Christmas ranches, the zoo, the waterpark and of course, Fountain Square for the tree lighting. It was all so vibrant and cheerful, just like mom.

You never want to lose that feeling of joy and wonder when you’re staring out the car window, in awe of the millions of colorful lights. Or driving home from the grandparents’ Christmas Eve dinner and looking up, hoping to catch a glimpse of reindeer and Tim Allen…oh yeah, my childhood image of Santa was Tim Allen. Go figure.

For some time I lost that feeling. I resented Christmas and, selfishly, I grew very bitter and cold when I saw other families experiencing that same feeling that my Mom and I shared for so many years. Every time I begin to experience one of those Hallmark-induced breakdowns, a vicious series of moments play in my mind, as if they happened just yesterday. “She’s gone.” Those words are perpetually affixed into my subconscious, those two words will forever penetrate my soul and bring me to my knees.

Depression is one of those things that can’t be explained. We don’t know that it’s coming and we don’t really know how to stop it. It’s ironic to think that someone as cheerful and caring as my mom, especially during the holidays, was harboring a dark and crippling feeling of sadness and grief during the happiest time of the year. As I became a teenager, I started to pick up on my Mom’s sadness. I’ll never forget the time my I caught my Mom crying in the kitchen just after we opened our presents.

“What’s wrong, mom?” I said.

“Nothing, I’m okay. Did you have a good Christmas?”

Even in her sadness she was more worried about my happiness and whether or not I was happy with all my presents that year.

When we think about someone taking their own life, often times we think about the “whys” and the “how’s,” as in: “How could she do this to herself, she was the happiest person I’ve ever known?” or “Why did she do this?” These are two of the most common questions I get asked, two years after my mother’s death. That’s the thing about depression and mental illness, it raises many questions and offers little answers.

I’ve never been a drinker, but one night just before Christmas last year I found myself sitting in a sports bar that I had never been to before. I told myself that I would watch a little bit of the Red Wings game, have a gin and tonic and call it. After more than one, I found myself looking around at all the cheerful patrons, some in festive sweaters and others wearing Santa hats. I took note of the colorful lights around the windows of the bar and I realized, once again, that the magic was gone—she was gone. There I sat, alone and in a dark corner of some place I had no business being in. It was at that moment that I lost it, I lost it more than I had ever lost it before in my life. I sat in the dark and cried for hours. No one could see me in the dim lighting. Well, no one except for the poor waitress, who I might add was incredibly kind and even sat down at my table at one point to “talk.”

Despite my outward, stoic appearance, I’ve always been a sensitive guy. I cry at the ending of Marley & Me for Pete’s sake. But my pride gets the best of me this time of year and I’ve had ample opportunities to perfect the art of holding back the tears. I can never bring myself to just cry when I really need to. It’s easy to do when you’re alone, but it takes a brave man to do it in front of loved ones. I think that’s the danger of being sad. We never want to be judged for it so we suppress those feelings. Unfortunately for my Mom, she had suppressed them for too long and I often times blame myself for not doing more to change that.

A few months ago I decided I didn’t want to dread Christmas anymore. I certainly don’t want to forget my mom and all her wonderful traditions, but I was ready to enjoy this time of year again.

When I was younger my Mom had this one decoration that I absolutely adored; a Mr. Christmas “Rock & Roll Christmas” holiday scene. It played music and featured ice skaters circling a magnetic pond with accents of 1960’s imagery, like a diner and some old hot rods situated around the pond. I would play with that thing for hours, taking the ice skaters off and putting them back on while listening to the cheerful music coming from it. It got to the point where my mom wouldn’t even put it on an end table anymore because I would damn near drop every piece trying to relocate it to the floor. Eventually some pieces went missing and it became outdated so we donated it to Goodwill and I hadn’t seen it for about 15 years.

Out of nowhere something sparked in me, I remembered the decoration and decided I was going to have one of my own so I could share it with my daughter. After some extensive research and diligent Ebay shopping, I finally found it! I was a little disgruntled that this almost twenty-year-old decoration still had quite a hefty price tag, but I didn’t let that stop me. I would’ve paid just about anything to relive just one of those Christmas memories. When it finally came in the mail, my daughter and I ripped it open and put it together straight away. I now have to move all the little ice skaters to higher ground or Charlie introduces them to a different kind of pond (the toilet). I’ll catch her just staring intently, the same exact way I did, mesmerized by the busyness of it all and taking in the holiday joy.

Christmas is still a tough time for me, but as a father sharing those wonderful experiences the same way they were shared with me, I have something to look forward to each year. I worry less and focus more on my daughter and bringing the magic back into our home.

Christian Morrow Guest Post GraphicMom,

Thank you for giving me the warmest memories of Christmas. You managed to make it magical and exciting every year. I wish more than anything you were here to see your granddaughter’s face light up as she stares at the lights on the tree or as she watches the ice skaters dance around the pond. Thank you for teaching me how to bring home the magic of Christmas.

Love Always,

Christian


Ty: I’ve said this many times, but it’s worth saying at this moment.

Although we may grieve uniquely, we never grieve in isolation. And although I would give anything for to have my Dad back and for Christian to have his Mom, I find myself experiencing God’s grace in my friendship with this amazing man. I had no idea on that day I met Christian at Enterprise that we would both be bonded over something as tragic as the loss of a parent to suicide. Although I would give anything for both of us to escape this hurt and have our loved ones back, I am beyond grateful to have Christian as a friend as we walk this difficult journey together.

The Christmas season can feel so lonely and dim for those whose hearts are enraptured with grief and loss. The magic that once filled our hearts is replaced by a deep longing for the past. That longing can lead to desperation. To heartache. And for some, it can lead them to turn away, turn inward, or turn off the heart entirely. Christian had a choice to let his grief beat him, or to fight his grief with love. He’s winning that battle, and so can you. We all can.

Christian has given me and everyone who watches him an amazing gift this Christmas season. Christian is not oblivious to pain. He’s suffered, he still suffers, and he will have moments throughout his entire life where the pain is just as real as it was the day he heard of his Mom’s death. But Christian has persevered in spite of his suffering. He’s been able to find the gifts, to appreciate them, and thrive in spite of his pain. It hasn’t been easy, but the good stuff never is.

On that day standing near the weight bench when Christian shared that his Mom was a victim of suicide like my Dad, he thanked me for writing the blog. Now, a few years removed from the pain of that conversation, I know I am the one who should be thanking him.

I struggle at Christmas, but I am not as much afraid of the present-day Christmases as I am of the ones that will come in the future when I have children of my own (a terrifying thought for all who will come into contact with these little heck-raisers). I worry that the intensified grief I feel around this time of the year might ruin their holidays. I often wonder how I’ll explain to my future children why I’m so sad around the happiest time of year. I wonder how I’ll tell them why their Grandpa isn’t there to give them presents and read them stories and eat cookies with them. I dread that day, and I think about it every year around Christmas. My Dad loved Christmas, but I know he would have loved it even more with his grandchildren.

Watching Christian interact with his beautiful little daughter Charlie gives me every bit of inspiration I could ever hope for. It invigorates my soul in a way I have trouble describing. I see Christian, a young man with maturity far beyond his years, acknowledging his own grief while simultaneously celebrating the joy of life in his new family—celebrating the way his Mom taught him to, and preserving her memory each time he does. I see him making new memories and traditions at Christmastime, and the smile on his daughter’s face says it all. Yes, Christian is grieving. Yes, Christian is hurting. Yes, Christian is suffering. But he’s thriving in spite of it all. One of the greatest gifts I’ll receive this year is his unbelievable example in courage.

Those conversations about Christian’s desire to work in student affairs led to something great. I’m fortunate to also call Christian a colleague, as he started his higher education career in admission at Miami just a few months ago. It’s hard not to smile when I see how he’s taken the hurt in his life and refused to let it defeat him. But as much as I’m smiling at the success he’s having, I know there’s someone out there with an even bigger smile watching over him this Christmas season. I’m proud of you, Christian, and this Christmas, I know your Mom is even prouder. Thank you for teaching all of us that our pain is real, but so is the faith we have in our hearts to bring back the magic and overcome it.

“A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need.” Proverbs 17:17 (NLT)

Christian Morrow

Guest Blogger Bio:

Christian Morrow

Christian was born and raised in Fairfield, Ohio. Following graduation from Fairfield Senior High School, he went on to study at Miami University, obtaining his Bachelor’s degree. Christian currently works for his Alma Matter, Miami, serving as a college admission counselor. “I find immense joy and fulfillment in being on the other side of the college admittance process, advocating for student success and higher education within our community,” says Christian. He plans to pursue his master’s degree in education in the summer of 2018.  As a Fairfield Township Citizen Police Academy alum, Christian is able to remain an active and involved member of the community. “I have a one year old daughter named Charlotte “Charlie” Sue, who is a spitting image of her beautiful mother, Jacqueline and has given me incredible strength and hope in her one short year. On any given day you can find me riding my bike around downtown Hamilton/Oxford, enjoying the farmer’s market, participating in a ‘Tough Mudder Marathon’ or simply spending time with my beautiful family,” says Christian.

Of his Mother, Connie, Christian says this: “On the morning of April 10th, 2015 I was serving on a college committee when I received the news that my mother had passed away. The news was earth-shattering for me, as she was truly my best friend, role model and hero. Connie Morrow was incredibly spirited and passionate about life, she owned and operated Tiny Tots Childcare Center for 25 years and touched the lives of countless families in the Fairfield community. Despite my mom’s altruistic and warm-hearted nature, she suffered in silence for most of her life. My goal in sharing her story is to uncover the vicious and covert nature of depression and mental illness. It can manifest itself in the most vibrant, successful and seemingly positive people. I encourage you take a second look at your loved ones, recognize the signs and reach out—you could save someone’s father, daughter,  brother or mother.”