Olives

To say that my Dad was a terrible cook is a gracious understatement.

dad-turned-around-in-chair-with-sb-logoOf all the talents that God gave my Dad—and he gave him many—cooking was not one of them. As a youngster, my Dad often worked second or third shifts, which meant he would usually pick me up from A.M. kindergarten. We typically arrived home around noon, and I had always worked up a healthy appetite from all the finger painting and make-believing that had occurred that morning. After getting home, Dad would head into the kitchen to embark on a culinary expedition, perusing the items in the fridge and freezer, but always deciding on the same entrée for our lunch menu…

Corn dogs.

Yes, corn dogs. An American classic with all the nutritional value one can pack into cured and processed meat. Dipped in batter. Deep friend. Frozen. Packaged. Transported. Microwaved. And heartily consumed, usually covered in mustard.

Yes, corndogs are usually individually wrapped with heating instructions on each package, but even as a youngster part of me secretly worried that Dad was still going to burn them.

I once heard a rumor that he burned soup. I don’t even know how that happens, or whether or not it’s true. But if anyone could burn soup, I think my Dad was the guy to figure out how.

When he would grill burgers or hot dogs or steaks on our back patio, you had two temperature options to choose from: “well done” and “I didn’t know steaks could char that much”.

As I grew up, Dad’s cooking skills didn’t get any better, which was mostly a result of his not needing to know how. I rarely saw him in the kitchen, unless it was to reheat something my Mom had made us. Thankfully, for our entire family, my Mom has always been an outstanding cook—and I mean truly outstanding. I was fortunate enough that my corn dog lunches were always supplemented with something delicious on the dinner table made by my Mom each night. From lasagna and casseroles to childhood staples like burgers and tacos, Mom always knew how to satisfy our tastes. I hate meatloaf, but even her meatloaf is good (when she leaves the ketchup off, that is). Her desserts, especially the chocolate strawberry pie that Dad and I would devour together within hours of Mom cooking it, were next-level extraordinary. My Dad always made sure to tell me how smart he was for choosing a wife who was such a tremendous cook. I argued it was more lucky than smart, but it was probably a bit of both.

All of this created a bit of a problem, however, on the nights when Mom wasn’t home. There was always the rare occasion that Mom had to work late, or had plans to go out to dinner with friends or family, leaving her boys stranded and empty-stomached. Dad’s lack of cooking acumen left us only one real option. There’s a void that’s created when you love to eat but can’t cook that can only be solved with one solution—going out to eat. It usually didn’t take us long to decide…

“Hey boy, want to go get dinner at LaRosa’s?”

For those of you who aren’t fortunate enough to live in the dining mecca that is Southwestern Ohio, LaRosa’s is a Greater Cincinnati pizza chain of epic proportion. LaRosa’s has always been one of my favorite pizza spots, and my Dad felt the same way. Whenever he and I would grab dinner together, LaRosa’s was nearly always our first choice. We would slam back Cokes (his regular, mine diet), order calzones or pizzas and a salad, and enjoy a meal with one another. It was a tradition that I loved, and one that is desperately missing in my life after Dad.

As much as he loved the pizza and calzones, and as many Cokes as he might have drank, I think Dad’s favorite part of the meal was always the salad. Ironic coming from the man who based my entire childhood noontime diet on battered hot dogs on a stick, but yes, the salad was always his favorite. He told me time and time again over our dinners that his favorite salad was the one from LaRosa’s. A bed of green lettuce, shredded mozzarella cheese, diced tomatoes, red onion rings, olives (one black, one green), croutons, and dressing (Dad went with French, I usually went with Ranch). It was always a great combo to go along with a hot pizza.

larosas-salad

The salad was great, but I particularly disliked two of the ingredients: the tomatoes, and the olives. For as long as I can remember, I’ve never liked raw tomatoes. I don’t eat them on burgers, tacos, nachos, and the thought of ever eating a slice of tomato completely on its own makes me nauseas as I type. The tomatoes at LaRosa’s were particularly pesky because they were always diced. I always asked them to leave off the tomatoes, but if they forgot it would take me a good twenty minutes to pick them all out of my salad.

After the tomatoes, I always directed my scorn at the olives. Whether black or green, I showed no discrimination in my hatred and utter contempt for olives. I’ve tried them from time to time, and each time I attempt to stomach one, I am overcome by how such a little morsel can pack such an overwhelmingly disgusting flavor.

My Dad liked tomatoes, but he absolutely loved olives. Not just at LaRosa’s, but anywhere. If we were at a party with a vegetable tray, Dad could decimate a bowl of olives in just a few minutes. He would pop them like Skittles while I looked on with utter disdain. He would eat them at the house as a snack, which is shocking considering we had so many better snacks than that in our house for him to eat. When we ate together at Grecian Delight, one of our all-time favorite restaurants located in Middletown, Dad would savor the Greek olives that were in his salad, even with those annoying pits.

For Dad, olives were a precious treasure. The fact that he got not one but two on his salads at LaRosa’s made him almost giddy.

And thanks to his son’s hatred of those tiny morsels, Dad actually got four olives every time we went to LaRosa’s instead of two.

Whenever we went to LaRosa’s together, I always ordered my salads without tomatoes; but because the olives were easy enough to pick out of my salad without contaminating its overall flavor, I would always allow the servers to put the olives on my salad. Once they sat the bowls down on the table, my process was always the same—I would pluck the olives from my salad, put them on a plate, and slide them over to my Dad. He would always smile, offer a “Thanks, Bub”, and eat them with glee. I could see him eyeing them the second they sat my bowl down, and I would never disappoint him.

But sometimes, the smallest of vegetables (or are they fruits?) can cause a tremendous amount of pain.

One evening shortly after Dad’s death, Mom and I decided to get LaRosa’s takeout for dinner. We ordered our dinners, and I drove to the restaurant to pick them up. After returning home with boxes in hand, we set the table with our meals in the bright, windowed sunroom of our family home. We had done this so many times before, but this particular time there was a noticeable and looming absent place setting at the table next to me. That table felt vacant and empty, but I was afraid to say anything to my Mom about how I was feeling for fear that I might upset her.

Mom and I sat down together, justifiably more quiet than we typically were, as this was one of our first meals alone together without Dad. We were trying to preserve any semblance of normalcy that we could in a new world for us that felt so different and so much emptier than it had been.

I sat down to eat my meal, opening boxes and taking off container lids. I moved from my calzone to my salad, and after opening the lid and shaking up my dressing, I did something I had done during so many meals before.

I picked out the olives, put them on a plate, and instinctively pushed them away from me towards the spot where my Dad always sat.

I didn’t even realize what I was doing in that moment. I was so used to removing the olives and giving them to Dad that my body had trained itself to do this involuntarily, even when he wasn’t there to take them.

Immediately, a flood of emotion overcame me—intense and uncontrollable. I felt a wave of tears overtaking me, and before I knew it, my head fell into my hands and it took everything in me to not collapse in my seat. I broke down at the table, sobbing, with two small olives sitting on a plate in front of me.

Without hesitation, Mom got up from her seat and made her way over to me. I didn’t even have to say a word. She knew right away what was going on. She knew that for years I had always passed my olives to Dad, and now I would never be able to do that again. Mom, crying along with her son, put her arm around me and just said “I know how much you miss him, Ty. I miss him, too.”

I couldn’t stop the crying, all because of two seemingly inconspicuous olives.

Although my response isn’t as intense, I still think of my Dad every time I pick those olives out of my salad. I don’t break down and cry each time, but I still think about him and long for the days when I could pass them over to him. Now, I try to order my salad without the olives to avoid some of the pain, but I still think of him each time I go to LaRosa’s. Because it was such a special place for the two of us, I just can’t envision a day where I’ll ever go to LaRosa’s without thinking of my Dad.

But olives aren’t the only foods that make me think of him—there are so many more. I can’t eat a corn dog without thinking of a simpler life that existed when I was much younger and my Dad was an invincible hero. Even a kid gets tired of eating corn dogs, but I wish I could go back and live in those days forever.

Whenever I make a bag of popcorn, I’m reminded of him. It was his late-night snack of choice, and the smell that invades my house from the microwave makes me remember him. I’ve never been a big fan of popcorn, but every now and then I will make a bag at home and eat a few kernels just to remember him.

We used to fight over pints of Graeter’s black raspberry chip ice cream in the freezer. On occasion, Mom would splurge and buy us each a pint, which would last any normal person a week or so if they ate an appropriate serving each night. It was a miracle if our pints survived for 24 hours. If I was feeling particularly pesky, I would stake my claim by digging my spoon into his pint before he could get to it. It was a solid attack because Dad was such a germophobe that he would never think about eating a pint of ice cream that I had defiled—even if it was Graeter’s.

Now, I get all the pints of ice cream to myself—but I would give anything to have to share them with him once again.

The death of a loved one creates a weird phenomenon where the most seemingly insignificant aspects of life and our relationship take on an entirely new meaning. Mundane things, like olives in a salad, become symbols and reminders of the love we’ve lost and the pain we experience. But for me, those olives have also become subtle reminders that I had an amazing Father who made a tremendous impact on me for the 26 years we spent on this earth together. Whether it’s olives or popcorn, corn dogs or ice cream, I’ve found ways to cherish the positive memories associated with those foods. And the progress I’ve made from tears to treasured memories is evidence that God works in all things—even if it’s something as seemingly regular as the food we eat. I’ve always associated food with great memories, and God knows me better than anyone. I’m amazed at how He has been able to comfort me when something as insignificant as an olive causes my emotions to overtake me. And I’m reminded of this profound truth: If He cares about me in a moment as mundane as a meal, then I have to believe He cares about the big challenges of life without my Dad just as much.

Dad and I always enjoyed our meals together, and now I have to enjoy them differently while remembering all of the great ones we shared together. There are nights when I eat alone, and I’ll often look across the table and see my Dad smiling there after a hard day’s work. I’ll see him pouring a Coke (or two) into his glass of ice. I’ll see him smiling and laughing about something I said. I’ll see him thoroughly enjoying the food he’s eating, but even more I’ll see him cherishing the people he’s eating with. I’ll look across that empty table, and every now and then I can picture him popping an olive into his mouth—and I smile. I’ve still never acquired his taste for olives, and I don’t think I ever will. But I have learned to be grateful for all of the wonderful meals we shared together, and I’ve accepted the fact that olive-induced tears are my way of saying how much I miss my Dad.

Dad, I’m grateful that you always made it a priority to share a meal together. A weeknight dinner at LaRosa’s just isn’t the same without you. Every time I go to Graeter’s for a dip of black raspberry chip, which is way more often than I should, I think of you. Certain foods make me miss you tremendously, and the heartache of losing you so unexpectedly is sometimes too much for me to take. But you taught me to enjoy good food and good company. You taught me to share a meal with the people I love whenever I had the chance, and your inspiration continues to guide my life each and every day. You taught me that life is never too busy for a pizza and a fun night together. I’m looking forward to the day when I can pass my olives across the table to you once again. Until then, seeya Bub.

“Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Revelation 3:20 (NIV)

A Joyful Noise

Some of my earliest memories of music are with my Dad. I used to ride around with him in his blue pick-up, strapped into my child seat. Bottle of juice in one hand, toy in the other, we would bounce along the road as his cassette tapes played through the rattling speakers.

My Dad and I were simpatico in the fact that we both had a deep, appreciating love for country music. I’m not sure when his started, but mine had been around since those early days. Amidst all the things that are memorable about my childhood, I remember that Dad had a mixtape with some late eighties country music on it, and we would ride down the road listening and singing whenever we got the chance. The tape had one of my favorite country songs of my youth on it—“The Church on Cumberland Road”, an old Shenandoah song that I still listen to on occasion to this day. Dad would sing and tap his hands on the steering wheel or beat his hand on the seat. He always took music and made it fun.

I spent a lot of time with my little cousin Jake when I was growing up, and when Dad would drive us around to go to softball games or get ice cream at Flub’s during the summer, the country music still played. Jake was a big fan of another country “classic”, a Tracy Byrd song called “Watermelon Crawl”. Dad would scan the radio dial back and forth until he found the song every time Jake was in the truck with us. Once he found it, Jake would try his best to sing along and we would both laugh as he jumbled the words.

I outgrew that car seat, cassette tapes went by the wayside, and Dad eventually traded that beat up blue pick-up in for a Gray Sierra and then a sleek Silverado, but one thing never changed. Dad always had music on in his truck. The artists he listened to might have changed a little bit over time. By the time I reached high school, Dad and I were listening to a lot of the same country artists: Jason Aldean, Montgomery Gentry, Joe Nichols, Travis Tritt, Shania Twain (you bet we did), and Brooks & Dunn. But his love for listening to music never changed.

And anytime he was working on a house project or fixing his truck in the garage, Dad always had a radio nearby. I was never much help on those household projects, but there was one simple thing that I could master. If a song would come on that my Dad really liked, he would look to me and say “Oh, this is a good one. Turn this one up.” Sometimes I agreed, and other times I didn’t, but I usually always went to turn up the volume knob for him. Or made a snide comment about a song that I didn’t like and criticized his taste.

Although we never had a chance to go to a concert together, Dad was a big fan of live music, too. Our family has always vacationed in Gulf Shores, Alabama, and one year Dad asked if I would take him to the Florabama—a local bar of with a legendary folklore that has been beaten by hurricanes too many times to count. Dad and I sat at one of the wooden tables covered in permanent marker messages of years gone by, and listened to the band that played Southern rock and oldies on that particular night. Dad sang along to the songs he knew, tapping his foot and bobbing his head like all middle-age Dads seem to do in the presence of a live band. It’s the type of move that embarrasses teenage sons worldwide.

Wherever we went, Dad always seemed to have music around him.

Listening to music and creating music, however, are two entirely different things. My Dad was not a musician, vocal or otherwise, in any sense of the word. Dad liked to sing in the truck, but I don’t know how many people truly enjoyed listening. He didn’t have a bad singing voice, but he didn’t have a good one either. He excelled at so many things in this life, but singing wasn’t one of them.

Among many genes, he has unfortunately passed this particular one along to his son. I’m praying that I inherited this gene in place of the “lose your hair at 30” gene, but I’m not holding my breath. I try to sing only when I know my voice will be drowned out because I’m embarrassed that I sound so off-key. I’m always in awe of those who have beautiful singing voices because mine is so unfortunately terrible. Like many other areas of my life, I’m easily embarrassed and overly concerned with what other people think of me—and my inability to carry a harmonious tune is at the top of that list.

Like me, I think Dad probably recognized that he didn’t have the best singing voice. I think that Dad knew what his talents were, and I’m sure he knew that singing wasn’t what God had called him to do as a profession or vocation.

But that never stopped my Dad from having a song in his heart, and one area where I’ll always remember this is in church. Knowing that he wasn’t called to sing, my Dad never signed up to sing a solo in front of the congregation, and he never joined the choir. I appreciated this for many reasons, one of which was that I always got to sit next to my Dad in the pew on Sunday mornings.

In the churches I grew up in, singing was always an important part of the worship service. As a congregation, we would all stand together and worship God together, singing hymns and songs together to show our love for our Heavenly Father.

Ever since I was a child, I’ve always been conscious of my less-than-harmonious voice, and I’ve always been embarrassed to sing in church. I don’t know why, but I’ve always felt extremely self-conscious during worship services. I wish I could blame this one on my Dad, too, but I can’t…

No matter how off-key he might have been, and no matter whether he knew the lyrics well or not, Dad always tried his hardest to sing in church. His singing voice in church was rather deep, and I can always remember hearing him sing next to me as I stood nervously next to him in the pew. Because his singing voice was so deep, it was almost like the pew would vibrate a bit when he sang. Occasionally, Dad would try and get me to sing along. But I would often shake my head no or ignore his request. But he never let that dissuade him from singing along in worship.

And now, sitting in a pew without him at church, I would give anything to hear his off-key singing again.


I have to confess, I hadn’t intended to write a post about singing; but God has this really weird way of putting a song in your heart (get it?) or a sermon in your podcast list. This week while driving to work, I was listening to Matt Chandler, pastor of The Village Church in Texas. Matt has become one of my favorite preachers to listen to since a good friend from the gym recommended him to me shortly after my Dad’s death.

For the past few months, Matt Chandler has been preaching a series on the book of Exodus[1]. In a recent sermon on the 15th chapter of Exodus, Chandler talked about singing and shared the following truth from Scripture that I never knew: There are over 400 verses in the Bible that refer to singing, and there are 50 explicit commands from God for his people to sing[2].

Even though God makes this a pretty black and white issue more than a handful of times throughout the Bible, this is one of those commands that I always try to gloss over or completely ignore. I try to play mental gymnastics and convince myself that God only wanted this command to apply to the people he blessed with a great singing voice, but the example my Dad gave me as a youngster has convinced me otherwise.

In his sermon, Matt Chandler refers to numerous verses, mostly in the Psalms, that clearly say “make a joyful noise”. Notice that God does not say “make a good noise” or “make a pleasant noise”, but instead instructs His followers to “make a joyful noise.” Chandler says “It’s not about you performing. It’s about you receiving. See, that’s the big confusion around corporate singing. No, no, no. We receive when we sing together as a body. We’re not performing…It’s not that God is in need; it’s that we’re in need.[3]

My Dad understood that singing in church wasn’t about whether or not he satisfied the standards of good vocal talent. My Dad knew and believed that singing in church was his way of saying “thank you” and “I love you” to the God of the universe. It was about connecting with God, similar to the way we do when we pray. It was about my Dad telling God that he was open to his guidance and direction for his life. In an imperfect voice, my Dad would cry out to our perfect Creator, asking for God to carry him in those areas of his life where he might have been weak.

I often think of what my Dad looks like on the other side of Eternity (full head of hair maybe?), but I have to confess that I’ve rarely thought about what he will sound like. I’ve rarely thought about the fact that my Dad now resides in a perfect Kingdom where he worships God each and every day. I’m thankful that he had a lot of practice here on Earth, and that he never let his musical inabilities inhibit his love for God.

I know that I should sing because God instructs me to, and I shouldn’t need any other motivation than that. But it doesn’t hurt that I had a real-life, personal example of the need to sing and honor and God. It’s been a painstaking process for me to come out of my shell and sing in the pew at church. There are some days when I do it without hesitation, and others where my embarrassment still gets the best of me.

And on those days, I remember my Dad. I remember that he never once told me, even as a child, not to sing, but instead encouraged me to do it. As a way to honor my Dad while also honoring God, I try and sing when I’m in church now. Even though I don’t always know the words, and even though the rhythm will sometimes get the best of me, I do my best to join in the chorus of the congregation, albeit quietly and still off-key.

And I apologize to the folks who sit near me and have to listen—you can blame it on my Dad.


When my Dad died, I was fortunate enough to inherit many of his things. Although the things can never replace the man, they do help me hold on to the memory of who he was here on this Earth and the impact he had on my life.

One of the things I was lucky enough to take possession of was my Dad’s book of CD’s. Yes, CD’s. The only iPod Dad ever owned was the hand-me-down iPod Mini that he got from me, and unfortunately he wasn’t with us long enough to use it substantially.

It wasn’t entirely full, but that CD book was something I always associate with my Dad. He kept it in the middle console of his truck at all times. Dad was the type of person (very unlike me) who would listen to an entire CD all the way through, and once it reached the end, he would start it again at the top. Then, after a few days of listening to that CD, he might switch to another. Or perhaps he would just continue to listen to the one that was currently in the player. My Dad enjoyed the simplicity of life, and listening to a CD was one of the simple pleasures he enjoyed.

Every now and then, especially on days where the thought of losing him is too much to bear, I’ll pull out that CD book and grab a disc to listen to. I’ll throw it in the CD player of my truck, and although he might not be there with my physically, there are times when I can see him riding in the passenger seat next to me. There are days when I can hear his voice again. There are moments when I swear I can feel the vibration of his thumb tapping the steering wheel. And on those days where it seems like he’s right there with me, I am thankful that for the 26 years I spent with him, my Dad always had a song in his heart and never shied to share that song with those he loved.

dad-in-redhawks-sweater-with-sb-logoDad, What I wouldn’t give to hear you sing another song right next to me. What I wouldn’t give to go back to those days where we would ride around in your truck and listen to country music together. I’m thankful that you always set the right example for me in church by singing along with the worship songs. I’m thankful that you always remembered that singing songs of praise and worship aren’t about us but are about developing a relationship with God. Certain songs come on the radio, and I still think of you. I’ll always be appreciative of the memories you gave me as a young child listening to country music in your truck. Thank you for being a Dad who always had a song of love in your heart. Until we both join the chorus of heavenly angels together, seeya Bub. 

Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his[a];
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations.

Psalm 100:1-5 (NIV)

References:

[1] http://www.thevillagechurch.net/resources/sermons/series/exodus/

[2] http://thevillagechurch.net/mediafiles/uploaded/e/0e5770908_1483456017_exodus-part-17-from-bitter-to-sweet-t.pdf

[3] http://thevillagechurch.net/mediafiles/uploaded/e/0e5770908_1483456017_exodus-part-17-from-bitter-to-sweet-t.pdf

23 Pushups

You wouldn’t know it from looking at me, but I actually go the gym four to five times a week. And I know what you’re thinking… “Man, you should really demand a refund.”

I joined the LA Fitness in my neighborhood many, many years ago with grandiose dreams. I was hoping to go from chubby to Channing Tatum in about six weeks. I could feel a six pack just lurking underneath the surface of the five or six Frisch’s Big Boys I ate every week. I planned to put in a few hours at the treadmill each week, a little bit of time throwing some weights around and grunting, and before you’d know it I would have to buy all new shirts because my biceps would tear holes in the old ones.

In what is an inexplicable physical anomaly, I can guarantee you that my muscles haven’t even come close to warranting a new wardrobe. Oftentimes, I find myself embarrassingly being outlifted by nearly everyone in the gym, including one hilariously painful endeavor where I dislocated a rib doing dumbbell flys with…well, not much weight. I’ve blacked out on treadmills, slipped from pull up bars, skipped nearly every leg day, and taken it upon myself to provide a nightly comedic act for the other patrons of LA Fitness.

But since Dad died, I don’t go to the gym for the same reasons I used to. Don’t get me wrong—if God wants to bless me with a Herculean physique, I’ll be grateful and gladly accepting of this gift. But if that doesn’t happen (and let me assure you, it really will take a miracle of God), I’ll still keep at it because there’s more at stake than muscle.


After Dad died, I knew that I would need to take some time off from work and my usual routine to get some clarity on the entire situation. I ended up being away from work for about four weeks, which was a blessing that I’ll always be thankful for. My supervisors at Miami made it possible for me to take all the time I needed to recollect and regroup before I got back into my new normal, and I did my best to heed the advice of so many others I had talked to about grief when they told me “Don’t try and rush things.”

The unintended consequence of all this time off, however, was that it gave me more time to sit and think about everything that had happened. As people started to return to the routine of their own lives, I began to have more and more time to myself. And for someone who can easily get lost in the drama and intensity of my own thoughts, this wasn’t always a good thing.

So, by week two I knew that I was going to have to start filling my time with things that were more productive and would occupy both my schedule and my mind. Summer was nearing its end, which gave me plenty of options. I could attend baseball games, or go to the movies, or visit the park and spend some time outdoors.

“Or,” I thought one morning, “I could start going to the gym again.”

Because things had been so busy earlier that summer, the gym had become more of an inconvenience than an opportunity for stress release. Every night, I found myself coming home and reading and working on assignments, so the gym just wasn’t an option on a regular basis.

So to try and get my mind off of all the trauma it had experienced, I promised myself I would go to the gym every day I could. I would show up for a few hours each day and do my best to get active. Instead of obsessing over the tragedy that had occurred, I would go there and challenge my mind instead.

I’m not going to tell you anything new that you haven’t heard from the fitness addicts in your own life, but it’s another voice to add to the chorus: When I went to the gym, I felt better. It was hard to explain because I didn’t know how to feel better having just lost my Dad so suddenly and unexpectedly, but my body and my mind felt better during those hours at the gym than trapping myself in the solitude and emptiness of my house.


A few months later, I would get some clarity on why I felt so much better. I had the privilege of joining my mentor and friend, Dr. Bob Rusbosin, and a few Miami undergraduates for a research presentation at a conference at Florida State University. The conference was on college student values and the concept of wellness, and we submitted a presentation on the research we had been doing on television icon Fred Rogers. As I perused the conference booklet, I noticed an interesting keynote that would take place later in the week. A psychiatrist and M.D. from Harvard, Dr. John Ratey, would be speaking about wellness and health from a medical doctor’s standpoint.

Dr. Ratey is the author of a book called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science Exercise and the Brain (visit the “Library” section of this page for a description and link). At about 9am midway through the conference week, Dr. Ratey engaged in a heavily scientific explanation using phrases related to brain anatomy, neurotransmitters, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, and a million other scientific terms and processes that were completely foreign for this particular audience member.

And I was completely and utterly fascinated.

Dr. Ratey says it much more intelligently than I ever could, but the premise of his argument is this: physical exercise benefits the brain just as much as it does the rest of the body.

And for my particular life situation, Dr. Ratey gave an explanation that really hit home—that physical fitness could lead to the prevention of mental illness like depression, thereby also diminishing the likelihood of suicide.

The introduction to Dr. Ratey’s book says it all. It’s a quote from Plato that reads “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.”

Let me give you the best explanation I can of the research Dr. Ratey has done (please keep your author in mind, as there have been episodes of Bill Nye the Science Guy that have tripped me up before). And forgive me for the technical description, but please understand–this disease killed my Father. I want to know everything I can about it so I can prevent it from happening to anyone else.

Brain signals are sent via neurotransmitters, or chemicals that send messages from one brain cell to another. Psychiatry has identified three primary brain transmitters that regulate everything the brain does: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. When the levels of these neurotransmitters are unbalanced, mental illnesses can occur. Most medications target one or two of these neurotransmitters, but exercise has a different effect. Exercise and physical activity actually have the capacity to elevate and regulate all three of these neurotransmitters simultaneously.  Exercise also increases the presence of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (or BDNF), a crucial protein that can help our brains maintain and create healthy neurons. Dr. Ratey calls BDNF “Miracle-Gro for the brain” (I’ll reiterate, he explains this all much better than I ever could, and I would really encourage you to grab his book).

Here’s what all this talk of neurotransmitters and brain chemicals equates to:

  • Exercise helps our cognitive functioning and ability to learn
  • Exercise can help us relieve stress
  • Exercise can be an effective in the prevention or treatment of mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and attention deficit (or can help in conjunction with other treatments)
  • Exercise can change the way our brains react to addiction
  • Exercise can help fight off brain-related aging diseases, like Alzheimer’s

Even though there were many factors at work in my Dad’s death, and even though he still had many more years to live, I constantly remind myself that my Dad fought successfully against this demon for decades of his life. I can’t help but think that the extremely complex concepts Dr. Ratey so beautifully articulated were playing out behind the scenes of my Dad’s own brain chemistry, helping him fight off his own periods of darkness for many, many years.


Although he didn’t do a very good job of passing the athletic genes on to his only son, my Dad was often the epitome of an active lifestyle.

My Dad was always an extremely energetic and “on the move” type guy. He was the Father who never got burdened by his son asking if they could go outside and play together—because he was usually the one doing the asking.

“Hey boy, you want to go for a bike ride?” was his common refrain after our family dinners. My Dad loved riding his bike. My family was fortunate enough to live close to a beautiful local park, and my Dad loved riding his bike back through the woods and the trails on a warm summer night. Much more adventurous than me, Dad would fly through the trails on his 21-speed mountain bike, never allowing fear to outweigh his desire to have fun.

Summer nights after dinner were always full of some kind of physical activity, even on days where I knew Dad was tired from a long day at work. Tossing a baseball, swimming in our backyard pool, or taking our family dog for a walk—Dad always found a way to get up off the couch and get moving. But more important than the movement was the smile on his face the entire time.

And Dad, a man who loved people, usually found a way to stay moving in the company of others. For as long as I could remember, my Dad had always played weekly pick-up basketball games with the guys from our church. He loved the competition, and he definitely loved showing the younger players a thing or two as he’d easily outsmart them as he cut to the rim for bucket after bucket.

A true renaissance athlete, Dad was also a tremendous softball player—in fact, the best season I ever saw him play was cut short by his own untimely death. He never hit for power. Actually, in all the years he played softball (over 30), he never hit a single home run (the critical sports announcer in me always reminded him of this weakness). But he was fast, and that gave him an advantage at any church softball league where most of the players had partaken in far too many Sunday potlucks. He could cover ground in the outfield better than anyone. He could turn a lazy single into a double, and usually a triple if the fielder had a poor arm. He would play any position he could, and could usually do it with ease. I was always in awe of his contributions to the team and the seamless ease with which he performed.

Unlike me, my Dad’s mind seemed to clear when he was playing a sport. If you aren’t familiar with my lack of athletic prowess, read….well, pretty much any other post I’ve ever written. Everything just seemed to click when my Dad was active—life was in harmony, completely balanced. He found happiness in the activity, and joy in the camaraderie.

When Dad was happiest, he never wanted to sit still. I was just never sure whether the happiness caused the activity, or the activity caused the happiness. And because I now know how happiness and being active were so intricately intertwined in my Dad’s life, I’ll try and do the same.


Every day, I do at least 23 pushups. I do them with strained effort, and probably incorrect form, but I make sure I do those 23 pushups. The 23 reps are not a random number—there’s a method to my madness.

At one time in this country, it was reported that 22 veterans of the United States Military (particularly the most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq) were victims of suicide. This led to the creation of great military support organizations, like Mission 22[1], which provide resources and support for veterans struggling with mental illness. Recent numbers have shown the number is probably closer to 20[2], but even if the number was 1, it would be entirely too high.

I added that last pushup in for my Dad. No, my Dad was not a veteran, but mental illness is the enemy we all fight against, service member or not. Military family or not, anyone who loses a family member or loved one to suicide suffers a similar heartache when those we love leave us earlier than they should. When I do those 23 pushups, I’m simultaneously honoring the people that suicide touches and making sure that it never ever impacts my life in the same way it has theirs.

I’m very aware of my need to go to the gym, because I know that every time I step foot on a treadmill or lift a weight, I’m fighting back against the same depression and anxiety that took my Dad away from me. People say that depression and mental illness are so difficult to fight against because they are invisible—and I agree with this claim. But the things we can do to fight against these unseen enemies are often very visible, and very tangible. Staying active is just one of the many tools I’ll use to fight back against the darkness.

I’ve also found that going to the gym allows me to work through my grief. I’ve made great friends at the gym, Godly men who have listened to my pain and helped me work through it. There have been days where instead of lifting, we’ve stood near a machine together and talked about our lives and how God loves us in spite of our circumstances. I have been able to share things with my friends at the gym and connect with them on a brotherly level that I never would have been able to articulate in any other environment. In the same way that a therapy session clears my brain, I’ve found the same peace and sense of calm after spending a few hours at the gym with my friends.

There are plenty of days where I just don’t feel like going to the gym—and my body is probably a reflection of giving in to that impulse for far too long. But the fact that I don’t feel like going to the gym is exactly why I need to go. As Dr. Ratey has found, every time I choose activity over laziness, I’m boosting my brain’s capability to fire on all cylinders. I’m re-wiring my brain to choose action of victim-hood, bravery over surrender.

Don’t confuse what I’m saying—if you are suffering from mental illness or suicidal thoughts, a 15 minute sprint on a treadmill alone might not save your life. You should still seek treatment on all fronts, including medical or psychiatric care. You should still seek professional help. You should still talk to someone who can help you in your fight. But physical activity is one “tool in the toolbox” that can help in that fight, and combined with other forms of treatment, it can be a very powerful remedy.

Whether grieving from a loss or trying to prevent your own mental illness, exercise and physical activity can play an unbelievable role in the road to recovery. No matter how pathetic my physique might appear, I’ll always be a staunch advocate that those dealing with mental illness or those fighting through grief should try and find relief by getting up and getting going.

And if all that activity and brain boosting just happens to lead to six pack abs along the way…even better.

dad-mom-and-lucy-walking-with-sb-logoDad, I always admired your energy and vitality. You attacked life and took on new challenges, and you were never that Dad who loved the couch more than he loved spending time with his family. In your life, you always seemed to be able to find a good balance between rest and being active, but when you were active, you always made the most of it and there was always a huge smile on your face. Whether it was riding bikes, walking the dog, playing softball, schooling a bunch of youngsters in basketball, or simply goofing around in the backyard swimming pool, you realized that life was designed to be lived. Even though I didn’t always listen (and boy do I wish I would have), you always encouraged me to get up and get going. You always encouraged me to believe there was life outside of a TV set or computer screen, and since you left I’ve tried to live this out. I’m looking forward to many bike rides together on the other side of Eternity. And if you could talk to the Big Guy upstairs and have him send me a little more muscle mass, I’d be appreciative. Until then, seeya Bub.

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” Romans 12:1 (NIV)

References:

[1] Mission 22 Website: http://www.mission22.com/#ourcause

[2] http://www.militarytimes.com/story/veterans/2016/07/07/va-suicide-20-daily-research/86788332/

The Walk: Guest Blog by Jeffrey Yetter

Ty: “Huh. They really do have couches.”

When I entered a therapist’s office for the first time, I’m ashamed to admit the curiosity of “Do they really have couches?” had overwhelmed me in the days leading up to the visit. Under the surface, however, my preoccupation with couches was simply masking my complete and utter terror at the fact that I was going to visit a therapist in the first place.

Here’s what you don’t know: that first therapist’s visit came nearly two years before my Dad died. And I’m not, in the least, ashamed to admit it. In fact, I’m ashamed that I didn’t go sooner.

For a whole host of reasons, I was dealing with severe anxiety. A completely bizarre illness a few years back had scared and scarred me so tremendously that my mind had been consumed with a completely irrational thought—something that the doctors couldn’t explain was going to kill me.

For nearly 9 months, I slept about 3 hours a night, usually always interrupted. I lost weight because I couldn’t convince myself to eat. I would obsess over WebMD posts and online discussion boards in an attempt to diagnose myself with something that the doctors couldn’t (let’s save the “Don’t go on WebMD if you’re anxious” discussion for another post). I was distracted at work, I was distracted at church, and I felt so sad around my family because I thought I was leaving them soon that I disconnected and spent endless hours in solitude.

Until finally, I broke down. In a moment of weakness, I confessed all the anxiety to my Mom and Dad, and scheduled a doctor’s appointment for the next week. My doctor, in an effort to rid me of the dark thoughts in my mind, agreed to run every test imaginable to show me that I was perfectly healthy, which she did. She walked through the original diagnosis from the previous hospital stay, and confirmed the results of what the doctors had eventually settled on. And then, she gave me a different type of prescription.

“I think it would be a good idea for you to go visit a therapist. I have someone in mind.”

Enter Jeff Yetter—a man who God knew I would need in that moment and the many moments to come. At the time, I don’t think I quite understood why God was leading me to go see a therapist, and I definitely didn’t understand why He was putting me through this unnecessary storm.

Now, I have perspective, and just like my Bible has promised, God works everything together for a purpose. That period of anxiety led me to go see Jeff, and I’m convinced that God allowed me to experience that so that I would have Jeff in my life when Dad’s death would strike a while later. Even in the midst of the storm, God is always in control, and having Jeff in my life convinced me of that more than anything.

When I started this blog, I knew that I wanted Jeff to be the first guest post. Yes, because of his knowledge of mental illness. Yes, because of his personal experience with my story. Yes, because he is a clinician that can provide help to so many people who need it. But most importantly, I wanted Jeff to write because he is a man who cares. He is a man who counters every negative stereotype that might exist about the counseling profession. If all the people who hesitate to go to therapy could just meet Jeff, I’m convinced they would change their minds—and Jeff would help heal theirs. Hearing Jeff talk about my own experience gives me so much clarity, and his writing will provide comfort to so many people who are hurting or lost.


Jeff: Before I begin, I want to offer a “qualifier” to my effort here. This is my first ever blog entry. I’ve written professionally before, but never in such a precious capacity. When Tyler asked me to be a “guest blogger” in this space, speaking on such a personal and powerful topic, to say I was honored would be a tremendous understatement. I am honored and blessed to participate in this amazing undertaking, authored by a loving son who so tragically lost his amazing father. So, bear with me, as this is my first foray into the blogging world, and I want to do both Tyler and his father proud with my effort.

That First Visit…
When I noticed that Tyler Bradshaw was on the schedule to see me on August 1, 2013, I thought to myself, “Cool, Tyler is coming in. It’ll be really good to see him. It’s been awhile”. Yep, I’m a clinician, and I actually like my patients. Love them, really.

You see, I’d seen Tyler in the past for a handful of visits for some stuff he was going through at that time, and we had a good rapport, he seemed to like the therapeutic techniques I use, and we shared a love of baseball, so I was genuinely looking forward to “catching up” with him.

So, at 11:45am, I greeted Tyler in the Waiting Room, and escorted him down to my lower level office. As we greeted in my office, and before he sat down on my sofa, I could see that something was “different”. See, Tyler is a very warm and friendly young man. Not “phony” friendly or “overly-gregarious” to where you would doubt his sincerity, but genuinely friendly. Kind. Loving. The type of person with whom you immediately feel at-ease. Always quick with a kind smile and a genuine, “How are you doing?” But this day was different. The usual smile and friendly greeting were replaced with vacant eyes, desperately trying to hold back tears, and looking “distant” and “lost”. I said, in a voice that did not conceal my concern, something to the effect of, “Welcome back, brother. What’s going on?” And that’s when Tyler, this amazing, smart, kind, genuine, loving, and eloquent young man, began to disclose to me the details of his father taking his own life, just one week before this visit.

Disbelief
Tyler’s Dad?? What??? I found myself, a clinician of 20+ years at the time, trying to make sense of this, asking myself if I’d heard him accurately. But I could see everything in Tyler’s face. His friend, his mentor, his hero, his comedian, his confidant…his Dad, was gone, and in the most tragic and traumatic way imaginable. I know there’s a brief “Bio” of my academic and professional history below, but I can tell you as a clinician and as a human being that nothing, NOTHING, prepares you for what was being discussed in my office that day. And, I can tell you that, in an instant, my entire heart, mind, and spirit went out to Tyler and his family and everyone affected by this tragedy. And in that very moment, Tyler and I began what he and I have referred to as “our walk” through this heart-wrenching journey. A day at a time. A session at a time. Through tears, and pain. Through occasional smiles and a bit of laughter. All of it. This was to be “our walk”, and I am a better person for having accompanied Tyler thus far on this journey.

The Walk
In this first guest blog, I wanted to give an account as to how Tyler and I began “our walk”, through this incredibly tragic and painful event in his young life. But as a clinician, I would also like to speak to the importance and necessity of reaching out for help.

Tyler has asked that I “guest blog” in the future, and as was the case in this instance, I am honored to do so. In future offerings, I will directly speak to “walking” through and seeking help during times when it does not seem possible to crawl, much less walk. But for now, I will say this: we are all hurting in some way or another. Our pain is “ours”. It is unique to us in that we are “experiencing” it. It is “ours”. We feel it ourselves, we behave relative to it, ourselves.

But we are not alone. We are never alone. There is someone who cares. Someone who will talk. Someone who will listen. Someone who will validate. Someone who will hug. Someone who will simply “be” with us. Family, friends, clergy, professionals—someone. You are never alone. Please do not hesitate to contact a local agency or office, if you are hurting. Talk to a friend. Someone. You are not alone. You matter, and you are worthy. And you are worthy because you matter.

Until we speak again,
Jeff

“I will never leave you or forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)


Ty: Jeff’s therapeutic approach helped me because he didn’t offer to snap his fingers and instantly make things better. He didn’t give me a list of five things I needed to do to make life better. He recognized the hurt, he validated it, and acknowledged that the pain was real.

But he did offer a remedy. Not a quick fix, not a magic wand, but something better. He just offered to be there. He offered to listen and give me honest feedback. He offered to pick me up when I got low and carry me through, “arm in arm” as he’s said so many times during our visits.

There is a stigma in our country, particularly among males, that this type of “arm in arm” walk somehow reveals weakness. More than anything, I want this post and Jeff’s future writing to reveal an important truth: Seeking help when you need it is one of the most courageous and brave things you’ll ever do.

I don’t fault my Dad for his death, but he was a victim of this societal mentality. My Dad, the man who deserved this type of loving treatment most, could never bring himself to seek it out. Ironically, our family doctor had recommended that my Dad go visit Jeff—the same therapist who is helping me in the aftermath of Dad’s death. I’m confident that Jeff and my Dad would have been great buddies, and wish they could have had the opportunity to meet. For both of their sake.

I author this blog for many reasons, one of which is to reach out to people who are suffering from mental illness to let them know that getting help from someone who deals with these issues specifically is of paramount importance. Reaching out to a counselor, like Jeff, in your area could be the difference between a lifetime of darkness and finding the light. Yes, my Dad’s story here on Earth didn’t end the way we wanted it to—but yours can have a different ending. Your loved ones can be different. In future posts, Jeff will do so many things to help us all have a better understanding of mental illness, grief, God’s love, and so many other things. But in this first post, let’s all agree that when we need help, no matter the public perception, we will ask for it.

And in case you needed more convincing…the couches are super comfortable.

dad-and-lucy-poolside-with-sb-logoDad, I would never fault you for the sickness you experienced, but I sure wish we could have gotten you the right treatment you needed. You had so much to live for and experience, and I know that Jeff could have helped you fight off the demons and doubts you were facing. I’m still learning from you even after you’re gone, and because I love you I promise that I will always get help when I need it. I’ll never let my emotions overwhelm the plan God has for my life, and I’ll always encourage other people to get help when they need it. If nothing else, you would have loved talking baseball with Jeff. I’d give anything to see the two of you meet—and someday you will. But for now, seeya Bub.

“So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” Galatians 4:7 (NIV)

jeff-yetter-headshotJeffrey Yetter, M.Ed., LPCC
Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor

Jeff Yetter has practiced in the field of counseling and psychotherapy for the past 24 years. He has worked in both the public and private sector, and is currently in Private Practice in Middletown, Ohio. Jeff has also been an Adjunct Professor in the Graduate School of Counseling at Xavier University. Academically, Jeff completed his undergraduate study at the  College of Mount Saint Joseph (now, MSJ University) in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he graduated Magna Cum Laude. He completed his Master’s Degree in Agency and Community Counseling at Xavier University. He completed his Post-Master’s Endorsement in Clinical Counseling at Xavier University as well.

The Time Line

On page 673 of my Bible, there is a line drawn at the end of the 68th Psalm. To the side of that line, there’s a note written and outlined in a box: “7/30/13: This is where I resume my reading of Psalms after my Father’s suicide and death. I miss you Dad.”

The line that’s there in my Bible is an important one. I had been in the process of reading through the entire Bible from start to finish when Dad passed away. I had started by reading through the New Testament first, and I was in the middle of working my way through the Psalms a few chapters at a night. When I closed my Bible on July 23, 2013, I had no idea that the trials and storms I had read about over so many chapters were getting ready to become very real for me and my family.

Over the years, I had written many notes in my Bible. Since college, I had always been an avid “underliner” in the books I read, constantly writing notes in the margins, boxing in concepts that stuck out to me, and marking up each and every book I could get my hands on (to any frequent readers who find red pen marks in their library books…please don’t report me). Grab any book on my bookshelf, and you’ll usually be able to tell if I’ve read it or not by red pen markings or the lack thereof. My Bible, of course, is the most marked-up book that I own because its marked my life more than anything else. I mostly use pencil or a soft highlighter because of the tissue-paper-thickness of the pages, but even in graphite my handiwork is pretty evident.

But no marking is more important than that line on page 673. It’s a line in the most important book I’ll ever own, but it’s so much more than that. It’s the most important line I’ve ever drawn, and it’s one I had never expected to draw in the first place.

When Dad died, the way I described time became very, very different. Suddenly, every time I told a story, the time descriptor I used resembled the language I had heard in so many history lectures. I found myself saying “Before Dad died…” or “After Dad died…” every time I told a story.

At no other point in my life had I ever used a single event or circumstance to define when I had done something. Yes, there was the occasional “In fourth grade…” or “When I was a kid…”, or “That one time I got rejected by a girl in high school…” (which was used more frequently than the rest), but those descriptors usually changed based on the story. Now, no matter the content, I was using “B.D. and A.D.” time to preface every story (Before Dad died, and After Dad). It’s a feeling that I think anyone who loses a loved one begins to experience, and it’s much more than a simple line. Understanding the significance of that line can help to understand the magnitude of grief that permeates a survivor of suicide or any traumatic experience.

I remember drawing that line. It felt like a momentous, life-defining exercise. It had only been a few days after my Dad’s death, and just a day after his funeral when I felt the urge to retreat to my office, close the door, and pick up where I had left off. I partly wanted to escape and just be by myself for a while, because for the past week it felt as if I hadn’t been able to spend a moment’s time to myself. I knew that my thoughts were building up, but I hadn’t even had time to process them just yet. Mostly, I wanted to try and recapture some of the normalcy of my life, because things had been anything but normal for the past six days. Sitting at my desk and reading my Bible had become the most regular activity of my life over the past year or so. It seemed only natural to sit down and resume the work, but there was also an immense guilt that swept over me. My life’s history was transitioning periods from B.D. to A.D., and there was a mourning in my soul that told me if I refused to draw the line, maybe things would go back to normal. It’s irrational, but it’s natural.

When I drew that line, there was a sense of finality that swept across my mind. One chapter, an extremely significant chapter in my life had closed shut rather abruptly. And the conclusion of that chapter would affect all the ones that came after it. That realization weighed heavily on my shoulders.

But I drew it anyway. With tears in my eyes, I slowly and weakly drew a single solid line across the page, deliberately and slowly recognizing the magnitude of the moment. But the fact that I drew a line at all helped me comprehend one very, very important truth.

There is life after the line.

It sounds insensitive to even write those words. Even now, three years and more removed from Dad’s death, I feel guilty when I write that. But I can’t deny truth, and I refuse to let evil thoughts and the storms of this life hinder the joy that can still exist all around me. Yes, life isn’t the same after Dad died; but there is still life. And for all the dark moments it’s been filled with since he’s gone, there have also been beautiful moments that celebrate everything that my Dad loved.

When Dad died, there were moments, heart-wrenching moments, where it felt like life couldn’t go on, even when you know deep down that it will. Convincing yourself that life will go on in spite of the tragedy is the difficult part, but it does.

Life after the line isn’t easy. As a matter of fact, there are days where it feels impossible.

But guess what? Just like life before the line wasn’t always wonderful, life after the line isn’t always horrible. Don’t get me wrong—I would give anything to completely erase that line from my Bible and my memory and have my Dad back with me again. Life was just better when he was in it, and life will never be the same without him. But even though it’s not the same as it once was, there are moments in life where I see glimpses and snapshots of the joy I once experienced when Dad was alive. Since Dad has died, I’ve met wonderful friends and had tremendously fun moments with them. I’ve reconciled friendships from the past that have made life more enjoyable. There are times when life feels normal again, even though its dramatically broken, and instead of feeling guilty about those moments, I’m slowly learning to accept them. Day by day, I’m learning to live life after the line. I’m learning that it’s okay to hurt, but that it’s also okay to live. If I needed to learn anything from my Dad’s death, it’s that truth.


I don’t think it’s any coincidence that God put me where He did within my Bible-reading journey, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that that line is drawn where it is. God knew that I would need the words that would follow in the 69th Psalm to guide me through my life beyond the line, and those words continue to speak to me when I think about my Dad’s death. The first section of that Psalm, the words I read through tearstained eyes on the evening of July 30, 2013, will be with me forever:

Save me, O God!

The water is already up to my neck!

I am sinking in deep mud.

There is nothing to stand on.

I am in deep water:

A flood is sweeping me away.

I am exhausted from crying for help.

My throat is hoarse.

My eyes are strained from looking for my God.

(Psalm 69:1-3)


May my prayer come to you at an acceptable time, O Lord.

O God, out of the greatness of your mercy,

Answer me with the truth of your salvation.

Rescue me from the mud.

Do not let me sink into it.

I want to be rescued from those who hate me

And from the deep water.

Do not let floodwaters sweep me away.

Do not let the ocean swallow me up,

Or the pit to close its mouth over me.

Answer me, O Lord, because your mercy is good.

Out of your unlimited compassion, turn to me.

I am in trouble, so do not hide your face from me.

Answer me quickly!

Come close, and defend my soul.

Set me free because of my enemies.

(Psalm 69:13-18)

When those words were written, God answered David. And when those words are read thousands of years later, God answers me. He responded to my cries on that July night a few years ago, and he continues to respond as I navigate life on the other side of the line.

The dawning of another year always causes me to think about my Dad and the loss we all feel not having him around. I still quantify life by his passing, and I have no doubt that on New Year’s Eve this year, I’ll consciously start the counting in my head. 2017 will mark the fourth year of “A.D.” life for me. It’s a difficult chapter of life to embrace. But I’ll remind myself that life after the line isn’t always bad. I’ll be thankful for life in general—before or after the line. I’ll be grateful for the opportunity to have had a wonderful Dad for 26 years of life on this Earth, and I’ll rest easy in the fact that I’ll have a Father for all eternity that can lead me through this into a greater relationship with Him.

The line will always be there, but the Scriptures that surround it will never be outdone.

bible-page-with-sb-logoDad, I’d do anything to go back to that awful day in July 2013 and never have to draw a line in my Bible. But the fact that I’m even drawing that line means you made a tremendous impact on me and my life. You always approached your work with the utmost sincerity and dedication, but there was no job more important to you than being my Dad and the leader of our family. I’ll always be appreciative of that. I’m sad when I see the line, but I smile when I remember the man whose memory deserved it. I promise that my life after the line will honor you and make you proud. I promise that you will not have died in vain—that people will live their lives differently when they hear about you. Keep watching over me. Seeya, bub.

“Come close and defend my soul.” Psalm 69:18 (GW)

Merry Christmas from SeeyaBub.com!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For it only in my heart exists

For time has helped me understand

The things I can’t hold in my hand.

 

For those that came before my turn

Oh, from whom I’ve gathered lessons learned

That light the path that lies ahead

I see them as I bow my head.

 

Yes I’m thankful for the Lord above

The gift of His unending love

The promise kept that there is something more

These are the things I’m thankful for.

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

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

Shopping for Dad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Christmas Quilt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

img_0061

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The Gift Tags

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Playing Catch

I love the sound of a baseball hitting a glove on a good throw. Not the kind of throws I usually make, but the throws my Dad made. POP. POP. POP. POP. Back and forth, on and on and on. Well, our throwing sessions were more like “Pop” (his throw), “Thud” (my throw). Pop, Thud. Pop, Thud. Pop, Thud.

On and on and on this went, most nights of the week after dinner. Although I wasn’t a great athlete, I could manage to throw a baseball back and forth from a stationary position. And I loved everything about it.

I should probably spend some time expanding on this whole “not a very good athlete” moniker. In reality, I was a terrible athlete. No matter how hard I tried, and no matter how much I may have loved sports, God chose not to bless me with athletic ability or the perseverance to train hard enough. And when I say terrible, I mean terrible…across the board. It wasn’t just baseball, which I promptly retired from once they started throwing the ball at you instead of putting it on a tee. It was basketball, which I played for 3 years and never scored a bucket. It was soccer, which I was moderately functional at if they allowed me to be a keeper. On the hardwood, the basepaths, or the field, one thing was always consistent…I would give it a shot, and it wouldn’t go well.

Which is surprising that my parents were willing to suffer through the humiliation of watching their athletically inept son suffer so many setbacks, often times with our family name stitched on the back of my jersey. My parents even went so far as to support me publicly. You know those buttons you can order from the team photographer that have your headshot on them? I almost expected to show up at games and see my parents wearing buttons of other kids on the team. That’s how bad I was. But they never did. Even in front of people, they wanted folks to know that I was their son, and no matter how bad I was, I would always be their son, and they would always be my parents, and I would always be loved.

And I knew I was loved by the fact that no matter how errant my throws, my Dad still made it a point on most nights to ask me if I wanted to go play catch, long into my twenties, even after he had worked a long day in exhausting heat. My Dad worked as a maintenance technician in a steel plant (which he loved), and on some nights, even though I knew he would have preferred a quick nap after dinner instead, he would ask if I wanted to toss, go grab his glove, and meet me out in the sideyard.

On the topic of that sideyard…it wasn’t technically our sideyard. It was our frontyard, which bled into the sideyard of our neighbors. If you threw property lines out the window, it was a perfect place to toss. The houses were out of range from any of my misguided throws. They were also out of reach from any of my Dad’s perfect throws that would miss my glove because of my previously detailed athletic struggles. The grass was always well kept by both homeowners, and of the utmost importance, our neighbors willingly allowed us to take over their yard, if only for a few minutes each night, so our games of catch could continue.

I loved those nights. Those perfect summer nights, sweat dripping down our brows, the pop-pop-pop echoing down our lazy suburban street. But as much as I enjoyed hearing that perfect pop in my glove, I actually lived for the moments in between the pops. The conversation between a father and son, each one living a different life but connected in a way that only a father and son could quite understand. We would talk about anything. And everything. When I was in high school, we would talk about my classmates, the funny things that happened after school, and my ongoing struggles with girls. When I moved on to college we laughed about crazy things happening within our family, my academic endeavors at Miami University, my ridiculously busy schedule, and my ever-present struggles with girls. And when I graduated from Miami and started my career, we would talk about the difficulties I faced transitioning from a student into a professional, my desire to go on to graduate school, things I needed advice on like money and cars, and my ever-present struggles with girls. The conversation changed over the years, but one thing never did—and I’m not talking about the struggles with girls. I’m talking about our love for one another and interest in each other’s lives.

You might think that growing into adulthood would slowly strangle a boy’s desire to play catch with his Dad; but if anything, as life becomes more complex and the world becomes more suffocating, what a boy longs for most is to return to a time when all you had to do was play catch. All you had to do was keep your eye on the ball, let your glove bring it to a stop, make a solid throw back, and position yourself to do it all over again. When you’re a kid, you think that those games of catch will never end. When you’re an adult and you realize that each time you play catch is one moment closer to your last, you panic. And you do anything you can, anything you have to, to grab onto those moments and never let them go. If your arm is tired, you grimace and keep throwing. If it’s growing dark, you squint and hope you can still see the ball. You hope and pray for a stronger arm and a sun that never sets, so those games of catch never have to stop.

Which explains why I did something unthinkable, something unreasonable, and something that seemed entirely foolish. I lived with my parents for a few years after college, because working in education isn’t as lucrative as…well, most anything else. But I had saved, and I knew I wanted to buy a home.

I looked at a number of different spots, and even made a few offers on different homes, and just when I thought I might cool my jets on the home search, an interesting home came on the market. The house right next door—yes, the house with the sideyard that my feet knew all too well—was up for sale.

Well, it actually wasn’t up for sale to just anyone. Those same neighbors who had graciously allowed our games of catch to continue hadn’t put the house on the market just yet. But they knew I was looking, so they had my Dad relay a message. He came home one night after a bike ride he had taken (too often by himself), and said, “I know you probably don’t want to live next to your Old Man, but the neighbors wanted me to let you know that if you’re still looking for a house that they’d be interested in selling theirs to you.”

I went over that very evening to talk with our neighbors about buying the house next to my parents. They took me through the small brick ranch, walking me through each of the rooms and all of the great amenities the house offered. I knew that I would have a lot of painting ahead of me, and the yard had grown completely out of control, but no feature inside the house could dare stack up to the property itself. Once and for all, I could own that sideyard. I could call my Dad any time I wanted. He would walk out into his yard, and I would walk out into mine. And we would just toss. And the world would be right.

So I made an offer. Probably not a fair offer considering the market value of the house, but the only offer I could make. An offer made by a young man just a few years out of college, trying to get ahead in life but too enticed by the allure of “things” and “stuff” to have a considerable savings. I left the house thinking “They’ll never take it. I’ll have to keep looking. Wow—you even asked them to leave all the appliances at that price?! What were you thinking?” Disappointment was beginning to set in.

I love when God defies your expectations. I’ll never forget the message I received the next day from the owner, Steve. “Beth and I talked, and we want to accept your offer for the house. We really feel like God is telling us that if we are going to sell the house, we need to sell it for you. Let us know what we need to do to get the process rolling.” To this day, I know that it was God telling them to sell the house, because they couldn’t possibly have seen the building tsunami that would come my way, but He saw it all along.

I called my Mom and Dad, and shared the news the same way with each of them. “Well, it looks like you’re going to have another horrible neighbor.” I could tell they were both excited, each for different reasons. There was something reassuring about knowing I was going to venture out on my own, but I was venturing close enough that if a pipe burst, or an appliance broke, or if I needed to borrow a lawnmower, the kind folks next door would always love me enough to help me through.

And deep down, as much as I may have bought the house for the low interest rate and the instant equity…I bought it because I wanted to keep playing ball with my Dad.

And boy did we play. There was something freeing about knowing I now owned the sideyard, so we tossed more than we ever had before once I took ownership of the house. In fact, we played the very night I closed on the house—just because we could. It was the only proper celebration I could envision. Yes, there was plenty of work to be done on the house. Yes, there were rooms to paint and weeds to pull. But more importantly, there was catch to be played. And that mattered more than anything.

The conversations that we had always had continued too, even though the content had changed since I was now a homeowner. We talked a lot about ways we could now improve our games of catch: keeping the grass cut a bit shorter, possibly adding a few lights in the yard, cutting down a few tree limbs. At one point, we had even made up our mind that the bumpy and uneven terrain of the sideyard required an entire regrading. We were preparing to tear up the entire thing, truck in dirt, relevel, replant, and re…watch it grow. We continued to talk about work, and school, and yes, my still ever-present struggles with girls. I always joked with Dad that buying a house next to my parents was never going to help me land a girlfriend, but he insisted that when those girls took one look at him and saw what I could look like when I grew up, they’d be hooked like never before. So I would remind him that he was bald, and had been since the age of 30. And of course, he would remind me “Yeah, but I make bald look good, boy.”

So it continued. Pop, thud. Pop, thud. Pop, thud. Night after night after night after night. We cherished those moments, enjoyed them more than any other part of our days.

And now, I cherish them more than I ever did because I haven’t played catch in that sideyard for two years. Instead, I find myself in that sideyard in the middle of the night, with nothing but the moon and the occasional passing car. The terrain is still bumpy, because we never got a chance to embark on our ambitious regrading project, and the moon provides the only shine because we never installed those lights. Instead, it’s the same grass I’ve always known, but it’s often wet at 1-or-2 o’ clock in the morning. Oftentimes, I lay in that wet grass and look skyward, knowing not whether my face is wet from the grass or the flood of tears that stream down. Sometimes, I talk. Other times, I listen. Hoping and praying I’ll hear that “pop” again. But I only hear it in my memories, in my dreams. I only hear an imaginary “pop”—never the real thing. The sideyard that was once a stadium of backyard heroes is now a memorial to summertime fun lost forever. And on bad nights it’s the new sounds, the sounds of horror and heart-wrenching disaster, that drown out the “pops” that I so desperately long to hear again.

I would do anything to play catch with my Dad again. I would do anything to relive the entire experience. I don’t know if it’s theologically sound, but when I think of Heaven and the life to come, I often think that a lot of my time will be spent playing catch with my Dad. We will talk, and laugh, and even in Heaven where life should be perfect, I’ll probably still be a terrible athlete. But none of that will matter, because I’ll be spending time with my Dad.

So Dads, keep playing catch with your sons. And sons, keep playing catch with your Dads. And no matter how old you get or how tired your arm may be, don’t ever stop playing. The time to toss will eventually come to an end, but the memories you’ll create with each and every throw will live with you forever.

Dad, I hate to tell you this, but my arm hasn’t gotten any better since you left. I’ve tossed a handful of times since you died, but never in that sideyard. That sideyard is hallowed, sacred ground for me because it’s where I feel your presence most. When I step out in that sideyard, I can still hear the pop of the glove, but more importantly, I hear your laugh. We had so much fun on so many summer nights, even if I wasn’t a shadow of the athlete you were. Thanks for being a dad who was never too tired, too old, or too busy to play catch with his son. More than anything, I am longing for the days where you and I can toss forever and never grow tired—of the activity or the conversation. Until then, seeya bub.

“Train a child in the way he should go, and even when he is old he will not turn away from it.” Proverbs 22:6 (GW)