Papa Sully: Guest Blog by Jeff Sullivan

Ty: I have a confession. A confession that is completely unnecessary for anyone who lives near any of the local golf courses in my community.

I have been, and likely always will be, a terrible, horrible golfer.

I’m almost embarrassed to even call myself a golfer. I do a lot more sand digging and deep-woods exploration than I do golfing when I hit the course.

I could fill an entire book with stories of my atrocious golf exploits. There was the time my friend Chris (most of my horrible golf stories involve him) coerced me into trying out for the high school golf team. I quit halfway through after slamming one of my wooden (yes, I had woods that were actually made with real wood) into the ground, only to start again with about four holes left in the round. I think my groupmates gave me eights on all the holes I skipped.

There was the time I nearly got into a fight with a man who “claims” I almost nailed his wife with an errant Nike Mojo ball. It wasn’t my fault. I yelled fore as loudly as I could, but I guess it didn’t carry the two holes over where my ball landed within a few feet of his wife. I told him rather than yelling at me he should probably get his ears checked. He didn’t care too much for that response.

Then there was the sign from God that almost made me give up the game entirely. This was when I hit a tee shot that went so far right so quickly that it actually nailed a tree to the right of the tee box, bounced straight back, and nailed me in the chest. I HIT MYSELF WITH MY OWN BALL. I didn’t think that could even happen. Between Chris’ hysterical laughter and my writhing on the ground, the local residents must have thought we were going insane. They weren’t far off in their estimation.

As bad as I am at golf, I’ve always wanted to be a great golfer. And in high school, I always remember thinking one thing: I wish I could be like Jeff Sullivan.

Jeff Sullivan SwingJeff didn’t know me in high school, but I knew of him. Rather than equitably distributing golf talent across all the boys at Fairfield High School, God had taken mine and consolidated it all into Jeff Sullivan. Jeff was a graceful golfer. He would hit shots that I wouldn’t even believe I could hit in my own dreams. Natural talent? Maybe a bit. But more than anything, Jeff is one of the hardest working athletes I’ve ever seen. He spends more time honing his abilities than anyone, and it shows in his competitive spirit.

I got to know “Sully” in earnest when I helped emcee the Fairfield High School Athletic Hall of Fame where he was there to support a friend being inducted—he’ll be inducted soon enough, I have no doubt. If it weren’t for my ability to speak in public, I’d never come within a hundred yards of one of those functions.

Jeff and I are miles apart on our golf capabilities, but we have one very unfortunate thing in common: we are both grieving. We are both members of a club where unexpected loss is the common denominator. And although the mechanisms causing our grief are very different, we are both trying our best to honor our loved ones in ways that keep their memories alive. He reached out to me shortly after the Seeya Bub launch, shared his story, and together we’ve been finding ways to support one another through a similar journey.

Jeff has an unbelievable story to tell. He’s been sharing his exploits on a fantastic golf-themed blog he created called Sully’s Sunday Feels, but I’ve invited him to share his story of grief, loss, and the journey that follows here at Seeya Bub. Together, we are creating a community of sufferers to prove one truth: Yes, we all grieve differently, but we never, never have to grieve alone.


Jeff: Thursday, May 12th, 2011. A day and date that I will never forget for as long as I live. This is the day that I unexpectedly lost my Dad.

Before we get into that day, I want to tell you a little bit about the time leading up to that day.

For those of you that know me, especially throughout high school and college, you know a couple things for certain.

  1. If I’m not working, I’m prooobably thinking about, practicing or playing golf.
  2. Wherever and whenever I was doing that, my Dad was there. If for some reason he wasn’t, it was because it was physically impossible for him to be and you better believe he was always the first person I’d call after a tournament.

Another thing you might know is that my birthday is two days before the date I mentioned above. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.

Me, my Dad and my brother were ALWAYS playing sports growing up. It didn’t matter what time of day, what the weather was like or what he had going on. If there was an opportunity to help us be better at a sport, my Dad was going take that opportunity to do whatever he could for us.

Like most kids, when I was younger, I had no idea what he and my mom did in order for me to be able to play whichever sport I wanted when I was a kid, and that support continued all the way through college. I didn’t realize or appreciate the time and ungodly amounts of money spent to allow me to do that, and now that I’m old enough to understand, it’s unfortunately a little bit too late for me to show that appreciation to one of them…

Now, what role did my Dad play in my love for golf? THE role. Well, maybe with a little help from Mr. Eldrick Woods. For those of you that are unfamiliar, that’s Tiger’s real name. What a nerrrd, amirite?! (Don’t tell him I said that.)

Jeff Sullivan and DadI was 9 years old when “Papa Sully”, as my high school teammates would later name him, first took me to the driving range. One trip, and I was hooked. As I mentioned before, this was when Tiger madness was really starting to hit its peak. Tiger had already won 3 U.S. Junior Amateurs and had just locked up back-to-back U.S Amateurs. The next year, he would turn pro, and I was probably on my Dad’s last nerves!

Every single chance I got, I was trying to get him to take me to the driving range or to head over to Golden Tee or Lake Gloria to play. The really cool part about playing and practicing with him is that he was a lefty, so I would always just try to mirror what he was doing. Eventually, there came a point when I was able to take his 7 iron and hit it almost as far as he could. As much as he loved that and got a kick out of it, I’m sure the competitor inside him hated losing. Hmm, wonder where I got that from?!

Once Tiger turned pro, Sundays turned into the best day of the week, always. Early in his career, you could almost guarantee that Tiger would be in the hunt on Sundays, so my dad and I basically planned our entire day around that.

First, I’d bug the crap out of him to make a tee time, typically at The Mill Course (shout out to the place where I had my first win!) and we had to make sure it was an early one! We’d finish that round around noon and from there it was lunch time. Skyline or Penn Station. To this day, there has never been a trip to either one of those places when I haven’t thought about him. We’d talk about our round, I would probably be a little upset for no reason and was too hard on myself while he probably just laughed on the inside at how silly my expectations of myself were. After that, we’d start talking about Tiger, who was about to tee it up just a couple hours later and most likely bury whoever his challenger was that week. My dad and I would commiserate with every bogey and jump off the couch and celebrate every birdie. It was just great. This is how my love for Tiger was born.

Fast forward to high school and college golf. Now, for the sake of length, I’m not going to go into all the great times, wins and celebrations I had with my Dad during these years but instead, I want to focus on the thing I regret most now that he’s gone. My completely idiotic and utter misunderstanding of what was really important.

College is where this stands out to me the most. If you know college golf, you know that it’s not easy for parents to make it to tournaments and even when it is, who in their right mind would want to watch mediocre, spring, college golf when it’s 37 degrees and raining?! Papa Sully, that’s who. A lot of people don’t know this, but he actually tried to find and took certain jobs in life just so he could make it to as many of my events as possible. He also worked at a golf course just so I’d be able to afford to practice as much as I wanted to (shout out to Meadow Links and Golf Academy for letting me hit a zillion balls and destroy natural turf from 2000-2004). A typical week during college golf season for my Dad was to drive from Hebron, KY to Laredo, TX and back which took him about 3 days. And then, as soon as he was back, he’d be heading somewhere else in Kentucky or Tennessee to come watch me play again. My teammates would always be so bummed when I told them he couldn’t make it, but that might have been like twice a year. Oh, on top of this, he was also spending a LOT of his money on things I needed to play the game. Right before a tournament started he would buy me new gloves in the pro shop because he saw my hands slipping on the range or go buy a towel and umbrella if I forgot mine. Whatever I needed, it was done thanks to him.

Now that you know the lengths that he went to support me, let me tell you about how stupid I was. I had, and still have VERY high expectations of myself any time I step on the golf course. I had these for a few reasons. Number one, I know the amount of work I’ve put into my game and I always want to win. Number two, I always wanted to help my team win. Last, but certainly not least, I wanted to make my Dad proud because I knew how much he had done for me. At the time, I thought that shooting low scores and winning was what made him proud and what would make me happy. Boy was I wrong.

Younger golfers who may read this: If you don’t take ANYTHING else away from this, PLEASE take this advice. No matter how you perform on the golf course, as long as you prepare, give every shot all that you have and carry yourself well, I PROMISE you that you’ll never walk around from any round of golf with regrets.

Unfortunately for me, it took losing the one person who mattered the most to make me truly understand that.

My skewed perceptions of what mattered, and my extreme competitiveness made me do some things that I’ll never be able to take back. So many times, my Dad was there to greet me after a round and because I was so dumb in those moments, I would walk right by him, slam my clubs in our team van and just sit in silence, pouting for absolutely no reason other than my own selfishness and lack of perspective. Other times I literally threw plaques and trophies in the trash because they weren’t for first place. I didn’t support teammates like I should have, and I didn’t respect my coach like I should have. I hope that those of you who end up reading this understand how sorry I am for that and can or have forgiven me. Most importantly for me, all my Dad wanted was to be there and to spend time with me. It didn’t matter if I shot 65 or 105, all I had to do was have fun playing the game and enjoy that time with him, but I didn’t. That is my biggest regret and something I will never be able to take back.

That attitude didn’t start to change after college either. I remember a tournament that I ended up winning by 10 shots, and I was pissed off when I walked off the course in the final round because I didn’t break the current course record. I mean, who the hell did I think I was?!

When did it start to change? Thursday, May 12, 2011 at 5:30am.

5:27am –  I wake up from a dead sleep to see that my brother is calling me. That’s weird, probably just a butt dial.

5:28am – My brother calls again but I don’t answer and tell myself I’ll call him back when I’m up for the day which would have been around 6:30-7:00am.

5:30am – My mom calls me. Okay, this is crazy, and something isn’t right. I answer and immediately know it’s something terrible. All she can tell me is that the police called, and something has happened to my Dad but she can’t say what other than that he is at a hospital in Springfield—roughly an hour or so from where I was.

When she told me that, deep down I knew he was gone no matter how much I tried to tell myself to have hope. If the police call you and they can’t say what happened, it’s pretty obvious.

My Dad had a history of heart problems for a few years leading up to this day but hadn’t mentioned any recent issues in the weeks and months leading up to the day. The last time I talked to him was on my birthday, May 10. Two days before he died, and you know what we talked about? You guessed it. Golf.

He was out on the road and based on what I was told, he had a heart attack, was able to call 911 from his phone and pull off the side of the road; but by the time they got to him, it was too late. I’ll never, ever forget showing up to the hospital after what seemed like a 4-day car ride. I walked to the front desk praying that they were going to tell me something. I told them I was one of Rick Sullivan’s sons here to see him and they told me where the room was. There was no mention of what state he was in or what had happened, so I had a small glimmer of hope that he was okay. I walked down the hall, turned the corner, looked at my brother Matt and step mom Sheryl, they looked at me, and then I saw my Dad.

I’ll never be able to find the words to describe that moment when I saw him laying on the table with a breathing tube that was used to try and resuscitate him still in his mouth. Utter disbelief. Anger at the receptionist who could have warned me about what I was walking into. Shock. All the strength in my body left me, I dropped to the ground and sat against the wall, head in my hands, sobbing, while my brother and Sheryl walked over and tried to console me (they had already been there for a while). I glanced over and saw the bag with my Dad’s clothes and belongings in it, shirt and jeans torn from where the paramedics cut them off him. All I remember saying out loud was “No way, no…way” (with some sporadic adult verbiage inserted throughout) because I couldn’t believe that he was gone. this wasn’t real, it couldn’t be. Sometimes I’ll still have dreams with him in them, but then I wake up and know that yes, it was real, and my biggest fan is gone. Physically, that is.

The days following that were a blur and for those of you that have gone through something similar, you know what I mean when I say that.

The year or so following that were hard to say the least. The moments immediately after traumatic loss are actually some of the easiest because your friends and family all know that you’re in pain and want to offer support. It’s no fault of their own, but after a couple weeks or months go by, people just forget and that’s when loss was the hardest.

The one place I could feel okay about things was the golf course.

I actually ended up at my home course the morning after my Dad had passed. I was off work and that was the first thing I could think of. How do I get my mind off this? Well, that was impossible, so the next best thing was to go to the place where I knew my Dad would want me to be. It wasn’t just any golf course though, it was my home away from home, Fairfield Greens South Trace. Most of you know how much I love that place and how much passion I have for our city tournament but may have never known why. Now you know. That was my Dad’s favorite tournament to come to. That’s where he got to watch me play the most matches. He and I played countless rounds together there and I also know he had something to do with the love and support I felt from everyone there after he passed whether they were friends or employees. Dave, Crutch, Kess & Mrs. K-dog, Wyatt, Meow, Ryan, Sara, T.J., Schnee, Trotter, Tyler, Siggy, Verbs, the rest of the Sunday Skins game buddies and the list goes on. Without all of you, there’s no way I’d be the player and person I am today, and I’ll never be able to thank you enough for that. You helped me through the toughest time in my life to date and I hope you are all proud of who I’ve become.

Jeff Sullivan on GreenFrom that day forward, my golf is played for him. Not only to win, but to show him that I can be the man and player that he always wanted me to be. To show great sportsmanship, character and class on the golf course. That’s why I play the game now. In 2011 and 2012 I wanted to win our city tournament SO bad, even more than ever before because I wanted to do it for my Dad. I couldn’t get the job done until 2013 and I will remember that win more than any other as long as I play the game.

I’m 7 shots behind with only 15 holes to play. 99 times out of 100, you don’t win that battle, but this was a day when I knew I had something more on my side. That something was Papa Sully. From holes 4 through 16 I was able to rattle off 7 birdies and tie for the lead. On #17, I had a putt to take a one-shot lead from about 12 or 14 feet. I guessed wrong on the break, but somehow the ball wiggled its way into the hole and I took the lead heading into the last hole. Pumped full of adrenaline, I blew a 7 iron over the back of the green to a back pin and then hit one of the most nervous flop shots of my life to 8 feet. Make this putt and you win for pops.

I hit the putt, see that it’s rolling dead center, it goes in and I look straight up in the air. I knew who made this happen, and it wasn’t me.

The exhilaration and love for my Dad in that moment was great, but the best feeling I’ve had was actually the following year. Same 18th hole, now I have only a 2 foot putt to win. I missed it and now we’re headed to a playoff. Not a playoff with just anyone, but with a great friend and mentor of mine, T.J. Oddly enough, 4 years prior to this is when my attitude on the golf course was at its worst. You know, that time I talked about winning by 10 and was pissed off? I knew that this was happening for a reason too and with T.J. being involved, it was the perfect time for me to dig deep and show everyone, including Papa Sully, that I get it. T.J. hit an incredible shot on the first playoff hole and made birdie while I missed my putt to tie him. I held my head high, congratulated him and little did I know that the response and praise I got for how I LOST that tournament would be more meaningful than any tournament I could ever win.

Jeff Sullivan Message

This post was extremely hard to write, but I can’t thank my buddy Tyler enough for allowing me to share my story on the wonderful platform that he has created with Seeya Bub. If you haven’t read any of his posts yet, you need to. I haven’t known him long but I can tell you that he’s one of the most brave and influential people I know and I can’t wait to see where his courage takes him next.

Thank you all for reading!

-Sully


Ty: Sully has a deep admiration for Tiger, but I have a deep admiration for Sully. He has done what we are all attempting to do when loss is dealt into our lives: to stand back up, to never forget, and to let that loss lead us into a more consequential life.

I have no doubt in reading this story that Papa Sully is watching over his son. Yes, guiding the extra wiggle on a clutch-putt, but more importantly he is there guiding his son’s character. Even though he isn’t physically here any longer, he is still teaching his son. He is still instructing him. He’s giving him a greater reason to play the game he loves. It’s more than wins and course records, although those things are good and admirable and worthy of the chase. It’s the character, more than anything, that matters to Jeff’s Father and his memory.

And every time Jeff steps on the course, his Dad is watching over him—just like he always did—giving him the courage he needs to step through the fire and cope with his grief.

“My son, obey your father’s commands, and don’t neglect your mother’s instruction.” Proverbs 6:20 (NLT)

 

Jeff Sullivan Bio ShotJeff “Sully” Sullivan

Jeff Sullivan is a 32 year old weekend warrior who still has a huge passion and love for the game of golf. Jeff was introduced to the game by his Dad at age 9 when Tiger Woods was making his run through U.S Junior and U.S. Am titles. Ever since his first trip to the driving range, he’s been hooked. Jeff lives in Charleston, South Carolina with his wife Sarah after growing up and living in Ohio his entire life. He played high school golf at Fairfield High School and went on to play college golf at Campbellsville University in Kentucky. Currently, Jeff writes for his blog Sully’s Sunday Feels where he shares his love of the game and purpose for playing.

Trees Will Tip

“What the heck is wrong with the tree?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, we can fix this,” my Dad said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perfectly imperfect.

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

Perfectly imperfect.

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

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

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

I miss those Christmases because I miss him so.

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

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

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

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

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

The Portrait

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

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

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

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

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

 

CF Payne Santa

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

But his heart is even greater than his gift.

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

CF Payne Joe Nuxhall Cutout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CF Payne Illustration of Dad

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

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

“Well, did I get him?” he said.

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

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

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

I know of at least one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CF Payne Banner

Always Thankful

Dad,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check Please

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One Year of Seeya Bub

“God, I just ask that you let this help someone. If my words can just help one single person avoid the same end that met my Dad, then it will all have been worth it. Give me the strength I need to do justice to my Dad and his life. Walk with me through this, God. I can’t do this alone. I’m really scared, but I know you want me to do this.”

This was the prayer that I prayed one year ago when I prepared to launch Seeya Bub. I can vividly remember sitting at the desk of my office at home, not knowing what to expect. I was crying, and my hands were shaking (more than they usually do, that is).

For a few months, quietly behind the scenes, I had been working on a blog that I had initially resisted. I had set out to write a book about my Dad, his struggles with depression, and his eventual death from suicide. I was growing frustrated because I found it so hard to stay motivated. As I shared this struggle with close friends and family members, a few of them began to suggest a blog as a possible alternative, and I would immediately shake my head no. Most blogs frustrated me because people were just writing without purpose—bloggers were just blogging to be heard, not caring at all what they wanted to say.

The more I thought about things, though, the more I began to warm to the idea of a blog over those summer months. I liked the idea of being to write and react, write and react, write and react. I loved the idea of being able to get feedback from my readers as I went so I could pivot accordingly to topics that they found useful. More than anything, however, I liked the idea of being to reach people who needed help quickly. I envisioned that someday, someone would be sitting at their computer struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts. They would search aimlessly for some sense of hope, come across my blog, and maybe, just maybe, think differently about the path of their life. I didn’t know how many of those people were out there when I started writing.

And boy, was I surprised at the amount of people who were struggling, just like my Dad was.

I tried my best (with the help of some wonderful YouTube videos) to figure out how to manage the technical aspects of a blog, how to deliver posts to as many readers as possible, and how to work in visuals that would honor my Dad. I had done my best to patch everything together, and all that stood between me and the tremendous anxiety I felt was a “Go Live” button and a quick social media post to announce to the world what I was doing.

Just a few hours later, I found myself back at that same desk where I had written the words of that first post, sobbing as I held my head in my hands. I was crying, not from sadness, but from a place of overwhelmed gratitude. Within just a few hours of launching the blog, hundreds of family members, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances had visited the site and read the post. These same readers were sharing Seeya Bub on their own social media networks, encouraging their friends to read and follow. I was receiving messages and comments of unbelievable support.

Most touching in those initial days of the launch were the private messages that I received from readers who were either struggling from mental illness and suicidal ideations, had previously struggled, or had unfortunately lost loved ones just like I lost my Dad. These messages were full of extreme pain and unfathomable hope. These were messages of courage and strength, pushing me to talk about these difficult topics and share my Dad’s story.

God hadn’t answered my prayer on that night. He took my request, made it bigger than I ever could have imagined, and has delivered on my wildest expectations each and every day over this one amazing, spectacular year.


This week marks the one-year anniversary of Seeya Bub’s official launch, and I can’t help but be completely overwhelmed and nostalgic when I think about all of the wonderful things that have happened since that first post.

God is leading me on a journey that I never could have imagined, and I’d like to share some of my reflections over this past year with you today.

Readers. I honestly had my doubts about whether folks would read the words I posted on this blog. Yes, I know my story matters, but it’s a busy world. Taking the time to read and really think about someone else can be hard to do in a hectic life—and I’m guilty of it myself. When I hit that “Go Live” button, I wondered if people would find my message valuable enough to read, and read again, and again.

When I sat at my desk a few hours after launching the blog, I just kept saying “Wow” and shaking my head over and over again. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I couldn’t believe the response. And I still can’t.

And ever since then, you’ve continued to read. I’m sitting at that desk one year later having had over 6,500 views at Seeya Bub. It’s astounding, and heartwarming, and emotional for me to see the response. So if you’re reading now and you’ve read in the past, please know how thankful I am to you. Thank you for following the blog, thank you for sharing it you’re your friends, and thank you for pushing me and encouraging me when times got tough or words and messages were hard to come by. You’ve encouraged me to keep writing. You’ve reminded me that my Dad’s life mattered—to me and to you. And you’ve reminded me that I need to share it. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Pulling Off the Mask. As hundreds of people poured through the visitation line at my Dad’s funeral, there was one common phrase that was repeated over and over and over again: “I had no idea that he was struggling.” I wasn’t surprised to hear this. My Dad was always a jovial guy. He wore a mask better than anyone. He was able to easily hide the depression that would often hijack his brain. It was hard to explain to folks how someone as fun-loving, compassionate, and generally happy as my Dad could find himself in the pit of depression so deep and inescapable.

But Dad was there, and after I launched the blog I found out just how many other people are there too. From the moment Seeya Bub went live, I began receiving messages from people I knew—and some that I didn’t—sharing similar stories. Stories of mental illnesses that make it debilitating for them to get out of bed. Stories of near-fatal suicide attempts. Stories of darkness, and stories of spiritual intervention from above.

And that was evidence alone that God was doing what I hoped he would do with my message. The story mattered, but the telling of the story was what mattered most. So often, just like my Dad, the stories of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts remain untold, hidden behind a mask of protection. Let’s be honest—it’s scary to share our feelings, and when we don’t even know why we feel the way we do, it’s even scarier. And when we aren’t able to share our feelings, we grow isolated. We feel alone. We feel like there has to be more to life and that, if there isn’t, life might not be worth living.

I know that’s how my Dad must have felt. And thanks to those of you who have been courageous enough to share your own struggles with me, we are pulling off the mask of mental illness and helping people fight back the isolation and despair. Make no mistake—this is a battle. We have to fight for ourselves and those we love. We have to fight against the shame that is erroneously coupled with mental illness. But every time we pull off a mask, we are delivering a swift punch to mental illness and depression.

Ultimately, we have to let people know that it’s okay to not be okay…but it’s not okay to stay that way.

Speaking about my Dad. After my Dad died, I wondered how I would tell people what happened. I dreaded the funeral because I wondered how many people would try to pry for information about what really went wrong. I worried that I might not be able to ever speak about my Dad. I worried that his death might become a distant memory. And I worried that other families would continue to suffer, just like mine, without my Dad’s story being able to help them.

I tried to talk to people about my Dad and his memory. Sometimes I would make it through, and other times I would fall apart and be completely inconsolable. I knew that I wanted to write a book about losing my Dad, but if I couldn’t even have a conversation with folks about losing my Dad, how was I ever going to be able to write chapter after chapter about his death?

All I can say is this: God provides. And He equips. And where we fall short, He is there to give us the strength and inexplicable courage that we might never possess without His presence.

I started writing posts months before I knew I wanted to launch the blog. And once I started, I couldn’t stop. I began remembering stories that I had forgotten. There was something strangely addicting about writing about my Dad and how much I loved him and missed him—it was like I was out hunting and capturing memories before they could escape forever.

And as I grew more comfortable writing about my Dad, I also found a brand new comfort when it came to speaking about him. Yes, it still hurt not having him here, but I could talk without breaking down. I could feel grief and joyful memories at the same time. I could share his story without falling to pieces each and every time. As I grew more resilient, I found new opportunities to talk about my Dad and remember his story—and I knew the more I shared his story, the more it could help people who are hurting like he was.

Processing my Own Grief. Most importantly, Seeya Bub has given me the ability to work through my own grief and loss over losing my Dad. It isn’t why I started the blog and it might sound selfish, but I’ve grown so much as a result of sharing my story of my Dad with all of you. Losing a loved one brings on unbelievable grief, and when the grief is so unbearable it is easy to bury things below the surface—sometimes, it’s the only way to survive and get through. Regardless of how deep you might bury those feelings, however, they find interesting ways to work themselves back to the surface.

Writing about my Dad and losing him gave me a unique opportunity to recognize those issues and how they were affecting me, both consciously and subconsciously.

This griefwork has been the most difficult part of life after losing a loved one. There are some days when I just flat out don’t want to do it. I’ll sit down at my computer, fall apart, and realize that I’m too emotionally distraught to write anything productive. Other days, however, the writing is strangely soothing. I can remember a story that brings a smile to my face and write about it positively. I couldn’t imagine ever being able to do that in the days that followed my Dad’s death. The courage that this experience has given me is something I’ll always thank God and all of you for giving me.

No matter the feelings, being able to write and share my heart with all of you has been an unbelievable (and unintended) blessing. Knowing that you read reminds me that I’m not in this grieving alone.


(I hope) there are many, many more years of Seeya Bub to come, and in the one that is approaching, I ask all of you for your support. I also hope you will say a prayer for me while you’re at it. Over the next year, I am planning to write about some very personal and difficult topics regarding my Dad’s death. I’m going to share more of my life without him and how much I miss him. Each and every time that I sit down to write, I get nervous about sharing these pieces of my story and my soul because I don’t know how readers will react to them.

In this year to come, I simply ask that you continue to do what you’ve been doing. I ask that you continue to pray that God will give me the skills I need to reach hearts and minds through this endeavor. Together, I hope that God will help us help others.

On this one year anniversary of Seeya Bub, I also want to take a moment to say thank you for one more thing. Thank you, to all of you, for loving my Dad. Being able to talk with those of you who knew my Dad has been unbelievably therapeutic. You share stories about the difference he made in your life, and about the joyful memories you have of him. What’s even more mind-blowing, however, are the tender messages I receive from people who never knew my Dad, those who have come to know him solely through the blog, who say what a tremendous man he was. I will never be able to say thank you enough for those kinds of messages. Knowing that you enjoy the writing is special, but knowing how highly you think of my Dad brings a tear (and many more) to my eyes every single time. He was an amazing man with an unbelievable heart, a resilient spirit, admirable talent, and compassion beyond understanding. I’ll always love him—knowing you do too comforts the heart of this grieving son more than I could ever describe.

In the year to come, I promise to keep honoring my Dad. I promise to help anyone who is hurting and suffering in any way I can. As long as you read, I’ll be here to write. We are in this together. We are in this for my Dad and all the other people who suffer.

It’s only been one year on a journey that’s got years of life left on it. I’m packed and ready, and I hope you are, too.

One Year PhotoDad, You would be completely astounded to see how many people are touched by your story. You would be overwhelmed by how many people loved you and how deeply they loved you. I know that you’re watching over this journey and giving me the guidance from above that I’ve always needed, and I’m thankful for that. But I wish I didn’t have to write. I wish that you were still here with us. I desperately wish that that fateful July day in 2013 had ended differently. I would do anything to have you back here with me, with us, but I know that you’re at peace. I know that you are basking in the glow of God’s glory in Heaven. And if you can’t be here with us, I’m certainly glad you’re there. Dad, continue watching over me. Continue giving me the words I need to reach the hurting, grieving people in our world. Give me the wisdom and insight to share your story. Thanks for always watching over me. Until I can thank you face to face, seeya Bub.

“Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.” Ezra 10:4 (NIV)

Halloween

I love candy. And as a result, I love Halloween.

When I say I love candy, I’m talking about complete and utter infatuation. An obsession—and an unhealthy one at that.

Sour Patch Kids. Twizzlers. Mounds bars. Red licorice Scotty dogs. Dots. Nerds. Ju Ju Bees. Reese Cups. Butterfingers. Sour Punch Straws. Laffy Taffy. Haribo Gummy Bears (if you eat any other kind, I seriously question your decisions in life).

Mom, if you’re reading this, I can finally admit. Even though you made candy readily available in the house, I still felt it was appropriate to hide a small candy stash underneath my bed so I could eat it throughout the night at my leisure. At any given time during my childhood, I would usually have a small Ziploc bag full of fun-size boxes of Nerds and Sour Patch Kids that I would open with the delicate stealth of a Ninja in the night so you wouldn’t hear down the hall. I also did this with Dr. Peppers—I had this awesome move where I would cough really loudly when I opened the pop-top so you wouldn’t hear the loud (and inexplicably pleasant) CRACK! of an aluminum can pop top. I’m sorry I deceived you…but if this was the worst thing I did as a kid, I think you fared alright.

I loved Halloween, yes, because of the candy, but more importantly I loved it because my Mom and Dad always made Halloween a very special time around our house. On Halloween, Mom would always cook some of our favorite appetizer-style foods: pigs in a blanket, sausage balls, pepperoni bites, and my all-time favorite…potato skins! We always had plenty of punch with rainbow sherbet in it. I don’t know when this tradition started, but I don’t remember a Halloween without it.

I was also a big fan of the costumes. Big fan. Mom and Dad always made sure I looked good…and comical. There was the year that I was a pirate. Dad wanted to make sure that I was a striking mini-swashbuckler, so he picked up a tray of facepaint and made sure that he painted a perfect five-o-clock shadow across my face. I was only about six or seven, and there’s just something rather hilarious about seeing a kid with facial hair. There was the year that I was the Genie from Aladdin, and Dad made sure that the blue facepaint perfectly matched my Genie costume. Or the year that I was a Dalmatian, and Dad painted black spots all over my face.

Okay…reflecting back on all of this, maybe he just liked seeing how many embarrassing ways he could paint my face.

Mom and Dad always took the time to make Halloween special—not just the day of, but the entire season leading up to it. My Mom is the queen of house decorations. We used to have a room in our house that we affectionately referred to as “the junk room” (sorry to reveal your secrets, Mom!). There were boxes and boxes and boxes of decorations for each and every season. Our house would be completely transformed during Halloween. I remember a light up jack-o-lantern in a witch hat that always hung on our front door. A fuzzy black spider that made a spook “ooooooh-oooooooooh-oooooooooooooh” noise every time you pressed it. From bathroom towels to cups and plates and everything in between, you always knew it was Halloween in the Bradshaw House.

Dad stuck to the outdoor, more-manly seasonal decorations. One of his favorites? Yard bags. You remember these, right? These were the huge orange garbage bags that, when filled up, look like big jack-o-lanterns or ghosts. I remembered being really excited to take these out into the yard and fill them up. To fill them up, you had to rake up all of the leaves in the yard and put them into these bags.

Looking back on this, I see how easily gullible I was as a child when it came to chores disguised as seasonal traditions…

We had one big problem, though. Our yard had a lot of little trees in it. We also had a lot of trees that had a lot of little tiny leaves—you know, those annoying little leaves that stick to everything and get tracked in your house no matter how many times you wipe your shoes off. These types of leaves weren’t always the best to fill up huge bags that looked like pumpkins, and frankly our yard just didn’t have enough leaves to fill them up with. So, Dad and I would rake up as many leaves as we could, and then fill the rest with crumpled up newspapers. Then, we would display the bags proudly in our front lawn so everyone could see….our yard waste? Once again, I was easily deceived when it came to child labor.

I think my Dad’s most impressive contribution to the Halloween decorating season, however, was his artistry and craftsmanship when it came to jack-o-lantern carving. My Dad was a builder in many respects. He built a gorgeous deck around our backyard swimming pool. He built the garage and foyer expansion onto our house. Most would call him a carpenter, but I considered him more of an artist. The things he built and constructed were beautiful. Dad took his time, and he always did things the right way.

Who would have thought that this obsession with quality and attention to detail would have extended to pumpkins that were bound to rot in two weeks? With my Dad, it was a no-brainer. Everything he made was top-notch, whether it was permanent or fleeting.

Every year that my parents would take me to the pumpkin patch to pick out pumpkins to carve for Halloween, Dad and I were always on the hunt for two particular pumpkins: a rounded fat one, and a tall skinny one.

After all, it wasn’t a Bradshaw Halloween without Bert and Ernie jack-o-lanterns.

You heard me. Bert and Ernie jack-o-lanterns.

Growing up, I was a Sesame Street addict. I was hooked from the first “Sunny days” of the theme song. So much so that one year, my dear, sweet Grandma Sharon almost lost her mind the day I made her watch the Sesame Street Christmas special at least 37 times. She still has flashbacks when she hears Feliz Navidad.

Of the entire cast of characters on Sesame Street, my absolute favorite was Ernie. I had a stuffed Ernie that went with me everywhere I went. My Mom had to sew his nose back on a few times, and his orange felt skin and bright blue jeans faded and tinged. On the show, Ernie was cool and funny and always knew how to get the best of his banana-colored roommate. He had a killer laugh.

And he was so much more sophisticated than that tickle-fiend Elmo.

By association, because I liked Ernie, I also had to like Bert (even though I liked Ernie better). They are a classic American duo—right up there with Lucille and Ethel, Batman and Robin, and macaroni and cheese. They were the toddler’s Abbott and Costello.

I don’t remember when it started, but since before I can remember, I had always liked Ernie. Maybe that’s why Dad chose to carve our jack-o-lanterns into unbelievable replicas of my favorite puppet duo.

I remember watching Dad carve the pumpkins every year. It took a few hours for him to complete. Dad had patterns that he and Mom had picked up around Halloween one year. Dad worked on the pumpkins with the patience and attention to detail of a renowned artist. Every year, he would tape the patterns onto the perfectly selected pumpkins that mirrored the head shapes of Bert and Ernie. Then, Dad would use a tiny stick pin to meticulously poke holes into the lines of each pattern. Slowly and methodically, he worked until each shape he would need to cut was temporarily outlined with holes. Then, with a set of carving knives that I’m sure were the best he could find (because that’s what Dad always did), Dad would work to carve out all the pieces.

I wish I still had those patterns because my description doesn’t do it justice. There were more cuts and slices in this carving job than a plastic surgeon performs in a year. Dad would glide through each piece until the pumpkins had an uncanny resemblance to my favorite pals from Sesame Street. We would put candles in the jack-o-lanterns and proudly display them on our front porch, as many trick-or-treaters and their parents would profess their admiration when they graced our home.

As I grew older, Dad would eventually ask me to help him each year—but they never looked as good as his. I’ve never had the patience or artistry that my Dad had when it came to working with his hands. If anything, my feeble attempts to recreate Ernie on a pumpkin made me appreciate Dad’s work even more.

And now that he’s gone, I appreciate Dad’s pumpkin carving skills more than ever. I have an unbelievable admiration for the time and energy Dad spent every year on those special pumpkins.

And I’m also grateful that his subject matter never changed.

Being such a talented in the art of pumpkin carving, I’m sure there were other things my Dad wanted to carve over the years. Dad could have carved monsters and spooky faces. He could have carved the images of celebrities. He could have free-handed and imagined his own brilliant creations.

But Dad always carved Bert and Ernie—not because he wanted to, but because it always brought a smile to my face. Looking back, I’m confident of that.

None of this is out of character for my Dad, because Dad was always doing whatever he could to make people happy. As his only son, I was often the beneficiary of the love he put out into the world.

Now that he’s gone, I don’t just remember the big acts of love and generosity. I remember the little ones, too, like carving Bert and Ernie pumpkins on Halloween. Or spending time making sure my costume was elaborate enough to make the neighbors laugh. Or making sure I had a military grade flashlight to walk with as I trick-or-treated so I was always safe. I probably didn’t tell him how much I appreciated all of those things at the time. Immaturity does that when you’re young. Now, though, I’m unbelievably grateful for all of those moments—and wishing, more than anything, I could have them back to experience all over again.

Halloween might be a minor holiday for some families, but it’s always a significant one for my family because Mom and Dad made it so much fun when I was growing up. It was more than pumpkins. It was a spirit of excitement that invaded our house because of everything they did to make the holiday special.

Now, Halloween feels different because those pumpkins aren’t there anymore—and neither is my Dad. I miss him desperately every day, but I especially miss him on those big days that were always so much fun.

Halloween can be a difficult holiday because it’s the start of a season where Dad’s absence is felt in a particularly strong way. He’s not here to carve Bert and Ernie pumpkins on Halloween. He’s not around to carve the turkey for our family on Thanksgiving. He’s not there on Christmas day to take pictures of our family dog rip open Christmas presents with her teeth.

I’m unbelievably sad because I feel Dad’s absence around this time of the year, but I’m ridiculously thankful to know that I have 26 years full of amazing memories with him. I’ll always have the pain of Dad’s absence with me, but when times get tough around Halloween or on any other day, I’ll always have the happy memories, too.

And someday, maybe I’ll get good enough to carve a few Bert and Ernie pumpkins for kids of my own. They won’t be as good, but I’ll give it my best. That’s what Dad would have wanted.

Dad and Lucy at Pumpkin PatchDad, I really, really miss you on Halloween—and every other holiday for that matter. The Bert and Ernie jack-o-lanterns you carved for us every year were spectacular. Not just because of your talent, but because you took the time to do them over and over again when I’m sure you had other things you would rather carve. My childhood was special because I had tremendous, loving parents. I wish I had said it more then, but thank you. Thank you for always doing the little things to leave me with big memories. Thank you for showing me on the holidays and every day that you loved me and that you cared about me. And thanks for all the Bert and Ernie pumpkins. I wish I could have them one more time, but until I get to see you and thank you face to face, seeya Bub.

“Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love makes up for many of your faults.” 1 Peter 4:8 (TLB)

Bonfires

The picture is still sharp into my brain. I can conjure it up with vivid realness—especially as the leaves begin to burn bright orange and yellow and red before they fall to the ground this time of year.

It’s a silhouette of my Dad sitting in a chair staring into the flames of a backyard bonfire.

My Dad loved the simple things in life. A good meal. A good country song. A relaxing ride in the truck. The feel of the sun on his skin. A new Dewalt power tool (most of which I’ve inherited and have no idea how to use).

My Dad had a long list of things he loved about life. Although he never wrote this list down, I have a pretty good idea of one thing that would be near the top:

Bonfires.

Yes, bonfires. My Dad was a firebug. He loved setting things on fire. I mean, not in a crazy pyro sort of way. It was always controlled and safe…well, most of the time.

I know why my Dad loved bonfires. He loved the popping and cracking of the logs as they turned into ash. He would be mesmerized by the flames. He would sit in a chair near the firepit he built in our backyard and be completely hypnotized by the fire. On a cool night, he might sit there for two or three hours and let the flames warm his skin, and he was in his happy place every time he was there. He didn’t need music. He didn’t need a cellphone for endless and pointless scrolling. He just needed a chair, a can of Coke, our dog Lucy by his side, and a stack of logs that he could burn through the night.

For as long as I could remember, Dad had an almost-nightly ritual of retreating to the backyard after the sun would set. Rather than settle in front of the glow of the television, Dad would often park a chair near our backyard firepit, load some wood into the wheelbarrow, and prepare for a relaxing night. And he always had a smile on his face.

As he spent more time near the firepit, his techniques and methods became more and more elaborate. Dad had always started his fires with a blowtorch, which is plenty effective enough for anyone who needs to start a fire. But for my Dad, a blowtorch just wasn’t good enough. Not quick enough. Not exciting enough. Not ridiculous or dangerous or powerful enough.

So Dad did what any man who watched way too many episodes of Home Improvement might do. He built a device that would start the fire quicker.

And by “device,” I mean a flamethrower.

That’s right. A flamethrower. And a homemade one at that.

What does a homemade flamethrower look like, you might ask? It’s basically a wand-torch device with a trigger that is attached to….a propane tank.

Of all the things I’ve inherited of my Dad’s, this might be my favorite. I’m completely terrified to operate it in the instance that I might burn all the hair off my head in a fiery explosion, but at least I have it. (My Dad didn’t have to worry about things like this because of that whole “bald at 30” thing he had going on…). Here’s a picture of me actually getting up the courage to use it one time after he died. Note…I mask the terror pretty well: Using Dad's Flamethrower

Dad was really proud of this flamethrower. I’m pretty sure Mom was utterly terrified that he was going to be that guy on the news with ash all over his face after a backyard explosion saying “I had no idea that my homemade flamethrower attached to a propane tank would actually explode…” I would often laugh and roll my eyes every time I would hear the roar of that flamethrower in the backyard. I knew Dad was at it again…and that I would have the family room television to myself for a few hours.

Dad’s experimentation extended far beyond starting devices, however. He also experimented with materials. At first, his goal was probably to find things to burn that would help the fire last longer. Then, that grew into an obsession with which natural materials would make the most interesting and loud noises if he threw them into the fire.

In a fit of excitement one year, my Dad and our neighbor Shawn planted a small patch of bamboo in our backyards. That small patch eventually grew into a bamboo plantation that could feed an entire zoo full of pandas.

One evening, my Dad got a bright idea to chop down some of the bamboo (which, by the way, makes it come back even faster and in ridiculous amounts) and see what would happen if he tossed it into his firepit. In a fit of childlike amusement, my Dad nearly lost his mind when the bamboo made an exploding pop that sounded like a firework. So, my Dad did what any mature, grown adult would do.

He chopped down stalk after stalk of bamboo for about three hours and tossed them all into the fire, laughing his head off every single time they exploded. The pattern became all too familiar if you were sitting inside the house listening: Pop from the bamboo, a series of vicious barks from Lucy at the popping noise, and a chuckle from my Dad. Over and over and over again, all throughout the night.

And sidenote…if you throw about thirty stalks into the fire at once, you might want to warn the neighbors that they are not being shot at first.

In addition to the bamboo burns, Dad also loved setting a good Christmas tree on fire—after Christmas, of course. For my entire life, we always had real Christmas trees in our house. My Dad refused to buy an artificial tree. Although he said that he always had real trees because they looked better, I think he also looked forward to January 15th when it was time to dispose of the dried out evergreen.

Dad would take the ornament-stripped tree to the backyard, dig a small hole in his firepit, and stand the tree up for its ceremonial cremation. Then, Dad would take a blowtorch (or eventually his flamethrower), and light the tree from the bottom. Within 45 seconds, the entire tree would be completely engulfed in flames, the reflection burning bright off my Dad’s glasses as he smiled and laughed. He never seemed to tire of this after-Christmas tradition. Oh Christmas tree, Oh Christmas tree, how lovely is your fiery death….

I think back over all those nights that Dad would spend camped out next to our backyard fire, with our dog Lucy barking at every single popping bamboo shoot as if it were some invisible enemy she could silence. I think of all the nights where Dad wouldn’t even have time to change out of his work coveralls because he had worked so long to provide for our family. I think of all the times when Dad would be mad that it had rained for a few days in a row, interrupting one of his favorite rituals.

And I also think of all the times when Dad would ask me to come sit with him by the fire and I would say no.

I wish that I had spent more time with my Dad near the firepit when I had the chance to do it. Dad would often invite me to come sit with him. I would occasionally take him up on his offer, but not as often as I should have. Most times, I would be too busy. Or doing something stupid like watching television. I desperately wish I could give back all of those reruns for a few hours and a stack of felled bamboo with my Dad in the backyard…

I think that my Dad sat by the fire so often because it was peaceful and relaxing. Dad could shut the world off and connect with his primal side: a man, his fire, and the stars and moon overhead. Life was simple when Dad was sitting around the fire, and Dad loved simple. Dad was at peace when he was surrounded by crackling flames, chirping crickets, and the beauty of God’s creation.

But now, after losing my Dad to suicide, I think those fire nights were even more important for my him. I never realized the extent to which the noise and cloud of depression had overtaken my Dad’s mind. The feelings of doubt and shame and fear had to be so loud every single day for my Dad. I’m sure there were so many times when my Dad just wanted to silence the world around him. When it came to the internal voices that told my Dad he wasn’t good enough or wasn’t worthy of love, I am sure that my Dad wished he could hit a button or flip a switch and turn those voices off.

I think a night by the bonfire was my Dad’s way of silencing those voices.

My Dad could sit by the fire and let the worries of the world and his depression melt away. There’s something strangely mesmerizing about a good fire, but there’s also something about a fire that takes humans back to our earliest roots. Sitting by the fire, I imagine, allowed my Dad to return to the parts of his life that were simpler and easier and happier and better. My Dad had many, many dark days in his life; but I’m so glad that he had many, many bright nights when he could relax, let his worries down, and sit in the warmth of a roaring fire.

I’ve grown to appreciate bonfires more and more since losing my Dad. Like I’m sure he experienced, they also calm my mind and quiet my soul. More importantly, in the life after Dad, a bonfire helps me return to the moments of happiness in life when my Dad was here on Earth. I’ll sit and laugh when I think of his flamethrower. Or his obsession with exploding bamboo. Or his Christmas tree infernos (I sold my soul to the Devil and use an artificial tree, which I’m sure upsets Dad even in Heaven, but someday I’ll buy a real tree and make sure I set fire to it just like Dad would have wanted). I’ll smile when I picture the look of happiness that was always on his face when he sat in a high patio chair with a glass of Coke in hand. I simultaneously cry and happily remember how Dad would stoke the fire with a rake or pitchfork while Lucy ran around him wildly grabbing sticks and chewing them into a million pieces as he laughed at her craziness.

This Fall, I’ll burn a fire in honor of my Dad. I’ll remember all the great times he shared around the flames, and I’ll long to relive and correct all those nights when Dad sat by himself and I should have been next to him. If there’s a firepit in heaven, I’m sure Dad has a chair camped nearby.

Let’s just hope God has a few forests full of bamboo for Dad to play with.

Dad and Lucy Standing at Pumpkin Patch with SB LogoDad, When I think of the things you enjoyed, I always think of bonfires. They provided you with such amusement, but deep down I think they also provided you with a lot of peace. Your mind and soul just seemed to be quieter and happier when you were sitting around a good fire. I wish I could take back all of those days when you’d ask me to come sit with you and I said no. I wish I had spent more time with you around the fire, but there never would have been enough time with you because you made life so exciting and full of love. It may not be around a fire, but I’ll spend more time with those I love because I realize that I should have spent more time with you when I had the chance. I love you, Dad. I miss you like crazy, although I don’t miss the constant bamboo explosions. Okay, who am I kidding…of course I miss those. Thanks for all the fires we did share, but more importantly thanks for keeping the fire in my heart going even after you’re gone. I’m looking forward to that first bonfire together on the other side…I’ll bring the flamethrower. But for now, seeya Bub.

Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28 (NLT)

Last Words

As you may have done, I woke up this Monday morning with a barrage of CNN alerts on my phone. After trying to blink the fuzziness from my eyes and shake my brain awake, I sat up with my back against the headboard attempting to wake myself earlier than I wanted to—always a difficult task for me.

It was a little before 6am, and I was reading words on the screen of my phone that I didn’t think could be true. Shooting in Las Vegas. 20 confirmed deaths. Over 100 people injured. My heart immediately felt pain. Could this really be true?

Traveling for work that day, I found myself glued to the television set in the lobby of my hotel as I ate a good breakfast and chugged a few glasses of orange juice. I saw the same footage you likely did. I watched as innocent people attempting to have fun at a country concert ran in terror, hearing blasts but not knowing what they were or from where they came. I saw people huddled like school children in a tornado drill, attempting to seek shelter behind concrete barricades. I saw bodies lying scattered across the Vegas strip and wondered how, again, we found ourselves as a nation in the midst of brutal and senseless violence.

“Isn’t this just awful?” An elderly man who worked at the hotel serving breakfast came around to my table, motioning towards my empty plate that he planned to clear.

“Yes sir, it is,” I responded. “I just can’t wrap my head around why someone would do something like this.”

“I can’t either,” the man said. “It just don’t make sense anymore. Used to be when you had a disagreement with someone you could talk it out or settle things differently. Now, people just get mad and start killing and shooting. Even the church ain’t safe. People go get mad and shoot people in church.”

“It’s a scary world. It really is.” The man and I continued to talk. We watched the developments on the screen in front of us. It was still early, and the reporters on screen were still trying to make sense of what had happened in Las Vegas as I did the same with the man from the hotel.

As I drove from high school to high school that day for my job, I spent my time in the car listening to the radio station, and my stomach grew ill as the numbers steadily rose. 30 dead, 250 injured. Then 40 dead. And then, a staggering 59 deaths with over 500 people injured.

Whenever these tragedies occur, and God knows they occur all too often, I find myself looking at the pictures of the victims and reminding myself that those aren’t just pictures. Those are faces. Faces that belong to human beings with lives and families and stories that are important to tell. I’ll often find myself trying to learn more about those individuals. I’ll wonder about their families. Their careers. The things they would have accomplished had it not been for senseless violence. I think desperately about the loved ones they are leaving behind.

And yes, tragedies like this often remind leave me wondering about last words. What were the final things they said to those they loved? What are the final memories those loved ones will have of those they have to say goodbye to?

It reminds me to leave those I love with love at every chance I get.

It reminds me of how I left my Dad.

I am fortunate. Yes, fortunate. Yes, I lost my Dad. His death was unbelievably tragic and completely unnecessary. I wake up every single day wishing that losing my Dad was just a bad dream. I wake up every day wishing that things would go back to the way they were. That my Dad would still be alive. Still living, and still loving.

In spite of all of this, I am fortunate.

I am fortunate that my last words to my Dad were “I love you, Dad.”

And I am thankful that his last words to me were “I love you too, Bub.”

I will be forever grateful that my last words to my Dad were words of love.

I didn’t know those were going to be the last words I ever said to my Dad. In my heart of hearts, I believed I would leave my Dad that day and see him later that afternoon. I knew that things weren’t good in terms of his mental stability, but I didn’t know they were that bad. Never in my wildest nightmares would I have guessed that a morning conversation with my Dad on July 24, 2013 would be the last conversation we would ever share.

Just like those going to a country concert in Las Vegas never thought that they would be saying goodbye to their loved ones.

Monday’s massacre offered the reminder that I should never need. The reminder that life is amazingly scared and unbelievably fragile. Monday was a reminder that tragedy is often tragic because it’s so unexpected, so unnecessary, and so completely avoidable.

I’m not writing anything original. I’m probably not writing anything that you haven’t heard from a parent, grandparent, friend, pastor, or teacher. But it’s so important. And this weeks horror in Las Vegas is an unfortunate reminder.

I didn’t always leave my Dad with words of love. I think back over the times when I would get mad at my Dad or frustrated with him. Usually, it was because I was being a petty, annoying teenager. I would get mad at my Dad (like most teenagers do) for very, very stupid things. He made a comment about my driving. Who was he to comment about my driving?! He had all the family speeding tickets! Or he would use my laptop and inevitably screw something up. I would get mad at him and say something insensitive and then remind him of his transgressions every time he used my laptop in the future. Or the most egregious of all offenses: while I would be watching television in our family room, he would lay on the couch. And fall asleep. And snore. Loudly, annoyingly, and obnoxiously. Yes, I would actually get mad at my Dad for snoring. And I would yell at him and wake him up…or (my favorite move) I would pinch his nose until he woke himself up while I pretended like I had done nothing at all.

I see how petty, irrational, and insensitive I could be towards my Dad at times, which makes his unrelenting and unconditional love even more impressive.

My Dad was the man who understood the “last word” principle better than anyone. My Mom and I can both attest to this. There was rarely a time where my Dad would let a disagreement last longer than a few minutes. It was annoying for someone like me who likes to hold grudges. Dad and I would bicker about something, and thirty minutes later he would be talking to me as if nothing had happened. As a matter of fact, Dad had the uncanny ability to actually be even sweeter to people who were mad at him. I’m still trying to master this, but I’ll never be as good as he was.

My Dad lived his life as if his goodbyes might be his last. And I’m so thankful that he did, because it makes that last goodbye all the more special.

I have many regrets in my life, and many associated with how I treated my Dad when I didn’t get my way. I wasn’t a perfect son. But I am thankful that our last words, the words I’ll remember with amazing vividness, were simple expressions of love for one another.

In trying to understand my grief, I’ve talked with many other people who have lost their loved ones unexpectedly or prematurely. For every person I talk with that shares a similar story of their final conversation with a loved one, I also talk with folks who have deep-seated regret over the things they forgot to say. The angry comment on the way out the door. The argument over leaving a wet towel on the bathroom floor. Forgetting to say I love you. The things said in regret and the things unsaid in pride can be unbelievably detrimental to our souls when life gives way to tragedy and loss.

The horrible violence in Las Vegas this week is a reminder that we just don’t know when our words to a loved one might be our last. As the news reports rolled in on Monday, I stopped and said a prayer. I said a prayer for those 59 lives. I said a prayer for those 59 families. There are 59 people dead who didn’t deserve to have their last conversations with loved ones, but I prayed that those conversations were full of messages of love. I prayed that those who are now grieving are able to look back and remember saying or hearing “I love you.” I prayed that the memories they have are full of wonderful, loving moments. I prayed for peace at the soul level for these grieving families.

I currently sit in another hotel room, and as I write I am watching Bob Patterson and Amanda Patterson speak (courageously) on CNN. Lisa Patterson, Bob’s wife and Amanda’s mother, is among the 59 who are no longer with us for no reason whatsoever. I can see their heartache. I don’t know their pain, but I can feel it. I’m angry at this killer. I’m angry at the man who stole Lisa Patterson and so many others away from their loved ones. I’m angry at true villains, like murder and suicide, that take our loved ones away from us prematurely. I hope the families of the victims feel love and can remember the love from those they lost. It will be that lingering feeling of love that our loved ones leave behind that sustain us through the heartache and sorrow.

This week’s tragedy is a reminder. A reminder to always let our loved ones know we love them. It’s a simple lesson and a reminder we shouldn’t need, but how many times do you hear stories of individuals who lose a loved one who wish they had said “I love you” just one last time? We hear it all too often. Let’s make sure we refuse to let our last words be anything but expressions of love.

Love is nothing if it isn’t expressed. And I’m thankful my Dad taught me that each and every day.

Dad and Seagulls with Seeya Bub LogoDad, I miss you every single day. I replay our last conversation together in my head so frequently. I can see your face, I can hear your voice, and I can feel the warmth of our last embrace before I left the house that day. Dad, I’m so thankful that we told each other that we loved one another one last time before I left that day. And I’m sorry for all the days when I didn’t tell you I loved you. When I didn’t express my gratitude and appreciation for all the things you did for our family. When I didn’t tell you how proud I was of you for fighting so hard. Your death has proven to me just how fragile life really is. I hate that it took losing you for me to learn this lesson. Dad, you are still teaching me important life lessons every single day. I pray for those who are hurting this week in the aftermath of the Las Vegas shooting, and even though their departure (like yours) was far too soon, I hope that you are welcoming those 59 brave souls home in Heaven. I love you, Dad. Until our last words can be our first on the other side, seeya Bub.

“How then can evil overtake me or any plague come near? For he orders his angels to protect you wherever you go.” Psalm 91:10-11

Rocks

Since the time I was little, I’ve always liked rocks.

(If that isn’t a captivating intro, I don’t know what is. And now that I think about it, this could have something to do with my struggles in social settings…)

When I was a kid, I was like a little geologist. I have deeply entrenched memories of one of my favorite vacation activities growing up—mining for rocks!

(Once again, the implications for my social life are becoming clearer and clearer.)

As a kid, our family vacations often included trips to places like Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Brown County, Indiana. We often went there so my Mom could do lots of shopping and so my Dad and I could do…well, anything but shop.

No matter the destination, Mom and Dad always made our family vacations so special. As an only child (the social struggles continue), I was fortunate enough to often be the center of attention for my Mom and Dad. Looking back, I realize how truly lucky I am for that. My parents both worked very, very hard to provide for our family. They really deserved a vacation to be able to relax and unwind, but they always made sure to keep me bouncing from one fun activity to the next to make our vacations memorable. They obviously did their job, as those trips are still some of the happiest moments of my life.

Back to the rock obsession. Many cities like Gatlinburg often have a rather simple attraction for individuals like me who are interested in rocks. These little makeshift mines are all over the state of Tennessee for would-be-gemologists like me. You walk in and it feels like a real mine. Running water troughs, mining buckets, lanterns, mining carts. Often on display are huge geodes with beautiful purple crystals sparkling inside when they’ve been halved.

I have so many childhood vacation memories of my parents taking me to these little amateur mines and watching me as I explored the store. Then I got a chance to become a real miner, which was the most exciting part of the trip. Mom and Dad would walk up to the counter and buy a bag of dirt…

Wait…we actually paid for dirt?!

Stay focused, Bradshaw.

What made the dirt valuable was not the dirt itself, but the shiny gems that lay nestled within it. When I was little, I always daydreamed that my bag of dirt would include the scoop fresh from the mine that had a huge chunk of gold in it. Looking back, I see how gullible I really was, but what kid isn’t?

My favorite part of the day was when I would get to slowly pour my bag of dirt into a miner’s box with thick, screen netting across the bottom of it. Then, I would take my miner’s box and jewel-filled dirt over to the flowing water stations, and I would slowly rinse away the dirt to reveal the treasures underneath. I would then pick out the gems from the box and place them into a bag so I could take them home and…stare at them? I really don’t understand my fascination anymore, but I’m sure it was probably super cute.

As a kid, I always mined for rocks slowly and deliberately to maximize my time. I would pour tiny clumps of dirt into the box bit by bit and wash them away, because there was something super exciting about watching these dirty rocks turn into stunning gems with just a rinse of water. I wanted to milk the excitement for as long as I could. I remember going on vacation one time with my Mom’s side of the family when my little cousin (more like a little brother) Jake went mining with us. Always a bit impatient, he dumped his entire bag of dirt into the box at once and plunged it into the water, finishing everything in about thirty seconds flat. Rookie…

More than any rocks I ever found, I remember my Mom and Dad always being there with me and making the day even better. Mom and Dad would always sit on the bench next to me in front of the water troughs as I sat up on my knees and mined for gemstones. Mom’s face would light up anytime I found a purple amethyst, as that always seemed to be her favorite color. Dad, always a bit of a nature enthusiast, would use the charts on the wall to try and help me identify the rock names. One year, he even bought me a sectioned container that the gentleman at the store helped me label so I could sort my rocks accordingly. Wow, just writing that sentence made me realize what a little nerd I truly was…

Dad was also really good at finding the little, tiny gems that I likely would have missed. I can still picture his fingers crushing little clumps of dirt to reveal a shiny piece of gold (of the fool’s variety of course) for me to take home. Next to swimming in the hotel pool, mining for gems was always one of the highlights of my vacations as a kid, and I had my Mom and Dad to thank for it.

Those childhood trips are long gone, but the memories are still there. Now, I can put those memories in perspective when I think about the sacrifice my parents must have made for those vacations, and I can appreciate them even more.

After losing Dad, I worried that I’d never be able to enjoy another vacation or trip again. But I knew that vacations and trips were inevitable.

My job as a recruiter at Miami takes me to some pretty unique places. I’ve had the opportunity to recruit all throughout Ohio, but I’ve also been fortunate to travel to places like New York, Colorado, Texas, and most recently California to talk to students about their college dreams. I’ve had the chance to go to cool locations for professional conferences as well. I am also fortunate that God has given me the personal resources to travel and see and experience many amazing moments.

Although each trip is a little different, I often find myself saying the same thing over and over again…

“Boy, Dad really would have loved to see this.”

When I first started traveling after Dad’s death, I didn’t know how to handle this sadness. Oftentimes, I couldn’t. I would be in the middle of doing something touristy and I would just breakdown and sob. I would completely fall apart anytime I saw something cool that I wished I could have shown my Dad. There were numerous moments in the immediate aftermath of his death when I would actually take my phone out of my pocket and begin to dial his number before realizing he would never be able to pick up. It would tear my heart apart every time this would happen. As sad as I would feel, I would also feel extremely guilty. Guilty that I had never made enough time to see all of these things with him while I still could. The pain was paralyzing.

On one trip, however, an unexpected new tradition started that’s helped me cope with Dad’s loss. I had travelled to Aspen, Colorado and had some time to do some exploring of the natural beauty there. I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that some of God’s most beautiful handiwork is evident in the hills of those mountains. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen any landscape that can take my breath away like that of Aspen. The views are beyond stunning, and it only takes one visit and a hike to the top of a mountain to realize how truly small you are in light of God’s entire creation.

I decided to take one afternoon to hike up a mountain whose foothills were right behind my hotel. The guest services representative at the hotel warned me that the altitude would be a bit of an adjustment, and to give myself plenty of time to stop and breathe on the way up. I smiled and assured him that I had been working out pretty intensely recently, and started my trek.

As I sat on a rock huffing like a multi-decade smoker about seven minutes into the hike, I silently cursed the hotel representative for not warning me more vigorously of the pain I was going to endure.

Eventually (and very, very slowly) I made it to the top of that mountain. I looked down over the valley and the town of Aspen, and I couldn’t look away. I felt closer to God on that day. I felt closer to my Dad. And I said to myself, “Boy, Dad would have loved to see this.”

And I cried. I wept. I thought about all the good times we had and all the good times we wouldn’t. I wanted him there with me, even though he always has been. I wanted to feel his presence.

As I looked down at my shoes to wipe the tears from my eyes, I remembered seeing a rock. It was nothing fancy. Just an everyday rock at the top of a mountain. It was yellowish and a bit oddly shaped. When I held the rock in my hand, it looked like a little mountain. It was the type of rock that my Dad, a sometimes-annoying nature enthusiast, probably would have noticed.

And I felt Dad saying, “Hey, Bub. There’s a good one.” Just as he had said to me on so many of our rock mining expeditions together.

I picked up that rock, put it into my pocket, and eventually made my way down the side of the mountain. And ever since then, on every trip I go on, I’ve been picking up rocks for my Dad.

I have rocks from many different states. I grabbed a bright stone in Denver at Red Rocks Amphitheater. I picked up a rounded stone at a recent trip to the beach in Gulf Shores, Alabama that had been weathered smooth by the crashing waves. And just this past week, I snagged a yellowish rock from the craggy shores of a beach in Santa Cruz, California to commemorate the first time my feet ever touched the waters of the Pacific. This particular piece had broken loose from the large rocks that made up the shore, and taking it with me made it feel like I was holding onto something much bigger than a tiny stone. This was a piece of a huge and beautiful shoreline puzzle, and that piece was mine.

(Note: I have not investigated the legality of taking rocks from these areas, so if there are any environmentalists or rock cops reading this blog, please forgive me for my thievery.)

I have these rocks scattered around my house and, for the most part, I can look and tell you where each one came from. I remember the trips, and I remember the feeling of wanting my Dad to be there with me.

Those rocks remind me that he is—and that he always will be.

My Dad absolutely loved nature, so I think it’s only fitting that one of my testaments to him would harken back to something so primitive and so basic. It might be crazy, but I think about these rocks as being placed there for me to find by God and by my Dad. I think about them working together to design rocks that will grab my attention and placing them in cool spots that they want me to see. I think it’s their way of telling me not to feel guilty for living life without my Dad.

More than anything, these rocks help me cope. It might sound stupid, but we all grieve in our own unique ways. For me, those natural rocks are a connection to my Dad. They harken back to the days when my family, complete with him, would sit on a wooden bench in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and mine for little tiny gems to study in the backseat of the car on the way home. I would eagerly get home and show people the rubies and emeralds and pyrite and obsidian pieces I had discovered, and my Mom and Dad never made me feel nerdy or ashamed (maybe the should have!). These rocks are tangible reminders of my Dad. They remind me that his memory lives in on my life each and every day, and like a rock, they provide a strong foundation.

I have a feeling that I’ll be grabbing rocks until the day I die. It’s simple, and to some it may not seem like anything spectacular, but it helps me feel at ease. It’s helped me defeat the guilt that Satan wants me to irrationally experience. Yes, my Dad is gone, but all of the rocks—his rocks—are still here. They are scattered across the world, waiting for me to discover them. As he did many times when I was a kid, my Dad is beckoning me towards adventure. He’s telling me to live and to enjoy the living. He’s telling me that there are beautiful things we might not have seen together, but that we will get to experience the most beautiful scenery ever when we reunite again.

For those of you who are suffering and hurting and dealing with loss of any kind, I encourage you to find your rocks. Find the tangible thing that allows you to hold onto your loved ones and that reminds you that those individuals are always with you.

And parents…if your kid has a thing for rocks, rest easy. They’re cheaper than video games.

dad-and-me-in-pool-with-sb-logoDad, I have such fond memories of my childhood because you and Mom always made them so special. I remember all the wonderful trips we went on together, and I remember all of the things we used to do together that made those moments so memorable. I loved mining for rocks when I was little, and as nerdy as it might have been, you always encouraged me and kept the excitement at an all-time high. Dad, there were so many things I wish we could have had the opportunity together. I hate that we can’t do them now, but I am thankful that I’m able to remember you simply by grabbing a rock off of the ground. You are an amazing Father, both in life and in death, because you always made life worth living and you left an impression on everyone who knew you. Thank you, Dad, for always being my rock. Thank you for giving me the love I needed every day. Until I can thank you in person, seeya Bub.

“God alone is my rock and my salvation, my fortress where I will not be shaken.” Psalm 62:6 (NLT)