Paige

This past weekend, something magical and miraculous happened.

I asked the love of my life, Paige Marie Garber, to become my wife.

IMG_0336The greatest miracle? She said yes! And I’m the luckiest man alive to know that I’ll get to spend the rest of my life loving her.

Paige came into my life unexpectedly to say the least. There were so many times and moments where I was cornered by doubt and skepticism when it came to finding love. After searching and searching for the woman that God wanted for me, I was honestly starting to wonder whether or not the gift of a significant other would ever happen for me. I would hear people say over and over again that true love would happen when I least expected it. True love, they said, would come about when I wasn’t searching for it. Every time I heard this, I would laugh and roll my eyes, and nervously curse those people who thought that was helpful for me to hear.

And just like they said, that’s exactly what happened.

IMG_3449I cherish the unexpected when it comes to the way our paths crossed with one another. I know that God has been orchestrating little life moments all throughout my 31 years with the knowledge of eventually bringing us together. I know that God had a master plan, slowly but surely fitting all the puzzle pieces together at exactly the right moment.

Paige has supported me in ways that I can’t even begin to articulate. Life is more exciting and more adventurous because she is in it. She makes me laugh (sometimes unintentionally), and she can put a smile on my face like no one else can. When life has broken me down, she builds me back up and strengthens my confidence. She is the companion I’ve longed for my entire adult life, and being able to propose to her was the greatest honor of my lifetime. Saturday was a day I’ll remember as long as I live.

Saturday’s engagement was full of tremendous happiness—just as the past two years have been filled with happiness since Paige came into my life. When I knew that I wanted to ask Paige to be my wife, I felt that excitement and happiness, but I also felt a tremendous sense of sadness and longing desperation.

Because more than anything, I desperately wanted my Dad to be there. For me, for Paige, and for us.

For those of you who know Paige and knew my Dad, you probably know that they would have been two peas in a pod. They are alike in so many ways, and at times I’m reminded that this is likely one of the reasons that God put her into my life—to fill a portion of the void in my heart that my Dad’s loss left behind.

I often think about what it would have been like to introduce Paige to my Dad. He would have been his usual, gleeful self when he met her. I can see him smiling from ear to ear with that familiar twinkle in his eye when he saw her. I would bet my next paycheck on the joke he would have delivered—“Well, I see you are way out of his league!” He’s definitely right about that. She’s a blessing that I don’t deserve, but that’s what makes it special.

I think about what it would have been like to watch Paige get to know my Dad over time. He would have given her one of his ridiculous nicknames. In all likelihood, he would have called her Paigey-Waigey. And, in all likelihood, I would have rolled my eyes at him every single time he said it and begged him to stop. I can picture the two of them cracking jokes at my expense—likely in regards to my lack of athletic ability—and laughing hysterically with one another. Paige is also a tremendous athlete, as was my Dad. I am a tremendously horrible athlete. They definitely would have done anything they could to rub this in my face. Paige is a cryer when she laughs, and I can guarantee she would have been in tears (good ones) around my Dad all of the time. Whether it was jokes at my expense or ridiculously stupid Dad-humor that my Dad would have expensed, it would have been a life full of laughter around the two of them.

IMG_0253Both Paige and my Dad have a mutual love and appreciation for all things nature. From parks to puppies, Paige has always loved being surrounded by God’s creation. Secretly, I have a fear that I am going to be that husband who comes home and finds that his wife has picked up six puppies on her way home from work because she “just couldn’t say no to them!” (Note to Paige: Mentioning this on the blog is not an endorsement for you to actually do this.) My Dad had a way with animals that I’ve never seen before. Our family dogs always looked to my Dad as their favorite human. My Dad was able to befriend dogs in our neighborhood, horses on nearby farms, and I even have one picture of him petting—yes petting—a baby deer in the park close to our family home. Both Paige and my Dad just loved being in nature. My third date with Paige was at Sharon Woods, and I remember watching an indescribable sense of peace wash over her as we navigated the trails, creeks, and waterfalls (I tell myself it was my presence, not the natural surroundings, that provided this peace, but I digress…). My Dad had that same sense of calm and wonder any time he was in nature—which was often. My Dad would find any excuse to be outdoors, even if his son would claim it was “too hot” or “too sticky” or “too-not-television”. I think my Dad, and Paige, both feel that they are at their best when they are taking in God’s creation—and I’m thankful that they both remind me to slow down, look around, and join in the wonder.

My Dad loved life, and he loved injecting fun into his life and the lives of others in any way he could. Paige has that same fun-loving attitude. It’s one of the many things I love about her, and I love that she’s able to reflect my Dad’s spirit having never even met him. The journey through life with my Dad was always full of fun and laughter, which has taught me to value the wonderful moments in life I’ve been able to share with Paige. It made my decision to ask for her hand in marriage an easy one, but my Dad’s death also made the emotional tumult of this unique season of life even more intense.

IMG_0343All throughout this journey, from the moment I decided I wanted to marry Paige to the moment she said yes, I felt tremendous joy; but it was a joy accompanied by sadness because I really, really wanted to have my Dad there for everything. In each and every moment, I wanted him there right alongside me. In moments like this, a boy needs his father. My Dad deserved to be there for all of it.

There are so many things that a boy relies on his Dad for throughout this life. When my Dad passed away, I knew there were going to be many, many moments throughout my life when I needed his guidance, wisdom, and help. After he died, I felt the shock of his being gone rather quickly. When things would go wrong at my house, I wanted to call him to get his advice…and likely talk him into doing the repairs. When I finished my graduate school studies in 2014, I wanted my Dad to be there to join in the celebration; but he wasn’t there. I wanted his career guidance and advice when job opportunities started to become available, but I couldn’t call him. Every time I had a new announcing opportunity come my way, I wanted to share the great news with my Dad because I knew how happy he would have been.

But he wasn’t there, and he’s not here. He’s not here for any of that. I would obsess over this fact, and every day, no matter how much time may pass, I constantly have to remind myself, painfully, of his absence.

I’ve felt his absence in every moment, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt the weight of his absence as severely as I have throughout my decision to marry Paige.

I knew early on that Paige was the woman God had promised me. I could sense that she was my person—the person meant to compliment my shortcomings, build me into a better man, and journey with me throughout the ups and downs of this world. It didn’t take long for Paige to show me that she was a treasure greater than any other, and although I knew this in the deepest crevices of my heart, I still wanted to be able to talk with someone about how I felt.

I desperately wanted to talk with my Dad.

Don’t get me wrong—I had plenty of wonderful people to talk to about my love for Paige. I remember telling my Mom about Paige on a trip we took to Gulf Shores. I shared how special she was on that night, and in all those nights to come, and she’s loved Paige just like she would a daughter. I was able to talk with other relatives and close friends about my love for this amazing, spectacular woman. I had lots of amazing people who were willing to talk with me and listen to me and help me feel loved. I’ll always appreciate their wise counsel.

But sometimes, a boy just needs to talk to his Father. There is a connection between a father and a son that is unlike any other—not any better, just different and unique. When that void is there, the emotional pain can be very distressing. It’s helpful for young males to get guidance from older males, just like it’s helpful for young females to have guidance from older females. Our trajectories have similarities because men and women are different, and there’s a sense of safety in that similarity. This is why I needed to talk to my Dad. I needed to tell him that after many years of searching, doubt, and questions, God had answered my prayers and given me a wonderful woman that I wanted to marry.

I also wanted my Dad’s advice on how to navigate this journey because he had done it so well himself. I’ll be honest—I don’t know as much as I should about how my Dad came to know that my Mom, Becky, was the perfect woman for him. We never really talked about that in our time together, but had he been around when I decided to propose to Paige, I’m sure he would have shared his story. My Father found the perfect woman for him—a woman who complimented him wonderfully, encouraged him, and served as a faithful partner for nearly 30 wonderful years. My Mom deserved my Dad, and my Dad deserved my Mom. They were two Godly influences in my life they were built to serve one another in very unique ways. They taught me the value of hard work, the absolute necessity of kindness, and the importance of service and compassion. I know that they couldn’t have done this individually. These messages only could have wrung true had they come from both of my parents. It’s no easy feat to pick a mate in this life. In fact, it’s probably the biggest decision one could ever make. I would have loved to pick my Dad’s brain about how he knew my Mom was the woman God had sent for him. We never got to have that conversation, but I’m sure it would have given me solace, peace, and comfort throughout my own journey. Dad would have reassured me with his enthusiasm, kind heart, and unique sense of humor. He would have been the Father to me that I needed as I made that important decision.

But he couldn’t be there, and I hate it.

I vividly remember the night that I bought Paige’s ring. It was the night before Valentine’s Day, and with my chief-negotiator Chris Beatty at my side, we perused diamonds and settings and learned more about precious gems than I could have ever imagined.

The first diamond they showed me was the diamond I bought for Paige. It sparkled beautifully, just like her smile has done since the moment I first met her in 2016. The diamond was flawless, just like I see her. It was a stone worthy of only the most perfect woman, and I wanted to give it to her as a promise that she deserves only the best of me and all the things that this world can provide. That diamond ring, as beautiful as it may be, is still not enough to tell her how I feel about her.

After buying that ring, I remember getting in the truck and driving home. And I remember crying forcefully on that ride home, because I just wanted to call my Dad and tell him all about it. My Dad had been through the process of looking at rings and buying one for my Mom. It would have been so reassuring to hear his story. In fact, had he been alive, I probably would have had my Dad right next to my side as I picked out the ring. Those of you who knew my Dad know that anything he bought was always of the highest quality. From home improvement gadgets to clothes and gifts, my Dad was a man obsessed with quality.

Even though I never got to show it to him, I think my Dad would have been proud of the ring that I bought. He would have looked it over and asked ridiculously annoying questions about the materials to the salespeople, but ultimately he would have been excited to see me, his only son, buy a ring for the girl I love. And he would have done all this because he loved me, and because I know he would have loved Paige.

Shortly after buying the ring, I knew that I wanted my Mom to be the first person that I told about it. Over lunch at High Street Café in Hamilton just a few days later, I shared the good news with my Mom. I told her that Paige was the woman I wanted to marry, and that I had bought a ring to show her my love. We were both extremely happy, but we were also very, very sad in that moment as we thought about how badly we wanted my Dad to be there.

We were sad because we were sitting at a table for two, when we should have been sitting at a table for three.

Yes, the happiness was there in that moment. The happiness for a bright future filled with love and excitement. But you can’t experience that happiness after losing a loved one without simultaneously feeling sadness at their absence. And this, dear friends, was that double-edged moment. This was that complicated moment of undeniable happiness and inescapable heartache, grief, and longing.

And then, of course, there was the proposal. I’ve always appreciated theatrics, and I wanted to do something big and romantic that would show Paige just how special she is to me.

I proposed at the Joe Nuxhall Miracle League Fields (JNMLF), a place that is very special to me, and also a place that Paige has come to know and love throughout our relationship. I serve on the Board of Directors for the JNMLF’s, and Paige has accompanied me there for numerous events. I’ve seen the goodness of her heart as she watches individuals with physical and developmental disabilities play the game of baseball with a smile on her face and a tear in her eye. Watching her there the first time we visited was also one of those cornerstone moments in our relationship when I knew that she had a heart for those who are less fortunate.

So, I orchestrated what I hoped would be a miraculous (and hopefully surprising) night for her at the fields.

After an Oscar-worthy phone call from Kim Nuxhall, I convinced Paige that we needed to stop down at the fields and reset the security system before we went to a graduation party that evening. I had to grip the steering wheel of my truck tighter than I’ve ever gripped it before so she couldn’t see how bad my hands were shaking.

As we approached the fields, Paige and I got out of the truck as I slipped a small, black box into my left pocket. We slowly walked up the stairs to the concession stand under the main pavilion as the sun was setting to our left. Feigning confusion, I looked at the old-school concession board on the wall and said to Paige, “Something looks off on that board…”

Slowly, Paige scanned the board until she saw the message:

TODAY’S SPECIAL

DIAMOND RING

JUST SAY YES

5-26-2018

IMG_0326“Why does it say diamond ring?” she said to me nervously, and then, I placed my hands on her shoulders, and I told her how I felt about her. As I did this, photos of us together began to scroll on the video boards at the fields. Then, I got down on one knee (one very nervous, shaky knee) and asked her to marry me. She said yes, and all the promise of the next chapter of my life overwhelmed me with earth-shattering joy. I was able to envision our life together and see years into the future—and I absolutely loved what I saw.

After we embraced and held one another crying (don’t let her fool you, she definitely cried more than I did…), I rapped my knuckles on the walls of the concession stand. The concession windows flew open, and our families and friends greeted us with a cheer. Even if she knew I was going to propose, I don’t think she saw this part coming! I love Paige for a number of reasons, but her love of family and those around her has always been unbelievably impressive to me. The way she loves my Dad, even though she has never met him and never will in this life, is indescribable. Watching her eyes light up as she hugged each of our family members brought me tremendous joy.

And in my head, as I stood behind her, I pictured what it would have been like to watch her hug my Dad.

IMG_0358As our family members started to trickle out to the after-party, our dear friend Megan took some amazing pictures of us at the fields. As we smiled and posed for shot after shot, Megan asked us if there were any other pictures we would like to get before we left.

“There is one more, if you don’t care…” I said to Megan nervously.

Paige, Megan, and I walked around to the side of the concession stand towards the memorial wall, a spot at the Joe Nuxhall Miracle League Fields that is very important to me. On that red brick wall is a silver plaque graciously donated by Kim Nuxhall and the Nuxhall family that reads “In Memory of Scott Bradshaw”. They donated it shortly after my Dad died, and it makes me feel his presence each time I’m there. Every time I’m at the fields, I walk by that plaque, run my hands across the metal surface, and say a little prayer for my Dad.

On the day when I asked Paige to marry me, the most important day of my life thus far, I wanted to make sure I honored my Dad the only way I know how. With one of his handkerchiefs in my back pocket, Paige and I each put a hand on the metal plaque that bears my Dad’s name: Paige’s diamond-clad hand on the right side, and my hand on the left. I worked to hold back tears as Megan’s camera snapped away. All of the emotion of the past few months and the months and years to come were just brimming at the surface. All of the pent up feelings of loss and despair were right there with me; but so was my Dad’s spirit. I could feel him there with us. I could sense that we weren’t alone in that moment.

IMG_0406

And I could sense, more than anything, that we will never be without him in these really important moments to come throughout our life together.

On the ride home that evening after a party at Paige’s parents’ home, we talked about what a whirlwind of a day it had been. Numerous times, we just looked at each other with surprise and shock and said, “We’re engaged!” We talked about how great it was to have the privacy of the proposal but also share it with our families. Then, I shared with Paige how much I wished my Dad could have been there, and naturally began to tear up. I watched as her hand (much shinier than it previously was) slid over and gripped my forearm. I turned and saw the tears in her eyes as well, as I’m confident she knew this moment would come at some point in the evening.

And that’s another thing I love about Paige. From the moment I first shared the details of my Father’s death with her, she has shown me a compassion and care that surpasses understanding. The sense of nervousness I felt when I proposed to Paige was very similar to the night that I told her that my Father had died from suicide. Having just started to get to know one another for a few months, I didn’t know how she would react. I didn’t know how she would look at my Father, never having known him, with this revelation in mind. But on that night, just like she did in the truck after I proposed, Paige put her arms around my shoulders and comforted me. She understood that my Father was not defined by his depression or his death. She believed that my Father, the man who raised me and loved me into existence, was sick with a disease that he couldn’t understand. Watching and feeling her reaction was one of the most important moments of our entire relationship. It led us to this moment, and it will serve as the foundation of all the moments we have to come during a lifetime of happiness and unconditional love.

IMG_0412Of all the things I’m fortunate to have in this life, I’ve always said I’m most fortunate to be the son of Scott and Becky Bradshaw. Now, I can add one more title to the list. I’m the luckiest man alive because I’ll get to call Paige Garber my wife. Although she never met my Dad, I know that she still loves him—and that’s the greatest type of love anyone could ever give. It’s unconditional, Christ-centered, and life-changing. It’s the same type of love that my Dad gave to everyone he knew. It’s the love I still feel him providing from Heaven. It’s the type of love that sustains, builds up, and encourages in spite of difficult circumstances. It’s a love I wish I could have reminded my Dad of on his last day here with us.

An engagement unites individuals together, and in doing so, it’s brought Paige into my family. I wish, more than anything, that my Dad could have been a Father-in-law to Paige. They would have been a match made in heaven.

But I’m confident that my Dad, from Heaven, is telling Paige just how much he loves her. In that way, he’ll always be here with us. For these reasons, and so many more, I’m thankful for the love of my fiancée, the love of a Father, and the promise that we’ll all be together again someday.

Proposal Hands on Dad's PlaqueDad, You would have absolutely loved Paige. You are so alike in so many ways. I often think about what it would have been like to watch the two of you interact with one another—laughing at the same jokes, enjoying sitting around a bonfire together, and just generally appreciating the beauty and simplicity that life together affords. It would have been one of the greatest honors of my life to introduce her to you, but I would have felt that same honor in introducing you to her. Dad, I desperately wish that you could have been here for our relationship. I wish that you could have given me the wisdom and guidance that only a father can provide to a son when it comes to love and marriage. But even though you aren’t here with us right now, I can still feel your presence. I can still feel you prodding me along and helping me make the right moves in this life. I can imagine you would have said to me soon after meeting Paige, “You better hurry up and propose before she wises up!” And Dad, you’re exactly right. She is more than I deserve and more than I could ever hope for, and I thank God for that. On the night I proposed, and every night for that matter, I’ve wanted to have you in our life and in our relationship. You may not be here with us, but in so many ways you are here with us. Your memory lives on in everything I will do as a husband, and I’m thankful that I could watch your patient, kind example over the many years that you loved Mom and me. You are here with me, and you always will be. I promise that no matter how life might change, I’ll never, ever let your memory go. Thanks for loving me from afar, Dad. Thanks for loving us—all of us. I love you, and wish we were here together. Until that day when we are united again, seeya Bub.

“He who finds a wife finds what is good and receives favor from the Lord.” Proverbs 18:22 (NIV)

Dad’s Rules: Ice Cream

Dad's Rules Banner

Welcome to “Dad’s Rules”, a new recurring series at Seeya Bub. In this series, I’ll celebrate all the things that made my Dad, Scott Bradshaw, the man he was and the man that he still is in my memory and in the lives of those he loved. But before I launch in, let me tell you why this series is so important to me.

Death is difficult. That’s the understatement of the century. Losing a loved one leaves a gaping hole in the lives of those left behind that can never truly be replaced.

But there’s something worse than death, and that’s losing your loved one again.

I started this blog because I wanted to help those who were suffering. I wanted to use my Dad’s story to provide perspective to those suffering from mental illness or contemplating suicide. I wanted to prevent suicide in the lives of those in my community and throughout the world. Suicide devastated my family, and I just couldn’t sit idly by and watch it happen to other families. I wanted to make a huge difference—an eternal one.

Selfishly, however, I started this blog because I wanted to hang on to my Dad. I wanted to capture the 26 years full of memories that I had with him, and memorialize them forever. And I wanted to do this because…I felt like I was losing him again.

Time is fleeting, and as it moves on it is unbelievably easy to lose memories that we swore we never would. Unfortunately, I’ve felt that happening in my life more than I’d like. There were times when I would wake up in the middle of the night in a severe panic thinking I forgot what his voice sounded like. There were moments when I would sob uncontrollably because I felt like I was losing the visualization of his face and his physical features. There were instances when people would tell stories about my Dad that I should have remembered; and when I didn’t remember those stories, I felt a sickening sense of guilt. I would cry and sob when I would forget things about my Dad. He was too amazing to be forgotten, and the guilt of being the forgetful one broke me at the soul level.

In a sense, I felt like my Dad was dying again. It was painful enough losing him the first time. To lose his memory, the only thing I had left of him, was unbearable. I couldn’t let it happen.

Yes, I remember the big moments. The powerful, epic stories that showcase my Dad’s courage, strength, and love. But it’s the little moments I cherish most. The day to day interactions. The seemingly simple, anything-but-mundane memories are the ones I wanted. The big memories would be impossible to forget, thank God. It’s the little memories, however, that I needed. The sound of his voice, the smell of his cologne, the infectious laughter and that prize-winning smile. The little memories made up an amazing life, and I just couldn’t let them go.

I also wanted to start this series because I didn’t want my Dad to be defined by his mental illness or his death. Yes, my Dad died from suicide; but he lived for 50 wonderful, amazingly vivid years before that—and he lived those years to the fullest. I couldn’t ignore what happened to my Dad that ended his life prematurely, but I also couldn’t ignore the things that made his life worth living for so long. My Dad is not defined by the “2013” in bronze on his gravestone. My Dad is defined by that dash in between that is full of character, heart, and beautiful simplicity. My Dad was more than a victim of suicide. He was a Father. And a husband. And a brother. And a son. And a friend. And a coworker. And a church member. And a member of our community. He deserved to be remembered for those things, not just for his suffering.

And lastly, I wanted to write this series to share the story of a man that some of you have met, but that many of you haven’t. I’ve been so touched by the folks who read that knew my Dad during his life, and I am glad that I can help those who knew my Dad remember the story of his life; but I am so unbelievably amazed at those of you who read Seeya Bub regularly having never met my Dad. You take time out of your days to read stories of a man that I loved dearly and who loved everyone that he ever encountered. You have no idea how honored I am to carry his story on through the ages. Your reading makes a difference in my life, and in the lives of all who knew my Dad, love him, and miss him every day.

You can only understand my Dad’s struggle and untimely death if you first understand his life. You can only know why this story is important to me if you know why I loved the man that I’m writing about. Sharing my Dad’s rules for life will become one of the greatest honors I could ever have because God graced me with a Father that I didn’t deserve. My Dad never gave me a written set of rules to live by; he didn’t have to. Instead, he taught me how to live through little gestures, corrections full of unconditional love, and a patience that surpasses human understanding. My Dad occupied many roles on his walk through this life; but first and last, he was a teacher. To me, my family, and everyone he ever encountered. We could all live better lives because of the example he gave.

So, I ask you to enjoy “Dad’s Rules”. I ask you to visualize the man I knew and loved as I cling desperately to the moments that made him so lovable and unique. I invite you to remember that my Dad is not defined by his death, but by his life. And I ask you, when the moment seems right, to try and live by my Dad’s Rules to continue spreading the joy and positive energy that my Dad brought to this world.


Dad’s Rule #62: “There’s always room for ice cream.”

My Dad taught me many things in this life. He taught me how to drive. He taught me to love Jesus and the people Jesus loved. He taught me how to ride a bike. He taught me how to repair cracks in the drywall (correction: he “attempted” to teach me).

And yes, he taught me to love ice cream.

My Dad always savored food. He loved a good meal with good company. He loved homecooked dinners that my Mom would make, praising her talent in the kitchen. He loved going out to dinner and chowing down on a steak or a bowl of pasta.

But no matter how big the meal, there was always room for ice cream.

Now this is a rule that I can live with!

I’m pretty sure Dad’s love of ice cream existed long before I came around. From the time I was little, I can always remember sitting in the middle seat of his pickup with Mom against the window as we rambled down the road to Flub’s, a true Hamilton tradition. Flub’s is soft serve ice cream at its finest. It’s creamy, and it’s flavorful, and it’s heavenly. Our little family would stand in a typically-eight-deep-line under the yellow light of the small ice cream shack on a hot July night, pondering the menu with the indecisiveness of a politician in a re-election year. Eventually, we would all make our choices. Dad would order a variety of cyclone—a tasty treat usually mixed with plenty of chocolate sauce and chopped peanuts and whipped cream. Mom would vacillate between fruity sherbets and cyclones and swirled cones, rarely ordering the same thing. I usually ended up with soft-serve sherbet in a dish. Sometimes orange, but most of the time I ended up with the Flub’s specialty: Smurf (note: no real Smurfs are harmed in the making of this dessert). It’s a blue raspberry flavored sherbet that is served every day amidst the three or four daily rotating flavors of sherbet. And of course, I had to have eyes on my sherbet! (Those of you not from Hamilton are likely freaking out right now. Once again, not real Smurf eyes) It wasn’t a kid’s ice cream at Flub’s unless they put those two little sugary candy eyes on your treat. Mom and Dad always made sure I got my eyes on my ice cream…

Blue Smurf Sherbet from Flubs

The ice cream was always delicious, but more than that I remember sitting on the curb or on the lowered tailgate of Dad’s truck in the parking lot near the train tracks eating our dessert with Mom on one side and Dad on the other. Dad would use the long spoon to dig deep into his tall cup before the Ohio humidity could compromise his treat. He would savor every single bite. He never took those moments for granted, and I wish more than anything that I could travel back in time for another one of those family nights at Flub’s. We were all so happy. And we were all together.

And of course, we had delicious ice cream.

Unfortunately, Flub’s was only open during the hot summer months, but that never squelched Dad’s love for ice cream. Growing up, our family always made a big deal out of going out to dinner. Mom was a master chef and cooked most nights, but on a Friday or Saturday night we found a way to go out and enjoy a meal together. Unfortunately for my parents, I quit ordering kid’s meals around age 3, and there was always plenty of food to be had.

But even when the meal was big, there was always room for ice cream if my Dad had his way.

Oftentimes, I think Dad found an excuse for us to eat in the Tri-County area, because there was a Graeter’s Ice Cream located conveniently nearby.

And for those of you who don’t know Graeter’s….let me take a moment to help you realize that your entire life until this very moment has been largely unfulfilled.

Graeter’s is the mecca of ice cream in America. There is simply nothing like it. Anywhere. I’ve taken up the difficult task of trying to prove this wrong by sampling ice creams from all across the country, but nothing ever stacks up. Graeter’s ice cream is flavorful, dense, creamy, and more delicious than anything. But it’s also full of gargantuous chocolate! When they make the ice cream in giant French pots, they push the frozen ice cream mixture to the walls of the pot and pour in molten chocolate. Then, they let the paddles break the chocolate into random size pieces, which offers unbelievable excitement and suspense to the consumer. Sometimes, you get a chocolate chip the size of a penny. Other times, you get a chocolate chip the size of a Toyota Camry.

I made many, many trips to Graeter’s with my Dad over the years; and in all those trips, I only ever saw him order one thing.

Black Raspberry Chip.

It’s Graeter’s house flavor. Bright purple ice cream with a deliciously sweet flavor, intermingled with those luscious chocolate chunks. Yes, he might vary the delivery mechanism on occasion. Sometimes, it was a waffle cone. Other times he got a dish. But to my Dad, Graeter’s only offered one flavor.

Black Raspberry Chip

Dad loved it more than any other ice cream. When we would go on vacation and try other ice cream spots, I always knew what my Dad would say at the end of our dessert: “Good, but nothing like Graeter’s.” And he was always right.

When I was young, Graeter’s didn’t have nearly as many locations throughout the city. Now, thankfully, I can usually find a Graeter’s within 15 minutes of any spot I’m at throughout Cincinnati. There’s even a Graeter’s in Oxford where I work at Miami University. I know from plenty of practice that it’s an eight-and-a-half minute walk from my office to the Oxford Graeter’s. This, dear people, is the greatest accomplishment of my professional career.

But when I was younger, Graeter’s took more time and more investment; but an investment that was always worth it to Dad. And then, something miraculous happened. Graeter’s started hand-packing their ice cream and selling pints in the local grocery store.

When Dad heard the news, he wept. Our lives, and our waistlines, were never the same.

The pints were a bit expensive in the grocery store (“It’s worth every penny,” was Dad’s common refrain), but Mom would occasionally pick them up for us if the sale was right.

And there was no way that pint would make it through the night once Dad found out about it.

Dad taught me lots of things in this life, but we never got around to the “ice cream moderation” lesson. Oftentimes, Mom and I would find Dad camped out on the recliner in our family room with a spoon in one hand…and the entire pint in the other. His excuse? He didn’t want to unnecessarily add another dish to the sink. Good play, Pops. Good play.

Literally, no meal was ever too big to avoid ice cream. Even the unlimited ones. There’s one night that I’ll always remember as proof of my Dad’s unyielding love for ice cream. And, no surprise, it involves more regional food! Montgomery Inn, another Cincinnati-foodie-favorite, offers slabs of ribs the size of a small toddler. And those ribs are some of the absolute best I’ve ever had in my life. But once or twice a year, something magical happens; they decide to offer unlimited ribs. It’s wonderful and disgusting all at the same time. I mark my calendar every year like I would a major holiday.

One year, I decided to make the trip to the Montgomery Inn Boathouse with my Dad, our great family friend Shawn, and my friend Tyler Wade from graduate school at Miami. Dad drove us to the feast in his truck, and after we parked, we sat at our table, bibbed-up, and prepared to devour at least 17 hogs worth of delicious Montgomery Inn ribs. We ate like kings that night, inhaling plate after plate of ribs. Our poor waitress wore her feet out bringing us so many refills. After an hour of gorging had passed, we sat there full of sauce and sodium with belts screaming for relief. And then, my Dad did the unthinkable. He looked at our waitress, completely serious, and said “You all still serve Graeter’s ice cream here, right?”

We all started laughing like madmen, including the waitress. “Dad,” I said, “you can’t be serious. You just ate 14 plates of ribs. How can you even think about eating ice cream right now?”

He just smiled and looked at me through his thin-rimmed glasses. “There’s always room for ice cream.”

He ate a dish that night, and savored it just as much as he did any other. We laughed the entire time he ate it. And secretly, as stuffed as I was….I wished I had ordered one too.

As much as he loved Graeter’s, however, there was probably only one brand of ice cream that he ever liked more.

And that was the variety made at our family home.

It simply wasn’t summer in the Bradshaw house without homemade ice cream. My Grandpa Vern had started the tradition for as long as I had been alive, and he passed his recipe down through our family. If we had a family get-together in the summer, there was always homemade ice cream. Always. The inefficient homemade ice cream makers of the late 80’s and early 90’s took hours (if not days!) to churn a small cylinder of ice cream; but it was worth the wait for my Dad. He absolutely loved it.

Mostly, we ate the vanilla ice cream plain out of tall, Styrofoam cups. We eventually started adding fresh fruit as a topping. Strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries were often nearby for those looking for flavor and feigned-nutrition. But the recipe never changed; nor did my Dad’s love for the homemade ice cream.

Dad eventually bought his own ice cream maker, and he made sure he got a model big enough to make huge helpings of homemade ice cream; mainly to ensure leftovers. When we had a family get together, Dad would also encourage my Grandpa and my Uncle Lee to bring their ice cream makers too, and we would have three machines churning all at once while we splashed around in the pool and waited impatiently for our sweet summer treat. Dad even perfected the leftover process of eating homemade ice cream. He found that putting the ice cream in the microwave for 23 seconds returned the frozen mass to its original consistency. We had huge batches of ice cream left over in most scenarios, but Dad never let a single drop go to waste. He often ate it straight from the leftover container in one delicious sitting.

Whether Flub’s or Graeter’s or Bradshaw brand, Dad always had a smile on his face when he was eating ice cream; and that’s how I’ll always remember him. Happy and content with something as simple as a dish of great ice cream.

I’m so glad that I had a Father who knew how to indulge and enjoy life when the moment was right. I’m glad I had a Father who could locate beauty in some of life’s simplest pleasures. Sure, he probably could have taught me the importance of moderation, which might have helped me avoid the cholesterol conversations that I’m already having with my doctor (I just tell them it’s hereditary, which technically isn’t a lie. It’s my Dad who taught me to eat this way). Instead, he taught me that there’s always room for flavor in life.

I miss my Dad every single day. The feelings of loss have yet to fade, and I doubt they ever will. But when I miss him most, I’m glad that he gave me a convenient excuse to remember him by indulging a bit. On those really hard days, I’ll find an excuse to go enjoy a helping of Dad’s favorite ice cream. It’s a wonderful coping mechanism (not according to the cholesterol doctor, but what does she know anyway…). Sometimes I’ll smile, and sometimes I’ll fight back a few tears. But every time, I remember my Dad and the smile on his face as he enjoyed a good scoop (or seven) or ice cream. I laugh at how he could always find room to power through a pint. And I strive to enjoy life just as much as he did.

The burden is heavy to live up to his standard, but darn it, I’ll sure try my best. It’s the least I can do for my Dad to play life by his rules. What a tasty journey it is!

Me Feeding Dad Ice Cream with SB LogoDad, I don’t know if I could ever relate how much you loved ice cream and how often you enjoyed eating it. I have so many wonderful memories of getting ice cream with you and Mom on those hot summer evenings as a kid growing up. You always gave our family so much to enjoy, and we’ve felt that absence in our heart ever since you left. I miss watching you find a huge chocolate chunk in your black raspberry chip and the exaggerated excitement as you compared it to the size of my head (which was either a testament to the chocolate or insult to my head size). I miss finding empty pints and spoons in the family room next to your chair. I miss those random moments when life would get me down and you would propose the solution of riding out to get an ice cream to make it all better—I wish I had taken you up on it more than I did. Dad, through ice cream and everything you ever did, you taught me to enjoy the beauty of life and all its offerings. I know that I often take life too seriously. I often get so busy and so distracted that I forget to appreciate every bite and every minute that this life has to offer. It always hits me hard when I think of your memory, and I realize in those moments how much I want to be like you. Thank you for giving me these reminders. It’s these little moments in the absence of your being here with us that have provided the most solace and refuge for my soul. Thanks for being a Dad full of love; for ice cream, yes, but mostly for your family. I have no doubt there’s Graeter’s in heaven, and I’m sure you’re still their best customer. Until we can enjoy a few more pints together, I’ll keep missing you here. But I’ll never, ever forget you. I love you, Dad. Seeya, bub.

“Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life.” Ecclesiastes 5:18 (NLT)

I’m Here

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

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

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

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

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

And most importantly, he was there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I needed to get away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re where?” I replied nervously.

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

“Oh, uh….I’m not home,” I answered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comeback? Anyone? I had nothing.

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

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

“I’m here.”

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

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

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

He was there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masks

“We had no idea.”

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

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

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

“We had no idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

But most of the time, he was happy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grape Heart

As my family walked into church, we were each handed a snack-size Ziploc bag containing two items: one raisin, and one grape. The greeter smiled at us as he handed them out. Dad and I looked at each other and wondered….had our church converted to a different fruit-worshiping denomination since last week? Should we run?

For what seemed like an eternity, the morning announcements were given, the worship team sang, and the offering was collected. And the entire time, no one said a word about the bags of grapes and raisins. Did these people really understand the weirdness of what had happened when they came into the sanctuary this morning?!

Or wait…we did actually arrive on time to church that morning (a rarity in my family). Maybe they had been handing out grapes and raisins to the folks who showed up on time my entire life?! Maybe we had been missing out on the rewards for my entire life!

If all you get for showing up early is a grape and a raisin…I’ll take my extra 30 minutes of alarm-snooze—repeat. Wake me when they start giving out tacos and twenties.

If curiosity killed the cat, there was a vicious feline slaughter going on inside my brain during the beginning of the worship service. It just didn’t make any sense.

Finally, when our Pastor (Ted Herold) took the stage, he referenced the bag and its contents. And even though my Dad never explicitly told me this, the sermon that followed was my Dad’s favorite sermon that he ever heard. I’m positive of that. Dad always enjoyed Pastor Ted’s sermons, but I know how much he enjoyed this one, and I’m thankful for it.

I don’t remember the specific Scripture that Pastor Ted used that morning, but I do remember the message and I do remember the illustration (job well done, Pastor Ted!). It’s been stuck in my mind and my heart ever since that morning.

Pastor Ted instructed us to open our baggies and pull out the two contents: a red grape, and a wrinkled raisin. For the next few minutes, he actually had us compare and contrast the two items as a congregation. Dad rolled the grape and raisin around in his work-worn hands, and I looked on still wondering what was going on.

The raisin, the congregation agreed, was pretty lifeless. It was shrunken and wrinkled and shriveled. Pastor Ted asked the group “Does anyone here even like eating raisins anyway?!” A few of us raised our hands (I didn’t seek them out, but I didn’t hate them either), and Pastor Ted laughed. He then asked us to eat the raisins and react, as he feigned disgust from the front of the sanctuary.

Tasty? Maybe. But not as tasty as a grape.

Then, Pastor Ted went on to have us describe the grape we had in our hands. The grape was robust, especially compared to the raisin. The grape was full of life. The grape was colorful. The grape was bright. Essentially, the grape (although technically the same fruit) was everything that the raisin was not. Pastor Ted asked us to eat the grapes, and then describe it. They were tasty. They burst when you chewed them. They were juicy. Once again, all the things that the raisin we had previously ingested could not be.

That’s when the teaching began.

Pastor Ted asked us to think about the raisin and the grapes as metaphors. Metaphors for our heart. And he asked a simple question: “Do you have a grape heart? Or a raisin heart?”

If you had a raisin heart, your heart had lost its life. Your heart had shriveled into a fraction of what it used to be. Your raisin heart was lifeless, even dead. Your raisin heart had no brightness to it, no vividness. A raisin heart was empty. A raisin heart had nothing to give. It had been disconnected from the vine for too long.

A grape heart, on the other hand, was much different. A grape heart had life. A grape heart had energy. A grape heart had robustness, nearly bursting from the contents inside of it. A grape heart was so full of love that everything about its character was noticeably different from a heart that was empty, both inside and out.

And he continued to pose the question: “Do you have a raisin heart? Or a grape heart?” Do you have a heart that is shriveled and lifeless? Or do you have a heart that is bursting from all the love it contains? The message was simple. Jesus wanted His followers to live with grape hearts, not raisin hearts.

I’m sure we talked about that sermon on the way home and over lunch, because Dad would continue to bring it up throughout the years. And he would bring it up in typical Dad fashion.

Any teenager can get a bit….annoying; and I was no exception to that rule. At the top of all my annoyances? My impatience. I’ve always had trouble waiting for things, and I’ve never liked having to slow down.

My Dad, however, was different. He never, ever let the pace of life get the best of him, and I’ll always admire him for this. In fact, I strive to be like him in this way (and many others) more and more each day. Yes, his slower pace of life frustrated me beyond belief at times, but as I look back on his life, I am deeply envious of his ability to actually sit back, enjoy the moment, and escape from worry. I wish I had more of that in me.

I remember one time specifically when something had gone wrong with my car—which was not unusual. My brakes were squealing like a toddler on the playground with a pulled-pigtail, and I had been telling my Dad about it for what seemed like a month. Alas, there was still no repair, as my Dad was the family mechanic. Finally, with all of the teenage dramatics I could muster up, I went off on my Dad. I told him that I really needed him to fix the issue with my car. I told him that he always put things off. I told him that the squealing brakes were a safety issue. It was likely that I might slam into a tree or pedestrian because they wouldn’t function properly. Was he really this careless when it came to the safety of his only son? I told him the brakes were hurting my social life, which was already difficult enough to navigate with a silent vehicle. Girls wouldn’t even look at me if I had squeaky brakes. And if they didn’t look at me, I could never find someone to be with. Did he really want grandchildren? Well if he did, he better get to fixing those brakes!

After my tirade of nauseating complaints, my Dad just looked at me, months removed from that sermon, and delivered the ultimate comeback:

“You’ve got a little raisin heart,” he said. “You need a grape heart.”

Good luck coming up with a witty retort for that one. I had nothing.

I wasn’t the only victim of the “raisin heart” accusation. As all husbands and wives do, my Mom and Dad would occasionally bicker about things that needed to be done around the house. Mom, the keeper of the most immaculate and well-cleaned house I’ve ever seen, would grow frustrated with projects that would pile up around the house that my Dad had promised to take care of. He had promised to repair the holes in the wall from our fallen Christmas tree, but there were still two huge bolts in the living room from many, many years ago. He promised to clean up the garage and organize his tools (by the way, how much did he spend on that new Dewalt accessory?!), but there was still only room for one car in a two in a half car garage. And don’t you even get her started on that breaker that keeps shutting off every time we used the microwave and space heater at the same time! (My Dad has been gone for nearly five years, and that one still isn’t fixed…)

Dad, with all the sincerity and coolness that he brought to every situation, would simply look at my Mom with a loving smile and say “You’ve got a little raisin heart. You need a grape heart.”

Her comebacks to that were as nonexistent as mine.

Dad would use that refrain many, many times throughout the years to shut down arguments. And the sad part is—it always worked! We always, always let him get away with it! For all the times he used that line, we were never able to come up with a legitimate response.

Probably because we knew, deep down, that he was right. And also because my Dad lived with a grape heart each and every day of his life.

It’s easy to say this after someone is gone, but I would have said it when he was alive too. My Dad lived his life with more love than anyone I have ever known. My Dad lived his life so that others around him knew he loved them. In essence, my Dad lived with a grape heart, just like Pastor Ted had encouraged us to do many years ago. Dad lived with so much love that his heart was bursting at the seams. He lived with so much love that his heart was constantly overflowing with the love he felt for others and the world around him.

In true grape heart fashion, my Dad did more than tell people he loved them (which he often did). My Dad showed people that he loved them. I can’t even begin to recount all of the times that my Dad would show up at someone’s house who needed a repair. From installing ceiling fans to electrical repairs, my Dad was “that guy”. He was that guy that you knew would show up if you needed help with something. He was that guy who would show up to help you not out of obligation, but because he legitimately wanted to help. He didn’t do this for the gratitude. He didn’t do this out of any self-righteous desire to show how smart and talented he was. He did this because he had a grape heart—a heart bursting at the seams from all the love that it contained.

My Dad embodied the grape heart message long before he heard it, but I know that sermon left a lasting impact on him and the way he lived his life. Months and years after he heard that message, Dad still talked about it and made references to it. When it came to sermons, my Dad was a simple guy. He didn’t need complex theology. He didn’t need complicated or fanciful rhetoric. All he needed was the Scripture. All he needed was a bag with a grape and a raisin.

All he needed was a message of love.

Maybe you’re confused like I am. Maybe you’re reading and wondering how someone with this grape heart could succumb to a death from suicide. How could a person with a grape heart feel like life was unlivable?

As confused as I was at first by my Dad’s death, and on many days I still am, I think that his grape heart was precisely the reason why his depression could so severely manipulate his mind. Dad loved people, and he didn’t want to let them down. He never wanted to disappoint those he loved. Being “that guy” with a grape-heart attitude towards life, my Dad couldn’t bear to admit when he needed help and when he needed saving. Dad relied on that love for life, and when his depression got particularly strong, it preyed on his heart. His depression preyed on a misconception that if he let people down, they would think he didn’t love them.

I wish I could tell him we could never, ever be disappointed in him. I wish I could tell him that we would never stop loving him.

Above all, I wish that I had loved my Dad with more of a grape heart.

My Dad taught me how to love people. He taught me that grape-hearted people need to put hands and feet to the idea of love. Saying you love is one thing, but showing is confirmation of that love’s reality. I am learning day by day because of the example my Dad gave me. I don’t always do it perfectly, and the many times that I failed to show my Dad I loved him are examples of that. In spite of all my regrets, however, I’m thankful that on that fateful day when I saw him for the last time, I told him that I loved him. I told him how much he meant to me. I told him that we needed him in this life—not for what he did, but for who he was.

And now, almost five years removed from his death, I still need him. I still need his grape heart to love me and lead me. I still need the example that he set. I will never stop needing my Dad. Even though he can’t be here with me, I feel him near on so many days. Nearly every day in a different way, I’m reminded that his grape heart beats on.

Every now and then, usually right when I need it most, I hear a new story about my Dad that I hadn’t previously heard. I love hearing those stories. When I learn something new about my Dad, it’s like he’s still alive. If his new stories live on, so will he. And usually, those stories are always centered around the love he showed to someone. It’s the lunch he bought for someone he saw at a local restaurant. It’s the tool he leant to a neighbor or the well he helped install when a neighbor’s water went out. It’s the lengthy conversation he had with someone who was hurting deep down. It’s the car engines he fixed, the funny cards he gave, the jokes he told, the hospital visits, and so many more wonderful examples of grape-hearted love.

I’ll always remember that sermon and the way my Dad reacted to it. He didn’t just listen. He learned, and he lived differently as a result. He did more than eat a raisin and a grape. He let that grape heart of his change the world around him.

And I’ll always love my grape-hearted Dad.

Dad Holding Me as a Baby with SB LogoDad, I can still go back to that specific Sunday morning and remember the quizzical look on your face when we were handed that baggie with a grape and a raisin. I can remember and picture the way you engaged in that illustration. I can remember you always reminding me many Sundays after that about how I needed to live with a grape heart. But more than all of those memories, I remember the way you lived. I remember the way you loved others. I remember the way you lived and loved with a grape heart every single day. I’m trying to live more like you because you always showed people that your love was more than a sentiment. It meant something and it made a difference. It’s hard to find people who love others the way you did—and the way you still do from above. I still feel your love each and every day. I still feel your love guiding me through all the good times and the difficult times, and I’m thankful that your grape heart lives on. I wish I could tell you this in person. I wish I could give you the praise that you deserved. Until I can see you again and give you a big hug, seeya Bub.

“Let all that you do be done in love.” 1 Corinthians 16:14 (ESV)

Faith Answered

Childhood time is interesting.

Think back to your days as a grade schooler. Do you remember staring at the calendar thinking about how eagerly you anticipated the beginning of Summer vacation? And then do you remember staring at the calendar in August? The starting day of school stares at you, looming in the horizon. Grade schoolers stare at a calendar that is short on time but long on intimidation. I remember that feeling. I remember those fears. And I remember a summer when the fear almost got the best of me, and the lesson it taught me many years later when I would need it most.

“Auntie,” I said, “I don’t want to go to fifth grade.”

My Great Aunt Vivian, or “Auntie” as she’s always been to me, is the most faithful, steadfast, encouraging woman I’ve ever known. I’ve always heard that I should look for strong examples of faithful women all throughout the history pages of the Bible, but I’ve honestly never had to search or wonder because I’ve always been able to watch Auntie. My Aunt Vivian is an example of faith that knows no bounds or limitations.

Dad and AuntiePositive, upbeat, and always smiling, my Aunt Vivian was more like a grandmother to me when I was younger. Both of my parents worked (and worked hard) to provide for our family, which meant I was often in the care of family members like my grandparents. And of course, Auntie was always in that rotation—and I couldn’t have been more thankful. Early on in my life, and during the summer months as I aged, I spent many a day under the loving and watchful eye of my Auntie. I’m a better man today because of all those days I spent with her growing up.

And probably a bit more spoiled as well….

When I went to Auntie’s house during the summers, I was a little prince. Each and every morning, shortly after my arrival to her home, Auntie would give me a great big hug, lead me back to her corner television room, and ask me what I’d like to eat for breakfast. Since the time I was little, I’ve always loved food. Where most babysitting aunts and grandparents might offer a simple breakfast. Auntie offered a delicious menu unlike any other. Nearly every morning Auntie would set up my TV tray and bring me a hearty breakfast: a cheese omelet, perfectly cooked strips of bacon, two slices of buttery toast under the broiler, a bowl of strawberries or fresh fruit, and an ice-cold Dr. Pepper on the rocks (my addiction started young, and I never shared this part with my Mom). After eating breakfast, I would lounge in front of the TV or play with toys, occasionally following Auntie around her house until The Price Is Right came on. After acting like I actually knew the price of cars and everyday grocery items as a grade schooler, Auntie would eventually bring me a lunch just as delicious as the breakfast that I had consumed earlier. We would then spend the afternoons playing games, napping, and eating ice cream. Auntie’s wonderful husband, my Uncle Ray, would return home in the afternoon from his job as a barber on Main Street in Hamilton. Just like me, Auntie always took care of Ray and made him feel special. I remember all these days so vividly—and my taste buds can still take me back to one of those wonderful summer days. While my Mom and Dad worked hard at their jobs, I lived the life of luxury at Auntie’s house. It’s good to be prince.

This particular summer, however, wasn’t as luxurious as the past ones had been. As we turned calendar page after calendar page, I eventually saw August and could feel the anxiety building in my young heart.

This wasn’t just any summer. This was the summer between fourth grade and fifth grade, and in Fairfield, that signaled a big year. In the fifth grade, I would move into a new school. A new school with new teachers and new kids and new challenges. Although I would be in a regular classroom all day, there would be sixth graders with lockers and changing classes. Because the school was so much bigger, I had no idea if I would see my friends from Fairfield North Elementary. I had always been a pretty nervous, anxious, cautious kid. This big change, however, took everything to a whole new level.

I hadn’t let on to anyone—including Auntie—that I was nervous. For the most part, I had always enjoyed school. I was a good student. I always liked my teachers. I enjoyed learning and reading and all the things that go along with school. I couldn’t share with them how scared I was. Even as a little guy, I knew that weakness is bad. Weakness should be hidden.

Auntie, however, wasn’t just a caretaker. She was a caring caretaker. She loved me, and it showed in everything she did for me each and every day. And she was there right when I needed her. I can look back on that time, and I think that Auntie could see something was wrong with me. I think she knew that she could help.

Eventually, the day that all school children dread arrived. That particular Friday would be my last day at Auntie’s for the summer. The following Monday I would go back to school. Not just any school, but the new and scary school. During our morning conversation before breakfast, Auntie asked me if I was excited to start school. Never the greatest actor, I could no longer hide my fear.

“Auntie,” I said, “I don’t want to go to fifth grade.”

“What’s wrong, honey?” Auntie said as she came and sat next to me with the loving, careful tenderness that I’m sure she’s been doling out to members of our family her entire life. That tenderness made me feel safe and secure, and I let it all out. I don’t remember if I cried (knowing me, I probably did), but I shared all of my fears. I shared all of my apprehension. I told her that I just wanted to stay with her every day. I had planned to make it to at least 8th grade before dropping out, but maybe I could strike it rich as a contestant with Bob Barker. I mean, I had those laundry detergent prices memorized perfectly…

As I talked, Auntie listened. And she didn’t make me feel silly. She made me feel like I mattered. She didn’t minimize my feelings. She validated them. But she also told me that there was something bigger and more true to help me overcome those feelings.

Then, Auntie did something that was completely perfect. She did something that she did with me before every single meal I ate. She did something that I’m sure she has done so many times in her own life—both when the sun was shining or when the storms were rolling through.

“Ty, let’s pray for you,” she said.

Auntie came over and put her arm around me. I don’t remember the words of that particular prayer, but Auntie has always had a beautiful voice for prayer that I’ve admired since I was a youngster. For me, prayer has always been difficult. I stumble over my words, I am easily distracted, and I try to use flowery language that God probably can’t even decipher. My Aunt, however, is a prayer dynamo. She speaks to God the way we all should—she simply has a conversation with Him. She expresses her love for him. She thanks him for watching over us. And then, she boldly asks God to provide. She prays audaciously, without reservation or doubt. And that day, as an apprehensive and scared fifth-grader-to-be, she prayed for me as tears streamed down my suntanned cheeks.

I don’t remember how long she prayed, and I don’t even remember all the things she said; but I will always remember the way I felt. As Auntie asked God to watch over me, naming me directly to the Ruler of the Universe, I felt the mask of pretend courage I had created begin to melt away. The fears I had were all bubbling to the surface, and although the anxiety was still real, it felt less threatening because it was being exposed to the light. As Auntie acknowledged my fear, she asked God to give me the real courage and capability to overcome it.

My Auntie kissed me, she told me that she loved me and that she believed in me, and most importantly she told me that God would watch over me—in fifth grade, and in every grade that followed thereafter.

After that prayer, I made my way into her back yard to sit in the grass and soak up the last few rays of summer sun before the docile confines of a school classroom would rob me of my golden-brown skin. I sat there in the grass staring at the sky and looking into the clouds, trying my hardest to picture God resting above them and looking down over me. I wondered if He had heard the prayer that Auntie had just prayed for me—and I wondered if He would actually do all the things she had asked Him to do.

Eventually, the cloud gazing got boring and I shifted my attention lawn-ward. I looked at the green grass that surrounded me, and here and there I noticed tiny patches of clover. I combed my fingers through the clover slowly, wondering if there were any four leafers in the midst of all those threes. As I ran my fingers through the dewy lawn, something perfectly miraculous happened. I jumped onto my shins and tried to locate what I had just saw.

There, on that summer afternoon, I found my very first four leaf clover.

I couldn’t’ remember ever having found one before, but on that morning when I felt ridiculously weak, I felt like I found a symbol of encouragement. I plucked it from the ground, ran inside the back door, and saw Auntie standing near the stove.

“Auntie!” I exclaimed. “Look what I found!”

Auntie took the four-leaf clover from my hand and smiled. “See Ty,” she said in that same loving voice that had called out to God just a few moments earlier. “This is a sign of good luck, and it’s a sign that God is going to answer your prayers.”

As a ten year old with an ounce of wisdom and a million pounds of fear, there was something unbelievably reassuring about having found this sign of good luck. I believed it, but just in case it was a fluke, I turned to Auntie and said nervously… “Think there might be another one out there?”

Auntie did what only a loving great aunt would do. She went out into the August heat with me, got down on her hands and knees, and helped me search the entire backyard for another sign of good luck.

And because God loves to encourage His people….Auntie helped me find another four leaf clover. For all the fears I had on that day, I also had eight little green leaves worth of encouragement.

I was beaming because, in that moment, I felt like I had an army of angels on my side. I was overjoyed because I felt like this was a sure sign that things were going to go well. And on that day, even if it was just for an hour or so in the backyard as we searched for a four-leaf clover, Auntie put all of my fears and nerves out of sight and out of mind.

Auntie took those four leaf clovers and said she would keep them safe until the end of the day for me. I didn’t pay much attention to what she was doing with them, but I’m thankful that I had an aunt who understands that love packaged in a simple gesture can change a heart forever and ever.

I counted down the minutes anxiously as the day ended, knowing that my Mom’s arrival to pick me up and the end of summer were imminent. A few minutes before the day was set to end, Auntie came back to the television room and sat down on the couch next to me.

“Ty,” she said sweetly, “before you go, I want to give you this.”

With a glowing smile on her face, Auntie handed me a tiny card. Knowing that I loved dogs and puppies, Auntie picked a notecard with two Dalmatian puppies resting cutely in a fireman’s helmet. I opened the card, and inside I saw the two, four-leaf clovers we had found earlier in the day perfectly preserved under a sheet of plastic wrap. Underneath the good luck clovers, I saw a message written in Auntie’s familiar cursive writing.

“Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered and no one was there. Always remember this Tyler. I love you. Auntie.”

IMG_0631

Who needs good luck when you have an Auntie like mine?

With God’s love and Auntie’s prayers, I left her house that day still nervous but encouraged. I left her house believing that there was a greater power on my side, rooting for me and pushing me along. I read that card the entire way home. I put it on display on the bookshelf in my bedroom. I read it again the night before I was set to start fifth grade. I went to bed loved by so many, including God and Auntie, and I felt that love wrap its arms around me. Love was real because of that card, and so was my faith.

And guess what? I survived fifth grade! Although I did have to have my tonsils removed, nonetheless…

I don’t write this post because of my fifth-grade struggles, however. I write this post because that card would carry me through so many more difficult times. The card, its message, and the love of my Auntie would last for a lifetime—especially in the moments when I needed it most.

I awoke on a different summer morning years later with a sense of dread much worse than the one I had felt as fifth grade approached. I pulled my black suit and dark tie from my closet. Slowly and wearily, I found myself getting dressed and trying to understand how life could have fallen apart and shattered so unexpectedly. I was readying myself for a pain I had never experienced before.

In just a few short hours, I would be standing next to my Dad’s casket.

I didn’t know how I was going to do this—the funeral, or life in general. How could I ever live life without my Dad? Life with Dad was all I had ever known. Life with Dad was all I ever wanted. I didn’t want to enter this new chapter of life without him. His death from suicide had put me in a very dark, very anxious place. The fear of fifth grade seemed so distant and so inconsequential compared to what I would now have to go through.

Back then, fear had knocked at the door, faith had answered, and no one was there. Fear, however, was knocking again.

I knew that although the situation was much, much worse, the same faith would always be there. The same God that carried me through that trial would carry me through this much bigger one.

Thankfully, I still had that card and those clovers to remind me of His power.

The day of my Dad’s funeral, I carried two items in my suit pocket: a handkerchief that had once belonged to my Dad, and the card that Auntie had give me many years before. The clovers have since browned (although they’re still amazingly well-intact), and the corners of the card are slightly bent, but the words written by my loving Auntie are still as bold and powerful as they ever were. I opened it on that July morning, and cried when I read her words again:

“Fear knocked at the door. Faith answered and no one was there. Always remember this Tyler. I love you. Auntie.”

Standing next to my Dad’s casket, I just kept repeating the words that my Aunt had given me. Fear knocked. Faith answered. No one was there. Fear knocked. Faith answered. No one was there. Fear knocked. Faith answered. No one was there.

Occasionally, I could close my eyes and visualize it. I could picture the spiritual battle. I could see Satan with a crafty, wry smile on his face, rapping his knuckles on the door of my soul. Then, I could see that door creak open as the bright rays of faith in a loving Savior exploded through the door frame. I could see Satan, once cocky and arrogant, shielding his eyes from that blinding light of faith. I could see him running away from that doorway.

Fear knocked. Faith answered. No one was there.

Satan had hoped to defeat me and my entire family through the death and suicide of my Father. But if faith had answered back then, faith would answer again. And my entire family would find a way to answer with faith.

There were many moments standing by that casket when I would tap on the chest of my suit pocket, knowing the power of the card that was held near my heart. I would look at my Auntie, who was there for my Mom and I each and every moment we needed her in those days after losing Dad. I would see her and I would know that, although life looked dark in the current morning, faith was waiting just on the other side of the door to shine its light. Faith would answer. And fear would flee.


IMG_0629I have a few prized and cherished treasures in my possession. They aren’t the things I’ve spent the most money on. They aren’t the name-branded and logoed sweaters I can’t afford but buy anyway. They aren’t the pieces of sports memorabilia I have accumulated. They are things that are truly irreplaceable. One of a kind. Sacred.

They are items like this card—a simple card with two aged four-leaf clovers and a message that will last a lifetime. Just like Auntie’s love. Just like God’s love for me and all His people.

That card and the message that Auntie inscribed within it carried me through the days, months, and years after losing Dad. I’m not trying to sugar coat life, because in the aftermath of a traumatic loss it isn’t always easy. There are days that are near impossible to make it through successfully. There are days when I don’t want to get out of bed. There are days when I obsess over how all of this could be part of a redeemable plan from God. There are days when I can’t eat, nights when I can’t sleep, and seasons when the heartache overtakes me.

After my Dad’s funeral, I remember feeling completely paralyzed. I had been in bed for many hours, and I just couldn’t bring myself to even stand. That’s when Auntie came into my room, pulled up a chair, and did what she had done back then. She prayed. She prayed with all the power and belief and courage of a time-tested prayer warrior. She called upon God to do what He said He would do. She called on Him to help my entire family answer with faith and chase fear away.

Auntie and GrandmaEventually, I got out of bed. Although there have been other days when I can’t. And during every one of those moments, I remind myself. Fear is knocking at the door. Faith must answer. My faith has led me through the challenge of my Dad’s death on days when I just couldn’t do it. It breaks my heart to watch families impacted by suicide or traumatic loss who turn away from their faith, because I know that my faith and the love of Jesus Christ has been the most important component of my survival in life after Dad.

And on days when I need that reminder that my faith will always answer, I slip that card into my pocket. My Auntie’s inspiration and her amazing faith mean more to me than any four-leaf clover (or twin set) ever could. Fear will continue knocking. I’m grateful that I have my Auntie and a wonderful reminder of her faith to chase it away.

Dad and Auntie with SB LogoDad, There have been so many days after your death that have been full of fear. I didn’t know what I would ever do without you, because you were such a rock for our family. While you were here with us on Earth, however, you gave us all a great example of what faith and courage looked like. Dad, you fought so hard for so long. I can’t imagine how many painful days you must have had and how many times you pushed through when life seemed unbearable. I wish that I could have done more to help you. I’m thankful that we’ve had wonderful family, like Auntie, to help us in your absence. But I know you’re still watching over us. All of us, each and every day. I love you, Dad. I continue to be afraid of what life will be like without you in the years and decades to come, but I know I’ll see you again. Until that day, seeya Bub.

“God didn’t give us a cowardly spirit but a spirit of power, love, and good judgment.” 2 Timothy 1:7 (GW)

Dad’s Song

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

I loved it already.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Alas, we didn’t.

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

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

Strong

Will Hoge

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

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

Strong

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

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

He’s strong

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

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

How he was strong

Strong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Bringing Back the Magic: Guest Blog by Christian Morrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong, mom?” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Morrow Guest Post GraphicMom,

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

Love Always,

Christian


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Morrow

Guest Blogger Bio:

Christian Morrow

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

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