The Portrait

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

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

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

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

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

 

CF Payne Santa

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

But his heart is even greater than his gift.

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

CF Payne Joe Nuxhall Cutout

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CF Payne Illustration of Dad

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

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

“Well, did I get him?” he said.

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

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

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

I know of at least one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bringing Back the Magic: Guest Blog by Christian Morrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s wrong, mom?” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Morrow Guest Post GraphicMom,

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

Love Always,

Christian


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian Morrow

Guest Blogger Bio:

Christian Morrow

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

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

Check Please

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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