I opened my desk drawer at work and pulled out a jar of sand.
To the outsider looking in, the jar is nothing special. It’s a simple mason jar filled with gray sand. On top of the sand, there rests a handful of seashells. The seashells range in color, shape, and size.
But to me, that jar is a truly cherished possession. A gesture of love and compassion. Something that means more to me than most people would ever know. This unsuspecting jar of sand was a treasure that helped me get through some of the most difficult emotional obstacles of my life.
And it came from a student I’ll never forget.
Swimming trunks? Check. Sunscreen? Check. Shades? Check.
I ran through the list as I had done so many times before, as my family geared up for our summer vacation to Gulf Shores, Alabama. Mom, Dad, and I were heading down to the beach for a week. We hadn’t been in a few years as a family, so we were all looking forward to the opportunity to get away for a week and soak up the sun in our favorite seaside haven.
It was July of 2013.
In a week or so, my family would be leaving for our beach vacation, and we couldn’t be more excited. We all needed a break from the everyday routines we had established, and in my family nothing was more peaceful than parking a chair in the sand along the coast and staring out into the endless waves.
We were anticipating so many great times together in Gulf Shores, and we were also anticipating a very long and very uncomfortable ride in the truck. My Dad’s truck may have comfortably sat four riders, but that was without luggage. But even a family of three should have been able to fit in the truck somewhat-comfortably with plenty of luggage to last throughout the week.
Not my family. Specifically, not my Mom. Although Dad and I were pretty efficient packers, Mom always believed that we should bring anything and everything that we would possibly need or want during that week—and to be safe we should probably bring two of them.
The night leading up to our departure was always interesting, as Dad would try to solve the most complex game of Tetris he had ever encountered—piecing all of our luggage into the back of the truck without obstructing his view out of the rear window. I would always help my Dad as he put the luggage into the vehicle we were driving, and we would both shake our heads and bite our lips when we saw how much stuff we had packed. Dad would typically find at least one thing to grow endlessly frustrated about that my Mom had packed.
“Becky, do we really need to take a gallon sized plastic pitcher with us?” he would yell through the door.
“What am I going to make lemonade in if we don’t?” she would yell back.
Dad would turn around, mumble under his breath about how there were pitchers in the condo kitchen that she could probably use, and then he would do what any good husband would do. He put the pitcher back in the truck and packed it anyway.
But this summer, Dad had his new truck. In an effort to make us all a little more comfortable, he was scouring the Web for a new cap or toolbox he could put in the bed of his truck so we could store all of the luggage in there instead of cramming everything into the cab. Each night, Dad would spend some time looking at the newest name-brand contraptions that would turn the bed of his truck into the premium luggage hauler for our nearly 700 mile drive. He would slowly read things on the Internet, pondering reviews and printing out possible solutions.
He did this all the way up until the night before his death. I would like to think that my Dad was looking forward to that trip. I have no idea whether the suicidal thoughts he would feel the next day had already invaded his mind, but it’s very hard to imagine that my Dad would have been looking at options to increase his packing capacity had he not envisioned going to the beach.
What a great trip it would have been. Dad absolutely loved the beach. We had spent so many summer vacations sitting shore-side in chairs under umbrellas soaking in the sun and admiring what we thought was God’s most beautiful creation. My Dad always seemed to be at peace at the beach. He would lay calmly on a beach towel in the sand as the sun beat down on his back. He would dig holes and build sand sculptures. He would swim out as far as he possibly could into the ocean while my Mom looked on nervously from her chair.
But he was never isolated at the beach. He and my Mom would take long walks along the shore, talking and looking at the sea gulls as they flew by. He and I would toss a baseball back and forth until our arms got tired or we overheated, and then we would jump into the waves and toss a ball there instead. And Dad, always the chatterbox, would make friends with the strangers who had set up camp near us on the beach. He would get to know people from all over the country and learn about their lives. If he met them early on in the trip, he would be sure to get to say hello to them every day of the trip.
Dad just seemed so happy at the beach. It was his little slice of heaven on earth. And I often wonder if he’d still be sitting here next to me today had that trip been a week or so earlier. I can’t help but imagine…
Instead of spending that week on the beach, it was more than a month after my Dad’s death and I was sitting in my office chair at Miami University Middletown, staring aimlessly at my computer and pondering my new life. My work days, when I could actually get the strength to go in, were full of daydreaming, pondering, and distraction. I would try to commit my mind to projects and tasks before the start of the semester, but it was nearly impossible. I could only seem to think about my Dad and how desperately I missed him.
Mom and I hadn’t seriously entertained the idea of going on vacation without Dad after his funeral, even though many people had encouraged us to go anyway as a way to escape the reality of our new life. We both knew that it was just too early to go on a family vacation when we felt like our family wasn’t whole. Going to the beach without Dad was just too much for us to take on so soon. So, we stayed home and eventually tried to get back to normal life—or our new normal. I knew I couldn’t go so soon, and seriously wondered whether I would ever be able to go back again without him.
As I sat at my desk one afternoon trying not to cry, I heard a knock at my office door. It was Gillian Maxfield, one of my campus tour guides and a student I had grown to adore during her time at Miami.
“Hi there, Gillian,” I said, pronouncing her name with a hard “G” (like Gilligan), an inside joke between she and I that traced back to the first time I met her. I had read her name off of a roster of campus tour guides shortly after I took over the role at Miami, and when I pronounced her name the way I did, everyone laughed as she corrected me.
“It’s Gillian! Like with a ‘J’!” she laughed.
“But it doesn’t have a ‘J’,” I said with a look of mock confusion on my face. Honestly, I had never seen that name spelled that way! “It has a ‘G.’ Therefore, I’ll call you Gill-ee-en.”
Everyone laughed, including Gillian, and for as long as I worked at Miami I nearly always pronounced her name that way.
Gillian was the type of student that every educator dreams of—resilient, willing to take chances, and always appreciative of the opportunities she was given in life. Gillian came to Miami with a healthy dose of nervousness towards college, but she immediately started to embrace leadership opportunities all across the campus. She started participating in the wealth of student activities that were offered, and eventually joined the student organization that planned all of them. She held a campus job as an administrative assistant in the Dean of Students’ office. She was a dynamic student leader for the new student orientation programs held at the campus. And she became one of my most reliable, dependable, and engaging campus tour guides during her time there—not to mention a favorite for many of the families who came to explore.
Gillian always seemed a little nervous when she started giving tours on a regular basis after I began supervising the tour guides, but she was courageous and took every opportunity she could to improve her communication skills. She did it with great success, because her tour groups would always return from their stroll around campus with big smiles on their faces and plenty of compliments for their guide.
“Gillian was absolutely tremendous! She did a great job!” This was a common refrain from the visitors who would come to our campus. Gillian, always humble and never boasting, would smile, blush, and laugh nervously. She never failed to disappoint.
Seeing Gillian stand in my office doorway shortly after my return to work after Dad’s death was so comforting. She walked around my desk as I rose from my chair.
“I am so sorry to hear about your Dad, Tyler,” she said as she gave me a hug. “I know this must be a very difficult time for you.”
Her words were filled with compassion and generosity. She was always so genuine, and I appreciated this most. We both sat down and talked about how kind and supportive everyone had been during my return, and how I was slowly but surely learning to cope with a new world that my Dad was absent from.
Then, Gillian gave me one of the most genuine memories from that difficult chapter of my life that I still hold near and dear to my heart to this day. Gillian reached into her bag and pulled out a mason jar, handing it to me across the desk.
“I know that you weren’t able to go the beach this summer,” Gillian said, “and I know how much you were looking forward to going with your Mom and Dad. I wanted to bring you some sand and seashells from one of my family vacations as a way for you to remember the good times you had with your Dad at the beach.”
I looked at the mason jar as tears filled my eyes. I got up from my desk again, giving Gillian another hug as I attempted (unsuccessfully) not to break down. We sat back down as I turned the jar around in my hand, appreciating the beauty of the seashells and sand in front of me. Gillian was right—having that jar in my hand did bring back so many wonderful memories of the times that my family and I had spent together on the beach. I shared some of those stories with Gillian, and she sat in my office helping me grieve in ways that she never even knew. We talked for a while, and she let me express my feelings with the patience and maturity of someone far beyond her years. As we neared the end of our conversation, I got up to give her another hug as she left the office.
“Thank you, Gillian,” I said, pronouncing her name correctly for the first time in many years. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”
Just a few weeks ago, I was looking at that same jar of sand, yet again with tears in my eyes but for a very different reason.
I sat the jar down on the table, and walked out of my house in a black suit and shirt. After a short drive, I walked into the funeral home. I was there to attend Gillian’s funeral.
Health complications had taken her too soon. We hadn’t seen each other in a few years after I left the job at the Middletown Campus, a fact that I now felt very guilty about. It’s so easy to say that we will all stay in touch when jobs or other circumstances change, and I hate that time makes these promises so difficult to maintain.
I used to have such difficulty attending funerals, but being on the receiving end of one changes everything. Thousands of people came out to show their love and support for my Dad during his funeral, and it made my Mom and I feel so loved and cared for. Ever since then, I’ve learned how wonderful it can feel to have people attend a funeral and tell stories about their loved ones.
I went for Gillian, but I also went for her family. Before approaching the casket, I had a chance to share the story of the jar of sand with Gillian’s heartbroken parents, once again with tears in my eyes. I told them how that gesture of love had warmed my heart and helped me survive the most difficult loss of my life. I told them how proud I was of all Gillian had done at Miami.
“I’ve kept that jar in my desk ever since that day,” I told them. “Every now and then, I pull it out and think about that day when she came to my office and gave it to me. She is the type of student every educator dreams of. Thank you for sharing her with all of us.” We discussed all of the memories we both shared of her, and Gillian’s Dad even remembered the day she had gathered the materials for the jar. We smiled together through tears—a reflection of a life well lived.
We hugged, and I approached her casket, preparing to say my respects one last time. Although her body was in front of me, I could only see the Gillian in my memories, full of life and flashing that familiar smile that had warmed so many hearts on our campus during her time there.
“Thank you, Gillian, for the jar of sand,” I said to her in my final goodbyes. “Thank you for being you.”
That jar of sand will always be one of my most treasured possession—not because of the shells and sand it contains, but because of the love it represents. More than I could ever express to her in person, Gillian went out of her way to help me grieve. But when I attended the funeral that day, everyone had their own “jar of sand” story about Gillian. We could all recollect moments when Gillian had touched our hearts so deeply in completely extraordinary ways.
I hope I can be more like Gillian as I go through this life. I hope I can exude the same zest for life she showed each and every day. Tragedy is inevitable, and I hope that in someone else’s moment of distress I can provide a “jar of sand” for them. I will never, ever forget how much that loving gesture strengthened my courage and resolve to deal with tragedy, and I’ll always be grateful for Gillian—a student who, just like a seashell, was truly one of a kind.
Dad, I often envy the fact that you are meeting so many wonderful people who are in Heaven, and I hope you’ve had an opportunity to meet Gillian. She helped me remember all the wonderful moments you and I had shared together with Mom and our family at the beach. She was one of God’s angels here on Earth who helped me cope with your loss, and I have no doubt that you are thanking her in person for that jar of sand she gave me. Thank you for giving me so many great memories. Until we can share all of those memories again together, seeya Bub.
“So, encourage each other and build each other up…” 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV)