Dad’s Rules: Last One Up

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(This is the newest feature in “Dad’s Rules”, a recurring series at SeeyaBub.com. To learn more about the “Dad’s Rules” series, check out my first installment.)

Dad’s Rule #143: The last one up at the end of a beach day wins.

I have a lot of visual images of my Dad that will randomly pop into my head from time to time. Whenever I think of him, I get recall visual snapshots of him playing with our dog in the family room floor. I can picture him kicking a playground ball high into the air and watching him laugh as I would frantically (and unathletically) attempt to catch it. I can picture the sweat dripping off his brow as he worked in the yard wearing a gray work t-shirt, his infamous navy-blue workpants, and steel-toed boots. I can see his silhouette surrounded by the orange glow of backyard fire.

Nearly everywhere I look, I see my Dad.

But the first picture that always comes to mind when I think of my Dad is an image of him in a beach chair, watching the waves roll in across the shoreline. I’ll never quit seeing that image—and I’m so thankful for that.

Dad on the BeachWhen I was extremely young, my family never took beach vacations. To this day, I’m not sure why because we all loved the beach so much. My very first time seeing the ocean was on a family trip to Panama City, Florida as an eighth grader. Our entire family (grandparents and cousins included) spent a wonderful week on the Gulf Coast, and I remember the momentous nature of that trip, even as a middle schooler. A 12-hour, multi-day car ride had finally concluded, and my Mom and Dad walked me out towards the ocean once we arrived. With my parents, I saw the ocean for the very first time and I got to experience its magnitude. I got to touch sand, and taste saltwater, and splash in the world’s largest pool. Even as a young kid, I appreciated the significance of this experience.

And from that point on, the hook was set.

Each year, I would dream of going on a beach vacation. And, for the most part, my family tried to make that a regular occurrence. We had fun at Panama City, but dreamt that there was probably something better out there. As all good Ohioans will do, we made a trip to Myrtle Beach…and as we spent an hour on the main drag trying to get to dinner one evening, we vowed to find another beach for our family trips.

I ended up finding that beach when I asked my Mom if we could go to Gulf Shores, Alabama.

“Alabama?” I remember her saying to me. “Is there even a beach in Alabama?”

Truth be told, I didn’t know either. But, I had seen a commercial that talked about a beach in Alabama, and I desperately wanted to go. (For those of you who work in the marketing and branding fields, this should be undeniable proof that commercials still work on some people.)

We talked about it as a family, and Dad seemed excited. So Mom and I spent some time locating a condo in Orange Beach (which runs along the Gulf strip in Alabama), and just like that, our vacation had been booked!

Dad Mom and I at San Roc CayAfter a really, really long drive, my family finally arrived to our condo in Gulf Shores. Shortly after arriving, I think we all knew then that we had found our family vacation spot. There was something about it that made us feel like we were home.

And when it came to being by the beach, Dad was never more at home.

The beach was where my Dad belonged. It was the perfect culmination of awe-inducing nature, relaxation, and playfulness that my Dad deserved to experience. I got to spend many wonderful beach vacations with Dad over the years, and they are always so memorable because of the joy I saw my Dad experience every day. Dad always worked so hard, and I remember thinking how much he deserved every vacation we took. He enjoyed those vacations so much for so many different reasons, and I’m glad I have so many cherished memories of Dad near the beach.

He was the king of the beach walk. Dad could kick off his flip flops and walk for miles along the coastline. Sometimes he would walk with me, sometimes he would walk with Mom, and sometimes we would all walk together; but no matter who he was walking with, Dad was always talking. He would look out into the waves and point out things he saw in the distance: dolphins, oil rigs, sandbars. He would look down and grab shells before the tide pulled them back into the ocean. He would take those shells and turn them over and over with his rugged hands, marveling at the beauty of a small piece of God’s creation. He would stare up at the sky and take in the clouds, predicting what the weather would be like for the rest of the day.

And always the talker, it seemed that Dad would inevitably find someone along the shoreline and strike up a conversation with them. He made friends everywhere he went, and the beach was the prime breeding ground for finding new friends. Dad would often spot something unique about someone through his darkened glasses: a team’s logo on a beach tent, a nifty device that helped someone scoop up shells, a crafty beach sculpture, or just a friendly smile and wave from a stranger. I even saw him start a conversation with someone who was fishing on the shore once—and my Dad did not fish regularly! Dad would use those seemingly mundane things to get to know people. He would find out about where they came from, what they did for a living, their families, and what they loved about the beach.

On the beach, as he talked with complete strangers, Dad taught me that people love talking. And I think his mission in life, even when he was on vacation, was to listen to them and get to know them.

Although Dad could nap with the best narcoleptic, he rarely used his time at the beach to nap. “Why would I want to close my eyes and sleep when I’ve got all this to look at?!” he said to me once. Sure, he might nod off every now and then, but most of his time was spent having fun and doing playful things. And I’m thankful that no matter how old he got, Dad never lost that sense of playful whimsy when he went to the beach together.

Dad Throwing a Frisbee at BeachAs I’ve written before, Dad was a tremendous athlete. And also as I’ve written before, I was a horrible one. But Dad never let my lack of athleticism curb an opportunity to play. At the beach, Dad and I could throw a frisbee for hours—as long as the wind cooperated. We would warm up close to one another and gradually step back as we threw until we would finally hit a point where we had to wind our torsos like a corkscrew to get the frisbee to sail over the white sand. Dad and I would leap and dive into the sand to catch a frisbee—his leaps and dives always significantly more graceful than mine—and we would yell at each other for not being able to properly hit our target. “Did you actually expect me to catch that?!” we would yell across the beach at one another. “You’re gonna kill a kid with that thing if you don’t learn how to throw it!”

And of all the essentials that needed to be packed for a beach vacation, our gloves and a baseball were at the top of the list. In fact, Dad and I never had a single beach vacation together without our gloves in tow. We loved standing in the sand and tossing back and forth, even though Dad’s arm was always a bit stronger than mine. Okay, more than a bit. It was so peaceful, and so rhythmic. The beach, in my mind, is the perfect place to throw a baseball. On occasion, I’ll still shake my glove out and feel grains of sand fall out of the leather. It reminds me of all those wonderful hours we would spend near the ocean tossing a baseball back and forth.

But Dad’s fun was never limited to what people “his age” should be doing because he never let adult expectations overshadow his inner youngster. Dad would dig holes in the sand for absolutely no reason other than to see how deep he could dig. Sweat would drip from his bald head and sand would stick to his arms, and just like a child he would constantly beckon Mom and I to see how deep he was able to dig. “See that water down there?” he’d say with the excitement of a young boy eager to show off his accomplishments. And Dad didn’t have time for cheap, plastic, inefficient beach-store shovels. Dad started bringing his own shovels from the barn back home, attempting to beat his own personal record year after year.

He would build sand castles. And he would make silly sunscreen patterns on his tanned head. And he would feed seagulls, and I would yell at him that birds were created by Satan and that I hoped they would peck his eyes out after he ran out of Cheez-Its just to teach him a lesson.

And Dad, as he always did, would laugh about everything. And on the beach, he always taught me that you’re never too old to be a kid again. He taught me that in order to make memories, you have to make life fun.

Mom and Dad at BeachAnd at the beach, Dad never played it safe. More than anything, I think Dad and I probably got the most enjoyment of our daily game of “See Who Can Swim the Furthest Out from the Shore and Make Mom Freak Out the Most” (catchy, no?). Much to my Mom’s displeasure, Dad and I were notorious for jumping into the water and swimming straight ahead until our arms gave out. The water would grow colder and colder the further we would swim, and periodically Dad would stick his arms high above his head and straight-dive down to see if he could still touch the bottom. If he could, we still weren’t out far enough. All the while, my poor Mother would sit anxiously in her beach chair watching our bobbing heads grow smaller and smaller in the waves. The best version of the game was on the beaches where there were life guards on duty, and in those scenarios, we tried to see how loud we could get them to blow their whistles at us! We knew we were really killing the game if we could swim far enough to encounter a deeper sandbar, and if we did, we would sit out on the sandbar and rest until it was time to swim back in. Dad would wave to Mom on occasion from the depths of the mighty ocean, and it was amazing how peaceful the deep ocean water can be. All the ambient noises of the beach fade away when you’re that far out (you especially can’t hear life guard whistles or motherly-shrieks).

I loved it. And I miss it to this day.

Dad found fun things to do when he was at the beach, even if those fun things could’ve risked personal injury. He would usually find a day to rent a wave runner and skip across the glistening waves, going entirely too fast. And he only ran that wave runner onto a hidden sandbar that one time. He went parasailing once with my Grandfather, and they joked about whose weight would create more drag, making it harder to get the sail in the air. At the urging of my Grandpa on a full-family vacation, Dad was one of the four brave individuals who took a ride on the infamous Banana Boat. If you’ve ever ridden a Banana Boat, you know that the goal of any Banana Boat driver is to mercilessly throw the passengers into the ocean as many times as possible. My Dad, Grandpa, Uncle, and Aunt were only flung into the ocean about six times, and my Uncle Lee only threatened to remove himself from the family once. Dad laughed every single time he retold the story of being on the Banana Boat and Lee’s raging anger at my Grandpa for making him do it in the first place, and Dad never let go of the wild and uncontrolled joy he felt any time he was doing something fun near the ocean.

On the beach, Dad taught me that sometimes, in order to do something fun, you’ve also got to do something that might have an element of danger to it. As a kid who was pretty risk-averse, Dad knew I needed that reminder.

And although he was busy with hole-digging projects and shell-collecting expeditions, Dad never let the busyness of home invade his vacations. Unlike some Dads I watched on the beach, my Dad was rarely on his phone. He didn’t see the need to take phone calls—the world back home would function just fine without him, and he had more important things to focus on. He was there to love his family and make our lives more enjoyable. He was there to create lasting memories with all of us. We were on vacation, which meant home could wait.

But Dad had one rule at the beach that trumped all others. One central rule that was most important, and one rule that he lived out every single day that he was shoreside:

He would always, always, be the last one up.

My family’s routine at the beach has always been very simple, very consistent. Each day we are at the beach, our schedule always looks the same.

Morning: Go to the beach.

Afternoon: Enjoy the beach. And eat lunch at the beach so you don’t lose valuable beach time.

Late Afternoon: Stay at the beach.

Evening: Go out to dinner.

Late Evening: Go to sleep so you can wake up and do it all over again.

“Beach, Eat, Repeat” has always been the mantra of our family vacations, and none of us would have had it any other way. There is too much to witness at the beach to even think about doing anything else.

But around 4 or 5 o’clock, the stomach begins to growl. And all of the wonderful seafood restaurants of Gulf Shores begin to beckon the hungry Bradshaw’s. So, reluctantly, we would pack up our beachside oasis and make our way back up to the condo.

Mom was always first, because she took the longest to get ready. I would follow next. And Dad was always last.

And it wasn’t even close.

Getting Dad to leave the beach each day was like trying to pull a lion out of a freezer of fresh Kobe steaks. Dad loved everything about the beach, but he especially loved the beach at dusk. Always the nature buff, Dad enjoyed watching the sun set into the ocean. He loved watching the orange glow dance off the tops of the unrelenting waves. But even though he was a people-person to the millionth degree, I think the thing he liked most about the beach at dusk was that he felt like he had it all to himself. All those suckers who went up to their rooms at 4 or 5 were missing out on having solitude along the shore. Dad would sit there with his chair in the shallow water, digging his toes into the sand and staring out across the Gulf.

Dad Grandma and Grandpa at BeachMy Grandpa even told a story at Dad’s funeral about his love for always being the last one up. On occasion, my family would take vacations with our extended family, which included my Grandpa Vern, Grandma Sharon, my Uncle Lee, my Aunt Beth, and my two cousins Jake and Megan. Those were always wonderful vacations, and every day, my Grandpa and my Dad were always the last ones up to the condo. But even my Grandpa couldn’t hang with my Dad.

“Scott,” he’d say, “I think I’m going to head on up so we can head out for dinner. You coming?”

“Okay. Yeah, I’ll be up in a minute,” Dad would respond.

And 45 minutes later, he’d still be sitting there, camped on the shore looking out over the blue water.

And had it not been for my impatience, he probably never would have left.

As Mom and I grew hungrier and hungrier, I would pace on the balcony and look down at my Dad. From a distance, all I could spot was the back of his shiny bald head, and I would grow angrier and angrier that he wasn’t coming up to get ready. Didn’t he know all the families of 18 with annoying kids went to dinner at 6?! If we didn’t get in the truck within the next 10 minutes, there was a good chance that the entire slew of restaurants in Gulf Shores would simultaneously run out of seafood and we’d be stuck eating lunchmeat and peanuts in the condo for dinner?!

So, I would do what all impatient sons do; I annoyed the bajeezus out of my Dad. I would call his cell phone repeatedly, and he would rarely pick up. On the times he did, I would tell him that Mom and I were tired of waiting and that if he didn’t get up here within the next ten minutes we were going to leave without him. Hearing my threat, Dad would laugh and tell me that he was very, very scared, and he would sit back down in his chair as I fumed from my balcony overlook. If he waited long enough, I would even begin yelling from the balcony—which is a really mature thing to do, by the way.

Eventually, although never quick enough, Dad would come up. And he would take way too long in the shower (how does a guy with no hair still take a thirty minute shower?!). And all the while, my stomach would slowly eat away at itself. And then, we’d go out to dinner, and they’d still have seafood, and my hangriness would fade, and I’d feel bad that I had treated my Dad that way.

And now that he’s gone, I feel horrible for the way I acted. And I wish I could apologize. But more than that, I wish I could just sit next to him again and not worry about the clock.

I feel bad because I think, deep down, my Dad understood how precious his time at the beach was. No matter how long he lived, he would never be able to spend enough days at the beach. He would never be able to get enough of God’s most beautiful creation. And no matter how long he stayed there, I think he knew that he would only have a limited number of those sunsets in his life. So, he stayed there as long as he could to soak them all up.

I’m glad he was always the last one up, because it made him happy. And I’d do anything to stare down from the condo balcony and see him parked in a beach chair again.

Most people don’t know, but my family was actually scheduled to go on a beach vacation at the end of July 2013—the week after my Dad’s death. We had the trip booked for months. In fact, the night before he died, Dad was shopping online for a cap for his truck bed to protect all of our luggage. After he passed away, some people told Mom and I that we should have went on the vacation anyway to get our mind off things, but how do you get your mind off of losing an immediate family member? And do you even want to get your mind off of that? Mom and I didn’t even entertain the idea of going to the beach without Dad. His absence was palpable, but it would have been magnified and exacerbated in unbelievable ways had we gone to the beach without him.

Mom and I decided to stay home, and secretly I wondered in my head whether or not I’d ever be able to go back to the beach again. The grief I felt in that moment scared me. I was afraid that every time I went to the beach without my Dad, I’d feel that same sense of pain and despair. The thought alone was debilitating.

About two years after losing Dad, my good friend Steve asked me if I wanted to go to the beach for a week as a Christmas gift (talk about having good friends!). I had wanted to go, but I was still worried about going. I was worried that, emotionally, the trip might be too much. I was worried that I hadn’t given myself enough time or space to grieve properly. And in the back of my mind, I still worried that I might not ever be able to go to the beach without thinking of Dad and picturing him there.

And guess what? I was right. I was right about the fact that I would never, never go to the beach without thinking of my Dad and conjuring up images of us there together. But I was wrong in assuming that those reflections would always be grief-inducing. Yes, there would be plenty of sadness, but there were also so many wonderful positive memories of Dad at the beach that brought a smile to my face even while I was upset. Going to the beach had the effect of flipping through a photo album after losing a loved one; yes, there would be tears as you turned each page, but it would also remind you of happy moments that you tend to forget in the midst of your loss.

I took Steve up on that offer, and I remember seeing the ocean for the first time after Dad’s death. When we grieve a loss, we tend to divide every aspect of our lives into before and after chapters. Instead of having the “first time” with any given activity, you have two first times. There’s the real first time, and then the first time after the tragedy. The first time after life changes permanently. Standing on the shore for the first time and touching my toes in the Gulf for the first time in my life on Earth without Dad was a pretty monumental and overwhelming experience. I remember standing there and thinking about Dad, and I began to tear up as I watched the sunset—a sunset that Dad certainly would have loved.

Dad and I At the BeachStanding there at the beach, I told Steve how much I missed my Dad. I really didn’t have to say anything, because Steve knew—and he was experiencing the grief himself. Steve had been tremendously close with my entire family, and my Dad treated him just like he would treat his own son. Instead of only crying, though, I was able to share tremendous memories and stories of my Dad, telling Steve all about the funny things he had done at the beach on our family vacations. I shared stories about Dad’s Banana Boat expedition, his wave-runner sandbar collision, and how he was always the last one up for dinner. Little by little, the tears were slowly replaced with a smile and laughter. I didn’t miss him any less; I just had a different focus. Instead of focusing on the loss, I was able to focus on his life. Instead of focusing on the time we didn’t have together, I focused on all the wonderful times we did.

I’ve been to the beach a few times since losing Dad, and whenever I go, memories of Dad are always in tow with me. There will never be a day when I go to the beach and don’t think about my Dad. But instead of just thinking about him, I try my best to live by his beach rules. I get up extra early so I can watch the sun rise. I swim out as far as I possibly can into the ocean—much to Paige’s dismay—and once I’m far enough out, I talk to my Dad and tell him how much I miss him. I talk with complete strangers on the beach and get to know them because that’s what Dad would have done.

And of course, I’ve taken up Dad’s throne of being the last one up.

Megan Jake Ty and Dad at BeachI spend a lot of time on the beach during dusk as many of the families on the shore will begin to retreat to their condos. And I do this for a simple reason: that’s what Dad would have done. I’ve learned why he loved it so much. As the beach starts to quiet down from a busy day of frivolity and fun, there’s a quiet stillness that begins to wash across the shore. That stillness is enticing and comforting, and it’s in those moments that I often feel closest to God. And I think about how peaceful those moments must have been to a man who struggled with depression. Dad treasured that peace. And now, I treasure the memory of his life during those peaceful moments, and I try to live it out every chance I get.

So, when everyone else starts to pack up their chairs, I plant mine a little closer to the water to honor my Dad. I let the waves wash across my sand-worn feet. I look out across the beach, and I smile. And in my heart, I thank my Dad for all those wonderful summer vacations. And I thank him for showing me the beauty of being the last one up.

Dad Burying My Head in Sand with SB LogoDad, there has never been a time when I’ve gone to the beach without thinking of you—and there never will be. You made our time at the beach together so memorable, but more than that, you taught me so many important life lessons while we were there. You taught me to slow down and relax. You taught me to soak in God’s beautiful creation. You taught me to be kind to people and get to know them, because God created them, too. You taught me to let go of all the busy things from back home and simply enjoy the life that was in front of me in that moment. I take these lessons with me everywhere I go, but especially when I go to the beach. Even though I’m still able to have fun when I go, it just isn’t the same without you. I miss our throwing sessions, and sometimes I’ll just carry a baseball in my backpack to turn over and over in my hands and think of the time we spent together. I miss trying to see who could swim the furthest out, and watching you beckon me further even when I felt like I couldn’t keep swimming. I miss walking along the shoreline with you and listening to your stories about oil rigs in the distance or planes flying overhead. You had an inquisitive, appreciative spirit for all life had to offer. And more than anything, I miss watching you enjoy those moments on the shore by yourself being the last one up. It’s strange, but sometimes it’s like I look down from the balcony and I can still see you sitting there. Dad, I know you’re still with me. I know that you’re guiding me and watching over me in everything that I do. Thank you for always being my best teacher. Thank you for being a Dad unlike any other. And thank you for always teaching me that the last one up wins. I love you, Dad. I miss you tremendously. I sure hope there are beaches in heaven, because if there are, I promise I’m going to swim further out than you. Until that day when we can be beachside together again, seeya Bub.

“O Lord, how manifold are Your works! In wisdom You have made them all. The earth is full of Your possessions—This great and wide sea, in which are innumerable teeming things, Living things both small and great. There the ships sail about; There is that Leviathan which you have made to play there…You send forth Your Spirit, they are created; and You renew the face of the earth.” Psalm 104:24-26, 30 (NKJV)

Rocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait…we actually paid for dirt?!

Stay focused, Bradshaw.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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