Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The wardrobe of grief

My column, from Saturday's Briefing:

Living with loss creates an extensive wardrobe.
Grief is a heavy woolen cloak in the middle of summer. It weighs you down, slows you down. It can’t be hidden. It covers everything. It gets in the way.
Grief is a cozy sweater in the depths of winter. It begs to be worn. It protects you, comforts you. It’s a little frayed around the edges. It feels like an old friend.
Grief is a button that’s fallen off a coat. You slide it around in your pocket, fidgeting with it subconsciously. You don’t want to lose it, yet you never take the time to stitch it back to its proper home.
You wear the cloak for a while, then trade it out for a week with the sweater, then back to the cloak. You fidget with that button for months, then suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, you’re wrapped up in that sweater again.
The grief wardrobe in the Damm house is well-worn. We’ve been trying on and trading garments for six years — the number of years that Cooper, Katie and I have lived without our Steve.
In the early days, way back in autumn 2009, all three of us wore cumbersome cloaks. We still lived our lives, but we were weighed down, constantly thinking of the dear husband and daddy we’d lost to brain cancer.
I would pray to wake up to days during which only one of us would be cloaked in heavy grief. I felt equipped to handle one child breaking down, but two? Oh, two leaden hearts taxed every ounce of my strength, already zapped by the weight of my own cloak.
I remember telling a friend, “I can’t imagine a day when I don’t carry this sadness.”
Without fanfare or formality, those cloaks mostly disappeared. We traded them for comfortable sweaters.
When wearing our grief sweaters, we were especially cautious of introducing even more tragedy to our lives. I would research books and movies in advance, culling media with dying parents or ill children or other unnecessary sadness. We would revel in Steve stories, careful to edit out the most recent memories — of hospital visits, frequent falls and hospice.
We’d wrap those sweaters tightly, hug ourselves in those sweaters, not exactly realizing that we were building layers of resilience.
Because one day, on a day none of us can pinpoint, we shed those sweaters and traded them for buttons.
Most of the time most of the people don’t even know we carry our buttons of grief. Indeed, some people don’t even want to know that those buttons exist.
We share these precious buttons with those who know us and love us, with people who wore their own cloaks for Steve, with people who helped wrap us in those cozy sweaters.
I am thankful for the button days, which now totally outnumber the cloak days.
I’m certain there will still be occasional moments, out of the blue, when the cloak envelops me. I know that I can reach for the sweater whenever I need. I expect that I’ll clasp that button all the rest of my days.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email tyradamm@gmail.com.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The way it's all worked out so far

Thursday night at Reedy High School
When Steve, Cooper and I moved into our house 13 years ago, we had big dreams.
  • One or two more babies.
  • Excellent small schools for our children.
  • We would travel at least twice a year.
  • Steve would continue to work hard and advance in his career as a health-care administrator.
  • I would continue to work hard as a writer and editor, eventually becoming a stay-at-home mom who freelanced part time.
Some of it worked out just the way we planned.

The rest, well, the rest is a reminder that we're not in control as much as we hope.

It's been an emotional week around here for all the usual reasons plus a few more.
  • Cooper started high school.
  • Katie started fifth grade.
  • I started my third year of teaching. 
  • Cooper ran at his first-ever high school cross country meet.
  • Cooper performed at a high school football game with his brand-new marching band.
  • The sixth anniversary of Steve's death is just days away.

When we moved in to this house in August 2002, we trusted that the developer's plans would come true. Those plans included a nearby elementary school, middle school and high school.

Not all the developer's plans came to fruition. But those schools are all here.

The middle school opened Monday. It's directly at the end of our street. Katie will begin school there next year. She can walk to and from every day.

The high school opened Monday as well. It's less than a mile from our home. We can drive from our alleyway to the back parking lot in about two minutes. More importantly for this active family of three, Cooper can ride his bike or walk.

Cooper, before the game
On Thursday night, just about the entirety of southwest Frisco was crammed onto metal bleacher seats, watching football players and cheerleaders, the dance team and the marching band. From our perch on the hill, we could see just about the whole town laid before us.

We wore green and blue. We cheered and applauded with gusto.

I was cheering for children I've known almost their whole lives.

And I was cheering especially loud for the tallest kid in the marching band. I was thinking of his daddy, who would have been radiant with pride, who would have been telling me stories of his own marching band days, who would have been holding my hand as we basked in the joy of one of our dreams coming true.

I give thanks every single day that we chose this tiny lot on which to build our cozy home, that I found a new career that allows me a schedule to care for my children while also taking care of other people's children, that we're surrounded by dear friends, that we're in the middle of a community that nurtures families.

I give thanks for the dreams that come true.

Marching Cooper (photo by Layne Smith)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

High school

There's no point in keeping a list of all that Steve has missed in the almost six years that he's been gone. As I've written before, and as I tell myself all the time, life continues.

I can't allow myself to dwell on what Cooper and Katie are missing in Steve's absence -- his humor, advice, stories, laughter. The presence and love and steady influence of their devoted father in the home.

Yet there are moments that Steve's absence is especially obvious to me. Today, for instance -- freshman orientation for Cooper at the brand-new high school less than a mile from our home.

Can you imagine how proud Steve would have been to walk into the building with his charming, handsome, 6-foot-2 son? How tickled he would have been to walk into the band hall or to hunt down Cooper's locker in the C Hall?

Cooper at Reedy High School
I would have loved to sit with Steve in the auditorium today, waiting for the parent meeting, marveling that it feels like about six months ago we were walking Cooper to Bledsoe Elementary for meet-the-teacher night for kindergarten.
Steve, baby Katie, Cooper and Tyra, walking to Bledsoe, August 2006  
Cooper at meet-the-teacher night, kindergarten, August 2006
(I did have the pleasure of sitting with two dear friends, Shannon and Kelly, veteran high school moms who always encourage me with their down-to-earth advice and genuine kindness.)

Tyra, Shannon and Kelly at today's parent meeting
Every single high school parent I know has warned me that the next four years will speed by. (More so than the past 14 years? Good gracious.) I don't want to wish away a moment -- even the rough days. Steve's absence reminds me daily of the importance of being present, of being thankful for each day, of the privilege of shepherding Cooper and Katie through childhood.

We've got four years of special moments ahead -- marching at football games, cross country meets, dances, dates, science projects, graduation. Then Katie will start the cycle all over again.

Life continues.
Katie, Tyra and Cooper, August 2015

Thursday, July 2, 2015


Katie can't get over these glads. "Why are they so tall? And so heavy?"
Of all the days I mark throughout the year, none is so mercurial as today, our wedding anniversary.

A couple of years I've gone to dinner with friends to celebrate. Some years I take Cooper and Katie to dinner. (Though last year and this year, Cooper has been away on Boy Scout adventures.) I usually buy myself flowers (this year white glads, in plentiful supply at Kroger).

But, let's be honest, it's a bit depressing and odd to go all-out to celebrate a day when half of the couple is no longer living -- even if July 2, 1994, is one of my Top 10 days ever.

So today will likely be like most other days around here.

I'm nursing fuzzy Margie, who came out of surgery on Monday and has been home since Tuesday, living with a plastic cone around her neck. She's confined to a crate most of the day, coming out for brief walks around the house and on our block. (The trickiest part is making sure there are no rabbits or squirrels nearby when we walk. Margie is supposed to stay calm and quiet for about three weeks. Cute vermin rile her up faster than the word "treat.") The scar on her abdomen is shockingly long, but the pain meds and sustained rest seem to be helping. We'll have biopsy results in the next couple of days.

I'm continuing work on a freelance project, a huge, fascinating book-editing project that is taking more time than I expected.

I'm taking Katie to a nearby water park with Liz and Noe. (Liz and I hope to get there early enough to grab seats in the shade to serve as home base while the girls run around and slide and swim. We plan to visit and read.)

At dinner tonight, Katie will say grace and thank God for the day.

Before Katie goes to bed tonight, we'll continue our current read-aloud, The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart.

I'm celebrating the same way we do every day around here -- we keep on living. That's the gift we get daily. We get to wake up, walk, spend time together, work, read, pray, take care of one another, forge adventures.

We get a new chance every single day. And that's worth celebrating every day, no matter the date on the calendar or the cheerful memories from 21 years ago or the now six anniversary dates without Steve.
Tyra and Steve, July 2, 1994

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Prayers for our furry friend

Katie Margaret, a.ka. Margie, in early 2007
The weekend that we first met Margie was the same weekend that Steve developed Bell's palsy, which I'm convinced was the signal (unbeknownst to us at the time) that a tumor was developing in his brain stem.

Steve recovered from Bell's palsy about a month later. A month after that, we persuaded the Scottie rescue people to allow us to adopt Margie.

(Her original name was Katie Margaret, but we already had one Katie in the house. Having two Katies -- both exploring toddlers requiring multiple redirections -- didn't seem to be a good idea. So we dropped "Katie" and shortened "Margaret" to Margie.)

Steve and Margie were inseparable. When Steve was home, Margie was by his side or at his feet or in his lap. And that was before Steve was ill.

There are all kinds of factors that kept Steve alive for 18 months after diagnosis. Margie, no doubt, was one of them.

Margie and Steve in 2008

Our furry Margie, who we think is 10, just like Katie, hasn't been feeling 100 percent lately. She's quicker to start panting. She's less likely to pounce and leap.

So, I took her to our vet for a checkup. Turns out, after a series of tests, there's a mass growing on Margie's liver.

Oh. The tears I have cried about that mass of unknown origin. (We don't yet know if it's malignant or benign.)

On Monday morning, Margie will undergo surgery to have the mass removed. The operation has some risks, and the surgeon has warned me of the possibility that she won't survive the surgery. And if he determines that removing it could cause irreparable damage, he won't. 

Before Cooper left for our church mission/choir trip, I warned him of this possibility. The bus is scheduled to return to Texas late Monday, hours after the surgery. (Cooper leaves for a Scout adventure 36 hours after arriving home from Florida. One of my many prayers is that Cooper will be able to visit Margie at the vet hospital before he leaves for Louisiana early Wednesday.)

Katie cried nonstop for more than an hour yesterday, after I told her the details of the surgery.  

She cried more today. In between sobs, she said, "What makes this so much worse is that it reminds me of Daddy. The doctors couldn't take out his tumor, and …"

She didn't need to finish the sentence.


I sure would appreciate prayers for Margie and the surgeon plus our little family. 

Margie, February 2015, enjoying a rare Texas snowstorm

Monday, June 22, 2015


This is a simple photo with a dozen stories.

On the top row, on the left, is Cooper. He's joining our church youth choir for this week's mission trip to Florida. In addition to singing and speaking, he's performing a clarinet solo.

He's standing on the same altar on which he was baptized in September 2001.

The altar from which he tumbled to the ground when he was a mouse in a Christmas pageant in December 2005.

The altar on which he served as acolyte for more Sundays than I can count.

The altar on which he was confirmed as a full member of the United Methodist Church in May 2013.

Next to him is Jim McKee, a longtime church member, faithful volunteer and choir member. He's one of the brave souls who will chaperone our youth.

Jim sidled up to me yesterday after their rehearsal and said, "It's been a long time since I stood next to a Damm in choir." (Then he shared his Oreos with me. Jim's an all-around good guy.)

Jim and Steve were in choir together. Steve sang with our choir until his first hospitalization, in the days before we knew for certain there was a brain tumor.

Surrounding Jim and Cooper are children I've taught off and on for years in Sunday school and Vacation Bible School.

Directing that choir is Pastor Debbie Chapman, an ordained minister and gifted musician who ministered to Steve during some of his darkest days.

Not pictured is Grant Dermody, who is the accompanist on this trip. His family is our family. His sister, Haley (who celebrates her birthday today!), was our trusted summer sitter for four summers in a row.

Holy Covenant UMC has been my church home for 15 years.

Gracious, there is nothing like listening to your almost-14-year-old son sing from the altar of the place you call home, standing next to a friend who once sang with Steve, surrounded by other children I love, directed by a graceful friend, accompanied by a talented young man, sitting next to family.

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
-- Psalm 98:4

Monday, June 15, 2015

Challenges met make us stronger

My column from Saturday's Briefing:

It is the last day of school. A group of girls splash in a backyard pool, less than two hours after the final bell, all worries of fourth grade washed away.
One of the girls is leaving the party. She stands on the deck, wrapped in a towel, chlorinated water dripping from her hair, freckling her toes.
We talk about fifth grade, possibly at a different school. She’s endured change before, on top of some academic challenges. She is reluctant to change again.
I love this child, and I feel compelled to offer advice and comfort at the same time.
“You’ve broken a bone before, right?”
Yes. In kindergarten.
“Did you know that when that bone healed, it became stronger? As bone repairs, it becomes a little thicker. I think people are like that, too. When we feel broken, when we feel challenged, and then we overcome the challenge, we are stronger. You have already fought so many challenges. You are strong.”
She hears me, but I’m not sure how much she listens. I understand. Such words are often lost when you need them most.
It is the day after the last day of school. I am in Seattle with my family — my son, daughter, father-in-law, mother-in-law and brother-in-law. We are celebrating my in-laws and their 50 years of marriage.
The last time I was in this city, memories haunted me at every turn. This is the route Steve and I walked to the market. This is the restaurant where we ate dinner. This is the statue upon which he sat and posed for a silly photo.
The last time I was in this city, I still felt broken, still raw from Steve’s death. I was happy to introduce our children to a city that we had loved before there were children, yet I ached for what might have been — an intact family touring the city together, both of us sharing memories of our first Seattle trip not long after we were married.
Now I am less haunted.
As I walked through Pike Street Market, stopping to admire peonies and sniff sweet peas, enjoying the moments in the moment, not comparing them to memories, I recalled that poolside chat from the previous day and realized: I was broken, but now I am stronger.
Am I completely healed? Nope. I’ve given up on a timetable. There’s no schedule that dictates when — or if — I’ll ever fully recover from the emptiness created when Steve stopped breathing.
Am I stronger now than four summers ago? Thank God, yes. Are there still challenges to overcome? Every day, yes.
When Steve died, I received many loving, sincere notes about grief. About being kind to myself. About finding solace in warm memories. About the miraculous healing power found in the passage of time.
I read every word. I’m not sure how much soaked in at the time. The words were there when I needed them most, but I was ill-equipped to fully digest them.
A friend of a friend faces a battle I know well. Her husband has been diagnosed with brain cancer. They have two young children.
My friend asked me to reach out to this mom. I have offered to listen first, to provide advice if asked. I offer with sincerity and yet guarded hesitation. My family did not get the happy ending that we prayed for. Our story isn’t what new brain cancer patients and their families want to hear.
I can coach through logistics, schedules, providers, insurance battles and more.
Most importantly, what I want this family to know, what I want every struggling child to know, what I want to remember myself is this: Being broken isn’t the end. Being broken is the prelude to strength.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at tyradamm@ gmail.com.
Cooper, Katie and Tyra at the Pink Door in Seattle, last week

Friday, May 29, 2015

Missing or wishing?

From Harriet the Spy
Today I finished reading to my homeroom class one of my all-time favorite children's novels, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. In Book 3 of the 1964 novel, Harriet receives a letter from her former nanny.

Included in the note: If you're missing me I want you to know I'm not missing you. Gone is gone. I never miss anything or anyone because it all becomes a lovely memory. I guard my memories and love them, but I don't get in them and lie down.

Whoa. I hadn't remembered those words from my many, many previous readings.

The timing was serendipitous. As I told my dear friend Jenny earlier this week, I've been in a "missing Steve valley." It's partly a side effect of being a single working mom at the end of the school year, when the calendar is relentless with cheerful, celebratory events on top of everyday life. (I don't want to complain, and I am thankful for our many blessings, but single mom life is often exhausting.)

Ever since I read that "I never miss anything or anyone" line, I've been asking myself: Am I missing or wishing?

So far I've decided it's a combo deal. I miss being married to Steve. I miss having Steve as a lifelong partner to share in work and worries, in celebrating and dreaming. I miss our children enjoying the love and devotion of two parents. I miss Steve's laugh, quirkiness, bravado, voice, sense of humor, intellect …

I also miss what might have been, a silly exercise with multiplying variables. It's actually more wishing than missing.

If Steve were still alive, would he be a chaperone tonight at Cooper's end-of-year band party? Would he have been a WatchDOGS volunteer at Katie's school this week? Would he have attended the Hosp Elementary staff "party on the patio" as my plus-one?

Actually, I probably wouldn't have been a Hosp staff member in an alternate world in which Steve never developed a brain tumor. I became a teacher because I was a single mom. If Steve were still alive, still working, who knows what my own work life would be.

If Steve were still alive, I probably wouldn't have been sitting in a rocking chair this afternoon, sharing a groundbreaking novel with 17 fourth-graders.

I would have never ever chosen this journey for our family. There's absolutely nothing fair about what Steve endured and his absence and its effect on all who love him.

Of course, we don't get to choose all the paths of our journey. We control our reaction.

I am thankful for my Steve memories. I love my Steve memories. As Ole Golly says, I know that missing Steve will never ever make him come back.

So, in a world without Steve, I am also thankful for the people who encouraged me while I was studying to become a teacher. I am thankful for Beverly Woodson, who took a chance in hiring me at Bledsoe, and for Aaron Else, who hired me the next year for Hosp when my position was eliminated at Bledsoe. I am thankful for a welcoming, friendly staff at Hosp -- a whole group of people who, except my friend Wendy, never had the opportunity to meet Steve. I am thankful for 18 fourth-graders who gather around the rocking chair every morning at 8, then another 17 students who gather every afternoon at 1 to listen to some of my favorite novels.

I want to be sure that I don't spend so much time missing Steve that I miss out on being the person I'm supposed to be.

Cake from today's staff party, hosted by the Fergusons

Monday, May 4, 2015


I usually work at school until 5 or 5:30 p.m.

Today I left "early," and Katie and I were home by 4:40 p.m. I had big plans to run necessary errands AND leisurely cook dinner.

About 4:47 p.m., we let Margie out in the backyard. Moments later, there was a tremendous racket from our somewhat-mild-mannered Scottie. (She's mellowed with age.)

I investigated. Margie had cornered what appeared to be a bunny. I forced Margie inside and then took the next sensible step. I asked Cooper, our trusty, brave Boy Scout, to make sure the bunny was OK.

He returned with the news that that was no rabbit -- it was a tiny kitten.

Katie -- who loves all living creatures, even those to which she is allergic -- burst into tears for fear that the baby was injured, either in the journey that led her to our yard or by Margie, whose ancestral line predisposes her to rooting out vermin.
Margie, fresh from locating and "welcoming" the cat
Then I took the next sensible step. I called Jackie, our neighbor, friend and affirmed cat whisperer. She is also a high school counselor and was still at school, prepping for AP exams tomorrow.

She suggested that we (1) get a cat carrier from her laundry room, (2) lure the kitten in with food and (3) hold on to the cat until she could get home.

Cooper obtained the carrier and cat treats. The "luring" part of the job was not so simple.

Now, this cat (who we are calling a girl, though we really don't know) is tiny. Cooper is 6-foot-1. So even though he is super kind and gentle, Coop must have seemed scary to the kitten, who had just been cornered by a fluffy, barking Scottish terrier. When Cooper approached the cat, she hissed and leaped across the backyard.

This caused Cooper, Katie and I to shriek and leap like marionettes with broken strings. I mean, this cat may be tiny, but she is fierce. (The three of us laughed until our sides hurt.)

We let her settle between the back fence and the tree. We stared at her for a long while. Katie volunteered to read on the back porch to keep an eye on her. Meanwhile, I really had to run those errands. (The minivan air-conditioner stopped working this weekend, and I needed to get moving on a solution.)

Sweet kitten is still frightened. 
So, I left Cooper and Katie and Margie and the cat at home. Cooper called and texted with updates, all the same. The cat hadn't moved.

By the time I returned home, Cooper had named the cat "Maka." She hadn't eaten a single cat treat or sipped the water he had placed under the tree.

"We have to get her in the carrier, Cooper," I said. "Whatever it takes."

Moments later, Cooper was ready. He had put on blue jeans, hiking boots, a thick jacket and thick socks in an exaggerated effort to protect himself from this wild animal.

We eased up on her, certain she would climb into the carrier.

HISSSS! Pounce! Leap!

Now she was in yet another corner. Cooper and I were determined. We cautiously approached. We braced ourselves. At last -- success! The tiny gray-and-white kitten was contained.

Maka's home while waiting for Jackie
Sweet Jackie was still at school. We weren't comfortable with Margie and Maka in the same house, so the kids took turns sitting on the front steps with crated Maka. They didn't want her to feel alone. When dogs would walk by, Katie would pick the crate up and move it close to the front door, just in case Maka felt frightened.

(Dinner, by the way, was a rushed affair. No time for chopping, sautéing, etc., when you're tending to a kitten you didn't expect.)

Around 8:30 p.m., Jackie arrived. We visited for a while, then Jackie walked Maka to her home, where she will keep her until we can find a forever home.

Thank you, Jackie, for your help!
I'm proud of this little family -- a genuine team. There are many days (most days?) when I feel like we're just getting by, just able to keep our head above water. Yet we each have our strengths, and we together we compensate for our challenges. We are fortunate to be able to call on experts to help. We laugh every day. We love each other, and we are genuinely grateful for one another.

Now, who wants to adopt Maka?

Monday, March 30, 2015


Last night we all went to bed early.

1. It was the night before the first day of the two-day fourth-grade writing STAAR.
2. Katie is a fourth-grader.
3. Katie gets a little anxious about testing.
4. I am a fourth-grade teacher.
5. Administering the STAAR test requires stamina.
6. I get a tiny bit anxious myself before testing.
7. Cooper is a teenager and is therefore constantly running a sleep deficit.
8. Cooper takes the eighth-grade reading STAAR test on Tuesday.

Before bed, I was looking for a specific book. I couldn't find it in the usual spot, so I searched the drawers of my bedside table. I rifled through and couldn't locate the book.

A bit of familiar handwriting caught my eye, though.

I don't remember this note, possibly because Steve and I often left each other notes. (Blub was our silly code word for "I love you, and I'm thinking of you, and you make me happy, and thank you," all rolled in to one.) I'm not even sure why I saved this particular one. Its rediscovery was perfect timing, though.

I feel asleep in no time, completely at peace.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Acts of Kindness in good company

The best day of the year is November 4. It's the day that hundreds of people help us celebrate Steve's birthday by performing acts of kindness.

(You can read more about it here and here and here and here.)

My friend Kari is a director of supply chain operations at Frito-Lay and the president of that company's Women's Inclusion Network. Each March, in celebration of Women's History Month, Frito-Lay devotes a gallery at its North American headquarters to honor women, as chosen by the Women's Inclusion Network. The gallery includes inspiring pioneers, Frito-Lay leaders, modern women and young women.

This year Kari nominated me to be included, in recognition of our family's tradition of remembering Steve.

So, in a twist that I never expected, my photo and a brief description of our Acts of Kindness movement is posted in a display case with larger-than-life women such as J.K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter series, of course) and Ursula Burns (the first African-American CEO of a Fortune 500 company).

This afternoon, Cooper, Katie and I visited Kari at Frito-Lay. We received a tour of the lovely campus and admired the women's history gallery.

Thank you, Kari, for including our family in gallery!

And thank you, friends across the world, for helping us celebrate Steve's memory and for sharing love and kindness!

(The Women's Inclusion Network partners with Attitudes & Attire, a Dallas nonprofit that supports women seeking self-sufficiency.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Water works

At last, we've had plenty of rain around here.

North Texas has been in a drought, and though recent rains aren't enough to pull us out completely (read here if you're interested), we are thankful for every drop.

Saturday I noticed some standing water in the grass between our sidewalk and street. I sought advice, and the consensus was all the rain has made drainage difficult. Wait a little. 

Monday afternoon, the rest of the neighborhood was dry. My little strip of grass, not so much.

So, I called the city, who dispatched a guy, who arrived in the dark to dig and discover a leak, not on the city side but on my side. Of course, this means the city guy can't fix it. Meanwhile, I'm donating water (so much water!) to our street. 

I asked the city guy about my next steps. He replied the way almost every repairman has answered in the past few years: Ask your husband.


(This, in and of itself, speaks volumes about all kinds of assumptions, but that's not my point today.)

The city guy left. Katie was already bathed and asleep. Cooper showered. The night's dishes were almost washed. The most recent load of laundry was in the dryer.

I had two jobs: Find a plumber to arrive early Tuesday. And turn off the water for nighttime.

I pulled in some referrals, made calls, left messages where I could.

Then I knocked on Ron's door across the street. Ron is one of our many unsung heroes, ready to help whenever we ask. He has one of those long metal key things (technically a water meter key) that can turn off the water at the city line, and I asked him to teach me how.

At this point, it's very dark. There's no way we can see the knob underground, as it's surrounded by water. And all that water is surrounded by globby mud. Nevertheless, Ron patiently teaches me and Cooper how to find it with the water meter key. We successfully shut off the water.

I showered at Andy and Julie's house (across the alley from us), finished some schoolwork, then slept for a few hours. 

At 5:30 a.m., I returned with the key and turned the water back on so that the kids and I could get ready. An hour later, I turned it off again. (Thank goodness for rain boots for slogging in and out of the mud pit.)

Those calls I made the night before yield no results. Plumbers are booked up for days. I called a highly recommended company, and the receptionist told me the first opening is Friday.

I tried so hard to keep my composure. I failed. I was crying as I asked for another recommendation. I couldn't bear to think of more trips out to the mud, turning water on and off, wasting water and money, while waiting for service.

The receptionist paused. She asked for my name and phone number. She said she would try to find a way to move schedules around. 

Somehow Amber made some magic happen, and a repairman was booked for an afternoon window. I visited with my assistant principal, who gave me permission to leave a smidge early if necessary, and then I visited with a teammate, who agreed to take on my students should I need to leave early.

Now I am home, and a friendly plumber is in the front yard, repairing a T-joint, which divides water between the house and our sprinkler system. In a few hours, we'll have water again -- in the house and not running down the street.

Four big takeaways from this experience:

1. I feel confident in my ability to take care of the most important tasks of the day. I provide food and shelter for our little family. I make sure we get where we need to go on time. I give 100 percent of myself to my students when I'm teaching. My goal is for my own children and my students to know that they are secure and loved. 

2. More than five years into this single mom life, I still struggle with hiccups. I know that the best routine allows room for getting lost, for leaving something behind, for making mistakes. But there are some moments that aren't easily absorbed. A dead car battery, a broken air conditioner, a water leak -- these create more havoc in a single-parent home (at least this single-parent home) than a dual-parent home.

3. I continue to rely on the kindness of the people around us. I needed Ron to help me with the water meter key. The Morgan and Smith and Sanders families to offer advice. Andy and Julie to provide running water at 11 p.m. Jim and Betty on call, ready to come up to meet the plumber at any time. Loryn, a compassionate leader to allow me to leave a little early. Erin, a teammate who took on extra students. Amber, a receptionist I've never met, to move appointments.

4. Despite the challenges of being a single mom, our blessings are abundant. I live in a safe neighborhood. We have excellent schools. Some of our dearest friends live less than a mile away. Family is nearby. I have a (hard-earned) savings account that will allow me to write a check for today's repair, rather than borrowing money at a high interest rate. I know that my own challenges are small in comparison to single moms who live in poverty, who have zero flexibility in their jobs, who send their children to unsafe or inadequate schools.

I am incredibly thankful for the people who love on us, who answer my phone calls, who send supportive notes, who step in when we need a little (or a lot) of extra help. This life I lead now is in no way what I prayed for long ago -- but it's without a doubt easier because of the people who surround us.

Monday, March 2, 2015

So much more than a photo

Steve and Tyra, days before official diagnosis
Katie, Tyra, Steve and Cooper, three months before Steve passed away
Katie and I hosted a meeting at the house yesterday. One of the girls noticed two photos -- one in the dining room and another near the stairs. She walked from one to the other, back and forth, perplexed.

 "Which one of them is Katie's dad?" I heard her murmur matter-of-factly.

"Both of them are," I told her. "Both pictures are of Katie's dad, one before he was really sick and one while he was sick. The medicine made his face and hair look different."

The answer satisfied her curiosity, and she leaped to a different topic.

I see both photos -- and other Steve photos -- every day. I no longer see "pre-cancer" and "post-cancer" Steve. I no longer see the effects of Decadron and chemotherapy in the photos.

I see only Steve.

I see laugh until you can't breathe, sing loudly, dance proudly, work your heart out Steve. I see doting, adoring, proud, mischievous Steve. I see brilliant, creative, analytical, sly Steve. I see Fletch and ZZ Top. George Gershwin and Aaron Copland. Wassily Kandinsky and Alexander Calder. I see Excel spreadsheets and all-caps printed letters. I see the Texas Rangers and the Detroit Tigers. I see the Big House and a block M. I see Siesta Key and the Eiffel Tower, the National Mall and the Santa Monica Pier. I see Harry Potter and Legos, Sandra Boynton and fuzzy baby blankets.

We are exponentially more than our weight or current hairstyle.

We are the words we cultivate, the feelings we share, the memories we store, the light we reflect.

We are the love we receive and the love we lavish on others.

We are not reflections in a mirror or images saved on screen or paper.

We are souls.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

No dance, but lots of love

When Katie was 3 and a half, Steve was starting to decline. The tumor was growing, and he was getting weaker. 

We made the decision that winter that he and Katie should go to the Frisco Daddy-Daughter Dance, even though she was not yet 4, the minimum age suggested for the dance. Her best friend Noe and our dear friend Layne were partners in crime, ignoring the age suggestion and dressing up for an afternoon of music, dancing and lots of sugar.

It was, in fact, Steve's final February. I will always be thankful that we made the decision to bend the rules. 

Every year since, Katie has asked to attend the dance. Each year she asks her Uncle Greg or her Papa or her Uncle Jim to take her. We buy a dress. We fix her hair. She wears a corsage. She's treated to a lovely afternoon.

And as much as she loves spending time with the special men in her life, she struggles. Watching all those girls with their daddies makes her too sad.

This year Katie decided that she would skip the dance altogether. When we talked about it in December, she told me she would prefer a special family day instead.

Today is the Frisco Daddy-Daughter Dance. I'm pretty certain Katie doesn't even remember. I'm not reminding her, and she's never on Facebook to see the flood of photos from our friends who are attending. (I love, by the way, seeing all the photos!)
Katie and Cooper at the Perot this morning
Katie, studying cells in the Bio Lab at the Perot
Lunch in Trinity Groves
We have had a special family day. First a haircut for handsome Cooper. Then a few hours at the Perot Museum for the new Sherlock Holmes exhibit. (Cooper and Katie are writing an article about the exhibit for the Briefing edition of The Dallas Morning News.) After the science fun, we ventured across the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge for lunch at Kitchen LTO at Trinity Groves. Then we headed north for a little shopping -- new scarf for Katie, new shoes for Cooper, new (used) books for my classroom.

Now we're home, and Katie is working on an art project. We're going to read a chapter or two from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. We'll probably watch a movie before bed.

I know that Katie knows she's loved. She feels confident and secure. She's the most spiritual, faithful, poetic soul I know. I am proud of her mature decision to sidestep sorrow, and I am thankful that I get to love on her her, spend time with her and learn from her. 

Can you imagine how proud Steve Damm is of Katie? How proud he is of Cooper? My tears today are for Steve, who has missed so much of their precious lives, and for Cooper and Katie, who didn't get near enough time with him. 

We were blessed with plenty of love, though.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
-- 1 Corinthians 13:4-8

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


From the summer of 1992 to the summer of 2009, I could count on this: Steve Damm would tell me all the time that I was beautiful.

I didn't always believe it, but even when I was doubtful, his words made me confident. This dreamy, smart, creative, hilarious man thought that I -- all freckled, bespectacled and curly-haired -- was beautiful.

It's been five and a half years since Steve could say those words to me, and there are some days that, good gracious, I wish I could hear them from him again. Like today, when the effects of whatever upper respiratory virus I have, combined with the aftereffects of my nighttime so-you-can-sleep medicine, make me look, well, less-than-close-to-beautiful.

But what I really know, what I can still count on in 2015 is this: Steve Damm wasn't always talking about my outward appearance. And, more importantly, we are all beautiful.

We are intricate, complex creatures capable of amazing work. We care for one another. We create music and art and poetry. We laugh and dance, sing and run. We've launched rockets and satellites into space. We question minutiae and the meaning of life.

We think so much of this world that we continue to create children, then we work to make life better for those children.

For a while, I was worried that without Steve Damm telling me, "You're beautiful," I would eventually start to forget. Maybe he had told me so many times that my bucket was full, but over the years, without him adding to the bucket, it would run empty.

I've since discovered that my confidence isn't rooted solely in Steve's words. My confidence comes from knowing that we are all beautiful. We are all blessed with another day on earth. Each one of us has a purpose and someone who needs us.

"I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. 
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well."
  (Psalm 139:14)

Steve and Tyra, New Year's Eve, at the dawn of 1993

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Hands of God

Cooper and Katie this morning on Steve's bench at Holy Covenant UMC
(Temperature: 25 degrees!)

Katie set a goal four weeks ago to raise enough money to purchase one water buffalo for a family in need.

She designed a bookmark -- a drawing of animals on one side and poem on the other -- and sold them for $1 each. In three weeks, she sold almost 600 bookmarks and earned $921 from generous friends. As she says, that's enough to buy three water buffalo, three flocks of chicks and three sets of honeybees.

Today she was recognized in front of our church congregation for her efforts in raising money for Heifer International. Her total represents more than 10% of the total funds raised by our church during Advent.

A Heifer representative attended both services today to thank Holy Covenant for the donations and to thank Katie in person. Our new missions committee chair, Joy Lasley, also thanked Katie and gave her a pair of gloves -- "to protect the hands of God." Joy reminded us that we are ALL the hands of God and challenged us to help others in 2015.

Joy asked Katie why she wanted to raise money. Her answer: "A lot of people have all of what they need and most of what they want. And some people don't even half of what they need. I want to help people get what they need."

During both services, my big-hearted 9-year-old child received a standing ovation. 

Katie, who served as acolyte at the 8:30 service, wore the gloves this morning as she lit candles on the altar. 

And what song did our pianist play as she lit the candles? "Creation Will Be at Peace," one of Steve's favorite anthems. (You can listen to the version from his memorial service here.)

All my tears this morning represented a full heart.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Christmas: Plenty of joy and a side of sorrow

Steve was particular about Christmas music. We were constantly in search of a CD of acceptable music. I'm not sure that he ever found one he liked. (You didn't want to get him started on Mannheim Steamroller. He was staunchly anti-Mannheim Steamroller.)

Katie seems to have inherited his musical taste. She's a constant critic while we listen to the Holly station on Sirius-XM.

"This song is about a greedy child. I don't like it."

"There aren't enough songs about Christ."

"I don't like it when someone new sings an old song."

"When are they going to play a CLASSIC Christmas song?"

Mary Blige started singing "My Favorite Things" as we pulled into the driveway today. "I like this song, but I have no idea why they think it's a Christmas song. This singer is OK, but I like The Sound of Music lady much better."

Steve would be proud.


We visited Santa on Monday. He's been our Santa since Cooper was six months old. We've followed him from Frisco to Allen to Fairview. (And we'll always go, no matter how any particular child feels about the realness of Santa.)

This time was particularly poignant for me. There was no crowd, and Santa had time to chat.

From his chair he craned his neck up at Cooper. "Oh, my! You've gotten so tall!" Then he looked at me. "Momma, what do you think? At least six inches since last year?" (He's close. Cooper just doesn't stop growing.)

He visited with each child. (Cooper wants two DVDs for Christmas. Katie wants Disney Tsum Tsum stuffed animals and a live animal for another family through Heifer International.) He was as kind and gentle as he's been every year since 2001.

In that moment I thought of the constants in our lives since 2001. Our family. Our church. Our Santa.

And I thought of how much I miss Steve and how much he would have loved to see 6-foot Cooper perched on the chair next to Santa -- such a contrast to the tubby little six-month-old balanced in Santa's arms 13 years ago.

Santa and six-month-old Cooper, December 2001
Santa and six-month-old Katie, December 2005
13-year-old Cooper, Santa and 9-year-old Katie, December 2014

It was a rainy, cold, dreary night. We were exhausted from a day of driving, worry and questions with no answers.

Steve and I gathered in a dark and sterile room at Baylor Frisco, staring at an image of his brain. There was a spot that shouldn't be there. It was the first obvious, tangible answer to the question: Why was Steve having slurred speech and awful headaches and frequent hiccups and difficulty swallowing liquids?

Dec. 11, 2007.

I hate that Steve's building diagnosis was during Christmas.

There's been a heaviness to the season ever since. Some of my writerly qualities are a curse. I remember vivid details -- songs, scents, sermons, conversations. I can replay those moments and feel like I'm there, in the middle of Steve's great suffering.

I love that Steve's building diagnosis was during Christmas.

All of that suffering was buffered by an outpouring of love. Gifts were purchased and wrapped for our babies. Meals were delivered. We were wrapped in warm hugs and sincere prayers.

God's promise of peace was realized over and over again right here in our tiny corner of Frisco, Texas.

God's promise is realized over and over again in everyday moments all over the world -- because people choose kindness, because they choose generosity, because they choose forgiveness, because they choose love.

For every moment that my mind drifts back to MRIs and emergency room visits, to fear and anxiety, I try to remember hugs and laughter, kindness and peace.

For every moment of sorrow, there's overwhelming joy.

Steve, 2-year-old Katie, Tyra, a very young Santa, 6-year-old Cooper, days before Steve's first MRI 
Tyra, Cooper and Katie, Dec. 7, 2014

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

46 Acts of Kindness (13)

From Dean in Sulphur Springs:

This morning I went to Coffee Off the Square here in Sulphur Springs to remember my friend Steve on his birthday. I ordered my Americano and laid the flyer for today's event and $60 cash on the counter. I told the barista that it was Steve's birthday, a little of his story, and how we were going to celebrate his memory today. She started to tear up and promised to share his story with everyone who came in as the money was applied to their bill in his memory.
Thanks again, Tyra, for allowing me to honor Steve and his life and legacy. Blessings to you, Cooper, and Katie.


From Melissa in Helotes:

Carys and I went to Target and picked out PJs, craft supplies, small toys, snacks, party favors, etc. to fill Birthday Bags in Steve's honor for the Fairweather Family Lodge.  

"FFL is a home that assists homeless women suffering with mental illness and their children. It serves as a place that nurtures development and provides a safe environment for these families to stabilize, grow, and remain together." 

Each month, FFL hosts a birthday party honoring any child with a birthday. Every child receives a goody bag at the party and the birthday child is given a few small presents. This is the 2nd year we've done this as our RAK, and this year Carys decided that every gift bag should be uniquely decorated, no two are alike!  We have enough goodies for about a dozen and a half bags that will be delivered tomorrow. 

Steve's face in Heaven must be sore from smiling all day today. :)


From Nicole in Frisco:

Tonight we went out to eat and bought dinner for a sweet elderly couple. We had the waitress bring the card over to them. They came to our table and thanked and hugged us. The woman was teary and said no one has ever done anything like that for them before. Made our night. Then I bought 2 guys beers at the Stars game. They were thrilled.


From Angela in Frisco:

Today I gave a special note and gift to my sons preschool teachers that work so hard with my feisty little guy, and do it with such a kind heart!! I am so grateful for Ms Dawna and Ms Joanna at Apple Creek and for the most amazing director, Karen! Thank you for everything!


From Christina in Frisco:

We purchased food gift bags at Kroger in Steve's honor and stapled the flyer to the bags. Thinking of you, neighbors! ❤️


From Nancy:

I spent yesterday remembering Steve just a little more than usual. His smile and kindness sparkled me through the day as I smiled and greeted the many boat workers here at LMC who get ignored by so many. Their faces told me they were surprised that I spoke but they quickly smiled and responded with hello. For the overworked clerks at Winn Dixie I gave special thank yous for their help. So easy to be kind. Thank you Steve.


From Liz in Frisco:

Liam was excited to bless his sweet bus driver Miss Catherine in honor of Steve. We thanked her for bringing all of the students from Hosp, Pioneer and Frisco High to and from school safely each day. Happy birthday Steve!


From Ron in Chicago:

7 sport coats, 4 suits, 12 dress shirts, 6 pairs of shoes hauled down to the neighborhood food pantry. They have a room where folks picking up food can also get an item or two of clothing. Donations that can be worn to a job interview make everyone especially giddy :)