Thursday, August 13, 2009


My Briefing column today (with thanks, as always, to super editor Will) ...

For now, it's tough to focus on photos of happier times

My lifelong love of photographs is waning. I don't expect it's a permanent condition, but I can't ignore how they make me feel these days.

When I was growing up, one of the most special nights of the year was when my family would gather in my grandparents' living room for the slideshow. We would carry in boxes of slides from the garage, set up the projection screen and settle in for hours of entertainment.

It was at their house that I would also pore over photo albums meticulously compiled by my grandmother. I loved the images from the '40s through '60s as much as those that included my sister and me.

The details from those photos are permanent fixtures in my memory. The hand-tinted cardigan sweater Gramma wore in her senior high portrait. Drought-defying roses blooming in their West Texas backyard. The coordinating robes family members wore one Christmas morning.

My adult life has been documented with countless photos, and very few of them are catalogued with Gramma's precision. Some are in albums, some in photo boxes, some still in the envelopes from the store.

We haven't used proper film in years, and most every photo since 2005 is trapped in one of four hard drives in the house.

The computer in our bedroom has a screensaver with a 21st-century version of Grandpa's slideshow. All day long, photos randomly appear on the monitor.

Steve holding Katie in the minutes after she was born. Cooper about to kick off at his first soccer game. The three of them opening gifts on Christmas morning.

These days, I keep the monitor dark. I just can't bear to see images of "old Steve."

Steve is under care of hospice. Blood clots in his lungs have forced us to discontinue the chemotherapy that fights the inoperable tumor in his brain stem. He lives at home, spending almost every moment of every day in a hospital-style bed.

He can't hold Katie or attend a soccer game or even sit up unassisted.

In the first year after his diagnosis, though, Steve was mobile. Back then, when I looked at the older photos of Steve, I saw them as a sign of hope. One of my many prayers was that Steve would return to his active lifestyle and that the images from the months and years before would not serve as history but as a promise of what would come again.

When I look at the photos now, I feel a great well filling inside. I cherish the memories of our time before cancer, but I have trouble seeing the evidence. The not-so-distant past is just too painful as we focus on the difficult present and scary future.

Last weekend, two new hospice aides were in our home to help with his morning routine. They admired framed photos of Steve with various family members on display in our bathroom and bedroom.

"Oh, he was handsome," one said to the other.

I was quick to reply, "Yes, he is handsome."

For one, he's still here, in the room. A bright, witty, compassionate soul trapped in a 40-year-old body that refuses to function well.

Second, his face may be swollen from long-term use of steroids that control his neurological symptoms, but he is still handsome. He has the same striking eyebrows and strong nose and playful eyes today as he did two years ago.

His smile, now a little lopsided, still melts my heart.

Most of all, his beautiful spirit still shines through. That's the image I'm most focused on now. Those other old images, as beloved as they are, will have to wait.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. E-mail her at


Jamie said...

so incredibly eyes swell with tears just thinking of how you're feeling right now. and remembering how i felt for my mom nearly seven years ago. this columns communicates so much, on so many levels, i think that it has a touch stone for everyone to reflect upon. thank you so much for being willing to share your thoughts in such a raw and tangible way. readers are so blessed to receive your message...truly. all my love. j.

noelgross said...

That nurse was a jerk face. You were much more diplomatic than I would (like to think I'd) be.