Sunday, December 27, 2009
Christmas cards aren't all we're missing right now
This Christmas I followed the advice of countless women's magazine articles. In the middle of the busiest, most wonderful time of the year, I let something go.
I didn't send Christmas cards.
This is a big deal. I started my Christmas card tradition more than two decades ago, while still in high school.
I used to pride myself on having them mailed the day after Thanksgiving, eager to spread Christmas cheer as early as was socially acceptable.
I have an entire drawer in my craft closet devoted to Christmas cards – leftovers from previous years and potential future cards.
For the past few years, I've staged multiple photo sessions in front of our Christmas tree, seeking the one image that communicates the joy of Christmas and reflects the genuine happiness of our family.
I loved pulling all the pieces together and sending holiday greetings to the best friends I see every day, to distant relatives, to the couple I haven't seen since we met on a cruise in 2000.
But all that good cheer takes time.
This season, my first Christmas season as a widow and single mom, I've worked diligently to hold together tradition and create new memories. When I went through a mental checklist of everything that must be done, could be done and could be let go, Christmas cards kept falling to the bottom.
And though time is the biggest factor, not sending a card this year also solves other problems.
For one, I haven't even finished sending acknowledgement cards after Steve's memorial service in September. I'm relying on the grace of friends and family members, who surely understand that thank-you notes, while important and polite, haven't been my top priority.
Still, it feels strange to send Christmas cards before I've finished a three-month-old task.
Plus, I can't imagine a photo that could adequately communicate our condition. Cooper and Katie have exponentially more moments of joy every day than moments of sadness. But there's no denying that the grief of losing their beloved daddy affects us every day.
It seems almost dishonest – or incomplete – to send out more than a hundred copies of a cheery photo.
And, truthfully, it delays by a little the sad act of signing just three names.
When we started receiving sympathy cards in September, I struggled with looking at the envelopes. Those that were addressed to "The Damm Family" were much easier to take than those with "Tyra, Cooper and Katie."
The lack of a "Steve" triggered tears almost every time.
Every time this month that I considered squeezing in time for cards, the idea of excluding his name at the bottom triggered the same kind of tears.
I have thought of the message I would write. It would go something like this:
Dear friends and family,
We started 2009 praying for a miracle for Steve. We're ending the year without him.
Cooper, Katie and I are thankful beyond words for the support, love and prayers you showered us with the past two years – first as Steve battled brain cancer and then as we learned how to move forward as a family without his physical presence.
Steve truly believed that every day was a gift. He woke up thanking God for the new day, and then he lived each day with concern for others over himself, with a contagious laugh and with a cheerful spirit that lives on in his children.
We wish you and your loved ones peace and joy in 2010.
Love, Tyra, Cooper and Katie
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
"The best Christmas is with God, right?" our 4-year-old said. "Well, Daddy is with God, so he is going to have the BEST Christmas!"
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Monday, December 21, 2009
Cooper, Katie, Betty and I went to the flagship Neiman Marcus today to let Cooper and Katie crawl through this year's Christmas window display. (It's a whimsical, interactive tunnel designed for children 4 through 10. If you're in Dallas and have time this week, you should go!)
On the drive downtown, Katie said to Betty, "Grandma, I wish one of your kids didn't die."
I'm proud of Katie for thinking beyond her own loss and for considering how Steve's death affects others.
Katie and Tyra before church Sunday
Cooper has been talking a lot lately about everything he would trade to have Daddy back. All of his Legos. Everything in his room. All the money in the world.
Cooper and Katie on Sunday
Every day I discover something else I miss about Steve. It's a blessing, really, that it comes in drips and not one big flood all at once. I would be washed away if my heart fully realized everything at one time.
This weekend, when I caught a glimpse of the Kansas-Michigan game, I realized how much I missed and will miss watching Michigan basketball games with Steve.
I miss how he would say "very nice," kind of like Elvis.
I miss how he made me feel confident.
I miss how he would send me a one-word e-mail out of the blue. The word: Blub. (It was our silly code word for "I love you, and I'm thinking of you, and you make me happy, and thank you.")
I miss how he would make us all laugh at dinner with funny voices -- especially his exaggerated German accent.
Tonight Betty and I attended a holiday memorial service offered by our hospice agency.
We each lit a candle in remembrance of a loved one and spoke the name aloud.
In that moment, I felt not drips of grief but an entire flood.
But then the storm subsided. It always does.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
The music therapist who works with Cooper and Katie every other week encouraged Cooper to write and sing a song about Steve.
Before her visit this week, Cooper made a list of words that remind him of Daddy. Lisa helped him transform those words into a fun song. He gave me permission to share with a caveat: He asks that no one laugh at the first few seconds of his performance. (He didn't realize that "the camera was rolling.")
I love it! My two favorite moments are the fingers used for counting -- especially for six -- and the use of the word "scrumptious."
Sunday, December 13, 2009
Betty, Jim, Jim, Cooper, Tyra and Katie
Saturday, December 12, 2009
We were sad to miss a few folks because of conflicts and illness but look forward to seeing everyone out on the course early Sunday morning.
Follow this link for more photos from my camera.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Two years ago today, Steve and I stood in a dark room at a nearby hospital, staring in horror at a scan of his brain. There was a glaring white spot in the pons of his brain stem.
The doctor reading the scans was somber and looked at us with a downcast expression we would see again and again over the next few weeks -- sorrow and dread.
So much of our lives changed in those moments.
I had trouble going to sleep last night, knowing that I'd wake up on Dec. 11 without Steve. Today is a world away from last year, when we celebrated a full year since learning of the lesion that later became known as the Damm Spot.
I think that I subconsciously filled the day with even more activity than normal.
Katie and I took Cooper and friend Kyla to school, then we drove to Liz's. Liz's parents are in town and were able to watch Katie and Noe while Liz and I ran four miles -- our last run before the race Sunday.
Katie and I came home just in time for Teresa to install new shades in the master bathroom -- a project we started this summer to help reduce the glare in the bedroom. (The light was hurting Steve's eyes.)
Then we hurried off to the gym for Katie's weekly tumbling class.
After tumbling, Katie and I were back in the minivan (which is dressed as Rudolph with antlers and a red nose, thanks to Liz), headed out for lunch and errands.
I turned on the radio just in time to hear a song that made me laugh and cry at the same time -- "The Song That Goes Like This" from the musical Spamalot.
A few weeks before Dec. 11, 2007, Steve and friend Jennifer sang "The Song That Goes Like This" for our church choir's annual fundraiser. Steve sang with his trademark enthusiasm and sense of humor.
I love that even on Dec. 11, just three months after Steve passed away, there is so much joy. Friends who cheer us up, family members who call just to say hi, silly Christmas disguises for cars, songs that evoke special memories.
Enjoy the song performed by Steve and Jennifer in autumn 2007!
Thursday, December 10, 2009
Different versions of the story ran throughout the evening on different newscasts. If you were watching Channel 5, you probably noticed that the reporter called our children "Katie and Connor." And you may have been one of dozens of people who yelled at the television, "It's Cooper!"
Cooper was disappointed that his name was wrong, but he was a good sport.
Here's the version that's available online. Or you can go here.
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
In advance of the White Rock Marathon this weekend, Cooper, Katie and I were interviewed today about Steve. A short version of the story is slated for the 4 p.m. broadcast; a longer story will be on at 5 p.m.
Tuesday, December 8, 2009
The Run for Steve runners have been getting ready for the big race Sunday, but even if you aren't running you can still be involved. As many runners will tell you, seeing a smiling face and hearing cheers can do wonders.
Check this link at dallasnews.com for a great map of the course. It will help you find a location for cheering on the team.
Two very special runners, Tyra and Steve's brother Jim, will be among the many runners on a Run for Steve relay team this year. For anyone interested, Tyra will be running the first segment (miles 1 through 6) and Jim will be running the last (miles 20-26). Check the map for the relay point locations.
Please come out and help us show our support for our dearly missed, good friend Steve!
Saturday, December 5, 2009
We talked about how Cooper can talk to Daddy whenever he wants. But I know what he means -- he wants a real conversation.
The hospice music therapist and grief counselor visited this week and proposed that Cooper write a song for Steve. So we're keeping track of special words to help write the lyrics, and when the hospice team returns in two weeks, they'll work on recording the song.
Cooper says that he wants to hold on to the resulting CD for the rest of his life and then will deliver it to heaven.
Katie woke from a nap this week very upset. She was sobbing and said that she was sad about Daddy. "When Daddy died, it felt like God died, too," she said.
I held her for a long time, and we talked about how much Daddy's death hurts. We also talked about how Steve's love never dies and God never dies, even when we feel so very sad.
I was recently asked to write an essay about dealing with loss during the holidays for a Fort Worth Star-Telegram publication. You can read my contribution here.
For the first Christmas ever, my 8-year-old son has absolutely no chance of getting what he wants.
Cooper is asking Santa for one last opportunity to talk with his daddy.
His daddy — and 4-year-old Katie’s daddy and my husband — passed away at home in early September. For 20 months, Steve had fought an inoperable brain tumor. With the help of radiation, bio-agents, three kinds of chemotherapy, prayers from around the world and heroic tenacity, he outlived statistical predictions.
He reached his goal of living until his 40th birthday, but he didn’t make it to 41.
And he didn’t make it to Christmas. So now I’m ushering our young children through an unpredictable grief process while trying to create a Christmas season that reflects as much joy and warmth as possible — all while tending to my own sorrow.
Part of me would like to fast-forward through the rest of this year, speed past the aching sadness of a holiday season without my one true love. The rational, realistic part of me, though, acknowledges that our little family has to trudge through. Living through the pain of our loss is part of the slow healing process.
The truth is that I’ve been dreading the Christmas season ever since Steve took his final breath. We were always a Christmas family. Steve and I were engaged Christmas morning 1993. Our tree has always been covered with ornaments that denote deep meaning. Almost every vacation we took together is represented by trinkets like the Eiffel Tower, the Manhattan skyline and an Amish horse-drawn buggy. Every Christmas Eve we attend candlelight services at our cozy church. Then we give our children matching pajamas. We all wake up Christmas Day to find signs that Santa visited.
Until Steve’s diagnosis two years ago, we fully expected to continue those traditions for four or five decades, welcoming grandchildren to the scene.
As Cooper declares multiple times a week, it’s not fair.
It’s not fair that Steve’s life didn’t last long enough. It’s not fair that we’ll wake up Christmas morning with three people in the house instead of four. It’s not fair that Cooper and Katie’s Christmas memories of their daddy at parades, pageants and parties are blunted at such a young age.
More than one well-meaning friend has told me how important this first Christmas without Steve is. The implication: Mess this one up, and your children will remember it forever. I’ve learned that children — especially mine, who have spent two years living with uncertainty — are flexible and forgiving, but I still want to craft a season that evokes more mirth than melancholy.
So, in addition to sticking with tradition, we’ve adopted new habits. Margie the dog is wearing a Christmas sweater (which makes the children much happier than Margie). There are animatronic, lighted reindeer in the front yard. We’ve welcomed an Elf on the Shelf into our home. We have tickets to a performance of The Nutcracker.
I’m no expert in grief recovery, but I remind myself daily that there is no correct way to grieve, and I’m applying that concept to Christmas. There is no correct way to conduct Christmas without Steve.
My prayer is that as the three of us struggle through this first December after Steve’s death, we will cry when we need to and laugh when we can. And we will create our own new memories that don’t ignore Steve but instead honor him.
The tree is up, though this year I couldn’t bear to hang the ornaments myself. My sister and her family took care of decorating, saving me from hours of sobbing. The Santa photos are up, too, though this year I couldn’t bear to take down the photos of Steve. Our shelves are more crowded but more beautiful.
We’ll sit among dear friends at Christmas Eve services, but Steve won’t be in the choir loft, singing Silent Night with fellow tenors. Cooper and Katie will receive their traditional pajamas, but this year I selected the print myself.
And, yes, Santa will visit. But there’s no way he can deliver the two-way conversation that Cooper desperately wants. And he can’t fulfill my totally irrational wish to bring Steve back.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
I learned a lot during the 90 minutes. What struck me most was this visual that Marilyn, our leader, provided.
Imagine that the circle on the left represents the person who's still alive. The circle on the right represents the person who has died. The gray area, the overlap, is what those two people shared.
When the person on the right is gone, the person on the left has a gaping, jagged hole.
It's an analogy that makes great sense to me. But during the class, I drew a different version.
Steve and I shared so much -- interests, values, ideas, experiences, dreams, love for each other, our children and others. The overlap is giant.And, of course, that means the hole is giant, too.
This illustration helps me put into perspective my great sense of loss and offers another example of why this grieving process is lengthy and painful.
I am thankful for so many kind souls who understand that this is a journey, that I'm not going to wake up one day soon and say, "OK! Everything is back to normal!"
The illustration is also a welcome reminder that Steve's circle overlapped with hundreds of other circles. There are lots of circles out there with gaping Steve holes.
Tara, who is taking her fourth year of ceramics
Cooper and Uncle Jim
Katie and Uncle Rich
Cousins just before their annual toast (Cooper raised his cup and said heartily, "to Steve Damm!")
Jim and Betty
We spent much of the time preparing for Thanksgiving dinner. Cooper, Katie, Brooke and Molli also played a lot, scattered wildflower seeds in the back lot and generally enjoyed having time together. We also visited cousin Tara at Westlake High School, where she's a senior. The ceramics studio and fine arts facilities are impressive for any level, especially high school.
(On a side note: The same day we visited Tara, Westlake's dance team director, Chelsee Capezzuti, was undergoing an exceedingly long surgery at UT-Southwestern. Every teacher we walked by was wearing a T-shirt in honor of Chelsee. It was a beautiful show of support.
Dr. Mickey, who was one of the first neurosurgeons Steve and I consulted almost two years ago, was removing a brain stem tumor that Chelsee has named "Betsy."
Her tumor, which isn't a glioblastoma like Steve's, was closer to the skull and therefore eligible for surgery. I checked her online journal throughout the day and was thrilled to see that she came out of the surgery OK. According to Chelsee's site, 75 to 85 percent of Betsy was removed.)
Jim and Betty drove in from Dallas and Uncle Jim drove in from Houston to spend Thanksgiving Day with the rest of the Damms, the Joneses and the Woodburys.
Just before dinner, we all gathered in the kitchen for grace -- as we always do. This year, of course, was very different without Steve's physical presence.
I believe we all felt his spirit among us, but I also wanted a tangible reminder. So before the prayer, Cooper, Katie and I lit a candle in memory of Steve. I plan on doing this for every holiday or special event for, well, forever.
Tuesday, December 1, 2009
The list of firsts without Steve continues, and none of them get any easier. This was our first visit to Melissa's since Steve passed away. Our first road trip. Our first visit with my mom.
We are blessed to be surrounded every moment by lots of people who love us and care for us.
Carys and Katie
Cooper, Katie, Thalia and Carys examining ducks at the Piney Woods pond