Friday, December 31, 2010

Our team

Cooper and Katie take piano lessons on Sunday afternoons at church. But because of Christmas, this week's lessons were rescheduled to Wednesday evening.

After their lessons, we left Carrollton, stopped at Target and then stopped for dinner at Amore, a little Italian place in The Colony.

Service was slow. The food was good. We were sleepy when we left.

The three of us got in the minivan, and I turned the key. The minivan did not start. The battery was dead.

No problem. This is why we've been members of AAA for 13 years. I call the number and report the problem. I tell Cooper and Katie that there's nothing to worry about -- it's an easily fixed problem.

We were lucky that night -- the weather was mild. The week's rain had stopped. We were in a well-lit, relatively safe area. We passed the time by playing 21 Questions and talking about our Christmas break adventures.

A guy named Spencer with a local tow-truck company arrived in about 30 minutes and helped us get the minivan started. An hour after we left the restaurant, we were finally headed home.

That's when Cooper confided that he'd been slightly worried about our situation.

"But we're a good team," I told him. "I knew we'd solve the problem."

Coop's answer: "But we're missing a member."

"Well, that's sadly true," I answered.

Katie chimed in: "We're not missing a member. Daddy's with us all the time."

"That's true, too," I said.

That little exchange sums up 2010 for our little family. We are a team of three on earth and one in heaven, doing our best every day to solve problems and keep moving forward (with plenty of help from others). We are challenged by grief, by the obvious hole in our family, and we are strengthened by Steve's spirit and love.

We experience joy every day, even when we feel weighed down by grief and loss.

I expect the same in 2011. Steve's absence creates an incurable sadness. But we don't let the sadness rule our lives. We still laugh and discover and hope and learn. We're moving forward the best we can, mindful that we're not leaving Steve behind but rather carrying him with us.

Cooper and Katie, Dec. 30, 2010

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Made me laugh

I was just looking at photos from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when I started laughing.

Without thinking, I placed Steve's special candle next to the dish of cranberry sauce. Steve hated cranberry sauce.

My homemade cranberry sauce sat next to Steve's candle during Christmas lunch.

I'm sure he's laughing with me.

Some other photos from our celebrating:

Uncle Jim, Cooper, Tyra, Katie, Betty and Jim on Christmas Eve

Katie and Cooper in their traditional matching Christmas pajamas


Cooper reads the letter left behind from Little Red Charlie, our Elf on the Shelf.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sacred and secular

I help lead our church's youth Sunday school class. This week fellow leader Joy directed us through a discussion on gifts. Why do we exchange gifts at Christmas? What does all the giving and getting have to do with the birth of Jesus?

Ever since, I've been thinking about how our little family (and yours probably, too) blends the sacred and secular at Christmas. On one shelf we have a Santa and a Nativity set. A snowman and an angel.

I'm guessing those thoughts helped shaped my two Briefing columns this week -- one focused on the magical side of Christmas and the other on the faith that is the basis of the holiday.

In both, you'll find that Steve's absence plays a role. His absence is an enormous presence in our lives, and Christmas only amplifies what's missing.

You can read the columns here and here. And below.

Merry Christmas, friends!

Spirits are even brighter thanks to Santa's solution

Christmas is magical for children: lights, Santa, Elf on the Shelf, cookies, candy, the anticipation of Christmas morning.

It's that same list that makes Christmas exhausting for adults. Because we're the ones in charge of the magic.

I'm blaming self-induced make-the-magic-happen exhaustion for my poor hiding skills and judgment, which led to the Pillow Pet near disaster at our house last week.

It was late Saturday afternoon, and the kids and I were getting ready to leave the house to watch two elves and Santa parachute from the sky and land at Frisco Square.

I was walking in and out of my closet to gather jacket, scarf, hat and gloves. I should have been more guarded with the closet, which is also the secret hiding place of all Christmas gifts. I should have known that Katie would wander in and out of my room during her clingiest time of the day – when she's a little hungry, a little tired, a lot in need of attention.

She slipped in the closet while my back was turned, and that's when she spotted the heads of a penguin and monkey peeking out from beneath my clothes.

"EEEEEeeeeee!" she shrieked. "Who are those for?"

This required some quick imagination on my part. The penguin and monkey were to be gifts for Katie and Cooper, from Santa. Katie, in fact, had asked for two things from Santa – Legos and a Pillow Pet. I couldn't bear to spoil her surprise a week before Christmas.

So I lied. (Isn't that what Christmas is all about?)

"They are for the angel tree at church."

That one statement led to two challenges: (1) managing Katie's disappointment and (2) finding Pillow Pets to replace the ones we would give away.

Katie's disappointment was occasionally tempered by her sense of altruism.

"I really want a Pillow Pet. I mean really, I really do," she would say with great dramatic flair, followed by "But everyone wants a Pillow Pet, so it's good we're giving them away."

She forgot about the penguin and monkey for a couple of hours, while she was immersed in more Christmas magic – watching the parachuting North Pole people and tubing down a fake snow hill and enjoying thousands of lights blinking in unison to music.

After we were home and both children were asleep, I needed to work on finding duplicate Pillow Pets.

Now, if you want a bumblebee or a ladybug or a dog, you're in luck. There are piles of them. If you want a penguin, the exact kind Katie requested from Santa, your options are limited.

I finally talked to a drugstore employee who confirmed the existence of a penguin in her store, not far from our house.

Next, since I'm the only adult at home, I relied on the magic of friends. Layne hurried to the drugstore (they were about to close), bought the replacement penguin and monkey and drove them to my house. In the glow of my street's Christmas lights, I handed him cash through the car window, and he handed me two plastic bags filled with fur.

I found a more secure hiding place for the two new pets and moved the discovered pets to the family room, ready for their transport to church the next morning.

Katie cuddled the angel-tree penguin all during the drive to church. She admired its fuzzy yellow beak and shiny plastic eyes.

When it was time to give away the pet, she hesitated. She squeezed it tight. She whimpered a bit before releasing the animal.

"I really want one," she whispered.

I hugged Katie and told her that we were making magic for someone who really needed it. And maybe Santa would do the same for her.

***

Kids' spiritual differences are reason to be thankful

I am the blessed parent of two old, spiritual souls.

And I am the often-challenged parent of two old, spiritual souls – because they are distinct souls with personalities and beliefs that diverge as often as they converge.

Katie and I were recently reading a children's Christmas book. It concluded with a sentence something like: "And being together with friends and family is the true meaning of Christmas."

The end?

Nope.

"Oh no, it's not," my 5-year-old said with disdain. "The true meaning of Christmas is God and Jesus."

She is firm in her beliefs. She doesn't robotically repeat what's she's heard – she genuinely believes that Jesus is the son of God, the way, the truth, the life.

She's not only confident in her beliefs; she's eager to share them.

This week I took Katie and Cooper to the post office to apply for passports. Because I'm the only living parent, we needed to arrive with extra forms and certified death certificates. On the drive, I reminded the children that the post office employee might have questions about Daddy.

"I wish Daddy didn't die," Katie said. "But if you believe in God and Jesus, when you die you wake up again in heaven and live forever."

I keep a cross on my bedroom desk. It belonged to Steve. Katie likes to stop at the desk to pick up the cross and trace its edges with her fingers.

On a recent stop, she held the small cross to her chest, looked up and said, "Daddy, as long as people believe in the cross, you'll be alive in heaven."

Cooper does not always share his sister's confidence. He often questions Christian doctrine and analyzes our religion's tenets.

When he was 3, he had (understandable) trouble with the Crucifixion. He would ask over and over why God would let his son die. Our explanations were never enough.

Last week, when it was just the two of us in the minivan, he asked about the divinity of Jesus.

"If Jesus is God, and Jesus was worshipping God, then wasn't he worshipping himself, and isn't that bad?"

I was unable to consult theologians or even Google from the driver's seat, so I answered the best I could. I told him that I thought Jesus on Earth served as a model, to show humans how to worship God during a time when God thought we needed help.

He's a student of Greek mythology and struggles with the idea that an ancient civilization got it all wrong – all the ideas about multiple gods and explanations for the way the world works.

What if we have it all wrong?

It's no easy task, this parenting thing.

If I wanted to take the easy way out, I might tell Cooper that he must believe what I believe. (Or maybe just send him to his younger sister.)

Parenting shortcuts seldom work, though, so instead we discuss and read, and I encourage Cooper to share his doubts.

We talk about the role that God played in their Daddy's death. Cooper wonders why God couldn't save Steve. I counter that God was with him while he suffered the effects of cancer not controlled by God. Katie reminds us that Daddy is alive today, spending eternity in heaven with God – and Jesus.

We are three people with three different perspectives on the faith that binds us. Tonight we will gather in our church's sanctuary to celebrate and light candles in community, and tomorrow we will open gifts and share a special meal. We will give thanks for the birth of Jesus, his example and sacrifice – and I will give thanks for being entrusted with the care of two old, spiritual souls.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. E-mail her at tyradamm@gmail.com.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Prayers for a Frisco dad

Once every few weeks I learn about another human diagnosed with brain cancer. A few of them have been given my name and e-mail address and have been encouraged to contact me.

Few do. And I don't blame them.

When Steve was first diagnosed, we were given the names and e-mail addresses of a few survivors -- folks who were still fighting their brain tumors. I spoke to one on the phone and became completely overwhelmed. She was in a different stage than we were, and I could barely accept the stage we were in.

I would read the blogs of others. I rarely shared anything I found with Steve, who was solely focused on his fight. I would tell him when prayers were needed, and I would share success stories, but sadly there weren't many of those.

Brain tumors are awful, terrible, cursed creatures.

I was recently contacted by a fellow Frisco mom. She has two young children. Her husband, Mark, is fighting a glioblastoma -- the same kind of tumor Steve had, just in a different location.

She is keeping a blog of her family's journey, and today she is asking for prayers for Mark, who will have his next MRI just days after Christmas.

You can read her post asking for prayers and comments here. If you are so moved, I hope you will read the post, pray for Mark and his family and leave a comment on their blog. I know how precious those kinds of comments are, and I know how much they meant to Steve on some of his toughest days.

Thank you!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday morning

A typical Sunday worship service is full of grief triggers.

Cooper, Katie and I sit in the same sanctuary we used to share with Steve. It’s been our church home since 2000, before Cooper and Katie. It’s where both children were baptized and where both children sang in preschool performances and where Steve and I held hands during prayers on countless Sundays and took Communion together.

And it’s where Steve sang tenor in the choir and occasionally played trumpet.

Even now, more than 15 months after his death, I have to remind myself every single Sunday morning to not write “Steve, Tyra, Cooper & Katie Damm” in the registration book.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been able to get through a service – specifically anthems – without crying as often. There’s nothing wrong with crying, of course – it’s just not my automatic response as often.

Today was different.

The moment I looked up at the choir loft, where Steve should be sitting, I saw Bruce, Steve’s fellow tenor, fellow trumpeteer, fellow humorist.

At that moment, I felt Steve’s presence. Steve was there – not just in our hearts but actually there in some spiritual sense that's difficult to explain but nevertheless genuine.

I couldn’t shake the feeling, and I couldn’t help but weep.

When it was time to greet one another, I broke my usual routine and walked to the choir loft – something I haven’t done since Steve stopped singing in December 2007 – and sat next to Bruce.

I gave him a hug and told him that I felt Steve was right there.

Bruce opened his music folder. In the front pocket was the order of worship from Steve’s memorial service, with that handsome photo of Steve staring right at me.

Steve on the day of Katie's baptism, September 2005

Bruce explained that he likes to keep the photo in his folder but that he had misplaced it for a couple of weeks. He’d just rediscovered it this morning. Steve was right there.

I have big ideas about what angel Steve is doing in heaven, and I’m certain I assign him much more power than he actually has. I picture him spending time on important causes – hunger, diseases, peace – while also providing guardian angel protection to folks in need and his family and telling jokes and making himself and other angels laugh.

This morning, though, I think he took a break from that important work to be with his church family and us and to celebrate the fourth Sunday of Advent. (And what glorious music it was!)

Cooper and Katie after church today, sitting on Steve's bench

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Yet another "Steve" pose

Cooper, Gabriel and Katie (with yet another "Steve" pose) at Frisco Square tonight, after they tubed/sledded down a snow hill

Saturday, December 11, 2010

MRI day

Three years ago today, Steve had the first of many MRIs of his brain, at a hospital just a few minutes from our home.

And while I'm sad thinking about the details of the day, today I'd rather focus on the bigger lesson from that day.

Trust your instincts. And be your own advocate.

When the four of us drove home from Austin at the end of our Thanksgiving visit in November 2007, Steve and I decided that he needed to call his primary care physician about some troubling symptoms.

He was having trouble swallowing thin liquids. He had frequent hiccups. A headache in the back of his head that didn't completely resolve with Tylenol. His speech was slightly slurred.

The next week he saw Dr. Y, who recommended a swallow study and maybe an MRI later.

I called our friend Jen, fellow Frisco soccer mom and a speech therapist. I knew she would know something about the symptoms, mostly because of Steve's speech issues.

I was cooking dinner in the kitchen. Cooper and Katie were working on a project at the table. Steve wasn't yet home from work.

She told me what they might be looking for. The worst case, she said, was a mass in the brain.

I walked into the dining room, sat down in the nearest chair and knew, just knew, that we were dealing with the worst case. This wasn't me being pessimistic -- this was intuition.

When Steve got home and we were able talk, I told him that he had to call Dr. Y and demand an MRI.

He called the next morning and practically had to beg Dr. Y's nurse and then Dr. Y to order the MRI. He told them that we weren't comfortable with a wait-and-see approach.

On Dec. 12, 2007, I sent an e-mail to family members and close friends. It included these words:

An MRI yesterday showed a 15 mm lesion on the right side of his brain stem, mostly in an area called the pons.

I can't count the number of times I wish my intuition had been wrong. But I also thank God that we had Jen to talk to and that Steve persisted and that we started the diagnosis process when we did.

Steve and I learned over and over the importance of being your own best advocate. We learned to speak up when something didn't seem right, when Steve wasn't treated with the best care, when mistakes were being made, when dots weren't connected, when we seemed forgotten in an ER room, when a caregiver seemed too distracted or tired to do the best job.

I know that I can be bossy, but I don't apologize when I'm bossy with friends facing medical decisions. I remind them to ask questions, to seek answers until they're comfortable, to demand the best care -- because no one, no matter how compassionate, at a doctor's office or hospital or cancer center is going to be as qualified an advocate as the patient or spouse or parent or adult child.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ranunculus

On Steve's birthday this year, I planted bulbs in our front yard. I liked the idea of doing something special on his birthday that would reveal itself in the spring.

I bought some tulip bulbs and ranunculus bulbs and planted them in open spots in the front beds. I'm not a skilled gardener. I'm allergic to most everything that grows; my skin breaks out in awful rashes just by touching some seemingly mild-mannered plants. So I was pleased to dig deep enough in the soil and place the bulbs in the correct direction.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed some green sprouts where I'd planted the ranuculus bulbs. I was certain that I'd done something wrong -- introduced weeds, perhaps?

The sprouts kept growing. They looked too pretty to be weeds. So I googled "ranuculus" (perhaps something I should have done before I planted) and discovered that the bulbs sprout just a few weeks after they're planted and produce their beautiful blooms in the spring.

When I walk by the beds now, I like to think of Steve saying hello earlier than I expected.

Sprouts just outside our front door

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wind

Steve and I would often joke that Frisco is the windiest place in all of Texas.

In February 2002, we stood at the top of the hill on mostly empty Hidden Creek Lane, staring at a model home that we'd fallen in love with. My hair whipped around wildly. Baby Cooper's jacket didn't provide enough warmth. And yet we smiled (though not too widely, for fear of dirt getting in our teeth). We felt comforting peace about the contract we'd just signed to build our home.

Over the years, we happily endured more windy days near that hill -- at the playground and the pond. On walks together. On separate runs (oh, it's a tough hill to run up). On a snowy day when neighbors gathered and shared a makeshift sled.

I've driven that hill hundreds of times -- while Steve was healthy, while he was fighting cancer, after he died. Not until today, a windy day in December 2010, did I drive by that very spot and feel a flood of tears in my chest.

Something about the sky and the weather and my missing Steve at that very moment made me think of younger Steve and Tyra -- unsure of our future neighbors and the unbuilt elementary school and our commute downtown and so much more and yet confident that we were making the right decision.

I cried on the rest of my drive home and as I pulled into the garage and as I walked through the back door and set my purse on a chair. These grief moments blow through like unexpected bursts of wind. They are bearable because of comforting peace that is more powerful than sorrow.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thanksgiving treats

Cooper created this sidewalk chalk drawing of angel Steve on Aunt Ami and Uncle Rich's back patio.

***

Greg, Brooke, Cooper and Jim at the Jones house before the race

Cooper, Uncle Jim, Uncle Greg and Brooke registered for the Austin Turkey Trot. Cooper and Brooke signed up for the 1-mile race, Jim and Greg for the 5-mile race.

The uncles moved onto the Congress Avenue bridge to get close to the starting line, and I stayed back with the cousins. We admired kooky costumes (some turkeys, a pair dressed as a monkey and a banana, a couple of all-body unitards) and chatted before the start.

When the crowd started moving, I reminded the cousins to stick together. And as I walked away, I shouted, "Stay together, and remember you're running one mile!"

As soon as I said it, I had a sense there would be trouble.

Sure enough, the cousins missed the poorly placed sign designating the 1-mile route, and they ran 5 instead. They crossed the finish line with cheerful spirits!


***

Katie sitting in her "hut" behind the Jones' house. The cousins built structures out of branches and other found materials and spent hours playing outside.

Ami, Tara, Rich and Sasha -- our awesome Thanksgiving week hosts

Melane, Greg, Molli and Brooke

Annual toast at the cousins' table

Betty, Jim and Jim spent Thanksgiving Day with us in Austin.

Cooper lights the Steve candle before we say grace for Thanksgiving dinner. (Molli and Rich are behind him.)

Katie, Tyra and Cooper on Thanksgiving Day (I often get weepy when I see photos of just the three of us. In this one, I strongly sense Steve with us, and it makes me smile.)

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tumor humor

Almost every time there's a new adult in Cooper's or Katie's life, I make a point to gently mention Steve's illness and death.

I learned to do this while Steve was ill -- to prepare the adult (teacher, doctor, coach) for possible conversation references to cancer or a brain tumor or crazy eye.

Katie especially talks about Daddy all the time. When I dropped Katie off for an art day camp this summer, I told her teacher about Steve right away, even though Katie would be there for only a few hours during one week. Katie emotes constantly, and I believe that the adults around her need as much information as possible.

Cooper had an eye appointment today, and I chose not to tell the receptionist or the optometrist about Steve. We wouldn't be there long. The paperwork didn't require me to mark my marital status. Cooper isn't one to volunteer information about Steve. It seemed like a safe time to just be a mom and a son at an afternoon appointment.

The kind doctor was a few minutes into the thorough neurological exam when he stopped and said jokingly, "Well, the good news is there are no tumors!"

(Nervous laughter from me as I silently curse myself for not telling the receptionist that Cooper's Daddy had died from complications of a brain stem tumor.)

"Well, that's good," I said cheerfully. Then I continued softly, "And you should probably know that Cooper's Daddy, my husband, died last year. He had a brain stem tumor."

I had to say something at this point, right? I didn't want more joking references to brain tumors, and I didn't want Cooper to worry. I went on to remind Cooper that the tumor in Daddy's brain stem was super rare and that it's not genetic and that I've never worried about tumors in his head.

The doctor was clearly upset with his comment, apologized to both of us and performed some additional tests on Cooper just to show him that he was indeed just fine. When Cooper left the exam room, the doctor apologized again.

I told him that I wasn't upset with him and that I usually let folks know in advance of our situation -- I just didn't think it was relevant today. I was wrong.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thankful for perspective

Happy Thanksgiving!

In my Briefing column today, I write about one of many gifts from Steve -- the gift of perspective. You can read it here or here:

On this day, I'm thankful for the gift of perspective

At the top of my list of thanks this season is perspective.

The perspective comes courtesy of my late husband, who died last fall after living with brain cancer for a year and a half.

I thought of him this week, for probably the thousandth time, while waiting in line for coffee.

A fit, well-dressed woman behind me was complaining to two younger friends about some minor ailments. The 50ish-year-old ended her monologue dramatically: "It's horrible getting old. I mean, it is horrible getting old."

Steve would have loved to get old. And I would have loved to grow old along with him.

It's the reason I didn't complain about turning a year closer to 40 this year and why I cringe a little when others grumble about birthdays. Because we all miss people who aren't celebrating Thanksgiving this year, people who would have loved to celebrate more birthdays.

There are multiple moments each week when I think, "I can't believe I have to live the rest of my life without Steve."

And then I remind myself, "I get to live the rest of my life."

When I get bogged down thinking of how difficult it is to make decisions about our children or to discipline them by myself, I deliberately stop to remember how fortunate I am to get to perform these important parenting tasks.

Plus, I get to play board games and listen to piano practice and watch cartwheels being perfected.

Perspective comes in handy at Thanksgiving, a holiday sandwiched between Christmas preparations that begin just after Halloween.

It's easy this time of year to get wrapped up in what I don't have. The mailbox is stuffed daily with catalogs, and my e-mail inbox gets hit too often with enticing deals for stuff.

When I get too greedy, I deliberately stop to remember what little significance all that kind of stuff had during Steve's final months. He was never too materialistic to begin with, and he certainly dropped any investment in things when he realized his time was so limited.

It's the reason I don't understand why Oprah's guests go into such a frenzy when they realize they're being given a pile of her favorite things (though I confess to coveting a bag and pair of ballet flats in this year's booty).

And it's why I had to interrupt a recent Katie tantrum for a life lesson.

I had already bought her four books, plus one for her classroom library, at the school book fair. I held fast to my policy of not buying any of the junky stuff – novelty erasers, pens, pencils.

Even after multiple conversations, Katie professed to not understanding my position.

"If you wanted me to be happy," she wailed, "you would buy me more stuff!"

I would typically save big ideas for after an irrational 5-year-old fit. But I couldn't let this moment pass.

"Katie, I believe that things don't make us happy. Our happiness comes from within us and from the good people around us."

Katie paused briefly then resumed her fit.

She's not always thankful for my perspective, but I know I'm fortunate to be able to share it.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. E-mail her at tyradamm@gmail.com.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Steve and Katie

Katie has a new way of posing for photographs. It's very similar to the way her Daddy would pose for photos. Even their distinctive eyebrows are arched the same.

Katie, last night, PTA program (with a fuzzy Cooper beside her)

Steve with spiked hair, in a big group of high school friends (help with identification welcome!)

Update from fellow W.T. White alum Stuart Cutright: Folks in photo. Leaning on couch, brown hair: Tamara Mirinkovic. On left side I think is Becky Gordon. In glasses next to Becky is John Lambert. Girl on Steve's left is Lisa Bowman. Girl "under" Steve is Trish Coffey. Next to Trish and under Lisa is Steve Cairns. I'm not sure who the person is behind the group but it might be Matt Shetrone or Scott Sereboff.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Purpose

This week for work I interviewed Nick Vujicic, a 27-year-old who was born with no limbs. He's a motivational and inspirational speaker and has a new book out, Life Without Limits. (You can read part of the interview here.)

Nick's focus is convincing folks to live for their specific God-given purpose. Interest timing for me, as I've been thinking a lot the past few weeks about purpose.

I don't think we necessarily have one sole purpose. I have no doubt that for 19 months my most important purpose was to help Steve fight cancer with wild abandon and then help him slow down as his body necessarily came to rest.

But that can't be my only purpose, right? You don't reach your ultimate purpose at 38 and then just wander aimlessly.

Caring for and guiding Cooper and Katie is my most essential purpose now. And though I'll never stop being a mom, I do know that one day they'll be on their own and rely on me much less. (Though last week, Katie did say that she would live in this very house when she was an adult. Cooper said, "No, I called the house like a year ago.")

***

Photo of sunrise over Lewisville Lake, e-mailed to me from Steve on Nov. 3, 2007, with the message "Good morning!"

About three years ago this weekend, Cooper and Steve were at their first family Cub Scout campout. Steve would send me text messages from the campsite (just a few miles away) and occasional photos from his Blackberry.

Steve had started having some of the symptoms that led to his diagnosis, but we hadn't yet connected the symptoms. We had no clue what would unfold in the next few weeks.

This weekend, Cooper and Uncle Greg are at the same campout. Greg is sending text messages and photos from his iPhone.

I am sad for Cooper, who would love to have his Daddy pitching the tent, fishing and roasting marshmallows.

But I'm thankful for loving, reliable adults who enthusiastically step in. With the stellar family trio of Papa, Uncle Jim and Uncle Greg, our children have positive male role models who will never replace Steve but who provide their own kind of fatherly love.

They have new purposes, too, and I'm thankful that they accept their roles so cheerfully.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Birthday

Steve and I often said that if you have to have a brain tumor (and there's certainly no choice in the matter), you couldn't be in a better position than we were.

We live in a major metropolitan area with excellent health care facilities right here and even more just an hour flight away. Steve worked in the health care industry and had access to really bright medical minds from the very beginning. My journalism career allowed me access to really bright reporters who compiled and synthesized information quickly on our behalf.

At the time of diagnosis, we weren't struggling financially. We had a stable, loving relationship with no major issues or conflicts. We were secure in our faith.

And we were supported by an incredible group of family members and friends who supported us all day every day.

If you have to be a widow (and I'm as reluctant a widow as they come), you couldn't ask for much more than what I have now.

Two resilient, funny, wise children. The ability and flexibility to work from home, doing what I love. The peace that comes from knowing that the love Steve and I shared will never die. An even greater security in my faith.

And an incredible group of family members and friends who support us all day every day -- and especially on the momentous days.

So many of you sent cards, e-mails, texts and Facebook messages to remember Steve and send virtual hugs on his 42nd birthday. Melissa, my best friend since eighth grade, posted a lovely sentiment on her blog.

Zena and I caught the matinee showing of Waiting for "Superman" this morning; Kris and Liz joined us for a fancier-than-usual weekday lunch at Jasper's.

Jim was here this afternoon to help Cooper with homework while Katie and I baked a chocolate cake.

Then Cooper, Katie and I ate at Cantina Laredo, where I shared the story I wrote about yesterday. Katie cried when I got to the break-up, so I zoomed ahead to the happy ending.

***

After I walked the kids to school this morning, I spent some time in the front yard, planting bulbs in memory of Steve.

I planted 72 tulip bulbs and 90 ranunculus bulbs along the edges of our flower beds. I love the idea of the earth waking next spring and little shoots of green pushing through the soil, followed by glorious blooms of color.

And if that doesn't work out (I'm not exactly a master gardener), I'll just plant a whole bunch of potted flowers instead.

***

Lovely arrangement from friends and the flattest birthday cake ever

The birthday cake didn't turn out as I had hoped.

I tried a new-to-me recipe -- Julia Child's chocolate sponge cake. Katie and I followed the instructions, but I clearly missed an essential technique or two (I'm guessing my errors were related to egg yolks and/or egg whites). The cake barely rose at all, though the recipe said it should pouf above the top of the cake pan.

Cooper and Katie were undeterred by its sad appearance (I didn't bother to frost it -- I wasn't sure that it would even taste good) and ate huge slices.

Just like their sweet Daddy would have done.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Birthday dinner

Thursday is Steve's 42nd birthday.

Katie believes that his celebration will include pizza, cake, flowers and everyone he knows in heaven at the party.

Last year we celebrated with lots of friends. This year's celebration won't be as big, but I know so many of the folks who love Steve will be thinking of him and remembering his cheerful, bold, funny spirit.

Cooper has requested a chocolate cake -- Steve's favorite -- to celebrate. And the three of us will go to dinner after homework is done.

We plan to eat at Cantina Laredo because Steve loved Tex-Mex and so do we. And because of our storied history with the restaurant.

In December 1992, Steve and I were dating long distance. He lived in Brenham and worked as assistant administrator of a multi-specialty medical clinic. I lived in Carrollton, was in my senior year at the University of North Texas and worked three part-time jobs.

We had dinner over Christmas week with his parents at the Cantina Laredo in Addison. At first, I thought we were having a fabulous evening. When the mariachi band stopped at our table, I even stood up to dance. (And I am not the dancing type.)

Steve did not look like he was having a good time, though. He was aloof and distant. (Maybe the dancing was too much?)

About a week later, just after New Year's Day, he broke up with me.

I was devastated. Heartbroken. Distraught.

Steve would later say that he needed some distance. That I was too serious. (Well, this was true. And I was probably a bit smothering. I would write and mail him a letter every single weekday. This, of course, was in the days before e-mail and texts and Facebook.)

We reunited about six weeks later -- over Valentine's Day weekend -- and never separated again.

But it was difficult to overcome the bad memories associated with that December dinner out. For a while we just refused to eat at the restaurant. In time we tried to replace the bad memories with better ones, but it never worked out. The service was too slow, the food not good enough.

We felt certain that we just weren't meant to eat at Cantina Laredo.

Many years later, the restaurant opened a location just a few miles from our home. Our dear friends Andy and Julie were determined to change our opinion and gave us a gift card to the restaurant for Christmas.

We timidly tried again. And we loved it! Maybe we just needed a new location and the passage of time. Whatever the reason, we reclaimed it as a "good" place and joked good-naturedly about that disastrous dinner when I was 20 and Steve was 24.

I may even share the story with Cooper and Katie over dinner Thursday night. They love to hear true stories of peril with happy endings.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Heroes

Cooper as Steve (complete with a Steve tie) and Katie as Mrs. Harris

It's the end of Red Ribbon Week at our school and schools all over the country. Each day at Bledsoe, students are encouraged to dress a special way -- in sweats because it's no sweat to say no to drugs, in team jerseys to symbolize we're all part of one team, etc.

Today is hero day.

Katie chose Mrs. Harris, her kindergarten teacher, as her inspiration. Cooper chose his Daddy.

Katie requested "teacher clothes" and a super teacher cape. Teacher clothes were no problem -- cardigan, skirt and argyle knee socks were already in her closet. A cape, though, wasn't.

Now, I'm already in the middle of costume season, and I'm not exactly the most skilled mom. With Betty's direction, though, I've created or am in the process of creating a Halloween wizard costume for Cooper, a sock hop Scottie skirt for Katie, and a nursery rhyme parade dog costume for Katie.

Well, why not add a cape to the list? So yesterday I bought some supplies, borrowed Zena's sewing machine and pulled together the cape, incorporating "ST" as requested by Katie and lots of pink, Mrs. Harris' favorite color.

Super teacher cape

Cooper's hero outfit was a little easier to pull together. Steve had his favorite "uniform" of khaki pants, blue dress shirt and tie. He'd throw on a sport coat, sweater or sweater vest in the winter. We had those basics in Cooper's closet.

Katie's badge

Long after the children were asleep last night, I printed badges for them to wear with their costumes. Cooper's said "My hero is my Daddy" and included a photo of the two of them.

Cooper was so sweet this morning when he saw the badge and asked, "Mommy, do we have white dots for the card? I want to change 'Daddy' to 'Dad' so no one at school makes fun of me." He also asked for the Children's Medical Center logo.

While they ate breakfast, I printed a new badge.

Cooper's badge, with photo from the first day of kindergarten (notice the pen in the pocket -- another Steve trait)

It's appropriate that Cooper was dressed as Steve today. At Bledsoe's nine-week celebration, Cooper was recognized with an award for excellent character. In our home, Steve continues to be the ultimate role model for integrity, compassion, enthusiasm, gentleness and humility.

Cooper and Tyra after the assembly

Friday, October 22, 2010

Rangers

I've been a Rangers fan for 20 years. Steve was a fan of baseball and the Rangers long before I was.

We went to games while we were dating. When we married in July 1994, we had very little money and no time to take off of work, so we didn't have a "real" honeymoon. We went to a Rangers game at the then-new Ballpark in Arlington with family and friends.

(We took our delayed honeymoon five years later, when we spent a glorious week in Paris and Munich.)

Eric, Liz and Steve at the Ballpark in the late '90s

We watched the Rangers in spring training in Port Charlotte, Fla., with Matthew and Gretchen.

Steve, Tyra and baby Cooper at the Ballpark, August 2001

When Cooper was about six weeks old, we took him to his first Rangers game. I'll never forget that outing, mostly because it was the first time that Cooper slept through the night -- 11 hours.

After we moved to Frisco, we spent more time watching the RoughRiders (a AA affiliate of the Rangers) in person. The field is 10 minutes from our house, it's inexpensive, the parking is easy.

To be honest, I never expected to see the Rangers in a World Series. I love the team, but, like most fans understand, there's little hope after August.

This series, ending with tonight's awesome win, has been emotional for me. What I selfishly want is Steve in this room, hopping up and down, exclaiming with excitement, explaining plays to Cooper and Katie.

If heaven works the way I hope it does, Steve has been watching the games from behind home plate. And I know where he'll be during the World Series.

Cooper on Monday, wearing Steve's Rangers jersey

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Run for Steve/Tri for Steve

The official Run for Steve team is taking a year off from the White Rock Marathon this year. I know that some of our runners will be there no matter what, either for the full, half or relay. I am proud of you all! But I need to take a break from big events while I manage all the little and medium events in the lives of the Tasmanian Dolphins.

Don't hang up your running shoes, though! There will be three "official" Run for Steve events in 2011, including two triathlons.

1. Historic McKinney Kiwanis Kids Triathlon, Saturday, April 30, 2011
Cooper plans to run, bike and swim in the event, and we'd love to see our younger friends on the course, too!

I plan to run, bike and swim (along with Run for Steve captain Liz!), and we'd love to be joined by lots of friends on the course.

3. A fall 2011 run that benefits children's health care, one of Steve's passions

I'm having an especially difficult grief week this week, but I am cheered by the memories of so many runners running for Steve and by the prospect of more events.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Before I forget (and some details are already fuzzy)

I don't think I've shared before how beautifully our elementary school handled Steve's death.

I thought of it today when a store clerk and I were talking about Bledsoe, and she asked if we liked the school. As I typically do, I gushed. Our neighborhood school has been a huge blessing -- for its academic strengths, its variety of programs, relationships formed.

Bledsoe has been more than a school to our family. It is a safe, comforting home for Cooper and now Katie. It is filled with a talented group of leaders, teachers and staff members -- and supported by compassionate families.

On the day that Steve died, I spoke with Cooper's teacher, Brae. Cooper said that he wanted to go to school the very next day. We weren't sure that this was a good idea, but Cooper was certain.

Brae and Angie, the school's guidance counselor who had already spent a lot of time with Cooper, planned the next day together.

First thing Tuesday morning, I met with Angie and two specialists from the district. By this time, Cooper thought he wouldn't be able to stay the full day. But he did want his classmates to know all at one time that his Daddy had died. He was worried about having to tell people one by one.

Angie, Cooper and I walked to his classroom. Everyone gathered at the back of the room. Cooper sat on the carpet next to his best friend, Asher, who was celebrating his birthday that day. Asher put his arm protectively around Cooper's shoulders.

Angie sat in front of the group and said she had some very sad news. She tried to keep her composure, but she understandably cried some as she told Cooper's classmates that Steve had died after fighting brain cancer.

She told his friends that it was OK to tell him that they were sorry and to show that they cared but that he might not want to talk about it all the time.

Then Cooper and I went home. He spent the rest of the day at the house and returned to school Wednesday.

Angie met with Cooper three mornings a week over the next few months. We eventually reduced the days to two. This school year he hasn't yet expressed interest in counseling. But he knows it's always an option.

She and Brae are just two of the special people who took deliberate, gentle care of us when we so critically needed extra care.

So, if you ask me if I like our elementary school, I'll either give you the short answer: an emphatic yes. Or a long, emotional answer that ends in an emphatic yes.

Brae, Cooper, Angie, Kelly (former assistant principal at Bledsoe) and Jess (a teacher Cooper never even had) at one of his soccer games last October

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

End of day

Those few minutes before children fall asleep are often the most enlightening of the day. If you pay attention, that's when you're likely to learn details or clues from the day without any prying at all.

Cooper had some rough moments at school and some trying times at home this afternoon. We talked through what had bothered him before moving on to spelling words and his campaign poster for student council.

(His campaign slogan comes from a phrase that Steve and I taught him when he was 2: "You can't cooperate without Cooper.")

After Katie was in bed, Cooper and I visited a few more minutes.

"My heart is sad about three things," he told me.

1. Our friend Cole, who is recovering from a football injury
2. A classmate at school
3. Daddy

I gave him an update on Cole, assuring him that though Cole faces some big hurdles, he's eventually going to be OK.

We talked through some strategies on dealing with the classmate.

And I asked him to tell me more about how he was feeling about Daddy.

"Why couldn't you have found the tumor two years earlier so that we could have taken it out?"

I explained that we don't know exactly when the tumor began, but we think he had it for just a few months, definitely less than a year, when we discovered it.

And I told him that because of the tumor's type and unfortunate location (longtime readers will recall that notorious phrase from early in the process), there's not much we could have done.

"Well, we could have given him medicine earlier and he could have lived longer," Cooper replied.

"Maybe, Cooper," I said as I sighed. "We just don't know. And we can't change how everything happened."

Then I gave him a few more details about how cancer cells work (as best as a journalist with no formal medical training can) and why the brain stem is a highly dangerous surgical area.

"I think of cancer cells as soldiers," Cooper said. "And they want more and more reinforcements, so they just keep making new soldiers."

He added, "But I wish we could have wiped out Daddy's cancer cells."

Friday, October 1, 2010

Unexpected moments

A constant thread throughout this grief process has been my ability to cope with expected vs. unexpected moments.

When I can anticipate a grief moment -- a family birthday, our wedding anniversary, the anniversary of Steve's death, receiving his remains (as Jim, Betty and I did last week) -- I often surprise myself with my composure.

And I'm truly not pretending or acting. When I expect a moment or day or series of days to be difficult, and then those moments or day or days happen, I typically remain calm inside and out.

The unexpected moments, though -- they are a different story.

Today they piled one on top of the other.

I woke at 3 a.m. with an awful earache (allergy symptoms are particularly bad for lots of North Texans right now). I was totally capable of getting out of bed for Tylenol and water. But I wanted Steve to do it for me. I cried from the physical pain and the heartache.

I visited my doctor for an annual check-up later this morning. It was the first time I had sat in her waiting room since Steve died. The only other people in the room were a husband, pregnant wife and toddler son. It reminded me of Steve and me. He was by my side for every single prenatal visit in that office when I was pregnant with Cooper. He missed only one when I was pregnant with Katie (and he lamented that missed visit for years later). As I waited for my turn, I wiped away tears.

After the appointment, I visited a dear family at Children's Medical Center. Cole was in a football practice-related accident yesterday and is receiving excellent care at Children's -- the same hospital that employed Steve for nine years.

I hadn't been on the campus in a long time. There was no question that I needed to be there -- wanted to be there -- for Cole's family. I'm glad I had the opportunity to hug his mom and dad and to listen to Kelly describe every mom's nightmare and to smooth Cole's hair while he slept.

But I wasn't prepared for how difficult it would be to park in the garage Steve parked in. To walk the skybridge that he walked every day when he worked at that campus. To walk by other administrator types wearing similar suits and almost identical badges.

Before I drove away to get home in time to pick up Cooper and Katie from school, I sat in the minivan and sobbed.

Too many unexpected grief moments in one day.

Thank God for the unexpected joyful moments. Like Katie choosing cowgirl boots to wear with her bright blue T-shirt and hot pink cropped sweatpants. Like an impromptu morning tea with Liz. Like Julie calling just to check on me.

And like Cooper on the way home from soccer practice tonight. I pointed out the particularly pretty sunset -- orange and pink and purple filling the western sky.

"That's so beautiful not even Leonardo da Vinci could capture its beauty," Cooper said.

(He's learning about da Vinci, by the way, from aforementioned Kelly, his GT teacher at school.)

"The world is full of suffering. It is also full of overcoming."
-- Helen Keller

Friday, September 24, 2010

Michigan trip

If Steve were here, he would tell the story of this year's Labor Day weekend trip to Michigan in a long, winding, entertaining way.

Steve's storytelling was one of the millions of things I love about him. Whereas I am usually linear and concise, he would weave together anecdotes, details and memories in a circuitous, always enjoyable way.

With Steve in mind, I'll try my best to explain how Cooper, Katie and I ended up at Michigan Stadium for the season opening game.

***

Steve's dad, grandfather and great-uncle attended the University of Michigan. Steve's older brother, Jim, attended Texas A&M.

So, as Steve told it, he went to Michigan. (He was wait-listed at Rice University, his first choice.)

He started in the Honors College as a pre-med major. He eventually graduated with an English literature degree, chosen because when he had to make a final declaration, he had more credits in English than any other subject.

And he played trumpet in the Michigan Marching Band.

The 2010 Michigan Marching Band

***

In the middle of Steve's cancer journey, we heard from Laura Ambrook Redmond.

Laura was also in the Michigan Marching Band. I can't even recall now how she learned about Steve's illness. I'm sure it has something to do with Facebook or e-mails.

She is a registered nurse and would send us the most encouraging notes about Steve's care. (We are fortunate to have so many friends in the caregiving field.)

When Steve died, she wrote me to offer the children and me tickets to a Michigan football game.

Laura, her husband and cutie-pie son live in South Carolina, which means they're unable to attend all of the Michigan home games, even though they have season tickets.

I loved the idea of taking Cooper and Katie to Ann Arbor, especially to a football game. Steve attended dozens of games, often marching on the field at halftime and representing the school at bowl games. I met Steve after he graduated; together we watched many games on television. Steve would be the first to tell you that he got really riled up watching his Wolverines.

Steve and I attended one Ann Arbor game together (Michigan vs. Colorado in 1997) and that season's Rose Bowl (Michigan vs. Washington State on New Year's Day 1998).

***

Because Steve died on Labor Day 2009 and because the hours leading to his death were so traumatic (beautiful in many ways, but still traumatic), I decided early on that we wouldn't be home Labor Day weekend this year -- or perhaps any future year.

I was happy to accept Laura's gift and requested tickets for the first game of the season. Laura and her family planned to be in South Carolina that weekend, and she graciously granted my request.

***

We're fortunate to have dear friends who live in Canton, just a few miles from Ann Arbor. The Healys offered to host us in their home, which gave us plenty of room to get comfortable and plenty of time to visit. (Though certainly not enough time, if you ask any of our combined five children. They get along as if they've spent their whole lives together.)

While with the Healy family, we enjoyed a music concert in Plymouth, a few hours at the swimming pool, a trip to an apple orchard and quality time at home.

Ryan, Cooper, Katie, Kelsey and Brendan

Katie the caterpillar

Cooper, Brendan, Ryan and Ken

We also enjoyed fall-like temperatures, having escaped 100-degree Dallas.

***

The moment that our rental car crossed into Ann Arbor, I started to cry.

Steve and I had always planned to return to the town together, with our two children. He, of course, would drive and I would navigate because that was our travel agreement many years ago.

He would show us his favorite hangouts and tell us fun Steve stories, censored when necessary.

Instead, I was driving with navigation help from the little computer in the car. I had a list of Steve places courtesy of Liz, one of Steve's best college friends and our mutual friend a few years later. I tried to recall all the Steve stories I could, wishing I had written every single one he told over the years.

***

Laura took great care of us from South Carolina. She made sure that I connected with Paul, another marching band alum who tailgates at all the home games. Paul and his family welcomed us into their group, fed us throughout the day and offered great advice on where to go.

She also connected us with Nick, another band alum who works at Michigan Stadium during games. He was able to walk us onto the field a few hours before kickoff. We walked through the same tunnel that players walk through before halves and sat on the storied field.

Her seats were amazing.

I haven't yet mentioned that the game we attended was the very first in the newly renovated Michigan Stadium. The renovations include the addition of a swanky club level. Our club-level seats were cushy; the view was amazing; the bathrooms were spotless.

The three of us were among 113,090 who watched the game in the stadium -- a national record for attendance.

Michigan won, 30-10. And as of today, the team is 3-0.
Cooper, Tyra and Katie in the Big House

***

Cooper and Katie outside South Quad

We left the tailgate party for a couple of hours to tour the campus.

We stood outside South Quad, Steve's freshman year dorm. We walked through the Law Quad, one of the most beautiful spots on campus.

We stood outside the coffee shop that was once the Baskin-Robbins where Steve worked. We admired the beautiful Union. I answered a lot of questions about all the students attending parties at various rental house and Greek houses along our route.

Cooper declared his intention to attend the University of Michigan "if the science program is good enough."

He asked if he should live in a dorm or one of those rental houses. (You can guess my answer, I'm sure.)

I said a silent prayer of thanks that I still have years before I send our babies to college.