Saturday, March 27, 2010

'Bring Him Home'

Click here to see a video of David Gaschen's magical peformance of "Bring Him Home" at the PFAMily Arts benefit earlier this month.

Friday, March 26, 2010

No contest

Darla and I started working together at the Dallas Morning News about a decade ago. Darla livens any situation -- especially a sometimes staid shift on the copy desk. Her laugh is loud and contagious. Her attitude is positive -- sunshiney, really. Her knowledge of pop culture is mighty impressive.

Really, there's no way you can't adore Darla. She is a loyal, cheerful, true friend.

While I have been grieving Steve's death, Darla has been grieving the end of her marriage. In one week, we both became single moms. What's more, we've both been writing about our separate experiences for the same readers. We both write columns for Briefing.

This week I wrote a column about an experience I had while away on spring break -- a woman who told me why it's more difficult to be a divorcee than a widow. After I turned in my column, our editor, Will, asked about a companion piece from Darla. She agreed and wrote a lovely, touching column that ran in today's edition next to mine.

You can read our work here and here. Or below.


Is divorce worse than death of a spouse? It's no contest
By Tyra Damm

When someone dies, people often struggle for the right words to offer those left behind.

Before my husband's death, I was often so timid that I might not say anything at all. I was definitely more comfortable sending a written note, giving myself time to compose what I hoped were comforting phrases.

A few friends have asked me in the past months if anyone has said anything awful or offensive. And I've been able to truthfully answer no.

Even when people are nervous or unsure, they've always found the "right" words. They always have the best intentions. Not a single person has said the "wrong" thing.

Until now.

Last week, while the kids and I were on vacation, I asked a nearby woman if she'd take our photo. I joked with her about how moms are rarely in photos.

She laughed and said she understood – she had 10 of her own children.

We visited for a while. I learned that she had gone through a divorce years before. I told her that my Steve had passed away in the fall.

Then she told me how being a divorcee is worse than being a widow.

That when you're divorced, you carry a stigma.

That when you're divorced, your ex-husband poisons your children against you.

That when you're divorced, your memories of your marriage are poisoned.

That when you're divorced, your children are more likely to get divorced.

That when you're divorced, your married girlfriends are afraid that you're trying to steal their husbands.

Wow. How do you respond gracefully to that?

I decided that I couldn't. I listened, nodded a little and was silently thankful that sunglasses were shielding my eyes, which no doubt were wide with awe.

I've never understood the competition among tragedies. "Losing a (child, spouse, sibling, parent) is so much worse than losing a (parent, sibling, spouse, child)" or "(Divorce, death) is much worse than (death, divorce)."

Why do folks think it's necessary to apply rational order to the kinds of losses that no one wants? Why can't we let people grieve on their own terms, without layering on someone else's loss or expectations?

Now, there was truth to my one-time photographer's words. I feel no stigma as a widow. My children have precious memories of their amazing daddy. Nothing can spoil my memories, either.

The thought of my friends being fearful of my spouse-stealing abilities makes me laugh.

But Steve and I had absolutely no role in our separation. His brain cancer was a fluke – not the result of a single choice or series of habits or questionable behavior.

We were truly meant to be together "until death do us part." The death part came much, much too soon.

Our children have just the memories – no visitations or shared custody. (As the child of divorced parents, I know how very painful it is to split time between Mom and Dad. I don't want to minimize that agony at all. But at least there was an option.)

How do my bouts of crying or sense of loss or moments of despair compare with someone going through a divorce?

I don't know. But I wouldn't dare minimize her emotions by telling her that mine are more monumental.

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


Is divorce worse than death of a spouse? It's no contest
By Darla Atlas

Last fall, my friend Tyra lost her husband to an inoperable brain tumor. A few days later, my husband announced he was leaving me.

After many years of marriage for both of us, she and I became single moms in the same week.

It's a coincidence we've talked about several times. I remember one phone call in particular; each of us kept saying, "No, but how are you doing?"

It was hard for us to fathom what the other was really going through.

Yes, we were both suddenly left without spouses, but due to extremely different circumstances.

So which circumstance is harder? Well-meaning people have told me they think divorce is worse, because you're facing both the death of a marriage and flat-out rejection by the one person who vowed to always be there.

In a way, I get that. There's a club I belong to now, which I've discovered has many more members than most of us realize. It's the "My Spouse Walked In One Day And Said He/She Didn't Love Me Anymore" club. We members share a special brand of hurt that is hard to describe.

One night, not long after my husband left, I sat on my front porch talking on the phone to my parents. (Front porch phone calls have become the norm since last fall; there are many things my kids don't need to hear.)

After I told my dad what my husband had said that day – basically detailing when his love had died (awhile back, as it turns out), my dad paused and said, "I don't think he can make you happy, Darla."

Not that I had any say in the matter; it's not like he was begging me to let him make me happy. The guy was gone and he wasn't coming back.

But that comment from my sweet and smart dad helped me look past the rejection and toward what I might actually want.

Still, the bitter end to a marriage is a tough reality in which to live. But does it mean the death of a spouse is "easier"? No way. It's simply different pain.

If I'm being honest, I now know I wasn't married to the true love of my life. I didn't lose my soul mate. I can't know what that feels like, and it scares me to even imagine that pain.

But some people who are divorced would say they did lose who they believed was their soul mate, so maybe they believe their situation is the most painful of all.

I don't know. All I know is perhaps we shouldn't try to answer that question because it's impossible. Besides, if people tell me divorce is worse than the death of a spouse, what does that mean? I "win"? It's laughable. There's no winning here.

But at this point, I can see the light peeking out from this tunnel I've ended up in. On good days,

I even feel like I've been freed from jail. That's not a feeling you get after the death of a loved one.

But what I do hope that Tyra and I share, after enduring our separate pain for six months now, is hope for the future.

It all takes time. I remember driving to Steve's funeral last fall, glancing in the mirror at my red, puffy eyes. I cried every day that week, for myself and for my friend. The kids and I sat in the balcony of a church filled to capacity with people who loved Steve. Tyra was at the front of the church, composed and brave.

She and I were going through very different ordeals (and we still are), but I'm guessing we shared the same feeling that day, deep down inside. It was a persistent, stabbing sadness, an ache that seemed to grow stronger with every breath.

Because a broken heart is a broken heart.

Darla Atlas is a Briefing columnist. E-mail her at

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Steve loved trees. He especially loved our front-yard trees -- our scrawny, new-home, suburban trees.

When we had the house built in 2002, we put a lot of thought into which trees to have planted. Our old house had a Bradford pear and cypress in the front yard. For the new house we wanted hardy, long-lasting Texas natives.

This time every year, we'd stand together in the front yard so that Steve could stare at the bur oak and the red oak on either side of our sidewalk. He'd look them up and down, walk around each one. And he'd say, "Tyra, this will be the year for our trees."

I would laugh with him and tell him that he says that every year. He would retort that this time he really feels it. This time he just knows the branches are going to take off and reach higher into the sky.

We'd talk about how much they'd grown since we first moved in and how many more years we'd stand together and stare at our trees.

As I've watched the limbs change from bare to barely budding this year, I think of Steve. I hear him say, "Tyra, this will be the year for our trees." And I so wish that I could reach out and hold his hand and tell him that he always says that and that he'd laugh along with me.

Steve and one of his trees on his 40th birthday, November 2008

Monday, March 22, 2010

Two things

Two things in my bedroom that make me happy:

For our 15th wedding anniversary last year, I asked my super-talented sister Melane to create something special for Steve. I wanted art that incorporated our special word "blub" with meaningful images from our marriage. (The banana is for Katie because she and Steve were the only banana eaters in the house. She loved sharing this with her Daddy. The soccer ball is for Cooper.)

Aunt Ami gave us this picture frame for that same anniversary. The photo I have in the frame now is from a friend's wedding in Washington, D.C., circa 2003.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A good life

Cooper, Katie and I had an adventurous Sunday.

We cheered for friends at the Rock 'n' Roll Dallas Half Marathon. This was my first race in a long time to attend as a spectator and not as a participant. I wasn't prepared for how difficult it would be to watch so many strong, healthy runners finish a big race. I thought of my all-time favorite runner the whole time and how much he would have enjoyed the race. Steve had always wanted to run a Rock 'n' Roll.

We are proud of Sharon, Colleen, Sally and Uncle Jim, who all crossed the finish line at Fair Park today. Sharon ran with a laminated photo of Steve (a gift from Sally) pinned to her bib. Sharon told Katie after the race that whenever the running gets tough, she looks at that photo of Steve for inspiration, and it helps push her through.

After the race, the three of us continued to the Dallas Zoo. The last time we were there, I was gathering information for Fodor's Texas, the guidebook I helped write in 2007. In fact, my chapter on Dallas and Fort Worth was due the day after Steve's first MRI. I had to turn in my work about 95 percent complete.

Whenever we revisit one of the sites from that project, I consider how quickly lives can change because of a single image or diagnosis or action or accident. Every time we revisit one of the sites, I'm taking a tiny step toward healing. I just have to be careful not to rush -- I know there's a limit to what I can handle and no hurry to heal.

After hours of fun (and a chance meeting with some Frisco friends) we headed to Oak Cliff for a late lunch/early dinner at La Calle Doce -- yet another favorite place I haven't been to since Steve's diagnosis.

As I parked the car, I told Cooper and Katie how much their daddy loved the restaurant and how happy he would be that we were eating there.

Katie replied, "You know, Daddy had a really good life."

Cooper and Katie on the zoo carousel

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Double truck

Countless times throughout the day I think, "I wish I could share this with Steve." Kids, politics, a funny line in a television show (like "Flyza Minnelli" from last night's Modern Family), a song, the fact that the trees are starting to bloom, a fond memory. If I'm near my computer, I might type a quick note about it -- I'm afraid that one day I'll forget all these dear details.

Today I laughed out loud at one of those Steve moments.

First, some background.

1. Steve cracked himself up. He would get so tickled with his own jokes.

2. He was very tolerant being around journalists -- handy when you're married to a journalist with a bunch of journalist friends.

3. A double truck is a term for facing pages in a newspaper or magazine with content spread over both pages.

4. He had what he thought was a surefire way of endearing himself to journalists, especially at parties. "Just mention the word double truck, and you're in," he'd say. This would always make him laugh.

5. There's a relatively new Twitter contributor called FakeAPStylebook. The folks behind the user name post tweets that skewer the real AP Stylebook and other journalism truisms.

One of today's tweets (sorry for the language):
double truck - A big-ass picture of two sweet semis! HONK HONK

Steve would have loved that definition. He would have laughed until he could barely breathe.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Measure in love

Tonight's benefit concert was incredible.

More than a dozen cast members of the touring company for Phantom of the Opera spent their one night off this week to perform for PFAMily Arts and the Steve Damm Fund (Cooper and Katie's scholarship fund). The evening was organized by the arts center's founder, Bill Park, and our friend and Broadway star David Gaschen.

Cooper, Katie, Jim, Betty and I sat just a couple of feet in front of the stage -- the best seats in the packed house for some seriously powerful performances.

Songs included "The I Love You Song," "Ol' Man River," "Jury Duty Girlfriend," "Beauty and the Beast," "What a Feeling," and "I Don't Know How to Love Him."

Baritone Gregory Emanuel Rahming directed the audience to sing a harmonizing chorus of overlapping amens.

We all clapped with gusto to cheerful Irish tunes.

David told the crowd a little about Steve and what a wonderful man and father he was. Then he sang an emotional "Bring Him Home" from Les Miserables -- because Steve is home.

Before the final number, Bill led the audience in a lovely prayer, thanking God for love among families.

And then all the performers lined the stage to sing "Seasons of Love," one of my all-time favorite songs. (Steve and I saw Rent many years ago at Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth. In the silence, I can close my eyes and remember just about every detail of that special night out.)

By this time, Katie and Cooper were drooping a bit -- they were up way past bedtime. But that final number roused them. Cooper couldn't stop smiling, and Katie couldn't stop dancing.

I am so thankful that as Cooper and Katie continue to grow, I can remind them of how much their daddy was loved and admired. We have the precious memories of Steve's life, plus we have the memories we continue to create as that love continues, even after Steve's death.

Thank you, Bill, PFAMily Arts, David and the rest of the Phantom cast for the special night. And thank you, friends, for filling the seats and surrounding us with love.

Katie, Cooper and David

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Six months

Sundays are especially difficult in my post-Steve world.

It was on a Sunday six months ago that he took a drastic turn, suddenly unable to speak well or breathe well. In those whirlwind hours, he took communion elements for the final time from his hospice bed in the middle of our bedroom, surrounded by incredible love and spirit.

It was on a Sunday that he last spoke aloud and opened his eyes.

Sundays the three of us are embraced by our church family. We know we are loved from the moment we walk in the narthex doors. Because someone exclaims about how tall Cooper is and how lovely Katie's dress is. Because someone always hugs us right away. Because there are familiar smiles at every turn.

And yet there's still a sense of emptiness that's always with me but feels a little emptier at church. Because Steve loved Holy Covenant so much and because we spent the majority of our marriage there and baptized our children there and because his beautiful tenor voice once filled the sanctuary.

Communion Sundays, like today, are even more difficult.

When the congregation circles the altar to receive the elements, we are truly a community. And I ache for Steve's obvious absence. And, of course, I always remember that most touching, emotional communion service of my life -- the one in the middle of my bedroom on Sept. 6, just hours before his death on Sept. 7.

Katie and Cooper before church this morning


When I think about the past six months without Steve, a great flood fills my chest. But I always recover. I take deep breaths, close my eyes, listen to Cooper and Katie's laughter nearby, take solace in the outpouring of love and support that continues daily, think of a funny Steve story, tell a funny Steve story, call a friend, cry, pray, take a walk, write about the loss, eat a square of chocolate, read an encouraging quote, listen for God's voice.

We humans are surrounded by great sorrow, but we are equipped with even greater coping skills. I am thankful for the ability to function and to feel joy and to enjoy life even while grieving.


The wonderful music therapist and grief counselor who have provided excellent care in our home over the past six months visited again this week. Our visits aren't as frequent now, but we all look forward to the 90 minutes we spend making music, creating art projects, talking and playing.

On this visit, Valerie delivered her own projects. She created a quilt for each child. Cooper's includes six photos of Cooper and Daddy; Katie's has six photos of Katie and Daddy.


If you follow me on Twitter or are my Facebook friend, you are familiar with Katie-isms. She is infinitely quotable. Here are some Katie quotes from the past few days.

"Mommy, when I'm an adult, you can teach me how to use the bank machine. If you're not alive, Mrs. Liz or Mr. Layne can teach me."

"Mommy, I just can't go to sleep because I'm thinking about Daddy and how he used to brush my teeth."

"I have at least two brains. One is naughty and the other nice. The nice brain is bigger."

"I want Daddy to be alive again."

Katie after soccer, March 6, 2010 (photo by Layne Smith)


Cooper and I are similar in many ways, but Steve's influence is blessedly great, too.

At lunch today, our dear friend Mary commented on how much Cooper's hands look like Steve's. They share those crazy long legs.

They share a strong gentleness (if that makes sense) and compassion for others.

They also share a flair for the dramatic. Cooper and his friends just finished five months of intense preparation for the Destination Imagination tournament. The team of third-graders did everything -- created and solved a problem within a seven-minute script filled with puns, crafted an elaborate set and costumes, wrote lyrics to a song and much more.

Cooper played the role of Alexander the Date (a foodie version of Alexander the Great). He developed his own accent for the part, which I'm convinced was Cooper channeling Steve, who also loved acting and creating special voices.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Phantom cast benefit next Monday

Cooper, Katie and I look forward to seeing "old" friends and making new friends at the PFamily Arts benefit next Monday night!

From PFamily's Web site:
Don't miss this opportunity of a lifetime to see the Broadway touring cast of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA in concert performing some of their favorite songs and dance numbers from some of your favorite Broadway shows. The audience is invited to come early for the silent auction to bid on selected memorabilia from the show (cast signed posters, cast signed T-shirts, costume pieces and more) as well as meet the cast at the reception after the concert.

Monday, March 8
6 p.m. silent auction
7 p.m. concert
Reception with cast to follow
$30 person (tax deductible)


You can read all the details here.