Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Ranch recap: Cooper's favorites

When asked to name his three favorite things about the week at the ranch, Cooper answered:
1. Riding Eastwood
2. Making new friends
3. The food


Cooper and Eastwood meeting for the first time

Cooper was assigned gentle Eastwood for the week. Jane, one of the ranch bosses and head of the horse program with her husband, told Cooper that Eastwood is old enough to not do anything stupid.

Eastwood and Cooper got along very well. Coop had never ridden a horse before, but he looked like a natural riding. More than one person commented that Cooper truly looked like a cowboy (partly because he went almost nowhere without his hat, boots and bandana).

We joined the Jones family for a river ride Saturday morning. Cooper was a champ, guiding Eastwood up and down narrow, steep trails; dodging branches; and crossing the Canejos River. He didn't escape without a wound, though.

Before we reached the river, we were all single file on the horses, navigating through trees and brush. Coop was a little too close to a tree with multiple branches, and one branch cut his neck. I was just in front of him on Hickory and turned my head to see a five-inch gash under his chin.

In that narrow space I wasn't adept enought to turn Hickory around to take a closer look, so I asked our wrangler Jacob for help. He navigated back to Cooper and verified that it was just a surface wound. Cooper applied pressure to the cut with his trusty Texas flag bandana (a birthday gift from the Jones family) and carried on.

Cooper and Eastwood after the neck incident


Cooper and counselor/wrangler Callie

Cooper and friends playing cards in the lodge

There were 20 guests at the ranch last week, including seven children and teens. The kids are divided into groups according to age but also get a chance to mingle with everyone.

Cooper and Billy from suburban Chicago hit it off right away. They share many interests -- books, mythology, science. (And they both have moms who are journalists.) Cooper already has plans for sending a Christmas package to Billy and his family.

Billy and Cooper resting during Saturday's river ride

The food at the ranch was plentiful and delicious and included dessert at every lunch and dinner. Dining room meals are served family style, perfect for always-growing, always-hungry Cooper, who had ready access to seconds.

Some of his favorite meals included grilled burgers by the pool for lunch, ribs on the picnic grounds for dinner and cinnamon rolls bigger than my hand for breakfast. He also enjoyed 24-hour access to hot chocolate and marshmallows.

Cooper and Rich during Friday's poolside lunch

Monday, June 28, 2010

Ranch recap: Katie's birthday

Tara, Katie and half of Cooper (photographer error) before breakfast in Santa Fe

We flew into Albuquerque on Saturday afternoon, just hours after Cooper came home from resident Webelos camp at Lake Texoma. (Betty was kind enough to take home all of his camp gear, sort through it and wash/rinse/toss as necessary.)

We met Aunt Ami, Uncle Rich, Sasha and Tara at a retro motel in Santa Fe and feasted on takeout food from Whole Foods.

Before we went to bed that night, I asked Katie to call my name the moment she woke up Sunday morning, her fifth birthday. It's our tradition to take a photo of the birthday child just after he or she wakes up.

Just-turned-5 Katie

We spent the morning in downtown Santa Fe.

Fun art at a show in the Santa Fe Plaza

Ami, the children and I toured the Georgia O'Keefe Museum -- the perfect stop before our drive north through rugged and beautiful northern New Mexico. We drove through the same region that inspired so many of O'Keeffe's landscapes. We especially enjoyed seeing Pedernal Mountain -- the mountain that O'Keeffe loved. ("God told me if I painted it enough, it would be mine," she once said.)

On the drive, we celebrated Father's Day by listening to two CDs I'd compiled of happy Steve music -- some of his favorite songs through the years.

By mid-afternoon, we arrived at Rainbow Trout Ranch, a guest ranch surrounded by the Rio Grande National Forest in the Conejos River Valley of Colorado.

Ami and her family have been guests at the ranch off and on for the past 11 years, and they invited us to join them this year.

During Steve's final months, he and I talked about what Cooper, Katie and I would do after his death. We agreed that travel in the first year or so would be a good way to create new memories and honor our shared love of exploring new-to-us places. I set aside some funds from the estate just for that purpose.

We've been looking forward to this vacation since December. (If I were giving advice on how to manage the grief process, I would emphasize the value of having something special to work toward. It doesn't have to be as elaborate as a weeklong vacation -- just something that the family agrees on and can anticipate and discuss over time.)

The first day at the ranch is all about settling in. Cooper and Katie explored our two-bedroom cabin (just two cabins down the hill from Ami's) while I unpacked. The kids didn't waste anytime shedding their sandals for cowboy boots.

Katie and Cooper on our cabin's front porch

We joined the other families for dinner in the grand lodge. As the meal ended, the staff surprised Katie with a candle in a dish of ice cream and a booming rendition of "Happy Birthday to You." She was shocked and tickled by the surprise and kept asking after, "But how did they know it was my birthday?"

Happy, surprised birthday girl

Home on the range

Cowgirl Katie, who often accessorized with pink sunglasses

Cooper, Katie and I are home after a huge adventure last week at Rainbow Trout Ranch in southern Colorado. We've been looking forward to this vacation since December, and the experience was even better than we imagined it would be.

I'll write more this week (about topics including Katie's birthday, what Katie thinks Daddy was doing at the ranch, Cooper's bush-whacking wound, river rafting and my fall from a really tall Belgian draft horse). For now, here are a few photos.

Cowboy Cooper and his trusty horse Eastwood

Cooper, Tyra and Katie in Santa Fe on Katie's birthday (and Father's Day)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Happy birthday, Katie!

Steve and baby Katie, June 20, 2005

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Guest blogger Liz: Run for Steve


It's been awhile since we've gotten together for a run to honor our dear friend Steve. There is a run this summer, Too Hot to Handle, that would be a great one. Some of us did it last year!

Register before June 30, when the price goes up. We will meet before the race to try and get a picture!

Thanks so much for everyone's support in the past, and we look forward to seeing you in July.

This a great way to get in the groove for the fall running season. The Run for Steve runners will also be at the White Rock Marathon this year!

Let me know if you have any questions!

-- Liz Smith

Friday, June 18, 2010

Father's Day

My Friday Briefing column:

This week I survived another "first" in my grief journey. I helped my son shop for a Father's Day card – but only for Papa, not for Daddy, who died nine months ago.

As we stared at the mass of cards in our neighborhood Hallmark store, I was thankful for the greeting card industry's hyper-specific labeling: for Daddy from all the kids, for Daddy from daughter, for someone who's like a dad, for Grandfather. We could easily identify which cards to avoid.

We scooted out of there as quickly as possible, and I started breathing normally again. And I resumed my internal brainstorming on how to honor the best father for my children.

Though we can't hand-deliver a card to Steve this Sunday, there's no question that Cooper, Katie and I will wish him a happy Father's Day. We'll just do it differently than we ever have before.

A close friend who lost her father when she was 12 suggested that we listen to some of Steve's favorite songs that day. Since then I've been compiling a playlist in my head that reflects Steve's eclectic taste in music – ZZ Top, George Gershwin, M.I.A., Aaron Copland, Coldplay, Radiohead, the Dixie Chicks, Joe Jackson, the Northern Pikes.

We'll also tell Steve stories. Katie especially loves tales of peril – when Steve flew off a swing face first into gravel, when he threw up just before leaving for sleep-away camp.

Both children love to reminisce about happy Steve times. On Sunday, we'll probably relive favorite vacations and birthday parties. We'll talk about the books he loved to read them at night. (He had the perfect cadence and intonation for all the Skippyjon Jones books.)

We'll try to imitate his exaggerated German accent, one of his surefire ways to draw a laugh at the dinner table. We'll talk about how much he loved going to Cooper's soccer games and how he wished he could have watched Katie play.

I'll tell them that on the day he became a father for the first time, almost nine years ago, he held his son and cried. He did the same four years later with baby Katie.

I also plan to share with our children one of my favorite quotes.

Catholic priest and former Notre Dame president Theodore Hesburgh said, "The most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother."

Steve's greatest gift was his love.

When we were first married, I would sometimes think I was unworthy of such strong love and adoration. With time, I realized that every human is worthy of the kind of devoted, unselfish, all-encompassing love I received from Steve – I was just fortunate enough to have found it.

And our children were blessed to have received a lifetime of love from their daddy in just a few short years.

Lately, our dinner conversations have turned to what kind of spouses the children will look for when they're adults.

Cooper says he'll look for a future bride who is nice, can cook well, likes to take care of children, knows the difference between a real diamond and a fake diamond and "isn't too fancy."

Katie says she wants a husband who has good manners and is kind and compassionate. "Someone just like Daddy."

I couldn't ask for anything better.

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

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Stephen Damm Memorial Award

Cooper, Tyra and Katie before the banquet

Cooper, Shilpa and Katie before the banquet

Friday night our family had the honor of helping to present the Stephen Damm Memorial Award at the UT-Southwestern Department of Neurology graduation banquet. The award recognizes excellence and compassion in patient care in neuro-oncology.

Dr. Shilpa Chitnis petitioned her department for the award back in September. (And she and her husband donated the award money.) Dr. Chitnis was the neurologist who happened to be on service at Zale-Lipshy in late December 2007. She was assigned to Steve after neurosurgery determined that he wasn't a surgical candidate.

She's been a champion of the Damm family ever since. She corresponded with Steve and me throughout his cancer battle, visited us at home, advocated for us, delivered treats to Cooper and Katie, introduced us to her family.

Her last visit with Steve was less than 48 hours before he passed away. In fact, the last photo taken of Steve was taken with Shilpa.

At the banquet Friday night, our family of six (me, Cooper, Katie, Jim, Betty and Uncle Jim) sat among faculty members, including Shilpa, and graduating residents and fellows. We learned of incredibly accomplished doctors and their research and patient care.

One of those doctors is third-year resident James Battiste, the first recipient of the Stephen Damm Memorial Award. (He was unable to attend, but I look forward to meeting him soon.)

Shilpa announced Dr. Battiste as the winner after speaking about our amazing Steve. She spoke without notes, so her prepared text below is an approximation of what she said. It was a beautiful, touching tribute.

The plaque (thanks to Layne, who took care of the details)


From Dr. Chitnis:

I was attending at Parkland hospital in December of 2007 when I met this young man who was admitted to our service. It was heart breaking when I had to walk into his room one day with my team and tell him and his young wife that the lesion in his brain stem appeared to be a malignant high grade glioma. Eventually his care got transferred to Dr. Maher in Neuro-oncology, however Steve and I had stuck a chord and we remained in touch through emails and phone calls and I continued to follow his cancer journey. It is unusual for doctors to become personal friends with their patients, especially when you are not involved in their long term care, however there was something quite special about Steve and Tyra that also made me reach out to them.

In spite of the grim prognosis, Steve was determined to give his life his best shot. He put himself through grueling radiation and chemotherapy, was willing to try any experimental therapies that could slow down his rapidly growing brain tumor. Most importantly he did this with a smile on his face and a sense of humor that is rarely found under such circumstances. Steve had immense faith in his GOD and a wonderful life partner who put her life on hold to care for him and together they fought this advancing menace with grit and determination. In spite of the challenges, Steve and Tyra tried to provide a semblance of normal life for their young children with unconditional love and support from Steve’s equally wonderful parents, family and friends. Steve knew that his time was limited but the way in which he lived his life in those 21 months has served as a source of inspiration for his family, friends and the community.

In his short but amazingly blessed life, Steve taught me and so many others to take each day and live and laugh and to make the most of every moment. He never stopped working and continued to work from his hospital bed at home until few days before his death. On the professional front Steve was an administrator with Children’s hospital and was responsible for pioneering the Physicians for Children initiative, or PFC, which would provide health care to under privileged children. Since then many such PFC clinics have sprung up across town. He had genuine passion for his work and compassion for others who were less fortunate.

In his short but truly inspiring life, Steve left behind a legacy for his young children who continue to deal with this tragic event in a stoic and determined manner which is unexpected of children in their age group and continue to provide strength and purpose for their mother who herself is the epitome of love, faith, strength and perseverance. My family and I wanted to honor his exemplary life and memory by creating the Stephen Damm Memorial Award for excellence and compassion in patient care in Neuro-oncology. His oncologist Dr. Maher helped select the recipient for this award and the award goes to Dr. James Battiste.

Uncle Jim, Shilpa, Tyra, Katie, Jim and Betty after the banquet (photo by Cooper)

Thursday, June 10, 2010


Cooper and Katie during intermission Sunday night

Sunday night I was able to fulfill a promise I made to Katie more than two years ago, while we were in Chicago. She saw Wicked!

I wrote about it for today's Briefing. You can read it here or here:

No time like the present to enjoy a stuffed monkey

One of the gifts of my late husband's brain tumor was the reminder that life is finite and time is unbearably short.

Until Steve's cancer diagnosis, he and I had always assumed that we would have decades to fit in all that we wanted to accomplish together. Our list was long and always growing.

We visited New York City twice together, each time vowing to return to see more museums, walk through more parks and eat more fancy dinners. We had no inkling that our long Manhattan weekend in November 2006 would be our final trip there together.

On that trip we didn't have time for the Broadway show we'd hoped to see. We were happy instead to catch Wicked right here in Dallas a few months later.

Our son wanted to hear about every detail after, so we described the plot and characters and played the soundtrack over and over. And we promised Cooper that we would take him to see the musical someday.

A few months after that, we learned of Steve's brain tumor.

To celebrate the end of Steve's grueling radiation therapy, the whole family spent a long weekend in Chicago. We chose the city in part because Wicked was playing there, and we wanted to fulfill the promise to Cooper while there was still time – because "someday," we realized, wasn't guaranteed.

Little sister Katie, who stayed at the hotel with Grandma and Papa while we attended the show, cried over being left behind. So I promised her that one day she, too, would see the musical. By then I had learned to be careful with my words. We were prayerful that Steve would beat the awful odds of his cancer, but I had to balance our optimism with realism.

"When you're 6 like Cooper is now, you can see it, too." I didn't say who would take her.

Wicked is playing again at the Music Hall, and last weekend I was able to fulfill my promise to Katie, a year early. Steve's illness and death taught me not to wait for the next touring production.

The week before the show, we looked through a book about the musical to give her an idea of costumes and sets. I described the plot without giving away the ending, reminding her that she couldn't ask questions during the show. We listened to the soundtrack often, especially her favorite song, "Popular."

When we arrived at the theater Sunday night, she was bubbly despite the late hour. She even took in stride my refusal to buy her a stuffed winged monkey in the lobby.

During the performance, I spent almost as much time watching Katie's expressions as I did watching the stage. She could hardly contain herself at times, so enchanted by scenes from her imagination coming to life and familiar songs performed by musicians in the very same room. There was no stopping her from singing along with "Popular."

By intermission, she was starting to show signs of wear, understandable since she was already two hours past bedtime. A snack refueled her, but what she really, really wanted was one of those monkeys.

I relented, despite my inner dialogue of too many stuffed animals at home and the outrageous markup of theater souvenirs and the possibility that I could find a similar monkey somewhere else for less.

I pulled out cash for one stuffed monkey for the kids to share because if Steve had been there, he would have bought two stuffed monkeys, one for each child. And because at that very moment I remembered – again – that sometimes there's no reason to wait.

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

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Rough season

This time of year has historically been cheerful for the Damm family of Frisco.

Katie's birthday is June 20.

Our wedding anniversary is July 2.

Cooper's birthday is July 3.

This year, we'll celebrate all those life-changing days without in-the-flesh Steve.

Throw in Father's Day and various cancer-related anniversaries I keep in my head, and I've got a recipe for a rough few weeks.

The planner in me needs to anticipate the events, to think through how we'll honor Steve and enjoy our special days. My nine months of experience with grief has taught me that no amount of planning can predict my emotions during any given moment.

So I'm bracing myself for the unknown and doing my best to focus on today, to not waste energy on worry about tomorrow. And I'm reminding myself of the constant joy that surrounds me during this unpredictable, necessarily long grief journey.


Some recent examples of Cooper and Katie joy:

"Mommy, I'm glad God made your hair curly the way it is." (It was if Steve were whispering in her ear. He told me the same thing all the time, especially on the days when my hair resisted my amateur wrangling.)

"God doesn't have a phone number or phone. To talk to Him, you should always do the right thing and pray."

"I told Daddy I love him so very much. I know he heard me."

"You don't buy love. You have love. And then you give it away."

"I think God and the angels always smell clean."

"You get what you get, and you don't throw a fit. But sometimes you just can't hold it in and you do throw a fit."

He was watching Star Wars: Attack of the Clones this weekend. He told me that he felt sorry for Anakin Skywalker, whose mother died. "I know what it feels like to lose a parent."

Katie spent the night with her dear friend Julianna on Friday night. Cooper was mopey all Saturday morning. "It's just not the same without Katie."

As I tucked him in after a particularly excellent day, I told Cooper how proud I was of him and how proud Daddy is, too. "Yeah, he's bragging about me in heaven," he said.

"In heaven there is no sickness, no rainy days. Only sunshine."


A year ago today, the fabulous Jen Weintraub of Sugar Photography spent an hour with our family to capture these amazing images.

I wrote her tonight that I'll never be able to repay her for the lifetime of joy I'll have with these photos.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Last day of third grade

Cooper and Angie, our amazing school guidance counselor, this morning, the last day of third grade

My Briefing column for today:

Daddy's still with us in smiles, thoughts

The last photo taken of my husband and our son was on the first day of this school year.

Our family of four had started every first day of school the same way – breakfast together, photos taken on the front porch and an eager walk to school.

This year was horribly different.

Steve was confined to a hospital bed in our bedroom, under the care of hospice after succumbing to the harsh effects of an inoperable brain tumor and all the related treatments. His left side was immobile, his right side was weak, he hurt all over and his spirit was flagging.

On his first day of third grade, Cooper carefully avoided Steve's oxygen tubing to give his amazing Daddy a big but gentle hug. He flashed rabbit ears behind Daddy's head and smiled for my camera.

Then Cooper, his little sister and I walked to school. I was more anxious than eager, not wanting to leave Steve alone for even 20 minutes. I kept hoping that the hospice aide would arrive early for her daily visit.

Before Katie and I left Cooper at the front door of his school, I gave him extra hugs – some from me and some from Daddy.

Two weeks later, Steve died in that same hospital bed in our bedroom.

Today is the last day of third grade for Cooper. He has survived nine months without his Daddy and nine months with heavy grief.

I, too, have survived, though I don't expect to get through today without many tears. (Crying is actually a huge part of my survival.) My grief is especially heavy as the three of us close chapters of our lives without Steve's physical presence.

My heart aches for Cooper, who won't be able to hug Daddy before we walk to school for the final time this year. Who wasn't able to sit at the dinner table with Steve throughout the year to talk about Charlotte's Web or his independent study of Albert Einstein or the stress of taking the TAKS test for the first time. Who will start fourth grade in August without being able to pose next to Daddy.

Yet my broken heart is also full, because Cooper did so well this year, all things considered. My main goal for him was to finish third grade emotionally healthy. Academics, though important, were secondary.

Cooper's work has placed him on the honor roll. He's read more novels than many adults read in a decade. Despite his concerns over TAKS, he scored well.

There's no grade for emotional health, but he seems to be ahead of the curve.

He met two or three mornings every week this year with his school guidance counselor. He and Katie worked through their grief with two therapists who have come to our home about a dozen times since Steve's death (an invaluable service from our hospice agency). When he's up to it, we read books about life, death and heaven. Every single day the three of us talk about Steve.

And every night when Cooper says grace, he closes the prayer with these words: "I love Daddy, he loves us. We're a big ol' family."

His words are a huge comfort to me and a simple reminder that on big days, like the last day of school, and all the other regular days, Steve is still with us. His love surrounds us. And though we can't pose for photos with the physical Steve, we can think of him every time we smile and imagine his warm embrace.

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

Tyra, Cooper and Steve, first day of kindergarten, 2006

Katie, Steve and Cooper, first day of first grade, 2007

Steve and Cooper, first day of second grade, 2008

Steve and Cooper, first day of third grade, 2009