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

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

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