Friday, July 30, 2010

Not what we thought

Today's Briefing column is here and here:

Some tales aren't what we thought they'd be

Summer nights are perfect for reading classics out loud.

I recently chose The Secret Garden as our ongoing bedtime story. It had been sitting on Katie's shelf for four years, always passed over for picture books or other chapter books.

Cooper, Katie and I settled in on the sofa, and I started reading Frances Hodgson Burnett's words for the first time. And Katie began to cry.

Little Mary Lennox becomes an orphan early in the story; both of her negligent parents fall victim to cholera, and sour Mary is left all alone.

As Katie cried and pleaded with me to stop reading ("This isn't what I thought it would be!"), I felt inadequate on two fronts.

One: How could I not have read this century-old classic before? What other important works of literature am I missing?

Two: What kind of mother am I to not screen the basic plot before reading to my two children, who lost their father to cancer less than a year ago?

I assumed that there must be a redeeming moment for orphaned Mary, so we kept reading, this time with my right arm wrapped tightly around a sniffling Katie.

We're more than halfway through the novel now, and Mary's life is turning around. Katie hasn't cried since that first night.

Summer nights are also perfect for watching a movie under the stars.

Last Friday night, Cooper, Katie and I joined other Frisco folks on the lawn in front of City Hall to watch The NeverEnding Story.

We claimed our patch of grass with a blanket and settled in for the 1984 film. And Katie began to cry.

First we learn that young Bastian's mom has recently died. His dad scolds him for not doing better in school. Then Bastian is pulled into a fantastical story in which the horse Artax drowns in the Swamps of Sadness.

"This isn't what I thought it would be!" Katie cried again. I snuggled her tight, smoothed her hair and apologized. My feelings of inadequacy returned.

One: How could I not remember the basic premise of a movie I watched dozens of times (albeit not once in the past two decades)?

Two: What kind of mother am I to not do some cursory research before subjecting my children to fictional sadness not too far removed from their own?

I texted my sister to report the fiasco, and she wrote back that the movie gets better. So we stayed, and Katie was eventually won over by the flying luck dragon and the hopeful ending.

Summer Saturdays are perfect for a newly released G-rated movie.

Last Saturday, the three of us settled into comfy theater chairs to watch one of my favorite childhood series come to life on the big screen.

Ramona and Beezus would no doubt be a safe choice. I knew that both parents stayed healthy and alive. I never cried once while reading Beverly Cleary's books about the Quimby family.

Yet I cried during the movie (and held Katie's hand to make me feel better). Why? Because both parents stayed healthy and alive.

Dad comes home from work to enjoy dinner with his family. After he loses his job, he spends time coloring and playing with Ramona. When Aunt Bea gets married, he dances with his daughters.

Katie cries when fictional characters experience the pain she's felt. I cry when fictional characters experience the life I wish we still had.

I'm slowly realizing that I can't shelter my children from literature and news stories and movies in which parents die. (For one, we'd have to eliminate almost every single Disney film.) I'm also realizing that I can't shelter myself from unknown grief triggers.

And I'm reminded every day that the three of us are fortunate to have one another and to be able to grieve together – and hold each other when we're heavy-hearted.

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

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Three things

Katie drew this during church services today. From left: Cooper, Tyra, God (in purple, surrounding a green Tyra), Katie, Steve and Jesus


Betty lent me this photo today. It's from a Damm family celebration, circa 1981 I think. From left: Betty, Grandpa Damm, Steve, (barely visible) Grandma Damm, Jim and Jim. Cooper loved seeing everyone from so many years ago.

Then he asked, "Mommy, what did Daddy look like when you first met him?"

I could barely speak. I answered softly, before tears began, "Oh, Cooper, he was the most handsome man I'd ever seen."


In the process of scanning those two images, I discovered this photo, which I'd never seen before. I think it's from July 3, 2009 -- Cooper's birthday. Steve is wrapped in Cooper's yellow blanket (known as B) and Katie's white blanket (also known as B or 3B).

Thursday, July 22, 2010


My Briefing column from today is here and here:

Coppell saga shows how complicated grief can be

The tragic, unbelievable story of Coppell mayor Jayne Peters and daughter Corinne has consumed me more than most news stories.

It's more than morbid fascination in the mystery and deception behind the murder-suicide in a suburb not far from my own. Peters, who shot and killed her daughter before turning the gun on herself, lost her husband to cancer. I did, too.

More than one Peters family friend told reporters in the past week that after Donald's death, Jayne and Corinne were never the same.

Of course they were never the same. Their husband and father died. It would be eerie if they were the same after the death as they were before.

There is absolutely no defense for Peters' actions. No amount of grief justifies murder.

But grief is a player in the still unraveling story. We don't know how much of Peters' final actions were because of her lies, financial straits, desperation, mental illness or grief. But as long as the people who knew Peters are speculating that grief played a role, we can't ignore it.

We tend to give folks a year to "get over" the death of a loved one. Everyone expects that first year to be difficult – the first birthday, the first Christmas, the first anniversary, the anniversary of the death itself. And then we hope that those grieving can pull themselves together and move on.

Weeks after my husband died, I was talking to a friend whose husband had passed away a few years before. I called Sharon after preparing one of Steve's favorite recipes.

I told her that I had sobbed the whole time I was chopping, whisking and baking.

"Will this get easier?" I asked Sharon, who had always been honest with me during Steve's health crises.

She told me it would – but not as quickly as I'd like. She gently told me that it took her three full years before she felt herself again.

I shared that conversation with my grief counselor.

Three years is optimistic, my counselor told me. It might take a full 15 years – the same amount of time Steve and I were married.

If you ask anyone who knows me if I'm different now than before Steve's death, no doubt they'd answer yes.

I am wearier. Quieter. More reflective. Less laid-back (and I wasn't all that carefree to begin with).

I am also more aware of the preciousness of life and small blessings and the role of community and the power of faith.

I am in no way healed, but I'm working on it – even if I'm only 10 months into a 15-year journey.

Another grief counselor I worked with described two people as overlapping circles. When one of the two dies, a hole is created where the overlap was. The edges of the hole are jagged.

With time, those jagged edges should smooth out, even if the hole is never refilled.

How much of Peters' actions were influenced by jagged edges of grief? We'll never know. But her story makes me pause.

To say she was never the same after her husband's death isn't enough. I want to know if she sought counseling for herself and her daughter. If she confided her fears to even one person. If she continued to find joy even while heartbroken. If she was capable of mind-boggling deception and homicide before her husband died – or only after.

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

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Random things I miss about Steve tonight:

1. I am unable to eat an entire bundle of asparagus before it spoils. Cooper and Katie won't eat it.

2. He didn't get to see Toy Story 3. (Steve loved the first two movies. He especially adored Bullseye from the second film.)

3. I miss talking politics with him. We agreed on most everything, though he was more passionate and better informed.

4. I miss his keen interest in the level of Lewisville Lake. We drive over the far eastern edge of the lake to and from church, and he would, without fail, comment on the level.

5. I miss how he would tell me I don't need to wear makeup or spend time straightening my hair. I do, however, hear his words every morning when I'm in a hurry to get ready and am immensely grateful.

6. When Cooper or Katie say something that makes me laugh or cry, I so badly want to call him or e-mail him or text him or run into the bedroom to tell him. Instead, I share it on Twitter and Facebook. (I have patient friends.) Such as:
  • "Why am I not on TV? I should be." (Katie)
  • "None of us ever gave up on Daddy." (Katie)
  • "Can we have some confession snacks?" (Cooper, just before we started a movie at home)
  • "I wish we could still touch Daddy. But we can still love on him. I just sent kisses way up to heaven." (Katie)

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Our church has just finished a great week of vacation Bible school. Cooper and Katie were in classes led by dedicated volunteers, and I took photos and put slideshows together for the end of each day.

I know that last summer the kids were able to go to VBS, though I couldn't leave the house to volunteer -- I was taking care of Steve. But as I thought about it this week, I couldn't remember how Cooper and Katie were able to get to church and back every day of last summer's VBS. (Cooper later reminded me that our dear friend Leslie drove for me.)

It was yet another reminder of how I'm fuzzy on some of the details of last summer.

By this time last summer, Steve was under the care of hospice in our home. My focus was completely on his care and Cooper and Katie's care. I managed hospice nurses, prescriptions, injections, all kinds of phone calls. I was still working from home, though I'm not quite sure how.

I know that many of you brought meals. I'm not sure if I was still grocery shopping or if someone did that for us. There were lots of friendly folks coming and going all the time.

Did I take the kids to our neighborhood swimming pool in the afternoons? I have no idea. I do remember that Cooper, Katie and I would gather on my bed, just a few feet from Steve's hospice bed, to read the first four books of the Little House series together. We watched movies in the room and had picnics on the floor.

There are days now, when I'm tired from working and taking care of our children and grieving, that I wonder how we managed a year ago. If I'm tired now, how on earth was I able to get through the much bigger trials of last summer? My best answer so far is lots of love, help from so many of you and strength from God.

Cooper at this week's VBS

Katie and Julianna this week

Tyra and two new friends at VBS

Monday, July 12, 2010


For Father's Day this year I pulled together two CDs of happy Steve music for our drive from Santa Fe to Rainbow Trout Ranch in Colorado.

Steve wasn't easily defined by his musical tastes -- except that he liked so many genres.

Because I didn't know Steve in high school and college, I relied on a few of his friends to fill me in on favorites that I may have missed. I thought about the songs he chose to run to, the songs he sang around the house, the songs that made him close his eyes and sigh and those that made him dance. (If you have any to add, please let me know!)

I also chose songs with somewhat appropriate lyrics, knowing that we'd listen to them in the car over and over.

Cooper and Katie love to listen to the compilations, though they have divergent tastes. Cooper wants to listen to "Rhapsody in Blue" multiple times a day. Katie sings and bops along to M.I.A.'s "Bucky Done Gun."

Steve, I know, is proud of them both.

The list:
Steppin' Out (Joe Jackson)
Cowboy Take Me Away (Dixie Chicks)
Bucky Done Gun (M.I.A.)
Sharp Dressed Man (ZZ Top)
Don't Panic (Coldplay)
Beautiful Day (U2)
Rhapsody in Blue (George Gershwin)
Been Caught Stealing (Jane's Addiction)
The New Style (Beastie Boys)
Friday I'm in Love (The Cure)
Fanfare for the Common Man (Aaron Copland)
Girl with a Problem (The Northern Pikes)
Cheap Sunglasses (ZZ Top)
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (Lucinda Williams)
Singing in My Sleep (Semisonic)
University of Michigan Fight Song
The Intermission Song (from Philadelphia Chickens)
Englishman in New York (Sting)
Arthur's Theme (Christopher Cross)
The Picture Show (from Parade)
I Got the Sun in the Morning (from Annie Get Your Gun)
Hakuna Matata (from The Lion King)
Just Can't Get Enough (Depeche Mode)
Soul Man (The Blues Brothers)

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Dinner conversation

I had a couple of rougher-than-usual grief days this week. One night Cooper and I were talking, and I told him that I was having a "tough Daddy day."

"Oh, Mommy, we all have those," he said as he patted my hand. "I have more than anyone."

Cooper has been a little quieter this week. We're getting him ready for a weekend camp for children who have had a death in the family during the past year. Sunday is the family meeting day, when all the kids who were accepted plus their family members get together to go over plans and rules.

Tonight at dinner he said, "I'm feeling dull." (Big sigh.) "You know, I've lived in this house for eight years. And it feels blank without Daddy."

I nodded in agreement.

"And I'll bet I'll be the only fourth-grader whose daddy has died," he went on, referring to the upcoming school year.

I told him he was probably right.

Katie, ever the optimist, added, "One day you'll be a daddy, Cooper!"

That didn't cheer him.

"My babies won't even have a grandpa," he said.

I gently reminded him that his wife would probably have a living daddy, and that he would be the grandpa.

"But I understand why that makes you sad," I told him. "Let's think of the kinds of things we can one day tell your babies about their grandpa in heaven."

With that, we started telling Steve stories. We recalled how he liked to wrestle with Cooper, read to both of them, go to the park, take Margie on walks, go to the Double Dip for frozen custard.

We remembered the nights that Steve would be in charge of searching for Cooper's or Katie's special blankets. When he found Cooper's B, he would hide it under his shirt, with just a little yellow corner peeking out. He would walk into Cooper's room, feigning dismay over the lost blanket and exaggerating his protruding belly. Then Cooper would notice the hint of yellow and tug at it until B was free.

With Katie's B, he would often cover his head, put his arms out in front of him and pretend to be a ghost or a mummy. Katie would always giggle as she pulled B off his head.

We talked about Steve's excellent, realistic animal noises -- and how when Cooper was little he insisted on knowing what a walrus said. Steve and I finally developed an answer: brup, brup, brup.

I reminded them about "races" after church. Steve would often drive to church ahead of us for early choir duty. When services were over, we'd leave in two cars. Steve would drive Cooper, and we'd compete to see who made it home first. Steve would always win (even if that meant I had to drive around the block a time or two).

I asked Cooper how Daddy made him feel. "Like the very best," he said.

Then Katie hugged the air above her, her way of giving Steve a hug. Cooper did the same and added some air kisses.

I gave Cooper a big hug and thanked him for telling me how he feels and reminded him that it's OK to feel sad and that it's good to talk about it.

Friday, July 9, 2010

All or nothing

For years, long before a brain tumor invaded our lives, I called Steve "all or nothing man." He did nothing halfway.

When he decided to start running in 2000, he read John Bingham's The Courage to Start: A Guide to Running for Your Life. Then Steve started running. By the following year he ran his first marathon.

When he accepted the job with Children's to help start and run Physicians for Children, he completely embraced the position, the people, the patients. He left nothing behind when he worked, and he was constantly solving problems and thinking of new ideas even when he wasn't working.

When he became a daddy, he became the very best one. He didn't miss a single one of my prenatal appointments when I was pregnant with Cooper. (He missed one with Katie and was mighty upset.) He fully participated in every aspect of parenting. He adjusted his schedule without being asked. He would race me to the bathroom to be the first parent there for bath time. He would almost always read aloud a little past bedtime, reluctant to break away.

His love for me -- well, it's enough to last my lifetime and beyond. Just the thought of it truly takes my breath away.

Tonight I'm baking cupcakes for two special birthday girls (Noe and Molli). The house was still and quiet, expect for my laughter when I realized how many rubber spatulas I have.

One December I mentioned that I needed a new one. Emphasis on one.

That Christmas, I received multiple rubber spatulas. A red one for using with tomato sauce. A thin one for jars. A plain one. A contoured one for scooping. One with bumble bees.

All or nothing.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Ranch recap: Random

Aunt Ami and Tyra near the barn and stables

Cardshark Cooper

Beautiful Colorado sky

Katie and friend Sophia from California on the picnic grounds

Cooper and Eastwood

Cowgirl Katie outside the lodge

Tyra and Cooper outside Taos, on the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge

I couldn't take enough photos of the aspens.

We crossed a bridge over this section of the Canejos River during every horse ride.


Katie said that Daddy was at the ranch with us. He was riding a horse named Special.


For the many of you who have asked, Rainbow Trout Ranch is in the Rio Grande Forest in southern central Colorado, about four hours north of Albuquerque, N.M. Durango is west. Colorado Springs is northeast. The nearest small towns are Antonito, Pagosa Springs and Chama.


The food at the ranch was incredible. We gathered in the lodge for most every meal of the day -- a few were served by the pool or on the picnic grounds by the river.

We sat at large tables, allowing us to mingle with other guests and staff members, and were served family style. Every meal was different, and dessert was included with every lunch and dinner.

Some mornings we'd see giant bowls of rising dough at the hearth of the actively burning fireplace. That was a sure sign of fresh-baked bread on the menu for dinner.

I was thankful for all the walking required up and down the mountain to reach the stables for rides. Otherwise I would have gained many, many pounds. (Well, I probably did gain a couple.)

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Happy birthday, Cooper D!

Newborn Cooper and Steve, July 3, 2001

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Ranch recap: Horses

Aspens as seen from atop Hickory

My column in today's Briefing

I learned to get back in the saddle (when there is one)

The kids and I are home from a week at a guest ranch in Colorado. I'm still adjusting to flat land and tiny back yards and people who say "Hi" instead of "Hey, howdy, hey."

I planned the trip for Cooper and Katie, wanting to expose them to outdoor activities we don't get at home. I figured I'd have a good time watching them have a good time.

I didn't expect to fall in love with horseback riding.

I was tentative on Monday morning when I pulled myself up onto Hickory, a brown mare with a golden mane. My legs felt awkward, my knees strained. I feared the horse's power and my inexperience.

After two hours of riding across meadows and through mountain trails, I ached. I considered spending most of the week parked in a rocking chair on the front porch of the ranch lodge.

Instead, I refueled and rested at lunch and walked back to the barn for an afternoon ride.

It was a little easier, and I realized that with the help of Hickory I was able to see details in the mountain that are usually hidden. I was able to focus better on the ponderosa pines and aspens bordering the trails. I took greater notice of blooming wildflowers.

Just when I was comfortable with our gentle walks, it was time to learn trotting and loping. Hickory loved to jog and then run even though my arrhythmic bouncing was out of sync.

At the end of our runs, I was more breathless than the horse, probably more from anxiety than physical exertion.

Discomfort was discarded, though, when our group reached a sunlit meadow or a peak offering majestic views. I would pat Hickory's head and neck, thanking her for carrying me so far.

Hickory and the ranch's wranglers led me through bushwhacking rides, along steep precipices, through a section of the forest aptly called "Aspen Cathedral" and back and forth across the Canejos River.

By Saturday morning, Hickory and I were in sync. I knew when to use my feet vs. my hands vs. my voice. I knew just how much to lean forward or back depending on the incline. My post aligned with her trot.

Saturday afternoon all the ranch guests and staff gathered at the outdoor arena for a rodeo. Before the performances, one of the ranch owners unhitched two Belgian draft horses from an antique wagon and allowed guests to ride around the arena.

These giant horses (imagine a Clydesdale without so much feathering around the knees and hooves) were outfitted differently than the horses we'd ridden all week. They wore English-style reins instead of Western and just blankets – no saddles – on their backs.

Cooper and Katie safely circled the arena on the horses. Other children did, too, and then I took a turn.

The horse and I slowly walked around once. On the second turn, spectators encouraged me to trot. So I kicked the horse, and we trotted.

My rhythm didn't match his, though, and before long I was sliding to the left. With a slippery blanket underneath me and no stirrups for balance, I continued to fall, all the way to the dusty arena floor.

In those seconds that I was lying on my left side, I prayed over and over, "Please don't let this horse crush my head."

A wrangler rushed over and pulled me up, and I limped out of the arena, reminded of my inexperience and why I was anxious just a week before.

A few minutes later, I had regained enough composure to perform with Hickory in the rodeo. We navigated barrels and then poles while being judged on form. We walked slowly until we were clear of the obstacles and then gently trotted back.

After dinner that night, the staff awarded rodeo ribbons. I had earned a horsemanship award and a standing ovation from the wranglers for my performance with Hickory.

That ribbon and the memories and images from the week will last much longer than the aches on my left arm and hip.

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

Aspens in the forest

Tyra and a ranch wrangler Whitney at Rainbow Point

A view from a ride atop Hickory

From left: Tyra, Cooper, Tara, Ami, Rich and Sasha on Saturday's family ride

Katie and Cooper on the Belgian draft horses (they didn't fall off like their momma)