Sunday, August 29, 2010

Road to Houston and back

Cooper, Katie and I are home from a quick weekend trip to Houston. The Webelos from Cooper's Scout pack spent Saturday night at NASA's Space Center.

We drove south after school Friday and returned this afternoon.

I must admit that I don't have the best attitude about Houston and the journey to and from. There are too many memories that get in the way.

When Steve and I were dating, he lived in Brenham and I lived in Carrollton. Most weekends he would drive up here to visit; a few times I would go to Brenham, and we'd sometimes visit Houston.

So when I think of our earliest years together, I remember my first-ever trip to Ikea and ice skating at the Galleria and the night Steve surprised me with a new car at a Saturn dealership when we were allegedly there just to look around.

Fast forward to 2008. We had chosen to seek advice from M.D. Anderson about what exactly had taken residence in Steve's brain stem.

We were thankful to have such a prestigious cancer center so close -- and Uncle Jim and dear friends who lived right there and were instantly available. But Houston lost its romantic allure.

On Jan. 16, we were at M.D. Anderson for an MRI and clinic visit. We expected to fly back to Dallas that night. Instead, we learned that Steve would require a risky biopsy the very next morning.

I left Steve in Jim's care and flew home by myself. A few hours later, Liz and I drove my Ford Escape south on Interstate 45. We drank coffee, ate chocolate and talked nonstop.

On Jan. 20, I drove Steve home with the help of Jayshree, who kept us company and kept us laughing despite preliminary biopsy results that identified the mass as a malignant, inoperable tumor.

Road trips to and from Houston will never be the same.

I miss my best friend, who long ago had agreed to always be my driver on road trips. I miss listening to him sing and tell stories about growing up in Spring. I miss reminiscing with him and planning our future together.

I'm not quitting Houston. I'm hopeful that with time those awful memories will fade (though not disappear) and those sweet early memories plus new ones will sharpen.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dedication service

You are welcome to attend the dedication service for Steve's trees
(Children also welcome, of course)

7 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2010

1901 E. Peters Colony, Carrollton
(the trees are on the north side of the campus)

Simple reception immediately following,
in the church's Covenant Center

Questions? E-mail

Monday, August 23, 2010

Fourth-grader and kindergartener

Cooper, first day of fourth grade

Katie, first day of kindergarten (I don't know where she gets these poses.)

Cooper and Katie

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Emotional week

It's been an unusually emotional week here. There have been lots of extra grief triggers piled on top of the regular everyday grief triggers.

1. We had our final visit with the hospice grief therapy team. Lisa started working with Cooper and Katie last summer, while Steve was under hospice care. Valerie joined just after Steve died. At first they visited every other week. Then we stretched it to once a month. We went the whole summer without a visit until this week, when we met them for ice cream and a "graduation" party. Katie was demonstrably upset saying goodbye. Cooper was quiet, working through the goodbye in his own way.

Katie did brighten a little at the end of the party. "Well, we might see them again, if someone else dies."

Valerie, Katie, Cooper and Lisa

2. Our dear friend Haley, who helped with Cooper and Katie all summer while I worked (and often helped me with household projects), left Saturday for Europe. She's a senior at Baylor and will spend this semester studying in France. I truly couldn't have made it through summer break without her help, patience and humor, and Katie and Cooper love her very much. Katie, again, had difficulty saying goodbye.

Cooper is already scoping out Christmas gifts for her late December return.

Cooper, Haley and Katie

3. Katie's fish, Beta, died Saturday. (I actually wrote about my Beta deathwatch in a column this week. I didn't jinx Beta, right?!)

We buried the little blue fish in the back yard. Katie tried to say a prayer aloud but couldn't for all of her crying. Cooper and I both said a few words about the fish. We thanked God for all of the earth's creatures and for those that brighten our lives, if only for a little while.

Katie now wants two goldfish.

4. School begins tomorrow. All three of us are ready, no doubt. But I'm never really ready to take these big steps -- like our baby going to kindergarten and our son going to fourth grade -- without Steve right here.

Uncle Jim has been up from Houston all weekend. He went to meet-the-teacher night with us and will join us for the walk to school in the morning.

Uncle Jim, Katie and Cooper

5. I'm working on continued details for the Steve memorial trees and bench at church. I am not burdened with the task -- I of course love anything related to Steve. But choosing the words for his bench makes my heart ache.

We will gather at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 7, at Holy Covenant United Methodist Church to dedicate the trees. Anyone is welcome. I'll post more details soon.

6. I received a letter that Steve's cremated remains are ready. He chose to donate his body to UT-Southwestern for research, and I chose to receive remains when available.

I knew that eventually I would receive notice from UT-SW, but nothing really prepares you for receiving the actual letter in the mailbox, mixed in with bills and catalogs.

7. We are preparing to say goodbye to the Dubes, who have lived across the street from us since Cooper was 2. We've watched them grow from a family of two to a family of five -- two darling boys and beloved dog Scooby. They are returning to the East Coast to be closer to their families and leaving behind a community that's closely knit largely because of their open arms and inclusiveness.

8. The end of August means we're closer to Sept. 7.

What makes all of these triggers easier to handle? I am blessed to live with and care for two of the most expressive, life-embracing people I've ever known. We are surrounded by friends and family members who brighten our days -- just this week included fun with the cousins; play date with new friend Julie and her children; visits with Gabriel; gymnastics with Noe; lunch with Mary; afternoon and dinner with Jim and Betty; time with Jim; neighborhood barbecue; birthday parties for two neighbors; and more.

And one afternoon this week we found rainbow in the eastern sky -- a huge, glorious symbol of God's promise. And a beautiful reminder of Steve, who, according to Katie, helps create rainbows from a computer in heaven.

Cooper and Katie before church this morning

Monday, August 16, 2010

Things I miss

For almost a year I've been keeping for myself a running list of things I miss about Steve. I have a fear of forgetting the little details that made our lives so rich.

Tonight my list is long.

Cooper, Katie and I returned from a short getaway with the Woodburys to Beavers Bend State Park, just outside Broken Bow, Okla. The seven of us had a great weekend on the river, in the lake, in the cabin (actually a very nice home at the top of Horseshoe Mountain), in the minivan to and from.

Brooke, Katie, Cooper and Molli on the back deck of the cabin

Of course, I missed that there were seven and not eight.

I missed the special bond between Steve and my sister Melane. They made each other laugh with goofy faces, silly dances and knowing looks.

I missed hearing brother-in-law Greg calling Steve a doctor. (Steve worked with doctors and managed pediatric practices. Greg would often jokingly call on Steve for medical advice.)

I missed watching Steve interact with his nieces Brooke and Molli. He loved and protected them fiercely.

I missed him when he wasn't in the lake to toss Cooper and Katie into the air or carry them on his shoulders or pretend to be a shark.

I missed Steve imitating the sound of me brushing my teeth while I brushed my teeth.

I missed being part of the team that was Steve and Tyra.

I am thankful for the memories and the love that never dies and the opportunity to live when Steve can't.

But still, my list is long.

Easter 2006

Thursday, August 12, 2010


I've never been a huge fan of August. For the first 36 years of my life, the heat and humidity of Texas were to blame. When I was young, I was restless for school to begin. When I was working in a newsroom, I was restless for the slow news days of the end of summer to pass.

Then came last August. By this time last year, we faced crises every day. We were running out of ways to make Steve comfortable. He was definitely cheered by visitors, by his family, by the books he continued to read and by the work problems he continued to solve, but his body was making life miserable for him.

And Steve, who rescued me many times over, was unable to be physically rescued. It was and is a terrifying, humbling feeling.

Now it's August 2010, almost a full year after Steve's body stopped working altogether.

I am proud of how our little family has weathered this grief storm. I know that Steve is proud of us, too. I truly find more joy than sorrow in everyday life. We laugh more than we cry, and we don't apologize for crying.

Still, August is oppressive. Now it's more than the heat. It's the memories of Steve's pain and what little could be done and the current sting of his absence and the reality that every day since Sept. 7, 2009, is another day without him.

Cooper, Katie and I talked about how much we miss Steve at dinner tonight. They don't have dates in their head like I do, so I reminded them of the upcoming "anniversary" (is that the best word to use?) and told them that I would probably be more sad than usual.

We do have plans to make Labor Day weekend a special time for just the three of us -- plans that Steve would definitely approve.

And before we ever reach September, we're spending a couple of days with the cousins; we'll finish reading The Secret Garden; Katie will begin kindergarten; Cooper will begin fourth grade; Cooper will have a Scout sleepover at Space Center Houston; we'll celebrate friends' birthdays; and more.

Life will continue, just as it has for the past 11 months. And maybe next August won't sting quite so much.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Steve's trees

Katie and Cooper before the planting on Thursday (and just after Cooper's mouth was fitted with top and bottom expanders)

Four new trees fill a triangular green space that I've never really noticed before, though I've parked near it almost every Sunday and many other weekdays over the past decade.

The space before the trees

You can't miss that section of our church's lawn now.

The trees were planted Thursday in memory of Steve. Cooper, Katie and I helped to plant one of them -- a beautiful chinkapin oak.

Well, "helped" is used loosely. After the professionals dug the hole and rolled the tree into place, we used shovels and our hands to return some of the soil to the hole. We watered the roots a little.

Cooper replaces soil -- or, more accurately, clay. If you've ever lived in North Texas, you understand.

Katie waters the freshly planted chinkapin oak.

We let the landscapers completely take care of the three live oaks. (I realized how little we were actually contributing to the project. Plus, both Katie and I get a little cranky in August's extreme heat and humidity.)

The children and I have agreed that though all the trees are in memory of Steve, the chinkapin is officially "Steve's tree." We parked right in front of it this morning, and Cooper and Katie gently hugged the trunk.

In the next few weeks, we'll also place a stone bench on the lawn, and Pastor Andy will officially dedicate the space. (I'll post details here; everyone is welcome to join us.)

The trees in that space are appropriate for many reasons. Steve loved our church. He loved trees. He believed in planting Texas natives in Texas. He was a burgeoning conservationist.

It will be even more comforting when the bench is in place and we can have an official spot to remember Steve.

(Special thanks to Susan, Andy and Mike for logistics and planning.)

Steve's four trees

Cooper and Katie this morning

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Camp Erin

Cooper spent last weekend at Texoma Youth Camp as part of Camp Erin, a bereavement camp offered for children ages 6-18 who have experienced a death of a loved one.

The camp was run by ChristianWorks for Children and paid for by the Moyer Foundation, which has committed to funding Camp Erin in North Texas for the next decade. Cooper was part of the inaugural group.

The weekend was a mix of traditional camp activities -- fishing, boating, arts and crafts, games, campfire -- and grief work.

On the first night, each child was invited to the front of the group to share a photo of their loved one. Each photo was taped to a giant board so that the final result was a collage of photos of moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles and siblings who had died.

Cooper told me that when he placed his photo of Steve he told the group of campers and volunteers, "This is my Daddy, Steve Damm. He had a brain tumor."

The photo Cooper placed on the collage (from 2005)

Each child decorated a memory box. Cooper created a colorful, cheerful box. He chose a giant S sticker for the top and also created a shield out of fabric and buttons. He cut out letters to spell "Steve D." He can fill the box with photos and other items that remind him of Daddy. The box already includes three buttons -- two that look like buttons from Steve's cardigans and another with an image that reminds Cooper of The Secret Garden -- and phrases chosen by Cooper.

Inside of Cooper's memory box

Top of Cooper's memory box

On Saturday night, long after the sun had set, the volunteers lined a pathway from the dining hall to the shore of the lake. Each volunteer held a candle or flashlight. Each child carried to the beach a lit candle in a sand-filled bag -- the candle to represent the loved one.

One by one, each child placed the light on the water. The volunteers extinguished their lights so that all the group could see were candles drifting away on the lake's surface.

I wasn't there, but I can close my eyes and picture about 80 candles drifting away until they can't be seen at all, until there is only darkness. What's harder to imagine is the pain that those children have suffered.

When Katie and I arrived Sunday, the staff filled us in on the weekend's events and suggested ways to help the kids process their work. Then each child walked in with a poster. On one side was the emotion he or she had felt when arriving. On the other was the emotion he or she felt upon leaving.

We all received notecards and pens for writing notes to our loved ones. We tied the notes to balloons, and at once we released them into the air -- not unlike our birthday celebration for Steve.

I thanked Cooper's cabin buddies -- two adult volunteers -- for their help and care. They said that Cooper cheerfully cooperated in every activity and that he eagerly helped other campers. They told me Cooper was a special boy, someone to be proud of.

I relayed those messages to Cooper on our walk to the minivan. I told him how proud I was that he was willing to go to camp. I told him he was awfully brave to share so much of his emotions and memories. And I told him that Daddy was proud of him, too.

Cooper and Steve, Green Bay, Wis., summer 2007