Monday, November 29, 2010

Tumor humor

Almost every time there's a new adult in Cooper's or Katie's life, I make a point to gently mention Steve's illness and death.

I learned to do this while Steve was ill -- to prepare the adult (teacher, doctor, coach) for possible conversation references to cancer or a brain tumor or crazy eye.

Katie especially talks about Daddy all the time. When I dropped Katie off for an art day camp this summer, I told her teacher about Steve right away, even though Katie would be there for only a few hours during one week. Katie emotes constantly, and I believe that the adults around her need as much information as possible.

Cooper had an eye appointment today, and I chose not to tell the receptionist or the optometrist about Steve. We wouldn't be there long. The paperwork didn't require me to mark my marital status. Cooper isn't one to volunteer information about Steve. It seemed like a safe time to just be a mom and a son at an afternoon appointment.

The kind doctor was a few minutes into the thorough neurological exam when he stopped and said jokingly, "Well, the good news is there are no tumors!"

(Nervous laughter from me as I silently curse myself for not telling the receptionist that Cooper's Daddy had died from complications of a brain stem tumor.)

"Well, that's good," I said cheerfully. Then I continued softly, "And you should probably know that Cooper's Daddy, my husband, died last year. He had a brain stem tumor."

I had to say something at this point, right? I didn't want more joking references to brain tumors, and I didn't want Cooper to worry. I went on to remind Cooper that the tumor in Daddy's brain stem was super rare and that it's not genetic and that I've never worried about tumors in his head.

The doctor was clearly upset with his comment, apologized to both of us and performed some additional tests on Cooper just to show him that he was indeed just fine. When Cooper left the exam room, the doctor apologized again.

I told him that I wasn't upset with him and that I usually let folks know in advance of our situation -- I just didn't think it was relevant today. I was wrong.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thankful for perspective

Happy Thanksgiving!

In my Briefing column today, I write about one of many gifts from Steve -- the gift of perspective. You can read it here or here:

On this day, I'm thankful for the gift of perspective

At the top of my list of thanks this season is perspective.

The perspective comes courtesy of my late husband, who died last fall after living with brain cancer for a year and a half.

I thought of him this week, for probably the thousandth time, while waiting in line for coffee.

A fit, well-dressed woman behind me was complaining to two younger friends about some minor ailments. The 50ish-year-old ended her monologue dramatically: "It's horrible getting old. I mean, it is horrible getting old."

Steve would have loved to get old. And I would have loved to grow old along with him.

It's the reason I didn't complain about turning a year closer to 40 this year and why I cringe a little when others grumble about birthdays. Because we all miss people who aren't celebrating Thanksgiving this year, people who would have loved to celebrate more birthdays.

There are multiple moments each week when I think, "I can't believe I have to live the rest of my life without Steve."

And then I remind myself, "I get to live the rest of my life."

When I get bogged down thinking of how difficult it is to make decisions about our children or to discipline them by myself, I deliberately stop to remember how fortunate I am to get to perform these important parenting tasks.

Plus, I get to play board games and listen to piano practice and watch cartwheels being perfected.

Perspective comes in handy at Thanksgiving, a holiday sandwiched between Christmas preparations that begin just after Halloween.

It's easy this time of year to get wrapped up in what I don't have. The mailbox is stuffed daily with catalogs, and my e-mail inbox gets hit too often with enticing deals for stuff.

When I get too greedy, I deliberately stop to remember what little significance all that kind of stuff had during Steve's final months. He was never too materialistic to begin with, and he certainly dropped any investment in things when he realized his time was so limited.

It's the reason I don't understand why Oprah's guests go into such a frenzy when they realize they're being given a pile of her favorite things (though I confess to coveting a bag and pair of ballet flats in this year's booty).

And it's why I had to interrupt a recent Katie tantrum for a life lesson.

I had already bought her four books, plus one for her classroom library, at the school book fair. I held fast to my policy of not buying any of the junky stuff – novelty erasers, pens, pencils.

Even after multiple conversations, Katie professed to not understanding my position.

"If you wanted me to be happy," she wailed, "you would buy me more stuff!"

I would typically save big ideas for after an irrational 5-year-old fit. But I couldn't let this moment pass.

"Katie, I believe that things don't make us happy. Our happiness comes from within us and from the good people around us."

Katie paused briefly then resumed her fit.

She's not always thankful for my perspective, but I know I'm fortunate to be able to share it.

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

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Steve and Katie

Katie has a new way of posing for photographs. It's very similar to the way her Daddy would pose for photos. Even their distinctive eyebrows are arched the same.

Katie, last night, PTA program (with a fuzzy Cooper beside her)

Steve with spiked hair, in a big group of high school friends (help with identification welcome!)

Update from fellow W.T. White alum Stuart Cutright: Folks in photo. Leaning on couch, brown hair: Tamara Mirinkovic. On left side I think is Becky Gordon. In glasses next to Becky is John Lambert. Girl on Steve's left is Lisa Bowman. Girl "under" Steve is Trish Coffey. Next to Trish and under Lisa is Steve Cairns. I'm not sure who the person is behind the group but it might be Matt Shetrone or Scott Sereboff.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


This week for work I interviewed Nick Vujicic, a 27-year-old who was born with no limbs. He's a motivational and inspirational speaker and has a new book out, Life Without Limits. (You can read part of the interview here.)

Nick's focus is convincing folks to live for their specific God-given purpose. Interest timing for me, as I've been thinking a lot the past few weeks about purpose.

I don't think we necessarily have one sole purpose. I have no doubt that for 19 months my most important purpose was to help Steve fight cancer with wild abandon and then help him slow down as his body necessarily came to rest.

But that can't be my only purpose, right? You don't reach your ultimate purpose at 38 and then just wander aimlessly.

Caring for and guiding Cooper and Katie is my most essential purpose now. And though I'll never stop being a mom, I do know that one day they'll be on their own and rely on me much less. (Though last week, Katie did say that she would live in this very house when she was an adult. Cooper said, "No, I called the house like a year ago.")


Photo of sunrise over Lewisville Lake, e-mailed to me from Steve on Nov. 3, 2007, with the message "Good morning!"

About three years ago this weekend, Cooper and Steve were at their first family Cub Scout campout. Steve would send me text messages from the campsite (just a few miles away) and occasional photos from his Blackberry.

Steve had started having some of the symptoms that led to his diagnosis, but we hadn't yet connected the symptoms. We had no clue what would unfold in the next few weeks.

This weekend, Cooper and Uncle Greg are at the same campout. Greg is sending text messages and photos from his iPhone.

I am sad for Cooper, who would love to have his Daddy pitching the tent, fishing and roasting marshmallows.

But I'm thankful for loving, reliable adults who enthusiastically step in. With the stellar family trio of Papa, Uncle Jim and Uncle Greg, our children have positive male role models who will never replace Steve but who provide their own kind of fatherly love.

They have new purposes, too, and I'm thankful that they accept their roles so cheerfully.

Thursday, November 4, 2010


Steve and I often said that if you have to have a brain tumor (and there's certainly no choice in the matter), you couldn't be in a better position than we were.

We live in a major metropolitan area with excellent health care facilities right here and even more just an hour flight away. Steve worked in the health care industry and had access to really bright medical minds from the very beginning. My journalism career allowed me access to really bright reporters who compiled and synthesized information quickly on our behalf.

At the time of diagnosis, we weren't struggling financially. We had a stable, loving relationship with no major issues or conflicts. We were secure in our faith.

And we were supported by an incredible group of family members and friends who supported us all day every day.

If you have to be a widow (and I'm as reluctant a widow as they come), you couldn't ask for much more than what I have now.

Two resilient, funny, wise children. The ability and flexibility to work from home, doing what I love. The peace that comes from knowing that the love Steve and I shared will never die. An even greater security in my faith.

And an incredible group of family members and friends who support us all day every day -- and especially on the momentous days.

So many of you sent cards, e-mails, texts and Facebook messages to remember Steve and send virtual hugs on his 42nd birthday. Melissa, my best friend since eighth grade, posted a lovely sentiment on her blog.

Zena and I caught the matinee showing of Waiting for "Superman" this morning; Kris and Liz joined us for a fancier-than-usual weekday lunch at Jasper's.

Jim was here this afternoon to help Cooper with homework while Katie and I baked a chocolate cake.

Then Cooper, Katie and I ate at Cantina Laredo, where I shared the story I wrote about yesterday. Katie cried when I got to the break-up, so I zoomed ahead to the happy ending.


After I walked the kids to school this morning, I spent some time in the front yard, planting bulbs in memory of Steve.

I planted 72 tulip bulbs and 90 ranunculus bulbs along the edges of our flower beds. I love the idea of the earth waking next spring and little shoots of green pushing through the soil, followed by glorious blooms of color.

And if that doesn't work out (I'm not exactly a master gardener), I'll just plant a whole bunch of potted flowers instead.


Lovely arrangement from friends and the flattest birthday cake ever

The birthday cake didn't turn out as I had hoped.

I tried a new-to-me recipe -- Julia Child's chocolate sponge cake. Katie and I followed the instructions, but I clearly missed an essential technique or two (I'm guessing my errors were related to egg yolks and/or egg whites). The cake barely rose at all, though the recipe said it should pouf above the top of the cake pan.

Cooper and Katie were undeterred by its sad appearance (I didn't bother to frost it -- I wasn't sure that it would even taste good) and ate huge slices.

Just like their sweet Daddy would have done.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Birthday dinner

Thursday is Steve's 42nd birthday.

Katie believes that his celebration will include pizza, cake, flowers and everyone he knows in heaven at the party.

Last year we celebrated with lots of friends. This year's celebration won't be as big, but I know so many of the folks who love Steve will be thinking of him and remembering his cheerful, bold, funny spirit.

Cooper has requested a chocolate cake -- Steve's favorite -- to celebrate. And the three of us will go to dinner after homework is done.

We plan to eat at Cantina Laredo because Steve loved Tex-Mex and so do we. And because of our storied history with the restaurant.

In December 1992, Steve and I were dating long distance. He lived in Brenham and worked as assistant administrator of a multi-specialty medical clinic. I lived in Carrollton, was in my senior year at the University of North Texas and worked three part-time jobs.

We had dinner over Christmas week with his parents at the Cantina Laredo in Addison. At first, I thought we were having a fabulous evening. When the mariachi band stopped at our table, I even stood up to dance. (And I am not the dancing type.)

Steve did not look like he was having a good time, though. He was aloof and distant. (Maybe the dancing was too much?)

About a week later, just after New Year's Day, he broke up with me.

I was devastated. Heartbroken. Distraught.

Steve would later say that he needed some distance. That I was too serious. (Well, this was true. And I was probably a bit smothering. I would write and mail him a letter every single weekday. This, of course, was in the days before e-mail and texts and Facebook.)

We reunited about six weeks later -- over Valentine's Day weekend -- and never separated again.

But it was difficult to overcome the bad memories associated with that December dinner out. For a while we just refused to eat at the restaurant. In time we tried to replace the bad memories with better ones, but it never worked out. The service was too slow, the food not good enough.

We felt certain that we just weren't meant to eat at Cantina Laredo.

Many years later, the restaurant opened a location just a few miles from our home. Our dear friends Andy and Julie were determined to change our opinion and gave us a gift card to the restaurant for Christmas.

We timidly tried again. And we loved it! Maybe we just needed a new location and the passage of time. Whatever the reason, we reclaimed it as a "good" place and joked good-naturedly about that disastrous dinner when I was 20 and Steve was 24.

I may even share the story with Cooper and Katie over dinner Thursday night. They love to hear true stories of peril with happy endings.