Monday, April 26, 2010

Note

This morning, as I was planning meals for the week, I found this note in one of my cookbooks, under a recipe for corn and bean tostados.


I love that Steve is still such an integral part of our daily lives and that he continues to make me smile.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Laughter

Early in Steve's diagnosis process, we discovered that every doctor has his or her own favorite ways to test neurological function.

There are mental tests -- repeating a series of numbers front and back; subtracting 7 from 100 and then 93 and then 86 and so on; saying the day, date and year.

There are physical tests -- hold your arms out from your body parallel to the floor and then touch your nose with your right pointer finger, your left pointer finger, your right again, and so on; walk heel to toe in a straight line; follow a light with your eyes.

Our favorite was the hands test. Sit down. Place your palms on your thighs. Turn your hands over, so that your palms are up. Repeat over and over.

Early on, Steve was able to perform this test flawlessly. But as the brain stem tumor caused more damage, his left side slowed considerably.

We were both happiest when his hands were in synch. But Steve was most tickled when his left hand was the slowest. It was a good party trick, as he'd say.

Yesterday I rediscovered this short video clip from Thanksgiving 2008. Steve was showing Aunt Ami, Melane and others in the room how his hands couldn't keep up.

I laugh and cry at the same time when I watch it.

video

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Angels in heaven and on earth

Katie, Tyra and Cooper after dinner Sunday with birthday cake from Betty and Jim

I am 38 today, and I have to admit that I've been dreading the day for a while. Steve and I tried to make every day special, but birthdays together were extra special. (Except for my birthday in the first year of our marriage -- that's another story for another day.)

The weekend has been much easier than I expected, though, because of the angels who surround me every day -- Steve, of course, and the truly awesome group of friends and family members who embrace me, Cooper and Katie.

Thank you to all of you who called, visited, sent cards and gifts, left Facebook notes and treated me like a queen. It's as if Steve were whispering in your ears.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Four years

It's a big day at our house. Katie is officially registered for kindergarten.

As she and I were in the foyer of our elementary school for roundup, I was visiting with Julia, Cooper's first-grade teacher. I told her that it's difficult to believe that we were registering Cooper for kindergarten exactly four years ago.

"Mommy, is four years a long time?" Katie asked.

"It's long and short," I told her.

When Cooper registered, there were four of us walking into Bledsoe. Steve left work a little early that afternoon in April 2006 so that he could join us. Katie wasn't yet 1 and was barely crawling.

We were giddy. We had watched Bledsoe being built just a third of a mile from our home. Most afternoons when Cooper was in day care, Steve would pick him up and they'd take a little detour on the way home to see construction progress. Steve would call it "the school of the future!" in his awesome radio-announcer voice.

Cooper would call it "the future of the school!" in his preschool voice.

When I was completing forms for Katie's enrollment, I checked a box identifying me as a widow. I left all the questions about her father blank.

Even without Steve walking with us to school this afternoon for registration, Katie was giddy. After spending most of her life in and out of the building, she loves Bledsoe and is comfortable in the cafeteria, front office and library. About half the staff and teachers know her by name. She is definitely ready.

But me? I'm just one degree less than giddy. These big moments, like countless little moments every day, are tinged with the sadness of Steve's absence. I want the impossible for Katie -- Daddy holding her hand while she walks into the building to register and again on the first day of school in August.

There's no doubt, of course, that Steve was with us this afternoon -- just not in the way that four years ago I could have ever imagined.

Katie, age 4, April 2010

Cooper, age 4, April 2006

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Unpredictable

When people ask how we're doing, I usually say something like, "We're doing as well as we can. Usually when one of us is struggling with grief, the other two aren't, so it's manageable."

Tonight was difficult to manage.

It's been a tough week. Cooper has the worst seasonal allergy symptoms he's ever had, plus he has a sinus infection, plus he accidentally ran into someone during recess on Tuesday and badly busted his upper lip. Katie isn't sleeping as well as usual (I think last night's crazy wind is partly responsible), and when she has a sleep deficit, she's more volatile than usual.

After soccer practice tonight, I helped Katie take a shower. As I was drying her off and brushing her hair, she asked if I thought she would get sick when she's an adult.

I told her that most everyone gets sick with something -- a cold or virus or stomach bug -- but that with time and medicine most people get better.

What she really wanted to know, she informed me, was would she get a tumor like Daddy. I told her that I hoped and prayed that she wouldn't. That brain tumors are rare.

She followed with a lot of statements and questions about the tumor, regarding its location, its inaccessibility, how other people with brain tumors can have surgery. She's usually matter-of-fact during these discussions (and she talks about Steve multiple times a day), but tonight was different. She was more emotional.

We hugged, and I was walking her to her room when I saw Cooper sitting on my bed, staring at two gorgeous black and white photos of Steve, Cooper and Katie. He was crying.

"I'm forgetting what he looked like," sweet Cooper said. Then he started walking around the house, gently touching photos of Steve. "I want to feel him and hug him again."

Katie seemed stable enough to leave for a few minutes, so I spent some time with Cooper. We talked about how special Daddy was and still is. How we are lucky to have so many memories and photos. And yet how awful and unfair it feels without him.

While Cooper showered and Katie was getting herself ready for bed, I sat and sobbed.

Then it was time to read books and give and receive more hugs and kisses and tuck those sweet, resilient children in bed.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Shelter

For more than a week now, when I think of Steve, I think of the word "shelter."

Steve was -- and in many ways still is -- my shelter. My protection, my refuge, my home.

Melissa reminded me again this week that that was exactly what Steve wanted to be. And Jen wrote me that Steve probably considered me his shelter as well.

I am comforted by both sentiments. And I remind myself often how fortunate Steve and I were to find each other. Sometimes all those thoughts are enough to make me feel better. Sometimes they're not -- and that's OK.

***

Recent Katie quotes about Steve and other important topics:

"People never run out of love. Love is everywhere in our bodies."

"Wherever God is, Daddy is there too. And God is always with me, so Daddy is always with me." (My friend and high school geometry teacher, Walter Dewar, calls this the transitive property of the Lord.)

"Does God speak French? Because I'd like to say, 'Merci for making Jesus.' "

On our drive to Maundy Thursday services this week, Katie said that she thought Daddy was at that moment on his way to church with God. Later in the night, she said that she was sure Daddy and Jesus were eating Mexican food together.

***

Recent Cooper quotes:

"I miss when Daddy was alive. He made me happy and made all my tears go away."

"Be thankful for what you have."

***

I'm detecting a holiday pattern in our without-Steve world. I stay as busy as possible all day long, and I do pretty well. Then the festivities settle, the house quiets, the children sleep, and I am still. Then I miss Steve even more than usual, which, as I'm sure you've gathered, is quite a lot.

Katie and Cooper, Easter morning, April 2010

Cooper, Steve and Katie, Easter morning, April 2009

***

"How precious is your unfailing love, O God! All humanity finds shelter in the shadow of your wings."

(Psalm 36:7 NLT)

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Soup

My Briefing column for today covers grief again. (I sort of worry that readers will get tired of so much grief writing, but it's also hard to ignore.)

You can read it here or here:

I'm working on a recipe for coping, one slurp at a time

There are multiple ways to track the peaks and valleys of my grief. One of them is food.

The week after my husband passed away, I couldn't bear to eat. I wasn't hungry. I was too emotionally and physically exhausted to chew. The smell of most foods was repulsive.

I subsisted on orange juice smoothies and homemade borscht, a soup made by my friend's Ukrainian-American mom.

Zena's mom happened to be in town last September when I needed her the most. When Anastasia visits her youngest daughter, she cooks the best Ukrainian food ever served in Frisco – dishes including pierogies, stuffed cabbage and borscht, a giant pot of soup made with beets, tomatoes, potatoes, chicken, celery, carrots and more.

I ate whatever Zena brought over. I sat at the kitchen table and devoured bowls of her mom's "Ukrainian penicillin."

A couple of weeks later, she delivered more, this time rations from the freezer. I was selfishly thankful that Cooper and Katie didn't like the soup – more for me.

As time passed, I started eating more food, even food that required chewing, often brought by friends. As more time passed, the delivered meals slowed, and I started preparing food again for our family.

That's when I realized how fully every aspect of our lives had changed. The simple act of browsing favorite cookbooks was emotionally messy. I kept finding recipes that Steve loved and that I loved to make for him. Some pages were even marked with quotes like "Two thumbs up from Steve."

The first time I made one of our favorite meals, I broke down in sobs – and not because of the diced onion in the recipe. Vegetarian tamale pie was one of Steve's most requested dishes. As I whisked the cornmeal mixture and grated cheddar cheese, I remembered the countless nights we'd prepared this casserole together. I couldn't help but imagine the stretch of dinners ahead, all without Steve.

After that breakdown, I slowed down. I kept cooking, but I backed away from recipes that overwhelmed me with memories and dread.

It was a big accomplishment when I started cooking soups again. For one, there wasn't a single soup that didn't remind me of Steve. And logistically it didn't make sense to cook a huge pot of soup that only one adult would eat. (Cooper and Katie haven't yet acquired all of their parents' culinary affections.)

Instead of wasting, I've been freezing some and sharing some portions. I've revisited and shared Julia Child's potato and leek soup, a lentil soup and an amazing version of minestrone.

After those recipes, I decided I was ready to tackle the big one: Anastasia's borscht, the soup that carried me through that awful stage of raw grief.

I told Zena my plan. She insisted on joining me – because she'd never made it herself and she knew from her mom that it's a two-person job.

Tuesday morning, we started by chopping onions, garlic, celery, cabbage, carrots, potatoes, green bell pepper, dill and parsley. We pureed pickled beets. Boiled a whole chicken.

We followed Anastasia's slightly garbled directions and made a few judgment calls and one phone call to Florida.

Every time we stirred in new ingredients, we anxiously hovered over the giant pot, waiting to see the right borscht color and detect the right borscht smells.

After the soup sat for a while, we took tentative bites of the finished product. The results were perfect.

Zena left, and I sat at the kitchen table by myself and ate a small bowl. With each spoonful, I was reminded of the many gifts that have sustained me since Steve passed away and of how far I've come since his final breath. Those moments were definite peaks in my grief journey.

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