Friday, September 24, 2010

Michigan trip

If Steve were here, he would tell the story of this year's Labor Day weekend trip to Michigan in a long, winding, entertaining way.

Steve's storytelling was one of the millions of things I love about him. Whereas I am usually linear and concise, he would weave together anecdotes, details and memories in a circuitous, always enjoyable way.

With Steve in mind, I'll try my best to explain how Cooper, Katie and I ended up at Michigan Stadium for the season opening game.


Steve's dad, grandfather and great-uncle attended the University of Michigan. Steve's older brother, Jim, attended Texas A&M.

So, as Steve told it, he went to Michigan. (He was wait-listed at Rice University, his first choice.)

He started in the Honors College as a pre-med major. He eventually graduated with an English literature degree, chosen because when he had to make a final declaration, he had more credits in English than any other subject.

And he played trumpet in the Michigan Marching Band.

The 2010 Michigan Marching Band


In the middle of Steve's cancer journey, we heard from Laura Ambrook Redmond.

Laura was also in the Michigan Marching Band. I can't even recall now how she learned about Steve's illness. I'm sure it has something to do with Facebook or e-mails.

She is a registered nurse and would send us the most encouraging notes about Steve's care. (We are fortunate to have so many friends in the caregiving field.)

When Steve died, she wrote me to offer the children and me tickets to a Michigan football game.

Laura, her husband and cutie-pie son live in South Carolina, which means they're unable to attend all of the Michigan home games, even though they have season tickets.

I loved the idea of taking Cooper and Katie to Ann Arbor, especially to a football game. Steve attended dozens of games, often marching on the field at halftime and representing the school at bowl games. I met Steve after he graduated; together we watched many games on television. Steve would be the first to tell you that he got really riled up watching his Wolverines.

Steve and I attended one Ann Arbor game together (Michigan vs. Colorado in 1997) and that season's Rose Bowl (Michigan vs. Washington State on New Year's Day 1998).


Because Steve died on Labor Day 2009 and because the hours leading to his death were so traumatic (beautiful in many ways, but still traumatic), I decided early on that we wouldn't be home Labor Day weekend this year -- or perhaps any future year.

I was happy to accept Laura's gift and requested tickets for the first game of the season. Laura and her family planned to be in South Carolina that weekend, and she graciously granted my request.


We're fortunate to have dear friends who live in Canton, just a few miles from Ann Arbor. The Healys offered to host us in their home, which gave us plenty of room to get comfortable and plenty of time to visit. (Though certainly not enough time, if you ask any of our combined five children. They get along as if they've spent their whole lives together.)

While with the Healy family, we enjoyed a music concert in Plymouth, a few hours at the swimming pool, a trip to an apple orchard and quality time at home.

Ryan, Cooper, Katie, Kelsey and Brendan

Katie the caterpillar

Cooper, Brendan, Ryan and Ken

We also enjoyed fall-like temperatures, having escaped 100-degree Dallas.


The moment that our rental car crossed into Ann Arbor, I started to cry.

Steve and I had always planned to return to the town together, with our two children. He, of course, would drive and I would navigate because that was our travel agreement many years ago.

He would show us his favorite hangouts and tell us fun Steve stories, censored when necessary.

Instead, I was driving with navigation help from the little computer in the car. I had a list of Steve places courtesy of Liz, one of Steve's best college friends and our mutual friend a few years later. I tried to recall all the Steve stories I could, wishing I had written every single one he told over the years.


Laura took great care of us from South Carolina. She made sure that I connected with Paul, another marching band alum who tailgates at all the home games. Paul and his family welcomed us into their group, fed us throughout the day and offered great advice on where to go.

She also connected us with Nick, another band alum who works at Michigan Stadium during games. He was able to walk us onto the field a few hours before kickoff. We walked through the same tunnel that players walk through before halves and sat on the storied field.

Her seats were amazing.

I haven't yet mentioned that the game we attended was the very first in the newly renovated Michigan Stadium. The renovations include the addition of a swanky club level. Our club-level seats were cushy; the view was amazing; the bathrooms were spotless.

The three of us were among 113,090 who watched the game in the stadium -- a national record for attendance.

Michigan won, 30-10. And as of today, the team is 3-0.
Cooper, Tyra and Katie in the Big House


Cooper and Katie outside South Quad

We left the tailgate party for a couple of hours to tour the campus.

We stood outside South Quad, Steve's freshman year dorm. We walked through the Law Quad, one of the most beautiful spots on campus.

We stood outside the coffee shop that was once the Baskin-Robbins where Steve worked. We admired the beautiful Union. I answered a lot of questions about all the students attending parties at various rental house and Greek houses along our route.

Cooper declared his intention to attend the University of Michigan "if the science program is good enough."

He asked if he should live in a dorm or one of those rental houses. (You can guess my answer, I'm sure.)

I said a silent prayer of thanks that I still have years before I send our babies to college.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Steve & Cooper

When Cooper was a baby, he looked almost exactly like me as a baby. In fact, one of my best friends, Melissa, called him "little Tyra."

As Cooper gets older and taller and thinner, he looks more and more like Steve.

Today is career day at our elementary school. Katie dressed as a paleontologist. (She says she'll go to the University of Texas for her first degree and then the University of Michigan for her second.)

Cooper chose to be a science teacher with mad scientist characteristics. The spiky hair makes him look even more Steve-like.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Perfect timing

On Tuesday I was feeling particularly cheated. I kept thinking of the opening lines from Robert Browning's poem "Rabbi Ben Ezra." Steve and I would sometimes recite the words with each other:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be ...

I teared up often throughout the day, feeling sorry for myself and missing Steve to grow old with.

What helped turn my sadness around? Sweet words from Cooper.

On Tuesday night he told me and Katie: "My heart almost died when Daddy did. Now it's healing."

And this morning, on our walk to school, he looked me in the eyes and said: "I have a good childhood."

His timing was perfect.

From the moment we learned that something was wrong with Steve, I worried about Cooper and Katie's childhood being ruined. I wasn't sure how we all would weather the challenges of Steve's cancer and all the changes that would come. I couldn't even begin to imagine our lives without Steve on earth.

When Cooper told me that his heart was healing, I immediately felt less burdened. Then he lifted even more burdens when describing his childhood.

I am grateful for the solid foundation that Steve and I created together and the strong legacy that Steve left behind. I am thankful for two children who are as silly and wise and articulate and funny and bright as their Daddy.

Now I need to make sure that I keep their "good childhood" on track. The best is yet to be -- just not in the way I expected.

Katie and Cooper resting on the University of Michigan campus on Sept. 4, 2010.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Memorial service

A year ago today a few hundred people gathered to celebrate Steve's life. So, it's about time that I finish posting audio from that beautiful, love-filled day. (Today's links are below and are also permanently stored on the right side of the page.)

My friend and Cooper's guidance counselor, Angie, attended the Steve Damm Spot dedication service this week at our church. She shared with me the next day a precious conversation she overheard.

Cooper's friend Asher said something like, "Cooper, just look at all these people here who knew your Daddy."

Cooper replied, "Yeah, but do you remember all the people at the funeral party?!"

I love that Cooper's memories of Sept. 12, 2009, are mostly happy. Mine are, too, though I admit to shedding many tears this afternoon as I listened again to the service.

I also fell in love again with sweet, silly, funny, smart, amazing Superman Steve.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Four truths about grief

My Briefing column today is here and here:

Four truths I've learned about what happens when we grieve

I am not a grief expert, but I am an expert on how my family of three has handled grief. A year ago Tuesday, my husband and the father of our two children died after fighting brain cancer for 20 long but not-long-enough months.

Our grief didn't begin the moment Steve took his last breath. It actually started when we first learned of the mass in his brain stem.

During Steve's cancer journey, we were constantly adjusting to what we had to do to attack the tumor (chemotherapy, radiation, blood checks, transfusions, supplements) and what we couldn't do because of the tumor (for Steve that meant driving, lifting more than a few pounds, shopping on his own, running and eventually even walking and talking above a whisper).

With all that adjusting came grief – over what was lost and what we feared we would lose.

The biggest wave hit the morning of Sept. 7, and waves continue to wash over us, sometimes with a merciful pause in between and sometimes in such succession that you're not sure if you'll catch your breath.

Cooper, Katie and I made use of counseling to help us cope. I visited a counselor by myself. I briefly met with a support group. Cooper met with his guidance counselor two to three days a week for the duration of the school year. Steve's hospice agency provided two counselors who worked at our home periodically until this summer. Cooper attended a bereavement camp for children.

With all that help, a whole lot of reading and daily experiences, I've compiled some truths about our grief.

Nothing is out of normal. Valerie, one of the hospice agency's counselors, told me that I might wonder, "Is this feeling or reaction normal?" The answer would always be "Yes."

That gave me permission to cry at unexpected times, to be angry without specific reason, to ignore what wasn't absolutely essential for survival, to focus on something that really didn't matter but made me feel better.

I don't worry when 5-year-old Katie talks about Steve as if he's sitting next to us. I don't worry that 9-year-old Cooper would almost always rather read a book than talk about his beloved Daddy.

My reactions and theirs are our normal.

Don't grade yourself. I don't get an A for getting through a day without crying (a rare occurrence) or an F for sobbing for 30 minutes after watching an episode of The_Office or hearing a Taylor Swift song with the lyrics "you'll never have to be alone." (Please don't judge me.) I don't need the added pressure of evaluating my days as "good" or "bad."

I'm proud of myself for getting out of bed every single day since Sept. 7. For having clean laundry and home-cooked meals. For finding joy even on the hardest days.

Emotions are going to get out some way. I've learned with whom I can share and how much they can handle. If there's no one to talk to, I write – sometimes for others to read and sometimes just for me.

Katie expresses her grief all day, every day. She hugs the air above her in an effort to "touch" Daddy. When I ask, "Who loves you, Katie?" she points at me and then above her – words aren't necessary.

If she looks blue, I ask why. Her usual answer: "I'm always sad about Daddy. And I'm always happy that we're alive."

Cooper holds on to his daily grief and lets it out not in dribbles but bursts. They come less frequently and with less intensity these days. When he does speak or write about Steve, it's with the soul of a poet. He expresses his fear of death and war and sincere hope for nothing more than life and peace.

There is no timeline. A year of grief sounds tidy and organized – perfect for someone like me. But there's nothing orderly about grief, and it follows no schedule.

As Cooper and Katie mature, they'll hit new milestones and understand our enormous loss in different ways. Their questions and recollections will change. They'll probably require more counseling.

I expect that waves of grief will wash over me for the rest of my life – with varying degrees of intensity – though I don't fear drowning.

My constantly honed expertise in our grief has strengthened my faith in our ability to survive.

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

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Reclaiming "Spot"

Last night a group of about 100 (I'm guessing, and I'm not good with crowd estimates) helped to dedicate a patch of grass, four oak trees and a beautiful stone bench in memory of Steve.

We gathered in our church's Covenant Center (a fellowship hall/gym/all-purpose room) to visit and wait for everyone to arrive. Traffic was much worse than a usual weeknight in the Dallas area because of the never-ending rain from Tropical Storm Hermine. (Cooper prefers to call it Tropical Storm Hermione. Steve would approve.)

Pastor Andy welcomed everyone, and Pastor Wendy read aloud the verse that I chose for Steve's bench:

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
-- Micah 6:8

Pastor Debbie directed the combined choirs of Holy Covenant (our church) and Schreiber Memorial (Jim and Betty's church) through Steve's favorite anthem, "Creation Will Be at Peace." ("In the holy mountain of the Lord, all war and strife will cease ...")

The choir was accompanied by a string ensemble -- all teens who played an arrangement composed by our talented friend Grant, a high school junior. His arrangement was a surprise for our family and a very special gift.

Then our group filed out the north door and walked across a short parking lot to the space. We stood together in a gentle rain.

Cooper, Katie, Jim, Betty, Jim and I gathered around the bench. Everyone else circled us.

Andy spoke about the significance of oak trees in this space -- strong, tall, offering umbrella-like comfort. Just like our Steve.

He spoke about Steve's integrity and strong character and his legacy. He encouraged us to visit this space for prayer and meditation.

And he spoke of reclaiming the name "Spot."

The Damm Spot, of course, was our playful name for the tumor in Steve's brain stem, the despicable cells that took root and wrapped around healthy tissue and eventually claimed Steve's life on earth long before any of us were ready.

Now there's a new Spot -- the Steve Damm Spot at Holy Covenant United Methodist Church in Carrollton, Texas. A patch of green with three live oaks and a chinkapin oak and sturdy bench. An open, sacred space at which everyone is welcome to gather.

Andy invited everyone to move in closer, to hold hands or place hands on one another as he prayed for the space and for us.

We returned inside for Zita cookies, tea and lemonade and lots of conversation. The love and energy in that room was warm and life-affirming. And I was reminded yet again of the incredible community -- a Micah 6:8 community -- that cared for Steve and continues to care for us.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Service tonight, with or without rain

Tonight we will dedicate the Steve Damm Spot at church -- with or without rain.

If there's a gentle rain, we'll gather around the trees and bench, so bring your umbrellas and raincoats. If it's pouring, we'll meet inside church. After the brief service, we'll enjoy treats by Zita.

Either way, I'm looking forward to remembering and honoring Steve -- and seeing you there!

7 p.m. tonight
1901 E. Peters Colony, Carrollton

Monday, September 6, 2010

Too many words

There are about a hundred different things I could write about tonight, which somehow puts me at a loss for words. I'll share just a few thoughts tonight and then try to get some sleep.


I'm thankful that we had the opportunity to go out of town this weekend. I'm thinking that I won't spend Labor Day weekend at home for a very long time. I don't want to be in the house remembering, "this is about the time I called hospice when Steve's throat was burning" or "this is about the time the nurse told me we were running out of time" or "this is the moment I had to tell Cooper and Katie that Steve was dying."


I've been trying to focus on the better memories from Steve's last full day on earth -- the welcome crowd of people who moved in and out of the house, who sat in our bedroom and surrounded Steve with love and laughter. They were there for Steve and also for our family.

When I have trouble sleeping in that very room (which really isn't that often), I think of those special people who gathered for Steve's final hours. I think of the many of you who would have been here if you could have, who sent e-mails and left Facebook messages, who prayed throughout the night, who had prayed with us for so long, who had visited in the previous months or sent notes, who later attended the beautiful memorial service.

I imagine all of you in one room, and it gives me great comfort. Tonight I will rely on that comfort and memories of Steve and God's peace.


While we were in Ann Arbor this weekend, we met a number of Michigan Marching Band alums. One of them is Greg, who was a videographer for the band in the late '80s.

He gave me this photo of Steve (center), Eric (in the fun ski sweater) and others. The date on the back is October 1988.

This photo also gives me comfort and makes me smile. (And reminds me of our dear Cooper, who says he now wants to go to the University of Michigan, just like Daddy.)

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Good luck charms?

Michigan beat Connecticut 30-10 today.

Could it be because we sat on the block M a few hours before kickoff?

Probably not.

We had a fantastic day, though, with big thanks to the Redmond family for the tickets and introductions; the Healy family for hosting us in their home; the Dodd family for taking care of us during the day; and Nick, who was able to get us into the Big House the morning of the game and let us walk on the field of the newly renovated stadium.

More details to come soon.

Go Blue!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


The physical pain of grief left my body a few months ago.

It is back. My heart often aches, truly aches, and my stomach feels unsettled, almost like butterflies.

I'm often taking involuntary sharp breaths as I think of Steve or see a photo or remember one of the many details that made Steve so Steve.


It was a year ago today that Steve learned that he would have to quit his job -- he was almost out of the intermittent leave that had allowed him to work a reduced schedule from home and still receive full-time pay and benefits. The news was necessary but devastating.

"But I don't want to quit," he told me over and over from his hospice bed. I used one hand to hold his hands and the other to wipe tears from his face.

He didn't want to quit so many things -- his career, his fight against the Damm Spot and all the subsequent challenges, his will to live and enjoy life with his family.

I believe that that was the day he started to let go. When his work was taken -- and it had to be taken -- he realized that his time in his body was nearing the end. The last bit of control that he had, his ability to work independently, was gone.

A resignation date was set for the following week. When he died the morning of Sept. 7, he was still technically employed.


I'm thankful for continued care, especially during these trying weeks, from so many people who love us and who loved Steve.

I'm also comforted by the peace in knowing that Steve and I together -- with the incredible support of hundreds of family members, friends, caregivers and strength-giving God -- did everything possible to extend his life. I have all kinds of doubts in my everyday life, but I have no doubt we did the best we could do.


I also find continued comfort and plenty of laughter from Cooper and Katie.


Katie composed a song while we were shopping. Sample of the lyrics: "In the world of love anything can happen. In the world of love, everything is pretty."

More than once last week, the first week of school, Cooper said: "Today it feels good to be alive."

Katie, while walking around the house: "There's a lot of jolly and fun in this house."

Cooper, upon learning that Steve and I were in Paris two years before he was born: "Well, I was probably in the final draft of creation then."

When we heard the song "Bust a Move" this weekend, I said, "Daddy loved the song." Katie replied, "Well, then I like it already."


I do hope many of you North Texans will be able to join us Tuesday night for the dedication of Steve's space. Full details are here.