Friday, December 31, 2010

Our team

Cooper and Katie take piano lessons on Sunday afternoons at church. But because of Christmas, this week's lessons were rescheduled to Wednesday evening.

After their lessons, we left Carrollton, stopped at Target and then stopped for dinner at Amore, a little Italian place in The Colony.

Service was slow. The food was good. We were sleepy when we left.

The three of us got in the minivan, and I turned the key. The minivan did not start. The battery was dead.

No problem. This is why we've been members of AAA for 13 years. I call the number and report the problem. I tell Cooper and Katie that there's nothing to worry about -- it's an easily fixed problem.

We were lucky that night -- the weather was mild. The week's rain had stopped. We were in a well-lit, relatively safe area. We passed the time by playing 21 Questions and talking about our Christmas break adventures.

A guy named Spencer with a local tow-truck company arrived in about 30 minutes and helped us get the minivan started. An hour after we left the restaurant, we were finally headed home.

That's when Cooper confided that he'd been slightly worried about our situation.

"But we're a good team," I told him. "I knew we'd solve the problem."

Coop's answer: "But we're missing a member."

"Well, that's sadly true," I answered.

Katie chimed in: "We're not missing a member. Daddy's with us all the time."

"That's true, too," I said.

That little exchange sums up 2010 for our little family. We are a team of three on earth and one in heaven, doing our best every day to solve problems and keep moving forward (with plenty of help from others). We are challenged by grief, by the obvious hole in our family, and we are strengthened by Steve's spirit and love.

We experience joy every day, even when we feel weighed down by grief and loss.

I expect the same in 2011. Steve's absence creates an incurable sadness. But we don't let the sadness rule our lives. We still laugh and discover and hope and learn. We're moving forward the best we can, mindful that we're not leaving Steve behind but rather carrying him with us.

Cooper and Katie, Dec. 30, 2010

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Made me laugh

I was just looking at photos from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when I started laughing.

Without thinking, I placed Steve's special candle next to the dish of cranberry sauce. Steve hated cranberry sauce.

My homemade cranberry sauce sat next to Steve's candle during Christmas lunch.

I'm sure he's laughing with me.

Some other photos from our celebrating:

Uncle Jim, Cooper, Tyra, Katie, Betty and Jim on Christmas Eve

Katie and Cooper in their traditional matching Christmas pajamas


Cooper reads the letter left behind from Little Red Charlie, our Elf on the Shelf.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Sacred and secular

I help lead our church's youth Sunday school class. This week fellow leader Joy directed us through a discussion on gifts. Why do we exchange gifts at Christmas? What does all the giving and getting have to do with the birth of Jesus?

Ever since, I've been thinking about how our little family (and yours probably, too) blends the sacred and secular at Christmas. On one shelf we have a Santa and a Nativity set. A snowman and an angel.

I'm guessing those thoughts helped shaped my two Briefing columns this week -- one focused on the magical side of Christmas and the other on the faith that is the basis of the holiday.

In both, you'll find that Steve's absence plays a role. His absence is an enormous presence in our lives, and Christmas only amplifies what's missing.

You can read the columns here and here. And below.

Merry Christmas, friends!

Spirits are even brighter thanks to Santa's solution

Christmas is magical for children: lights, Santa, Elf on the Shelf, cookies, candy, the anticipation of Christmas morning.

It's that same list that makes Christmas exhausting for adults. Because we're the ones in charge of the magic.

I'm blaming self-induced make-the-magic-happen exhaustion for my poor hiding skills and judgment, which led to the Pillow Pet near disaster at our house last week.

It was late Saturday afternoon, and the kids and I were getting ready to leave the house to watch two elves and Santa parachute from the sky and land at Frisco Square.

I was walking in and out of my closet to gather jacket, scarf, hat and gloves. I should have been more guarded with the closet, which is also the secret hiding place of all Christmas gifts. I should have known that Katie would wander in and out of my room during her clingiest time of the day – when she's a little hungry, a little tired, a lot in need of attention.

She slipped in the closet while my back was turned, and that's when she spotted the heads of a penguin and monkey peeking out from beneath my clothes.

"EEEEEeeeeee!" she shrieked. "Who are those for?"

This required some quick imagination on my part. The penguin and monkey were to be gifts for Katie and Cooper, from Santa. Katie, in fact, had asked for two things from Santa – Legos and a Pillow Pet. I couldn't bear to spoil her surprise a week before Christmas.

So I lied. (Isn't that what Christmas is all about?)

"They are for the angel tree at church."

That one statement led to two challenges: (1) managing Katie's disappointment and (2) finding Pillow Pets to replace the ones we would give away.

Katie's disappointment was occasionally tempered by her sense of altruism.

"I really want a Pillow Pet. I mean really, I really do," she would say with great dramatic flair, followed by "But everyone wants a Pillow Pet, so it's good we're giving them away."

She forgot about the penguin and monkey for a couple of hours, while she was immersed in more Christmas magic – watching the parachuting North Pole people and tubing down a fake snow hill and enjoying thousands of lights blinking in unison to music.

After we were home and both children were asleep, I needed to work on finding duplicate Pillow Pets.

Now, if you want a bumblebee or a ladybug or a dog, you're in luck. There are piles of them. If you want a penguin, the exact kind Katie requested from Santa, your options are limited.

I finally talked to a drugstore employee who confirmed the existence of a penguin in her store, not far from our house.

Next, since I'm the only adult at home, I relied on the magic of friends. Layne hurried to the drugstore (they were about to close), bought the replacement penguin and monkey and drove them to my house. In the glow of my street's Christmas lights, I handed him cash through the car window, and he handed me two plastic bags filled with fur.

I found a more secure hiding place for the two new pets and moved the discovered pets to the family room, ready for their transport to church the next morning.

Katie cuddled the angel-tree penguin all during the drive to church. She admired its fuzzy yellow beak and shiny plastic eyes.

When it was time to give away the pet, she hesitated. She squeezed it tight. She whimpered a bit before releasing the animal.

"I really want one," she whispered.

I hugged Katie and told her that we were making magic for someone who really needed it. And maybe Santa would do the same for her.

***

Kids' spiritual differences are reason to be thankful

I am the blessed parent of two old, spiritual souls.

And I am the often-challenged parent of two old, spiritual souls – because they are distinct souls with personalities and beliefs that diverge as often as they converge.

Katie and I were recently reading a children's Christmas book. It concluded with a sentence something like: "And being together with friends and family is the true meaning of Christmas."

The end?

Nope.

"Oh no, it's not," my 5-year-old said with disdain. "The true meaning of Christmas is God and Jesus."

She is firm in her beliefs. She doesn't robotically repeat what's she's heard – she genuinely believes that Jesus is the son of God, the way, the truth, the life.

She's not only confident in her beliefs; she's eager to share them.

This week I took Katie and Cooper to the post office to apply for passports. Because I'm the only living parent, we needed to arrive with extra forms and certified death certificates. On the drive, I reminded the children that the post office employee might have questions about Daddy.

"I wish Daddy didn't die," Katie said. "But if you believe in God and Jesus, when you die you wake up again in heaven and live forever."

I keep a cross on my bedroom desk. It belonged to Steve. Katie likes to stop at the desk to pick up the cross and trace its edges with her fingers.

On a recent stop, she held the small cross to her chest, looked up and said, "Daddy, as long as people believe in the cross, you'll be alive in heaven."

Cooper does not always share his sister's confidence. He often questions Christian doctrine and analyzes our religion's tenets.

When he was 3, he had (understandable) trouble with the Crucifixion. He would ask over and over why God would let his son die. Our explanations were never enough.

Last week, when it was just the two of us in the minivan, he asked about the divinity of Jesus.

"If Jesus is God, and Jesus was worshipping God, then wasn't he worshipping himself, and isn't that bad?"

I was unable to consult theologians or even Google from the driver's seat, so I answered the best I could. I told him that I thought Jesus on Earth served as a model, to show humans how to worship God during a time when God thought we needed help.

He's a student of Greek mythology and struggles with the idea that an ancient civilization got it all wrong – all the ideas about multiple gods and explanations for the way the world works.

What if we have it all wrong?

It's no easy task, this parenting thing.

If I wanted to take the easy way out, I might tell Cooper that he must believe what I believe. (Or maybe just send him to his younger sister.)

Parenting shortcuts seldom work, though, so instead we discuss and read, and I encourage Cooper to share his doubts.

We talk about the role that God played in their Daddy's death. Cooper wonders why God couldn't save Steve. I counter that God was with him while he suffered the effects of cancer not controlled by God. Katie reminds us that Daddy is alive today, spending eternity in heaven with God – and Jesus.

We are three people with three different perspectives on the faith that binds us. Tonight we will gather in our church's sanctuary to celebrate and light candles in community, and tomorrow we will open gifts and share a special meal. We will give thanks for the birth of Jesus, his example and sacrifice – and I will give thanks for being entrusted with the care of two old, spiritual souls.

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


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Prayers for a Frisco dad

Once every few weeks I learn about another human diagnosed with brain cancer. A few of them have been given my name and e-mail address and have been encouraged to contact me.

Few do. And I don't blame them.

When Steve was first diagnosed, we were given the names and e-mail addresses of a few survivors -- folks who were still fighting their brain tumors. I spoke to one on the phone and became completely overwhelmed. She was in a different stage than we were, and I could barely accept the stage we were in.

I would read the blogs of others. I rarely shared anything I found with Steve, who was solely focused on his fight. I would tell him when prayers were needed, and I would share success stories, but sadly there weren't many of those.

Brain tumors are awful, terrible, cursed creatures.

I was recently contacted by a fellow Frisco mom. She has two young children. Her husband, Mark, is fighting a glioblastoma -- the same kind of tumor Steve had, just in a different location.

She is keeping a blog of her family's journey, and today she is asking for prayers for Mark, who will have his next MRI just days after Christmas.

You can read her post asking for prayers and comments here. If you are so moved, I hope you will read the post, pray for Mark and his family and leave a comment on their blog. I know how precious those kinds of comments are, and I know how much they meant to Steve on some of his toughest days.

Thank you!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Sunday morning

A typical Sunday worship service is full of grief triggers.

Cooper, Katie and I sit in the same sanctuary we used to share with Steve. It’s been our church home since 2000, before Cooper and Katie. It’s where both children were baptized and where both children sang in preschool performances and where Steve and I held hands during prayers on countless Sundays and took Communion together.

And it’s where Steve sang tenor in the choir and occasionally played trumpet.

Even now, more than 15 months after his death, I have to remind myself every single Sunday morning to not write “Steve, Tyra, Cooper & Katie Damm” in the registration book.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been able to get through a service – specifically anthems – without crying as often. There’s nothing wrong with crying, of course – it’s just not my automatic response as often.

Today was different.

The moment I looked up at the choir loft, where Steve should be sitting, I saw Bruce, Steve’s fellow tenor, fellow trumpeteer, fellow humorist.

At that moment, I felt Steve’s presence. Steve was there – not just in our hearts but actually there in some spiritual sense that's difficult to explain but nevertheless genuine.

I couldn’t shake the feeling, and I couldn’t help but weep.

When it was time to greet one another, I broke my usual routine and walked to the choir loft – something I haven’t done since Steve stopped singing in December 2007 – and sat next to Bruce.

I gave him a hug and told him that I felt Steve was right there.

Bruce opened his music folder. In the front pocket was the order of worship from Steve’s memorial service, with that handsome photo of Steve staring right at me.

Steve on the day of Katie's baptism, September 2005

Bruce explained that he likes to keep the photo in his folder but that he had misplaced it for a couple of weeks. He’d just rediscovered it this morning. Steve was right there.

I have big ideas about what angel Steve is doing in heaven, and I’m certain I assign him much more power than he actually has. I picture him spending time on important causes – hunger, diseases, peace – while also providing guardian angel protection to folks in need and his family and telling jokes and making himself and other angels laugh.

This morning, though, I think he took a break from that important work to be with his church family and us and to celebrate the fourth Sunday of Advent. (And what glorious music it was!)

Cooper and Katie after church today, sitting on Steve's bench

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Yet another "Steve" pose

Cooper, Gabriel and Katie (with yet another "Steve" pose) at Frisco Square tonight, after they tubed/sledded down a snow hill

Saturday, December 11, 2010

MRI day

Three years ago today, Steve had the first of many MRIs of his brain, at a hospital just a few minutes from our home.

And while I'm sad thinking about the details of the day, today I'd rather focus on the bigger lesson from that day.

Trust your instincts. And be your own advocate.

When the four of us drove home from Austin at the end of our Thanksgiving visit in November 2007, Steve and I decided that he needed to call his primary care physician about some troubling symptoms.

He was having trouble swallowing thin liquids. He had frequent hiccups. A headache in the back of his head that didn't completely resolve with Tylenol. His speech was slightly slurred.

The next week he saw Dr. Y, who recommended a swallow study and maybe an MRI later.

I called our friend Jen, fellow Frisco soccer mom and a speech therapist. I knew she would know something about the symptoms, mostly because of Steve's speech issues.

I was cooking dinner in the kitchen. Cooper and Katie were working on a project at the table. Steve wasn't yet home from work.

She told me what they might be looking for. The worst case, she said, was a mass in the brain.

I walked into the dining room, sat down in the nearest chair and knew, just knew, that we were dealing with the worst case. This wasn't me being pessimistic -- this was intuition.

When Steve got home and we were able talk, I told him that he had to call Dr. Y and demand an MRI.

He called the next morning and practically had to beg Dr. Y's nurse and then Dr. Y to order the MRI. He told them that we weren't comfortable with a wait-and-see approach.

On Dec. 12, 2007, I sent an e-mail to family members and close friends. It included these words:

An MRI yesterday showed a 15 mm lesion on the right side of his brain stem, mostly in an area called the pons.

I can't count the number of times I wish my intuition had been wrong. But I also thank God that we had Jen to talk to and that Steve persisted and that we started the diagnosis process when we did.

Steve and I learned over and over the importance of being your own best advocate. We learned to speak up when something didn't seem right, when Steve wasn't treated with the best care, when mistakes were being made, when dots weren't connected, when we seemed forgotten in an ER room, when a caregiver seemed too distracted or tired to do the best job.

I know that I can be bossy, but I don't apologize when I'm bossy with friends facing medical decisions. I remind them to ask questions, to seek answers until they're comfortable, to demand the best care -- because no one, no matter how compassionate, at a doctor's office or hospital or cancer center is going to be as qualified an advocate as the patient or spouse or parent or adult child.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Ranunculus

On Steve's birthday this year, I planted bulbs in our front yard. I liked the idea of doing something special on his birthday that would reveal itself in the spring.

I bought some tulip bulbs and ranunculus bulbs and planted them in open spots in the front beds. I'm not a skilled gardener. I'm allergic to most everything that grows; my skin breaks out in awful rashes just by touching some seemingly mild-mannered plants. So I was pleased to dig deep enough in the soil and place the bulbs in the correct direction.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed some green sprouts where I'd planted the ranuculus bulbs. I was certain that I'd done something wrong -- introduced weeds, perhaps?

The sprouts kept growing. They looked too pretty to be weeds. So I googled "ranuculus" (perhaps something I should have done before I planted) and discovered that the bulbs sprout just a few weeks after they're planted and produce their beautiful blooms in the spring.

When I walk by the beds now, I like to think of Steve saying hello earlier than I expected.

Sprouts just outside our front door

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wind

Steve and I would often joke that Frisco is the windiest place in all of Texas.

In February 2002, we stood at the top of the hill on mostly empty Hidden Creek Lane, staring at a model home that we'd fallen in love with. My hair whipped around wildly. Baby Cooper's jacket didn't provide enough warmth. And yet we smiled (though not too widely, for fear of dirt getting in our teeth). We felt comforting peace about the contract we'd just signed to build our home.

Over the years, we happily endured more windy days near that hill -- at the playground and the pond. On walks together. On separate runs (oh, it's a tough hill to run up). On a snowy day when neighbors gathered and shared a makeshift sled.

I've driven that hill hundreds of times -- while Steve was healthy, while he was fighting cancer, after he died. Not until today, a windy day in December 2010, did I drive by that very spot and feel a flood of tears in my chest.

Something about the sky and the weather and my missing Steve at that very moment made me think of younger Steve and Tyra -- unsure of our future neighbors and the unbuilt elementary school and our commute downtown and so much more and yet confident that we were making the right decision.

I cried on the rest of my drive home and as I pulled into the garage and as I walked through the back door and set my purse on a chair. These grief moments blow through like unexpected bursts of wind. They are bearable because of comforting peace that is more powerful than sorrow.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Thanksgiving treats

Cooper created this sidewalk chalk drawing of angel Steve on Aunt Ami and Uncle Rich's back patio.

***

Greg, Brooke, Cooper and Jim at the Jones house before the race

Cooper, Uncle Jim, Uncle Greg and Brooke registered for the Austin Turkey Trot. Cooper and Brooke signed up for the 1-mile race, Jim and Greg for the 5-mile race.

The uncles moved onto the Congress Avenue bridge to get close to the starting line, and I stayed back with the cousins. We admired kooky costumes (some turkeys, a pair dressed as a monkey and a banana, a couple of all-body unitards) and chatted before the start.

When the crowd started moving, I reminded the cousins to stick together. And as I walked away, I shouted, "Stay together, and remember you're running one mile!"

As soon as I said it, I had a sense there would be trouble.

Sure enough, the cousins missed the poorly placed sign designating the 1-mile route, and they ran 5 instead. They crossed the finish line with cheerful spirits!


***

Katie sitting in her "hut" behind the Jones' house. The cousins built structures out of branches and other found materials and spent hours playing outside.

Ami, Tara, Rich and Sasha -- our awesome Thanksgiving week hosts

Melane, Greg, Molli and Brooke

Annual toast at the cousins' table

Betty, Jim and Jim spent Thanksgiving Day with us in Austin.

Cooper lights the Steve candle before we say grace for Thanksgiving dinner. (Molli and Rich are behind him.)

Katie, Tyra and Cooper on Thanksgiving Day (I often get weepy when I see photos of just the three of us. In this one, I strongly sense Steve with us, and it makes me smile.)