Monday, August 29, 2011

What I remember

For the most part, I choose to remember details from life with Steve from when I met him (by chance in the office of the NT Daily in December 1991) until late 2007, just before we knew something was seriously wrong.

Because Steve was not defined by what ultimately killed him. And because some of the memories of life with the Damm Spot are just painful to relive.

But this time of year I can't help it. And, I don't want to forget all the amazing moments from the 19 months of "cancer time." After all, we crammed as much life into those months as possible.

I could dwell now on the multiple crises and sleepless nights and amplified worry that I didn't want to end because, well, that would truly be the end. And sometimes my mind can't help but think of those moments.

Today, though, I've been thinking of some of the lighter moments from Steve's last few weeks.

Steve would occasionally update his Facebook status from his hospice bed with "p = y" or "p = n" but gave no clues behind the meaning. Will cleared up the mystery for everyone at the memorial service. "Pants equal yes" or "Pants equal no."

Julie came to visit and help one evening. By the end of the day, I required help from another adult to shift him in bed to avoid bedsores and to help him find a comfortable spot. Steve wasn't wearing a shirt (though pants did equal yes), so he sang to Julie, in the raspy voice that he had left, "I'm too sexy for my shirt."

He loved, loved, loved it when Cooper or Katie would snuggle up next to him to share a meal or watch television or listen to me read.

We would have dinner picnics in the bedroom.

On his very last weekend on earth, our dear friend Gretchen was visiting. (Her visit had been planned for weeks; we had no idea, of course, that she would be here when his body started to irreparably shut down.)

That Friday night, Gretchen, Steve and I remembered stories from our days in Lubbock and our travels together over the years. We laughed and laughed. It was good for all of our souls. And it comforts me so much to remember that some of Steve's final conscious hours were spent laughing.

This Labor Day weekend, two years after Steve's body stopped working altogether, Cooper, Katie and I will be with Gretchen again. I just can't bear to be home, so we're headed west, to Southern California.

I expect there will be a few tears. And lots of laughter.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Late August

I am no fan of late August.

The unrelenting heat. The brown grass. The worrisomely low levels of nearby Lake Lewisville.

Plus the memories of late August 2009, when Steve's health was failing, and every day, sometimes every hour, brought a new crisis.

And now it's the eve of the first day of school -- fifth grade for Cooper, first grade for Katie -- and there's just me in the house for them.

This one-parent household business is pretty routine by now, when it comes to routine matters. The three of us can handle meals and chores and shopping and outings and fun pretty well (though I certainly still ask for help when needed).

I don't expect milestones will ever be so routine.

When I tucked Katie into bed tonight and gave her lots of kisses and wished her good first-grade dreams, I silently, irrationally wished that Steve were here to do the same.

Same thoughts when I helped Cooper arrange his pillows and blankets (he requires lots of each) and bent down for a crushing, long-armed hug. Steve should be here to say goodnight to his son on the eve of his first day of the last year of elementary school.

After they were asleep, I cried and cried.

(Another reason to dislike late August -- it's too hot to cry too much! Those tears represent dehydration!)

In a few weeks the temperatures will stop soaring above 100. We'll have moved past the late August doldrums (and past Sept. 7, which I dread more than all of August). This school year will feel routine -- or at least our current version of routine.


Indian Island, Washington State
We did escape this historic heat for a few days. Cooper, Katie and I had a grand adventure in Seattle, the Olympic Peninsula and Victoria, B.C. I'm blogging about that trip on "the happy blog" -- click here for photos and stories.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Power of words

Two weeks ago I wrote a column about themes of death and grief in children's literature. (You can read it here.)

It's an idea I've had for more than a year, based on my uncanny knack to choose bedtime books that inevitably have a parent die. Each time we would get to a death scene (or I would infer it was coming), I would get a little angry with myself for exposing Cooper and Katie to yet another tragedy.

I've since realized that (1) it's hard to avoid death in classic children's literature and (2) it's a good thing for us to read together about the hope that comes from desperate situations.

The column ran in Friday's paper. Friday night I received the most vitriolic email from a reader in my 18-year newspaper career. I deleted the email (after forwarding it to my editors) and am still trying to forget some of the worst phrases. In general, the reader -- who refused to sign his/her name -- told me to move on, to stop using my children, to stop acting as if I'm the only one who's ever experienced a loss, to leave my dead husband alone.

Oh, the power of words.

I was shaken for two days. (It didn't help that Cooper and Katie were gone for the weekend, attending of all things a bereavement camp sponsored by a national foundation.)

I've tried to be deliberate over the past three years in separating blog material from column material. This blog started three and a half years ago to keep family and friends current on Steve's complicated diagnosis process. It has evolved into a way to share with those same folks, plus a few more who've joined us along the way, how our family continues to cope with Steve's profound absence.

I was offered the role of a Briefing columnist in the middle of Steve's cancer battle. In that very first, rather benign column (which drew all kinds of anger on a Dallas blog for being a worthless column from a suburban housewife), I made the decision to not even mention Steve's condition; this was not a column about cancer but about family life.

Of course, I eventually wrote about Steve's tumor. My editor, Will, helped me find a direction for that first column, in which I shared the silver linings of our cancer journey. As conditions and themes developed, I shared more.

When he died, I took three weeks off before sharing with newspaper readers. And in the two years since, I've written columns about our grief journey off and on, as conditions and themes develop.

Readers respond more to the topic of grief than any other theme. Almost all of them write to share a little of their own grief story.

And yet I allowed that one hateful email to obliterate the goodwill from dozens of previous notes.

Two nights later, I received an email from a reader in Flower Mound (she actually signed her name). It was a simple compliment. And it was perfectly timed. Her kind words -- words from a stranger who had no idea I was hurting -- were the balm I needed.

Oh, the power of words.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Hope lies in hearts of those left behind

From today's Briefing:

Our nighttime routine usually includes all four creatures of the house — me, Cooper, Katie and Margie (the dog) — piled on the sofa for a chapter from a book.

In the past year we’ve worked our way through the first three Harry Potter novels, The Secret Garden and Anne of Green Gables.

We’ve also cried through every one.

Maybe everyone cries at some part during these books. But the theme of loss found in these stories hits our little family especially hard — because the pile on the sofa once included Steve, the patriarch of the house.

The kids and I have lived with Steve’s absence for almost two years. Death is not an abstract or fictional concept around here.

For a while after Steve’s death, I tried to shield our children, especially young and sensitive Katie, from death in books and movies. I didn’t want to needlessly add to our fresh grief.

But death isn’t easy to escape, as any fan of Disney movies or fairy tales or classic literature knows.

The Lion King? Simba watches his father die.

Cinderella? She lives with her awful stepmother and stepsisters because her mother died.

Charlotte’s Web? Readers grow to love Charlotte as much as Wilbur, and then she dies.

All for good reason. Death is more than just a convenient plot device. It’s more than the end of a life. Death is woven into our lives.

I quickly abandoned any hope of avoiding references to death.

Just before bedtime, I sit in the middle of the sofa, with Katie snuggled on my right and Cooper sprawled on my left and Margie wedged somewhere in between.

Together we’ve pushed through Harry Potter’s intense longing to know his parents. My voice broke the night I read aloud Albus Dumbledore’s words: “Your mother died to save you. … To have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”

Together we were horrified to learn that Mary Lennox’s parents die in a Cholera outbreak, leaving the sour girl orphaned and pushed out of India to England, where she eventually discovers a secret garden. (A garden that eventually saves a life or two.)

Together our hearts were shattered when reading the death of Matthew, gentle guardian to spirited Anne of Green Gables.

Tuesday night Cooper rested his head on my left side. I wrapped my right arm around Katie’s shoulders and held the book with my left hand.

I read with a soft, broken voice: “Anne looked at the still face and there beheld the seal of the Great Presence.”

Katie sobbed throughout the chapter. I would stop every few paragraphs to ask if she wanted to hear more. She would nod silently while mopping her cheeks with her hands.

Cooper implored, “Katie, it’s not real. It’s fiction.”

I added, “But it’s OK to cry. Matthew’s not real but our sadness is.”

That night we didn’t stop with the death chapter. We read two more, to the end of the book, because I was hopeful for a happy ending.

Author Lucy Maud Montgomery didn’t disappoint. She gives Anne the role of heroine, saving the family farm and her adoptive mother from ruin.

“Anne’s horizons had closed … but if the path set before her feet was to be narrow she knew that flowers of quiet happiness would bloom along it.”

Even with Matthew’s death, there is hope for those he left behind.

There’s hope for all of us.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, August 1, 2011

Today's reasons

I keep a few running lists on the reasons why I miss Steve. Almost two years later, there are still dozens of unique reasons.

A few just from today:

Because the kids and I drove through Hope, Ark., on the way home from Little Rock. (We had been visiting friends in Little Rock, and I wanted to bring home a delicious Hope watermelon.) The only other time I've ever been in Hope (or Little Rock) was in September 1993 with Steve.

Because we were on a road trip. If Steve and I had written nontraditional wedding vows, they would have included these words: "I, Steve, promise you, Tyra, to always be your driver. I will drive you to the grocery store and to the movies and on any vacation as long as we both shall live. I will drive you as you work on your computer or read a book or tell me stories or nap. I ask only for a steady supply of Diet Coke and french-burnt peanuts and occasional control of the music in return."

Because Katie's reading skills improve a little each day. I so wish that Steve could sit with her and listen and then tell her what a great job she is doing.

Because Cooper is just three inches shorter than me and a foot shorter than his Daddy was. I would love to see 10-year-old Cooper standing next to 42-year-old Steve.

Because it's 8 p.m. and our exhausted children are already asleep and the house is so quiet.