Thursday, March 29, 2012

Stupid tumor

"Stupid tumor" is my umbrella catchphrase of a curse that I say mostly in my head, sometimes out loud, when a situation is frustrating or sad or just plain awful AND it's related to Steve's absence. It's about the closest I get to cursing, though I occasionally have fun with our last name. (As in, "this is a Damm happy place" or "I'm here to pick up the Damm kids.")

I just had another "stupid tumor" moment.

Katie has strep throat, diagnosed this morning. (On my fourth day of work at my new job. I'll blog more about that later, but for now I want to express thanks for very flexible working conditions.)

She's taking antibiotics and pain relievers and should feel better midday tomorrow. Tonight, about an hour after going to bed, she woke with a night terror. It's the second this week, after going months and months without them.

Then I started to wonder: Was her most recent bout of night terrors last spring, when she was constantly fighting ear infections? It's the kind of question that I would ask Steve. Between the two of us, we had a great collective memory. Left on my own, there are some holes.

I can't ask Steve, of course.

Stupid tumor.

Instead, I sent a text to one of my best friends, asking if she could recall the timing of Katie's last night terrors. Liz called back right away, and we talked about it, concluding that maybe it's pain and/or fevers that contributes to the really bad dreams.

I am absolutely thankful that I have friends and family to call on, people who love Steve and me and our children. In moments like these, I am intentional about finding silver linings and unexpected blessings -- after I say or think my little curse.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


Cooper definitely has Steve's humor gene. Dry and sly.

On Friday afternoon, Boy Scout Troop 51 gathered to load up gear and head out on the March camping trip. It was Cooper's first as a Boy Scout. We stood with our Cub Scout families.

Rodney, who was one of Coop's Cub Scout den leaders, stood nearby and said, "Cooper, I think you grew some more."

Cooper didn't pause before he replied: "Or you're getting shorter."

(When he's wearing his hiking boots, 10-year-old Cooper is as tall as I am.)

Friday, March 23, 2012

As starfish returns to the sea, wave of sadness rises and falls

My Katie is a sensitive soul.
It’s difficult to know how much of her tender heart was there at birth and how much was created by the crises she’s lived through — her father’s cancer diagnosis when she was 2, his treatment and illness, his death when she was 4.
The mix of nature vs. nurture doesn’t matter so much as the reality. I’m constantly learning how much to shelter her from unnecessary sadness — and even how she defines sadness.
This means that I sometimes have to curtail Cooper’s conversations and table them for a time when Katie’s away. There’s only so much she can handle related to the Civil War (too many young men dying), cannibalism (constant worry about where they might lurk and how she can avoid them), Anne Frank(there’s no way to explain the evil of the Holocaust).
She has empathy for almost every movie character, making almost every film a guaranteed emotional experience.
She’s aware of current events because we talk about them — not because of media. She doesn’t watch television news or listen to the top of the hour on NPR.
Of course, the realities of life can’t — and shouldn’t — be avoided altogether.
In the waning days of vacation last week, Cooper spied a treasure on the seafloor: a living starfish.
He ran to shore to grab a Frisbee, ran back into the waves and gently scooped up the starfish, along with some sand and salt water.
“I want to keep him as a souvenir,” Cooper said.
“That means he would have to die,” I said gently.
“No, Cooper!” Katie said, not so gently. “God created him for a purpose. He needs to live!”
She pointed out that one leg was shorter than the other four. Where it had been cut or torn, new growth was spreading. She pleaded with her big brother to return the starfish to its natural home, to give that shorter leg more time to grow.
Cooper relented.
During these negotiations, a little girl hovered. She asked about the starfish and our intentions. I told her that Cooper was wading back out with the creature.
“Then I’ll take it!” she said. “I want to take it home!”
And with that, she was off, running in Cooper’s path. Moments after the starfish was settled back in sand and water, the little girl scooped it up and sprinted ashore to show her family.
Katie, meanwhile, ran to me and sobbed.
“That curly-haired girl from Iowa took the starfish,” she cried. “It was saved, and now it will die.”
I held my 6-year-old’s sandy, damp body close to mine and let her sob.
And then the curly-haired girl, directed by her family, returned the starfish to the sea again.
Katie was relieved but still shaken.
“I don’t like knowing that someone is dying,” she whispered.
She was quiet for a moment.
And then she asked what she’s never asked before.
“Did anyone see Daddy die?”
I told her yes, that I was there, along with Grandma and a nurse. That I was holding his hand. That he wasn’t hurting the moment he died.
She cried some more and then shared a little of what she remembered from that day more than two years ago. She told me that she loves everything about life except death.
And then she wiggled free of my embrace and headed for the water. She danced in the waves, and her laughter drowned the sound of the surf.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Monday, March 12, 2012

Waving hello

I love the beach. I fell in love with the mix of water and sand and wind and salt in my mid-20s, when Matthew and Gretchen introduced us to Sarasota and Siesta Key. Steve and I visited as often as we could.

I was a few weeks pregnant with Cooper on our last visit before Matthew and Gretchen moved to Baltimore. I remember resting on the sand, closing my eyes and wishing for our child the same kind of peace and happiness I had found at the beach.

Yesterday, Cooper and I were riding rented bikes along the same Siesta Key beach. We stopped for a short break.

I took a photo of the coast. And then I felt compelled to turn my camera straight up to the sky. I snapped a photo. We moved on.

This is the image I took without understanding why.

I feel certain that that blue heart, shaped by clouds, was Steve's way of waving hello.

Peace and happiness.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


The past four-plus years around the Damm house have been capricious:
Healthy mom and dad and two children.
Onset of odd symptoms.
Month of medical mystery.
Risky biopsy.
Devastating cancer diagnosis.
More chemo.
Glimpses of hope.
Tumor growth.
Loss of mobility.
Countless doctor and ER visits.
Growing into a new routine of a healthy mom and two children.

The constants that have seen us through such tumultuous times:


After Katie was born, Steve and I took a huge leap of faith. I quit my full-time job as an editor at The Dallas Morning News. I left my dream job.

I learned to read when I was 4, reading the Dallas Morning News with my dad. When I was 8, I decided I would be a writer. When I was 21, I wrote a list of career goals that was tacked to the fridge for years. At the top of the 10-year plan: Editor at a major metropolitan daily.

Though I quit, I never really left. I started freelancing almost right away, often for various departments at the Morning News.

In the past six years, I've written and edited for just about every DMN department. I have been fortunate to be able to work from home. That huge leap of faith in 2005 allowed me to care for Steve while he was ill, no matter where he was. It has allowed me to care for Cooper and Katie during Steve's illness and after his death.

I've also worked for other clients, sometimes balancing eight or 10 deadlines a week for seven or eight different bosses.

In the past six months, I've added nighttime copy-editing shifts. Still from home, but from 7:30 to 11:30 p.m. three nights a week. It's work I enjoy, but it's an exhausting schedule, affording not enough sleep for this single working mom of two active children.

My goal for 2012: To find work that better fits for our family and that allows me more sleep.

In a couple of weeks, I will have reached that goal. I am happy to report that I will be writing and editing for Prestonwood Baptist Church, one of my longtime freelance clients. My boss will be a longtime colleague and friend.

At the same time, I'll be able to keep the weekly family column I write for Briefing and a couple of other small weekly projects for the Morning News.

It's change that we need and change that I'm looking forward to.

This job was nowhere on my list of goals, written way back in 1993. Then again, in 1993 none of us knew what 2012 would bring.

As I wrote in my Briefing column last week: There's no step-by-step script for life. There are many opportunities for improv.