Sunday Post 77: Raleigh Dad Finds His Stride

Posted by Danny

The following article was published in the News and Observer on Father’s Day – a nice honor for me and the girls.

By Chelsea Kellner – ckellner@newsobserver.com

RALEIGH — The first time Danny Tanner took his oldest daughter shopping after his wife died, he thought he’d grab a chair with the other dads, like he always had.

Then he noticed the other teenage girls in the store, the ones shopping with their moms. They had someone to debate skirt length and help them match up colors, figure out which top to put with which jeans.

He’d never so much as flipped through a fashion magazine. But he got up from his chair and asked his daughter if he could help her find the right size.

 “The other girls may have moms in the dressing room to help them, but I think she’s gotten comfortable with having a dorky dad waiting for her just outside,” Danny said.

For the past two years, Danny has had to fill two sets of shoes for his three daughters, DJ, 14, Stephanie, 11, and Michelle, 9. His wife, Lisa, died in 2010 of colon cancer at age 39. Since then, Danny has been thrown into a world of ballet lessons and curling irons, boy drama and Justin Bieber. He’s now his daughters’ after-school chauffeur and fashion consultant, as well as disciplinarian and confidant.

It’s been hard, they agree. But the tough times have left dad and daughters with a deeper bond.

“He used to be out of the loop. We used to tell Mom more stuff, at least certain kinds of stuff – Mom knew all the girl-things,” DJ said. “Now he knows everything.”

‘Heartbeat of her family’

Danny is a soft-spoken man with gentle brown eyes and a quirky sense of humor. Lisa was a dark-haired firecracker, outgoing, outspoken and kind. They met at the YMCA when Lisa was 17 and Danny was 20, and married several years later.

With the birth of their three girls, the couple developed a balance in their parenting. Lisa, with her long, press-on fingernails, was the better back-scratcher, their daughters agree. Danny is a better tickler. Danny was always the nurturer, the one who would’ve been happy to have all three of his girls live at home forever. Lisa encouraged independence, Danny said, “gave the girls their wings.”

Then, in September 2009, doctors told Lisa she had stage four colon cancer. She started on a grueling regimen of radiation and chemotherapy. A surgery in December to remove the tumor brought hope, but by January, the cancer had spread to her back. Lisa died Feb. 24, 2010. DJ was 12 years old. Stephanie was 9, Michelle 7.

Danny and Lisa didn’t talk much about parenting in the last few months of her life, Danny says. They thought they had more time. But one of the last things Lisa did was write out each girl’s schedule for the summer, so Danny wouldn’t be overwhelmed and her daughters could get where they needed to go without her.

Just before Lisa died, her brother, Jesse Katsopolis, moved in with the family to help out. The men started a blog together titled “The Real Full House,” after the ’90s TV show chronicling a dad and two uncles raising three girls after their mother’s death. The blog’s tagline is “missing Mom but moving on…one day at a time.”

“He took about 24 hours for himself,” Katsopolis said. “Then it became clear early on that he decided he had more important things than himself to worry about.”

‘Party people, crazy-cool’

Danny’s daughters are typical sisters, giggling and bickering and dancing in their own choreographed music videos filmed on DJ’s laptop. Danny hashes out boy problems, relationships and girl dynamics with his daughters – “things their mom would talk to them about, but now it’s me,” he said. That part hasn’t been as hard as he thought it would be.

“We obviously respect our dad and do what he says, but we’re also friends with him,” DJ said.

“We’re like this,” Michelle said, holding up two fingers crossed at the knuckles.

Lisa had always handled the scheduling and logistics for their busy family of five. After her death, Danny had to learn fast. He’s senior vice president of development at YMCA of the Triangle, but her ability to juggle their daughters’ fast-paced lives left him breathless when he tried it for himself.

He also works to maintain traditions Lisa started, like home-cooked family dinners with cloth napkins and keeping fresh flowers around the house.

“I don’t want them to grow up watching sports all the time and eating spaghetti from a jar,” Danny said. “I’ve refocused my priorities, started paying attention to things I wouldn’t have before.”

He’s had his challenges, his daughters say with giggles when he leaves the room. Girl stuff, like clothes and hair, hasn’t come easy.

“Sometimes, he picks out the ugliest outfits for (Stephanie and Michelle), and I have to save them from wearing them,” DJ said.

“She has to say, ‘Dad, no,’ and we’re glad she does,” Stephanie said.

When Stephanie got her thick, dark hair cut into a bob that immediately started to frizz, Danny learned to handle a blow-dryer and round brush. It took time. He held the dryer between his shoulder and neck at first, DJ said, because he couldn’t figure out how to navigate dryer, brush and hair with just two hands.

“We were afraid he would burn himself,” DJ said.

Since Lisa’s death, the Ham household has slowly regained its groove. Dance parties are back. So are funny accents. A couple of months ago, they baked a purple-frosted birthday cake for teen pop star Justin Bieber.

“We’re odd,” Stephanie said.

“We’re party people,” Michelle corrected her. “We’re crazy-cool.”

‘How grief hits you’

Danny sees Lisa in his daughters every day, in DJ’s strength and leadership, in Stephanie’s looks and nurturing spirit, in Michelle’s peppy popularity. Their facial expressions sometimes mirror Lisa’s exactly, as much of a leap back in time for Danny as finding the occasional pack of his wife’s press-on fingernails forgotten in a jacket pocket.

“It’s the little things that you don’t realize will be difficult emotionally – and then you find yourself tearing up over something like a stroganoff recipe,” Danny said. “It’s foolish, but that’s how grief hits you.”

Despite the difficulties that have sprung from his family’s personal tragedy, Danny says he considers himself lucky.

“I don’t think there are a lot of dads who get to experience the depth of connection with their kids that I’ve gotten to experience,” Danny said. “We’re a tight group. We’ve weathered the storm. We’ve got each other.”

Kellner: 919-829-4802

http://www.newsobserver.com/2012/06/17/2142859/raleigh-dad-finds-his-stride.html

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3 Comments

  1. Congratulations – great piece. That column led me to your blog.

    Reply
  2. Aunt Susan

     /  June 24, 2012

    Of all the weeks I don’t get a paper…. glad you put it online.
    see ya soon I hope!

    Reply
  3. Evie Lichti

     /  June 25, 2012

    Danny – Great story, great honor. I’m glad I know you!! And, yeh, they do favor the mama, ‘specially Lucy!!

    Reply

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