A Letter to Myself

DJ and I were talking recently about the insanity that we’ve seen over the past 11 years.  She asked, “If someone had told you what would happen over the past decade, would you have believed it?”

It made me wonder.  What if 54-year-old Danny Tanner could write a letter to 44-year-old Danny Tanner?  What would I say to that naive guy?

May 13, 2020

Dear Danny,

I am you exactly eleven years from now.  It’s May, 2009, where you are, and you’re about to experience one of the best summers of your life!  You have four trips planned:  Yellowstone National Park, the beach, the lake, and your annual trip to West Virginia.  Enjoy every second because when you return, the wheels are gonna come off your bus.

You are about to face the saddest, most difficult time of your life.  Lisa, your incredible wife, will die before this time next year.  The devastation of this loss with change you, your children, and your entire family forever.

You will be pushed beyond your comfort zone in ways you never imagined.  You will tackle things that you thought you’d never have to or never be capable of.  With the support of family and friends, you will move forward.

You will:

  • Raise three incredible girls who will be independent and strong
  • Perform for eight years to sold out crowds at the Duke Energy Center and the Durham Performing Arts Center in the play A Christmas Carol
  • Start a blog (you’ll find out what that is in a year or two) and write a book (I know that’s hard to believe)
  • Pack up and drop off your two oldest kids at college and cry like a baby on your ride home
  • Watch your girls grow in ways you could never imagine

Oh, and in seven years, you will fall in love again, deeply, with a woman who compliments you in amazing ways.  She will love you to death and will give you renewed hope for the future.  To make it a bit more complicated, she lives in Charlotte, NC.  You’re going to spend a lot of time on interstate 85.

Some people you love dearly will struggle with you moving forward.  That will be hard.  Some of the relationships you rely on most deeply now will fade, but new ones will blossom.

A pandemic will break out throughout the world and DJ and Stephanie will move back home – just when you’ve adjusted to being at home with one kid.  You won’t be allowed to leave your house for months and when you do, you will wear a surgical mask even to go buy beer!

You’re gonna come out OK, Danny, a bit bruised and battered, but better in many ways.  I want you to know that because there will be times you won’t think you will.

And by the way, Donald Trump is the President…

My best,

Danny

Re-imagine, Meaning, Connection

(View Justin Yopp’s Ted Talk above)

I’ve shared before about the group of men I met in 2010, about six months after Lisa died.  Two psychiatrists from UNC formed a grief group, Single Fathers Due To Cancer.  I apprehensively attended the first meeting.  Four years later our monthly get togethe’rs subsided, replace by annual reunions.

The grief I felt ten years ago next month, seems far away.  In fact, I have isolated it because it is grueling to go back.  The pain, the disbelief, the fear – I don’t ever want to feel that again.  It’s easy to isolate those feelings when you’re happy.

Recently, Justin Yopp, one of our group leaders, did a Ted Talk titled More Than Grief.  He shared our story, seven men who struggled together and, in time, moved forward.

I didn’t know at the time, but Justin was learning from us.  He works with those experiencing loss on a regular basis and listened very closely as the seven of us shared over this 48 month period of time.  Justin shares in his talk that he saw three distinct steps in our recovery from grief:

  1. Re-imagining – Justin describes our grief like a trip.  We were on the highway, moving forward, when suddenly the road stops.  The map says the road should continue, but it doesn’t.  Justin began seeing growth with each of us when we began to re-imagine what life might be again.  For a very long time, we recanted our loss.  For a very long time we lived in the here and now trying to figure out how to manage our day to day lives.  But slowly, conversation turned.  We began to dream again, to imagine another road.
  2. Finding meaning – Justin argues that when we began changing the focus from our loss to helping others, there was movement toward our futures.  When we were able to consider how our group, and how we as individuals, might help other men going through similar situations, it helped us heal.
  3. Connecting – Finally, Justin saw in us a connection that was rare.  We weren’t best friends, but we knew a heck of a lot more about these guys we saw just once a month than we did about folks we saw on a daily basis.  The deep and intense level of sharing was surprising.  This connection and ability to share was crucial to our healing.

What the seven of us learned, what Justin and Don our leaders learned, is that you can create new paths, and you can move forward.  It just takes work – and maybe a couple of other really good men.

Second Chance

This was the tenth Thanksgiving without Lisa.  I realized it on Wednesday as the girls and I drove to my parents’ house in Fayetteville.

That first year was unbearable.  I told my dad we could not eat at the dining room table.  I could not fathom sitting there without her by my side.  When we arrived, he had indeed set that table.  I refused to sit so the entire family picked up plates and resettled in the kitchen – some at the table, some at the bar.

Even butterbeans reminded me of her.

I don’t like to revisit the pain.  It’s a dark place for me.

What I’m most thankful for this year is second chances.  I’m thankful that I was able to move again after years of paralysis.

Not everyone gets that chance.  Some don’t have the good fortune of accepting the loss and having the strength to find their new selves.  Some can’t get over the hurt, the betrayal the world cast on them.  Some aren’t able to find what I have – genuine happiness in a new partner.

My girls too have found happy again.  They are thriving, each in their own way.  Perhaps the greatest gift I can give them is to be solid myself.  I hope that my example of pulling out of the hole, of giving new life a chance, will enable them, regardless of what they face in their futures, the ability to dig out themselves.

I don’t take my second chance for granted.  I thank God for the people who have been put in my life – the ones who tossed me ropes and ladders and flotation devices not so long ago.  I thank God for bringing Julie into my life at the exact right time – at a time when she and I were both ready to take a leap from tough to happiness.

It’s not easy.  Sometimes grief is more comfortable.  It can be very secure – you know your role.  You don’t have to move.  Sitting is much easier than running.

But had Julie and I not trusted again, had we not been willing to leap, I can’t imagine what life might be.

I hate I went through loss.  It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  I am thankful I jumped.  It was the second hardest – and yet, the most exhilarating of my life.

 

One-on-one

Last night I got a text message from a co-worker.  She shared that a third grade boy at one of our after-school sites, a kid from a single parent family, lost his mother and sister in a horrible car accident yesterday.  He rode with them to school.  At 6 pm when our program closed, no one came to pick him up.  That was very unusual.  Then the news.  He spent last night in foster care.

He lost his mother and middle school sister and then had to, at least temporarily, go, alone, to a stranger’s house to spend the night.

I don’t know the kid.  I don’t know much about his situation.  Yet my heart aches for him.

This little guy now has to navigate life without the two people who were his foundation.  His world turned upside down.

I’m thinking about what must be going on in his mind today.

Two weekends ago I spent the day at Elon University with Stephanie.  It was Men We Love weekend with her sorority.  It was likely designed for dads but knowing not everyone has a dad, they broadened it to men.

We spent a little time with her crew at school, but mainly we had an almost full day together.  We laughed and laughed.  Talked about her future.  Talked a bit about mine.  Saw the better part of a football game and an acapella concert together.

I cherish the time I get, especially one-on-one, with those I love.  It might be the most meaningful of all.

None of us knows how many more days we have left on this earth.  Man, I want to spend more of it intentionally building connections with those around me.

That’s the important stuff.

The Group

Group photo

None of us wanted to go.  It was approximately six months after our wives had died, and we were all still stunned.  We were ripe with grief; shocked; stunned with the mess we had been left.

Over seven years ago, on a Monday night, I drove twenty minutes to a nondescript office building in Chapel Hill, NC.  It was a couple of miles from the university, a couple of miles from the hospital where parents were dying from cancer.

Two doctors, Donald Rosenstein and Justin Yopp, who treated those with psychological fallout from their disease, were stunned at their realization that no one in the world to their knowledge had studied fathers who had lost their wives.  There was no research, no support.  The wife died, and the men bucked up or seemingly did.

Eight of us showed the first night.  We sat around a table and shared our stories.  Looking back on it, I’m surprised that any of us went back.  You watch eight grown men, strangers, vomit their most vulnerable emotions, tears running down all sixteen cheeks, for what seemed like hours – and you might not return either.  But seven of us did.

What began as a six week trial lasted for four years.  In fact, nearly eight years later, we convene bi-annually just to catch up.

We aren’t all alike.  One is very shy.  Another tackles life like he’s building a Boeing 747.  One swears the wrong parent died.  One, me, can toss a one-liner like a champ to avoid going too deep.

What these two doctors did through their work with us is stunning.  With unwavering support and listening ears, they ushered us back to our new normal.

Three in the group are remarried.  I am engaged.  Two others have had significant relationships.  Our families are fine and broken and have coped in their own ways.

It is fascinating to see our evolution.  I call it the making of men.

Last week Don and Justin published their book about us:  The Group: Seven Widowed Fathers Reimagine LifeIt outlines stories that we shared at our meetings with significant insight from an outsider’s view.  I’d say it is worth the read.

I am indebted to many, many people for getting me through to a point of incredible happiness but especially to this group.  My single father buddies gave me a soft place to land assuring me I wasn’t losing my mind.  They let me know that the mistakes I made weren’t any worse than theirs.  These dudes I’ve spent less time with than most of my other friends, understand me in very deep ways.

As for Don and Justin, they have been the heartbeat.  Encouraging.  Sharing insights.  Occasionally kicking one of us in the butt.  For them I am grateful.

Lemonade out of Lemons

The girls and I recently became hooked on a new TV show on NBC called This Is Us.  Although my kids can watch a 12 episode series in a weekend’s time, I don’t often have the inclination to sit that still that long.  But, there is something different about this show.

One storyline is set in the 70’s and 80’s and is about a family with three kids.  There is a parallel storyline set today that follows the children as grownups.

I am particularly drawn to two characters in the series.  My first attraction is to the father of the three kids, Jack Pearson.  He has his flaws, but he is an incredible man.  He brings life and fun into the family.  He is wonderfully sensitive, crying multiple times in the very first show.  He just wants things to be OK for his kids and for his wife to be genuinely happy.  It is refreshing to watch how he invests in others.

There is also a 70-year-old man, Dr. Nathan Katowski the wife’s obstetrician, who is also a regular on the show.  He is a widower and sort of mentors Jack.

I want to see pieces of each of these men in me.

At one point, the young father and his wife lose a baby in delivery.  This is the advice that the seasoned Dr. Katowski gives to Jack:

I’d like to think that one day you’ll be an old man like me, talking a younger man’s ear off explaining to him how you took the sourest lemon life has to offer and turned it into something resembling lemonade. 

I think when you go through tough times, folks are more prone to sharing their setbacks with you.  Perhaps they feel that you can understand.

I’ve recently had acquaintances lose loved ones – children, parents, spouses.  I know of those who have lost their jobs.  I’ve spent time with a widower who has six children under the age of 12.  I am amazed at how many rediscover good out of really nasty situation.

If for no other reason, as a young widower, I was propelled to drive forward for my kids’ sakes.  I couldn’t bear for them to live in a house with a father who was paralyzed by grief.  In the end, I was the one who benefited.  I found happy.

I hurt so bad seven years ago (this week marks the anniversary).  I was messed up.  And yet, today, I can’t imagine there are that many out there with more blessings than me.

 

Healing does not mean forgetting.  For me it is figuring out how to put grief in its appropriate place.

Writing makes you ponder things that perhaps you wouldn’t otherwise.  I think about my legacy often – what I want to be remembered for when I’m gone from this earth.  I think it’s important to me for my kids to look back and say, “Man did dad make some good lemonade.”  Like the pink kind with real slices of lemon floating on the top, in a really nice pitcher with grandma ice cubes.

How fortunate I am to be sipping again.

Ninety-six Percent

I was at a concert last Friday night – it was an event for work.  I was excited when I ran into an old friend.  He knew Lisa.

I asked how he was doing.  He said, “96% great!  4% could be better.”  He teared up.  “Your experience taught me that can change at any given moment.”

I had some times where finding 4% good was a struggle.

My former boss gave me a journal the day after Lisa was diagnosed with cancer.  He told me to write down blessing that we found throughout the ordeal.  He had a son who had struggled with major health issues early in life.  He and his wife found value in listing the good things.

Lisa and I looked.  The good was very hard to see; in fact, I’m not sure there was any.

Now that I’m on the other side – much closer to a 96/4 good to bad ratio, you’d think I would spend my time focused on the 96%.  All too often, I zero in on the 4, looking for ways to get to 100.  The sad thing is that if I spend all my 96/4 time focused on the 4, I get no reprieve.  Surely I’ll have more times when the bad is the dominate percentage.  How awful to spend the really good times frustrated on the small things that aren’t going my way.

That 92.3 grade in English is not quite an A.  But it is damn near close!  Perhaps I shouldn’t remind my kid that she missed a 4.0 GPA by only .7 points.  She likely already knows.  Instead, we should have a party to celebrate that high B!

I have one zit.  But dag gone, the rest of my face looks pretty handsome if I do say so myself!

I don’t make as much money as that other dude at work (the one I clearly outperform), but I have a job I love, and I have plenty.

I want my kids to relish in the 96%.  I should too.  Life is so very good so much of the time.  To heck with the bad.  There isn’t really enough to waste time on.

It’s Quiet Uptown

IMG_0383

When in New York, we were fortunate enough to score tickets to the Broadway musical Hamilton.  I can’t really put into words how moving this experience was for the girls and for me – on a number of levels.

The story, the dancing, the historical lessons and the music were incredible to say the least.  One song particularly struck me.  It’s about grief.  It’s called It’s Quiet Uptown.

I’m assuming the writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, has experienced significant loss.  I find it difficult to believe that someone who has not could possibly describe the hole this sort of suffering leaves.

The song starts:

There are moments that the words don’t reach

There is suffering too terrible to name

You hold your child as tight as you can

And push away the unimaginable

The moments when you’re in so deep

It feels easier to just swim down

I did not lose a child, but in my grief there were moments that the words didn’t reach.  There weren’t  adjective that could describe the pain.  It was so deep.  So different from anything I’d ever experienced.  Unique.  No one could provide consoling words, because there simply weren’t any.

The Hamiltons move uptown

And learn to live with the unimaginable

It isn’t about getting over a loss.  It is about learning to live with it.  Figuring out what place the one who has gone will now play in your life.  That may sound absurd, I mean they’re dead.  And yet, there is a role for them.  Memories.  Lessons learned.  Pieces of you that grew from them.  Sort of a spiritual connection that doesn’t just disappear because of physical separation.

I would guess that those who have lost parents feel that connection.  They see their mother or father in themselves.  I have so many traits of my grandfather.  As I age, they become even more apparent.  His legacy lives on.

Miranda describes the changes we encounter in ourselves:

I spend hours in the garden

I walk alone to the store

And it’s quiet uptown

I never liked the quiet before

I take the children to church on Sunday

A sign of the cross at the door

And I pray

That never used to happen before

Grief makes you ponder things that you haven’t considered before.  It makes you question.  It brings about doubts and fears.  You pray in ways that you never have before.  Or perhaps, for some, you stop altogether.

If you see him in the street, walking by

Himself, talking to himself, have pity

The conversations I’ve had – with me.  The physical changes.  Aging.  Maturing.  A loss of innocence.

His hair has gone grey.  He passes every day.

They say he walks the length of the city.

The guilt you find for living.

If I could spare his life

If I could trade his life for mine

The older I get, the more people I meet who fully understand loss. I’m thankful there are others.  I’m glad there aren’t more.

 

The Childbirth

B.Ham.FrontCover (2)

Thought I’d post an excerpt from my book, Laughter, Tears and Braidsfor those who have not yet read it.  My book describes good times before cancer, our journey through, and the beginnings of putting it all back together.  This was a good time:

Childbirth

I don’t specifically recall being told that we were expecting our first child.  Perhaps it was in September, just a pregnancy kit at home.  I do recall an overwhelming feeling of responsibility.  I enjoyed the process of trying to get pregnant so the news in fairly short order was a bit of a letdown.

We attended Lamaze classes at the hospital closet to our house.  There were about 12 couples in the course and all but two took things rather seriously.  Lisa and I were in that camp.  Our instructor, however, took it all very seriously.  Her classes were well planned, and she did not hold back one teeny detail.

One night our teacher had the soon to be fathers sit on the floor and prop back on pillows.  His spouse was then told to sit in his lap and practice breathing.  Lisa was struggling to get comfortable.

“What’s wrong baby?  Why are you wiggling?”

“Your belt buckle is jabbing me in the back.”

“Oh, I need to remember not to wear a belt on delivery day.”  I took out my pencil and pad and began to scratch a note to myself.

“No worries honey, this is just a breathing exercise.  I don’t think I’ll be lying in the floor propped up against you when the baby actually comes out.”

“Oh.  Right.”  I erased.

On the night they showed a video of the C-section, I began to get light-headed.  Before they even began the operation, I excused myself.  “I cannot watch this, I think I’m going to pass out,” I told my wife.

“YOU    ARE     PATHETIC!  Go drink some water or something.”

Lisa and I talked about our birth plan.  The instructor told us we needed to make decisions about what we wanted to occur during labor and delivery and write it in a notebook to share with our doctor prior to our final visit to the hospital.  She discussed natural childbirth and even suggested that we might want to use a tub or whirlpool during labor.

Who in their right mind would have a baby in a whirlpool?  Does the doctor get in there with you?   Are we all in our bathing suits?  Do you need a snorkel?  Perhaps you don’t have the baby in it; maybe it is a pre-delivery method or something.  Come to think of it, being in water can make one need to go to the bathroom, especially if it’s warm.  Maybe it’s the same phenomenon.

After the first night of class, Lisa looked at me and said, “Our birth plan is to get as many drugs in my system as is humanly possible.  I want them the second I walk into the hospital.  If we go to the hospital and they say I’m not ready to deliver, we will stay in the parking lot.  That is our plan.  You can write it down if you want.”

I fully concurred.  I did not want to see my wife moaning and groaning in pain while delivering my baby.  It’s just all so unnatural.

Lisa also told me that I had three other important jobs during delivery.  Job one was to stay up by her head.  She told me she did not need me down there checking things out.  It was private, between her and her doctor. 

I said, “Honey, I though that area was between you and me.”

“It was between you and me.  Now it is between my doctor and me.  I don’t need the image in my mind of you having that image in your mind.  Stay up by my head.”

That was fine with me!  I’d seen enough childbirth in Lamaze class to last time a lifetime.  I agreed it was probably best not to watch.

The second job I had was to make sure the nurse cleaned off the baby before she slapped her on Lisa’s chest.  

“When the baby comes out, have them wash it off before they give it to me.”

“Why?”

“Because I want a Gerber baby moment, and Gerber babies don’t have blood all over them.”

I’d seen the commercials.  She was right.  I didn’t even know they would try to slop a nasty, unclean baby on you.  I was glad to have something specific to add to the cause.

“Your final job, and I know this is going to be hard for you, is not to make jokes.”

I had no problem with jobs one and two, but no jokes?

When we left the delivery room with our first-born daughter, DJ, the inside of my mouth was as bloody as a Freddie Krueger horror movie victim.  I had bitten my tongue so hard all day to keep from cracking jokes that it was like minced meat.  

Laughter, Tears and Braids is available on Amazon.  Click here to order a copy.

 

 

46

Bailey Ham 3

Lisa would have turned 46 on Monday.  The girls and I have chosen not to spend a ton of time remembering mom on the anniversary of her death, but rather to more officially celebrate her life on her birthday.  The casual remembrance typically includes Diet Dr. Pepper, Kanki Japanese Steak House and happy memories.  I don’t love Dr. Pepper, but on April 18, I drink.  I don’t love the Skanky Kanki (my nickname for the establishment), but on April 18, I eat.

We laugh and talk about her on a regular basis, so this isn’t a particularly difficult or odd time for us.  It is, however, a time to stop and reflect.  To answer questions.  For me, a responsibility to ensure her legacy lives on.

On Sunday I was invited to speak to an adult Sunday School class at my church on how to support those dealing with difficult situations.  Prepping to teach, I pulled out a stack of cards I received when Lisa died.  Although cathartic, and perhaps important at times, not necessarily a happy way to begin a fresh weekend.  Looking back, it is sort of amazing how you tend to forget the intensity of the pain experienced during that time.  It’s also shocking how quickly you can revisit the emotions with a small reminder.

One friend wrote this quote in the card she sent two months after Lisa died:

“The fullness of a person’s life is measured not in years, but in how he lived … there are rare people in this world who engage life at a different level – a deeper level than the rest of us.”

Although I’m sure that quote gets tossed around at many funerals for folks who die before 60, and although I believe it to be true, I wonder what really constitutes engaging in life at a different and deeper level.  As I poured through the notes near the top of my stack, there were a few that struck me.

“It sounds trite to say she was ‘unique,’ but she really was.  She was driven but not overbearing; she was kind but not patronizing; she was firm but compassionate.”

“(Lisa) has inspired me to be a better mom, friend, volunteer, Christian and worker because of how she lived her life.”

“Was there anyone in Raleigh she didn’t know?”

“One of my favorite memories of you and Lisa was when I visited the Y on one of my days off.  I will never forget walking up and seeing you and Lisa on the roof … I still wonder how the two camp directors were able to pull off tanning for an entire day and still get paid for it.  Who was in charge of camp?  You and Lisa were a great team!”

“She was such a force of nature.”

“I was a friend of your mom’s in college.  She was one of the first smiling faces I saw at our sorority.  From that moment on, she made me feel welcome and included.  As you know, that’s just how she was with everyone… making you feel comfortable.”

“My lasting image of her is seated on the Capon Springs stage, surrounded by all of the Capon kids, leading them in song.”

“She was an extraordinary person – someone who I remember trying to emulate as a teenager.”

“She was such a natural leader and full of such positive energy!!”

I believe that Lisa did engage life at a different level.  I don’t think she tried, I just think it was natural for her.

It doesn’t come as easily for me.  But I do think that her death has pushed me to intentionally and strategically work to live more boldly.

I do not want someone to spout out some quote at my funeral simply to fill up a 15 minute homily.  With Lisa, the remembrances were true, sincere; all who knew her could nod enthusiastically.  I’m learning later in life, but I think that losing Lisa has given my daughters the gift of living at a deeper level much earlier.  To watch them is as their mom is a beautiful thing.

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