Sunday Post 86: Not What I Expected

My life – it isn’t what I thought it was going to be.  No, this wasn’t how it going to turn out.

I was going to get married, have children, be wealthy and own a beach house.  My kids would be beautiful and always respectful.  They’d be popular enough, make good grades.  I’d have a ton of grandchildren.  They’d call me something off the wall like “Hammer” or “Jayshon.” 

I chose a younger wife.  She was to die after me. 

But she didn’t.  And I don’t have a beach house.

I think a lot of people envisioned something different.

Who would expect their cute little toddler to turn to drugs as a teen?  Who’d have thought that the man they loved so much would cheat on her?  Lose a job?  Not me. 

Some never got married, probably not the plan at age 22.  Others couldn’t have kids.  A few lost a child or their spouse at an early age.  Deep depression and anxiety set in for a couple of my friends, and several have fought significant battles with physical illness.

What do you do with that?  What do you do with a life that didn’t meet expectations?

A friend of mine, who has been through the ringer, recently told me that she can’t wait for her future.  She said, “God has something incredible planned for me.  I can’t wait to see what it is!”  There was true excitement in her voice. 

She told me the same was true for me.

It’s easy for to feel like you’ve reach the mountaintop – that the best is over.  But I’m not sure about that. 

There come points in life where you have to reinvent yourself.  Maybe it’s when your kids go to college.  Maybe it’s when your wife dies.

When that time comes, it’s about having the courage to step out of your comfort zone.  Some get that courage from their faith in God.  Others feel an internal drive.  Some never do step.  They decide that it won’t get better – that the best is behind them.

I can’t let that happen.  I do think God has some great things in store for me and some even greater things for my kids. 

I may not climb the exact same mountain, but I think I can find one with an equally beautiful view.  That’s why I started writing.  That’s why I tried out for “A Christmas Carol” last year.  That’s why I’m going to the 10th grade parent dessert social on Saturday even though I’m probably not going to know a soul. 

It’s all uncomfortable.  It’s also all necessary for the ascent.

I”m not sure what the next mountaintop will look like.  But it’s got to look better than the valley.

Sunday Post 84: Go and Grow

Someone recently told me that they had never left their eight year old child overnight. 

“Not even with his grandparents?” I inquired.

“Nope!”  She shared it as if it were a badge of honor.  It’s no badge.  It’s just weird – unless the grandparents are like kid killers or something.

I finally have all three of my girls back under one roof!  Tonight will be our first night in the same house since Sunday, July 15.  That is a long time. 

As much as I missed them while they were out experiencing the world, and as much as I wanted to go pick Stephanie up on her third week of four-week camp, I am so grateful that my kids had the ability to grow.  It’s no secret that I have limitations as a father.  There are simply things I can’t teach them.  But it’s not just because I’m a man and they’re girls.  Part of it is that I am their parent, and they’ll only listen so much.  Part of it is that I have a singular world view: mine.  And as right as it is, they need to compare it to others so that they can formulate their own ideas about how to live life.

DJ is becoming an accomplished sailor through her time at summer camps – a great confidence builder I think.  She certainly wouldn’t have discovered that talent in a family room with a landlubber.

Stephanie has developed incredible confidence.  I’ve told her for years how wonderful she is – but sometimes it means more coming from a 50-year-old camp director she absolutely adores.

Michelle battled homesickness – and won.  She was given the Most Determined award at camp.  Talk about making lemonade out of lemons.  She was recognized because she struggled and overcame.

I’m not sure she would have struggled or had the opportunity to overcome had she been at home sitting on the couch with me. I think I’m just a good dose of comfort for her.

Some of my happiest memories of childhood are from the weeks I spent in Florence, SC, with my grandparents each summer. I’d pump gas at Papa’s service station.  Granddaddy Tanner would take me for a Slurpee.  I remember making a masking tape and shoe polish covered lamp with grandmamma Ham, and I’d lay on Idee’s bed each morning and talk about life while she “put on her face.”

Oh the stories I heard. Oh the lessons I learned.

I don’t want my kids to be replicas of me.  They can do better.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but better comes from experience and experience happens away from my house. 

So let them go, and let them grow.  And then enjoy the heck out of them when they return.

Sunday Post 83: A Really Good Uncle

Posted by Danny

Uncle Jesse moved out about a month ago.  He has been working his full-time job and starting a sports video production business on the side.  Both of his offices are across town.  We haven’t seen much of him since February.  He says his move is an attempt to be closer to where he spends 95% of his life.  I’m taking him at face value hoping his exit isn’t due to a big brother watching over his shoulder and three girls who idolize him and watch his every move.  The man has been a trooper.

His new business has him editing video into the wee hours of the night.  Five out of seven nights a week he’d come home after we’d gone to bed, and we’d be out of the house before he stirred.  We’ve actually seen him more since he left – making it a point to plan dinner a couple of times each week, catching movies and listening to his advice on what we should do to make our lives better (buy a pig, move DJ to the basement apartment, move the laundry room upstairs, etc.)  It’s just like when he lived here but even more! 

We’re still The Real Full House.  Jesse isn’t going far.  He’s still the first one I text when Michelle says something funny; he’s still the first one I call when I need an in town kid sitter; he still rolls in to razz the kids throughout the week.

Sometimes God puts people in your life at just the right time. He did that for me when Jesse agreed to move in with us in January 2010.

Jesse has more friends than Cher has hair follicles.  Everybody in town knows him – young and old, married and single, Democrat and Republican.  He’s just that kind of guy.  That is why it meant so much for him to put his life on pause for us.

I’m not sure what the future holds for him. He may continue to develop his career in sportscasting. Or maybe his production business will become the next ESPN. Perhaps he’ll get married and have kids.  If his love for my children is any indicator, he’d be a really great dad.

But regardless of what his future holds, he has already accomplished one of the most important things that one could do on earth.  You see, Jesse saved my life.  He saved my family too.

He came in to our house at our darkest hour and helped us find laughter. He danced and joked and tickled when I didn’t have it in me. He brought the music back when our most beautiful voice was silenced by cancer. 

More than that, he was my closest confidant – sitting across from me in my den late at night as I searched to find pieces of a life that was shattered.

Yea – he’s done his work. He has helped make us whole again.

I have  really grown to love Jesse; he’s more like a brother than a brother-in-law.  I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay him.  But I will try; yes I will try.

Because he hasn’t been around much, I thought the transition would be easy. But there was just something about having his junk in the basement.  When I first walked into the house the day after he moved, two things hit me.

Wow, I’m really alone now.  I really wasn’t more alone than I had been the day before.  He hadn’t been home on a weeknight in months.  But on that Monday night, his absence was glaring.  It is interesting how stuff can be a whole lot of company.

My second thought was that another little piece of Lisa was gone. They were alike in so many ways.

And yet he’s not gone.  You will still hear Jesse stories.  He dropped by last night and wiped his sweaty basketball head on Michelle – sort of a special Welcome Home from summer camp.  We’re eating dinner together tomorrow night and went to see the new Batman movie last week when all of the girls were out of town (he slept through most of it).  We’ve had some good conversations lately about his importance in our lives – I think he’s all in for the long haul.

He has developed a really special and yet different relationship with each of the girls.  I suspect when asked by the minister at their weddings, “Who gives this woman to be married?”,  I’ll reply, “Uncle Jesse and I.”  Maybe he can just wear DJ’s Winter Formal dress.

I owe that man a lot. I thank God for Jesse and for the love and joy he has brought, and will continue to bring, to our family.

Sunday Post 79: Crawling to Driving

Posted by Danny

I remember June 28, 1997, like it was yesterday. Lisa told me I had to stay up by her head during delivery, “All that stuff below the waist is between my doctor and me.”

“I thought that area was between you and me.”

“That was before.”

I was actually grateful not to be in the war zone.

When DJ came out, the nurse gasped.

“What’s wrong?” Lisa asked with concern. The look on the nurse’s face was disturbing.

“She’s blonde,” our new friend exclaimed.

“You gasped because she’s blonde?” I did realize we were in an all brunette delivery room although I didn’t think it was all that peculiar for two dark-haired parents to produce a tow-headed offspring.

As the nurse lifted DJ from her placentad pouch, her head was elongated –

“She looks like a cone head from Saturday Night Live…and why is she so blue?” I was actually a bit disappointed. I thought we could have done better.

“Her color will come” the nurse assured me as she began massaging DJ’s limbs. “The first to forge through the birth canal often has a oblonged head. It will round out in time.”

“Can you put a hat on her? I want to take pictures to show to our friends.”

Those are my first memories of DJ. A cone headed Smurf with curly blonde hair. And yet, the most beautiful Smurf I had ever seen. Seems just like yesterday.

But it wasn’t. It was 15 years ago. And last Friday, I drove her to the DMV office to get her driver’s permit. She drove me home.

How did this kid, once dependent on me for her every need, end up driving me down the highway? How did she end up being mature and self-sufficient? How is it that I suddenly find myself asking her for her opinion on issues that matter? Why is it that at times she is worried about me or concerned for my future? Shouldn’t she be fully consumed with herself?

Boy did I love my kids when they were younger. At the beach we built castles in the sand, and I’d dig a hole that all three of them could sit in. This year we rode waves, tried to surf and sat in our beach chairs laughing and talking about life.

In a way, it is really hard to see my kids grow up. In another, it is a beautiful thing.

I’m thankful that I’m here to watch it all unfold; not all parents have that honor.

It is important for me that each of my daughters remembers Lisa, so I have begun to put certain possessions of hers aside. I gave DJ the first one – Lisa’s key ring.

She had it long before we started dating. It must be 25 years old.

I won’t be able to be with my girls at all times as they learn to maneuver this world, but maybe I can help them realize that Lisa and I are always with them in spirit.

That’s what I want them to feel – our support and presence on this journey of life.

The Learner’s Permit

Check out the “hard top”

Posted by Danny

My nerves are shot. DJ’s getting her Learner’s Permit and I’m about to have a stroke.

I was wondering why this was bothering me so – and then I began to assess what was behind my uneasiness. Perhaps it is my own history with the automobile that brought back this unpleasantness.

My brother once owned a 1973 Camaro Z 28. He’s spent his life savings on this car. It was black with a navy stripe down the side. We lived in the very back of our neighborhood on Rolling Hills Road but we could hear Chad coming when he turned off of Village Drive and passed through the red brick Briarwood entranceway two miles from our house. Apparently his life savings wasn’t enough to fund a muffler.

His long hair blew in the wind as he cruised by Terry Sanford Senior High School, a cigarette hanging from his lips and KISS blaring from the radio.

I, on the other hand, drove my father’s hand me down straight shift Dodge Colt. It was white with a light blue hard top. Why was it called a hard top? All cars that weren’t convertibles seemed like hard tops to me.

We lived on the top of a hill, our driveway a steep, steep incline.

One day I was hurriedly pulling into our drive. Little did I know that my bother was barreling down the same concrete slab, in reverse.

The damage to my car was minimal. My dad and I fixed it with a hammer and jar of model paint. But the Camaro was never the same. The trunk had to be tied shut with a rope. And since my brother had invested all of his worldly possessions into purchasing the car, he had no collision insurance.

Boy was he mad. My mother thought it was funny. She has an uncanny ability to find humor at the most inopportune times.

I once lent my car to a friend. She forgot to wear her glasses. She totaled it at an intersection a couple of miles from where we worked.

On another day, Susie McKinney, a classmate of mine, parked right next to me at school. When we arrived at our cars to head home for the day, I commented on her inability to drive. “Damn Susie! Half of your car is in my space. Watch what you’re doing next time.”

I opened my car door to toss my books in the car.  Although my butt was on the driver’s seat, my legs were still outside of the vehicle.

I whipped my head around as I began to feel pressure on my legs. Susie’s bumper was meandering down the side of my car door as she turned to back out of her space. My chins and calves were trapped between the door and the bottom of the Colt. The further she backed, the tighter the crunch. I screamed, “Stop Susie!” I’m not sure if she heard me – she may have just been miffed that I commented on her parking abilities.

The next day, I had four bruises – one on the front and one on the back of each leg.

I have more stories of speeding tickets and minor fender benders. One time I won a Ford Aerostar Minivan. I drove with my parents to Charlotte to pick it up. On the way home I was so tired I asked my mom if she’d drive for a while. She agreed and after we ate lunch she took my keys and promptly hit a light post as she backed out of the Hardees’ parking lot.

Again, she laughed. I failed to see her amusement.

I guess I’ve been blessed not to have a serious incident, but each of these accidents illicit a negative internal feeling.

The thought of my kid driving, and in particular having a front row seat to the action, is unnerving.

I will say that thus far she is doing well. I, however, am working on an ulcer.

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 –

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

Crackin’ Knuckles

Posted by Danny

When DJ was young, she went through quite a clingy stage.  She got that from her father.  My mother says I was excited about first grade, until I got home from the first day.  Mrs. Brayboy, my teacher, struck a classmate’s knuckles with a ruler because he was talking when he should have been listening.  Needless to say, after that I did not talk.  My pants could have been on fire and I wouldn’t have spoken in her class. 

I can still see the fury in that lady’s eyes.  She scared the hell out of me.

 The next day my mom shoved me out of the house with my older brother for the one block walk to Glendale Acres Elementary school.  One block from my house was a red fire hydrant.  I grabbed that thing with all of my six-year-old might.  “I’m not going!”, I wailed, my brother pulling on my waist to release my death grip.  What if she got mad at me while holding a stapler, I wondered.  This could be really bad.

 It took my brother, two neighborhood kids and my mom to get me back to her classroom that morning.  As I was towed onto the campus, my yelling immediately stopped.  I feared if she heard me my knuckles would pay the price. 

My protests continued from 3:30 pm until 8 am.  Bottom line, Mrs. Brayboy and I weren’t a good match.  My parents moved me to a private school for the remainder of the year. 

In kindergarten, DJ would hold onto Lisa’s leg each day when they arrived at school and to my knowledge, her teacher did not beat her with school supplies.  I couldn’t drop DJ off, it stirred up too many unpleasant memories for me.

 This insecurity lasted, to some extent, for a couple of years. But that kid had something about her that stood out. Something that let me know the clingys wouldn’t last.  And I was right.

 Not only is DJ in the chorus for A Christmas Carol, but she is also Martha in the Cratchit family.  She has a couple of lines and has to sing a song with the family in front of thousands of people!  Not to mention, she tried out for and was chosen to be one of the dancers in another key scene in the play.  That kid has talent (she gets that from her father).

 I sure am a proud, proud daddy!

Sunday Post 36: Something New

Last year my grief counselor told me that I needed to begin to develop some new interests.  She gave me an example of a woman who lost her husband some years ago.  In trying to fill her time and develop her new identity, she began taking salsa dance lessons. 

I told her it just wasn’t me. 

Before Lisa died, I really didn’t need a lot of outside interests – or at least I didn’t think I did.  I was interested in her!  In looking back on it, that was a mistake.  Because I didn’t have other ways to focus my time, filling the void she left was that much harder.

Fortunately I’ve sort of stumbled into writing.  It’s something I enjoy and I can do as much or as little as I want.  The Christmas Carol tryout wwas a different story.  It was a leap – out of the comfort zone.  A new adventure.  And I’m excited we’ve gone out on a limb to do something really new to us.

I wish I would not have waited for a significant life change to stick my neck out an try some new things.  Throwing caution to the wind, taking a litte risk, can make your life richer.  A good lesson for me to learn.

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