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

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.

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.

95%

It came early this year.  Generally, it’s two weeks out – like clockwork.  I begin to well up when certain songs come on the radio.  I get a pit in my stomach when I look at family photographs.  I long for what could have been.

I think the anticipation of the anniversary of Lisa’s death has been magnified this year.

Last fall I found some old pictures on my computer that I thought we had lost.  They captured the Tanner family from 2005 – 2006, four years before she became sick.  I recently uploaded them to Shutterfly and have been working to order prints and create one of their memory books.  It’s a task you should only have to do as punishment for a terrible crime.

Keeping up with family pics was not my job – until 2010.  Lisa held that responsibility, along with most of the other things I currently do that are unrelated to my work, tickling kids or putting them to bed.

I’ve dug through these pictures for two weeks, there were over 1,000:  beach trips, Disney World, The Grand Canyon, birthdays, Halloween, huge smiles at Christmas, a shot of the two of us dressed up for a night out.  I keep thinking, we had no idea… absolutely no idea that cancer was about to kick our asses.  If we would have known…

If we would have known, what?  What could we have done?

Ab-so-lutely NOTHING.  We could not have done anything except lived those last few years in fear.

This past fall I was told by someone that I hadn’t written a new chapter in my life.  That I had to put the past behind me.  I thought that was a ridiculous statement, proud of what I’ve accomplished – astonished at my fairly happy demeanor, blown away by my three daughters’ blossoming, excited about the new things in my life.  But maybe, in a way, this friend was right.  Or maybe, you do move on but in a different sort of way.

I will never, ever, be the same.  I will never fully get over my loss.  Perhaps those who have not experienced what I have aren’t able to fully comprehend my inability to slide through February unscathed even after significant time.

Yet, only I can ensure that I’m not stuck, unable to move forward with new relationships and experiences with real joy in my heart.

Occasionally I teeter between thriving and shriveling up.  Weird, these incongruent worlds.  Ninety-five percent of the time I’m ready to tackle the world, completely pleased with how I’ve grown, excited about today and the future.  Five percent of the time I’d like to curl up in the corner of the closet.  The wound fresh again.

It’s been nearly six years.  I am grateful for the 95%.  It’s been nearly six years, why isn’t it 100?

I Want Full Custody!

Family Circle 052614 0462

Sometimes my little angels, well, aren’t.  The problem is, I seldom know when these sweet little people I am raising are going to turn on me.

Yesterday when I asked, “How was your day?,” I was taken down an elaborate journey through the halls of St. Timothy’s School.  It was beautiful.  I learned about friendships, the lunch menu, assignments and teacher personalities.

Today I asked the same question.  I was cut off at the pass in a very terse tone, “I don’t want to talk about it!”

“Is everything OK?”

“I DON’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT!”

What happened?  I thought we were friends.  I thought you were daddy’s girl!

Last week I was asked to help with homework.  We laughed while we worked on the memorization for the history quiz, making up nutty phrases to cue her mind:  “Bangladesh” – “I can’t remember Bangladesh.”  We ran to the kitchen and pull out a plastic plate, slamming it on the counter, “Bang The Dish!  Bangladesh!”

Tonight I walk in, the computer is open, the tears are flowing.

“What’s wrong?  I thought you didn’t have much homework.”

“THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT!  AND THEN I DISCOVERED THE FOUR MATH PROBLEMS WE HAD TO DO.  WE’VE NEVER DONE THIS KIND OF PROBLEM BEFORE!  I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO THIS!!!”

“Your teacher said as long as you attempted to do the math homework you’d get credit.  Just try.”

“BUT I D-O-N-‘T K-N-O-W   H-O-W  TO DO IT!  YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND!  GO AWAY!”

Go away?  I’m just trying to be helpful!

What makes these beautiful little beings, often dressed in pink, transform from Snow White to Jafar?  How is it that the same simple question on Monday can elicit such a polar opposite answer on Tuesday?

Sometimes I feel like I have three sets of twins.  There’s a good one and a ornery one.  They look identical, and yet they pop in and out of my house interchangeably without me knowing.

Is there another family with three girls that might be keeping my children’s twins?  Are you in on this?  Are you gas lighting me?  Stop it!  I want the good twins back – and not just 75% of the time.  I want full custody!

Sunday Post 157: Four Years Ago

It was four years ago tomorrow. Seems like longer. In many ways I’ve done more in the past four years than I did in the first forty-four. That’s actually sort of pathetic.

I don’t have the intense feelings of grief this time. There are a few, but it doesn’t feel like someone is stomping on my chest.

What I have noticed every February for the last four years, is that I find myself in a fog. It’s like I’m walking around in a card board box.

I’ve struggled to focus, like a fly on horse poo. I’ve missed a few appointments – one where I put the meeting in my calendar starting at 10 PM, not AM. The girls’ winter break snuck up on me. Didn’t line up child care until two weeks out. That’s not typical for me.

On Saturdays I usually conquer the world. Lately, I’m fine to sit. I’m not really doing anything – I guess I’m just thinking, sort of day dreaming.

Sitting – how uncharacteristic of me.

Knocking out push ups is a nightly activity year round. Right now each one feels like a mammoth undertaking.

I do find myself reliving that last week of her life. She in the hospital in her blue, cotton robe. Those last few days were painful.  Scary. Wish I could dismiss them. Unfortunately, they’re etched.

My buddy reminds me this is my month – “It was like this last year too Danny, remember?”

“Yeah, I do.” Hunker down. It’ll be over soon.

Sunday Post 152: Too Soon?

Last Sunday DJ announced that Stephanie was my favorite child, “You clearly love her more.” She didn’t seem that upset, she was just sharing fact – or at least her perception at that place and time.

Michelle was appalled. She clearly thought I loved her the most.

Stephanie just cheesed, happy as a lark.

I dispute DJ’s claims. My heart is huge. When I think there can’t possibly be room for anymore love, sometimes I just make more.

Not too long ago a friend of mine got married. His wife passed away like Lisa.

Some have criticized him. Said he tied the knot way too soon. I’m guessing those who are critical have never sat at home on a Saturday night alone. I bet they didn’t get left out of the dinner party because it was a couples thing. They probably had someone to sit with on Sunday morning at church; someone to go out to lunch with after the service.

I’ve waited four years and am nowhere near married again. But I surely wouldn’t criticize someone who happened to find someone who they loved and who could help fill those voids.

It’s easy to question other’s actions when you haven’t walked in their shoes. Finding new love isn’t necessarily a sign that one has forgotten or fully moved on. It might even be a sign that their first marriage was really very good!

I have a big heart – plenty of room to love. My friend did too.

Sunday Post 127: Through Their Eyes

For the past three years I have dreaded dropping my kids off at sleepover camp.  In fact, when Michelle said she just wanted to attend a one week camp this year, I jumped on board fast!

“That is fine with me!  Maybe Daddy and Michelle can do a special little trip while your sisters head off for a month.”  That’ll fix ’em.  I’ll take her to Disney World – we’ll see what they choose next year.

Lisa went to Camp Seafarer as a kid, and I work for the organization that owns the camps.  I know it’s a great experience in so many ways – independence, leadership development, new friendships – but four weeks away is a long, long time.  The house just seems so quiet and empty with them gone.

But this year, something was different.  For the first time since Lisa died, I was able to see through their eyes.  Instead of focusing on what I was going to miss, I was able to see what they were going to gain.  They were so excited!  They talked about friends they couldn’t wait to see, camp songs they wanted to sing and the skills they were going to master before coming back home.

DJ is a counselor in training this year and was fortunate to be chosen to work on her favorite activity, sailing.  Stephanie ensures me that she will achieve her Sunfish Master, a difficult certification for a kid who never sailed until last summer.

Both planned their outfits and shopped for their needed camp items.  They were quite independent in their quest to prepare for their journey.

And their dad, for the first time since I’ve been in charge of dropping them off on my own, was able to look beyond the dread 26 quiet nights and instead live vicariously through their joy.  My excitement for them took away almost all of my angst.

I wish I’d do a better job of stepping back and putting myself in their shoes.  Too often over the past three years I’ve been so wrapped up in my own selfish thoughts that I’ve missed seeing and celebrating the happiness of those around me.

I hope I’m beginning to make that transition – from selfishness to selflessness.  Check with me in three more weeks, I should know by then.

Sunday Post 114: Looking Down From Above

Stephanie and I had a date night last weekend.  We ate dinner and went to see the movie Safe Haven.

The movie is about several things, but one major component of the film is that the main character is a single dad who lost his wife to cancer.

At the end of the movie, it becomes obvious that his dead wife is helping to orchestrate their lives, working to make sure that the father and her two kids are going to be alright.

Wouldn’t it be nice to know that those who have gone before us can, in some way, help us heal and move forward?  What if they could intervene, maybe speak to us in dreams to drive us toward the good things that await us here on earth?

I’ve really struggled with that notion.  I find it hard to believe that Lisa can see us.  I think her grief would be so deep.  Seeing her in pain as she neared the end of her illness nearly killed me.  I can’t imagine her having to watch me grieve.  I can’t fathom her looking down from above watching Stephanie cry night after night after night that first year.  How sad she would have been to have missed our trip to Hawaii.  How difficult not to be there to help DJ pick out her first dress for a high school dance.

And yet, how comforting to know we’re OK.  What a relief to see us laughing, gut wrenching, on the floor guffaws.

At times I can’t convince myself that heaven has windows that can see outside.  At other times, I think she must have had a hand in, or some influence on our fate over the past three years.  There are just times that her hand seems to be on my shoulder, guiding me in my decisions.

Maybe she does help in ways we can’t yet imagine.  Maybe she is provided a daily excel spreadsheet that outlines our progress, a way of keeping up without the burden of visual impressions:

1. Washed the whites with the darks again   X

2. Joined that men’s support group  √

3.  Forgot to bake the cupcakes for special snack  X

I wouldn’t want to see her hurt any longer.  She had enough pain.  But I guess there is a part of me that hopes she thinks of us as much as we think of her.

Sunday Post 109: “What a Fool Believes”

It’s no longer a devastating pain.  It doesn’t burn to the soul.  It can’t physically take me to the floor in anguish like it did 3 years or even 18 months ago.  But February is my foe.  I guess I’ll battle with him every year for the rest of my life.

He’s cold.

Mid month he’s promoting love, and I don’t have that kind anymore.

From the 14th on, I can replay, day by day, the scenes from three years ago – the weeks before she died.

It starts out OK – just an extension of his cousin January.  But then “What a Fool Believes” comes on the radio, and I start singing like I’m Michael McDonald.

She’d laugh at that every single time – rolling those eyes.  “You do love that song don’t ya’ baby?,” her question would just add fuel.  I know I  have her attention now, I ham it up even more.

He came from somewhere back in her long ago

The sentimental fool don’t see

Trying hard to recreate what has yet to be created

Once in her life

I used to sing in laughter.  Now it’s through tears.

This year I made it until the 10th before I felt the hole.  No weeping at church until last week.  There is a circle of emotional instability that hangs in my core at this time of year.  It’s bigger than an egg but smaller than a baseball, right above my stomach.  I can take a deep breath, I can swallow and hold it down – most of the time.

Only one week and it’ll be over.

I hate you February.  I hate your guts.

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