Sunday Post 87: The Grief Relapse

This weekend marks three years since we learned that Lisa had cancer.  There are really only two dates left that without fail I will feel sadness – the Friday before Labor Day and February 24, the day she died.

I don’t typically burst out in tears anymore.  I have sad moments – watery eyes at times – but not the hard stuff.  But twice this week I had a grief relapse.  

It’s OK.  In a way, the release feels good.

As I approached this weekend, I looked back at my journal to see where my mind was one, two and three years ago.

September 2009

It’s cancer.

Fear, Sadness. What does our future hold?  It’ll be OK

Talked to Brad on the back porch – he said, “It’ll be OK.”

Talked to mom and dad, they said, “It’ll be OK.”

I don’t believe any of them.

September 2010

Not only do I miss Lisa, I miss US…She was my companion, my answer to the children leaving home – my Friday and Saturday nights and New Year’s Eve.

And now, my biggest fear, loneliness, stares me in the face – and for now, my biggest fear is winning.

September 2011

Today I began to see the sun again.  And today, I cranked open the car windows, all four of them, and the sunroof, and turned the volume of my stereo as loud as it would go, and I sang with all my might.  A woman with big hair in the car next to me looked my way – I’m sure she thought, “What’s up with that guy?”

And I thought of Lisa – but they were happy thoughts.  Thoughts of her cracking up when I sang all the words to rap songs on the way to Target.  Thoughts of her singing in the passenger seat not knowing that I was hanging on every word.  And I didn’t cry.  And I could breath again.

My grief counselor lost her husband many years ago.  She told me that there would come a time when I didn’t think of Lisa every day.  She was wrong.  Not one goes by without her face appearing in my mind.  Perhaps I’m reminded by a song or by an expression of hers now being donned by one of the girls.  Often I think of her right before I go to sleep – her side of the bed empty.

It doesn’t bother me to think of her each day.  I actually find it sort of comforting.  So I’ll not fight the memories; most are so very good.  I’ll be thankful for our time and thankful for my growth. 

I think the life I’m building has room for those reflections.

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 81: The Trent/Elba Exit

Posted by Danny

I knew the day would come.  At some point in my life I would have to return to the Cancer Center at Duke.

Thank God it was just a meeting for work that brought me back there. 

I always get a knot in my stomach when I turn onto the Durham Freeway.  This time, I had to get off at the Trent/Elba exit.  I knew exactly where to go.  My memory had not faltered. 

As I pulled up to the stop sign at the top of the exit, my heart rate increased.  I opened the compartment between the front seats – a leftover pass from 2010 would cover my parking fee for the hour.  It was the last one.  Maybe I should save it. 

Was I temporarily insane for wanting to hold on to the small green coupon?  Would I cashed in a memory when I gave it to the attendant?

I met a friend in the parking deck – he didn’t know me before.  As we meandered through the walkway from the deck to the building, a rush of emotion bowled over me.  Interestingly, the slide show of memories were mostly of laughter.  The two of us in that waiting room – she laughing at my jokes.  Getting temporarily stuck on the elevator, the one with the big red stripe.  A huge mirror behind the toilet in the radiation wing – what an interesting view of myself –

I could picture her in a wheelchair – that was not my wife.  Her fanny pack of 5-FU, the chemo cocktail of choice.

I had forgotten the pattern of the tile.  It was clear today.  Before my head hung low, the design blurred by tears. 

I had gotten used to the troops in hospital fashion.  They stood out now – their rubber shoes and names embroidered on their white coats.

I was intentionally focused in my meeting, my mind was alert.

And then I drove off to where I live now. 

Sometimes pain visits, but he doesn’t live with me now.

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

If I Should Not Return

Posted by Danny

Psychiatrists from the UNC Lineberger Cancer Center asked me to assist them with a video to help oncologist better understand the dynamics of young families who are facing the death of their mother.  This is our story:

Sunday Post 71: The Mother’s Role

Posted by Danny

The Top 10 Most Difficult Mother Roles A Widower Has To Learn:

10)  The Finder:  Lisa had a Stuff Radar.  I believe it was implanted in her breast during childbirth.  All mothers have this.  If stuff is missing, moms know where it is – period.

9) The Food Police:  I never worried about what my kids ate before my wife passed away.  Now I’m the Carbohydrate Cop:  “I think three pieces of bread with your Fettucini Alfredo and side of fries is enough.  Back away from the loaf.  Now.”

8)  The Beautician:  How does a dad tell his daughter her hair looks awful?  Moms just say, “What’s up with your hair?  Go back upstairs.”  If my girls ask me if their hair looks good, I don’t even have to open an eye to answer that question.  The answer is “Yes.”  I learned that the year after I got married.

7)  The Sex Educator:  Most of my talks start with the phrase: “Let me tell you what boys are thinking…”  Most of my talks end with:  “So stay away from them!”  I don’t know if this is effective.

6)  The Cab Driver:  I never knew how much she drove.  I never knew how much she found out while she drove.  They sing like birds when they don’t have to look you in the eye.

5)  The Top To Bottom Transferrer:  I keep a basket downstairs – I put stuff in it that I find downstairs that needs to go upstairs…like shoes, iPods, school books and interestingly, yesterday, a pair of underwear.  I keep a basket upstairs – I put stuff in it that needs to go downstairs…like my socks, my t-shirts, my slippers, my sweatshirts – all which have been borrowed by random children when they were too lazy to walk upstairs and get their own stuff.  Both baskets are full – always.

4)  The Reminder:  Stephanie hasn’t practiced piano one time this week.  It’s partly her fault – but mostly mine.  I’m sorry Mrs. Fields.

3)  The Playdate Primer:  Your kids have friends at school if you have friends at school.  Do you know how weird it is to call someone you don’t know and ask their kid to come play?  It’s like dating –  “Hey, I’m Michelle’s dad.  So…ah…I was wond – I mean ah – Michelle was wondering if Kimmey could come play on Saturday.  I mean if you’re out-of-town or busy, I understand…we were just hanging out and thought that maybe…if she isn’t going to some other girl’s house…”

2)  The Short Skirt Nazi:  I like short skirts – not something I’d notice as bad.  The Aunt tells me, “I guess it’s about time to get rid of that skirt DJ was wearing at church on Sunday, huh?”  “Does it have a stain?”  “Ah, no.  It has a butt hanging out of it.”  “Oh.  Hadn’t noticed.”

1)  The Heart Surgeon:  When they don’t get invited; when school  is too hard; when they made a mistake; when they don’t have the courage; when it’s time to make a Mother’s Day card at school –

The last is the hardest of all.

Sunday Post 67: Once, In A Very Blue Moon

Posted by Danny

I don’t exactly know what triggered it.  Maybe it was Easter.  Perhaps it’s her 42nd birthday this coming Wednesday.  Or maybe it was Jesse plunking out one of her favorite songs today on the piano, Once In A Very Blue Moon, by Nancy Griffith.  I’ve listened to it ten times in the past ten hours and every time I do, I cry.  Not just shedding a tear sort of crying, it’s the deep in your chest “I miss you” tears.

For some reason, I’ve fallen back today.  And that’s OK.  Makes me think of her – the things I liked.

She had the most beautiful voice, and yet I was the one who sang in the car.  But on occasion, a song like Nancy’s Blue Moon would gently begin, and she couldn’t stop herself.  I listened intently – hanging on every word.  It was one of those few moments in your life when you really stop and think about something that you absolutely love about someone else. 

Every time, every single time.

Her fingernails – I miss them too.  Always manicured, always strong.

I’d lay in bed, curled up beside her, and she’d scratch my head from neck to crown.  If I close my eyes, I can almost feel it.  That one slight movement of hand – love, security, warmth.

The facial expressions, seldom captured on camera, but still in my mind.  Occasionally they’re worn by one of the girls.

I was moving forward – a steady clip toward healing.  But once, in a very blue moon, I get knocked down to my knees again.

Year 2, Still Hard


Posted by Danny

It’s been two years this week, and I find myself flipping through an internal slide show of the days surrounding her death.  Most of my memories of Lisa bring a smile.  This week, just tears.

One week before she died, the girls left for their annual President’s Day beach trip with friends.  Lisa said goodbye – for the last time.  She stood by the stairwell – DJ headed upstairs wearing a t-shirt and her undies. 

“Great.  My last thought of DJ will be of her butt.”

“They’ll be home on Thursday baby.”

“I know…”

And she did.  She knew this was likely the last time she’d see her children.  

When they left last Sunday, I was tossed right back.  Two years?  Or just yesterday?

I remember my parents coming to her hospital room three days before she died.  She told them she loved them, and that they had raised a good boy.  My mom cried.  I wondered why in the hell she was talking like that.  She knew, but I didn’t.

That same day, she went from walking to the bathroom in the cancer ward to not being able to stand in the neuro-ICU.  How could her physical condition deteriorate in such a very short time?  I recall the look on her face – “Danny, I can’t walk.”  The panic ensued, for both of us.

I had an anxiety attack the next day.  I had never had a situation in life that I couldn’t control.  I wanted to fix things, but I simply could not.  What a failure, I thought.  I’m a weak man.  My prayers, my actions – they’re just not enough. 

I picture the car ride to Duke for Stephanie’s last visit with her mom.  She asked me, “What if you and mom die, who would take care of me?”  A valid question from a fragile fourth grader.  Your innocence is gone.

The call at 1 am from my mother-in-law:  “Come now.  There’s not much time.”  I remember standing in my closet picking out a dress to put on my sweet wife’s body.  I chose her short black one with the little crop jacket.  She did look good in that dress.

We held hands around her bed and prayed for our Lisa.  Our nurse so touched, he cried along with us.

The morning she died, my friend Gordon stood in my kitchen, khakis and blue blazer.  I thought to myself, “Wow – Gordon’s here.  I wonder why he isn’t at work.”

Her mother typed her obituary as I recanted stories – the high points of her life – there were many.

As I walked to the sanctuary to honor my wife’s life’s work, I grabbed the hand of my old friend Mo.  Hadn’t seen her in years.  I was touched that she came. 

Michelle fell asleep during the memorial service, emotionally and physically exhausted.

The morning my parents left town, and I was alone – really, really alone.

The pain subsides – but not this week.  We relive it again, and we still miss our Lisa.

Sunday Post 56: Dead Van Driving

Posted by Danny

I remember buying the green Honda minivan.  Lisa was pregnant with Michelle.  I spent the previous Saturday in the driveway trying to squeeze three car seats in the back of our four-year old Honda Accord.

“Honey, I know you don’t think we can afford a new car,” my wife with the big stomach reasoned, “but you can’t fit a booster seat, a car seat and an infant carrier in the back of that car.  We have to go bigger.”

“Does DJ have to have a booster seat?  Or, could we just squeeze her between the other two?”

“Why don’t you just bungi her to the hood?”

“I guess that would work as long as it didn’t snow.”

Somehow we managed, a new baby, a new car and we still had enough money to buy beer.

It’s amazing how attached you can get to an inanimate object.  It was eleven years old, I hadn’t driven it in months.  Jesse took it when he moved back to town from DC where he didn’t need a vehicle.  And last week, as Jesse headed up the last hill to drop the kids off at school, it died – for good.

I had it towed to a salvage yard and traded my precious memories for a $350 check.  I almost refused the check, it was insulting.  Like selling your dog.

I headed through the lot to find my car for the clean out.  I spotted the back of the van.  I could picture following Lisa home from church on Sunday nights – I could pick out those tail lights in a midnight parade.  As I approached, I grabbed the bar of the luggage rack.  There were many trips to the beach, the girls’ red wagon strapped on the top along with the jogging stroller.  Lisa was always afraid they’d fly off on I-40 – a warranted lack of trust in my mechanical abilities.

I dug out the Disney CD’s we’d sing to as we drove home from preschool each day.  There were road maps we’d accrued from trips up and down the east coast and Lisa’s handwritten directions to Capon Springs.  I know how to get there now, but I didn’t throw the scrap of paper away.

The car Bingo game –

A hair clip –

As I shut the automatic door for the last time, I thought of how quickly time passes and how silly it was to equate life to a ton of dark green metal.  Losing the car is not re-losing Lisa.  Her memory isn’t in stuff – there is a part of Lisa in me, and in our friends, and especially in my girls. 

That’s the fortunate thing – I get to see her everyday.

Sunday Post 55: Their Wobbly Bridge

Posted by Danny

A friend recently sent me an article by Dean Murphy, an editor at The New York Times.  He lost his wife to cancer and is now raising his three sons on his own.

He encapsulated something I’ve felt for a very long time when he wrote:  “It is an odd feeling as a father to be so transparent, so naked, in front of the children you still provide for.”

I can’t imagine seeing my father, the rock of our family, lose his heart.

I wonder what it was like for my girls when grief paralyzed me.  How did they feel when I was reduced to tears by a Kenny Chesney song or the scent of Lisa’s perfume?  I can picture them looking up at me when I stood in church, eyes fixed on that cross, unable to sing or recite The Lord’s Prayer knowing if I opened my mouth, I’d be overcome with sadness. 

Can you imagine being filled with your own grief and the person you most look to for comfort can’t do a thing but cry with you?

Looking back on the past two years, I wonder if my kids aren’t truly the ones who have lost the most.  Their lives were turned upside down instantly at a time when they should have been eating ice cream, snuggling with mom, or running with friends on the playground. 

Instead, as Lisa fought valiantly for her life, with me by her side almost every minute of her illness, they were tossed on a real life Tilt-A-Whirl.  Jerked from one family member to another.  Tossed in a car with a friend or at least a friendly acquaintance, assuming their mother would soon be back to gracefully bring our lives back to normal.

As Lisa became sicker, I couldn’t be the father they needed.  I was so desperate to save her.  I was consumed with finding her cure – medically, through prayer or voodoo if necessary.

As I missed work, they were required to proceed with life.  Walking on a tight rope with no apparent safety net.

And the person who is supposed to be comforting them had been so deeply damaged, that at times, they became the comforter.  Michelle creating art to brighten my days.  Stephanie, quick to test, “Are you OK?  You look sort of sad today.”  And DJ, filling in the gaps.  The ones her mother left as well as the ones I wasn’t able to fill myself.

In many ways, they have become my protector –  their strong one, now “transparent and naked.”  For them, a journey that started on a concrete bridge ended up on an old wobbly log.

I’ve become stronger again – more able to provide the security that for so long has been missing.  But I wonder if they will ever experience the blind trust they had before?  Can good intentions and unconditional love rebuild the bridge?  Not fully I don’t think.  But hopefully it can come close.

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