Friday, June 29, 2012

A mother suffers in silence through camp

From today's Briefing:

I haven’t heard from my son in almost a week.
Cooper is spending seven days on the shores of Possum Kingdom Lake, sleeping on a cot, eating in a mess hall, working on merit badges and, if he hears my voice in his head, occasionally brushing his teeth.
He understandably couldn’t take his cellphone or any other electronic device to Boy Scout camp. This week is about hands-on learning, survival skills and building character — none of which require access to a handheld device.
Back in the olden days — before smartphones and Wi-Fi — lack of communication was completely normal. Drop off on Sunday, pick up on Saturday, hear all about the week on the drive home.
Today we get antsy when a friend doesn’t return a text in a couple of minutes. We reach for our smartphones the moment we hear a tone indicating new email. We check Twitter and Facebook for excruciating details of our friends’ and acquaintances’ lives. (I am guilty of all of these behaviors.)
On Facebook this week I’ve noticed a few friends posting photos of their children away at camp — not Scout camps, but fancy camps where cabins are air-conditioned and activities are purely for fun, not to fulfill merit badge requirements.
These fancy camps update their websites with photos every day, giving moms and dads instant gratification. Why wait for Saturday to learn that your child has been playing flag football or rowing a boat or playing with shaving cream?
In full disclosure, Cooper will attend one of these fancy camps later this summer. During that week I will, without a doubt, look for his freckled face online daily. Perhaps hourly.
This week, though, I can only look at last week’s photos and, mercifully, a solitary image of his group emailed late Wednesday night. And I can pray that he’s safe, healthy and drinking countless liters of water. In other words, I’m relying on faith while separated from my firstborn child, who is living in the wild during the hottest week of the year.
I’m relying on faith in the adult staff and leaders, in a time-tested program, in a campsite that’s been around for 60 years. I’m relying on faith that my son will rely on common sense, will follow rules, will apply sunscreen liberally and bug spray sparingly yet effectively and will exert the independence he’s gradually gained in 11 years.
It’s all a big test of my ability to control my worries and to let go of what I can’t control.
Are there snakes slithering around the campsite? Perhaps, but I can’t eradicate them.
Are there disease-ridden insects eager to pounce on warm-blooded children? Maybe, but I can’t wish them away.
Is the sun beating down on this patch of Texas with cruel intensity? Without a doubt, but I certainly can’t stop it.
So I’m working on not dwelling on all that. I’m focusing on the fun he’s having, the strength he’s building and the confidence he’s gaining.
I’ve been relying on the old-fashioned U.S. Postal Service to deliver hand-written letters in which I am cheerful and encouraging.
My worry-ridden instinct may be to write, “Dear Cooper, I hope you are not lying in a ditch, dehydrated and covered in sun blisters and mosquito bites,” but I edit myself. Instead I write things like, “Dear Cooper, I am so proud of you, and I can’t wait to hear about all of your adventures.”
I mean it. I really am proud that he willingly signs up for a camp without a trace of luxury, that he seeks nourishment from nature, that he’s not afraid of hard work or tough conditions.
And I really can’t wait until noon Saturday, when he’ll begin to describe his tent and meals, challenges and conflicts, accomplishments and triumphs. He’ll spill out some great stories, some new and slightly off-color jokes and perhaps a few tales of peril.
One of his hugs and all of those words will totally compensate for a week of silence.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, June 22, 2012

A birthday list full of the important things in life

From today's Briefing:

My baby girl turned 7 this week.
A few folks asked me what Katie wanted for her birthday, and it was difficult to answer. Partly because she has everything she needs and a whole bunch of what she wants. And partly because you can’t buy most of the things she loves.
Sometime in the spring, she wrote this in her first-grade writing journal:
“10 Things I love:
My Daddy
My Mommy
My dog
When I was 6 going on 7, my top 10 would have been heavier on tangible stuff, like my Barbie town house, Holly Hobbie kitchen and Funny Bone Favorites album. If you had asked what I wanted for my birthday, the list would have been dominated by Snoopy, Ziggy and the Muppets.
Katie’s more likely to ask for experiences. She’s more interested in doing stuff than collecting stuff.
So when she asked if she could camp in the backyard on the night before she turned 7, I said yes.
Veteran camper Cooper set up the tent in our tiny backyard, and he relinquished custody of his cot for a sleeping bag so that Katie could have the more comfortable sleeping quarters.
They settled in for a movie and then slumber. All was peaceful in the back yard until 5:15 a.m., when Katie woke in a puddle.
They clamored out of the tent and inside the house to describe what seemed like rain but wasn’t. Then I remembered that our sprinkler system is set to water the grass in the middle of the night once a week — the same night as the birthday campout.
The experience was a little richer than we expected. We all agreed that it’s better to be caught in sprinklers with quick access to permanent shelter than to be caught in a rainstorm in the middle of nowhere. And I vowed to pay more attention to our watering schedule.
Katie may not request a long list of toys, but she does have a standing request for people. She craves being surrounded by big groups of folks who love her. If she had her way, we’d invite friends and family members for dinner every night of the week.
The child’s mother, on the other hand, is a classic introvert. Friendships and close relationships are hugely important, but I crave quiet time. Being around a bunch of people can be physically and emotionally draining.
It’s not her fault that we’re opposites on the social interaction preference scale. The least I could do, I figured, was to accommodate her request the week of her birthday.
So we hosted a birthday party for some friends at home a few days before her special day. And then we had a small dinner party with a couple of families on the actual day.
With camping and the two parties combined, we covered every item on her top 10 list.
She never doubts her daddy’s presence. (This is her third birthday since his death.) The rest of the family was physically present. God is always with her (and always on her party invitation list).
She was showered with love, surrounded by kindness and filled with joy. She fell into bed (or cot) each night at peace.
There was pie, too. Homemade chocolate chip pie with a side of whipped cream, baked with love.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Happy 7th birthday, Katie!

Since Cooper turned 1, it's tradition at our house to take a photo of the birthday child when he or she wakes up.

Check out past birthdays:

Katie turns 2 (I was in Shanghai this day. I still haven't located the photo that Steve took the moment she woke up. It's somewhere!)

And today: Katie turns 7!

Katie requested a night of camping. So Cooper used some of his many Scout skills to pitch our tent in the back yard. The two of them watched a movie in the tent before falling asleep. We debated letting Margie sleep with them but decided she would be too restless in the night, so she stayed in with me.

Katie in the back yard, around 5:15 a.m. on her seventh birthday

Katie requested cinnamon rolls and sausage for her birthday breakfast. She's wearing pajamas for PJ day at day camp.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

On the eve of Katie's birthday ...

Kathryn Sibley (named for my beloved grandmother), moments after birth, June 20, 2005
This photo makes me weepy every single time -- before cancer and especially after.

Baby Katie was a week early and weighed 8 pounds, 6 ounces. Her cheeks have always been irresistible.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Summer learning comes in many forms

From today's Briefing:

I realized last week that I have unwittingly been depriving my children of an all-American classic. I corrected the error as soon as possible, and I feel certain that long-term damage has been avoided.
My children are now bona fide fans of The Brady Bunch.
The sitcom was a summer staple for my sister and me. We were too young to discover it in prime time, so we watched multiple syndicated episodes daily.
With the power of the DVR, Cooper and Katie have already watched some essential episodes, including the three-part Grand Canyon story arc and the one in which Peter breaks Carol’s vase (perhaps best known for the oft-repeated line, “Don’t play ball in the house!”).
If I had a do-over on some of those summers of yesteryear, I might have spent a little less time draped across the sofa and a little more time doing something productive. I can rationalize now that children of the 1970s didn’t have as many resources at their fingertips.
Today’s kids have no such excuse. In addition to having access to hundreds of television channels, some of which actually offer valuable content, they can tap into incredible learning opportunities with help from technology.
Here are some of my family’s favorite resources — both online and offline.
BrainPOP ( One of our summer nighttime traditions is to read a chapter from a book together, followed by a quick BrainPOP video and quiz.
The animated videos are about three minutes each. They cover science, social studies, English, math, engineering and technology, health, and arts and music.
We don’t pay for the service (we use the free app on my iPad) so we’re limited to the free video of the day — often tied to a holiday, current event or historical anniversary — and a few in the archive.
Recent topics have included Anne Frank, nutrition, Sally Ride and tropical rain forests.
Online access to libraries: I’ve recently set up my iPad to download e-books, and now I’m wondering why I waited so long.
Our public library’s electronic collection is too small yet to completely replace trips to the actual building, but logging in from home is a nice supplement.
I can check out seven books at a time, each available for two weeks. I need that much time for novels, but Katie spins through some of her choices in less time than it would take to drive to the library and back.
We’ve also set up Cooper’s Nook tablet for borrowing books, including access to our school district’s library system.
Most library websites offer detailed tutorials on how to configure devices for borrowing.
Story Starters: Three summers ago I bought Story Starters for Cooper, an avid reader but reluctant writer. It’s a thick, richly illustrated book that he hasn’t yet exhausted.
Karen Andreola has written dozens of stories without endings. She purposefully leaves students in the middle of a conflict or predicament and then instructs them to complete the tale.
For example, in The Alligator, the narrator describes a harrowing scene in which his father is trapped by a South American alligator.
Then the reader is prompted to write how the father frees himself and is encouraged to use vivid verbs from a suggested list.
“Describe the alligator by showing with words what he looks, smells or sounds like. Describe the struggle that took place. Tell about the surroundings.”
Cooper still doesn’t love writing, but he prefers these stories to the simpler writing prompts found on standardized tests.
Elenco Snap Circuits: A small box of these circuitry construction sets can lead to hours of hands-on experimentation.
Katie has watched her big brother long enough that she can now piece together the plastic modules on her own. Projects increase in difficulty, from turning on a light bulb to activating a fan to creating electronic games.
We have the “extreme” kit, but the “junior” kit is significantly cheaper and will keep most kids busy all summer — when they’re not catching up on 40-year-old television shows.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. She can be reached at

Friday, June 08, 2012

Pain of your child's accident is felt in your conscience

From today's Briefing:

In a split second, Damm family summer plans drastically changed course.
A few hours after the final school bell, we headed to a neighborhood block party. I decided to stop by another family’s house first to say hi.
Our friends were setting up a new Slip ’n Slide.
When you’re 10 or younger, the allure of the Slip ’nSlide is irresistible. Both Cooper and Katie asked to try it out.
My instinct was to say no. They were dressed in play clothes, not swimsuits. We had other plans.
But then I thought, “It’s the last day of school. Summer is just beginning. Who cares if they get wet? Try to be a fun mom!”
So instead of “No,” I said something like, “You’re not really dressed for it. We’re going to the party after this. But I’m not going to say no.”
Those are words I will regret for weeks to come.
Katie kicked off her shoes and tucked her tunic into her bike shorts (creating a sort of 1950s swimsuit look). Then she disappeared from sight.
The next thing I know, she’s sliding down the Slip ’n Slide on her feet. In no time, those feet slipped out from under her body, and she slammed to the ground, flat on her back, neck and head.
She popped up and burst into tears. They were genuine tears of pain, not just dramatic tears of fear.
We coaxed her to sit down so that my friend Jenny and I could examine her. She continued to cry and insisted that her neck was broken.
I’m no doctor, but I could tell her neck was intact. But something was definitely wrong, confirmed by Jenny’s “something is wrong but I don’t want to frighten anyone” mom stare.
We administered Tylenol and an ice pack and headed to the nearest emergency room. An X-ray revealed the source of her excruciating pain: a broken clavicle.
Ever since, I’ve been feeling pretty awful. If we’d gone straight to the block party, we would have avoided the Slip ’n Slide altogether.
Or, if I had followed my instinct and refused access, we would have avoided the accident.
Or, after relenting, I could have walked with Katie to the Slip ’n Slide. I would have seen her designs to surf down the thin sheet of plastic on her feet, and I could have intervened, hollering, “Always on your belly!” And she would have slid without breaking her collarbone.
Instead, she’s enduring awful pain (“like a bowling ball filled with TNT inside my shoulder”), she’s missed her traditional first-week-of- summer tennis camp, and she’s sidelined from swimming until she has use of her left arm.
My pain is emotional. I feel guilty for not preventing the accident, and I’m arguing with myself about the merits of free-range parenting vs. helicopter parenting.
In general, moms and dads around me are too cautious and overprotective. I recognize that I’m often in that category, too — hovering more than necessary, supplying constant supervision and entertainment.
I’ve been deliberate the past couple of years about letting go when appropriate. I’ve been trying to trust more often that my children will apply our family’s values and rules to circumstances beyond my control.
That means they have more freedoms in the neighborhood (until a rule is broken; then the reins are tightened). That means that sometimes instead of declaring yes or no, I present facts and let them make decisions.
That means I sometimes fight my instincts, and the results aren’t ideal.
On the way home from the emergency room, Katie expressed tearful regrets about her one trip down the Slip ’n Slide.
“The good news,” she said as she caught her breath, “is that I didn’t break my whole arm. And I’ll never go down that thing on my feet again.”
No doubt there are more accidents to come. More mistakes to make. But the pain of this accident won’t be soon forgotten. At least not this summer.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at

Friday, June 01, 2012

First and last: 2011-2012

Six years of memories make goodbye easier

From today's Briefing:

Our elementary school celebrates student and staff birthdays during Friday assembly.
When it’s the week of your big day, you get called to the stage. On your walk up you receive a pencil. Then you stand with all the other celebrants, and the entire school sings and dances to a cheerful birthday tune.
My kids are summer babies, so they celebrate in May, when the cafeteria stage is packed with all the other summer babies.
Kindergarteners are in front, either dancing with wild abandon or standing frozen with stage fright.
In the very back are teachers and fifth-graders, placed there because they’re so tall — convenient, too, for tweens who have grown too cool for birthday songs.
I can close my eyes and see Cooper on the front row. His big smile framed by chubby cheeks with pudgy hands waving in the air and floppy hair that moves as he dances.
Six birthday dances later, my Cooper is on the back row with a bemused smile and no trace of baby fat. His spindly arms casually move to the music and his cropped hair wouldn’t move even if he did dance with a 5-year-old’s enthusiasm.
That final birthday song is but one reminder that today, after the fastest six years in the history of humankind, my son is graduating elementary school.
The milestones have been building all year: Fifth-grade sleep-away camp, band tryouts, bridging from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, puberty video and fifth-grade track meet.
It all culminates at 2:40 this afternoon, when Cooper and more than a hundred other fifth-graders will snake through the halls, giving farewell high-fives to all the younger kids before they shimmy out the front door and spill onto the front lawn.
I will be there, too, no doubt a big ol’ mess of tears mixed with laughter. I’m awful at goodbyes, and this is a pretty big goodbye.
Cooper has spent more than half his life as a student at the school down the street.
He was a student there when his dad was diagnosed with cancer. I worried about just about everything in those days, but I didn’t worry about Cooper during the hours he was at school. He had 40 surrogate moms — teachers and staff members who watched out for him and lavished him with hugs if needed.
He was a student there when Steve died. My primary goal for Cooper that year was emotional stability. Academics were secondary. His teacher somehow balanced both, and he finished third grade emotionally secure — and on the honor roll.
Cooper was a student there when he was diagnosed with dyslexia — and we finally realized why, despite his love of reading, he struggled tremendously with spelling and writing. He still struggles, but with less intensity, thanks to an intervention program, a top-notch dyslexia specialist and his own fierce determination.
When Cooper walks out those doors this afternoon, he’s leaving behind Valentine’s parties and Mother’s Day teas. He’s leaving birthday songs in the cafeteria and birthday doughnuts in the classroom.
More significant, though, is what he’s leaving with: six years of quality education, sweet memories and special friendships.
He’s leaving the cozy school down the street with significant life lessons. In Cooper’s words: Keep your hands to yourself. When life gets hard, fight back. Trust your friends. Make goals and work toward them. And always believe in yourself.
Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. Email her at