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Go Ask Mom

Through tears and laughter, father shares story of loss, love

Posted June 29

Before September 2009, Bruce Ham was going through life like many of us do. He was a busy dad to three girls and a husband.

His life was moving fast, juggling work and family activities. He joked around with his girls and was a good father, though his wife Lisa was clearly in charge of the household. The two had a strong relationship, but not without the usual ups and downs for couples with young children. They'd worked hard and successfully in 2008 to rebuild their own connection and romance.

Everything, Ham thought, was good.

"Then, all of a sudden, your life changes on a dime," he tells me.

Lisa was diagnosed with colon cancer in September 2009. It was a serious, aggressive and unique form of the cancer, a doctor would later tell the family. She died at age 39, just six months after the initial diagnosis.

A co-worker gave Ham a journal soon after the diagnosis. He started writing down his thoughts and feelings and documenting the news from doctors. The journal eventually turned into a blog.

The blog eventually turned into a book. "Laughter, Tears and Braids: A father's journey through losing his wife to cancer" was published in 2013. It's an intimate, revealing and often funny portrait of Ham's life, his relationship with Lisa, her illness and his grief.

He details everything from his trip to buy lingerie at a local store for his wife to the moment he told his girls their mother had died to chaperoning 18 girls for one of his daughter's birthday parties.

He writes about taking over the running of the house and grappling with his daughter's needs and questions. In her final days, Lisa actually wrote out a calendar of their girls' summer camp plans so he'd be prepared. Now, as a single father, he's in charge of the girl dramas, bra purchasing and braids. He is a regular host of big sleepovers with his girls' friends so the Ham house remains a lively and active home that's full of life.

At first, he wrote so he could help his girls - then ages 7 to 12 - understand who their mother was and what their parents' relationship was like. But he's also found that his experience and words have helped others, who are grieving for loved ones or helping others grieve.

And he's had his own discoveries about life and love, which have pushed him to live his life in a new way now.

"I don't think that the average person can imagine the agony that many people carry," he writes in his book. "We proceed through life, concerned about the minutiae - a disagreement with our supervisor, a child who makes a C, a mother-in-law who is nosy. None are important. I did the same until September 2009."

If he could go back to the time before September 2009, he'd dance with his wife more, he tells me. He misses hearing her sing. He'd take her out on date nights more often.

"I miss so much holding her hand," he said.

Ham advises other dads to get their priorities straight; appreciate those small moments; and dance with her if she asks. He sees so many men missing out on family moments. He, at one time, was one of them.

"There's so many men who just work too much," he said. "They aren't the father they need to be."

Ham, who is chief development officer at the YMCA of the Triangle Area, is active in efforts to help widowed fathers like him through Single Fathers Due to Cancer at UNC.

He writes twice a week on his blog, The Real Full House. And he has some ideas for another book about the health care system.

"I think she would be proud of me," he said of Lisa. "I think she would be proud of her girls. I think she would roll her eyes a lot about my humor. I think she would be extremely surprised that we put things together as well as we have. The thing that makes me the saddest is she didn't get to see the man I am becoming."

Thanks so much to Bruce for taking the time to talk to me and for sharing his story. I highly recommend his book, which left me in tears at points and laughing at others. It's tender and funny and real. Find out more about Ham and his book on his blog.

Go Ask Mom usually features local moms on Monday, but we're focusing on dads in June.

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