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Widowed dad's tribute is his family

June 14, 2008|SANDY BANKS

In the waiting room at Our House bereavement center, you can tell which of the little girls has lost a mother. Her pants and shirts don't quite match, and her tousled hair could use a brush.

And you can spot the dad adjusting to life without Mom by the casual way he pulls a diaper from his pocket and deftly fastens it on a wriggling toddler.

I'm not allowed to interview families waiting for the children's grief group to begin. But I don't have to. I know the drill. I was a newly widowed mother once, when my now nearly grown daughters were 8, 5 and 3.

On Thursday, the group's art project was construction-paper ties, Father's Day tributes to missing fathers: "I wish you were still here to take me fishing. I hope you're having fun in heaven."

Or, for men like Lee Tsoumpelis -- now mother and father to his four kids -- something more like this:

"You make the best grilled cheese. Thanks for being a good dad."

I heard about Lee from the folks at Our House. His children -- Maxx, 13; Isabella, 10; Logan, 9; and Zane, 8 -- have been attending groups since their mother's sudden death two years ago.

"Without those people outreaching to me," Lee said, "I don't know what we would have done."

Lee and his ex-wife, Debi, had been divorced for years; they shared custody of the kids.

"She was an awesome mom," he told me. "Sometimes we still can't believe she's not here." When she died, Lee gave up his bachelor digs and moved back into their rented house on a quiet Venice street.

I had an easy time finding the Tsoumpelis home. It was the one with the front door propped open, the half-finished landscape project, the crowd of kids huddled in the bed of Lee's pickup, studying a captured lizard.

I could smell dinner when I walked inside: hamburgers on the grill, a saucepan of curried rice ("frozen, Trader Joe's. You can't beat it," Lee said), grilled cheese sandwiches on the stove, and a vat of Tater Tots in a deep fryer on top of the washing machine.

To a mother of girls, the testosterone was dizzying. Sneakers and skates were piled in corners. Lizards and a tortoise were in dining room aquariums. The garage held a punching bag and workout equipment.

The only sign of Isabella I could see was a collection of ceramic angels on a bedroom dresser -- part of her mother's legacy.

But it also felt comfortably familiar, nostalgic even. Dinner was served on paper plates, the kids' beds weren't made, the dining room table was scattered with school papers. In my house, there were always Barbies under foot; here it was PlayStation controllers and action figures.

And though I hadn't planned to stay, the energy in the house captivated me. It was messy and loud -- and full of love -- with the sort of natural hospitality that made it easy for one hour to stretch into three.

It's hard to put a happy face on mother loss. The first six months after her mother died, Isabella woke up crying every night. The boys were sullen and sometimes fought with each other.

Lee sleepwalked through his days, and sometimes still does. He sneaks in visits to the gym at 3 a.m., then catnaps in the waiting room during Our House sessions. The boys are trying to teach him to play video games, but he can't make it through one round of Halo without snoring.

When the kids work his nerves, he retreats to his leather shop in the garage. There, while he works on bicycle seat covers for the boys, he thinks about how far they've come. And how much helped they've gotten from "angels."

The landlord hasn't raised his rent in years, so he can afford his home on a construction foreman's salary. The woman who babysat the kids when they were small still stops by to visit every week. And someone -- he doesn't know who -- sends him an encouraging card and gift on every holiday.

This Father's Day it was a $100 gift card. "It was great, because I had a truck full of kids and no money," he said, "so I stopped at the gas station and used it to buy sodas."

He thinks back on friends who used to shake their heads and ask, "How do you do it?"

"How do you not?" he wonders.

I laugh. I have a similar memory, a decade old. I also know the pain Lee and his children have yet to face -- the birthdays and graduations and the lonely Mother's Days.

He's lucky in ways he can't appreciate, as he tickles Zane's feet or becomes a hero for catching a lizard.

For now, he does not have to worry about tattoos or teen drivers or college tuition.

And, he's got the best grilled cheese around.


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