RALEIGH — The first time Bruce Ham 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,” Bruce said.
For the past two years, Bruce has had to fill two sets of shoes for his three daughters, Bailey, 14, Lucy, 11, and Annie, 9. His wife, Lisa Permar Ham, died in 2010 of colon cancer at age 39. Since then, Bruce 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,” Bailey said. “Now he knows everything.”
‘Heartbeat of her family’
Bruce 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 Bruce 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. Bruce is a better tickler. Bruce 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, Bruce 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. Bailey was 12 years old. Lucy was 9, Annie 7.
Bruce and Lisa didn’t talk much about parenting in the last few months of her life, Bruce 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 Bruce wouldn’t be overwhelmed and her daughters could get where they needed to go without her.
Just before Lisa died, her brother, Hayes Permar, 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,” Permar said. “Then it became clear early on that he decided he had more important things than himself to worry about.”
‘Party people, crazy-cool’
Bruce’s daughters are typical sisters, giggling and bickering and dancing in their own choreographed music videos filmed on Bailey’s laptop. Bruce 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,” Bailey said.
“We’re like this,” Annie 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, Bruce 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 all watching sports all the time and eating spaghetti from a jar,” Bruce 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 (Annie and Lucy), and I have to save them from wearing them,” Bailey said.
“She has to say, ‘Dad, no,’ and we’re glad she does,” Lucy said.
When Lucy got her thick, dark hair cut into a bob that immediately started to frizz, Bruce learned to handle a blow-dryer and round brush. It took time. He held the dryer between his shoulder and neck at first, Bailey 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,” Bailey 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,” Lucy said.
“We’re party people,” Annie corrected her. “We’re crazy-cool.”
‘How grief hits you’
Bruce sees Lisa in his daughters every day, in Bailey’s strength and leadership, in Lucy’s looks and nurturing spirit, in Annie’s peppy popularity. Their facial expressions sometimes mirror Lisa’s exactly, as much of a leap back in time for Bruce 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,” Bruce said. “It’s foolish, but that’s how grief hits you.”
Despite the difficulties that have sprung from his family’s personal tragedy, Bruce 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,” Bruce said. “We’re a tight group. We’ve weathered the storm. We’ve got each other.”