Tammy Cunningham now operates Strings from Noel's old office.
Tammy and Noel Cunningham together.
SLIDESHOW: NOEL CUNNINGHAM REMEMBERED
Two months ago, Tammy's personal and professional life changed forever.
"I feel like I just inherited 42 new clients," Cunningham said.
Her husband, Noel Cunningham killed himself. He was the owner of Strings restaurant in Denver, which has 42 employees.
Noel was considered one of Denver's greatest philanthropists. Noel and Tammy devoted their lives to helping children and families in Ethiopia, and inspiring young people in Colorado to make a difference in the world. Noel's commitment to these causes never wavered, even when the restaurant business was down.
"I'm not sure he knew how to live his life any other way," Tammy said.
There was a part of Noel that felt unworthy in Tammy's mind. He couldn't pause and appreciate success, he immediately felt the need to give more. She believes giving was all he could do.
"It's so much easier to give and feel good about it, and say 'Here, take this and be happy and walk away,' rather than somebody giving something to you and feeling embarrassed and undeserving," Tammy said.
Giving to the levels Noel gave, took a toll on him too. In the past year, he had been struggling with his diagnosis of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Many times he would complain about chest pain ask Tammy to give him some Reika therapy to help him breathe.
Looking back, Tammy says there were other issues too.
"I didn't know what was going on," Tammy said. "I knew he seemed sad and a little distant. I sent him to three doctors and three nutritionists. He lost 30 pounds in a couple of months. I knew something was wrong."
If Noel knew his condition was worsening, he didn't tell his wife. His suicide offered no explanation, and left her with the same troubling question so many survivors of suicide have: Why?
Besides tremendous grief she feels a tinge of anger too.
"I feel like I waited 25 years for his giving and for his restaurant passion to die down so that we could retire together and I could have him for me," Tammy said.
Instead, she is preserving and reinventing the things they shared together. Tammy is committed to keeping the restaurant open. Already she has made some cost saving changes, she hopes will freshen the image and improve business.
The foundation will also move ahead with a new focus, something she likes to refer to as a "Tammification." She will keep the emphasis on children, a passion that she discovered after another devastating and life-altering loss.
In the five years before Noel met Tammy, she too tried to kill herself. She was grieving the death of her two year old son Tony. He was hit by a car and died a few days after the accident. Tammy didn't know how to live without her child.
"I think I was enmeshed in the pain, I couldn't see past the pain," Tammy said.
She engaged in several self destructive behaviors, taking everything to an extreme. She worked two jobs, she drank and used drugs to ease the pain. Eventually she realized in order to heal, she needed to honor her son's life and blessing his life was to hers.
After meeting and marrying Noel she was able to remember and honor Tony with the work of their foundation. Now, she will do the same for Noel at Strings and through the Cunningham Foundation. Her future involves a great deal of giving, but also receiving. Something Tammy will accept on Noel's behalf.
"I don't know if Noel knew how much support and love was around him. When you can make yourself vulnerable somewhat by sharing what's in your heart, people come around and they want to help and they want to do something," Tammy said.
Thursday night, a fundraiser will be held to support the efforts of Noel and Tammy Cunningham. The Strings of Hope even will be held at the Seawell Ballroom within the Denver Performing Arts complex. The festivities will begin with a celebration, open to the public, and emceed by Governor John W. Hickenlooper at the Buell Theater with doors opening at 5 p.m. and the event beginning at 5:30 and ending at 7 p.m..
Immediately following the public event, a fundraising event will be held at the Seawall Ballroom with from local restaurants and chefs from 7 to 9:30 p.m.
More details regarding the event may be found at The Cunningham Foundation website: www.cunninghamfoundation.org. Tickets and sponsorship opportunities will be available at http://cunninghamfoundation.org/strings-of-hope.
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