Sunday, May 30, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.28: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 28

Robert Gallagher, Wake


In a way, diabetes forced my father to retire. He had not planned on leaving his job. Even after fifteen years of sugar highs and lows, he persisted. He worked five years past retirement age. He ignored his treatment options and worked another year. That meant he had passed the mandatory retirement limit. Still, the county school system didn't force him to retire. 

Since no one was stopping him, he worked another year. Then another. The county was supposed to push him out of his job but they didn’t have enough math teachers. He kept going. One day, after he ignored his medicine for a couple weeks and ate midnight snacks, he discovered that he had woken up at ten-thirty in the morning.

It was a Monday.

"That was the first day I've overslept for a teaching job, ever," he told me in shock. "The alarm must have have gone off. It wasn't broken. I tested it. But I slept right through the noise."

He'd heard strangers in the house when he woke. His co-workers had been keenly aware that he had never missed a day, had in fact never been late before. If you had given a Happy 68th Birthday party to someone a few months earlier and, one day, he didn't show up after a record like that, you might have had thoughts similar to theirs.

None of them wanted to check on him. Some of them, though, felt it was a duty that couldn't be avoided.

"It's better than having his family find him," was the prevailing opinion. So an assistant principal accepted the duty. 

When he arrived at the house, the assistant principal knocked and got no answer. To his surprise, he turned the knob on the front door and found it open. But when he stepped inside for a moment, it didn't feel right. He backed out and closed the door. Instead of intruding, he ambled around the house and the deck. He tapped on windows. He peered inside whenever he could. From a window off the deck, he spied my father lying still and pale in bed. 

"Bob." He tapped the window harder. "Bob."

He thought that he saw my father breathe. It was hard to tell. The vice principal stewed over it and made a decision.

He left. He drove to a payphone and returned after he'd gotten a police officer to agree to meet him at the home. He felt keenly in need of backup. He wanted help if my father was dying and he knew he had to be careful about appearances. That is how the vice principal and the police officer came to be in the house when my father awoke.

The officer, apparently, left after making sure my father was breathing normally. He checked for symptoms of a stroke, too, but otherwise departed without a word. 

"I felt so groggy," my father told me later. "I don't remember the policeman, really. I only know that my principal told me that one of them had been there."

The assistant principal sat next to my father and talked to him for a while. My father must not have made a good impression. The fellow remained grim. He told my father to take the day off.

"Take more than a day," he said. "Go to a doctor about whatever this is, whether it’s diabetes or something else. When you've done that and feel recovered, come and see me."

It took my father a day to get an appointment and three days to return to school. When he went to visit the front office, the principal kept my father waiting while he called in his assistants. After twenty minutes, the last one arrived. They took seats around the big table. 

The principal said, "Bob, we need to talk with you about retirement."

Although they allowed my father to return to Poolesville, he agreed to retire at the end of the year. However, that arrangement only lasted a couple of weeks. After the human resources personnel counted up his sick leave and personal leave, they realized that he hadn’t touched any of it for thirty years. His principal and vice-principals asked to meet him again.

"How's the new guy coming along?" the principal asked.

"He's all right."

"Good. Bob, I've heard from the county. They want you to use some of the leave you've built up."


"Soon." He leaned closer. "Really, really soon."

My father returned to his classroom. He watched someone else do the teaching. He thought about the demand for him to retire.

He was already guiding his long-term replacement. The replacement was young but not a novice, not a first-time teacher. The students liked him but he wasn't a pushover for them, either. No one had any serious complaints about his work. After another week of observing, my father started taking days off. Soon, he took off for weeks at a time.

"I think I'm going to take off until the end of school," he said to me one time as we rested side by side in his easy-chairs. "I've got plenty to do around the house. Your mother is still teaching so I thought the days would be boring. But I’ve been doing a lot. The doctor says I should exercise more. I asked him if I could just do chores instead and he said, 'Sure.'"

"You saw the doctor?"

"He gave me some different medicine. I don't like it. It lets me get around the house a little better, though, and I know I need to take care of my eyes.”

“Did your eyes get worse again?” I knew that blood vessels had been bursting at irregular intervals in his corneas. When they did, the clots blocked his field of view. Sometimes, they rendered him blind for a few days.

“No. Better. My vision partly returned." He relaxed into a self-satisfied smile. "That’s why I could put shingles up on the roof yesterday.”

That made me sit up. He and my mother had been arguing about that job. I could hear her bumping around in the kitchen.

“I thought mom didn’t want you up there," I said. "She told me she was going to pay somebody.”

“Do you know how much they charge?" He snorted. "What a waste of money."

“Did she say anything about you climbing up?” Weeks ago, she had called to see if I could do it. With graduate school, a full-time job, and a kid, I wasn't up for it even on the weekends.

“She’s fine with it.”

“What I said, Bob,” my mother called from the kitchen, “was that I couldn’t stop you.”

“Well, it's the same thing, Ann.” He dropped his voice to a whisper. "She held the ladder."

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.27: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 27

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Catching Ill

It started with a phone call. My mother complained to me that my father had collapsed at home.

"He's fallen down again," she said.

"It's happened before?"

"Oh, yes. This is the third time. It might be more. He could have hidden some of the espisodes from me. It's getting dangerous. What if it happens when he's on the ladder? He goes up on the roof all the time."

"What does his doctor say?"

"He won't see a doctor."

At this point, I remembered being in the car when my father had what appeared to be a mild heart attack. He'd been driving, so he pulled over onto the shoulder. For minute, whatever was happening paralyzed him. His breathing got fast and irregular. Then he sighed. The problem passed. His breathing relaxed. He swung the car back onto the road. The rest of us in the car protested but he refused to surrender the steering wheel. While the family talked for a minute, he drove home. His only concession to the incident was a promise to see a doctor. But when he felt better, he didn't make the appointment.

I'd seen another incident once when I was working in his basement. He'd been sitting down. It hadn't seemed as bad. Visibly, the problem had extended for thirty seconds. During it, he breathed funny and couldn't get out of his chair.

"When did he last collapse?" I asked my mother.

"While we were raking leaves. I asked him not to help any more. Can you come by this weekend and help with the leaves?"

"What if he tries to pitch in anyway?"

"Do you mind calling the ambulance?"

It turned out that my mother felt she couldn't call the doctor. When she'd tried to do it before, he'd gotten furious and had extracted a promise that she wouldn't try it again. So my mother and I arrived at an agreement. If I saw my father collapse, I would make the call from her home phone. (This was before cell phones and also it was during the days of ambulances as a public service, paid for by tax dollars. The cost was not an issue for my father, only the loss of control.)

My mother's idea was that my father was pretty often irritated with me anyway, so if I sent him to the hospital, that would be fine or at least no worse than usual. Plus, a doctor would finally diagnose his problem.

When the weekend came, we worked most of Saturday without an incident. My father didn't get up until late. After announcing that he would treat everyone to dinner later, he put on a sweater and joined us.

"Take it easy, Bob," my mother warned him.

"Oh, Ann." He shook his rake. "You worry too much."

My mother and I had picked up speed in our raking, blowing, and bagging. The family had an acre of oak trees to care for and I'd gotten a little too into the toil of the afternoon, maybe. I'd been race-dragging the tarps to the ditch at the back of the property. Everyone was keeping a fast pace. I tried to maintain some awareness of my dad but part of me felt that he didn't need much attention. He wasn't working hard. He was talking and smoking and raking. Everything was fine.

When I returned with one of the blue tarps, I laid it on the ground next to him. He cracked a joke, turned and started up the ramp at the back of our deck. Then he passed out.

It was odd, to have it happen so suddenly. He was laughing and puffing. Then his consciousness left him and his body rolled to the ground.

"Did he hit his head?" my mother asked.

"I don't think so." He hadn't, I knew. He had even managed to lay his head into the soft grass.

"I think he's breathing."

At this point, I knelt and felt for his pulse. In his neck, under his jaw, I could feel it. I turned him on his side.

"Call the ambulance," my mother said.

"Okay." I ran around to the other side of the house.

The phone conversation didn't take long. The dispatcher said she could send the crew from Shady Grove. In her next breath she said they were on the way, less than ten minutes out. She talked me through a description of my father's symptoms. I guessed that he had diabetes but that was based on his family history, a few symptoms, and mostly my suspicions from thinking about the circumstances. I had to admit he had never been diagnosed. My other guesses were a stroke or his heart. She had me re-list his symptoms.

"Those sound like useful details," she said. "The ambulance crew is listening on the line. They already know what you told me."


"They'll keep the possibilities in mind, don't worry."

"WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" someone screamed and made me jump. As I turned, I already knew who it was. My father had regained consciousness. He stood in the open front door. Behind him, I could see the ambulance pulling up to the end of the driveway. The conversation had taken less than ten minutes.

"I'm calling the emergency number. You passed out."

"I told your mother! I'm not getting into any ambulance."

"Well, they're here."

"They can't take me. I won't go." He turned to face the driveway. As he did, his legs wobbled. I saw what was coming in time to drop the phone and make a fumbling grab for him. He passed out. Most of his body hit the floor. I clutched his sweater and caught the back of his head.

"Is this the guy?" A man from the back of the ambulance strolled over, dressed in white. "Wasn't he yelling at us a second ago?"

"He keeps fainting," I replied.

His partner came up and nodded. "This is the guy."

They rolled out the stretcher. It took a minute. The assembly was bigger than I'd imagined from my lifeguard training. Beneath the flat surface lay a heavy-duty cart that could change heights with the press of a button. One of the men did, in fact, press the button to lower the stretcher.

"You're his next of kin, right?"

"I'm his son." It was a weird question. I wasn't really sure how to answer.

"That's good." He and his partner nodded. Together, they turned, grunted, and lifted my father. He had lost a lot of weight in the past year. They didn't have much trouble with him. Then the EMTs strapped him to the board. One of them did most of the work. The other leaned closer to me.

"Will you ride with us?" he said. "Someone from the family should talk to the doctor. Anyway, you can sit next to him and talk if he wakes up angry. Better to have you to explain. Someone else can follow you to Shady Grove."

We clambered in. My memory of the ambulance is one of calmness inside, a quiet space and slightly too cool. The air conditioning was working hard. The windows were dark. Light shone through them with a tint of blue. My father shivered. After the driver had taken us a couple miles south, my father woke up.

"Where am I?" He seemed lost for a moment. He wan't angry, just puzzled.

"On the way to the hospital," I said. "We need to know why you keep passing out. I think it's probably diabetes."

"Ugh." He turned his head to the side. "Okay. Might as well."

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.26: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 26

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Advanced Degrees of Support

My father didn’t just want me to go to college. He also wanted me to get a job that wasn’t tending bar. He didn’t believe a BA in writing would open that door for me. Neither did I.

When I casually applied to graduate school in linguistics, he smiled and told me it was the smart thing. Later, when I had second thoughts about the finances and turned down my acceptance letter, he got angry.

After a half-year of temporary gigs, I landed a job as a writer for University Publications. My parents were amazed by the fact that I had a regular job, even if it was in writing and it paid poorly. In my fathers view, which was a correct one, pay for writers had been declining for a hundred years. The value of editors was going down, too, as computer software for checking grammar got better and better. Likewise, he didn’t see much future in entertainment writing. Novels would not sell when everyone in our society was too busy playing video games to read them.

My parents both kept teaching, of course. They kept raising my brothers. My father started picking up adjunct professor classes at the local college. All of them involved computer science. It was the hot thing again. (Computers had been hot - slightly above room temperature, anyway - after the introduction of modems. Modems allowed schools to have terminals. This time around, schools were discovering that personal computers were better than modems. You could program on them constantly. The academic enthusiasm for programming reached a higher level.)

My father and I met to talk about my brothers or about computers or writing. I had been writing on computers for years. With a friend and my father, I put together a personal computer from parts.

We also continued our conversations about sports, including the CFL team that had come to Baltimore. First it was the CFL Colts, a name that evoked the past, but then the CFL owners lost a trademark battle over it and the team became the Stallions. We rooted for the Colts/Stallions for a couple of seasons. To everyone's surprise, in their second season they won the Grey Cup. Baltimore had a world champion again, albeit in Canadian Football.

The CFL football team in Baltimore averaged over 30,000 fans in the seats each game on the way to the title. Naturally, the NFL noticed. The next year, the NFL gave Baltimore a franchise and, despite the CFL having the stadium lease, the NFL kicked out the Stallions. It was reminiscent of 1953 when Baltimore hosted the International League World Series, which was the minor leagues championship. They outdrew the major leagues' World Series. The majors noticed. In 1954, they gave Baltimore its second Orioles franchise.

My father didn't talk only about sports, naturally. Our conversations rambled through Boolean logic, Godel's incompleteness theorems, the limits of logical proofs, and his latest hobbies. He had always loved radio dramas. He kept collecting them in reel to reel copies, cassette copies, even in compact disc format. The 1930s and 1940s were his favorite eras for drama and comedy.

That love for his childhood stories extended into his love of movies. The best comedians of all time? Abbot and Costello. The best dancer? Gene Kelley. The best singers? The Mills Brothers. The top musician? Probably Glen Miller. The greatest pitcher? Satchel Paige.

My father could consider other greats from that era, like Duke Ellington, Billie Holliday, or Bob Feller, but if most of your achievements came after 1950, you were probably "not as great" as the names he knew from his childhood.

One exception was British humor. He and my mother watched Fawlty Towers, Black Adder, the Good Life, and more via the BBC reruns on PBS. After an afternoon that we'd spent talking about technology, he pulled me into the living room to watch an episode of Black Adder on PBS. As usual, I refused to look at it.

Even without my face in the direction of the screen, I could hear the dialogue. This one sounded different. My parents kept laughing. Eventually, I sat down.

"Are there more?" I asked when it was over.

"Of course, I've taped them all. Every episode."

"Where are they?"

"Downstairs. I don't know if I've labeled them yet."

My shoulders slumped as I envisioned the basement. He had easily a thousand VHS tapes there that weren't labeled. They flopped against the wall in stacks. They hid in and, just as often, rested under boxes of other tapes. Some of them served as bookends or paperweights.

"That was pretty funny, though," I told myself as I headed down the stairs.

My father tried to help. There was a reason he didn't label most of his tapes, though. He found it tedious. Soon enough, he gave up. I embarked on a two-month-long project of finding and labeling the Black Adder episodes. Eventually, I made a master copy in a VHS tape-to-tape machine. This made my version a copy of a copy of a public broadcast, so the quality was grainy at best. But I had assembled the episodes all together. Already, as a result of the collection process, I knew that season three was the best. 

All the while, my father checked my progress through his collection. He reminded me that British humor was the superior to any other, that no one danced like Gene Kelly, and that the Orioles were headed for the playoffs. Also, computers were going to take over the workplace, so I might as well learn something about them.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.25: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 25

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The College Drive

It's always late at night and dark outside the windows.  We lean back in the car, our faces and hands lit by the green glow of the dashboard.  My father is talking about philosophy or maybe sports.  Or I am.  We trade theories on the consequences of technologies, the details of self-actualization, binomial pyramids, recent changes in baseball lineups, or the perfect height for a pitcher.  This is the image that comes to me when I think about how we spent my drives to college.  We sit side by side, looking at the road in front, seeing the distant possibilities.

My father liked to travel at night to avoid as much traffic as possible.  So did I.  Sometimes we traded naps.  Neither of us slept for more than two hours out of the eight.  Sometimes neither of us slept.  We talked.

"Why are they still teaching chemistry using rote memorization?"  On the drives back from college to home, he was full of questions about what I had learned.  "There's no need for that."

"Yeah, I know.  And my professor kept telling me that my questions about atomic mass numbers being wrong were physics questions."

"Not chemistry?"

"Not her type of chemistry.  She's used to students who want to be doctors."

He questioned everything from teaching methods to grading, from lab layouts to linguistic textbooks.  In some areas, he was delighted to hear about the progress being made.  In others, he seemed scandalized to hear that parts of his old college lore had been deemed irrelevant.

"Everybody should read at least one Plato book," he insisted.

"I read parts of The Republic at home," I said as I remembered.  "At school, I read the whole Symposium in gay literature.  The class talked about it a bunch."

"You took a gay lit course?"

"We read Plato, Sappho, Lorde, and Baldwin.  The books weren't all great but the discussions were pretty good."

"That's different from my college.  But I guess it's not totally different."

On the first half-dozen drives, we talked about infinitesimals and what they meant to calculus, debated the progress of the Maryland college basketball team, revisited the geometry of Roman aqueducts and bridges, and practiced tricks in approximations.  We discussed Sugar Ray Leonard's boxing, Jack Dempsey versus Gene Tunney, Joe Louis versus Max Schmeling, and Muhammad Ali versus everybody.  My father insisted that Joe Louis was the greatest of all time because of his comeback victory over Schmeling.  He remembered the radio re-broadcasts and the sense of American vindication over the un-American idea of a master race.

This was a bit unfair to Schmeling, who was not a Nazi and was brave enough to defy the Nazis during their rise to power in his country.  It's true, however, that the Nazis held him up as their ideal warrior and promoted him as proof that they were the masters.  They also held Schmeling's family hostage in Germany while he traveled to fights to keep him from defecting.

On the other side of the fight, the pressure that Joe Louis felt was immense.  He had heard from the Negro community after he lost to Schmeling in their first match.  He knew how disappointed everyone had been.  He felt burdened by how much his loss had affected civil rights and civic pride.

"He and Jesse Owens were so great," my father insisted.  "They didn't just win.  They won at the most important times and in the best ways."

In retrospect, I wonder if my father didn't enjoy how we traded ideas.  At the time, it didn't occur to me.  The discussions were just something that happened.  We let our minds drift through the night, conversation after conversation.  I think he maybe looked forward to the drives for that reason.  He was disappointed when I took off for a semester, saved up money, and bought a used car.

"I could take out another loan," he said.  "I could pay more."

"I don't want more of your money.  I want to pay.  And I want to drive."

"Why do you need a car in college?"

A car saved as much as an hour on a round-trip to different campuses, so it was handy. That was one reason. More importantly, I wanted it for taking girls on dates. I'm sure my father realized that.  His resistance, maybe, was that he felt our opportunities to talk were slipping away.

They weren't.  The talks in the car set the tone for thirty years of further discussion.  

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.24: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 24

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Parenting through College

When I was seventeen, I left home. My father supported the move. When he was that age, he'd left, too.

At that point, I didn't want to go to college. I just wanted out of the current situation. My parents wanted me to continue with school. So in return for their permission to move, legally necessary as they pointed out, I agreed to work my way through the University of Maryland from a basement room I rented near campus.

Thanks to a couple years of lifeguarding, I had enough saved for a semester of classes and books. My plan was to work full time during the semester in order to make enough for the next one. My father thought that wouldn't work out so his plan was to keep offering me money. Since it came with strings attached, I kept turning him down even though he was right. Holding jobs in fast food restaurants and ignoring my classes didn't make for a good college experience.

I spent money foolishly, drank too much, and filed my paperwork incorrectly when dropping and adding classes. I managed to spend my bank account down to five dollars after paying bills, only to have the restaurant fail to distribute paychecks, while my manager dropped most of my shifts that week, a set of circumstances that meant no food for four days.

Although near the deadline I scraped enough together for the second semester, I forgot to budget for textbooks. So after all my insistence that I wouldn't accept money, I had to take fifty dollars from my father so I could go to class.

During my second semester, I dropped theatre, dropped math, took ethics, tried French, and started writing and singing. For the first time, I decided to write a novel. Sometimes I wrote only 500 words per day in it. Sometimes I did my schoolwork instead. But I started building up the right habits to continue.

By summer, my father got me to agree to come back home under a "his rules / no rules" situation where he said I should live by his family rules and I agreed that I would move back and live by no rules whatsoever. We were back to where we were before except I was eighteen. We both agreed that I should leave by the end of the summer, when my job ended.

Maybe because we agreed, it was something we couldn't do.

Every morning in the summer, I got up to coach a swim team and manage pools. I wrote late at night, every night, 1,000 words per session. Most of the words were awful. Sometimes I worked at the kitchen table on a loose-leaf notebook with a series of ball point pens, alternating colors each session so that I didn't cheat myself.

My father would pass by and look over my shoulder. After a few weeks, he said, "You're building up some pages."

A few weeks more and he switched to, "Let me have a look."

"No! Dad, it's terrible." My hand slapped down on it. "It's a first draft."

"But you are actually writing it."

"Well, yeah, it's all I'm doing."

"What about that girl you keep bringing over?"


The end result of the writing was about half of a novel but a lot of motivation. My summer jobs came to an end and I hadn't thought of anything beyond the novel. My parents had pushed me into applying for colleges but I was only partly interested, so I hadn't done much except thumb through the guides with a sense of despair.

"You don't have to get a degree," was my father's argument for continuing to look at schools. "Just being in the classes is good for your writing."

To me, that was an effective line of reasoning. One of the classes I'd liked most in the previous semester was 'Elective Writing.' My father and I came to an agreement that surprised the rest of the family. I would keep on living with them and writing every day and the only price I would have to pay would be applying to at least two colleges with a goal to attend by the spring semester

My mother found a college where I could design my own major. My father seized on it as being exactly what I said I wanted. And despite the fact that they were for it, I was kind of interested.

The school was a little, mostly-unknown place in Massachusetts called Hampshire College.