Sunday, July 25, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.36: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 36

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Broken Tribes

"Well, he should never have written it down," my mother said. "It was no one else's business."

Not long after their golden anniversary celebration in 2009, I stopped by to visit my parents before taking a trip. At their dining table, we sat down for drinks of coffee, diet coke, and whatever else was available. In a week, I was scheduled to visit my mother's sister, Lois, so my parents asked questions about how I would travel, how much time I would spend, and other details.

My mother liked her immediate family and she also had grown up with the benefit of a well-documented family tree, which meant she was acquainted with her extended family. The Stocketts and Chaneys and Tolsons in Annapolis knew most of the other, core families in their town. They knew each individual's background and family connections. Their genetic omniscience included my grandmother, who loaned me a copy of a family tree written by her cousin. It listed a dozen generations back to Lewis Stockett on the privy council of Queen Elizabeth, later to the younger Stockett brothers who came to Maryland for their land grant from the king Charles the Second, down through the years to the farmers, soldiers and tradesmen of the present day. The book noted my mother's breakup of her arranged marriage and her marriage to Robert Roberts, as well as her miscarriage and stillborn son a couple years ahead of my birth.

I'd gotten the documents for a school project. Although I hadn't been much interested in the project, I had found the records mildly exciting. That was due to the idea of having two phantom older siblings. My father had always explained the gap in time between their marriage and my birth by saying, "We were in no hurry." So this part had been hidden from me. It was news. I asked my grandmother about those entries when she demanded the return of the tube scroll full of the documents and family tree sketches.

"It wasn't a surprise," my grandmother said about the stillbirth. Her voice lowered. "Of course, it was sad. But Ann knew in advance. We all did. The hospital just did what it had to do."

"How did your cousin get to know about the miscarriage?"

"Well, I'm not sure." She stepped back and touched her chin. "I may have told him. But anyway, I think there were two of those."

"Really?" I replied, fascinated. I couldn't understand why my mother had never mentioned any of this.

Years later, after my mother's fiftieth wedding anniversary, I brought up what I knew in response to a different question about our family tree. It hadn't occurred to me that she hadn't told me because she didn't want me to know. I'd known for so long that I took it for granted. It was eye-opening to discover how irritated my mother was and how private she regarded her previous pregnancies. She was mad at her mother and especially at her mother's cousin for writing it down. That had not been, after all, the point of the family tree. Those additions seemed compulsive on the part of the family biographer.

"I'm going to have to say something to my mother." She leaned back, arms folded.

"It won't do any good, Ann." My father shook his head.

My mother gave him a sour face. "You're probably right, Bob." She turned back to me, her expression patient but stern. "Anyway, it's all over."

"Your family was always intrusive," my father observed.

In fact, he had often made fun of the Stockett family for being so close. They had stayed in the same area for generations, married second or third cousins, endured tragedies, died in humorous pratfalls, and lived through tyrants in the family, but never moved away. I realize now in hindsight that the Stocketts simply lived the lives that everyone did in small, American towns for hundreds of years. My mother's family wasn't strange except in the ways that all families are strange. It was my father's family that had grown disjointed and distant. My father thought his experience was normal.

His grandfather, George Earl Gallagher, had come to America near the end of the famine in Ireland. My father searched but found no records about his Irish life. He had heard no family stories, either. George Gallagher married late, had at least one child, my father's father, and died at the age of forty-three. His son remarried late, fathered two more children, my Aunt Jenny and my father, and died at the age of forty-two.

June Light, my paternal grandmother, grew up in an orphanage before her marriage. Her second husband had been Catholic but divorced. That meant Robert Gallagher, my father, and his sister Jenny weren't recognized by the Irish side of the family. They were disinherited from it by birth. In addition, my father's younger brother Jack, always their mother's favorite, inherited everything from her - the English money, such as it was. Other relatives mentioned it to me on a few occasions, always bitterly, so I knew. In their ways, both of my parents had descended from several generations of not inheriting anything, often because there was nothing to be had. They were the people who did not get the house. In most cases, they did not even get the tea set.

"I started out with nothing, and I still have most of it," my father said many times. I recognize it now as a quote from Jack Benny but my father applied it to his life.

"I found out more about my family, though," he confided. He had taken my mother on a trip to New York state, near his old town of Elmira, a few years earlier. It was the last big trip they would ever take. There, he visited graveyards and photographed church documents. He followed up by reading census records.

"I've got it all written down in notes," my father pointed to a document on the table as he told me about his family history. "Not that anyone else can understand my notes, probably. Maybe your mother could."

Next to him, my mother sipped her coffee and laughed. She must have seen his pages of Gallagher family history. She would have known that they amounted to a lot of disjointed fragments. That was a problem with my father's projects. Some never finished. When he did bring one to an end, he tended to be abrupt. He was done, apparently, because he had satisfied his curiosity or his desire to complete a collection. He put the finished project on a shelf or in a box, unlabeled. That was it. No one else could make sense of it, maybe. In fact, no one could find it.

When he was younger, he made labels or indexes for his projects. In middle age, he found a place for each collection, often sorted. Past his middle age, he lost the desire to make his work accessible. He kept his collection of genealogy records but if they were in different cigar boxes in different parts of the house, that was fine by him or at least it seemed like too much trouble for him to fix.

"Where are they, Bob?" she asked.

"The best part of the material is a summary in a notebook." He paused to self-assess. "Somewhere."

"In our bedroom?" It was a reasonable question. Sometimes he used his nightstand as a filing cabinet. Same for his dresser. Same for the shelves in his closet.

His gaze grew distant. He frowned. "Maybe. It's all somewhere."

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.35: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 35

Robert Gallagher, Wake

The Good Old Days

"Well, I wish I could say that my memories are getting clearer," my father mused. "But I'm not sure that's true."

We were sidling up to the issue of senility, a tough topic except that he didn't seem to be suffering from it. It was just that we knew other people affected. It had even seemed amusing to him until friends and family felt the impact and we all realized how serious it could become.

"I remember events from the year 1950 better than things from last month," he went on. "But you know that's nothing new. I've always done that. Anyway, it was a big year."

At the time, I was the one who didn't recall that North Korea had invaded South Korea in 1950. That was when my father tried to join the U.S. Army at the age of sixteen. (He didn't succeed until he was seventeen.)

"I think do-wop started up around then," I ventured. "Or was that later?"

"That came later. Anyway, I never liked that much. Same for rock music." In 1950, the big bands playing swing music had to compete with newcomers in the rhythm and blues genre. Swing still topped the charts more often than any other type music, though, with hits from Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Billie Holliday, Count Basie, the Ames Brothers, and Glenn Miller. In a few years, swing and R&B both would start to lose ground to rock. That's when everything started to go bad, according to my father. "Big band music is the best."

This is something that I didn't think about when my father was alive: maybe his fascination with big band music, radio dramas, Joe Louis, the Baltimore Colts, Jessie Owens, serial dramas at the movies, baseball, and Lexington Market all made a sort of emotional sense. Maybe there was a reason he was more stuck in the past than most. Maybe it was his difficult, sometimes homeless young childhood followed by a much better decade while living with his uncle Jack Light in Baltimore. He moved into a home where he was safe from eviction. While he grew up there, the Great Depression ended. The second World War ended. His family got a radio. He was allowed to buy comic books. No wonder that he got the impression that those were the best of times, the best of music and drama, the best of sports. For him, they were. It was the truth.

Sometimes in the twilight of human lives, people feel a renewed excitement about times long ago. That was not my father. He was always excited about anything from 1941 to 1950. He never stopped feeling that the decade of the 1940s was the best.

He held a quiet grudge against some parts of the 1930s, too, the aspects of that era that he associated with his poverty and evictions. He refused to eat prunes. They were for poor people. He didn't like to see blocks of cheese. He bought it sliced. He allowed me to keep my comic books and books. If I didn't want to, I never had to throw out a single toy. (My mother had to persuade us all to let things go.)

Also, my father hated to see peanut butter jars turned into glasses.

That one is a puzzle because it's how I grew up. My mother kept track of the family budget. As a consequence, she would often do things that were frugal like wash out the peanut butter jars and give them to me to drink from.

My father would protest, “We can afford drinking glasses now, Ann.”

But he didn’t dare to throw out any of the jars. He tried it once and my mother made him go out and buy glasses to replace the jars. He had to do it out of his own pocket money. It made him feel foolish. Almost right away, I slipped and broke one of his new glasses, which made it seem worse. He forbid me or my brother to use the glasses.

"They have to drink out of something, Bob," observed my mother.

"Okay. Jars for them," he agreed. And so the habit of cleaning out the jars and reusing them continued. I loved the jars. But my father never drank from them.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.34: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 34

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Driving Blind

Surgeons at the Shady Grove medical center performed my mother's emergency procedure. Their hospital wasn't part of the Kaiser plan, though, and that meant my mother's insurance company had to transfer her to Washington Hospital Center as soon as the doctors would allow. The location change meant a trip into Washington DC on each day that my father wanted to visit my mother, which was each and every day.

My mother's recovery proceeded slowly. She had to overcome a surgical infection, then resurgence of the infection. My father drove to visit her every morning for weeks.

One day he called me at work. He asked me to drop by my mother's hospital room in his place.

"Sure, I saw her last week." I had supplemented my father's visiting schedule and I'd crossed paths with him while there during a couple of my stopovers. It seemed odd of him not to go to her but I was pretty sure I could fulfill his request. My boss would let me off for an extra half hour during lunch if I asked. "It's twenty minutes away. I can do it."

"Good. You'll have to tell her that I can't drive down to her."

"Okay." I squinted as I thought about it. Finally, I started getting suspicious. "Why not?"

"I can't see. More blood vessels burst in my eye." The way he said it sounded strange. Of course, I knew about his problem because it had been going on for years. The capillaries in his eyes suffered regular consequences when he didn't take care of his diabetes. A moment later, I understood what had happened. As soon as my mother had gotten sick, he had stopped taking his medicines on schedule. His blindness had probably been inevitable.

"Yesterday?" I took a deep breath before making any promises. "Do you need me to take you to the doctor?"

"No. There's no point. It happened last week."

"That can't be right." He hadn't stopped driving until today. "You kept visiting mom. It can't be that bad, right?"

"It's difficult. I drove after it happened but I could only do it because I'd memorized the way to the hospital. Today, I couldn't get there even though I knew the roads. I made it to the DC line. People started honking at me. I couldn't see the traffic lights."

"You couldn't see them the whole time, then."

"That's about right. If I turned my head at an angle, I could see traffic lights. But only when they were straight ahead, like in Maryland. At the DC line, the type of signal changes. They put the traffic lights at the sides of the road by the curbs. I tried and tried. But I couldn't see them."

"Oh, holy crap."

"No matter what I did, I couldn't figure them out."

"You got there four days in a row with the same eye problem."

"Well, I waited for other cars to go. That's how I did it. When it's just me in the lane, like today, I can't see the lights to tell me when to go. It didn't matter what I did today. Nothing helped. Finally, I had to turn around."

"You are home now, right?"

"Yeah. I made it. It was hard. I had to stop and rest, twice. I'm going to go lie down. Tell your mother."

"Okay, dad."

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Not Even Not Zen 221.33: Wake for Robert Gallagher, Part 33

Robert Gallagher, Wake

Wrong Turn

After my father retired, he started going to doctors about his diabetes. Although he knew that my mother would outlive him, he was aware that she wouldn't enjoy taking care of him bedridden and blind, especially if she knew he had been able to avoid it. He developed better habits with his medicines. Even better, he tried to get along with the doctors.

To everyone's surprise, it was my mother who got ill next. My father called me for help.

"Ann has got something wrong with her lungs." He sounded puzzled.

When I got there, we talked for a while. It turned out that my mother had contracted a lung disease from the air conditioner in her portable classroom. My father couldn't move her or drive her around.

She had known it was happening. She complained to her school about it for two years. The administration never did anything, though. Her illness from it got more and more serious. Finally, she got too sick to work. She could barely move (the only way in which she would ever admit to being too ill to work) and, at that point, it was hard for her to get to a doctor.

When she did go, the doctors dismissed the problem. That's where I came in.

"I can't talk to them," my father said. "Anyway, I can't drive. And your mother really, really shouldn't drive."


When I took my mother to her doctor and advocated for additional tests, the staff decided to allow another round. And another. A few days after one of the tests, the doctors called, alarmed by what they had discovered. My mother had developed a fungal infection in her lungs. That explained why her blood oxygen readings and other symptoms kept getting worse. (The fact that the problem was fungal also explained the failure of earlier tests to discover the infection. The labs had been instructed to look for bacteria and viruses.)

Her ordeal with the lung infection lasted for months. She tried medications. She tried therapies. She underwent surgeries. Three times, the doctors put her under and scraped fungus from her lungs. On the last occasion, she almost didn't recover from the operation. (Giving anesthesia to someone with a lung problem is tricky.) During the cycle of treatments, my fathers eyes improved for a few weeks at a time and degraded for a few weeks, too. Sometimes he could drive her to her appointments. Sometimes he called me to do it.

Eventually, the doctors announced they were done. My mother's lungs were not fine. The physicians simply didn't want to risk putting her under anesthesia again.

For a year, my mother had trouble getting out of bed. She coughed while walking. She wheezed all the time, even while sitting down. The effort of an ordinary chore around the house was too much for her. Then came her diagnosis of cancer.

"The doctor says it's not too bad," she told me as I marched into her living room. "It's just at stage two."

"They said maybe stage three, Ann," my father called.

"Right, I have to go back to the doctor." She wheezed as she walked me to the kitchen. "They're doing more tests. But they have a plan."

The cancer turned out to be at stage four but the extent that was discovered didn't affect her treatment plan much. The doctors wanted to try radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery in that order. Her first radiation treatments didn't seem to make much difference. Her chemotherapy, though, had the odd effect of improving her lungs. The difference was drastic. She stopped wheezing. In fact, she started doing more house chores. Normally, of course, people get weaker during chemotherapy. My mother got stronger.

Unfortunately, the next thing that happened was a pre-operative radiation treatment nearly killed her.

It was a one-time event. The radiation technician that day was a substitute. He aimed the particle beam in what appeared to be a normal way but, in fact, he had missed the target and destroyed part of her healthy stomach. It took an hour for the problematic symptoms to set in. From that point on, her life was in danger.

My father's eyes weren't in good shape. He drove her to the emergency room anyway.

A surgeon began cutting by the next morning. From the ER, they reported that they were shocked to see the extent of the damage. On advice from her regular doctors, the team tried to combine their emergency procedure with cancer removal.

"We had to spend most of the time on the radiation damage," the doctor explained later, when they emerged at the finish.

"So she'll need another surgery for the cancer?" my father asked.

"That would need done anyway, no matter how much we got this time. We got some, for sure. But she's going to have to continue with chemotherapy. I know you might not like the idea but she should probably go back to radiation treatments near the end, just before the surgery."

"When will that happen?" he said.

"Not for months." The doctor stuff his mask into the right pocket of his gown. "I'll write up my opinion to make sure of it."

After nearly dying from the radiation treatment, she was getting told she'd have to go back to it. And everyone in the family agreed it was the right thing.