Endings as Beginnings

There is a certain freedom in the finality of the last scene in Thelma and Louise.  The motor guns and the ’66 Thunderbird soars almost triumphantly above the cliff to Thelma and Louise’s inevitable deaths.  It is surprisingly fitting and peaceful.

When my friend Tina and I heard the news of Ann’s mother’s death, we agreed to make the 8-hour drive from Chicago to Toronto to attend the wake and funeral.  Instead of that ’66 Thunderbird, Tina pulled up in a large black Infinity SUV with Ann’s personal assistant Tracy riding shotgun and her trusty beagle Riley next to me in the back seat.   We had never done a road trip together, weren’t sure of the route but were ready for whatever lie ahead.

Ann had been at her mother’s bedside for weeks as she lay dying and we knew how important it was to her to see and feel our support in person.   Women have a special way of supporting each other and we couldn’t let Ann down.  Although Ann’s mother was in her 80s, the death came as a surprise after a very brief illness.  For anyone who has had a mother pass one, you know.  No matter when or how your mother passes on to the great beyond, it is one of the most challenging events a daughter ever faces.  We weren’t quite sure how best to support Ann and so we hoped for a sign as we picked up coffee at Starbucks and headed east through Illinois on to Interstate-94.

It wasn’t long before the hearse appeared alongside us on a flat-bed truck.  “U R Next,” read the license plate.  We locked eyes and let out giggles.  Were we?  Aren’t we all?  Yes, we’d asked for a sign but what exactly did this one mean?

We drove on, making pit stops for gas and food, all the while trying to drive fast enough to make the wake.  We’d left late and desperately needed to make up time.  The wake ended at 9 p.m. and we were nowhere near the Canadian border.  Just then, traffic slowed down to a grinding halt.  In Chicago, this would be expected, but we were on Highway 69 in Michigan and there seemed no logical explanation for the big-city traffic jam on a relatively untraveled highway.  And then we saw the police cars, the overturned truck and the small boy covered in a blanket on the side of the road, nestled in grass.  A policeman stood near him, holding him, rubbing his shoulders.   It was obvious he was the sole survivor of a terrible crash, the entire top of the truck having been cut off as clean as if a knife had sliced it.

The mood turned somber.  Death had made its not-so-subtle entrance.

We drove quietly and then in unison turned our heads to see a large, white truck lumber up next to our overly large SUV.  Written on the back of the truck in blue lettering was the word, “Eternity,” with pictures of three crosses and a biblical verse.

Now, there are signs and then there are signs.  The rule of thumb is that when they come in three’s, it’s time to sit up and listen.  We sat up.  We were traveling to a funeral after all.

With 15 minutes to spare and by some quick changing and partial nudity in the car, witnessed by only one passing motorist in the parking lot, we made it to the wake.  Ann greeted us gratefully, half surprised we had made it under the deadline.  “So, you showed up?” she chided us with a smile.  Her mother lay peacefully in the casket across the room.  “It’s sinking in,” she shared and we felt her sorrow.  Deeply.

We were slap-happy after our long road trip.  But Ann’s pain filled the room.  We watched as she and her family said goodbye to their mother.  We walked out of the funeral home together with them, meeting up later at a pub.

When the funeral began the next morning at St. Anthony Catholic Church, Tracy, Tina and I appeared right behind the procession, having mixed up the Torontonians’ directions, arriving in the nick of time.  Ann looked at us as she walked in to the church behind the coffin, her eyebrow raised in the “seriously?” gaze at us.  It was all happening so fast.  How could it seem like a week had passed when we’d been in Canada less than 24-hours?

“Funerals are the window to eternity,” Father John Mullins said as he opened his eulogy.  Remembering the message on the white truck, Tina, Tracy and I turned to each other.  Eternity had just called out to us.  “With God, the fulfillment is greater than the expectation.  The struggles in life as we heard in the beatitudes* are the coin of the realm.”

Just then, Tina gasped.  As we looked over to her in our pew, she help up a shiny Canadian penny.  Tracy and I gasped.  “What does it mean,” I asked, even though I was well aware of the phenomenon of finding pennies.

“Someone is watching over us, someone is here for us,” Tina said and we knew it felt true.  Ann watched over her mom and now we were watching over her.

“It’s really the end now, isn’t it?” Tracy asked.  “I mean, the funeral really signals the end.”

“I think it might be the beginning,” I said.

The signs had prepared us, had brought us this far.  The longer I live, the more signs I see.  When you open the door to a little guidance, it comes in droves.  It never fails.

I took the Canadian penny and replaced it with two American pennies.  Someone else could find a little bit of hope.

It was time to begin the journey home.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

*The eight beatitudes in Matthew 5:3–12 during the Sermon on the Mount are stated as Blessed/Happy/Fortunate are:[2][3]

  • the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:3)
  • those who mourn: for they will be comforted. (5:4)
  • the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. (5:5)
  • they who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be satisfied. (5:6)
  • the merciful: for they will be shown mercy. (5:7)
  • the pure in heart: for they shall see God. (5:8)
  • the peacemakers: for they shall be called children of God. (5:9)
  • those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:10)
Advertisements

Intra-Library Loan Time

9th level of the Harold Washington Library (Ch...

Image via Wikipedia

Most of my research for Anne on Fire is now complete.  I’ve spoken with willing relatives and friends who knew details from my burn accident years ago or who knew my parents at the time.  I’ve requested as many medical records as possible, learning that there are some that simply are gone.  I’ve contacted doctors who worked on my case.  All in all, it’s been a fabulous and enlightening process where I’ve tried to cover the proverbial waterfront of information for clues and insight.  I was going over my findings with my friend Gloria when she said, “Gallagher, have you looked in the newspapers from that time to see if anything was published?  You know, a fire call, a news item.”

I hadn’t.  It was a great idea and prompted my call to the Brown County library (pictured here as is the interior of the Harold Washington Library), where of course they have old editions of the Green Bay Press-Gazette.  In our techno-driven age, most newspapers before the mid-1990s are not searchable online but preserved on micro-film.  Another call to the Harold Washington Library to request an intra-library loan…..and a stash of micro-film is on its way to Chicago.

My gut tells me there will be nothing useful for me in these newspapers.  At the same time, I can’t wait to wade through them on the micro-film machine.  You never know what you might find unless you look.  The process also brings about a sweet sense of closure to my search for information.  It motivates me to get back to the business of writing up the story. 

A Litany and Legacy of Letters

My dad Bob Gallagher liked to write letters.  I joined his cadre of pen pals the summer after first grade when I joined my older sisters Kathleen and Susie for a week at Camp Tekawitha.  Out came his typewriter and he’d bang away at the keys, letting me know that “nothing is going on here” and “you are doing the right thing.”  Those themes continued in hundreds of letters from him over more than 25 years.  In a week at camp, I’d average two letters from him.  When I went off to college, the steady steam of letters continued at a pace of about one a week — always typed and always personally signed, “Love, Dad.”  When I moved to Chicago, still they came.  He had a penchant for not using “I” in his letters and went to great lengths to add colorful custom-made stamps to the envelopes.  He had a collection rubber stamps there were as amusing as they were clever:  “Delinquent Law Services, Practice Limited to Juveniles & Tax Returns,” ” Fish Mongers Market, No Fish More than 9 Weeks Old,” among his large stash.  With a gleam of mischief in his eye, he’d test out a few of his stamps on the back of the typed letter, adding the final touches of his favorites for that letter or that week on the envelope.

In the early days it was nothing short of embarrassing to have a camp counselor ask who was sending a letter from Delinquent Law Services or the Old Roman League.  Over time, I would be as amused as they would be once they heard of Bob Gallagher‘s penchant for letters and quirky rubber stamps.

His letter writing skills extended to each of his five children.  As each moved away or attended college, they’d move on to his letter-writing list and at various points, he’d self-assign a day of the week to type a letter to each child, all in the interest of fairness.  It was the same with our school photos — he’d rotate each of five photos on a weekly schedule in his walk-in closet so that none of us would think he was being unfair.  There on a shelf by his dresser, amid business suits and personal items would be five photos, one behind the other, rotated on the weekly schedule.

Wed nite, 4/14/82

Anne,

Sure glad you were home over the Easter time and enjoyed your company, and know that you were glad to be home – and do think things went well and you enjoyed your stay……Nothing is going on here — though this Thursday Mother and the boys are going bowling in the afternoon with the Heideman’s — and understand Mrs. Heideman is a pretty good bowler.  When Mother calls you can give a question as to how the bowling match went off…..So as said to you before, in case you missed a line or two, nothing is going on, and you are in a good place at this time, and know you are happy with the environment……Love,Dad

The format was consistent across the years just as he was.  The letters stopped about a year before his death, when failing health forced him to go into a nursing home.  Mom picked up the slack and would initiate calls for him from the nursing home, where he’d talk, a living letter, and let me know that not much was going on but the food was okay.

These days I’m left with a legacy of letters.  They make me smile, laugh, sometimes wince and sometimes cry but mostly they make me remember a father’s love.   See Attached :dad letter

 

Related articles

Silly Good Writing

St. Joseph Academy Green bay WI picture

When I think of writing, stories always filled my pen. 

By 5th grade, my teacher Mrs. Brunmeier told me my stories were too avant garde for class distribution.  In 8th grade, I wrote the definitive, imaginative story of our class in a final report format.  In high school, I became the editor of the paper and won a first-place award in the Wisconsin Newspaper Association’s contest for writing, an expose of the National Honor Society.  And the list goes on.

But the stories I remember best were the ones I wrote with my friend Donna. 

As high school students at all-girls St. Joseph’s Academy (now Notre Dame Academy in Green Bay, www.notredameacademy.com), we yearned for life experiences yet to come.  We dreamed of prom dates and life successes far into the future. We wondered about the diminishing quantity of nuns who taught us and what would happen to their order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, as more lay teachers entered the fray.  We imagined life in big cities and created imaginary all-knowing and all-powerful alter-egos while suffering through the realities of study hall.

For all those things that didn’t yet exist, we’d pen hand-written stories instead of dissecting frogs in biology class to make these lofty dreams come true.  Of course, we’d write each other as main characters and every wish, however small, would come true.  Oh, there would be conflict but ultimately we’d emerge the victors. 

 When Donna had a crush on J, I created a lengthy narrative for her full-bodied hair flowing in the wind, her wily charms on fire, and her witticisms dazzling a high school party crowd.  J could only hope but to fall prey to her charms.  Twenty pages later, Donna would have her man. 

A week later she’d hold the pen, my success held in limbo by her imagination.  Would I crush an opponent or merely lob an ace every serve in a tennis game?  It mattered not.  We would persevere and win.  We’d howl in delight, knowing we’d always be the heroines of our own stories.

Donna moved to New York.  I moved to Chicago.  When I’d least expect it, a hand-written note would appear in my mail, continuing my high school story line.  No explanation needed.  It spurred me to continue her tale, jetting her from country to country, adventure to adventure. 

When I found an old letter buried in a tangle of papers the other day, I quickly picked up my pen ready to resume the quest.  Donna died of colon cancer several years back.   Silly good writing had put her in a multi-million dollar home, lavished her with furs and jewels, and made her insanely happy.  She would have been pleased.

Illusions, Delusions and Regrets

Non, je ne regrette rien

Image by Jon at NDHU via Flickr

“Our job is to fill the page.  Don’t you remember telling me that?  You always said that,” chided Anita earlier this week when we talked about our long-ago job together at a Chicago marketing boutique.  I sheepishly admitted she was right as of course she was.  When we slaved away years ago fashioning copy for annual reports, press releases, ghost-written articles for executives who had neither the time nor the inclination to put their own thoughts on paper and other types of written drivel, I was that annoying megaphone encouraging us on, reminding us that our work was to ‘fill the page’.   

It was ironic then that I couldn’t fill my own pages these days.  I was suffering from a rotten bout of writer’s block.  After talking with my literary coach K, we outlined a plan of attack that included daily writing and the heart-warming illusion of words appearing on the page with lightning-quick speed.   The plan seemed so clear.  And yet, I used the pretext of a busy schedule of business travel as the subtext for doing nothing.

Fueled by growing guilt, the prospect of regret loomed.  I simply inserted my flash drive into my laptop and pulled up the draft.  My fingers began plucking away like a chipmunk and I was on my way again.  I couldn’t answer the question of why it took some 40 odd days to stave off my misguided procrastination.  It infuriated me.

“Non, Je ne regrette rien,” Edith Piaf* sang so hypnotically.  www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3Kvu6Kgp88

 No regrets.  Thinking about what held me back won’t push me forward. 

Why does anyone procrastinate?  How do you overcome it?

*Lyrics:  Non, Je ne regrette rien

Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien
Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait
Ni le mal, tout ça m’est bien égal
Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien
C’est payé, balayé, oublié
Je me fous du passé

Avec mes souvenirs, j’ai allumé le feu
Mes chagrins, mes plaisirs, je n’ai plus besoin d’eux
Balayées les amours, avec leurs trémolos
Balayées pour toujours, je repars à zéro

Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien
Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait
Ni le mal, tout ça m’est bien égal
Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien
Car ma vie car mes joies
Aujourd’hui, ça commence avec toi

Secrets of First-Class Flyers

A newer model American Airlines Airbus A300-60...

Returning from some work in New York, the client booked me and my colleague Mr. B in First Class on American Airlines for the return flight to Chicago.  Considering I ended up in the last row (the one that doesn’t recline might I add) on the outbound flight on United, I felt ridiculously justified in my First Class seat.  As the flight prepared for take-off, the flight attendants repeatedly called for Ms. D to report for her upgrade to First Class.  How odd, I thought.  This must be a really important person since airlines typically leave lesser-level fliers (even those with basic status like me) back in coach. 

In the moments before Ms. D arrived to her seat, I imagined she was a harried global traveler, likely a literary agent negotiating deals around the world.  When she did sit down, I noticed her casual clothes (jeans) and stylish red briefcase bag.  As is my usual practice on airplanes, I chose not to ask her if my intuitive sense was correct — that is, I don’t like to talk on airplanes.  Neither apparently did she and we settled into the flight in blissful silence.

Midway through he flight however, I noticed that my colleague Mr. B in the seats directly behind us was still yapping on and on to his seatmate in his normal animated fashion.  That was when Ms. D casually remarked to me that the gentlemen behind us were quite the conversationalists.  I sheepishly admitted to Mr. B being my colleague, explaining that he had previously hosted a talk-show for many years and well, old habits die-hard.

Our conversation could have ended there with a little laugh shared between us.  Yet we continued on.  After exchanging pleasantries and the like, I shared with her my little reverie about what she might do for a living and asked if she indeed was of the literary ilk.  The short answer was no.  Ms. D. was in fact a super-powered IT executive for a global corporation who traveled the world managing a large staff and seemingly even larger responsibilities.  She traveled 200,000 or more miles a year, which explained the airline’s desire to re-seat her in First Class.  Then, quietly she told me, “It’s funny you mention writing because I do write a little.”  There unfolded the fact that every year she conducts a short-story contest with her family.  They self-impose a 30-day deadline and then share with each other the fruits of their creative efforts.  She had other writing stories as well, which simply made me happy to hear.  Ms. D. was, after all, a writer at heart.

It made me wonder:  Does everyone have a secret desire to write?   Or, on the same note, does everyone have a secret aspiration?

When I floated this thought to K, my literary writing coach, she explained, “Most people who want to write aren’t sure how to do it and that’s what stops them from writing.”

Do you think it’s true?  Do we all house a secret writer within us? Or, a secret aspiration?   I’d be grateful if you could share your story.

Be Careful What You Wish For

What's your wish?

It is frustrating to be on a search mission for old medical records.  I’ve doggedly looked for various records from several doctors in a variety of nooks and crannies.  But when a nondescript manilla envelope with a return address of “Green Bay Plastic Surgical Associates” arrived in my Chicago mailbox I was too terrified to open it.  It sat there on my desk, seeming to taunt me with its nonchalant ability to so easily ruffle my feathers. 

 But a day of reckoning had to arrive and I gingerly opened the package, pulling out 25 or so pages of photocopied medical records from my plastic surgeon for 20 years, Dr. Harold Hoops. If memory served me correctly, I went to Dr. Hoops after my original surgeon Dr. Thomas E. Lynn died several years after my accident.  While I still have not been able to find Dr. Lynn’s original records, I quickly discovered that I had in my hands Dr. Hoops intake records and nearly 20 years of notes on my case.

There in his chicken-scratch of a doctor’s scribble were his notes on the history of my case: 

Medical Records : Chicken-scratch of doctor's scribble

Post-traumatic burn scars of the right leg and buttock; burned at home, age 2, at home stepped on lighted burner, stove, pant leg caught fire; initial care by Drs. Lynn and von Heimburg; St. Vincent Hospital, 3 months.

With just these few couple notes, I had confirmation of the stories I’d heard my whole life.  I kept flipping through the pages and then I saw it — four photos of my own leg, front and back, taken at Dr. Hoops’ office when I was nine years old.  It was hard to believe but I’d never seen a photo of my own leg like this.  I gasped in shock at the sight of it.  Then, turned the page and put the packet back in the manilla envelope.  I needed more time before I would be ready to look again.