Tinkerbell Returns

Tinkerbell Returns

Tinkerbell Returns

“We remember what we understand; we understand only what we pay attention to; we pay attention to what we want.” – Edward Bolles

In The Return of the Little Men, I was “reunited” with some miniature Disney characters given to me as a gift when I was burned.

It’s hard to describe my utter glee upon seeing what I endearingly called the ‘little men’. The thrill wasn’t based on the fact of the toys themselves but the reality that they not only existed but that I remembered them from childhood.

When you have a hazy memory and are not sure if it’s real or imagined, there is real joy in things that confirm you are not a crazy person, making up silly memories or doing what therapists call ‘creative reimagination‘.  For me, the trauma of being burned was like a bad dream sequence — foggy, missing pieces, unreal, as if I am holding my breath.  When I can connect with something real from the experience, I can breathe.   I am sure there is a psychological theory to explain why this is important to me but I don’t know what it is.  It is important and that’s enough for me.

I was so happy to reconnect with the little men that it didn’t even cross my mind whether all the pieces in the set had in fact ‘come home’.

“Oh, I found Tinkerbell,” was what Susie said to me, some time after she’d given me the set of little men.

Tinkerbell?  It had no context.

“I was looking in my old high school jewelry box for my claddagh ring and there she was.  Tinkerbell.  Right in that jewelry box.”

Tinkerbell?  Yes, Tinkerbell — she was the jewel of the set!  As a three year-old girl, Tinkerbell was my particular favorite.  For months as I was immobile, re-learning how to walk, I remember sitting on my bed and playing with all the little men.

When I went to collect Tinkerbell from Susie’s house, it was shocking how small she was.  She stood less than an inch tall, even with her blue wings fully extended.

I’m amazed at what turns up when you open the door to your memories.  Forty years later, Tinkerbell and her entourage of little men return from long-ago packed-up things and jewelry boxes from high school.  I keep them on my desk at home.  When you ask, you can receive.  The key is being open to what chooses to return.

Finding Maggie and So Much More

Maggie Ready for Work

When I called Dian Page at the Green Bay Press Gazette a couple of weeks ago, my hope was to connect the memories in my mind.  For so many years, I have had pictures of my little self at the time of my burn accident but I’ve never been sure if these are real or “created” memories.  It can be-devil anyone to wonder about these things — did this really happen to me or have I made it up?  In my case, I need only look at the scars on my leg to know it did indeed happen.  But how and why do I remember (or think I remember) certain pieces of the experience.

That was my motivation for searching for Maggie, the Nurse.  I had no idea what I would find.  I was ready for anything.

Except perhaps for the fact that I found Maggie and a great deal more.

I didn’t set out to find someone’s Nana, someone’s mother, someone’s son, someone’s sister, someone’s friend.  And yet all these people found me and there was a quite a story to tell.

Maggie Glaser Conard was a pediatrics nurse at St. Vincent Hospital in Green Bay for some 30 years until her retirement in 1987.  She did not recover from the massive stroke she suffered in 1988 and died at just 60.  “I just wanted to let tell you that your vivid description of her (Maggie) brought her back to life for me.  She was exactly as you described in everyday life; not just in work.  She was crazy about her grandchildren and she made each and every one of us feel the way you felt.  I thank you for this.  You have made my night, my week, my year,” Maggie’s granddaughter Jessi Guenther wrote me from Seattle, Washington.  Something amazing was happening.

Maggie Conard Memory CardIt continued when I spoke to Maggie’s sister, Shirley Warpinski, a retired nurse who still lives in Green Bay.  “Maggie had a gift.  Everybody loved her.  She was happy-go-lucky and always optimistic.  She was just the sweetest person,” Shirley said, telling me that Maggie was valedictorian of her high school in Luxemburg.  “Whenever she had free time at the hospital, she would go playroom and be with the children.  And oh, did she love to read.  She read to the children all time.”

There is was.  During my three-month hospitalization, I learned to read and at 3 years old, became something of a freaky genius for that day and age.  It came back to me now that Maggie had been the one by my bedside, reading to me, teaching me the letters, encouraging me on during those long days when I was confined to a crib, secured with netting so I couldn’t get out and harm my recovery.  Whether it was 15 surgeries or 20, I knew my treatment was painful and grueling.

“Yes, I remember those nets.  We had to cover the cribs for safety reasons,” shared retired Green Bay nurse Carol Mangin, who worked with Maggie for a “long, long time” at St. Vincent’s.  We talked about my third-degree burns.  “Burns are so painful.  You were lucky yours were third-degree because the nerve endings died and it would not have been as painful as first- or second-degree burns.”

“My mother cared for people for the better part of her working life,” her son Ted Conard told me.  “Caring was in our gene pool I guess since I went into that field and others in our family did too.”  After 35 years of working at Green Bay’s Curative Workshop, Ted recently retired and still lives in Green Bay.  After my discharge from St. Vincent’s, I attended therapy at the Curative Workshop for many long months, regaining flexibility in both my legs after months of inactivity and re-learning how to walk.  “You probably worked with Gloria, a therapist there,” Ted said.  “She was there forever.”

Suddenly, my memories were expanding, connecting.  They were real.

“My mom Maggie had crazy love for children.  She would come home and talk about her patients especially the ones she became close to and I’m sure she talked about you.  She would have grown really attached and her heart would have been breaking for what you were going through,” Maggie’s daughter Julie said.  “She would have thought of you like you were one of her children.”

“Maggie would be so pleased to know that you are pursuing this,” retired Green Bay nurse Mary Thomas explained when I spoke with her.  “As nurses, you touch people’s lives and then they go their own ways.  To know that you remembered, that she touched you and it meant something to you, well, that means something to all of us.”

My sister Susie, a nurse herself and professor of nursing at UWGB elaborated on that thought.  “Nurses do so many things but the human caring is what makes the difference.  This nurse cared for you, she transformed a difficult experience for a child.  In her caring for you, you were no longer alone in that room.”

Once again, what I set out to find wasn’t at all what was there.  Instead I found something deeper and richer.  Yes, I found Maggie and the memories the beautiful memories she gave me.  But now I understand the life she brought to so many people — her patients, her colleagues and friends, and her family.

Her granddaughter Jessi told me about her brother’s reaction to this unfolding story and she included it on her blog as well:

“The first thing that came to mind…is how loved ones have a way of letting us know that they’re still there, they never left to begin with.  What an awesome gift”  ~Nathan Kofler

There’s also a comment from “Carrie” following Jessi’s blog post that makes a great deal of sense to me:

“…..We have named those, God-incidences because its too perfect just to be a coincidence…..” Carrie

These “God-incidences”/coincidences have brought me this far and at every turn of this journey I’ve found something immensely beautiful.  For anyone who has gone through a fire of any kind, be it physical or psychological, we know we would never want to go through it again.  And still there are great lessons and great love to be found.  “It meant the world to me and my family to know that Maggie was loved by so many people,” her daughter Julie told me.  “What a legacy she has left.”

A legacy indeed.

Thank you Maggie Conard.  You have left behind an incredible legacy of healing and helping for so many of us.  I am grateful to be a part of it.

Strange Signs and Silver Linings

Every cloud has a silver lining

It had been years since I’d spoken to Larry when an email popped up about his new position.  As quickly as it arrived in my in-box, I picked up the telephone to ask him about his new job.  It was an exciting position that allowed Larry to return to his journalism roots and run a news editorial operation.  We dished about our early careers in writing and Larry even asked me contribute on a freelance basis to his new news outlet.

When he asked what I had been up to lately, I told him about my Anne on Fire blog.  It was then that our conversation took a different and wholly unexpected turn.  He had never known about my accident.  Telling him about my experience jogged something in him and his story unfolded.

Larry was 15 when he came home from school and heard a knock on the door of his Iowa home.  A friend told him his younger sister had been hit by a car.  By the time he ran the half-mile and found her, she was fading in and out of consciousness.  Larry asked someone to call and ambulance.  As they sped to the hospital, Larry’s sister moaned in pain, her pelvis and internal organs shattered.  As doctors worked to save her life, Larry called his parents and told them what had happened — as his sister walked home from school, a run-away kid they knew had stolen his parents car and hit her at about 50 miles an hour.  Larry’s sister died 48 hours later, never regaining consciousness.

Larry sunk into a period of grief that seemed to never end.  “It was totally unfair.  My sister was only 13.  It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me in my life and it left an incredibly deep scar that I had no way to deal with.  I was too young to know how to grieve,” Larry told me.  “I became obsessed with getting revenge against the guy who killed my sister.”  The bitterness that rose up in Larry create a hair-trigger temper as he grew older.  “I could go into a complete rage at the snap of a finger,” he said.  It seemed only natural that the unresolved anger also lead Larry to drink.  “When you drink a lot, you don’t care and the pain goes away.”

Even by his mid-30s, the grief remained unbearable.  “I was in a lot of pain and it would surface as anger.  I would hang on to every frustrating thing that happened at work and in my fury, I would plot to get back at the person.  This backfired on me a lot and I got to the point where my life was not working and I had to do something,” he said.

In addition to being involved with a religious woman at the time who helped guide him to a new sense of faith, Larry found the courage to see a counselor.  “I started to get the feeling that my sister sensed my anger over what happened to her.  I felt that she didn’t want to be the cause of all the pain in my life.  This is very difficult to articulate but I started sending prayers to her and I got the distinct feeling that she received my messages and would send back her own messages to me in the form of coincidences and serendipity.”

Even though Larry had gone through anger management programs before, this counselor seemed to have a profound effect on him.  Under the counselor’s direction, Larry gathered up everything he had about his sister — photos, newspaper articles, letters — and re-lived the whole horrible experience by writing down all the details he could.  “The counselor told me that I had to grieve the experience so I could release it, that when things happen to you as a child, you have no filter and the experience goes right to your emotional core.  The impact lives on when you are an adult until you can sort it out and understand it,” Larry said.

“There is no question in my mind that my sister guided me to this counselor.”

I’ve known Larry for 15 or more years, always in a professional business capacity.  As he told his story, I couldn’t believe what I was learning and how we were connecting on a personal soul-to-soul level.  The details of Larry’s story were very different from mine but I could not deny the similarities in spiritual guidance.  I too felt guided to explore my own childhood experience, though I’ve always believe my guides have been my deceased parents.  “What they cannot tell us in life, they bring to us in death,” kept running through my mind.

“You know one of the most important things I’ve learned?” Larry asked me.  “You have to be open and aware.  Spirit speaks in whispers and quiet messages.  Now, I’m always looking for the small things to guide me,” he said.  “You know, I’m kind of guy’s guy and this has all taken a lot of work on my part and more than a little faith.  Whatever you call it — god, spirit, a higher power — it’s out there.”

Larry survived the worst experience of his life and that resonated with me.  “Larry, when you look at it all in retrospect, would you ever say that your experience was a gift?” I asked, mostly because that is the way I’ve come to think of my own accident.

Larry paused.

“I’ve never thought of it that way before but it’s true.  The key part of my story is that I survived.  It’s made me more confident.  When I am in a situation where I’m over my head, I can handle it.  I’d much rather have my sister here with me, but if that isn’t possible, I’m open to the gifts she keeps sending me,” he said.

The more I talk to people, the more certain I am that we all share the same experience.  The details are different and our solutions may vary.  More often than not, it seems as if the guides to a better, richer experience are there for us when we open the door.

What are the Chances?

In my main ‘day job’ I work with lawyers, lots and lots of lawyers.  Today as I was yukking it up with Craig-The-Lawyer, he mentioned a key meeting tomorrow and asked me to ‘light a candle’.  Without skipping a beat, I quickly retorted, “Well, I’ll do my best but I have a little problem with fire.”

“What is that,” he asked innocently?

Muttering an internal “dang it” for blathering on so quickly with that comment, I pulled out some of my stock burned-leg phraseology, “Oh, when I was a kid I climbed up a stove and burned the crap out of my leg.”

“Did you?” he said and again I added too much more content.

“I did.  I was trying to get a cookie or a cracker from the cabinet above the stove and well, it didn’t go so well.  My shoe got stuck on the burner and it wasn’t pretty.”

“You’re kidding?” he half-queried.  I realized I might now be stuck in one of those lawyer-socratic-phrase interchanges where I would soon head down the proverbial “slippery slope” of this repartee.  I’d offered too much.  I was conversational toast.

“You know, the same thing happened to me,” he said.

“You’re kidding!” I countered, bemused and intrigued at the same time.”

“Yeah, I must have been four or five and I wanted to get some of the cookies we kept in the cabinet above the stove.  But keep in mind that I was kind of short fellow then so I took the phone book with me, climbed up the stove and put the book over the burner.  Wouldn’t you know it but I accidentally turned the burner on high.  I got the cookie, but the book got torched and I’ll tell you, the whole thing scarred me for life.”

“It was a gas stove, wasn’t it?” I interrupted, now taking over the role of questioner.

“Matter of fact, it wasn’t.  It was an electric stove.  My wife was talking about getting a gas stove the other day and I told her that based on my experience with the electric stove, we could not get a gas one.  That would be certain death for me,” he laughed.

“Wait.  Are you telling me you had the exact same experience I did but you didn’t get burned?”  I couldn’t believe anyone would have a similar story, an almost verbatim same experience.

“What I’m telling you is that I seem to be a whole lot smarter than you,” he teased.  “I brought along that phone book and it worked a whole lot better than your strategy did.”

And so it was true.  My mind raced.  How many families kept cookies in the cabinet above their electric stove?  How many little kids had exactly the same precocious crazy idea as Craig-The-Lawyer and I did?  How many more people did I know who would share some sort of similar death-defying childhood feat?

In my earlier blog post, Cabinets Above Stoves (https://annegallagher8.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/cabinets-above-stoves/), I wrote about my strange sensitivity for placing goodies above the cooker.  It doesn’t seem so strange anymore.  In fact, I can attest to countless conversations with my relatives and childhood friends who, as adults, will tell me, “You know, I have to tell you.  I’ve told my kids about your accident and it’s how we talk about being careful in the kitchen.”  At first, it used to take me aback to hear these things, as if burning-my-leg-by-climbing-up-a-stove was my lasting legacy.  Over time however I found it almost reassuring — that if I was to be the poster child for stove-related accident prevention, I could live with being a something of an off-beat hero.

By the way, the wry title of this post “What are the Chances?” is obviously a rhetorical question.  Years ago, I might have thought that running into people like Craig-the-Lawyer who have similar stories to share was an anomaly.  Now, I know that it is just the path I’m on these days.  Lots of serendipity.  No coincidences.

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

Freezers and Fires

My sister Susie sent me a short note the other day to let me know that Tom Noonan was dead.  He was 71.  From her perch in Green Bay, Susie sends me the local news from time to time as well as the information about the people we knew while growing up who have passed on to the great beyond.  The news about Tom though was unusual.  At first, my mind drew a blank and I didn’t even remember who he was.  Then, slowly and with a sigh, I realized I knew quite a bit about him.

In our teenage years, dad had a rule about working, which was that his kids could and should work but said employment had to be within walking distance from our house.   The eldest, Kiki, got the first job at Hardee’s (www.hardees.com), then Susie did and then I did.  We took orders and flipped burgers in our brown-and-orange uniforms and more importantly, stayed within a four-block radius of home. During my tenure at Hardee’s, I was quickly promoted from order-taker to burger-cooker and that is when I ran squarely in to Tom Noonan.

Tom was the owner-operator of the Monroe Street franchise where we worked.  It was ironic that we worked at a greasy fast food place with an even greasier owner. As far as we saw, Tom didn’t work much, smoked cigarettes like a fiend and more than certainly was having a torrid affair with his wife’s sister, who also worked at Hardee’s.  It was scum all around.

And so it should not have been a surprise that day when I went into the stainless steel meat cooler to grab some frozen patties and I felt those greasy arms grab me from behind.  I shrieked and dropped the hamburger patties to the floor.  “What the…..?” came my stunned response as I recoiled to the far end of the freezer room.  He laughed and exhaled a puff of cold air.  “Yeah, we couldn’t have done it in here or we would have melted the patties,” he said as he walked out of the cooler.  Enraged and embarrassed, I grabbed my time card, punched out and briskly walked the four blocks home. 

When dad came home from work that night I told him the story.  “And you won’t be going back to work at Hardee’s again,” he said calmly.  Tom’s fate was sealed. 

Later that night, dad pulled out his electric typewriter and typed off the first of many missives to the President of Hardee’s Food Systems, Inc., complaining about Tom Noonan in general and being sure to make mention of time when there was garbage outside the facility or a light was missing from the bright orange Hardee’s marquee sign.  The letters didn’t stop until Tom either found employment elsewhere or was told to seek other employ.  Dad’s letter-writing campaign lasted about two years but I imagine he would have continued for 10 or more if that’s what it would have required to get results.

What’s interesting to me in thinking about Tom Noonan’s death is how dad went to bat for me.  In all the years he lived, dad never once talked about my burn accident or injury.  Yet I always knew he was on my side.  When I think about resolution, I’ve come to understand that people do the best they can.  With people we love, we accept what they are able to give us.  In my case, I wish he would have been more forthcoming during life because it would have helped me decode my own mysteries.

What do you think?

On the topic of Tom Noonan, my sense is he died of lung cancer although the obituary didn’t give a cause of death.  There was a picture accompanying the obit and Tom looked greasy as ever.

Please. A Pleaser?

It wasn’t until I talked to my Aunt Mary that I fully understood how I’d become a pleaser, and I wasn’t really pleased about it.  Not that having a pleasing behavior is always a bad thing; it’s just that I’d never pieced together this aspect of myself in quite this way until I spoke with Aunt Mary.  Aunt Mary is my mom‘s only sister and since my mother’s death, seemed a ripe source of information about my accident.  Yet, the conversation was uncomfortable.  As we talked, it seemed to me that Aunt Mary was going out of her way to not blame my mother, since the accident did indeed occur on her watch.  As my mom ironed in the basement and my sister Susie played nearby, I snuck up to the kitchen to get some crackers, secreted away above the stove.  “Aunt Mary, the accident was my fault,” I told her.  “I knew what I was doing and remember doing it.  I have no one to blame but myself.”  Aunt Mary seemed taken aback and heartily disagreed.  “Annie,” she said with exasperation, “It was not your fault.  You were two years old.  How could it ever have been your fault.”  Her words hung in the air.   I thought about them for a long time. 

For the first time in my life, my perspective changed.  For the better part of my life, I felt guilty about the accident, believing that I had caused my own fate and was forever doomed to be responsible for it, which I must add, I always have been.  I rarely felt sorry for myself, fully rehabilitated myself and developed a persona of never letting other people down.  In my young mind, I reasoned that because no one talked about the accident, particularly my family, they knew what I had done and how stupid it had been.  I pledged to myself never to let my family down again…..and became a pleaser.  Straight A’s.  Editor of the school newspaper.  Athlete.  Generally good person.

Aunt Mary’s words had such power and made so much sense.  When I thought of my own children as two-year-olds, I’d marvel how the train was in motion, but the conductor was rarely home, which is to say, they didn’t know enough to be responsible for much.  Yet I didn’t give my small self the benefit of that doubt.  In fact, I’d never thought of it any other way than that it had been my fault.  In my mind’s eye, whether I’d created the memory from strands of conversation or whether I actually remembered it, I saw myself going up those basement stairs and heading for the stove.

The power of not talking about it meant that I had to give myself an answer however far-fetched it might be when I examined it as an adult.

How might my answer have changed if the event would have been processed this way as a child?  How might my behavior have changed?  These days my pleaser tendencies are not so noticeable and I like to think of myself squarely as a “B+”, hardly a type A anymore.  Age mellows me.  Exploration like this frees me.