“None of us Lives the Life that He Had Intended”

So you liked The Power of Myth...

So you liked The Power of Myth… (Photo credit: jay mann)

Reading from one of my favorite writers, mythologists and lecturers, Joseph Campbell, I remember:
“[Life] seems to have had an order, to have been composed by someone, and those events that were merely accidental when they happened turn out to be the main elements in a consistent plot. Who composed this plot? Just as your dreams are composed, so your whole life has been composed by the will within you. Just as the people who you met by chance became effective agents in the structuring of your life, so you have been the agent in the structuring of other lives. And the whole thing gears together like one big symphony, everything influencing and structuring everything else. It’s as though our lives were the dream of a single dreamer in which all of the dream characters are dreaming too. And so everything links to everything else moved out of the will in nature…It is as though there were an intention behind it yet it is all by chance. None of us lives the life that he had intended.”

Reading the Campbell quote seemed to connect to my thoughts this week when my siblings and I received a final draft of a tribute to my father Bob Gallagher.  Of his many talents, Bob loved to bring out his baritone voice and sing.  Nowhere did he enjoy doing so as when he started the “Boy’s Choir” in 1972 at St. John the Evangelist Church.  Every Saturday night at the 5:15 p.m. mass, the “Boys” – adult men who enjoyed singing — walked up the stairs into the choir loft with cymbals, drums and their sheet music to add their own version of musical prayer to the mass.  As Bob became ill, then wheelchair-bound, the choir carried on, electing a new director after he died nearly 20 years ago on Christmas Eve, 1993.  Last year — 40 some years after the choir began, Ron DeLain, one of the original “Boys”, reached out to my sister Susie and I.  It seemed the choir had reached its end and Ron wanted to create a memory of its existence.  He asked for our help to remember the details, and edit the copy, of a tribute he put together to commemorate all those years of song.

It was also a tribute to Dad.  Twenty some years after his death, they still remembered him and his earthly contributions.  If only we could all be so lucky.  But I wonder:  was it the life Dad intended?  Filled with family, business success, more than a few pranks and a great deal of laughter as well as the very real challenges of a debilitating illness that lead to his death at 65.  So somber and sad.  And still, someone from that inter-connected circle of his life remembered and found a way to keep his memory alive.  Maybe it is as Joseph Campbell says, “one big symphony, everything influencing and structuring everything else.”

Thank you Ron DeLain.

DeLain Ronald-Original GB Boys Choir-035316-035317-(160627)

The Return of the Little Men

 

Little Men

Little Men

“Little men,” Kathleen said.

“Little what?” I asked.  “I don’t know what you are talking about.”

As part of my research to learn what happened when I burned my leg at age two, I was asking friends, relatives, siblings – anyone really – what they remembered about the accident.  My sister Kathleen, four years older than me, was a solid bet.  She would have been six years old at the time and in kindergarten.  Where I always questioned my memories from the time as a two and then three-year old in the hospital, all the research on memory told me that she would have a far more accurate fact set from the time.

But when I asked her to provide her memories, she quickly and curtly responded.  “Little men.  That’s what I remember.”

I asked again, “What are you talking about?  I don’t know anything about little men.”

She tossed back her head in what looked like a gesture filled half with amusement and half with frustration.  “You got all these presents and you got these little men.  I think Judy Schumacher gave them to you.  Don’t you remember?  They came in individual boxes and were all connected on a long blue ribbon.  We opened them in mom’s closet when you were home from the hospital.”

Like a Polaroid picture, the little men developed right in front of me.  Of course I remembered.  It was a full set of miniature Disney characters – everyone from Snow White to Captain Hook.

“My favorite was Captain Hook,” she said as if she could see them as clearly as they were appearing one-by-one in my mind’s eye.  I loved those little men and remembered playing with them.  They were a child’s delight and I had forgotten about them for many years.

I had even forgotten about the conversation with Kathleen until last weekend.  We were at winter “Gallagher weekend,” our semi-annual family get-together with siblings and kids.  Kathleen and Susan, my other sister, met with me on Saturday night after most of the kids had gone to bed to give me some gifts for my December birthday.

It was there that Susan handed me that small white box.  I opened the lid and drew back the paper to reveal eight little men.  At first, I did not know what they were.  They seemed so small.  I pulled them out one by one.  “Are these the little men?” I asked in disbelief.

“They couldn’t be,” Kathleen said.

“Yes, they are,” Susan said.

“Where did you get them?” I couldn’t help but ask.  More than 40 years had passed.

“I found them in a box at my house,” Susan said as if it was the most normal thing possible.

Found them in a box at my house?  How does anyone find anything 40 plus years later?  How do you find something you weren’t looking for?  The questions flooded through faster than I could process them.

I picked up Alice in Wonderland, with her white tights, flowing blond hair and bright blue dress.  She was real.  They all were real.

“What happened to the other ones?” Kathleen asked.

“I honestly don’t know,” Susan said.  “I remember we played with them a lot Annie.  Maybe we divided them up at some point and I took these.  Maybe you lost the other ones.”

I didn’t know.  It didn’t really matter.

What mattered right now was that another piece of the puzzle had fallen in place.  Another memory I had in my mind, one that I wasn’t sure if I created or if it was real, had revealed itself in eight tiny little men.

I imagine that for more people it’s okay if their childhood memories are bit fuzzy.  For me, I look at my burned leg many days and am not sure if I remember being there when it happened.  I am not sure if I made up my memories or if what I remember is real.  I am sure there is a psychological theory to explain why it’s so important to me to know if I actually remember the pictures left in my head or if I merely created them based on stories I heard over the years.

I so want the pictures to be real because whatever the storyline, the burns are real.  Was the accident so real that I had to manufacture a story and pictures to protect myself?  Or, did it happen as I remember – everything in slow motion and me watching my story unfold, not feeling any pain.  I was not in my body as it happened but watching from above the kitchen stove, wondering if my mother would come in time to rescue me, if I would drop back in my body or just keep floating upward.

Seeing the little men – Alice in Wonderland, Jiminy Cricket, Captain Hook, Gepetto and four of the seven dwarfs – was an unexpected confirmation.  That simple confirmation created a healing connection for me.

I did remember.  It was okay.  The images in my mind were right, they made sense.  I didn’t have to worry about them anymore.

 

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.

Shot Karma

Injections are one of many ways to administer ...

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My husband Brian likes to remind me that life is like a karma credit card — it’s far better to add as many credits as you can to your card of life because the debits will inevitably come along.  Having been the recipient of thousands of injections through many years of surgeries, medical check-ups and blood draws, I knew what it was like to get a shot, to feel the anticipation of a needle prick.  As time went on, I’d become queasy at the very thought of a needle and grew accustomed to looking away while some kind nurse or practitioner went about their business of sticking me.  It takes practice to be the patient and I thought I’d become quite good at it.  I never wanted to be on the other side.

But this week, Brian told me that he had a procedure on the horizon and as a part of it, had to have twice daily injections.  He pulled out a plastic bag of pre-filled syringes and handed it to me, intimating that I become chief injector.   My stomach turned somersaults.   There was no way I could do this.

As my yoga teacher Cynthia has told me, life has a way of touching you on the shoulder when it’s your turn.  As I examined every angle of how to get out of giving Brian his shots, I realized there was no way out.  The karma of shots had come my way.    For many years I had taken them, adding debits to my karma credit card.  Now it seemed, it was time to add some credits to that card.

As the moment approached,I over-thought my new role.  Then, I remembered a passage from the book, Surfing the Himalayas:  A Spiritual Adventure  (www.himalayas.com), “Thoughts should have a place in your life of course, but it should be a very small place.  To really  know something, in order to see its perfection and to become part of that perfection, you must become the action that you seek to perfect.”

Brian handed me the needle.   As if I’d done it all my life, I took it, flicked the tip and watched droplets of fluid fall out, then plunged it into the folds of stomach Brian gathered with his hand and depressed the plunger, feeling the tension of liquid pouring into his body and out of the syringe.  We both exhaled. 

From nursed to nurse.  Karma isn’t always supposed to come full circle in a single lifetime but it felt that way.  I’d repeat the same anticipation, the same motion for three more days.  I didn’t want to perfect this action by any means.  Still, I found a way to become one with it.  If nothing else, I felt it was my turn to do it.

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

 

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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.

Defining Moments

Without question, I believe everyone has defining moments in their life. For me, my burn injury was one of these moments but I never felt it was “the” thing that defined me. After my last post, a couple high school friends independently sent private emails essentially saying the same thing, “When we thought of you, we didn’t think of your injury.” Understanding the accident decades later is not the reason I’m writing the blog. It’s just the starting point for the storyline. When my own kids asked me, “What happened to your leg, Mom?”, there was a story to tell. Since my parents didn’t talk about the accident while they were alive, there were some missing pieces and I wanted to see if the story I thought I knew was the one that actually happened. Added to that was the fact that I thought my parents were sending some signs from beyond for me to explore the past further. And thus I began putting together the pieces of the puzzle.

Have you had a defining moment that became your starting point?