The Day My Life Changed

Hey guys! One of my closest friends from school was required to do a video project this past week. She had to interview someone, much like what I do every Thursday. She came to me with a question and this time, I was the subject. It was very fun being on the other side of the camera. So instead of my usual interview with someone else, this week you guys get a closer peek at me–in real life! Go ahead then, click play and find out what I talked about! 

The Box and The Hole

Clear skies overhead.
My black dress dances with the wind.

 Cold, gray, rectangles
depressed into
the green grass underfoot.

Like ducklings,
we pass
L. ZIOBER
25 MAR. 1912- 9 JULY 1979
and
JARMOS
JAN
AUG. 13 1919
APR. 30 1997

And then,
GALLAGHER
LOVING
WIFE, MOTHER
AND FRIEND
PATRICIA M.
1926-1982
I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE
JOHN 11:25

Three leaf clovers bloom from
carved Celtic crosses
framing the name.

Concerned voices mumble.
A hand shovel plows into dirt.
Small footsteps race through aisles.

But I am still,
grip the edges of a box
small enough for only
a handful of his remains.

Uncertainly,
unsteadily
I lay him to rest
with the grandmother I never met;

cover the hole,
read his speech from
eighteen years ago
to a son he’d never get the chance to know.

Maybe they fish together now.

Red, wet-faced,
I trail behind.

Clear skies overhead.
My black dress dances with the wind.

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Fake It ‘Til You Make It

After my dad passed away, I had a really hard time having conversations with friends and family about “stupid things”. The Dancing with the Stars gossip. The babble about cute boys that you never actually get the nerve to talk to. The daydreams about meeting celebrity crushes that almost never come true (I say almost because I’ve still got hope that I will one day meet mine. Harry Styles, I hope you’re reading this.)

These silly conversations help relationships last. Because if the only things we ever talked about were serious, deep, and existential subjects, our relationships would not only be seriously depressing, but also very short. Because no one wants to hang out with a person that can’t enjoy the fluff of life.

And I had become that person. Sure, I listened to friends and family talk about the “stupid things” but while they talked, I barely listened. I nodded and smiled, but inside my head thought about how ridiculous it was that they cared so much about how their little sister borrowed their shirt without asking when my dad was still very dead. I had become so wrapped up in my own life that I could barely take an interest in anyone else’s. And it had created distance between me and the friends and family I cared very much about.

When I started seeing my bereavement counselor, Mary, (written about here: https://abbeygallagher.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/skiing-with-my-bereavement-counselor/) I told her about this problem. How I would have dinner with a friend and while they went on about the things in their life, my mind would wander and think about more serious subjects. Most of all, my dad.

She gave me an assignment. Instead of just nodding and smiling, I had to start these “stupid conversations” and really practice listening to the other person speak and not let my mind wander into the depths of Abbey-La-La-Land.

And because I wanted to get better, I did what she said.

But it was so much harder than I thought. I struggled to care about the “stupid” things my friends and family cared so much about. It all seemed so trivial compared to the loss that I was dealing with in my life. After a week, I told Mary how impossible I found her assignment.

That’s when she gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten.

“Fake it till you make it.”

I couldn’t believe a licensed social worker was telling me to pretend to care and pretend to take an interest in my friends and family in the hopes that one day, I really would. But I figured she must have known something about what she was telling me so I gave it a shot.

For a while, I had to consciously pretend in those conversations. But as time went on, it became easier to engage with others about silly things. I no longer had to keep track of whose turn it was to speak and I no longer pretended to care. I really did. Her advice had proven true.

And it certainly doesn’t just apply to these “stupid conversations.” I carry this advice with me everywhere I go.

For example, the other day I saw one of my aunt’s who I rarely ever see. She’s from my dad’s side of the family, married to one of his brothers. However, she lives over a thousand miles away in Florida. Which particularly stinks since I love spending time with her.

After seeing me, she texted, and among other things, wrote,

“It is so nice to see how comfortable you are as yourself.”

I was completely surprised.

Firstly, because someone had acknowledged all the hard work I’ve done these last few years on becoming a healthier, happier, and more confident person in a very direct and straightforward way. It wasn’t just a passing comment. By writing the message to me, there was a sort of permanence to it.

And secondly, because even though I’ve made tremendous progress, I still struggle to feel comfortable in my own skin sometimes. But every day I look in the mirror, smile wide and pretend I’ve got all the confidence in the world. Because I know that eventually, one day that confidence will stick.

July 13, 2010

Happy Saturday everyone! Today’s post is from a piece I worked on while at my creative writing program at NYU. I waited this long to share it with you all because I wanted to post it on the anniversary of the event. This is the most important piece I’ve written so far in my short little life so I’m only going to post an excerpt. Mainly because I still want to work on it, but also because I would like to submit it to a literary magazine to be published 🙂 

AbbeyandDadProm

I see him lying there. Perfectly still under a white sheet. From afar, it looks like he could be sleeping. The beeping machine chained to him for days is finally silent. The tubes pumping life into his emaciated frame, removed. The sun’s rays cast shadows upon the harsh landscape of his face and I am surprised by how familiar he still looks. I had imagined that once he died, a magical transformation would take place and his body would be replaced by a look alike, a stand-in. But there is no mistaking. This is the body of my dad. But this is not the body of the man I want to remember.

Not the body of the man who spent summer afternoons throwing pitches for me to hit even though I missed nine out of ten times. Who held my hand when I cried about missing my mom. Who sat beside me in bed while I read aloud about the Boxcar Children.

The usual flush in his cheeks has drained. All laughter has been extinguished behind his eyes and they stare, naked and blue, at the fluorescent light on the ceiling that no one has turned on. His lips are chapped and slightly parted, waiting for a drop of water that will never drip. The white sheet does not rise.

Between my fingers, I grasp the white cotton and raise it, peering at what lies beneath. Tentatively, I wrap my fingers around his forearm where his sleeve has been rolled up. A coldness transfers from his skin to mine and courses through my body. But I do not let go.

I want to be original but instead, quickly and quietly say all the generic things that living people say to dead people. About how sorry I am that this happened and how I don’t know how I’ll go on, but I will. I tell him he is my hero. I tell him I love him.

But I want my old life back, when things could be reversed. When you made a mistake on a test and could erase it. When you got into a fight and could apologize. When your heart could break and it would heal.

Standing, I gently kiss him on the top of his cold and bare head. Three last words escape my lips and when I let go of his arm, I notice I’ve left an indentation in his skin.

1955-2010

Hello all! I haven’t forgotten my newest video project, don’t you worry, but for today I want to post one last poem. In memory of the anniversary of my dad’s passing, which is this upcoming Saturday, I wanted to repost this poem. I hope you enjoy it. (And get ready for next week’s video!)

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 (July 2009 at Lake George)

Every time I hear Jerry’s
voice
I think of the hours we spent
driving around
soaking the sun into our
fair
and
freckled
skin.

It seems we went
everywhere
in the Jeep.
The sun filtering into our car,
baking me,
as my eyes droop
in the ultimate serenity of it
all.

I sit beside you with my window rolled down,
the wind tangling my
brown mop
for your lack of one
as we reach 85.

Your aged hands, thick and healthy
beat the steering wheel
in rhythm to the drums,
keeping you in the song
infinitely.

It’s something I got from you,
you know.
To find beauty in sound.
To find beauty in what others considered
small things.
Because really,
they were all we truly needed.

And each other.
And that remains.

When the dancing bears
pass me by
I think of our adventure to get tickets
to a concert I was too young to see.
Your strong, tough, large hand
enveloping my tiny one
that was so untouched by the world
you wanted to keep it that way,
protecting it
and me
as you held tight.

One swift movement
and I could easily be in your arms
against your warm
chest
with your heart thumping loudly into my ear
away from anything too scary
for my innocent
blue eyes.

I was able to see then
that smiling,
enjoying other peoples company,
and wearing long flowy skirts with anklets that
made music when you walked
were what
it all seemed to be about.
A simple truth
I easily understood,
standing less than five feet tall.

And that remains.

Glancing at my bookcase,
always resting
is the giant red book you gave me
from when you graduated college
as your way to encourage me to get there too.
Barely able to see my face in the bathroom mirror,
it was too big to handle
with too many words I did not know
and could not pronounce
even if I tried,
and only lately
is it manageable.

A book found in every home,
but special
because
it is worn
and it was
your gift to me.

I see many new additions;
all familiar
and
some I know that are older
than me.
When I take them down
-always gentle-
I rustle through the pages
looking for a place to crawl
into,
where you’re just awaiting
my company.

And sometimes
when I find your
scribble
here
and
there it reminds me of
myself
and
how we are
truly
one of a kind.

And that remains.

When I sink into the couch
and watch the History Channel
you take the remote and change it anyways.
When I’m sick with a fever
you still check in to make sure
I’m not really faking it.
When I get a good grade
you’re still all ears
forever replying, “Not bad.”
When I wake in the middle of the night
from the worst
nightmare a person
could ever have
you’re there to put me back to bed.
When I’m on the train
doing homework
you sit down next to me
so no one else will.
And when I feel alone I just think back to
Jerry’s voice
and all the years we
had
knowing that they remain.

Even if all that remains now are remains.

Happy Birthday Dad

I’m reblogging this piece again because today is my dad’s birthday. I wrote this poem for him four years ago for his 54th birthday. Today he would’ve been 58.

Abigail and Dad Birthday

As a kid you weren’t always there for me
but you came when I needed you to be.
A move would never come easy to us
but we muddled though it all with small fuss.
You were finally there for everything
from summer, to fall, through winter and spring.
And even now that things have changed so much
I’ll always be there for a hand to touch.
I guess I know the place where I feel best
and that’s next to you, where I’m truly blessed.
When we’re in the car with music playing,
song after song, our arrival delaying,
the sun shining brightly on our faces,
trees pass by, seeing so many places.
No words are spoken but we’re both content
knowing where we’re going and where we went.
We’re a team, always and forever, Dad.
Everything will be okay, don’t be sad.
Together we’ll get through it all I know
because we’re a team, forever we’ll grow.

Merry Cancer–I mean Christmas

Christmas Tree

The weekend after my dad was diagnosed, a snowstorm hit. He was still in the hospital so my aunt stayed with me at my house while I worked on a Spanish project. I didn’t talk much. Just focused on my work. Está nevando. Estoy triste. Mi papá tiene cáncer.* With the snow falling silently outside, it felt as though the world had taken pause to acknowledge what had happened to me and my dad. I thanked the snow gods for finally hearing my prayers.

As the Christmas tree’s lights twinkled in the background, I monotonously worked on my project as my mind drifted across ideas of what my life would become in the next few months. I imagined what cancer patients looked like: hairless and fragile; what cancer patients acted like: soft and sweet; what cancer patients sounded like: soft spoken and quiet. All these characteristics were exactly the opposite of my dad. I imagined he would come home from the hospital a changed man. I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to act around him. Would I hurt him if I hugged him? Would we acknowledge his diagnosis or ignore it and pretend like not much had changed? Would other people be able to tell that he had cancer now? How sick was he going to get? What kind of treatment would he receive? Would he die sooner or later?

By Tuesday, my dad returned home. Wrapped in a fleece robe, he sat hunched over on our red velvet ottoman beside our fireplace in front of the television, smoking a cigarette up the chimney. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, talk or stay quiet, or whether to stay in the room at all. I had forgotten how to be a daughter. I hadn’t yet learned how to be a cancer patient’s daughter, which I quickly figured out was quite different from the role I had before.

It didn’t help that he looked smaller than when I last saw him. Weaker. Defeated. I knew that couldn’t really be the case since I only saw him a few short days ago. What had changed instead, was my perception of him. No longer was he the strong and resilient man that would be able to protect me at any moment. He had become a cancer patient and appeared to have reverted to being a boy, in need of his mom to take care of him.

With Christmas coming up in a few short days, I did my best to pretend like nothing had changed. I wrapped the few presents I had bought, and even though I wasn’t really concerned with gifts this year–if I had it my way, I would’ve skipped Christmas entirely–I asked my uncle to take me to the local arts and crafts store where I bought a bunch of canvases and a set of paints and brushes to make small pieces of art work for my friends and family.

For the next couple of days, I worked tirelessly in my bedroom on pieces of art. In only my underwear and a flannel shirt, I sat on the floor with my canvases in front a tiny electric heater with a can of Coca-Cola in one hand and a paintbrush in the other. Although one of my aunt’s had helped me get “practical” Christmas presents for my dad, like slippers and warm pajamas (that he would subsequently live in for the next one and a half years) I wanted to give him something that truly came from my heart.

And that’s exactly what I painted. My heart. Flaming blue in the middle of a sea of warm colors. I spent all day on Christmas Eve working on the piece and by the end of the night, I was drained. But it was finished and I couldn’t wait for him to open it the next morning. I knew I could never top the leg lamp (https://abbeygallagher.wordpress.com/2013/01/30/a-christmas-story/), but a painting would surely mean more than a pair of socks. Of which I had bought three.

My aunt arrived that evening to spend the night (so I would have someone who could pretend to enjoy the holiday with since my dad was not exactly in the holiday spirit. I wonder why?) It was nice to have her around because at least she provided a distraction from the elephant that sat in the room. The elephant being my dad. The elephant more specifically being the tumor inside my dad. But without doing our usual Christmas traditions, the holiday felt foreign to me and I only wished the next twenty-four hours would go by as quickly as possible.

Waking up the next morning, I walked down the hall and didn’t even try to wake my dad up. Now that we knew how sick he was, I learned the first rule of being a cancer patient’s daughter: do not wake the patient up unless the house is on fire or you, yourself are dying. I came to believe that if he just slept enough, he’d get better. If only it had been that easy, he would’ve healed in a month’s time.

Looking in the living room, my aunt sat on our couch fully dressed her usual blue jeans and black shirt, smiling brightly. Despite the circumstances, she always had this smile spread across her face. It would have been easy to confuse her smile for heartlessness, but I knew she was just trying to prevent me from feeling worse while also hiding how helpless she felt, knowing that she could not fix what had been permanently broken.

I was surprised to see gifts under the tree but refused to open any of them until my dad woke up. Considering my dad had been in the hospital the whole Christmas season unable to get gifts for anyone, I wouldn’t have been surprised if my Christmas gifts had been forgotten—I wouldn’t have been surprised if everyone forgot I even existed…part of me wished they had.

I was determined to follow my newly learned patient-daughter etiquette, and therefore refused to wake my dad up so my aunt and I decided to make breakfast instead. I told my aunt what my dad and I usually made for breakfast on Christmas morning (pancakes, eggs, and bacon) and despite our scarce ingredients, my aunt was determined to make it a reality for me. She was trying to make this Christmas as normal as she possibly could. She told me to get dressed and so I layered up and we left the house on a scavenger hunt for some bacon, eggs, and milk. The supermarkets were all closed but in a last ditch effort, a deli was open and we managed to find all that we needed. Returning home, my aunt encouraged me to open one gift even though my dad was still sleeping, and I was pleasantly surprised to unwrap a couple of piano books that I had been yearning for. While my aunt worked on breakfast in the kitchen, I set up my keyboard precariously on our dining room table, put the volume at a barely audible decibel level and ran my fingers across the keys as I read the music. The sun streamed in through the venetian blinds of the dining room and for the first time since the diagnosis, I felt like things weren’t so bad after all.

The smell of bacon must have awakened my dad’s senses however, and he finally shuffled out of his bedroom and plopped down on the ottoman. He didn’t want to eat anything and ditching the breakfast table, my aunt and I sat under the Christmas tree and kept handing him gifts to open. Despite feeling nauseous, he sat through the opening of gifts and by the end was surrounded by several pairs of slippers, a robe, enough pajamas and socks to build an empire with, and last but not least, my painting, which he placed on the mantle above our fireplace where it stood for the next year and a half. He was grateful for what he got but thought we had gone overboard. He shuffled back to his room and fell back asleep as my aunt and I exchanged gifts and then got ready to visit my aunt and dad’s parent’s house.

Instead of my dad taking me to visit his family, my aunt took me and my dad’s brother picked him up later to bring him over since he wasn’t feeling well enough to drive. When I arrived however, it was as if nothing had changed in anyone else’s life. It was exactly like all the other Christmas’ past. No one mentioned that my dad just got diagnosed with cancer. Wasn’t everyone else’s world supposed to have stopped because mine had suffered such a violent cataclysm?

When my dad arrived though, things did change. Everyone treated him differently. They spoke to him in sweet baby voices and asked how he was feeling. People walked around him like he was a glass doll about to shatter at any moment. But didn’t anyone see he was still the same person?

And that’s when I realized the most important rule of being a cancer patient’s daughter: Treat your parent as normally as possible. Cancer doesn’t erase his or her identity.

Not at first, at least.

 

*Translation: “It is snowing. I am sad. My dad has cancer.” I’m not sure if my Spanish is correct here so if anyone can help me out, I’d truly appreciate it. I don’t want to offend anyone 🙂 

Also, I don’t have my painting with me here at college, but when I go back to my grandparent’s I will take a picture and post it. 

Meet Cha Cha

abbey and kaitlyn

Most people meet their best friends at school, at work, or through a mutual friend. But I met one of my best friends at a very unlikely place: my bereavement Group.

It was the fall after graduating high school and I had decided to take some time off of school to finally address my grief surrounding my father’s death. I had gone to bereavement Group the previous year but didn’t return after a particularly hard session. It was easier to simply avoid the problem at the time. But now that I had finally graduated high school and realized I finally needed to address my dad’s death, I finally committed to attending bereavement Group.

And so, at my first meeting I sat on a couch across from two other women who were in their twenties, two middle-aged social workers who led the Group, and on the other end of the couch was a girl my age. She was about my height with tan skin, her long dark hair pulled up into a messy bun on the top of her head. She wore leggings and a t-shirt with countless bracelets stacked up her arm. She was fairly quiet the whole session and I really didn’t think we’d have anything in common. I felt like we had come from two very different worlds.

I had grown up in a “non-traditional” family, being raised by my mother and grandparents until I was ten and then by my single father until he died when I was seventeen when I then moved in with my maternal grandparents in another town. I learned during the session that she, on the other hand, had grown up in a “traditional” household with two married parents and two younger siblings until her mother, like my father, got cancer and passed away. Now, she admitted to feeling like she had taken the maternal role in her family and could no longer be a regular teenager. I had rarely felt like a teenager even before my dad was sick since I had grown up quickly due to my mother’s mental illness and didn’t think that we would ever be able to connect.

But as I continued going to Group throughout the year, I slowly came to learn about this girl. Her name was Kaitlyn and despite being shy about her feelings, it was obvious that she was a fun-loving and spirited girl who just needed to learn to trust in order to open her heart to someone. Considering the loss of her mother, this came as no surprise.

One night, as I left Group and rushed to my car in the cold winter’s air, Kaitlyn caught up to me. I had mentioned in Group that I just started going to community college for the spring semester. She attended the same community college and asked how I was liking it. Suddenly, I was telling her about things completely unrelated to my loss. In an instant, we became people who had lives outside of bereavement Group and it felt liberating. We exchanged numbers and planned to hang out after our next Group meeting.

After the next meeting, we drove to an ice cream place in town. Despite the freezing weather, I got an ice cream sundae with extra hot fudge (because after talking about your dead dad for an hour and a half, you really deserve one) and she got a chocolate shake. We walked up the street to a pizza place and she got a slice of pizza. Sitting across from each other, we talked about silly things: a boy that asked me out on a date, her plans for spring break, what our other friends were like. It was such a relief to spend time with someone my own age who had gone through the same kind of loss as I had and not talk about it. Finally, our losses didn’t feel like our entire identities. We left that night agreeing that we would continue the tradition of going out to dinner after each Group meeting.

And so every Tuesday after Group, we drove to the local diner and had dinner, talking about things in our lives that most of the time had nothing to do with our loss.  When we weren’t together, we checked in on each other regularly, knowing the challenges that the other person might be facing that day from their feelings of loss. We constantly made sure the other person knew that we were there for anything the other needed. We did silly things like sending the other person a picture of their celebrity crush or leaving them a note on their car at school to make them feel loved even when they didn’t always feel that way in other areas of their life. Every time we met up we almost always had something special to give the other person: a new CD, a DVD, or a friendship bracelet. Kaitlyn made me feel like a priority in someone else’s life. I can only hope that she felt (and feels) the same.

When the summer came and our Group ended, it would have been easy for our friendship to dissolve since we no longer had the excuse of going to Group to bring us together. But after becoming so close, that was impossible. Despite our busy schedules, we regularly made time to get together and have dinner and see a movie. After so many dinners and desserts I came to be known as the Cheesecake Queen and after I couldn’t eat any more Kaitlyn introduced me to frozen yogurt, for which I will forever be indebted to her.

At the end of the summer, we both went away to different colleges. Again, it would have been easy for us to let our friendship slip away, especially considering the distance we were from each other. But that was simply not going to be the case. We contacted each other almost every day, supporting the other in the challenges she faced and sent cards for every occasion and some just because. We counted down the days till we were reunited and when we saw each other over winter break, it was like no time had passed at all.

We still talk almost every day and we still make sure to send the other person little messages of how much we love them. Kaitlyn has taught me how simple it can be to show someone you care. You don’t need to send telegrams with roses and jewelry. Sometimes all it takes is a simple, “How are you?”. Instead of constantly telling the other person how I feel, I’ve learned how to show it.

Our friendship has proven that out of tragedy, love can grow.

What You Left Behind

DSCN0171

You did not
go
without leaving
behind a few
things.

Clothes.

Some shirts
of course.
And jackets
you wore
in the winter
to keep your skinny frame
warm.
Your robes
with cigarette holes
accidentally
burnt through.
And a
cap
with steal your face
embroidered on the
front.

Music.

Tapes
and countless
CDs.
Boxes filled with records
too heavy
for me to carry.
The Kinks,
Bowie,
and
Pink Floyd
are all
mine
now.

Eyes.

Big and blue.
Lost
and searching
wildly
for
an
answer.

Memories.

You held my
hand
on car rides
I cried through.
And I
returned the favor
as I
held yours
while you lay
sleeping.

Photographs.

Frozen in time,
you smile.
Holding a fish
in one
with your cap firmly on your
head.
In another,
you’re walking
up the beach.

Going somewhere.

Somewhere

I can’t follow

yet.

And even though
you didn’t want to go

remember,

the most important thing you
left behind.

And I am your
living
legacy.

All my love.