You heard a little bit about my friendship with Allison last year in a post called Best Friends. I recently filled out a background check form for her so she could start a new job with the government and was stunned to really look at how long we’ve known each other: August 1992 to present. Seriously, we met when we were five during nap time in kindergarten. It’s intense.
Allison and her family have been a major part of my life ever since. I can really attribute her family’s influence to so many interests in my life– from competitive speech to my choice of books to my eventual choice of LSU for college. They also introduced me to the United Methodist Church, which is the denomination Rene and I eventually were married in and made our church home. Like Allison’s mom, Ms. Karen, I graduated in mass communication at LSU and pursued a career in public relations/public service.
Shortly after I began college in 2005, Allison’s dad –Mr. Lee– passed away after a very brief battle with pancreatic cancer. His death occurred in between Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. Shortly after, Allison’s grandmother passed away as well. Needless to say, it was a dark time. Allison, being an amazing friend and writer, agreed to write this blog post about her dad and her family’s journey after his death. If you’re interested in reading more, Allison currently blogs at Fleur De Livre.
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About My Dead Dad But Were Afraid to Ask
By Allison Gallaspy
There is a spectacular family legend surrounding the birth of Lee Andrew Gallaspy that has endured for the last fifty six years and it is this: that he was midwifed into existence by a magnificently enraged prairie buffalo. The story is not as complicated as the lead-in: his very pregnant mother was on a nature reserve in her native Oklahoma, armed with a camera capable of flash photography and when she employed it at a range that was a little to close for the beast’s comfort, it gave chase. It wasn’t a fight she was predisposed to win, so she succumbed to her overwhelming flight instinct instead and forever after insisted that the exertion sent her into early labor. Shortly thereafter, Lee Gallaspy took his first infant breath, the first exhalation of billions that would come after in the course of his 49 years of life. It’s a remarkable genesis story and we love it for what it seems to tell us about the baby boy born of a buffalo: that his life would not be free from unique difficulties, but that he would ultimately come through them safely and more distinguished for having endured them.
The family lived in Lafayette, Louisiana where his dad was employed as a geologist and his mother ran the operating rooms of the local general hospital as a surgical nurse. They added two younger siblings over the next half decade, his brother, Alan and sister, Lynn. Lee grew up in the same house where his dad still lives today; there he developed a fascination with John Wayne movies and Cowboy culture, watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon and tried to capture the moment in a photograph of the family television set, relaxed with his buddies after football practice, and readied himself to go the prom in a powder blue tux with his sweetheart, Karen Cooper. He attended LSU in Baton Rouge where he was a member of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, earned a bachelor’s in political science and his Juris Doctorate from the law school. He married Karen in the week between Christmas and New Year’s in 1978 at Asbury United Methodist Church in Lafayette; the sanctuary was still decorated with yuletide greenery as they exchanged vows. Lee went on to serve as a public defender for almost twenty years, which never earned him the bloated lawyer’s salary, but satisfied his generous heart and social conscience. In 1983, he became a father when he and Karen welcomed a baby boy with the undeniable, implacable Gallaspy butt-chin. Two years later, the family added a girl, and two years after that, I was born. My dad always said that each of our birthdays was the best day of his life.
And that’s a pretty great statement from a guy who had a pretty magnificent life. My dad never won any awards, he never met any famous people, he never earned a book deal or a reality tv show. He worked. Until his job almost broke him. He sang. As the bass section lead in the church choir. He loved. His family, LSU tigers football games on Saturdays, road trips and traveling, reading books about our nation’s history. I’ve come to feel that he was the perfect dad for me. He realized that his job as a parent was to be steadfast when I was confused and to show me understanding when I didn’t understand myself or necessarily deserve it. He was a great mentor and teacher, especially to teenagers – whether they were related to him or not. If you had a question, he was quick with a more-than-adequate educational lecture or dogged in his pursuit of resources that knew more than he did. He had a way of letting you know if you were wrong about something that was gentle, affirming, and always made you feel free of rebuke or judgment. But more than anything, the thing about Dad that made him magnificent wasn’t that he was always perfect (because of course he wasn’t) but that he was dedicated to living his principles, that he was, for everyone who knew him, an example of integrity and empathy that was neither boastful nor secret.
My mother, brother, sister, and I sat in a row in a dark movie theater last week, laughing inappropriately at a line from the movie The Guilt Trip. Barbara Streisand’s character introduces a friend of hers to her son, played by Seth Rogen, by saying her name, that she’s the leader of their weight watchers group, and then inserting the apparent non sequitur that had us in stitches: “her husband died.” The rest of the theater eventually caught up with us when the punchline came through in the next section of dialogue. (Rogen: Oh, I’m sorry. Sassy Older Lady Friend: Why? I’m not.) But the rest of the theater audience wasn’t laughing at the same thing we were when they joined our mirth. We weren’t laughing at the dumb, easy joke. We’d been laughing at the perfect moment before it, at the discomfort everyone else in the theater was feeling, at the clumsy display of the very real (if slightly exaggerated) impulse other people feel to identify us by our tragedy.
Our tragedy was that we lost a vital member of our family seven years ago to pancreatic cancer. A family friend told me very bluntly at the beginning of our ordeal that, “people hear the word ‘cancer’ and they instantly think ‘death.’” In my dad’s case, that mental shortcut ultimately proved itself true. The progression of my dad’s disease was typically quick; he died exactly three months after he’d been diagnosed by the discovery of inoperable tumors on his pancreas and liver. Diagnosis itself is a process of identification; unfortunately for my dad (and almost every other pancreatic cancer patient who is not Steve Jobs strata wealthy) it’s a process that didn’t begin early enough. Early detection is the cornerstone of cancer treatment, but it’s largely impossible with my dad’s type of cancer. He didn’t hesitate to start chemotherapy, on an experimental drug that was actually celebrated at the time for having up to a 20% success rate, but which honestly probably only hastened the deterioration of his condition. He woke up on September 18, 2005 and took the last of his breaths. I was eighteen years old.
It’s always a startling revelation for us children when we realize that our parents were fully-formed people with their own lives before we came along. My dad, Lee, was an excellent counselor upon whom friends and family could always depend. He was a funny guy. He was a dreamer, who acknowledged that our justice system was deeply flawed in practice but essentially unrivaled in concept, who never quit believing that it could be improved. He was a sports fan. He was a cherished friend. Each conversation I had at his wake colored in a new dimension of this person that I had lived with, that I had come from. I was surprised at just how many people he had touched with his life, relatively brief as it had been. I was astonished with my mother that summer of sickness and in the years after. It’s the true contradiction of my parents’ relationship that my dad made his living arguing in South Louisiana’s courts but that my mom was the warrior who fought every day for his dignity, for whatever relief she could provide from the pain of his body’s failure, for him to stay with us as long as he could because she couldn’t imagine her life without him, our family without him.
And we are a different family now. A family who can laugh at the wrong joke. And we don’t really make sense without our context: that our dad is dead, that it was a whirlwind barrage of misery that seemed like it wouldn’t let up until it all of a sudden did and we were not better for it or triumphant over it, but so much emptier because of it. And yet, my dad’s death is never the last word, not for him and not for me. Cheryl Strayed writes about losing her mother young, at 22, and she says it’s like an empty bowl inside of her that she has to keep filling over and over again. She writes in her column, Dear Sugar, that it’s not okay that our parents weren’t there and won’t be there for graduations and weddings and other life milestones. She’s right on both counts, my dad’s absence was a heaviness in my chest, a sorrow in between my ribcages that I carried for years and it’s not okay that everything I’ve done that makes me an interesting person that people want to know seems to have post-dated my dad’s life. But it’s not those banner days that are sad for me because I’ve realized that he is the reason that I accomplish anything at all. Being my dad’s daughter gives me the confidence to believe that I am worthy of great things, the boldness to try new experiences, and the tenacity that never lets me give up on pursuing my heart’s desires. It’s hard sometimes to know where my true north is, and I envy my dad the certainty that I imagine only a law student whose lifelong personal heroes are Abraham Lincoln and Atticus Finch could possess at age 25. But I have always been certain that I am best self when following behind his example, taking my happiness wherever I can find it, and sharing my life fully and honestly with the people I love, all of them my family, biological or not.
There’s a lot of power in how we identify ourselves, in how we choose to assimilate and understand what happens to us in life, especially our difficulties. In a book called Far From the Tree Andrew Solomon proposes that persistent, chronic illnesses can be claimed as identities and that in the process, they become things to celebrate instead of problems to be fixed. My dad never got the opportunity to call himself a cancer survivor, but I like to think that he’d be proud of you, Laura, and the way you’ve broken that old expectation by living, taking on the mantle, and challenging other young people to re-define what that term implies: how survivors look, how they sound, how they set and accomplish new goals, how they advocate and write and express their truth. (Although, I feel compelled to mention that identity is self-deterministic and Barbara Ehrenreich argues pretty convincingly for why we should accept and respect people who take issue with the “cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me” narrative in her book Bright Sided.) I, for my part, never felt that there was a place for me as a late-teenaged mourner, there was no easy plan to follow out of grief, no simply-discovered support group I could join. I thought that because I was eighteen and hurting that I was the only eighteen year old that had ever hurt in the history of the human condition. (Hah!) And though I know now that sentiment was never true, my belief in its accuracy at the time ultimately set me on a path towards healing that was internal and self-driven, a path that allowed me to define myself and my dad in opposition to the heartbreaking end of his life. Healing means that I live my life in a way that makes Dad proud. It means that cancer hasn’t won; not in my life, not in my dad’s, and not in my best friend’s either.