Oct 29, 2023

September 19, 2023 - Goodbye Daddy

Post by 
Heather Gallagher

This post is a departure from the content I usually share on my website. As I considered if I should publish a more personal article, it became clear to me that alongside the projects I have worked on, press mentions, speaking engagements, my resume, and stories about many immersive adventures that have shaped who I am, it is fitting to share about another major influence in my life. A person who not only granted me the gift of life but also provided me with the tools and motivation that, surprisingly to us both, set me on a path toward living an extraordinary life.

Col. David John Gallagher was a good son, a good man, a good father, stepfather, grandfather, and a good husband. My dad was the kind of son who called his mother every Sunday night until the day she died. 

Grandma Dot (Dorothy Mae Hawk Gallagher) & Daddy (David John Gallagher)
David & brother Bruce (I think) on the Jersey shore

The elder of two sons growing up in Darby, PA, Dave and his brother spent summers boating, fishing, crabbing, clamming, and working on Brigantine Island near Atlantic City, NJ. He was the first Gallagher in the extended family to attend college, where he became a Kappa Sigma studying Industrial Engineering at Rutgers. He always joked they only let him in to boost the fraternity’s GPA. I’m pretty sure those fraternity toga parties, which seem so historically charming and innocent to me now, were the craziest parties he ever attended. My dad didn’t just go to college though, he also joined the ROTC where he was initiated into “Scabbard and Blade” a national honorary military society. He plowed straight through eight consecutive years of education until he got a Ph.D. in Operations Research and Engineering from Arizona State. It was there he met and later married my mother Ann. They had me a few years later on Halloween night on an Air Force Base in Albuquerque, NM.

My dad was smart, motivated, and always tried to do the right thing.

In yoga terms, I would say that he was very dharma-driven as he acted from a deep sense of responsibility. So much so that he was always thinking, planning, or worrying about the next thing that needed to be done, or more accurately the next five things. He was often two steps ahead of everyone else (a trait that I share), and sometimes so focused and anxious about the future that he could not simply be in the present moment (which I am grateful I learned to do, at least most of the time.)

Dave's School Years
ROTC Honor Society
PhD Dissertation on Queuing Theory
David & Ann Wedding Day
Heather & David

Many years later, now married to his second wife Carolyn and living in Northern Virginia just outside of Washington, DC, my dad didn't just come to high school football games to support me, my step-sister Amy, and my step-brother Brian, during our years in the marching band, he was the Band Booster President. Every weekend, and on many trips for band competitions, he inspired a team of fellow dads to hustle various instruments and pieces of equipment, loading and unloading them onto trucks and moving them around the sidelines. Imagine our teenage horror as my father’s "fashion style" got adopted by the other dads and became the unofficial band booster uniform: white sneakers, polyester slacks, a maroon Marching Majors stadium jacket and a matching ball cap perched too high on their heads.

Dave Gallagher showed up for his family, in all its configurations, reconfigurations, extensions, and permutations. 

David & Carolyn Wedding Day
Heather, Carolyn, Brian, David & Amy
In the bleachers at James Madison University to see his daughter in the Marching Royal Dukes

Dave Gallagher devoted three decades to a career at the Pentagon, getting up at the crack of dawn and carpooling in every weekday. During my childhood years, he occasionally traveled to Europe to participate in various NATO and high-level international policy meetings. Things he couldn’t tell me about, and that I wasn’t at all interested in. Throughout his tenure in the Department of Defense, he earned numerous awards for Exceptional Civilian Service. As if one job wasn't enough, he also retired as a Colonel in the Air Force Reserves. Both he and my stepmother worked at the Pentagon, so the news was always on, and dinners with their friends were an alphabet soup of military program abbreviations and bureaucratic government terminology. 

My dad worked his ass off for a lifetime serving this country and looked great in either a suit or a uniform. 

David & Zero
One of several awards for Exceptional Civilian Service

One of my dad’s favorite things was hosting a group of friends for a blue crab feast in our carport on a hot summer evening. Early that morning he would venture down to the wharf in a sketchy part of D.C. and get a bushel of live crabs right off the boat to cook later that afternoon. Crabs were not cheap and were only available in the summer, so this was serious business in our household. He would loan out old t-shirts to anyone who turned up in a nice outfit, incorrectly assuming this would be a civilized dinner party. With the crab flag flying proudly out front and my parents in his & her crab t-shirts, we were all seated around the picnic table with just enough elbow room for the dirty work at hand. Everyone was issued their tools, paper towels, a precisely equal distribution of crabs and claws, and their own pile of Old Bay seasoning. Step-by-step instructions were shared with anyone new to the sport of crab picking, and you had better pay attention or ask for help along the way, as your shells would be inspected later to make sure you did a good job. 

(I must confess to this day if I am eating crab(s) on a date or with friends, I can’t help but secretly or not-so-secretly size up their technique and ability to pick a crab.)

My dad was a generous and charming host. He was a good cook and did most of the cooking for our family. At this point, if he overheard me saying this about him, he would jokingly offer from across the room “And don’t forget I'm pretty damn good-looking too!”

In addition to crab-picking, hosting, and being good-looking, my father taught me how to drive a stick shift (which I still do), how to swing a bat and throw a ball, how to cast a fishing line, how to program a computer, that I should only deliver my best work no matter the task, how to change the oil in my car, how to change a flat tire, that I should work to support myself so I am never dependent on anyone, how to love mushrooms and oysters, to keep my mouth shut while playing badminton in the backyard or else I might end up catching a birdie in it, a tendency for perfectionism, and an overdeveloped work ethic. 

Dave and I'm not sure who that girl is, but I think she would look great with dreadlocks

After we kids left the nest, my dad and step-mom bought a timeshare on the island of St. Maartin and spent many years of vacations on precious government PTO visiting there or swapping for places to stay on other islands, or elsewhere around the world. Over the years, they visited every Caribbean island possible, and as a result, my dad's wardrobe consisted almost entirely of t-shirts and hats collected from each of their trips. All those hats still worn perched a little too high on his head. My dad loved to go deep sea fishing, snorkeling and body surfing. He knew every beach on St. Maartin. Surprisingly, even the nude ones! Their timeshare unit was close to a (now famous) beach where airplanes fly ridiculously low over the beach during landing. This results in a punishing jet spray of sand and hot air blown onto the unsuspecting sunbathing masses or those watching below. My dad loved watching it happen over and over again, laughing out loud, shaking his head and saying “I know it's so stupid, but it just never gets old.” 

My dad was funny, had a bit of a mischievous twinkle in his eye, and puns were served often at our dinner table. 

Eventually, tired of shoveling snow and scraping ice off of cars, my parents migrated to southwestern Florida. Despite having retired from his 2 jobs at the Pentagon, my dad started to work remotely as a defense consultant for the better part of the next decade. He jokingly said he had finally crossed over to the dark side and now he got to be part of the problem, and earn twice the money. It wasn’t all work though, and I was so thrilled when he was able to pitch in with some other ‘old farts’ on a boat for their fishing club and got permission to use another friends boat for fun cruises. He and the fishing club guys would go out twice a week before the crack of dawn to go see what they could catch. I would go with them when I was in town, which meant getting up around 4am for me if you consider the 3-hour timezone difference from San Francisco. Every time while driving the boat and getting just past the "No Wake" zone, he would get a big grin on his face and yell “Hold on!” right before he’d punch the throttle and slalom the buoys through the estuaries leading out to the Gulf of Mexico. He was so proud on the occasions when his daughter caught more fish than his old cronies, even though I made him bait my hook every single time. (Ewwww.)

In his younger years, my dad was a bit of a shy wallflower. After they got married in the early 80s, my step-mom Carolyn helped break him out of that. She is an accomplished seamstress and is one of several exceptionally creative ladies in our family. Daddy went from being one of those guys who didn't bother with costumes because he didn't even know where to start, to proudly wearing a custom-made, seven-foot-tall white bunny suit that would impress any Furry, Bunny, or Mascot. And my red-headed step-mom? She dressed as a carrot. That was just the beginning. When they were still in the D.C. area, they helped a local Krewe host a decade of annual Mardi Gras parties at the Fort Belvoir Officer’s Club in Northern Virginia. Later after the move to Florida, every year they hosted not one, but two nights of Halloween parties, complete with a new annual front-yard spectacle and impressive interior decorations, costume contests, games, and prizes. For the weeks leading up to these and other holiday events, my father could usually be found on a ladder hanging all manner of decorations and lights or plugging away in his workshop covered in sawdust while cranking out custom coffins, tombstones, or a team of wooden reindeer.  

In 2002, my folks helped out at the Burning Man office during a volunteer work party, and later in 2004, they spent 36 hours with me out in the desert during Burning Man. That’s a whole other story for another time. As an engineer, David was fascinated and impressed by the remarkable structures, innovations, and construction skills on display. As a concerned dad he was also so relieved to see that the circus I had joined as a full-time employee was actually a legitimate company that produced an impressively well-organized temporary city. It also helped that by that time we had gotten group health insurance. ;-)

My father was living proof that even a tall, awkward, and slightly nerdy introvert could blossom and discover the fun of community and creative expression.

"CameraDaddy" putting his office skills to work for "The Man" at Burning Man Headquarters
Carolyn & David proudly holding up one of the calendars I produced at the No Spectator's Burning Man Exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Sometime around 2015 or so, my father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. It has been both a blessing and a curse that after losing both her parents early in life, my stepmother obsessively stays current on news about medical ailments and prevention tactics. In this case it was a blessing, as she correlated my father’s tendency to blankly stare off into the distance, a decline in taste and smell over the years, feelings of apathy, and an increase in fumbling and stumbling as enough of a reason to get some tests done. We have no idea how long he had it before it was discovered. (Truth be told he was always a little fumbly and stumbly.) Parkinson’s disease has a unique set of symptoms and treatments for each case, and the progression of the condition varies widely among patients. As a result, relatively little is known about it compared to many other diseases. 

Parkinson’s symptoms often start to show around the age of 50, so if you or someone you know are that age, I encourage you to research the symptoms and do a periodic check-in with your friends and loved ones. It tends to happen more in men than women. It is generally not considered to be hereditary though there may be some susceptibility. The causes of Parkinson’s are unknown. It could be exposure to toxins. My dad was exposed to various chemicals while working industrial jobs during high school and college summers. It could be smoking. My dad smoked for 20 years before proudly quitting forever through the Smokenders program - a program that was so effective for him that he later taught it to others on the weekends. It could be from the sedentary lifestyle that is so common in almost all of our lives. My dad went to the gym regularly, ate well, and was reasonably active. Other potential causes are still being researched and discovered. I am not sharing this information to scare you, nor do I want anyone living their life in fear, but it’s helpful to know the basics and best to catch it early if you can. I’m sharing this because I care about you and your family, and Parkinson’s cases are on the rise.

POV: When you take your elderly parents to an immersive VR Star Wars experience in Las Vegas. Note my father is clutching my hand in a death grip before we go in.
POV: When you take your elderly parents to a Zombie Burlesque show in Las Vegas. Note the crab t-shirt still reigns supreme.

Over time, Parkinson's can lead to a decline in motor skills, speaking skills, stiffness, balance problems and more. As the disease progressed, it became evident that my father was having many of the toughest symptoms of the disease. We also learned that my father had Lewy Body Dementia which is a progressive brain disorder that initially causes problems similar to Alzheimers, and later brings movement problems, muscle rigidity, tremors, difficulty swallowing, a change in handwriting, cognitive problems, confusion about time and place, depression, hallucinations and more. The cause of LBD is not known. It is not considered genetic, but people with Parkinson's are linked with a higher risk.

So those two diseases were coming for him body and mind, and unlike some other memory affecting dementia where people might not realize what is going on as memories start to fade away, he knew what was happening to him and it was frustrating to say the least. Always driven and motivated, either intrinsically or by the constant encouragement from my step-mother, my dad embarked on a program of movement classes, cycling, boxing, ping-pong, and speech therapy. He and my step-mother found invaluable support and resources through a nonprofit group called Hope Parkinson's. If anyone reading this feels inspired to make a donation in my father's name, I know they will put it to good use supporting others as they navigate this horrible disease. They were especially helpful through the Pandemic with various video support groups and movement classes when all the in-person programs he was going to came to a halt, and like many people over the age of 70, my folks were pretty much terrified to leave the house for almost two years. Hope Parkinson's even managed to arrange for a tribal belly dance performance by Zoe from Beats Antique via Zoom. Someday I'll have to tell her how much that gesture meant to two elderly folks and three cats.

He loved the ping pong classes
A new ritual of twice monthly family Zooms were a blessing from the pandemic, that and my chair re-upholstery project turned out great, and eventually we all got haircuts again.

Family Zooms through the pandemic were like watching a TV show where my father was aging much faster than everyone else. He couldn't quite keep up with the conversations but there was nothing I could do except attempt to hold space once in a while so he could try to finish a sentence or a thought. Not an easy task with us all chattering and talking over each other. Sometimes he would wander off looking for something but then would forgot what that was or where he was going and then wander back. Despite the online programs, the pandemic really took a toll. I'm sure I'm not the only one who saw someone they love decline even more rapidly than they might have otherwise. There were so many deaths counted directly from covid, but I wonder how many were accelerated just by the circumstances we found ourselves in while trying to hide from it?

Coming out of the pandemic was no party for my parents. I'll skip over the past year and a half of falls, hospitals, skilled nursing and memory care facilities. I visited every two or three months starting in Summer of 2022. My step-sister and step-brother were also squeezing in visits as best they could. After over forty years, he was their dad too. I won't get into too many details like watching him shaking and not be able to put a cup onto the table, or chronically losing his thought halfway through a garbled sentence and getting mad at himself about it. I took him out for fresh air and walks with a walker. He couldn't keep all the wheels on the curb and ran into stuff all the time, but he could still get some speed on with those long legs. For the most part, he kept his sense of humor and could still land a zinger once in a while. He was always a sweet gentleman to everyone. Suffice to say though my father knew what was happening to him, and was very frustrated that he couldn't really communicate or navigate the world, and that he wasn't the man he once was. He often mumbled apologies for his state of being. By this point, he wasn't really having a great time at this party we call life.

This past August my step-sister and her family had a nice visit. He got to hang with his grandson. My step-brother was in town for a rare overlapping visit as well. I was scheduled to visit again in October, but I moved my trip earlier because a few days after returning from Burning Man, my dad fell a bunch of times and started exhibiting behaviors and symptoms that mark the final stages of the disease... but only after he managed to escape from his area of the memory care facility and give the staff a real adventure to track him down. I don't know why exactly, but it makes me proud and cracks me up to think of him mischievously pulling a fast one like that.

Amy, Nassim, Matthew, Carolyn & Dave

On September 19, 2023, David John Gallagher passed from this world.

I played some ancient Hindu chants meant to guide the soul to deep eternal peace and bring comfort to those who are grieving. In Kashmir Shaivism, an ancient non-dual tantric philosophy that I have been a student of for 20 years, it is believed that each of us emanates from a sea of cosmic bliss. That we are ALL, each and everyone one of us (including and especially you), a unique and brilliant embodied manifestation of a divine and unknowable potentiality. That potential becomes us for the sheer delight of the divine act of creativity. To celebrate and explore the full diversity of experiences and expressions that are possible. To delight in all the senses that are made possible in our human flesh form. On the journey, as we live, love, laugh and learn, as we dance, delight, fumble and stumble, hopefully we truly meet ourselves and others along the way and recognize the divinity inside all of us. In doing so, the divine meets itself as well. The ride is not meant to go on forever, and when it ends, it is said that we return to that sea of cosmic bliss.

Like kids at a cosmic amusement park, or students in the school of the universe together, some of us may get back in line and go on a different ride so we can do it over and over again. Who can say for sure? I'm not making any promises, and I'm not in any rush to find out, but this and other profound teachings from this philosophical system have resonated with me and been reinforced by my own lived experiences. (A deep bow of gratitude to my teachers.)  

So, this is what I choose to believe. This is what I shared with my grandmother before she died, and my father, and others supporting loved ones in transition. I share it here with you in case it brings comfort and perspective at a time when you need it.

As for my dad. I miss him. I will always miss him and love him, but I am glad he is no longer suffering. I am grateful for the time I did have with him, and the life that I have because of him. I'm not going to dwell on the later years and the challenges that we all faced together. I've long since forgiven him that I was notoriously grounded for most of high school, or any of the long forgotten disagreements or bumps along the way. I'm going to remember him in his happy places - on a boat, swimming in the surf, hosting a party, whacking a badminton birdie, grilling up some ribs, or chasing a live crab around the kitchen floor with tongs in hand and a mischievous grin on his face while all of us are screaming and jumping onto chairs.

David Gallagher was a Pisces and loved to snorkel, so I hope he's swimming with the fishies in a sea of cosmic bliss.