His Life

I Remember

I’d like to Thank everyone for all the love, and support given to me through this, my most difficult, and heartbreaking time of my life. 

Steve always told me if anything ever happened to him, “look on my computer, you will find something I’d like everyone to read”. I had to promise not to look for it prior. I kept my promise. Not a word of this was changed, These are his last words for all to read. He was, is, and will always be the love of my life.
Christa Puccio-Gallo 

     In Loving Memory of Steve Gallo

I remember the day I brought home my gold detective's badge to show my dad.  He had been sick for quite a while at that point in 2002, but as I held the badge in his sight line and he looked up from his hospital bed planted square in the middle of our living room, his eyes lit up and his magnetic smile melted me one more time. He had been so proud of his time as a cop in the NYPD, and he seemed to once again be telling me that I had achieved something he was proud of, that he was happy because his son was happy. To this day, I take great pride when I say that "my father is the only person in the world I've ever respected one hundred percent, without exception." It's not because he was perfect or because he demanded that I respect him, but because he, for me, was the very embodiment of unconditional love.  He knew I was flawed and he knew some of my decisions were terrible, like when I decided to "become" a bouncer in a local bar a couple months after graduating from the Ivy League university he paid for.  Wow, and I've been telling people for years not to end sentences with prepositions. But he had an indescribable way of comforting me even when I had no clue.  He wasn't big in stature, he wasn't college-educated after working during the depression to help support his family. He was, though, the most erudite, wise and just plain smart man when it came to educating me. I have  a million tiny memories of him, but rarely, if ever, share them with anyone.  In my top five, two words that resonate with me now more than ever--when I lose my temper like Sonny Corleone or when I feel the urge to break down because there's just too much on my plate. "Stay cool" he would say, as he dropped me off at the train station for my trip to Columbia the morning of a big exam. Thisman who had never even taken a college exam or walked on a college campus, but knew what I was feeling.  "Stay cool" would have meant absolutely nothing coming from anyone else.  From him, it was the voice of God. A voice that has echoed in my brain every day of my life.

It's been more than a decade since my father left this world.  The word "died" doesn't really apply. "Left" seems so much more appropriate. Nobody can ever convince me that he's not here.    The police escort he received from NYPD, his old department, Yonkers PD and Bronxville PD was befitting of a dignitary. And still not enough for the best man I ever knew. The indelible marks he made, the memories he created are vivid still.  I talk to him often, usually in my most contemplative times, in my most needy times. "Hey Dad, can you believe this shit" I usually say, and I can "hear" the answer, I can hear the calmness take over.  I wonder what he would have thought of my life since he's gone, the mistakes I've made, the temper tantrums I've thrown, the way in which I've become so intolerant of selfish, stupid, annoying people who have no consideration for anyone but themselves.  I wonder if he would have approved of my relationships with others, if he would tell me to shut up once in a while and to stop trying to change things that are unchangeable. I wonder if he would say the way I've tried to take care of my mother and brother is admirable or me somehow searching for martyrdom.  Most of all, I wonder what he would have thought of how I've handled adversity in life.  He used to walk by my bedroom and hear James Taylor singing "Fire and Rain" and he would say, "What's up, that's your hurtin' song."   He just knew things.

I wonder if he knew I was talking to him on the day I had my heart attack. It was more than six years ago now, and his presence has remained.  Back then, I was the invincible, weight lifting, exercising, athletic, know-it-all who ate and drank like I was going to live forever.  If the outside didn't look too bad, I thought, maybe the inside would follow suit. Life doesn't work so logically sometimes.  So many doctors and lawyers and tests and ejection fractions and statistics and days later, I guess I know that.  I wonder, too, if he was holding me up a few days ago when I just wanted the doctor to clean the wax from my ears and he told me about the big growth on my thyroid. "How old are you now Steve?" he asked. "Any family history of cancer or thyroid problems?" I snapped quickly, "No doc, why? Oh, wait,yes my brother had thyroid cancer." He told me about this "nodule." He may just as well have said "you have a month to live" because it felt, as I've told my friends, like he had just taken a step back and then kicked me in the balls as hard as he could.  I wonder if my dad saw the strength drain from my body.  Actually, I wonder if it were him holding me up. I wonder if he was steering when I drove my car home never blinking once and never noticing another vehicle on the road.  I wonder if he heard me say out loud, "How am I gonna deal with heart disease and cancer and everyone else's problems at the same time." I get so tired already.  Getting pale and losing my hair and thinning to the point of looking sickly wasn't in my plans right now. Or recently.  Damn, a week prior I was getting drunk and eating unhealthy food in Mexico.  I wonder if he knew all that.  I wonder.

The day I felt that sting from the doctor was 3/17/2015.  The day my surgeon, Dr. James Lee, called and told me that my thyroid cancer appeared to be contained and my lymph nodes appeared to be unaffected was 4/17/2015. That's one calendar month.  A blip on the screen, a virtual blink of an eye. But it may as well have been an eon or one of those epochs you read about in high school.  Life pretty much stood still for that time.  I was walking in quicksand, days were coming and going, but Iife was frozen.  It was another eye-opener.  A test for me.  A test of strength.  A time to reflect.

I have always been incredibly narrow-minded and unbending when it comes to people in my life "earning their stripes" and sort of "proving" to me that they are loyal, unwavering friends and loved ones.  I have been particularly unwilling to accept such loyalty and love from women.  I guess a fear of commitment has developed a callousness over the years that makes me believe a dedicated, "want-her-in-the-foxhole" lady is easy to come by.  Living at home as an adult with a doting mother is probably to blame for my myopic view of the worth of a good woman.  I guess I've tended to take things for granted.

I'm not sure how to describe Christa in those terms, and I'm not sure that any words I can find (yes, me, a self-proclaimed "wordsmith") would sufficiently or adequately do justice to her nearly lifelong, unconditional devotion to me.  I say that, not in an immodest or sexist way, but with a humbled sense of wonder because it has not always been an easy ride.  She has shown resilience, a true heart and a stubborn defense of me that is, to say the least, unique.  We met, and although the initial attraction was mutually physical, we became fast friends.  We both had other partners and we shared thoughts about those people, but I'm not sure that either of us realized the foundation that was being laid for what would become an unforeseeable future together.  Finding a woman who was a "real" friend was almost an anomaly in the early parts of my life. It's like that thought from Billy Crystal in "When Harry Met Sally"--men and women can't be friends if sex is on the table.

Through all the amazing tests of strength, arguments, high times and low, Christa was in her greatest glory, if you ask me, during the darkest days when my dad was failing.  She was as much a daughter to him as anyone could be, and was as much a confidante and aid to my mother as any man could ever ask.  She was there to drive, there to talk, there to cry and there to support.  I believe that the real measure of a person comes from the toughest, most alone times when people aren't watching. When I was working around the clock, it was excruciatingly painful to leave my father.  Would the attendants at the rehab center change him when he needed? Would the server in the lunch room put on his bib BEFORE the food arrived? Would anyone respond quickly when he was in pain? My life was consumed with his, and it was Christa who afforded me peace of mind when life kept me from him.  She was there when I couldn't be.

I saw that ridiculous brand of "heart" on display again --kicked up to an even higher notch --  in 2011 during the months before Joy Puccio left us. In retrospect, I think she was one of the most "real" and honest people I've known. I developed a special relationship with her.  She made me feel like family. I think it was holiday time 2006 when Christa called me, that cracking voice you never want to hear from a loved one, and told me that her mom had been diagnosed with lung cancer.  I remember where I was, and I remember feeling helpless. I also remember watching as Christa turned on the "caretaker engines" again.  She was the epitome of the loving daughter, from researcher to scheduler, to point person for all the doctors, to records keeper and information source for the family, Christa was it.  I tried to match the level of selflessness she had shown to me and my family so often, but when it comes to that, she is in a class by herself. It is part of what defines her.

The final days at Rosary Hill were sad, just as the final days always are.  I remember telling Christa that the loss of her mother would not compare with anything else she had ever felt.  That when my Uncle Tony died in 1995, I thought my world had ended.  Until my dad left me in 2003, and I realized what devastation really was.  I didn't want to make things tougher on Christa, I simply wanted her to know that an unspeakable sense of loss and sadness would, in years to come, be softened by indelible memories and life lessons she didn't even know came from her mother.  Although we will never feel "whole" again, the loss of our respective parents has definitely galvanized us. It's funny, neither of us even likes it when others speak of our parents.  The sanctity of their memory is above any words that human beings could possibly utter.  Tough to explain I guess.

Wow, just realized I haven't written in a while.   I guess too many trips to Shoprite and a million other stores will do that to a person.  Not to mention the endless parade of appointments to doctors, dentists, oral surgeons, etcetcetc!!  Anyway, no sense in telling the world your problems.  Very few people care.  Not because they don't love you, but because they are consumed with their own problems.  Logical, actually. Can't believe that, since I last wrote, Christa has had to deal with another devastating loss.  Sal Puccio, the man who seemed to have nine lives, passed away this past September.  His death was wholly unexpected. It was a shock, it left too many unanswered questions, and it was incredibly sad.  Simply put, he was "larger than life" for so many because he was such a character.  I wrote two tributes to him -- one when he passed and one for the first Christmas without him -- and everyone seemed to love them.  His memory made the writing come easily.  I hadn't realized the history that he and I had.  I thought, at times, that he was put on this earth to break my chops, and he was a master!! The good memories, though, trumped all that stuff.  He is missed. Christa, who struggles on so many days with the losses of both parents, feels it most.

I have been avoiding the subject of Mary Gallo since I began jotting my notes.  I see my mother as one who is nearly impossible to capture in words.  You sorta need to KNOW her to understand the real person. For me, she is completely unique in so many ways, and I cannot imagine the young couple she and my dad made.  Christa and I always mimic the great line from Rocky Balboa in "Rocky I" when he said of his relationship with Adrian, "We fill gaps. She's got gaps. I got gaps. Together we fill gaps." That is very true of Christa and me. There are tons of things that Christa masters, and many that I do, too. Most of those things are very different, though.    I think Michael and Mary Gallo must have been the ultimate gap fillers. In retrospect, they were like two pieces of a puzzle that fit together perfectly.  As a unit, I could not have possibly asked for better parents.

My mother has always been supremely proud that she graduated college (Hunter '51) at 20 years old. The premium placed on education from both my parents was very high.  From my earliest recollections, school was prioritized.  I became such a nerd that anything less than a perfect grade was disappointing. Mary was, and still is, a stickler for preciseness, regarding words or numbers.  If she owes you three cents, she will give you three pennies, not a nickel.  If there's a typographical error in a newspaper or store flyer, she will, without fail, point it out to me. On the day of my brother's high school graduation, and my leaving the ninth grade, I saw my algebra teacher in the crowd.  He was a grisled, hard-nosed man who never smiled.  He made his way over to me, smirked and told me that I scored "100" on my algebra regents.  It was a watershed moment in my relationship with my mother.  Why? Because for many years, she bragged about her grades, one of which was her algebra regents exam.  She got a "99."  In the last few decades, I'vereminded her of that a few times.

Mary Gallo lost two full-term babies.  My sister Maria, just 10 weeks old in 1956, basically had a hole in her heart and couldn't be saved.  Doctors knew that treatment for her would one day be almost "routine," but that treatment wasn't around in time to save her.  A year later, my parents lost a 10-pound baby boy during childbirth when the umbilical chord wrapped about his chest and suffocated him. My older brother, whose known only as "Baby" Gallo, would have softened the heartache left by beautiful Maria. Instead, another devastating, paralyzing loss.  I often try to imagine how my parents may have felt during those years.  I ask my friends with children to imagine, for one moment, both of those losses.  The rote answer from those friends? "I CAN'T imagine." Sometimes to take the emotion out of my mom's memory, I ask why she and my father never sued the doctor for malpractice.  Surely, they would have won millions! How can he not see an umbilical chord squeezing a baby's chest!! All my parents ever said was, "Back in those days, you really didn't think of things like that."

Since my father passed, now more than 13 years ago, my mother has completely relied upon me.  It has gotten exhausting so many times, and I've spent more time than I care to mention screaming at her out of frustration.  I talk to my father when I get out of hand or overwhelmed, and as usual, he calms me down. Yes, still. My mom is a very tough marker as they say, not easily impressed and very demanding in her own way. She has molded a lot of what I do, and more noticeably, HOW I do it.  If I had my choice of any mother who ever lived, I would still choose her.

Sat down this morning and re-read what I had written about Mary Gallo, the one and only. So glad I did. Mom died three weeks ago today, 11/25/2017, and it certainly does not feel "real" yet.  She had fought so hard to stay home, but the pain from the return of her lung cancer had gotten to be too much, and on Thursday, 11/16/2017, I called the ambulance.  It was the last time she would ever be at 60 Rumsey Avenue.  At least, in this lifetime.  Mary Gallo will ALWAYS be there -- it would be impossible to forget the indelible imprint she has made on that house, one that, in retrospect, SHE turned into a home.

I raced to NY Presbyterian/Lawrence Hospital in time to beat the ambulance there, and my face was the first thing my mom saw when they opened those doors to wheel her into the ER.  She was scared and hurting, and I would have given ANYTHING to see her in full health again.  The adrenalin and overwhelming emotions that unconditional love can inspire are amazing, and easing her fears was all I wanted to do.  From that moment, I couldn't leave her.  A brief stay in the ER turned into 10 days in the 4th floor oncology unit, where she was put into a "hospice" room.  I was glued to her breaths and watching her chest expand every minute, thinking that she had the strongest heart ever to persevere as long as she did.  In retrospectnothing about my mother's heart should have surprised me--it was always "hall of fame" quality.  I remember bending over to her ear at bedside and saying, "I love you--you know you're the best mother God ever made right?" She seemed to hear, and NOW I know she does.  The staff at the hospital was exceptional, and I was so appreciative of the gentle, caring way they treated my mom. When someone so important is failing, that treatment is worth its weight in gold.  Hospice staff, all of whom complemented the work of nurses and nursing assistants, were kind as they tried to prepare us for the inevitable.  Having seen the last days of my dad and having experienced the demise of so many others close to me, I knew what was coming and still the absolute dread controlled me.  On 11/24/2017, a day after Christa and I had spent Thanksgiving in the hospital (we didn'twant to be anywhere else), I began to see Mary Gallo's breaths become increasingly moreshallow.  Multiple professionals had explained again the signs of imminent death -- from "rattle noises" to unexplained outbursts -- but the shallowness of breathing is always the truest indicator for me.  On 11/25/2017 at approximately 11:08 am, I saw the last of those breaths.  It happened as my face was inches from hers, and as I was repeatedly telling her she was the best.  A few seconds before my mom died, she seemed to respond to my comment, as her upper lip stretched across her teeth and a smile appeared. I'mnot the biggest believer in the "weird" stories about life and death, but I WAS THERE and I know what happened.  Maybe it was just a muscular spasm or tic, but her face was smiling. And then, she was gone. And life would never, ever be the same.  Shutting down the highways for her police escort, like my dad's, was fitting.  I wanted the whole world to know that they had lost a special one. A person, the likes of whom, would not pass my way again.   The most amazing lady I had ever known, the person who shaped me in so many ways, had left to go be a mother again to Maria and Baby, and to be Mrs. Michael Gallo forever.  I envy my dad and two other siblings now.  They are enjoying an overwhelmingly happy reunion of monumental proportions with the best there ever was.

                            Written by,
                       Stephen M. Gallo
            May 25, 1962 – August 24, 2019