I’m not sure when a child becomes aware of his/her own mortality but for me it came very early, too early. I never thought I would live to see 30. When you take this fact into account my actions to this point in my life make a bit more sense. How else does a person with a genius level IQ end up working a dead-end job when the whole world was his oyster? It takes some explaining how I grew to not embrace, but accept the coming finality of my life. The place is just as good a place to start with as any, let’s travel back in time to 1980’s Miami, FL.
It swirled around us like a tempest, a restless storm of sleaze, drugs and murder. Growing up in Miami in the 80’s was incredibly surreal. In the midst of my childhood the supposed idyllic paradise was transformed from a Shangri-La for ex-pats from the North to a coke-fueled slaughterhouse. I was never personally affected by the violence but it seeped through the television and radio into our pores, into our very beings. Cocaine was king, and it was everywhere. I heard about Uzis, Columbian neck ties, snorting, smoking and shooting. It wasn’t something actively influenced my life but it passively swept over it like the tide. I never cared to try it, I listened to Nancy Reagan and just said “No”. Not like anyone ever asked or anything, but I would have said “No!”.
Unfortunately my brother didn’t listen to the First Lady. My brother had his struggles with cocaine and while I was way too young to understand why my father was so pissed at him I knew it had something to do with drugs and drinking. Not long after we picked my brother Christopher up from jail one night he moved out. I saw him less and less and missed him like crazy. I was very young when he moved out, or was moved out. I still am not sure what happened. One day he was there and then he was gone. He was much older than me. I’m the third of three kids from my Dad and my Mom’s only child.
Christopher lived with us when I was coming out of my haze of toddler-hood until I was probably 7. He had his demons and was an unrepentant slob but he was also a clown and a devoted big brother. A lot of the time I think he just toted me around as an excuse to go see a neighbor he had a crush on that happened to have a baby sister about my age. His ruse worked and they wound up married and had three children. For whatever reason when I was around him, I always cherished it. My brother had a severe learning disability and could barely write, he dropped out of high school but was a marvel with his hands. He was charming and well-spoken, it’s amazing how the brain can compensate. He couldn’t tell you the first thing about Mark Twain but could probably build a car from spare parts and talk you into paying for them. I admired the hell out of him.
My other half-brother Michael was never around. I never have figured out why. It was a sore subject for years. I grew up not knowing much about him. Him and his family would come around on holidays but even that grew increasingly irregular. We never lived in the same house, he was on his own when I was born. I don’t think he liked my mother very much. I didn’t care much about it, I had Chris and that was fine enough, I was a lucky kid. Loving parents and a fun-loving goofball brother.
When Chris moved out, his life moved on but apparently his drug addiction accelerated. I was unaware of this, he just always seemed like the same guy even though I didn’t see him as much. In a way I think I relished the fact that I was an only child for awhile. I certainly got all the attention, my mother and father doted on me. Some of my best memories are of our life in the “pink house” after Chris moved out. It’s not that callous, it’s just that around that age your memory really starts storing things better than when you are younger.
Now that I’ve introduced the location and characters a bit, let me tell you about the times. The 80’s were fantastic. Everything was more awesome then. Music was amazing; I listened to almost nothing but Run DMC and Michael Jackson. The Yankees were not the greatest but two of my favorite players in the world were in pinstripes for a time, Reggie Jackson and Don Mattingly. My favorite player in any sport, Magic Johnson was collecting rings and the Giants were solid with Lawrence Taylor. I was in heaven on Saturdays; He-Man, G.I. Joe, Transformers, WWF even the Go-Bots. Everything was so bright and shining, I was innocent. Despite the greater Miami area turning into a warzone I might as well have been growing up in a suburb on “Leave it to Beaver”.
Things started to get a little bleaker as the years tumbled by. I didn’t notice the edges fraying but the first incident happened in 1981 and had nothing to do with me. A boy just a few years older than me was out shopping with his mother at a Sears. She took her eyes off of him while he entertained himself with the Atari display and that was the last time she ever saw him. His name was Adam Walsh and he was murdered and decapitated in 1981.
I never met Adam Walsh and at the time of his death was inching my way towards 3. There is very little chance I remember the horrifying details from the actual time. Maybe the vibe just stuck around because I was very clingy in department stores growing up, I would even hesitate to go into changing rooms. I probably picked up a lot of the information as time went by, through the Elementary school grapevine. By 1983 and my fifth birthday there was a television movie about his story and his father John had become a fixture on television trying to get justice for his dead son.
Kids don’t know much about why people do bad things and even the most sheltered kid is going to hear the most disturbing story. Some kid would find out some disturbing fact and it would get passed around until it was bloated and unrecognizable. Something like a minor fender bender your family was in turned into a ten car wreck with explosions and the jaws of life when it got back to you. I’m sure this is how I heard about Adam and it scared the hell out of me. The fact that his killer was still unidentified meant a child-killer was roaming the streets about 45 minutes away from where I lived. Years later the murder was put on the docket of deceased serial killer Otis Toole, but that wouldn’t happen for 27 years. To this day I can close my eyes and see his picture, his front teeth missing in his baseball uniform. I looked just like him except my uniform was black and gold, not white and orange.
Further events not related to me would continue to warp my life. I’ve always been fascinated by space but if you asked me if I ever wanted to be an astronaut even as a kid I would have told you “to take a hike”. I’m dreadfully afraid of planes, now you want me to get on a super-charged one and blast off into the dark, “no” and “thank you”. However nil my interest in going into space was I clipped articles and followed the run-up to the Challenger space mission in 1986 like every other kid at the time. In fact it was part of my second grade curriculum. We had to write stories about the space shuttle and even write letters to that nice teacher Christa McAuliffe who was going to be the first educator in space.
For some kids it was work, for me it was fun. I’ve always liked to write and I thought going to space was just about the most mind-blowing thing ever so I had no trouble telling Mrs. McAuliffe how amazing I thought this all was. I’m not delusional enough to believe she read my letters, they probably weren’t even sent to her. They were just so we could learn how to make our words make sense, and in my case to learn that “I before E, except after C”. I always had trouble with that.
On January 28th we sat in class watching the space shuttle blast off and less than 2 minutes later we saw 7 people die. The Challenger made it up into the air and 73 seconds into it’s flight exploded. A teacher rushed to the TV to turn it off, trying to coax and cajole us into thinking everything was fine. We proceeded to go to music class when the crackle of the P.A. indeed admitted that we were witnesses to death. Shock, that’s all that I think kept us upright. I don’t remember tears but I do remember silence. It’s the silence that comes after someone dies and you are still living. It’s a vacuum that swallows everything good around it. I didn’t realize it but I’d become far too familiar with that feeling as I continued to grow.
Miami was vibrant and famous when I hit sixth grade. Sly Stallone was always down here, Madonna lived here and we had our own show “Miami Vice”. Sure the Miami on the TV was pretty violent but Crockett and Tubbs always stopped the bad guys. We were safe in our bubbles in the suburbs. Every once and awhile our veil of safety was threatened and we saw the big, bad potential the world could unleash. I wasn’t Adam Walsh, I wasn’t on the Challenger, I wasn’t Ryan White.
Ryan White was 13 when he was diagnosed with AIDS and given a six month expiration date. He had the worst disease you could have because he was so sick other kid’s parents wouldn’t even let him go to school with them. First he went and got that gay-disease and now who knew who he could infect by sharing a pencil or God-forbid a drink of water at the fountain.
1980’s America was stupid, I mean really panicky, uptight stupid. First there was AIDS which doctors assured everyone that only gays could get. I didn’t even know what a “gay” was. When someone called you “gay” you laughed back and said “Nah, you’re gay” and no one meant it as “you are homosexual”. I don’t even know when I first found out what homosexuality was.
I was raised Catholic as all creation. I loved church. Well, for a time. Our pastor was a wonderful Irishman named Father O’Dwyer. Through his sheer charisma and joviality (probably with help from above and Scotch) he kept me believing in things that now I scoff at. He was an accepting man, I never heard him condemn anyone. Father O’Dwyer was all about the love of Jesus and God and none of that fire and brimstone shit that makes people picket soldier’s funerals or say someone can’t live happily because they love someone of the same gender. I never heard our Father talk about “gays” but if he did I believe he would have told us not to judge and to accept, he was a good man. Of course he didn’t move the collection plate around enough and he was shipped off to where they keep derelict priests who can’t get a new church-factory built where they can churn out more angels for the Catholic machine. Out went Father O’Dwyer and in came Father Greer.
To the day he died my Dad thought Father Greer was queer. He doth protest too much. Father Greer was all about the damnation and revelations. He was judge, jury and sentancer of sin. I had done Confession and everything with Father O’Dwyer and told him my most shamefullest secrets; lying, being disrespectful. After that initial nervousness that I be judged unfit for the pearly gates I was told that I was a “good boy” and told to do a few “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” in penance for my minor sins.
With Father Greer everything was a tremendous deal, a lie was punishable by hellfire if you didn’t pitch in and sing in the choir, help with the raffle, do this, do that, give give give. I remember this great joke from George Carlin “God is all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, all-wise but somehow just can’t handle money”. It definitely seemed like that. Instead of wonderful, colorful, off-script stories from Father O’Dwyer church became rote, boring, scripted nonsense for 45 minutes followed by 15 minutes of advertisements for salvation, which always including putting bills in the basket. Father Greer and by extension God needed money but the Father always wore such nicely tailored suits under his robes. Even though I was barely above 4 feet tall the hypocrisy was growing taller than me and soon it would shut out the light of God from my soul.
So yeah I didn’t get an education in gay people until AIDS. Then the church couldn’t do enough to warn us about how filthy and disease-ridden they all were. They were deviants and they were Hell-bound and AIDS was their ticket there. AIDS became a rallying cry to condemn homosexuals and the movement’s leader at the time was the Church. You couldn’t buy advertising like this. The Church had been licking it’s lips for years, needing a big-time issue to condemn to make up for cooling it’s heels waiting to see how that whole Holocaust thing turned out. So AIDS became their plague-de-jour and gays their scapegoat.
In 1990 I was 12, I was immature. I admit I made my fair share of “you’re gay” jokes but I didn’t know what I was saying. I knew no gay people, didn’t really even understand the concept. So yeah, I’m not completely absolved of that “pink-guilt” that my generation feels much like the “white guilt” descendants of slave owners have described. I’ve used a gay slur or two but never directed at anyone because of their sexuality, and I can in all honesty say if I’m reaching for an insult today I will never use it. Back to the issue, I can absolutely say that with 100% certainty the minute I knew about homosexuality, I was fine with it. It’s never bothered me at all, why should it? I didn’t see why the church would have a problem with it because the most talented man in the world at that moment, Elton John, was gay.
Elton John and Ryan White would change my life, but before that could happen something terrible had to happen to me first. It’s something that took me 20+ years to begin to deal with. My brother Christopher died. I had never known anyone dead before. Sure my grandmother on my Dad’s side and my grandfather on my Mom’s side were dead but that was before I was born. To that point the only death in my life had been fish and I cried like forever when Abraham Lincoln (probably the fourth Abe that had actually died) swirled down the toilet.
So here I am, 11 years old and I have a dead brother. That day, that fucking cock-sucking, God-damned day I can never get out of my mind. I went to my friend Evan’s house to play and things were weird straight off with his mom. She was nice enough but she always had this edge, she was a wise-ass (although I would never say so at that young an age). On a normal day she treated me like her own, which is to say with that Jewish mom razor wit that spares no child. On that day she was abnormally nice. I don’t know if she knew beforehand or found out during that day but I remember her telling me this fable about a miser and his kids and it somehow dealt with his will. I don’t know, it’s hazy. I really wanted to stay over at Evan’s and play, he had a lot of G.I. Joes and he’d usually let me keep one. That day there was no pleading with my parents. We had to leave, no more complaining, get in the car.
I was fuming mad when I got home, I pounded my little 75 lb frame up those stairs to my room as hard as I could. I didn’t throw many tempter tantrums but when I did I got my moneys’ worth. I added every little dramatic touch I could think of; flailed arms, grunts and sighs. I threw myself on my twin bed and belted my pillow. I knew my case was over, I wasn’t going to get my way but my parents were going to know I was unhappy. God, it all seems so stupid now, especially what happened 5 minutes later but it was important to me then to show I was mad.
When my parents came up I knew something bad happened. I rarely got in trouble but if I did my mother would give me a talking-to, if it went beyond that which it rarely did my father laid down the law. They never really had to co-parent, unless it was something serious, So I immediately had a hunch something was wrong and then I saw something horrific. It was on their faces, they weren’t hurt as much as they were destroyed. I’ve never seen such a sight a day since then. I hadn’t really looked at them when I stormed out of Evan’s or slammed myself in the backseat of our Pinto. I didn’t look at them, I don’t know if they were just on the verge of holding it together prior to darkening my doorstep. I don’t know who drove home, my Mom or Dad and now I wonder how they did. They held that truth back for a good half an hour, they tried to stave off ending my childhood for as long as possible.
When they told me, it was very matter-of-fact. Chris was in an accident and he’s dead. Maybe not that detached but short and to the point. I was confused. I had just seen him a month before. We weren’t big on family get-togethers. Most of my extended family consisted of Aunts, Uncles and Cousins from my Dad’s side in New York. We had one family reunion where I met branches of my family tree that I don’t even remember where their roots grew today. My mother’s family was a mystery. My grandmother was alive and had lived with us for some time but my Mom and her sister didn’t talk much. She had an argument with my Mom and had busted into our house and broke all my parent’s dishes while screaming at my mom while I cried. So, not much for large gatherings, being all spread out and embroiled in feuds.
About a month prior to Chris’ death we had a barbecue at my parent’s new house. By sheer coincidence my best friend had moved in virtually next door and I was very happy. We had lived next door to each other for half of our lives and we didn’t know if we’d ever see each other again. I think we had moved in first and then his family came next and his window faced my door and I could make stupid faces at him before I went back inside for dinner. Everything was perfect at that time.
The day of the mini-reunion Christopher came over and tended to the barbecue with a Budweiser in his hand. He and my Dad bickered about turning burgers and friendly stuff. I planted myself by Christopher’s side and talked his ear off about the new “Batman” movie. He hadn’t seen it yet and I couldn’t shut up about it. Now that I think about it, I’m sure he never did get to watch it. Christopher was a big fan of the Adam West “Batman” TV show and implored my Dad to extend my bedtime to 9:30 so I could watch it on cable. I told him I watched it when I got home from school and I think declared Mr. Freeze to be my favorite villian. Whose favorite villain was Mr. Freeze anyways? Well, mine I guess and that day was perfect. Michael even came and while we were never close I was happy because Chris spent more time with me, his little half-brother, than Michael his big, full-brother. I don’t know if this was his choice or because I had pretty much duct-taped myself to him and he couldn’t squirm away.
When he left that night I would never see him alive again, I wish I would have held on tighter, said something of meaning but I’d never really learn that lesson that life doesn’t end like in the movies, you never really have a chance to say goodbye. I wish I could have told him how much I loved him and what he meant to me, how much I enjoyed that time we were supposed to see monster trucks but he convinced me to go fishing and I CAUGHT A FISH and how much of a great brother he was and how I would miss him so much I would want to go right ahead and die to be reunited and how much it would hurt my Dad if he died…..sorry. I wish I could have said all of those things, or just one, any one. In the end I said something probably childish and he reminded me to watch Batman, we made a silent, brother-pact to watch together at the same time, like that song, “Somewhere out there” but with the Batman as the moon.
Christopher died in a single car accident on November 10, 1989. He was 25 years old. Christopher Thomas Galiano left behind 3 children, an ex-wife, a father, a mother, a full-brother and the shattered remnants of a half-brother. When someone tells you your brother is dead and you’ll never talk to him or see him again it’s hard to digest. I went through a dizzying array of emotions in the blink of an eye. Shock, anger, fear, sadness, panic and doubt cycled through my head like a roulette wheel. I don’t think that wheel really stopped turning for over two decades. I finally settled on a combination platter of doubt and despair. I didn’t believe it, couldn’t process it and just didn’t know what I was even feeling. I had been sad before but this was sadness combined with deep, primordial pain. I exhaled shockingly baritone cries and sniveled a gallon of mucus. I got myself under some kind of control by seeing that I wasn’t going through this alone. The same look I was sure I had was reflected in the mournful glares on my parents faces.
There is no easy way to explain death to a kid. I got it, but I didn’t get it. Let me try to explain. I knew I’d never see Chris again but I wasn’t aware of what that emptiness would be like. He’d been there my who life, all 11 years! Now he wouldn’t. I really was just empty. My parents tried to keep up appearances. I can’t imagine how they did what they had to do. Unfortunately years later I had to plan a memorial and I have virtually no recall of how it happened or events thereafter for about a month. I guess we just go on a sort of auto-pilot until we can actually deal.
Logistically planning my brother’s funeral must have been a nightmare in-and-of-itself. Like I stated earlier much of my paternal blood remains rooted in New York. My grandfather who had retired from the Army was living out his days (at that time in his late 80’s) globetrotting. He was in Aculpulco when my brother died so they had to arrange to get him back in time and get all the cousins and Aunts and Uncles I hadn’t seen in years to come pay their respects. Plus there was a whole other side of my family I never met, my Dad’s ex-wife’s side.
So a lot of people came down and bunked up between my parents’ house and Michael’s. Staying with us were my father’s sister Aunt Charlotte, Uncle Ronnie and my cousin Mark. Their other children would come too but I don’t know where they stayed. Also making the journey was my Uncle Bubby or as I never called him Joseph. Bubby was a character out of a movie, in fact he had actually been shot-to-death by James Garner in some low budget cowboy flick. He never had a “profession”. He was a “confirmed bachelor”, never married and never had kids. He made dresses for some time, he owned some businesses, was part owner of some racehorses and allegedly had some ties with numbers running, allegedly. Not that I ever went to a bar by the Yonkers raceway and sat in the corner booth while my Uncle scribbled things down on a little pad and palmed money.
As you can probably tell I loved being around Uncle Bubby, he was funny as a comedian and just such a positive guy. He was strange, but in the best possible ways. He was my Dad’s older brother and my Dad had some idea he was gay, I’m not sure he was but he was loved and respected by everyone regardless and let me tell you, Italians are known as a generally self-righteous judgey group. A lot of that got purged out my family, my Dad grew up in a time where he could have been bigoted towards people based on race and sexual preference and he was not in the slightest bit prejudiced, although he did know his fair share of “unacceptable” jokes.
Anyways, back to Bubby. I don’t know how I would have made it through Chris’ two wakes and the funeral if it weren’t for him. He treated me like I was a King and he was just happy to bask in my company. We went everywhere together. I don’t know if he rented it or it was his but he had this huge convertible car which he drove with the top down and talked loudly over the whipping winds, joking and bonding with a kid in need of a good laugh. It was an Uncle who saved me and it was another Uncle that almost killed me.
While Uncle Bubby was filling me back up with life, I was getting morality and life lessons from Uncle Ronnie and Aunt Charlotte. They were a very religious bunch who unfortunately did not shed the judge gene. My Aunt Charlotte is the oldest of the bunch. My Dad was the baby of the bunch. When he was a kid she mistakenly sat him down an a radiator and burned his butt. This has no bearing on anything though. While bubby was aloof and odd, Charlotte was sturdy and righteous. Some people have called her a bitch and I tend to wholly accept that. Ronnie her Irish hubby was a pushover, it was obvious he never wore the pants in that relationship. My Aunt Charlotte was referred to as the “Little General”. My Grandfather was a stern man who retired from the Army as a Four Star General. He was commanding, domineering and rigid. Charlotte was his female counterpart. Bubby was an aberration and my Dad fell somewhere in the middle. So that’s part of my family tree.
Now the important thing to remember here is that I am 11 years old and my big brother has just died, what’s the worst thing you can tell that kid? If you said, “Don’t cry” you’re right and you are a terrible human being. It’s just exactly what was said to me in an adjoining room at the funeral home where my brother’s body lay next door. My Uncle took me aside and said “You have to be a man, be strong for your Father and don’t let them see you cry”. I was a good kid, I rarely got in trouble and I listened to grown-ups. So I did as I was told. Every time I felt a tear come to the corner of my eye, I stole away and went into the next room where there was a casket in the dark, the room just waiting for a wake, and sat alone in the dark with a stranger in a coffin and cried in private. On November 10 my brother died and so did my childhood.
I say I didn’t get over this for twenty years and it’s true. It haunted me every day. I became fixated on death. The death of my brother nearly destroyed everything. It still has a darkening horror in my stomach and seizes up my lungs if I think about it. In fact I looked up his name and found a short article that ran that day reporting the accident. Since I was a kid I was spared the details besides “one car accident” but the article I just found said his car flipped, he was thrown through the windshield and died an hour later, at 9 am. I now know, 24 years later the exact nature of his death and I’m sitting here pounding away on keys, gritting my mouth shut, suppressing the tears and feeling like I did when I was 11.
My Dad and I never really spoke about Chris or the effect his death was having on me. I knew it was way too painful for him. My Aunt when eulogizing my father via e-mail said he changed when my brother died I thought it was kinda bullshit. He was sad for awhile but he seemed to come back. I know he got really sad when something would remind him of Chris. Like when Tony Dungy’s kid died, I remember walking in on him crying a bit. I only saw him cry a few times and it always shook me and my mother up. My Dad was strong, he was He-Man, Hulk Hogan and Hercules. I don’t think he changed that much, I think if anything he tried harder to protect me.
For a long time I harbored a grudge against Michael because he was absent from my Dad’s life. Like I wrote before I didn’t really know Mike so I couldn’t miss him. I figured after Chris died he’d be a bigger part of my life, he’d fill a void. He didn’t. I spent 10 years wishing for him to show some affection but we just kind of orbited each other. He didn’t really come by all that much and called pretty much only on Father’s Day and my Dad’s birthday. I grew very bitter towards him because my Dad had three sons and one died, so that meant his two should take up the slack and he didn’t pull his weight. I gladly tried to fill up the spaces in my Dad’s life and I can say with all honesty I felt more like a younger brother to him than a son on some days, he was my best friend in the world.
As for Michael, after my Dad died I had to call him and tell him. It was a hard call to make. My Dad and Mike had just seen each other a few weeks earlier and were making plans to see each other again. They hadn’t seen each other in probably 3 years or so. As mad as I was at Michael as I was prior to finding my Dad gone, it all vanished when I talked to him. I realized later that night when he came by our house than he had a different upbringing, a different father. My Dad wasn’t as present for him as he was for me. My Dad had grown up a lot emotionally since he had such a large gap between fathering kids, he was a different person, a different father. I guess he was better to me. I don’t hate Michael anymore, I kind of feel bad for him because he missed out on a great guy. We don’t talk or communicate because without my Dad we have nothing in common, no bond, we’re virtually strangers who share 50% of their DNA.
If my anger dissipated with Michael after my Dad’s passing it only grew sharper and more focused at Aunt Charlotte. Uncle Ronnie had been deceased for a few years and my father had made the trip for the funeral and when my Aunt had heart surgery. When my Dad died again I had to call all these people who were pretty much strangers and tell them the worst news of my life. I told her and she was shocked. She’s 10 years older and was in worse health, it should have been her! Charlotte agreed to fly down. I told her of my Dad’s wishes, that he didn’t want a funeral at all. He was very insistent that he be cremated at spread on my brother’s grave “If I wanted to”. I hated talking about that with him and I usually cut him off. He did impress upon me the NO FUNERAL thing. I explained this o my hard-line religious Aunt who said “But Robbie, people are going to want to get together, the family”. First off, I’ve never really been part of their family besides the occasional wedding or funeral. Secondly I wasn’t about to defy my father in death.
Eventually I agreed to a memorial at a conference room begrudgingly. She said “Whatever you want, we’re here to support you”. On the day of the memorial we were having basically for her she was a no-show. I asked Mike what was up and he said “Oh, she didn’t tell you, she’s not coming”. I think I turned tomato-red and shot out the door and dialed her up. “What the fuck” was my opener. She explained that she wasn’t going to fly all the way down just to “go to a party”. Yep, her exact words. She said she’d have come if there had been a service and a priest. My Dad was the biggest atheist I’ve ever known and he’d slap me from heaven if I tried that shit. I’ve never spoken to her again and I hope she lives a good long time with herself. If there is a Heaven and she’s gets in I may just re-up for another tour of duty on this Earth.
I’ve grieved for other people since my brother, way too many but I didn’t do it right, I wasn’t allowed to do it right the first time and every time since I’ve done it wrong. I’ve tried to come up with an estimate of people I have “LOVED” that died and I stop counting around the time I hit the -teens. I’ve known well over 25 people that died but I didn’t love too many. For example, my grandfather, when he died I was sad but I didn’t really know him well enough. When my Mee-Maw (my maternal grandmother) died I was distraught because I loved her. The same with Uncle Bubby but not with Uncle Ronnie. I’m sad he died but I spent a lot of time hating him for what he did and only know after he’s been dead for a few years I can only think he was just doing what he thought was best. He didn’t know that he basically set off a time bomb in my head that would tick away until I started growing grey hair.
Christopher’s dead now and I grow to be hard as stone inside. Nothing bothers me, I go back to school, do well and move on to middle and high school. Occasionally the veil of happiness slips a crack but I’m able to recover but I start remembering more about Chris and oddly more about Ryan White, who I never met.
As I stated before, Ryan White was diagnosed with AIDS. He received his death sentence in 1984. I was 6, it was December and I was all geared up for Christmas. In Indiana this kid is being told he’s got 6 months to live. Why? He didn’t do anything wrong, just be born with hemophilia and received tainted blood during an operation. Ryan White was just a kid and he was going to die. He knew it, his parents knew it, his siblings knew it. All he wanted to do was go to school and be normal, just be normal until he died.
AIDS was big news at this point, we all saw the toll it took on people’s bodies. It was scary, there were pictures of all these rail thin, speckled corpses-in-waiting lined up in hospitals. We were told if we just weren’t gay we’d be fine, and if you knew a gay keep to yourself because they’ll give you the AIDS. Ryan White changed all that. He wasn’t gay, I don’t even think if he was biologically predetermined to be gay he would have even known. But here he was just turning thirteen and looking down the barrel of a painful death, and all he wanted to do was go to school. No one wants to go to school, I sure didn’t and I was a prototypical teacher’s pet. I trade holiday greeting cards with my first-grade teacher to this day. If I were given the choice to go to school or stay home, I’d stay home and watch “Get Smart” and play with my toys. Ryan White, he wanted to go to school and you know what, those other kid’s parents wouldn’t let him.
Now I won’t say the people of Kokomo, Indiana’s fears were baseless but by 1984 it was starting to come out that AIDS didn’t work they way we were initially told. You couldn’t just high-five your way to an early grave. Bodily fluid was the scary thing but to think that all these educated parents were worried that 13 year old Ryan White would be running around bleeding on everyone is amazingly stupid. I was 6 at the time and I remember being upset. Why wouldn’t they let him go to school? What is wrong with these people?
Ryan White vs. the Board of Education was a big story in 1985. 117 students and 50 teachers in a school with a total of 360 students signed a petition to ban Ryan from school. They even took away his paper route because they thought he would transmit his disease through their papers. Those same people probably could have learned a thing or two about AIDS and HIV if they would have read those newspapers. By the time Ryan White was readmitted the Indiana Surgeon General would state there was no risk to students but that didn’t stop parents from pulling their kids from school. People would yell “We know you’re queer” at this brave 13 year old who not once in any picture or video looked like a kid who was dying. He always looked happy, healthy and unafraid He was brave and he was my role model.
Things got so bad in Kokomo that the White family had to move after someone shot at their window, although no one was home at the time. They moved to another town in Indiana called Cicero where Ryan was greeted with mostly open arms. On the news they showed him shaking hands with other students whose parents had apparently read their newspapers. Ryan White became a national spokesman for AIDS when he should have just been worrying about puberty. He put a face to what was at that point just a faceless gay-killing illness. He was the exact kind of person that shouldn’t be dying of AIDS; young and straight, and it scared the world into trying to deal with it instead of just letting it clear out all the “undesirables”. He was the perfect sacrifice, he never wavered and he was always wonderful.
Towards the height of his prominence as a spokesman he met musical genius Elton John. I’ve had some pretty radical tastes in music and have hung out with headbangers and aspiring rappers and Elton John is about the only artist I know that no one can really dislike. Well, Elton John helped boost that kid’s cause and rallied other celebs to it. The world became aware of AIDS and he even got to kiss his celebrity crush (and mine) Alyssa Milano. Ryan White was a hero, he met with athletes, stars and even the President, Ronald Reagan, who had seemingly played coy about AIDS until this little 13 year old kid shoved it in his face. Sadly in 1990 Ryan White lost his battle with AIDS, he lived 5 years longer than the doctors told him he would. Unfortunately he was taken one month before his high school graduation.
“Why Ryan White is important to me” is actually the name of one of the first essays I ever wrote. When we went from writing in stilted sentences to having to writing a couple of paragraphs one of the first things I ever wrote was about him. As you may have guessed writing is important to me, it’s the only true method I have of stating the complicated garbage that clogs my head. So my early topics of writing are important to me. I remember only three of those papers and their subjects Ryan White, Marvin Hagler and Magic Johnson. It’s amazing to remember when the name Magic Johnson wasn’t the first name I think of when it comes to AIDS. I wrote my paper on Ryan White because I had been following his case in the newspapers. I don’t know why I started, I just clipped articles from the Miami Herald about him. I guess I looked up to him on some level I didn’t understand. He was so brave, so strong and so young. When he died, I wept like he was family, but I never knew him. When Magic Johnson went public with his diagnosis I cried too.
I’d like to think that if I’m wrong about this whole afterlife thing that I don’t have to believe in something specific to make it in. I’m a good person, I’m not being conceited, if anything I’m a very harsh critic of myself, too harsh. I’m good though, I know this. I generally do the right thing, and not out of some idea that I’m going to be rewarded with angel’s wings and harp music. I was just raised right and have a deeply woven moral fiber. I’m not perfect, far from it, but the bad I do is more self-flagellation than anything else.
I try to leave a small footprint in people’s lives. I want to help everyone, even strangers. I never grew out of that need to save the world, I still find myself day-dreaming about having superpowers. In some way my childhood didn’t end when my brother died, it just got jostled around and misplaced. Somewhere in my early 30’s when things settled down, most of the people I loved died off, I found romantic love and a soulless but stable job I started acting younger.
I am 35 now and I can hardly believe it. My 20’s went by in a haze of anger, depression and self-loathing. I never thought I’d hit 30 so I didn’t try to accomplish anything. Everyone I looked up to died and died young. Why should I be spared the same fate. Was I any better than Adam Walsh, those astronauts, Ryan White or my own brother? Why did they die and I got to live? Why did I have to live and they got to rest? FUCK!!! Why am I still here? Why am I squandering what advantages I was born, taught and raised with?
I’m not sure but somewhere inside I think I know the answer. I don’t know if I’m worthy. Who knows what Adam Walsh would have been if he grew up. I’m sure those astronauts would have done something good. Ryan White for sure seems like he would have been a great man. And Chris, he didn’t even get to raise his kids. What right do I have to grow up, get married and have a family? All these good people that died, they deserved better. They didn’t deserved to be murdered, get a disease or have an accident. They deserved life, it was just bad luck, I guess. Can you really boil down those horrific acts to luck? Chance? Fate?
I don’t want to write things like this. I didn’t want to do it last time and I don’t want to continue but this is how I process things. It’s taken me a long time to get to this place where I can square what happened in my formative years and try to move past it. I hurt for people I didn’t even know and for people I loved dearly. That doesn’t mean I have to stop living though. I’m starting to get that, but it’s hard to turn around the Titanic, and I am also extremely stubborn.
I’ll tell you one more horror story my little friends. If you’ve dared journey this far with me you want mind a little more pathos I’m sure. 9/11. There, we are all in the same frame of mind. Let me tell you my 9/11 story. It’s as close to an emotional melding as we can have. Even if you’ve never lost a loved one, you probably remember that day like it was yesterday. It was a beautiful day, I didn’t even mind when the phone rang and woke me up. My Dad was on the line. He was at work and his voice was a little higher than normal. He blurted out “A plane just hit the World Trade Center”. I was shocked.
My first thought was to my Great Uncle Louis who was working in Empire State Building and was a few floors up when a plane crashed into it in 1945. I immediately thought it was just a horrible accident. I stated so to my father. As fate would have it I was still on the phone with him passing theories back and forth about radar malfunction and so forth when the second plane hit. I had just flipped on the television about 30 seconds before and sat watching the smoke billowing from the North Tower. I was shocked when the second plane hit. I half-shouted so much to my Dad and we stayed there on the phone, silent just staring at the same picture miles away from each other. We weren’t together but somehow we were leaning on each other. Some time later we found enough strength to hang up and watch those horrific events continue to unfold. It’s something entirely new to witness mass murder, it’s a different kind of grieving, one tinged with horror. It reminded me of Adam Walsh. Senseless murder.
I wouldn’t have been awake when the attack happened if it weren’t for my Dad but I’m thankful he woke me up. It would have eventually gotten my attention, my boss called a few hours later to tell me the mall where I was working at the time would be closed. I was all alone in my house, I am glad I didn’t have to be alone when it happened. I had someone to lean on a bit. For months after I had nightmares about the towers collapsing, interspersed with faces I recognized but shouldn’t have been there. Chris was there, covered in dust and blood. Adam Walsh screaming silently for his mother. In some dreams it was the Challenger that crashed into the building. I’m not trying to convince you I’m sane or crazy, just that grief is crazy and your mind can make so many small connections to where any act can be joined with any memory. For some people they smell a flower and think of a wedding and for some they see people crowded around a barbecue and have a panic attack. I seem to be the latter.
If you’re reading this and I honestly don’t know why anyone would have any interest in doing so other than a feeling of obligation then you probably know the particulars about what happened to my Dad. It’s been over a year and I’m now in the prolonged grief phase. Now people are telling me I’ve got other things to worry about. It’s expected of me to move on, to not be affected each day by the loss. What a lot of people don’t understand is that as much as I am mourning for my father, I am still mourning for my brother, for my Uncle Bubby, for Mee-Maw, for everyone I’ve ever lost because I never did it right in the first place. My grief and loss is so twisted tight into a ball and all the strings are tangled and stuck and I’m trying like Hell to get it free but it’s so hard when 2/3 of your life has been spent delaying grief. It’s all catching up to me now and I can either try to run again and it might catch me. It might not, I don’t have too many people left to lose. Or I can face it, as big and scary as my grief is. I can face it and it might kill me, but I just might surprise myself and find some kind of strength and find my inner Ryan White and smile in it’s face. I think I’ll try that one.
So I am going to make one accounting of the people I have loved and lost and hopefully this putting the words down will help me heal. I am thankful for the time I got with them no matter how short it was.
Thomas Galiano, Christopher Galiano, Mary Rubin and Ted, Joseph “Bubby” Galiano, Bill Lalley, Bill O’Meara, Dee O’Meara, Megan Stearns, Jose Hernandez, Adam Walsh, Ryan White, Francis Scobee, Michael J. Smith, Ellison S. Onizuka, Judith A. Resnick, Ronald E. McNair, Gregory B. Jarvis, S. Christa McAuliffe.
P.S. I really hope to never have to write something like this again. I honestly hate doing it, but it’s a necessary evil. Hopefully my next entry will be something fun. This was written in one sitting, written upon total impulse and posted on a whim. If there are any grammatical errors, I apologize but I did finally nail that “I before E” thing. So there’s that.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that at the time of his death my brother had been clean for over a year. Drugs and/or alcohol were not a factor in the accident that claimed his life.