A Teacher in Space

Teacher Art - a glowing red orb in the sky highlights a tree branch's silhouette in the foreground
Namrata Shah/Unsplash

When Words Aren’t Enough but They’re All That We Have

By Drew Gallagher

My mother died today.

I used to joke with her that when I wrote her obituary I would use the opening from Camus’ The Stranger and leave a hint of mystery about when she actually died. There is no mystery. My sister went to her house, went to her bedroom, and found her dead in bed. This was unexpected. Less than 48 hours before, she was entertaining guests on Mother’s Day including my 102-year-old grandmother. She was hosting virtual family trivia, a byproduct of the Covid lockdown, on Sunday night. Now she is dead and I have no words. One regret is that I didn’t know I would never speak to her again. She died peacefully in her sleep. She didn’t suffer. But now we do.

My mother had a vibrancy that I never expected to be diminished. I write that sentence and it rings hollow even though the sentiment is true. No parent wants to outlive their child, but I truly expected that my mother and her Pennsylvania Dutch determination would bury me one day. I took silent refuge in that thought because I never wanted to bury my mother. The thought of having to speak at her celebration of life or whatever the fuck we’ll call it has haunted me for years. (I shouldn’t swear. My mother never swore.) My mother even said that she wondered who would speak at her funeral because she knew that I wouldn’t be able to. She was the love of my life. When I got married, my wife said she hoped that one day she’d have a son who would love her as much as I loved my mother. This is not easy. Nor is it unique. People lose mothers every day. People lose mothers before they can remember them. 

My mother was a finalist for the teacher-in-space program when Christa McAuliffe died in the Challenger disaster. To my memory, she was one of the last 100 in the selection process. An internet search shows otherwise. When I was a teenager, my mother flew to Houston to participate in the selection process. She wasn’t chosen. Christa McAuliffe was and she died. Decades before my mother. Ask Christa McAuliffe’s husband and her children if they would trade places and I think I know their answer. I asked my mother one time if she would have still gone up in space knowing that the Challenger would explode and she said she would. It was for the advancement of science. She was a science teacher. There’s a young adult novel written about her titled Me and Marvin Gardens. The author graduated high school with me, and my mother was one of her teachers. 

My mother once wondered what a million of something would look like. She thought that collecting pull tabs from aluminum cans would be an easy way to see what a million of something looked like. Somewhere there is a newspaper article in The Reading Eagle that documents how many years it took her and her students to accumulate one million pull tabs. It took a lot longer than she expected. Walking the streets on family vacations with our heads down and our eyes on the ground never yielded many pull tabs. When my brother-in-law got to her house today and saw that my mother hadn’t picked up her morning paper, we knew something was wrong. That newspaper had chronicled her collection of one million pull tabs. The newspaper is now a shell of the one that my father, its editor, had helmed. They lost a subscriber today. 

My mother married a newspaper reporter. They met in a local production of The Fantasticks in Easton, PA. Dad was El Gallo and reportedly sang a song directly to her where she waited in the wings as the stage manager. I want to think that the song was “Try to Remember,” which is what El Gallo sings as he enters the stage at the start of the musical, but I can’t be sure. It might come to me if I put the CD in, but for now I’m guessing. This is what my future holds—guesses about the stories of my parents and my mother. Neither of them are around to correct me or tell me their tales. There are a lot of photo albums I will have to go through with my sister and my brother in the coming days, weeks, and months. Do we dare throw them way? Pictures of people that only my parents knew and could tell us about. Pictures of my brother and me naked in a bathtub.

There must be pictures of my mother with her sister and her brother. Someone had to call them today to tell them their sister died. Here is a picture of the three of them at an apple orchard. One of them is dead now. Their pain is different than mine, but I don’t think I would trade places with them, either. Neither of them drink, so they are processing this soberly. Like my father and mother, I mark happy hour as often as I can. I raised a beer to my mother earlier. That was six beers ago. There are not enough beers to make this any easier.

When our mothers die, there is no guidebook for how to grieve. Tomorrow, my 19-year-old son and I will drive to Pennsylvania to sign some paperwork which will allow my mother’s body to be cremated. She wants her ashes spread on Lake Otsego in Cooperstown, NY. My mother was a huge baseball fan and went to Cooperstown every summer for the Hall of Fame induction ceremony. She wanted me to bring my son so they could share one of those moments together. I never did because I thought my mother would live forever. My son’s first visit to Cooperstown will be without his grandmother. 

As I write this, my phone is dinging with texts and voicemails from people who loved my mother and want to reach out. I just found out about her death a few hours ago. I’ve been trying to fashion a tribute to her and realizing there is no amount of writing that will bring her back or that will make this pain go away. Nothing that will give me a chance to tell her I love her one last time. Mom always loved it when I wrote something—anything, really—and sent it to her to read. She’s not going to be here to pick up her newspaper or get the mail out of the mailbox, but I don’t know what else to do besides keep writing this essay until I finish, and send it to her anyway.


Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer who lives in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is the second most prolific book reviewer and first video book reviewer in the 136-year history of the Free Lance-Star Newspaper. You can find some of his video book reviews at Fredericksburg.com.