In this memoir, we meet Becky Galli. We are first introduced to the author’s life while she is safely ensconced in a pretty idyllic 1960s southern upbringing-complete with the pastor father and a stay-at-home mother. Theirs was a family who valued predictability, always had a plan. She writes:
It was summertime, and we’d been preparing for weeks. In 1964, I was six years old, and I thought I knew everything. I was the rule-follower and vigilant enforcer, “in charge” (or so I thought) of my four-year-old brother, Forest, and my baby sister, Rachel who was three…After each trip to the grocery store, we would watch mom set aside one or two items for the “beach box,” a sturdy cardboard box she tucked beside the refrigerator, far out of our reach. Saltines, Peter Pan peanut butter, Mt. Olive dill pickles…
As a reader, you are lulled into a world that is not just familiar, but secure, until the author’s brother dies at the age of seventeen in a waterskiing accident. And this is just the beginning, after this, it’s the slow unraveling of a “perfect” family and it’s devastating. This memoir is a compelling narrative about being dealt life’s most difficult and painful cards. Galli’s memoir grips you tight from page one. You feel her pain and get to live that grief right along with her and her family. She moves forward as we all must do. She marries, goes on to have a successful career and a family of her own. What follows is one tragedy after another: her son’s degenerative, undiagnosed disease and subsequent death; accompanied by her daughter’s autism diagnosis; her separation; and then, nine days after her divorce was final, the onset of a disease that leaves the author paralyzed from the waist down.
Galli’s story is not just about tallying up tragedy, nor is it a pity party on paper; it’s an incredible story about her belief in family and what it is to love unconditionally. It’s inspiring because it’s heartbreaking. What is essential to keep in mind is that the author will tell you, herself, that she is happy, maybe even more, perfectly content. Why? Well, dear readers, I suggest that you read her memoir and find out. It is worth it. Her story is one that makes you, as the title suggests, rethink possible. For now, Book Club Babble is proud to have the author with us today. Becky, thank you so much for joining us today.
Maribel Garcia: You couldn’t tear me away from your memoir, and when my family members found out more about it, they kept asking why I was putting myself through all the heartbreak. There was your brother’s death in a water ski accident, your mother’s death, your son’s death, your father’s death, your paralysis, divorce, a child’s diagnosis of a life-threatening blood disorder, another child’s diagnosis of autism, another child’s diagnosis of epilepsy and miscarriages. There is research that tries to explain this in different ways. Some people seem to use tragedies as a way to reflect on the essential relationships in their own life, while some people even claim that empathizing with other people makes our brains release oxytocin, which engages brain circuits that prompt us to care about others. I don’t like the part about “counting our blessings,” I think that the take away is the sheer inspiration, reading about models of resilience, such as yourself. What are your thoughts on this? Why do you think that we are drawn to tragedy?
Rebecca Faye Smith Galli: What a thoughtful question, Maribel! At some level, I think we all are “living the life we didn’t plan.” The more I talk about my book to different audiences, the more I realize that we all have losses—some are just more visible than others. In fact, I think our losses can connect us. The magnitude may vary, but the process of loss—the disappointment, pain, and living in and through the circumstance, make us comrades. In many ways, it brings out the best of our humanity, our ability to connect, relate, and help each other heal. I also think that we crave inspiration. Maybe that’s why we are “drawn to tragedy.” We’re curious as to how the survivors made it through a loss and wanted to see what we can learn from them that may inspire us to get through our own.
MG: You grew up as a preacher’s kid. The three D’s—death, divorce, and disease were, for the most part, other people’s problems. As you have stated in interviews, these life-changing events were just a side effect of your father’s job, “a routine yet necessary nuisance.” Do you think that your father’s career had a lot to do with your resiliency?
Rebecca Faye Smith Galli: Absolutely. Before my brother’s death, plans were made and kept, and ducks were pretty much always in a row. Forest’s death changed everything. Although we loved each other deeply, in many ways, our family shattered. Through it all, I had a front row seat to an amazing story of resilience. I watched my father openly question his faith as he struggled to accept and survive one of the most devastating losses of all—the death of his only son. I didn’t know it at the time, but he (and Mom) showed me how to get through and learn from tragedy, openly, honestly, and with a steadfast determination to keep moving, keep learning, and keep loving.
MG: The death of someone you love is one of the greatest sorrows that can occur. Grief is a standard, healthy response to loss, but people experience it differently. What is your advice for people in the early stages of grief?
Rebecca Faye Smith Galli:
1. Be patient with yourself. In my experience, there are no “stages of grief.” There are cycles of grief. Just when you think you’ve moved from shock to anger to acceptance, or any of the stages in between, another anniversary or a shared experience or even a particular sound or smell triggers a memory and the whole process starts all over again. So be patient with yourself.
2. Remember that “Grief is a strange companion.” Just when you think you have it under control, it pops out, demanding attention. Don’t try to manage it; honor it. Prepare for it by knowing yourself. Know what lifts your spirits and keep that arsenal ready for use. Know who lifts your spirits and keep them informed of how you are doing. Do NOT isolate. Find at least one person, preferably someone not as profoundly impacted by the loss as you are, and check in with them regularly.
3. Remember that “Grief is and unique as your fingerprint.” Be patient with the process, too. Don’t waste your time or energy comparing your progress to others. DO spend time with others who have had similar journeys, but ONLY IF they can be helpful. Don’t be afraid to be selfish; move toward those who help you and create boundaries (or let other loved ones do it for you if you can’t find the strength) to limit your contact with those who are not helpful.
MG: You wrote:
To be honest, I don’t think we “overcome” tragedy. At best, we learn to live through it and with it. That’s what resilience is to me, continually seeking and learning to live a good life DESPITE significant losses.
These are such powerful words, how long did it take you to get here?
Rebecca Faye Smith Galli: A long time! By nature, I’m a fighter. I did not want to give up hope—for my children, my marriage, or my recovery from paralysis. But after a while, I found myself dwelling on the future and missing out on the present. Nineteen months after the paralysis, I realized I was missing out on family dinners to go to therapies that were exhausting. I not only missed dinners, but I was also often too tired to tuck my kids into bed or get up early enough to have breakfast with them. Every single day I would try to move my left big toe, the last thing I could move before the paralysis was complete. Then one morning, I decided to stop trying; it wasn’t worth the physical effort or the mental disappointment. Acceptance, I learned, changes everything. I could re-engage in the life I still had DESPITE the losses. Acceptance of the loss actually made room for me to enjoy what I could still do! I think the key is to keep hope realistic. I’m still a fighter and don’t give up easily, but now I do consider the cost of hope and try to ground it with reality sooner than later. We miss a lot of the good in life when we pursue the best that may never be.
MG: I love your quote:
Life Can Be Good, No Matter What. In interviews, you have said that this is the philosophy that sustains you. Can you tell us more about it?
Rebecca Faye Smith Galli: I think that outlook goes back to the idea that we crave inspiration. I do. I’ve found I need it, so I look for it. It’s a concept I must practice. So, to stay inspired, I look for the good and write about it weekly in my Thoughtful Thursday email newsletter. Sometimes it is a quote, or a photo, or a just a kind comment I’ve overheard. I think that phrase, more than any other, demonstrates our potential to “rethink possible.” The critical word is can. Life CAN be good IF I look for it. It takes effort to find the good in difficult circumstances. But, once we focus on the good, find inspiration from the good, accept that within this circumstance there is still some goodness to be found, we can rethink what is possible.
MG: This memoir is about your lifelong quest to create the sense of family you knew before your brother’s tragic death. Your memoir was written for those who want and value family. What is your definition of family?
Rebecca Faye Smith Galli: Oh, family! So important to me and for me. I guess I’d have to say that family is made up of those people who travel a life-long journey together and love each other—warts and all.
MG: Rebecca, thank you so much. I guess before we let you go, are you working on any new books?
Rebecca Faye Smith Galli: I am, Maribel! I have three ideas chasing each other around in my head. One is based on my Thoughtful Thursday’s column, with a working title, Reframing Possible: A Daybook of Inspiration. I’m a big believer in my morning Quiet Time. I read, journal, meditate and reflect every day and enjoy short daily snippets of inspiration. Reframing Possible will give a brief message to ponder with a suggestion on how to reframe what’s possible for that day. The other two will focus more on managing that “strange companion” of grief, what helps, what hurts, and some principles that have sustained me through some dark days. When I settle on one, Maribel, you’ll be the first to know!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rethinking Possible: A Memoir of Resilience, is a weekly columnist who lives in Baltimore, Maryland and writes about love, loss, and healing. A Morehead-Cain Scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Becky was employed by IBM, where she was the recipient of the Golden Circle award for marketing excellence. Surviving significant losses―her seventeen-year-old brother’s death; her son’s degenerative disease and subsequent death; her daughter’s autism; her divorce; and nine days later, her paralysis from transverse myelitis, a rare spinal cord inflammation that began as the flu―that have fostered an unexpected but prolific writing career. In 2000, The Baltimore Sun published her first column about playing soccer with her son―from the wheelchair. With 400 published columns and a completed memoir, she launched “Thoughtful Thursdays―Lessons from a Resilient Heart” – a weekly column for her subscriber family that shares what’s inspired her to stay positive. She also periodically contributes to The Baltimore Sun’s Op-Ed page, Midlife Boulevard, Nanahood, and The Mighty. Join her Thoughtful Thursdays family at beckygalli.com/signup.