Richard Galli
(Algonquin Books
Of Chapel Hill)

n July 4, 1998, Jeffrey Galli jumped into a friend's swimming pool and broke his spine. Within a day of his transfer to a hospital, the family learned that the prognosis was bad: that Jeffrey would never walk again, probably not be able to breathe on his own, possibly have no use of arms or hands. Rescuing Jeffreydescribes what happened between July 4 and July 14, and, mostly, what was going on in the mind of the his father, Richard (who is both an attorney and a professional writer).

Many of the so-now-you-are-disabled books leave much to be desired --- for, unless you are a Callahan or a Hockenberry or a Gallagher, the event and the follow-up are so potent that it is damn near impossible to get all the feelings, and the drama (and the drama of feelings) down on the page. Rescuing Jeffrey is different. The writer is an experienced journalist. He saved his son's life, and he and his wife practically lived in the hospital for the next weeks. In addition, he did his homework.

In a lengthy meeting with the family, the doctors outline the process of rehabilitation. At the end, Galli says, "What about Option Two?" Option Two? Yes: "We have not yet talked about removing his life support." There is a pause, and then one doctor points out that he is alive, and even if there were no further improvement,

    Jeffrey could think and talk and --- [Dr.] Burnett used words that are apparently magical in the medical world --- "interact with his environment."

Galli's response: "Single-cell creatures in a petri dish can interact with their environment. Worms and cockroaches do, as do baseball players, doctors, young girls in love, and cancer cells."

For the next ten days, the possibility --- and the ethics --- of euthanasia is the central theme. The question is raised directly: is disconnecting life-support of a seventeen-year-old boy an act of mercy, or an act of murder?

    Poets might "rescue" people from life. Poets have the luxury of inventing the myths they write about. But when fathers shut off life support, they don't "rescue" their sons from life. They "kill" their sons....This is the last night, I thought, that my son may be alive. When I wake in the morning, I may kill him.

With Jeffrey's consent? No. Galli tells the doctors,

    If we have to do this...Jeffrey will not be told. We don't want a crowd of people filing in to say good-bye, terrifying him.

The ethics committee of the hospital asks Galli to come to another meeting and make his case. He does so articulately --- after all, he is trained as a trial lawyer. He describes, unflinchingly, the reality of quadriplegia:

    I have not told him about urine backing up into his kidneys; or about bowel programs; or about skin integrity, breakdown, and bedsores; or about opportunistic infections, which will come anytime and whose symptoms he won't even feel.

Then he points out the potential (and potent) subject of blame:

    For the rest of his life...Jeffrey will believe that he is the cause of his own paralysis. There is nothing anyone can say that will convince him otherwise. He will always believe that, and he will always be tormented by it.

Finally, he tells the group, "I am fifty-two years old. When Jeff is forty, I will be seventy-five years old. I don't know how long Toby [his wife] and I will be able to handle Jeff at home, even if we have help."

    The folks at the rehab hospital tell us it is pretty hard. At some point, Jeffrey is going to have to go somewhere else. There is no good place for him to go. By the time other kids in Jeff's generation are just hitting their peak, with careers and families and homes of their own, Jeff will long since have been delivered into the hands of strangers.

§     §     §

Galli has created a spectacular piece of writing, a cliff-hanging mystery --- one in which we know a murder may be going to happen, but as we get to know the characters better (the doctors, the rabbi, Jeffrey's mother, his sister, Jeffrey himself, and his father) we find ourselves strangely torn. Living as a quadriplegic can be a pisser, right? And yet, isn't life worth it? To kill the kid without his knowledge or permission? Much of the time, as involved as we are in his dilemma, we find ourselves wanting to tell the old man just to cool it, for God's sakes.

He keeps talking about the window of opportunity --- if the "unplugging" isn't done soon, it may never happen, because when Jeffrey is eighteen (which will occur in a few weeks) it will no longer be legal for his parents to make the fatal decision. If it's going to be done, it has to be done immediately.

And it's not just the Hamlet Question. It is, too, the knowledge that whatever transpires may be (at least by Galli's lights) wrong. For he sees it in terms of two "rescues." One came about at the side of the pool. The other may come, he believes, from the "unplugging:"

    We rescued him from death and then we rescued him from life. We will never be sure that either rescue was best for him.

If you save people from death, what are you saving them for. Is it possible that dying is the best option, one we could classify as another kind of "rescue."

As we wrestle the pros and cons of it, Galli begins to assume the stature of a heroic character, one right out of Shakespeare. The dilemma he has set for himself is a killer. And, all the while, we see a man who is very human. For instance, there's a poignant snapshot of him and his son: he's at the bedside, fingering the single tear that drops from Jeffrey's eye as he tells him, again, and again --- the boy keeps forgetting --- exactly how the accident happened.

At one point, Jeffrey wants to be shaved. So Galli decides to drive to a shopping center --- one he's been to a hundred times --- to buy an electric razor. He gets lost. He's in a daze. He spends an hour looking at the selection of razors. He --- a decisive person --- finds that he is driving himself to distraction with his new indecision. We are there with him, his confusion is our confusion. And it's not only about a razor. It's the repeated question of the quality of life, the quality of death. We become partners in his awful dilemma.

§     §     §

Perhaps one of the reasons he captures us is because he can be so brutally frank (and so brutally bitter) at the same time. The staff psychiatrist is assigned by the hospital "to help Jeff get through the ordeal. As a by-product, he ended up counseling us parents as well. And as an extra-special added bonus, I got to torture Dr. Fritz...We concentrated on why, precisely, I was so willing to kill my son."


    I read that Jeff's injury is called the hangman's break because it is exactly the kind of fracture that an executioner has in mind when he sets the knot just so on the condemned convict's neck. When the felon drops through the gallows floor, his neck bones snap around the C1-C2 level. The convict suffers a mean contusion up near the top of the spine, just about where Jeffrey suffered his, and the witnesses watch him die. The convict's father doesn't jump in and breathe for him, the EMT's don't ventilate him on the way to the hospital, and the surgeons don't set his neck into a halo vest. No.

It is this rank honesty that sets Rescuing Jeffrey apart from the disability literature that has been pouring from the presses over the last twenty years. We are allowed to see, without shields, the effect of a ghastly trauma on a seventeen-year-old, but, at the same time, we are immersed in the pain that comes to the family --- father, mother, and sister. (His younger sister asks at one point why she isn't being told the truth.)

It is common knowledge that the trauma to the spine is reflected by a deep trauma to one's emotions. But here we see another --- a close family member --- stretched so far that he, too, cracks. The break in his son's spine destroys a reasonable man's sense of logic. For a period of ten days, he comes to a state of near-lunacy, arguing murder. His son's agony brings on a larger lunacy: making an otherwise sensible man plot to kill the son he helped to bring (and bring back) into the world.

--- L. W. Milam

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