Location: Plymouth, MA
When Marilyn Gallagher met her husband Jim, there was no sign of the heart troubles that would ultimately claim his life. “He was very fit,” Marilyn says, recalling meeting him when she was 20 years old and he was 22 and they played pool at a local pub on Christmas Day 1978. “He played football and an athlete,” Marilyn says. They married two years later and their daughter Kristin was born six years later.
When Kristin was five years old, Jim had his first heart attack. Tests revealed he had severe blockage. He stopped smoking, changed his diet, and had angioplasties several times each year but to no avail. He continued to have heart problems and his first heart attack was followed by ten more. The athlete Marilyn had married became more and more debilitated, and the health complications were not just physical. Jim told Marilyn he did not want to have any more children, even though Kristin kept clamoring for siblings, because he didn’t want to leave any more behind. “He told me he didn’t want to do that to me,” Marilyn says. “He knew I was going to be on my own.”
Jim was the youngest of four boys. His second oldest brother, Richard, had three children later in life and had to raise them largely on his own because his wife had substance abuse and mental health issues that kept her in and out of hospitals and rehab. When the children were 8, 10, and 12 years old, Richard had double knee replacement surgery that forced him to go on disability. Marilyn, James and Kristin, who was 19 at the time, watched the kids for one week while he recovered from his knee surgery. “We didn’t have much contact with them until that point,” Marilyn says, surmising that he largely kept to himself and didn’t interact with the family much because of his wife’s frequent absences. “But we were the closest relatives.” Richard, dismayed with his inability to work and his wife’s struggles, started taking an antidepressant that he had in the house, rather than one that was prescribed. Had he filled a prescription, the pharmacist would have known to warn him that it was contraindicated with the phentonal patch he was on to manage his post-surgical pain. The potent combination killed him, ending a life of a man whom Marilyn describes as “full of life.” He had just returned from taking his three children on a Disney vacation. Twelve-year old Kelly found him unresponsive and reached out to her aunt and uncle, calling them before she called 911. Kristin, who answered the phone, rushed over with her boyfriend to try CPR until the paramedics got there, but there was nothing to be done.
Marilyn and Jim agreed to take the three kids in, thinking it would be temporary. “Their mom was out of the picture,” Marilyn says, “but I figured she would get healthy, especially when she saw she was the only parent, and come back.” She was wrong. Kelly, 12, Cody 10, and Paul 8, moved in and never left. Their mother died one year later in a car crash, and no other relatives stepped forward to take the children. “We thought someone else would step in,” Marilyn says. She was struggling to care for Jim, who was largely dependent on her for his care at that point, but it became clear the only other option was to put the children in foster care. “I wasn’t going to let that happen,” Marilyn says. “I couldn’t risk them being split up.”
It was a big adjustment for everyone. Kristin, who had wanted siblings, yearned for the days when she had been an only child. “There was a lot of noise and mess,” Marilyn says. “Kristin wanted her house back.” Marilyn also says that adding boys to the mix was a big change in the family dynamics. “We weren’t used to boys,” she says. “They are so physical.” She also wasn’t used to bickering and fighting. “They were a handful,” she recalls.
Aunty Marilyn and Uncle Jim, as the kids called them, did the best they could. They took the kids camping and opened up their home to the kids’ friends. But they also laid down new ground rules. “They were used to getting their way and were pretty spoiled,” Marilyn says. “I made it clear that in our house, if you don’t take care of your bike, you don’t get a new one.” Despite the fact that his health was getting worse and worse, Jim continued to work to support his family that had just doubled in size. Marilyn worked days while Jim worked nights, and Kristin, who was in college, helped out a lot with dinners. But his health continued to decline, and within two years of having the kids move in with them, James went on disability. In February 2010, Marilyn woke up to find him dead.
Marilyn continued to raise the children on her own. It was hard. “They had a tough life,” Marilyn says. “And it showed.” She worked hard to show them different values, which was challenging because, as she puts it, “we didn’t mold them. They saw too many things by the time they came to us.” She felt that they initially viewed her as at ATM, because, she says, “their dad used to buy them things to compensate for what was going on with their mom.” But she kept at it, working hard to “figure them out and become one big unit.”
Now the children, all grown, live in a townhome they were able to purchase with their inheritance. They all have jobs and they understand that they need to be able to live independently, that Aunty Marilyn can’t keep bailing them out. Marilyn lives with Kristin, who is divorced, and her twin grandsons. And she finds, at times when she is alone and the house is quiet and calm, that she misses the chaos. “It was so hard,” she says, “but it was worth it.” She hopes she made a difference in their lives. And she is grateful that she was able to be there for them, despite her own hardships, because, she says, “that is just what you do.” She believes everything happened for a reason. Marilyn grew up in a house full of cousins and she had always imagined having a busy house full of kids. “I loved having all of their friends over,” she says. “We were all blessed.”
When she sees them now living together on their own, she thinks about how easily they could have been split up. “Keeping them together was the best thing,” Marilyn says. “For everyone.”