It is a number that has defined much of my life — 56. That was my dad’s age when he died. I was 10. Ask anyone who has lost a parent young and there is the before and the after. The before is a finite time with memories that fade like photos left in the sun. The after goes on forever with challenges you never expected.

With the days ticking off toward Monday when I turn 56, I find myself far less stressed than I was as my younger self. I had a lot of rules attached to 56 with the main one — the one I swore to never violate — being that if I had kids they’d be all grown before I turned 56.

Well, rules you set in your youth are non-binding, unenforceable in any court of law. I feel pretty good that if lightning strikes when I turn 56, I will have done my best getting the boys to 17 and 13, respectively.

I may be less stressed but it doesn’t mean I’m any less obsessive. There have been few if any times in my life since the boys were born where I’ve done anything rather than spend time with the boys. If it was something I could do but would mean missing out on time with Aidan and Finn, I didn’t do it. Every minute counted and I felt I was depositing these minutes into their memory banks. If at some point I stopped making deposits I wanted them to have as much as possible to draw upon.

I hated not having a dad. I hated it every day. Even though he’d be over 100 if alive today, I hate that he never met his grandsons.

Of course, I never said I hated it. That would’ve sounded like complaining and who would I have complained to?

I was embarrassed I didn’t have a dad. There was an annual father-son dinner in Little League when I played. I dreaded it every year. I didn’t go, but the night of the dinner it was all I could think about.

In high school there was an annual father-son lunch. We were required to write letter inviting our dad. As a freshman I was petrified that I could not complete the assignment so I went up to the teacher’s desk and whispered that my dad was dead.

Instead of letting me retreat to my seat she started loudly telling me I could invite an uncle or a family friend in an upbeat manner that implied the lack of a live father opened a world of opportunities to me that boys with dads did not enjoy.

Having learned my lesson, the following years when the event arrived, I’d write the letter and seal it in an envelope addressed to Michael Gallagher, my dad’s name as well as mine. I’d eye the mailbox each day and when it arrived, I’d rip it up unopened.

I never mentioned to anyone my dad was dead. It was an awkward subject and I was already awkward enough as a teen.

Midway though my senior year, though, President Ronald Reagan eliminated Social Security survivor benefits for recipients over the age of 18. It used to be a child could continue to collect survivor benefits until age 22, if she or he attended college.

The catch was, if you were enrolled in college by that spring, you could continue to receive the benefits through your college years. Across the nation, eligible high school seniors found a way to enroll in college for spring quarter. This was well before Running Start so it was quite an endeavor.

My high school counselor called a meeting for students in this situation. I found myself in a room with about 15 classmates, who I had no idea had lost a parent. I knew some of them, but not all that well. It’s not that sharing having lost a parent would have made us friends, but at times it would have been nice to find the eyes of someone experiencing the same thing.

We are all shaped by our experiences whether fantastic or truly horrible. It can be something that makes us want to cringe unseen in a corner when 16 but makes us a better father at 56.

If there’s a balance to this, I can’t say.

Contact managing editor Michael Gallagher at


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