BILL COATES, Casa Grande Dispatch
A small shrine is set up in the home of Susan Gallagher to honor her husband Michael, a Border Patrol agent who died in the line of duty in 2010. Photo: Casa Grande Dispatch, Steven King / AP
CASA GRANDE, Ariz. (AP) — Samantha Gallagher‘s life is defined by before and after.
Before her husband left for work, Samantha wished him well.
“I remember his opening the garage door. I said, ‘Be safe.’?”
That was the night of Sept. 1, 2010. Michael Gallagher, 32, worked for the U.S. Border Patrol. From their Casa Grande home, he drove to the motor pool and picked up a Border Patrol truck. Then he headed for the southern portion of the Tohono O’odham Nation, just north of the Mexican border. He’d work through the night, then return.
The morning after, Samantha answered the front door. Several Border Patrol agents stood on the patio. They looked troubled. One of them, a high-ranking agent, told her that Michael had been in an accident. She prayed they would next tell her he was in a hospital and they were there to give her a ride.
But something wasn’t right. The other agents were good friends of her husband. Why weren’t they at the hospital with Michael?
They didn’t have to tell her. “I knew he was dead,” said Samantha, 32.
But they did tell her, after the high-ranking officer asked to come in and suggested she take a seat.
She would learn her husband had been killed by a drunk driver on a reservation road named Federal Route 19. Angela Mata, a tribal member, pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter in federal court. Last February, she was sentenced to five years in prison.
Samantha Gallagher, seated at her dining room table, told the story about her life before that night, and after that morning. She wrote about it, too, in her book, “Crazy Courage: A Young Widow’s Survival Guide.”
In the book, she recalls her anguish when she got the news of Michael’s death.
“I heard myself sobbing uncontrollably, but only for a brief moment,” she writes. “It was a cry of hysteria, of helplessness. I remember hearing the sobs and it didn’t sound like me. It was like I was hearing someone else.”
From there, the book evolves. It’s a story of grieving, coping, accepting and letting go when your spouse dies in the line of duty. It’s not 120 pages of self-pity. As the title suggests, it’s a guide for widows of fallen officers. And perhaps, more generally, a guide for anybody who has experienced a deep loss.
Each section ends with bullet points of advice. One section, for example, is titled: “It is OK for your children to see you cry.”
She was left with two young sons, Quincy and his younger brother, Rhyan. They were 8 and 2 years old when their father died.
Gallagher advises her readers: “Make yourself available to your children and make sure they know you are available whenever they need you.”
Another section deals with responding to people who simply don’t know what to say. Or people who say something inappropriate. She writes about one woman who introduced herself at a gathering shortly after her husband’s funeral.
“She bent down to me and reached out her hand,” Gallagher writes. “She said, ‘Hi, I haven’t met you yet. What is your name?’ I might have said to her: ‘Do you realize you have been in my house all day and you were at my husband’s funeral and now you are asking who I am?’”
Gallagher held her tongue and simply gave the woman her name.
Her advice: “You will very likely experience someone saying the ‘wrong’ thing. Let it go.”
More than two years have passed since her husband’s death. She first met Michael at a party in a bar named Cowgirl Up outside Seattle. Recalling that, she laughed. Her sister, Megan —serving in the Army — insisted she go and meet this handsome soldier just back from Iraq.
It was January 2005.
Samantha had just made her way to Washington state with her then-2-year-old son Quincy, leaving Iowa in search of a new life. She wanted to put behind her a marriage that didn’t work out.
Her new life would be with Michael. She called him the morning after the party at Cowgirl Up — again, at her sister’s insistence. She asked him out for a date. Before he accepted, however, she wanted to make one thing clear.
She told him: “You know I have a kid, right?”
That was OK with him. They dated and, of course, got married — on Feb. 4, 2006. She gave birth to Rhyan in October 2007.
Samantha was drawn to Michael for his contagious laugh and, well, he was handsome. Very handsome. And he was the down-to-earth half of the team.
“Let’s be realistic,” she remembered him saying. She added: “He grounded me.”
Michael had applied for the Border Patrol before leaving the Army. His own sister, Julie, was an agent and he wanted to join her. He started with the Border Patrol in July 2008. Samantha and the kids moved to Casa Grande three months later.
Then came Sept. 2, 2010. She entered a learning curve nobody should have to negotiate. She kept a journal as a way to sort out her feelings.
“I didn’t think about writing a book, per se,” she said. “Probably about six months or so after he was killed, I took a writing class.”
The Casa Grande workshop, taught by JJ Freyermuth, helped Gallagher organize her journal writings into a publishable book. Freyermuth edited the manuscript.
The opening chapter explains “crazy courage.”
“Courage is when … you face all the difficulty, uncertainty, and pain by overcoming the fear that has overtaken your rational mind,” she writes. “When you add the crazy to the courage you are adding an intense enthusiasm that will show others that you have a mission to complete, even if that mission is to get out of bed.”
Eventually, Gallagher writes, you have to let go. And, by Page 82, she touches on the subject of dating.
“That was about the hardest part for me to write,” she said.
She writes: “Dating is a big controversy when you are a widow. People will judge you for dating.”
She advises: “Date when you are ready.”
She still honors her husband’s memory. And his ashes remain by her bedside. When the time is right, she’ll bury them. Gallagher is active in groups that help survivors, including Concerns of Police Survivors, or COPS, which supports families of officers killed in the line of duty.
“They have sessions where you can meet other widows,” Gallagher said.
Their ranks continue to grow. Christy Ivie became a widow earlier this month. Her 30-year-old husband Nicholas, a Border Patrol agent, was also killed near the border — likely by friendly fire. Like Samantha, Christy has two young children.
“It breaks my heart,” Gallagher said.
Christy Ivie has taken the first few steps of a long journey. There was before. And now there’s after, and after lasts a long time.