I read this book on a summer weekend --- another in the string of dismal cloudy rainy weekend days that seemed to spell out the summer of 2000 in New Jersey. When it came into the office in July I plucked it from the book table, my curiosity piqued by the visual of the bottom of a swimming pool and a brief line of copy --- "On July 4, 1998, the sun and stars spun out of balance in a backyard swimming pool."
While I am not easily influenced by the notes from other authors that "plug" a title on its cover, the sole note on the back of this book from Abraham Verghese, an author who had written a wonderful memoir that I enjoyed, THE TENNIS PARTNER, made me pay attention. Yes, you can say I did judge this book by its cover.
RESCUING JEFFREY is the story of a tragic diving accident where 17-year-old Jeffrey Galli makes one last dive into a pool that alters the course of his life and that of his family. The book is written by his father Richard, who along with his wife, pulls his son from the bottom of the pool and then spends the next 10 days wondering if he should have saved him --- and if he should "rescue" him again, this time by unplugging his life support.
I had read Christopher Reeve's book STILL ME last year and thought --- wow, I never knew anything about the depths of what it takes to care for someone who has sustained this kind of spinal injury. RESCUING JEFFREY takes the story of what it means to have the future robbed to a different level. Unlike Reeve, who wrote from his own point of view, Galli writes from the viewpoint of a father who knows well what his son has been denied by this accident --- and his own grief.
He addresses those moments of expected loss throughout the book as if ticking each item off on a clipboard, noting what will --- and will not --- happen for his son. Both lists are tragic. Each time he notes what his son will miss --- driving his own car, dating, skiing, holding a child --- it brings another raw hurt. When he visualizes the future he sees a wheelchair, a converted van, a redesigned home full of ramps, and a limited life.
Just as Jeffrey's body has been injured horrifically, his dad has incurred his own level of immeasurable emotional pain, which is written here with a rawness and bluntness that is never glossed over. People come and go in the hospital --- friends and family, who each provide a level of normalcy to a world that has spun out of control. Interspersed throughout the book are the words of well-meaning friends that were sent during this very difficult time. Reading them against the backdrop of Galli's unfolding reality, I wondered if I would ever be able to write a note such as this again. The words, while eloquent, sounded empty since they could not alter the course of what was unfolding, nor relieve the horror.
Former law partners of the elder Galli stop by one day and tell him a trust fund has been created in Jeffery's name. He asks if they are saving the names of the donors. The benefactors have no idea that Galli has presented his son's case to the hospital ethics board with an intention to end his life and spare him the pain he feels the future years will bring.
Somewhere over these 10 days, Jeffrey's will to live becomes stronger than any other force, and any uncertainty about preserving this life is abandoned. Instead his dad becomes an advocate in another way, ensuring that the care and quality of life his son does have is of the highest level. The scenarios where he speaks of buying the television his son craves in the ICU and the razor to shave him are intimate and bring with them their own level of bonding.
Last summer I traveled to LA to see a friend. Her best friend had been injured in a similar accident in the ocean on his first date with his future wife. Seeing them, their home, and their children gave me a much richer understanding of how this is a road that goes on forever, how life can have just as much quality, but in a different way. Along the way in this book, Galli sees the same thing and sees his son yearning to live.
Since closing this book I have not looked at my sons or our backyard pool the same way. I appreciate the boys more; the pool just plain frightens me. The Saturday when I picked up this title I probably was salivating over the blue green pool water since the pool at our house had seen little action with all the summer's dismal weather. Now I respect the caution that enjoying this pool must command, but also celebrate with new zeal the preciousness of life.
Reviewed by Carol Fitzgerald on November 6, 2001
Rescuing Jeffrey: A Memoir