By Michael Thomason
Frye Gaillard, “Live As If … A Teacher’s Love Story” (Negative Capability Press, Mobile, AL, 2020) ISBN 978-1-7345902-0-3, Cloth, $21.99.
The year 2020 was the worst for this country, including the Gulf Coast, since 1932. No one was sorry to see it go. Despite storms, COVID-19 and a bitter presidential election, the book “Live As If…” was a bright exception.
Frye Gaillard has written the story of a memorable life cut short by leukemia. In this small book, he has captured the life of his remarkable wife, Nancy. It is a serious book, but not a dark or depressing one. Like Nancy’s whole life, it is a celebration. As you read this book, you wish more and more you had known Nancy. Frye describes his late wife’s life clearly in the best tradition of a skilled author. He was also Nancy’s friend and husband for over 30 years, so his insight into her personality is warm, loving and accurate.
While Frye is a native Mobilian, he met Nancy in Charlotte, N.C. He was working for the Charlotte Observer covering the city’s struggle to integrate its schools. Nancy was a third-grade teacher working hard to reach all her newly integrated students regardless of race, nationality or academic preparation. The story of how she did it is a reflection of her optimistic and creative self. As she did periodically, Nancy changed jobs and ran a public Montessori school, one item on her list of things she wanted to do in her life. As she had done for several decades, she blossomed in her new endeavor, but as she was nearing retirement age, she wanted a new challenge.
The University of South Alabama entered their lives at this point, offering Frye the position of writer in residence. Both felt this was fate knocking at their door and he accepted the offer. They moved to Mobile. The university assigned him an office in the Humanities Building, down the hall from my own. His position at South was a new one, but it wasn’t long until we wondered how we had managed without a writer in residence. Nancy was also hired to work in the College of Education at South. She too fit right in and soon was indispensable.
At the age most of us retire, she enrolled in the doctoral program in the College of Education at The University of Alabama, commuting from their house on Fowl River. Dr. Nancy, as family and friends called her when she graduated in May 2016, had taken six years to earn her degree, and she did it while working full time at South. She also read and corrected the manuscript for “A Hard Rain,” Frye’s acclaimed account of the civil rights era in the South. Then the bottom fell out.
After a series of unusual illnesses, she was eventually diagnosed with leukemia in its most virulent form. She and Frye traveled to Houston to take her to MD Anderson Medical Center, where Nancy was in the care of Dr. Kiran Naqvi, one of the best leukemia doctors in the world. Everyone there, from Dr. Naqvi to the orderlies she met, was encouraging and supportive. Months of testing and trials of experimental drugs followed.
The Gaillards shuttled back and forth between Mobile and Houston. At first, the experimental drugs seemed to be working, but by year’s end, it became clear Nancy was dying. She chose hospice care with Frye’s agreement. Family and friends came to visit and Nancy said, “This is one of the best times of my life. Everybody I love is here and I don’t have to do anything.”
But, it wasn’t long before leukemia forced her to bed. Then on the night of July 27, 2018, as they were lying down, she said to Frye, “I’m so happy.” He agreed. Half an hour later she died.
Naturally, letters, phone calls and emails flooded in. Her children and stepchildren pitched in to help Frye as much as they could with the final arrangements. Her funeral was held at Dauphin Way United Methodist Church, where the Gaillards were members. The children all spoke quite eloquently in eulogies and the service was conducted by Dr. Stephen Dill, a long-time friend and retired pastor of the church. His sermon was a thoughtful reflection on the person Nancy had been and the impact her life had made.
“Live As If …” is a beautiful tribute to an outstanding human being. She was a gifted teacher her whole life. That life was, indeed, an expression of Mahatma Gandhi’s observation, “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
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