A soldier, a father, a hero

My father, Gary Waller, is a man that works hard, gives so much, and complains very little. The perpetual optimist, even when times get truly tough, he keeps his head up and looks to the future with hope.

As a child my father was a soldier and would spend long periods of time in the field. We would not see him for days (sometimes even weeks) on end, and when he’d finally come home – dirty and exhausted after working with heavy artillery – he still had the energy to smile and hug his three young kids.

He finally left the army to have a more stable home life and we all settled in Peoria, Illinois. He began a new career as a mechanic, as he’d always taken an interest in machinery. The transition was tough though, and his first job as a tire tech didn’t pay much. So he ended up working three jobs to provide for me, my sister, my brother and our mother. Finally, a better paying mechanic job in Richmond, VA opened up. We all packed up our belongings and made the trek to our new home on the east coast.

Things went along just fine until we hit another rough patch. My father and mother divorced a few years after the move when I was fourteen. We didn’t see much of my mother after that, but my father continued to do the best he could to raise three teenagers all on his own. He worked as many hours as his company would let him and picked up overtime whenever he got the opportunity just so he could give me twenty bucks to go to the movies with friends, buy a prom dress for my sister, or a new video game for my brother. Another year or so after my parents’ divorce, we had a house fire in our two-story cape-cod style home. The fire originated in the upstairs of our home, across from my bedroom. My sister and her boyfriend (now husband) were sleeping in her room downstairs, my father – also downstairs – was in the kitchen cleaning when he heard a strange crackling noise. I was home sick from school, asleep in my bedroom upstairs, when I heard my father screaming.

“Fire! Abby! Wake up – you have to get out of there!” was what made me spring from bed and rush to my bedroom door. I hesitated a moment as I stared at my closed door – what was I supposed to do again? Nothing made sense. Everything was so surreal. I heard my dad scream my name again – the panic in his voice made my blood run cold. Without thinking I swung open my door. I immediately felt the heat hit my skin.

The next thing I saw haunts me to this day. My door frame looked as though it was melting. Black sticky pieces of paint dropped from overhead and fell at my feet while I stood paralyzed, staring. Beyond my door was nothing…just a thick gray-black wall…smoke. I finally snapped back to reality. This is happening. My house is burning with me in it.

“Dad!?” I called.

“Abby, Abby – You have to run; you have to get out of there!”

A tiny whimper escaped my throat. “I can’t…Dad…I can’t see anything!”

“Listen to me – you hear my voice?” he said with urgency. “You have to get out of there, just run toward the sound of my voice.”

I took one last deep breath; I could no longer see – I just felt the heat of the flames engulfing our home – and I ran down the stairs, out of my house, and onto my front lawn where my father, sister, and her boyfriend were standing. I swung around to see flames bursting through our roof.Moments later, my father and I were rushed to the hospital. I escaped, for the most part, unscathed. My father, who’d attempted to battle the flames, suffered the worst. He’d singed off a lot of eyelashes and eyebrows, got a few burns, and was hospitalized overnight to be treated for smoke inhalation. I looked at him lying there in a hospital bed and tears spilled from eyes as the realization that my father had just saved my life sunk in.

Thankfully, insurance helped to take care of a lot of what we lost. However, we were still out of our home and as the date of completion to restore our house kept getting pushed back; we bounced from one temporary apartment to another. After we’d finally moved back home a company came along and wanted to buy up all the houses on our street so that they could build a big group of new stores. Feeling as though it was inevitable my father decided to just sell his home and buy a two bedroom condo. At that point, my sister and I had moved out and it was just my dad and my brother left to live in the condo.

Over the years he has opened his little place that should be a bachelor pad to more than one of his adult children when they’ve hit hard times. He has provided a home to multiple pets and cared for them long into their senior years. His condo has suffered from his generosity – from the toddler hands of his grandson peeling back wallpaper and hair-dye splattered onto bathroom walls to old dog accidents on his carpet and so much motor oil and car grease stains from his long, hard days working on cars. He tries his best to keep his little place in good shape, but after so much manual labor and not much cash in his pockets at the end of the day…there just isn’t much he can do.

My father still works hard – too hard. He often suffers back injuries and was even bed-ridden for days on end. He doesn’t like to talk about his hardships or ask for help, but because I worry so much, I pry a little. Recently, he’s hit some tough times. His car is in desperate need of repairs (or replacing at this point), and the bills have piled up.  Though I’m not sure he’d admit it, he can’t possibly work as hard as he did fifteen years ago. I worry for my dad’s future, but he just smiles and says it’ll all be just fine.

This is a man who gives and gives…and when there’s nothing left…he still finds a way to give more. He has never asked for much of anything and is still so grateful. He says that his children are his greatest accomplishment. He doesn’t ever let us forget how proud of us he is, and a few days ago when I mentioned being a bit short on Christmas spirit; he reminded me that things always get better and that the work I do is meaningful and important. He told me to keep my head up, gave me a big bear hug that only dads can give, and told me he loved me.

My father, my hero, deserves so much more than I can give…but I’m hoping this Christmas that by sharing this story, maybe, just maybe, a few folks out there will help me help make his home just a little better for him.

I cannot express how much this gift would mean to him. All I can say is that I can’t think of a more kind and generous human being who truly deserves a little Christmas miracle. Please consider contributing today.

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