BRUNSWICK, Maine — Three days after beloved Brunswick youth sports coach and father of eight Phil Gary died on Oct. 8, the victorious Brunswick High freshmen football team ran off the field at game’s end and enveloped his wife, Gail, in a sweaty group hug.
Amid the chaos and tears of the days since, that gesture by a bunch of teenage boys was but one example of the outpouring of sympathy, support and kindness the Gary family has experienced. As she sat Tuesday in her tiny living room, packed full of dress-up clothes and colorful paper-mache sculptures crafted by her crew, Gail Gary cried while trying to find a way to express gratitude for the community’s response to her tragedy.
Clad in an oversized Brunswick football sweatshirt bearing Phil’s name on the sleeve, Gail cuddled one of the many toddlers she provides day care for and worried that she hasn’t thanked everyone for the phone calls, Facebook messages and meals that continue to appear on her front porch, some from people she doesn’t even know.
Word spread quickly earlier this month when Phil died suddenly at age 45. The many football and baseball teams he helped coach, along with Boy Scout troops he led, galvanized to offer the family support, organizing fundraisers and establishing a fund for the family at a local credit union.
The community effort was inspiring — and overwhelming. She now struggles to find a way to respond.
“Most of all, their words, and the way they talk about him,” help ease the grief, Gail said Tuesday.
In the days since Phil’s death, Gail’s kids have struggled to cope with the loss of their father. They’re hesitant to talk to her about him for fear of making her cry. But they have wonderful friends, she said — friends who listen and offer support. She’s grateful for them and the parents who taught them compassion.
“Their kids are helping our kids,” she said.
Despite the love and support offered by friends and strangers who wanted to help the Gary family regroup after Phil’s death, the last two weeks have been hell, Gail said.
With the day care reopened, the children she cares for keep Gail busy during the day. But after the little ones leave, she turns her attention to keeping her own family whole, often balancing attempts to help children understand death with hours on the phone struggling with life insurance agents. She has been unable to cash Phil’s final paycheck, and is reluctant to accept even the money donated to the family fund.
“It’s kind of embarrassing, I guess, because I don’t want them to think we’re some kind of charity case,” she said.
But suddenly she has no health insurance, and she fights back new worries about her children because “I’m all that they have.”
Gail sleeps on the couch where Phil died, unable to bring herself to go back into the bedroom for more than an instant. And on a chain around her neck, she wears her husband’s wedding ring. At night as she sleeps, she slips her finger through it for comfort. But it’s not enough.
“It’s now hitting me more than it did in the beginning,” she said Tuesday. “I just want to crawl into a hole. All I want to do is cry.”
Still, she’s moving forward, if not quite on.
Last week she loaded 11 kids — six of hers, and five from day care — into the family van and went to another high school football game to see one of her sons play. She can’t take her four-seat stroller because Phil was the only one who knew how to take the fourth seat out of the van, but she strapped on two baby carriers and brought a wagon.
And next month, the day after they bury Phil’s ashes, the family will head to North Conway for a planned vacation at Adventure Suites.
The other night, after “a wicked tough night with one of our kids,” she sat in the living room and thought, “There’s no way I can do this myself.”
Then something caught her eye in the corner of the living room floor. It was a picture of Phil from a baby shower more than 14 years ago, Gail said, a picture she thought was boxed up in the basement.
“I just felt like it was him telling me he was here,” she said.
Contributions to the Gary Family Fund can be sent to “Gary Family Fund,” in care of Brunswick Area Youth Football League, P.O. Box 818, Brunswick, ME 04011.