He never expected to be a single dad. Then a gunman in Virginia Beach made him one.
By IAN SHAPIRA | The Washington Post | Published: June 15, 2019
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — It was just the two of them now, so they needed to figure out their own evening routine.
Pat Gallagher was speed-walking from room to room in his red-brick ranch home, chasing after his only child, Patrick, as the toddler's 7 p.m. bedtime approached. The 22-month-old boy was ramming his toy lawn mower into walls, tables and television sets, giggling with each collision.
In the kitchen, his auburn-haired son banged into a table with a funeral home bill lying on top of it. Then, a countertop with a hand-written note from a local reporter asking for an interview. Then, a living room wall, where exposed nails once held photos of his mother - pictures still at the church from her funeral mass two days earlier. Finally, after several laps, the boy arrived in the master bedroom, where he often slept with his parents.
"What are you looking for buddy?" Gallagher asked. But the 48-year-old naval facilities architect already knew.
It had taken his wife, Tara, five years to get pregnant, and when they finally had a baby in 2017, she was the one who changed Patrick's diapers and gave him baths and put him to bed. Then, two weeks ago, Tara Welch Gallagher was finishing up for the day at the Virginia Beach Department of Public Works when one of her colleagues opened fire with a semi-automatic handgun. Tara, a 39-year-old engineer, was among 12 people killed.
Now, as Father's Day approached, Gallagher was struggling with how to handle his new role as Patrick's only parent. How often, he wondered, should he say the word "mama" or "mommy" as a reminder? How should he explain that she's not coming back? When should he reveal what happened? Most urgently, how quickly could he get up to speed on all the domestic tasks his wife performed?
"I don't know one hundred percent what I am doing, but I am going to do what Tara would want," Gallagher said as he fed Patrick a bottle while the boy was watching Nick Jr. cartoons on their bed. "Our son was everything to my wife. I mean, everything. And she's not here, you know? She tried so hard to have a baby. We tried so hard. It just took so long. We were robbed, basically, of a life."
They met 15 years ago at Clark Nexsen, an architecture and engineering firm, where she was a new hire from Old Dominion University, and he was an aspiring architect.
He was smitten with her big eyes, and her thick, curly hair. They collaborated on the design of a military dormitory in North Dakota. After work, they'd go out in large groups to play putt-putt golf. He asked her out, but she didn't seem interested.
"I think she thought I wasn't serious enough," Gallagher said.
Instead, they remained friends and grew closer over the years. They'd both grown up in working-class, Catholic families and shared the same Democratic politics. They loved paddle-boarding and hanging out on the beach. She was humble and low-key, like him. Even their parents were similar. Like his father, hers was a Navy enlistee who retired and worked on ships as a civilian. Like his mother, hers was a stay-at-home mom.
In 2009, after a work kickball game and pizza outing by the beach, she finally decided they were right for each other.
On March 9, 2012, they got married at a Sandals resort in St. Lucia. He wore a white button-down short-sleeve shirt, khakis, and flip-flops. She wore a white dress, and cradled a bouquet of purple flowers in the crook of her left elbow. Afterward, they posed for photos on a gazebo, smiling and holding champagne flutes beside each other's lips.
They wanted to start a family right away.
"We weren't getting any younger," Gallagher said. "We were thinking one girl, one boy."
But they grappled with a host of fertility issues. Tara took dozens of pregnancy tests over the next five years, he said. Each time, they came back negative.
Then one day she opened the door to their condo in the neighborhood of Cape Story By the Sea.
She had some news, she said.
"She was crying," Gallagher remembered. "She was just crying."
Patrick Gallagher III was born August 13, 2017, and instantly transformed their lives. Instead of going out to restaurants and the beach, they bought a new four-bedroom home in Alanton, just 10 minutes from the beach, that had a yard and an extra bedroom for a potential sibling.
"It was a dream," Gallagher said. "She was ecstatic. It was everything she wanted."
Right away, they divided up the labor. Tara handled caring for Patrick, while Gallagher tackled house projects.
Weekdays, they'd wake up at 5:30 a.m. While Gallagher showered, Tara got Patrick, dressed, fed and ready for the 40-minute drive to her parents home in Portsmouth. Her parents cared for Patrick while she was at work. Gallagher, who works at the Naval Facilities Engineering Command in Norfolk, picked Patrick up in Portsmouth at about 5 p.m. When they got home, he handed Patrick over to his wife.
"She just loved taking care of Patrick, and there was a lot to do around the house," he said. "The yard alone is a lot of work. We just kind of fell into these routines. These were just our roles. It wasn't anything that we ever talked about. It's kind of how it was with my dad and her dad."
Gallagher had big plans for the backyard. Last year he built a massive deck with a wooden pergola that shelters a hot tub. After a Nor'easter left them without power, he installed a generator. Last month, he constructed a playground. One day, he thought, they'd watch Patrick swing himself on the green swing or crawl by himself through the tunnel. And one day, they'd finally overcome their anxiety about Patrick's fair skin and take him to the beach.
"My wife was super safe. Super careful," Gallagher said. "If we were going to the Lowe's, we'd park and she'd come back with the cart and wipe it down in the spot where the baby would sit. Then, she'd put this bed sheet over it. She gave him food with no GMOs and that was - what do you call it? - organic."
On May 31, Gallagher was heading to Portsmouth to pick up his son at his in-laws' home. As he was exiting the Naval base, Tara's sister called him with some disturbing news. There's an active shooter at Tara's office, she said.
"I really wasn't that alarmed. I thought someone might have lost their cool on the first floor, where people file for permits," he said. "But I called Tara. The phone rang and rang. I called her desk number. Her work cell. Her personal cell. No answer."
When he got to his in-laws' home, everyone was calling Tara and watching the news, but also looking after Patrick. He saw an announcement that families should head to Princess Anne Middle School for personal updates on loved ones.
"I thought she'd be there, getting off a bus," he said.
Instead the hours dragged by, and there was still no word. He'd never known anyone who'd been the victim of a mass shooting before, though he had some experience with the subject: He was one of several architects who helped re-design the Navy Yard in Washington after its mass shooting in 2013.
Now, as Gallagher stood around the middle school cafeteria, he heard a rumor that his wife had been shot. Unwilling to wait any longer for official word, he drove to a nearby hospital, hoping to find her. But he found nothing, so he returned to the middle school.
At midnight, he, his sister, along with Tara's sister and her husband, were asked to walk into a classroom. Two detectives and three chaplains carrying boxes of tissues followed them inside.
"As soon as this one officer came in, he just said, 'Tara died tonight,' " Gallagher recalled. "And we all started crying."
Seven days later, Gallagher arrived at the funeral home. The coffin was open. He wanted to take one last look at his wife, who would have turned 40 on June 22. He took out a copy of a family portrait and placed it on her hands, facing up. In the photo, Gallagher has his arms around Tara, who's holding up their son in between them.
"I wanted her to be able to look down on the picture," he said.
That night, as hundreds of friends and relatives arrived for the visitation, Gallagher could hardly speak. But he stood for hours until everyone had their chance to offer their sympathies. The next morning, at the Church of the Holy Family, when the priest spoke of "the dark gloom," how "we have failed collectively in protecting the innocent," and how we've "accepted it . . . as just the way things are these days," Gallagher felt dazed.
"I wanted to shake everyone's hand and say thanks for coming," he said. "But I couldn't."
When the funeral mass ended, Tara's coffin was wheeled up the center aisle and out the main doors and into a waiting black hearse. Gallagher followed behind. He walked past multiple bouquets, past the photos of Tara and the 11 other victims, past the Virginia Beach Sheriff's Honor Guard standing in rigid formation.
Then, he paused at the threshold and saw someone headed toward him carrying Patrick. The boy had been playing in the church's nursery.
Gallagher scooped him up. The boy peeked over his father's shoulder, looking back toward the church, toward the flowers, toward the photos of his mother.