By Sarah E. Murphy
It seems impossible my father has been gone five years. Since I watched “It’s A Wonderful Life,” or willingly listened to Celtic music. Since he enveloped me in the comforting scent of after shave, soap, and wool. Since I went from being a Daddy’s Girl to a Fatherless Daughter.
Dad never liked Sundays. He always got the blues. But he loved Indian Summer. Therefore, it was somehow fitting he died in the early morning hours of Sunday, September 27.
It all happened so fast. After an excruciating year in and out of hospitals, nursing homes, and emergency rooms, he seemed to be getting a little better. A bed had just become available at Royal Nursing Home in Falmouth, and his team at Brigham & Women’s thought that would be the best place for him, considering he had already received such excellent care from Royal. Despite the circumstances, Dad loved it there, charming all with his twinkling blue eyes and genuine interest in anyone who appeared in his doorway.
My older brother, Ted, and I had recently met with the director, pleading Dad’s case like helicopter parents trying to secure a spot in the most popular preschool, hoping the sepsis diagnosis wouldn’t hurt his chances of being re-admitted.
On Monday, September 14, we got the news for which we had been desperately waiting. The infection was under control. Dad could come home.
Little did I know as a child that some of my happiest memories would later derive from pulling into the parking lot of Royal to see my mom’s car already in a spot near the door, the Marty Walsh and Elizabeth Warren stickers slightly askew on the silver bumper. At the time, I was working at Museums on the Green, right down the street on Katharine Lee Bates Road, so I could jump in my car at a moment’s notice to visit him.
No matter how much he adored his six kids, no one could lift Dad’s spirits quite like Mom – a testament to fifty-four years, spanning courtship, marriage, and enduring friendship. Growing up in a large Irish family, it was rare to get one-on-one time with either of my parents, or even better, time with them together.
Walking to Dad’s room at Royal, through the lobby, past the nurses’ station, around the corner, and down the hall to the right, I always felt the same peaceful anticipation as I did walking up the brick path at my childhood home on Grand Ave.
Feeling safe. Cherished. Loved.
They’d be deep in conversation, and Dad would act pleasantly shocked to see me. He’d always say my first and last name, stretching out the syllables as though incredulous and overjoyed that I was actually standing before him.
“Sa-rah Mur-phy! Where the hell did you come from?!”
Seeing Mom sitting by his bedside filled me with serenity. On the tray table would be his coveted Boston Globe, along with one of his favorite meals she had prepared or, later, when eating became a chore, a homemade frappe Rocky Balboa style, full of raw eggs for the much-needed calories.
It was the same way he’d always greet me when I moved back home to Falmouth in 2003, after living in our family house in Newton for eight years after college. Now two minutes away from my childhood home on Grand Ave, on the other side of Falmouth Harbor.
I’d knock softly on his office door, once a bedroom I shared with Courtney. He’d be sitting at his desk, hunched over the latest manuscript he’d soon be asking me to type, his elegant penmanship spread horizontally across the white copy paper, a space heater running near his feet, sometimes even in summer.
Or down the hallway, in the room my parents dubbed “The Love Nest,” because of its cozy ambiance, where they sat and talked about everything from Irish literature to politics to patriarchy. Usually when I opened the door, one would be on the phone, the other on the computer, while Rick Steves, Oprah, or occasionally Dr. Phil could be heard offering commentary in the background. Or Dad would be on the futon, hunched over while checking his blood sugar.
No matter what he was doing, he’d always offer that same excited greeting.
“Sa-rah Mur-phy! How the hell are ya?!”
I was in a meeting at Museums on the Green on Tuesday, September 15, when everything changed. We were on the second floor of Conant House, where my office was at the time, sitting around the table brainstorming plans for Christmas visitation, one of the signature events for the organization. Back then, I still loved Christmas, just like my dad. I was excited just talking about the prospect of transforming the historic homes into a yuletide yesteryear. However, the middle-aged voice in my head kept nagging at the eager little girl reminding her not to get ahead of herself. There are some things Santa can’t bring, and so much could happen between then and December.
And with that came the texts from my sister, Courtney, who was living in Lexington at the time and spending all her free time visiting Dad, while we “held down the fort” on the Cape as much as possible. We started a sibling text chain when Dad first got sick, in the fall of 2014, when he initially checked into Royal.
The texts kept coming, becoming more urgent, filled with medical jargon I couldn’t even follow. They no longer thought Dad’s condition was related to his diabetes, which had resulted in some of his toes being amputated. Now it was talk of bone marrow and cancer. I couldn’t process the words, and was trying to discreetly read them, until I couldn’t keep the emotion in any longer.
His doctors wanted the whole family to meet. We needed to get to Boston immediately. It was time to make decisions.
I got up and left, barely able to offer an explanation.
Later that afternoon, when we had all gathered, the head doctor explained our options, using a six-month timeline. It was the day before Ted’s birthday, forever changed, and I quickly did the math, desperately holding on to the possibility that Dad might still be here for mine in March. One more time for him to sing me Happy Birthday.
He kept describing Dad as “the patient,” outlining the symptoms of Myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a form of early leukemia, and most likely the reason he got so winded whenever we tried to get him to put down his pen and go for a walk. It was probably why he was always so cold.
Blood transfusions would only work for so long, and would only be partially effective, until he could no longer breathe on his own. I listened to the best of my ability, until a visceral sound escaped. Dr. Kristin D’Silva, a young doctor on my dad’s team, rushed over and held me as I sobbed. I will never forget her kindness. In that moment, everyone in my family was trying to process their own grief; I couldn’t expect anyone to be able to comfort me in mine.
Dad refused further tests or treatment. He was ready to die, and he wanted to die at home.
He was discharged on Thursday the 17th. I had driven up with Joanna and Mom, and I was elected to ride back to Falmouth in the ambulance with Dad, while they went home to get the hospital bed ready in the Great Room. I never thought I’d be the one to watch Dad sign a Do Not a Resuscitate order, or that I wouldn’t try to convince him otherwise.
The team told Dad what an honor it was to care for him, respectfully referring to him as “Professor Murphy.” I tried to remain focused on the good news. Dad was coming home.
I don’t remember how the topic came up, but he regaled the EMTs with tales from his few run-ins with Whitey Bulger, the older and infamous brother of Dad’s college friend, Billy. He had an inordinate amount of energy, because he was so excited to be going back to Grand Ave. I had to keep telling him to relax and enjoy the ride, without reminding him the reason for his labored breathing.
I’ve never known the joy of bringing home a newborn baby, but it was what I imagine to be a similar feeling, and it was one of the happiest days of my life, despite the reason for the journey.
One of the EMTs was from Quincy, and in typical Murphy fashion, I had to at least try to make a small world connection. “You wouldn’t happen to know…?” referencing one of the few Quincy people I did know. A fellow English major at Bridgwater State College, she was the third roommate when my friend, Damian and I rented a house in Port Clyde, Maine the summer we did our senior seminar, a requisite for graduation.
Not only did he know her, he had married her.
My dad had driven me all the way to Maine, because I couldn’t take extra time away from my summer job to get a ride with Damian the previous day. We left the Heights at the crack of dawn, or probably more like 7 am. Notorious for never being a morning person, I was in a terrible mood, even though Dad was the one chauffeuring me there on a stifling August day, only to get right back in the car and drive all the way home. Long before cell phones, he probably didn’t even have working AC in the car. And he couldn’t have been happier to do it.
Dad got “really mad” so few times you could usually remember the reason for the occasion, and my senior year of high school, he got totally fed up with my miserable attitude every day, as I sulked over my coffee.
“For Pete’s Sake, if you’re going to sit at this table, the least you can do is not be such a GD pain in the ass!” Signature Jimbo speak.
Therefore it was only fitting that I’d be the last one to wake up on the morning of September 27 to see everyone sitting around Dad. The house had become quiet sometime between three and four am, and I naively took it as a good sign, that he was finally sleeping soundly.
“He’s gone,” Courtney said gently, although I already knew.
Dad had been calling out for Nana and Papa all weekend, with shocking intensity, in the plaintive voice of a child, as though calling up a staircase, or yelling up to Heaven. He no longer sounded like my dad. He was Jimmy Murphy from the Lake, telling his own dad he was heading out to Boyd Park or the Paramount movie theater. I later learned from my cousin’s wife that my father’s sister had a similar experience in her final hours. Her feet wouldn’t stop moving under the covers.
“She’s running through her life,” the nurse explained.
Later, I went up to my parents’ room, and stared out the front window, overlooking the ball park and Falmouth Heights Beach. Sea and sky were flawless, and it could have been any summer day in my youth. Ted was in the driveway talking to Suzie O’Connor, Mrs. Grant was doing yard work, and cars were coming and going at the Sullivans.’ But then a black SUV pulled up, and a classmate of my sister, now an undertaker, approached Ted and shook his hand. He carried a quilt and entered the house, and when he came out, it was covering up the body bag.
Somehow, I thought I was ready. We already had a dress rehearsal in late June, when Dad aspirated one night at Royal. Ted showed up at my door at midnight to bring Chris and me to Falmouth Hospital, where Dad was unconscious, dressed only in a hospital gown, his hands like ice. “This is it,” I thought, as we drove up Palmer Ave. When I got there, I held his hand and whispered in his ear, pleading for him to wake up, with the same childlike intensity he later expressed. “Please, Daddy,” I begged.
I’ve read countless stories and poems referencing the act of keening, many as a student in my dad’s friend, Maureen’s Connelly’s Irish literature class at Bridgewater State College. But it wasn’t until the moment I watched my father leave Grand Ave for the last time that I truly understood. I curled up in the fetal position on my dad’s side of the bed, and screamed until I couldn’t. I can only imagine who heard me that day.
My mother, like most Irish-Catholic women, carries unnecessary guilt about countless things, including my dad’s death. She wishes she had been by his side at the exact moment.
Initially, I thought Dad was trying to spare us the pain of his loss, but the more I reflect on the family man he was, I think it was he who couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye.
I woke up this morning feeling angry that my dad isn’t here, then I had to remind myself of how lucky I am that he was.
I am forever grateful to be Jim Murphy’s daughter.