By Sarah E. Murphy
June 27, 2022.
A cool and rainy grey day. Celtic vibes on Cape Cod. My dad’s favorite.
The kind he’d spend writing in his upstairs office, the bedroom Courtney and I once shared when we were small, after moving full-time from Newton to our magical Falmouth summer home. The window overlooking the cherry tree we planted for Seton’s birthday when he turned 8.
It’s now a guest room for our expanding family, a neatly made bed with a stack of clean towels and a basket of toiletries for the outdoor shower. The shelf that once displayed awards, articles, and photographs of his life as a novelist, travel writer, theater director, high school teacher, and college professor, is now bare. The desk has been replaced with a bureau.
Today James F. Murphy Jr. would be 90 years old.
My father spent his last birthday in a nursing home bed, the beginning of the Endless Summer of 2015. He spent his last day on this earth three months later, also on the 27th, in a hospital bed in the Great Room of our Grand Ave home.
The last time he celebrated at home, when everything was normal, with Paul’s Pizza in the kitchen, and Mom’s Desert Rose China and cake and Brigham’s Ice Cream in the dining room, was 2014. One of my favorite photos of my dad and me is from that night. I’m wearing one of my Fleetwood Mac T-shirts and a deceptive smile hiding the fact I knew such times were fleeting.
In addition to being a parent, my father was one of my closest friends. He always encouraged me to be an individual. To dress in my own unique style, to dye my hair whatever color I came across in Liggett’s as a teenager, to speak my mind and express my feelings, in poetry or in person, from voicing unrequited love to standing up to injustice. He was a mentor and a muse, a colleague and a kindred spirit. He opened up the world to me in countless ways, through literature and travel.
I woke up today with the intention to feel nothing but gratitude for his life, and for the gift of being his daughter. But some days the climate in our country, which has become progressively darker over the past six years, rife with unabashed misogyny, is making it even harder to navigate life without him. I’m a daddy’s girl without a daddy, and I now feel like a fugitive in my own country.
As I grieve the loss of Roe, I grieve not only the loss of my father, but in a broader sense, the loss of a man who empowered and respected women. Not just his beloved wife and four daughters, or the women to whom he had a personal connection, but his students, his colleagues, and anyone lucky enough to know him. My dad wasn’t threatened by women, he was inspired by them.
But despite all that, I never had the luxury of sharing my most painful and shameful secret with him. Because of my Catholic upbringing, a religion my family eventually questioned, and ultimately rejected, I was so programmed that I naively thought his love for me was conditional, as the Church always preached when it came to God and Jesus. I thought he wouldn’t love me the same, if at all, if he knew the “real” me, for I was the ultimate sinner.
I’m now older and wiser, having recently celebrated a milestone birthday as well. The 23-year-old girl, who didn’t know where to turn when the home pregnancy test revealed what she already knew, is now 50. I now know that my father, who risked his life in the Korean War, would be outraged about the unconstitutional overturning of Roe, and the disgusting, ignorant attacks on women, and anyone, who has sought, or may someday need, an abortion.
The void of his absence can sometimes be staggering. Today was one of those days. But I finally realize my father wouldn’t be ashamed of my journey, he’d be proud. In signature fashion, he’d be the loudest voice cheering me on. So as the rain pours down tonight, and the wind blows through my window, I try to tune out a white, female, conservative TV commentator defending rape and incest over reproductive freedom.
Like a shell to my ear, if I close my eyes and listen closely, I can almost hear him telling me to never back down.
Happy Birthday, Daddy. I love you and miss you forever.