Happy Heavenly Birthday: My Father’s Legacy

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. 

Out of the Shadows: Abortion in America

By Sarah E. Murphy

It’s been just over a year since I stopped hiding. Since I said, and wrote, the words that have always been barely beneath the surface.

I had an abortion.

My decision to speak out right before the 2020 Presidential election was years in the making. Twenty-five, to be exact. A physical decision as much as an emotional one. My mind and body would no longer allow me to stay silent. And why should I?

When I published my essay on my blog, sharing what I had been too ashamed to tell the people closest to me, I braced for the public backlash. Or, more accurately, the whiplash, for I silently relive that experience every time I read a headline or social media post “debating” this fundamental human right.

There’s an expression that no one can make you feel anything without your permission, however I disagree. Although well-intentioned, it’s also  dismissive and invalidates the debilitating power of shame.

I knew I was probably making a big mistake when I also decided to post my story on one of our local Facebook discussion pages. My intent wasn’t to shock, seek attention, or push political beliefs. My hope was to illustrate that you never know what others are capable of hiding. That people are more than statistics.

As another expression goes, someone you love has had an abortion.

Regardless of your politics or religion, which often go hand in hand in the United States, someone in your life has been forced to make this painful decision. I assure you.

During my reporting career, I wrote about the life-saving work of the Samaritans on Cape Cod, which I shared widely on social media as a potential resource for individuals suffering from depression. But when I shared my own story on a public page, I was criticized and chastised by some who saw me as a modern day Hester Prynne, unworthy of any sympathy.

That’s because my trauma involves abortion. Or to borrow from Layne Staley’s Gibran inspired lyrics, my pain is self-chosen. At least in some people’s eyes.

Their reactions are the answer to the question I get all the time now.

“Why didn’t you tell anyone?”

The predictable comments came in seconds after I posted the link containing the dreaded Scarlet “A,” so they hadn’t even read the article, they were merely triggered by the word.

The one I viewed as sinful and dirty. A word that had become a reflection of myself.

After all, it was my own fault, right? I was careless and stupid enough to get pregnant, so why shouldn’t I pay the price for the rest of my life? It didn’t matter that I was set up to fail by the Catholic Church, where I learned as a little girl that sex is a sin, unless it’s for procreation, and birth control is outlawed. Women were an afterthought. Madonna or whore. The Virgin Mary or Mary Magdalene. The mother of Jesus or his charity case, the prostitute.

But that was irrelevant. I never should have let it happen in the first place.

God punished you. You made your bed, so lie in it.

There was an angry-looking guy with an Irish last name. He was from Sandwich, not even Falmouth, but the “A” word got his attention. “Let’s see a sunset picture instead,” he wrote. “No one wants to hear about your past mistakes.”

Then a younger guy who looked to be in his 30s, who worked with a classmate at a local restaurant.

“That’s great but I don’t want to pay for it,” he chimed in, the one in the bar always trying to get a laugh.

Then a woman who affiliates herself with a popular Falmouth church that prides itself on being a “welcoming” environment.

“I didn’t join this page to hear about abortion,” she scolded.

When, against my better judgement, I decided to push back by informing her I merely thought my story might help someone else suffering from hidden trauma, she reiterated her point. In essence, the age-old dismissive shamer.

This isn’t the time or place.

So then, what is the time, and where is the place, to talk openly about mental health, depression, and suicide prevention? Major events, like an unplanned pregnancy, can forever change the trajectory of one’s life, but in particular, the person who becomes pregnant.

The connection between reproductive rights and mental health can’t be overstated, and it should no longer be ignored.

I’ve read, and shared, countless news stories on local Facebook pages, in addition to my own page, to help others  – Cape Codders struggling with financial challenges, health issues, alcoholism and substance abuse, just to name a few. Many of which I wrote as a reporter during my twelve-year career for Wicked Local. Part of my mission as a writer and storyteller is to show people  they’re not alone.

If I had given into my initial suicidal thoughts as a terrified young woman, before my two closest friends helped me access a safe and legal abortion, I wouldn’t have been here to tell those important stories, not to mention my work over the past three years advocating for sex abuse survivors.

Or if I had chosen to have a child with my partner, a heroin addict, I most likely would have ended up with the same habit, or dead as a result. I loved him more than I loved myself, and I would have done anything to make it work if a child were involved.

He inadvertently gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life when he chose heroin over me.

My abortion, and his rejection, gave me a second chance at life.

After all these years, I’ve never experienced a panic or anxiety attack, to my knowledge, but I became nauseous and lightheaded as my heart began echoing outside my chest.

I respect the admininstator of the Facebook page, who chose not to delete my post, but instead had the sensitivity to turn off the comments when similar criticisms came in and it became evident where the dialogue was headed.

But while the first inclination for some was to judge or berate, they were vastly outnumbered by those offering support and even admiration. Some even kindly said that by sharing my experience, I was possibly saving a life. That was exactly why I had posted it.

A few days later, on November 7, a Saturday, the election was finally called for Joe Biden. After living in what has become an unapologetically misogynistic society, I felt a wave of calm, poised for a sea change.

Later that afternoon, I headed to one of my sacred spots in Falmouth Heights to catch the sunset, for like Frank Lloyd Wright, nature is my religion.

I’ve witnessed countless jaw-dropping scenes in my hometown, but this one was special. Maybe because there was a collective serenity amid the small crowd waiting for the day’s curtain call. Salmon, lavender, and tangerine, no filter needed. “After the flood, all the colors came out.”

Each vivid shade offering the promise of change.

I then drove “around the hill,” as we always used to say in my family. Down past the ballpark and the Heights beach, Vineyard Sound hugging my right, heading to East Falmouth to pick up takeout at our favorite burrito place. Fading pastels danced in my rear view mirror as I crossed the Maravista bridge, and I was at peace.

The feeling was shattered shortly after I got home. As I glanced at my Facebook feed, a post by a friend jumped out at me, one word in particular.

I don’t know if he was drunk, or just pissed off about the election, or both, but he missed the irony by announcing, whether his words or a copied post, that his party would accept the results like adults without resorting to behavior such as labeling Biden supporters “babykillers,” or something to that effect. (His statement really didn’t age well considering the deadly insurrection that occurred eight weeks later.)

Just a few days prior, I had shared the most personal story I’ve ever written, in which I described the unfathomable cruelty of that word, one I had never seen him use until that moment. I always kept our political differences out of our interactions because I really liked him, which is why it was even more painful.

Thumbs up and heart emojis appeared instantly, along with enthusiastic words of approval from many familiar faces – people I’ve worked with in the community, siblings of friends, even one of my CCD teachers – but no surprise there.

That familiar tide of shame washed over me.

“Maybe he wasn’t talking specifically about you,” my husband, Chris, said gently, lifting me up off the kitchen floor where I was sobbing.

I practically screamed at him through my tears that every time someone uses that word, no matter who they are, they’re talking about me, or people just like me.

And every time I see or hear that word, I relive the most shameful experience of my life.

I never ended up eating that night.

I’m not looking for sympathy, or trying to shame others as I have been. I just want people to stop shaming us. To think before they judge.

Sticks and stones break bones, but words seep into marrow.

People can indeed make you feel without your allowance, but since speaking my truth and reclaiming my story, I’m healing and growing. I’m learning not to let their words define me.

Since sharing my story, or “coming out,” as a lesbian friend described, I’ve also experienced profound human kindness, often from the most unexpected places, particularly from strangers.

I’ve received countless messages from women who were compelled to share their experience with me, both publicly and privately, some who had never spoken or written the words. Many are still harboring this secret from their partners, spouses, and families. We are forever bound by trust, compassion, and respect.

Revisiting my past has not only been cathartic but also empowering. I got in my car on April 26, an unseasonably balmy day last spring, and drove to Planned Parenthood in Providence. I practically crawled in on that day in 1995, blinded by sunlight, reeling from morning sickness, shame, and guilt. Twenty-six years later, walking into the prison-like facade, enclosed by a fence for safety, I was overcome with gratitude.

As a now 49-year old woman, I felt proud of the writing career I’ve built, which has brought me from Falmouth to the Vatican, and the people I’ve helped with my words.

Others throw around the the self-righteous term “pro-life,” implying the rest of us are “pro-death.” Grafifti was scribbled on a sign outside as a reminder.

“Please don’t kill me, Mommy.” In actuality, it’s impossible to calculate how many lives Planned Parenthood has saved. I’m just one.

I’ve also found a community of support at Recovery Without Walls, where I was invited last spring by my friend, Bill Dougherty, to participate in a weekly acupuncture and meditation group with women in recovery. Acupuncturist Arlene Myers Alexander, a new and cherished friend, incorporates cellular healing meditation as a tool to help manage the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls our fight or flight response with emotions such as shame, fear, anxiety, and depression.

There I’ve forged profound connections with inspiring women, all recovering from something. They make feel pride instead of shame. There I’m not afraid to be myself. It’s a place where I’m safe to be vulnerable.

I’ve also been touched by the vocal support and validation from the men in my life, old friends and new, publicly and privately. It’s hard to convey what it means, for, in my experience, men are the loudest voices controlling this narrative, lawmakers aside.

But as I’ve learned from my dear friend Steve Bird, a sex abuse survivor and advocate I’ve worked with for the past three years, no one’s trauma is any less valid. That includes mine.

This past October, my mother and I stood out once again in front of Peg Noonan Park in Falmouth for reproductive rights, but that morning I also joined a group at the Mashpee rotary. This time was different from 2020, when I stood alongside others in Falmouth Village. This time, my sign said it all.

My abortion saved my life.

Any qualms I had about those unequivocal words were put to rest when I met Ann Shea of the Upper Cape Women’s Coalition, who embraced me and asked to take my photo. She and Penelope Duby of UCWC have become part of my new support system, while also inspiring me.

I was then approached by a man who appeared to be in his 80s, who squinted his eyes to read my sign.

I tensed up for a second, until he lifted his cane and bowed his head in a gesture of respect.

“I admire you. You are very brave,” he said.

My eyes filled with tears, thinking he was about the same age as my father would be. One of my closest friends, he never knew my hidden pain. I almost told him once but I was too ashamed. Afraid it would change the way he viewed me. I knew deep, deep down, then and now, that wasn’t the case, that he would still love me unconditionally, but shame is overpowering and undermining.

Photo by Ann Shea

I recently watched the Netflix miniseries, MAID, based on the 2019 memoir by Stephanie Land. I could relate so well to the main character, and I got a glimpse of what my future might have been. Alex is in her mid twenties, a single mother of a toddler, and an aspiring writer. Her college plans, and a creative writing scholarship, are put aside as she attempts to leave an abusive relationship while navigating government assistance and cleaning houses.

Making enough money to survive while not making too much to render her ineligible for assistance is a full-time job. One of the most important topics the series addresses is emotional abuse, and how it is just as debilitating as physical violence. The fact that the father of her child didn’t hit her proves to be a strike against her, for although the American social justice system views emotional abuse (and financial abuse) as a form of domestic violence, the legal system doesn’t.

Words and fists are both used to oppress, which the show powerfully illustrates. I know what it’s like to lose all belief in yourself only to believe a false narrative created by a gaslighter. Sometimes I still hear his voice in my head: “Crazy. Psycho. Paranoid.”

Additionally, it shows that poverty, generational trauma, untreated mental illness and substance abuse are all part of the same vicious cycle.

Margaret Qualley and her real life mother, Andie MacDowell, both give stunning performances. I cried long buried tears for Alex, and I wanted to reach through the screen and hug her tightly, telling her she’s smart, worthy, and capable of so many things.

The holidays can be bittersweet. If I had decided to become a mother, I would have given birth on or around Christmas. I’ve always found New Year’s Eve to be melancholic and anti-climactic, like life itself. Too much pressure for perfection.

This year I was lucky enough to spend Christmas Eve with Kelly, who, along with Damian, saved my life by simply being there, without judgement.

Some of my happiest Christmas memories involve both of them, including the night I had too many cocktails before Midnight Mass and inadvertently started saying Mass along with the priest. Memories made between Sunset Strip in Mashpee and Worcester Court in Falmouth Heights.

Parenthood wasn’t my journey, but it ended up being theirs, and watching them both perform that role fills me with emotion. They and their spouses have created beautiful families that give me hope for our future.

Instead of pondering the past on New Year’s Eve, Chris and I celebrated what’s to come, watching the sky over MacMillan Pier in Provincetown ablaze with fireworks. A Cape Cod community where freedom of identity is not only accepted, it’s expected.

I’m excited for the future, both personally and professionally. I’ve learned so much about myself since honoring my past. I now know that I’m not any less a woman because I didn’t have children. I’m not a failure, or a sinner. I’m not a criminal.

Most importantly, I’ve discovered I’m not alone.

Silver Lining: Stephen Bird and Cape Cod Marathon Feed Falmouth

Text and Photos by Sarah E. Murphy

While Stephen Bird was busy last week preparing his signature soup and clam chowder for the Cape Cod Marathon, he had no idea how much those efforts would be appreciated, not just by the running community, but the town of Falmouth in general.

Stephen Bird prepared 200 gallons of chowder and soup for the Cape Cod Marathon.

After a one-year hiatus in 2020 due to Covid-19, this year’s staging of the Mayflower Wind Cape Cod Marathon, Relay, and Half was highly anticipated, by runners and organizers. Slated for Halloween weekend, the event notoriously coincides with the region’s stormy autumn weather, so while a late October Nor’easter was not necessarily unexpected, it was definitely unwelcome. Cape Cod awoke to widespread power outages and extensive storm damage in the early morning hours of Wednesday, October 27, and the following day, the race committee was forced to make the difficult decision to cancel.

The Mayflower Wind Cape Cod Marathon, Relay, and Half scheduled for Oct 30 and 31 was canceled due to the Nor’easter.

The next item on the agenda: deciding what to do with 200 gallons of soup and chowder.

As production chef for The Quarterdeck and the Pilot House in Falmouth and Sandwich respectively, Steve Bird is well-known for his clam chowder and hearty soups, which he has prepared for the past few years for the post-race celebration. The event is often held under a tent in a torrential downpour, so the menu is by design.

“Providing a hot, nutritious meal to runners after they cross the finish line is one of the things the Cape Cod Marathon is known for, and it’s a tradition not all races do anymore,” Steve said. “It’s something people appreciate, especially when it’s freezing cold and raining during race weekend.”

Therefore, as the forecast started to turn bleak for October 30 and 31, Steve forged ahead undeterred, prepping the base for the coveted chowder, in addition to turkey and wild rice soup, and gluten-free minestrone, for those with dietary restrictions. 

Although power would eventually be restored for much of Falmouth by race day, the storm’s impact proved to be too much, particularly in terms of flooding and downed trees and power lines along the course. The Falmouth Running Club, which produces the event, met with Falmouth Police Department on Thursday morning and, shortly after, race director Jack Afarian made the call to cancel.  

Race Director Jack Afarian called off the marathon for safety reasons after meeting with Falmouth Police.

“My first priority is the safety of the runners, volunteers, and spectators, and if I don’t feel like I can conduct a safe race, we’re not going to do it. And the police agreed,” he said. “We put our heads together and decided to give the soup away, and then we talked about the best way to do that.”

After race organizers weighed Gus Canty Community Center as an option, they contacted Falmouth Recreation Director Joe Olenick, who gave them permission to set up on the sidewalk in front of the building, centrally located on Main Street, next to Falmouth Police Department and Falmouth Senior Center.

At the suggestion of Falmouth resident Art Gaylord, Steve Bird contacted his neighbor and family friend, Samantha Bauer, founder and director of Falmouth nonprofit Inspiration is Everywhere, who was already doing her part. Once she determined Kenyon’s Market in East Falmouth was already distributing free coffee for line workers, she began requesting donations through PayPal and Venmo for Gatorade and electrolyte waters, which she delivered to the EverSource staging area in front of Wal-Mart. Shaw’s Supermarket also donated to her effort. After reading a Facebook post by the wife of a line worker who couldn’t obtain bottled water while out on his route, she purchased reusable travel mugs at Dollar Tree, which she filled with water supplied by Cape Cod Marathon, and also delivered.

Ed Giordano of Falmouth Running Club organizes gallons of water for distribution to residents.

Social media blasts were shared on Thursday to announce the makeshift soup kitchen at Gus Canty, informing people to come equipped with their own containers with lids, and Steve Bird, with help from his wife, Jennifer Gilbert, and other volunteers, began transporting his equipment, along with countless buckets of soup and chowder base. 

Jennifer Gilbert helped her husband, Stephen Bird, transport and serve soup and chowder.

Cars began filling the parking lot shortly after their start time of 3 pm, with volunteers from Falmouth Running Club, Falmouth Road Race, Inspiration is Everywhere, and title sponsor Mayflower Wind serving up Steve’s creations, along with apples, bananas, and snacks, donated for runners by Shaw’s, in addition to gallons of drinking water. Hot breakfast sandwiches were sent over by the Falmouth Inn, located next to Gus Canty.

The Marathon soup kitchen set up in the same spot again on Friday, when many people were gratefully returning home to restored power, after about 56 hours without.

Food sponsor donations included ingredients for the chowder and soups from Reinhart Foodservice; Ring Brothers Produce; dairy from Paul W. Marks; turkeys from William and Company; and clams from St. Ours.

Falmouth residents gratefully line up in front of Gus Canty Community Center for hot soup and clam chowder.

For Jack Afarian, it was a positive outcome to an unfortunate situation. 

“It feels pretty lousy to disappoint 4,000 runners, but that’s the second worst thing that can happen to a race director. The worst is to have an unsafe event where someone is injured, or worse,” he said. “We’re putting everything toward a good cause, so there’s a silver lining here. Maybe there was a reason the race was canceled.”

Filling in gaps of need in the community is the core mission of Inspiration is Everywhere, from providing essentials like clothing and toiletries to aiding individuals by connecting them to resources, to providing general assistance, such as free internet access. The office on Spring Bars Road boasts a meeting space available for hosting alcohol and drug-free events, in an effort to combat substance use disorder among young people as a result of boredom and experimentation.

Samantha Bauer eagerly answered Steve’s call seeking help with the townwide effort at Gus Canty.

“I’m happy for any chance to show my community that other people care about them, whether they’re in a state of crisis or not,” she said.

Giving back to those less fortunate was instilled in Samantha by her mother and grandmother, and it’s a lesson she models to her children, Anthony and Isabella, 4 and 5, who were passing out fruit.

Anthony and Isabella Bauer were among the volunteers helping out on behalf of Falmouth nonprofit Inspiration is Everywhere.

“It’s important for my kids to be involved and see they can physically impact people in a positive way, by simply handing someone a banana or a cup of soup,” Samantha said.

She and Steve Bird hope to move forward with a more organized effort for future storms, in which restaurants can participate by donating their food during power outages for Steve to prepare for the public. Samantha has drafted a proposal for the consideration of town officials.

Samantha Bauer heats up chowder base prepared by Stephen Bird.

Steve and I had spoken by phone earlier in the week about a very different topic; he took a break from prepping and chopping as the rain pelted down on Cape Cod. I had recently written for my blog his courageous account of surviving childhood sexual abuse, which he confided to me in 2018 but only recently decided to share with the public. One of his goals for telling his story is to underscore the connection between addiction and unresolved trauma, with the hope of showing survivors they’re not alone. After 15 years of attempting to get sober, Steve celebrated his first year free of alcohol, nicotine and drugs back in August, and he believes that finally acknowledging his trauma has been essential to his recovery.

We’ve since shared Steve’s story with local media and beyond, and will continue to do so, in an effort to spread his message far and wide. Since coming forward, Steve has been approached by countless people, acquaintances and strangers, who can relate to his pain, and realize they don’t have to suffer in shameful silence.

Watching his hometown line up for a bowl of hot, homemade soup after two days without power, which he prepared, proved to be a similar reminder.

“No matter how connected we think we are, or how many Facebook friends we have, so many people are lonely and isolated,” he said. “This was a way to keep the Marathon tradition alive while bringing our whole town together.”

Stephen Bird was happy to see his efforts put to the best possible use when the Cape Cod Marathon decided to offer his 200 gallons of soup and clam chowder to residents who lost power in last week’s Nor’easter./Sarah E. Murphy