Eulogy For Someone Still Living
Murf’s dad, as was mentioned to me in recent email, bemoans the idea that everything good will be said about him after he dies. People wait until there’s a corpse before they screw up the nerve to say things that might be better said while there’s still a pulse, and some reasonable amount of comprehension. It might be a good idea, he thinks, to hold ones’ wake before one reaches an age where mental faculties might be a bit degraded, or before the wake is really a wake.
And it might be nice to see how many people will come, and who, and which of those in attendance will get royally drunk and puke in the nearest potted plant.
And he’s right. We shouldn’t have to be dead before people remember us. So for Mr. Murphy, a eulogy for someone still very much alive:
I was 12 years old the first time I saw Conor Murphy. I was walking down the street, headed for the 7-11, and he was lying face up in his front yard, arms folded behind his head. I must have hesitated, because he piped up, “Ah, ‘tis all right. I had a bit of the drop, and am just a wee bit fluthered.”
Not knowing what to say, I thought about turning and running.
“Mrs. Murphy thought I should come out here and face God Himself and explain why I felt a Guinness was a good thing at three in the afternoon. And I heartily think Himself approves.”
At hearing the name “Murphy” I relaxed, because I knew his sons from school, and I laughed because I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but it sounded funny.
Mr. Murphy was “fluthered.” Not drunk. Not tipsy. He was fluthered.
And as you can imagine, very, very Irish.
I had other introductions to Mr. Murphy. And while he wasn’t much more that 2 or 3 inches taller than I was at the time, he always seemed to be a giant of a man. Always friendly, pretty much gregarious, he was still this huge presence that hinted that behind the friendliness was something with a spark of danger. Not danger in a bad way; he simply gave off the feeling of someone who would not tolerate mistreatment of anyone, and someone who could take care of it if he had to.
And he did. The next school year, the day after a teacher had openly humiliated two students who could not, because of their religion, stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, he stormed into our home room class to remove his son, letting her know in no uncertain terms what he thought about her intolerance of others’ religious beliefs. If we had dared, the rest of us would have stood up and cheered. It was one of our first lessons in civics, and it was given in less than two minutes.
Conor Murphy was also a cop. His intention to make it his career was cut short…not by the bullet lodged in his back, but by the fall he took just two weeks after being shot on the job. It was a stark reminder of the gentleness of his nature; he fell from a ladder while trying to pull the neighbor’s cat from a tree—not because the cat couldn’t get down on its own, but because there was nest of baby birds in that tree, and he didn’t want them to become a feline feast in his back yard. He could have gotten out the hose and chased the cat from his tree, but he didn’t want to hurt the cat, either.
He fell onto his back, bullet fragments shifted into cracks in his spine, and he was left unable to walk. He had feeling in his legs—mostly pain—but he couldn’t support his own body weight. His career as a police officer ended in his back yard, the neighbor’s cat sniffing his face.
The Murphy’s house was the first I had ever seen with a wheelchair ramp. Mr. Murphy was the first person I had known who needed a wheelchair, and he was not shy about zipping down the street in it. In the mid 1970s, that just wasn’t something one often saw, but he turned his bad luck into a bright lesson for the rest of us: the disabled are People, and there’s not a thing you need to fear from them.
My family moved away not long after that; we headed for California, and for a time I forgot about the Murphy family.
Years later, when “getting online” meant that one subscribed to a Proprietary service such as America Online or Prodigy or Compuserve, in the days of the 300 baud modem and Crayola-Colored graphics, Ian Murphy and I reconnected. We remembered each other differently: I recalled him as being a wormy little PITA, he recalled me as being the one person who made sure he was included. But I remembered his father clearly, the gentle Irish giant who let his kids paint his wheelchair with fluorescent paint.
Over the last 10 years I’ve realized that Conor Murphy is the man those of us with sons hope for them to become. He’s tough, he’s strong, and he’s very gentle. He loves his children and grandchildren with open affection—I remember the teasing Ian and his brother took for calling him “Da,” and for the goodbye kisses Da insisted on before getting out of his car before school—and he’s never ashamed to show it. He fought through all the pain of his injuries and a few years ago had surgery to remove scar tissue and bullet fragments from his spine—and then spent another few years building enough muscle mass to be able to stand and walk a few feet at his grand daughter’s wedding, so he could give her away. When Ian’s mother died in ’97, followed just a few weeks later by Ian’s own heart attack, Conor Murphy held everyone together through the strength of his nature and outspoken belief that God has a purpose for everything.
A few years ago, when I was in the middle of my own fight with pain and found myself needing a wheelchair to get around, Mr. Murphy emailed me with this message: The wheels are but a tool, and you can use them to hide behind, or you can use them to build strength.
Conor Murphy never hid behind anything. Not even on that day over 30 years ago when he was plastered on the grass in his front yard, just a little bit tipsy a little too early in the afternoon, looking for God’s approval. And from where I stand now, I think it’s safe to say “Himself” approves.