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December 28, 2012 / bethanyshondark

Remembering My Mom: Vera J. Murphy 1956-2002

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I’ve been working on this post for a long time, trying to hit just the right notes to capture who my mom was. Most of you reading this probably never knew her, she died ten years ago today. The moment she died, the moment her heart stopped, I was forever changed. In some good ways, in some bad. She was my best friend and my entire world. The last ten years have been about rebuilding my life after that moment.

Most people use the following adjectives to describe me: resilient, strong, stubborn, iron-willed, opinionated, bitch. I get it all from my mother. That, and an inability to sleep with socks on (“you have to let your feet breathe!”)

My mom raised me to be a clone of herself. I’m not always sure that was a good idea, but for better or worse, I am very much my mother’s daughter. During my parent’s divorce the similarities were so striking that my father couldn’t even stand to be in the same room with me.

She was sick my entire life, diagnosed with lupus almost ten years before I was born. For as long as I can remember I knew she wouldn’t see my high school graduation. When I was ten, she was injured in a planned fall at work. She decided she wanted to go on disability to take “a break” and in the process actually injured herself so badly that she would never work again. She had gotten the idea from her best friend who did the same thing. The injury flared her lupus, and thus began her slow decline. In an ironic twist, her best friend also died several years later, her broken ankle from her planned fall, shockingly, led to her death.

Before her injury I rarely saw her, she was either working or at a local bar with friends, flirting with her rotating cast of adoring admirers. She had an incredible ability to make men, sometimes literally, bow before her. From first grade until the end of fourth, my life revolved around timers placed around the house. She would wake me up and immediately leave for work, leaving me to get myself dressed and to the bus stop. A timer set on the microwave indicated when I should start walking to the bus and other timers planned my evening when I returned home. About once every six school days I disregarded the bus alarm and opted to stay home to watch “Days of Our Lives” and “The View” instead. I missed about 60 days of school per year, which my mother inevitably only discovered on my last report card when my teachers threatened to hold me back because of my attendance. Letters sent home were disposed of, calls from my teachers and guidance counselors on our answering machine erased, and quarterly report cards forged with her signature. Before I turned in contact information in the beginning of every school year I changed her work phone number so that she was unreachable there also. I learned the art of deception from her and she could never get too angry about my using it. I think she was even a little proud. Towards the end of fourth grade, I was finally caught. Someone called the police after seeing me ride around our neighbourhood on my bicycle in the middle of the day too many times. We had a meeting with my principal the next day and during which she admonished me, “Could you have been less discrete?” To which my principal admonished her, “Her getting caught isn’t exactly the issue here.” To my mother, though, I think it was. I ended up crying during the meeting, blaming my lack of attention in school on my sadness over my horribly messed up relationship with my father. When we walked out of the principal’s office my mother said, “That was total bullshit, wasn’t it?” I smiled, and she did too. I got away with it, and that was ultimately what mattered to my mother.

After her injury, our relationship changed completely. After ten years of leaving me to my own devices, my mother decided to give parenting another go. It lasted as long as her marriage to my step-father remained on good terms, about a year, if that. Soon, my role in her life shifted from the kid that lived in her house (pre-injury), to her beloved daughter (immediately post-injury), to finally, her best friend.

Instead of rehashing her entire life story, which I will eventually do in a memoir I’ve been working on for a few years, I’d like to instead share a few stories that encapsulate who she was as a person and as a mom.

  • My mother spent every single Saturday of her high school career in detention. It was the Breakfast Club every week, and she was the only permanent character. One Saturday morning a nun (she attended Catholic school) whom my mother despised asked her to fill her water pitcher. My mother brought the pitcher to the bathroom and well.. The nun later told my mother the water tasted a little funny. She was never caught.
  • When my mother was 16 she stole a truck. She panicked after about 5 minutes behind the wheel, crashed it into a tree, and ran into the woods, where she hid for hours, convinced she was moments away from arrest. Again, she was never caught. That was a skill of hers.
  • When I was born my mom told the nurse that if I was a boy, to put me back. She was not interested in having a son, she wanted a daughter.When I came out the nurse was so excited that she didn’t have to break the news that I was a boy that she rushed me over to my mother, and I was still covered in birth-goop. Upon seeing me she told the nurse, “That thing is fucking disgusting. That looks like a duck hanging in a Chinatown window somewhere. Ugh, get that away from me.”
  • My father was a truck driver and some of my earliest vocabulary words were… colourful… because of his influence. My mother made me a deal and told me that I could only curse at Yankees games. We would go half a dozen times a year, each time sitting in the bleacher seats. People often questioned my mother about why she would bring such a young girl to such a rowdy part of the stadium. As soon as the game started, everyone around us understood why. My mother wanted me to blend in with the other loud, cursing fans, away from the innocent ears of children twice my age. She was always mortified, but never went back on her word.
  • There’s a scene in A League of Their Ownwhere Tom Hanks yells, “THERE’S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL.” We had a few cardinal rules in our house. One of the most memorable was “There’s no crying in the Murphy household.” My mother explained that crying (especially in public) is the ultimate sign of weakness and a lack of self-control. Whenever I cried, she would yell at me, “There’s no crying in baseball!” Years later, when I actually saw the film, I understood the reference. At the time, I understood it meant to quit the waterworks.To this day, whenever people cry in front of me I feel completely uncomfortable. I don’t know how to handle it and have been known to back away without making eye contact, as if the person crying is a bengal tiger. The few times a year I do it myself I hide in a bathroom or closet, furious at myself until the tears subside. Despite my mother’s constant and debilitating pain (not to mention emotional turmoil), I can only think of her crying perhaps a handful of times in my life. She was a tough cookie, and I always admired her for that, and have been thankful that she raised me to be one too. If she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have survived. She knew that life wasn’t going to be easy for me, and she gave me the skills to deal with it.
  • Growing up, the only thing I wanted was a blender. Okay, well, I wanted other things too, but the most practical thing I desired was a blender. I loved making smoothies but never could. My mother owned over a dozen blenders in my memory and had an uncanny ability to break them almost instantly. With the last one she bought we made a rule: If she wanted to blend, only Bethany could press the button. One day, about two weeks after we bought it I came home and she was sitting at the kitchen table. She looked at me and said, “I couldn’t wait!” She Murphy’s Law-ed yet another blender.
  • My mom could have written her own dictionary of words and phrases that were sometimes made up out of whole cloth, sometimes close approximations of actual words and phrases. Ten years later, I’m still realizing that some things I grew up hearing were products of her imagination. I often realize a word doesn’t exist while writing for work. It’s always interesting scouring the internet, trying to find the spelling of a word that she made up, and then realizing that I’ll have to find out what the word actually is.
  • Despite how many days of school I missed a year, my mother always promised me one “personal” day a year. On that day, we’d both play hooky and go do something fun. We went to the zoo, to the park, to the movies, out to eat, anything I wanted. They were the most memorable and special days of my childhood, and it’s a tradition I plan to continue with my kids one day.
  • My mother went down fighting. After I made the decision to take her off of life support, after the breathing tube was removed, my mother fought to breathe for almost an hour. I cannot even begin to describe how painful that hour was. But looking back, especially after my father’s suicide, that hour is actually a really comforting memory. My mother stared at me in her last few minutes and I knew her biggest regret in that moment was leaving me. She wanted more than anything to stick around and be with me, to watch me grow up, to be my mother for a little while longer. That’s a lot more than what I can say for my father, and those last minutes with her made me respect her and her strength more than anything else possibly could have. (Confession: We cried.)

My mom was the most unique person I’ve ever met, a special, fire-ball of a human being that changed the world because she shaped me to be who I am. I count myself lucky that she was my mother, even if it was only for sixteen years. I’m a very strong believer in “everything happens for a reason” — I think I would be very different with a very different life if she were still alive. That doesn’t mean I don’t miss her, nor does it mean I don’t think about her in one way or another every single day. People who have recently lost parents often ask me when that rock in their stomach disappears. I tell them it took about three years for it to get smaller and manageable for me, but that emptiness that feels like a heavy object sitting in your gut never really goes away completely. Days like today’s anniversary make that feeling in my core feel heavier than usual, but I don’t mind. I’m glad I still miss her, that I still care.

My mom used to explain to me that before we’re born, in Heaven, we line up and G-d assigns us our parents. She’d usually explain that while complaining about the parents that were chosen for her. At 6 years-old and at 26 years-old, my instinct upon hearing the explanation has always been the same. “Boy, did I get in the right line (and too bad there weren’t separate lines for moms and dads).” The line I chose, though, was ultimately a winner and it’s because Vera Jean Murphy was my mom.

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One Comment

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  1. Brad Essex (@BradEssex) / Dec 28 2012 9:27 pm

    Great read it remind me of my mom who passed and what we used to do and say that was so different from everybody else may god grant you peace of mind and clear remembering of your sweet mommy.

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