Everything is Hearsay: An Elegy
Carrie Murphy

“Distance is not a means to ‘express’ nor a means to ‘represent’ what is missing—it’s a way to fill in the space left when something that was once visible has disappeared and left a gap. What fills the gap—forms of elegy.”

                                    -Kristin Prevallet


Each person is a person in the world, until they are not. Every death is sudden.



My father died on June 11, 2007. He was twelve days away from his sixtieth birthday, and he was, by the account of the doctor who gave him a physical a week before his death, in perfect health. This is what we know.



My father was a man. My father was a man who died. This is true, this is what we know.

His name was Thomas Murphy, sometimes Tom, occasionally Tommy. He was married for twenty-two years. He had two daughters. He was born in, he lived in, and he died in Baltimore, Maryland.

My father was, by most accounts, a classy man, a funny man, a kind man, a good man. In death, his qualities become extinguished. But do they disappear?



After we die, how can anyone know what we were really like? We exist only in increasingly shaky memories, greying crystal balls where time continues to push away, moving only and always forward.  So what can we know about a man, this man, other than that he was a man, and that he died?



Here are the things my father liked: candy, Motown, Ronald Reagan, typewriters, St. Francis, his job, vacuuming, Cadillacs, being Irish, really bad horror movies, cream soda, bowties, dogs, Superman, M*A*S*H reruns.

Here are the things he did not like: tattoos, Hillary Clinton, foreign-made cars, kidney beans, clutter, hot weather, beer, long pajamas, porkchops, eye drops, the F word, football.



My mother is filing a malpractice suit against the emergency room doctor that treated my father before his death. He died of sepsis, an infection of the blood. He got a stomachache on Friday, was short of breath and diagnosed with pneumonia on Saturday, was admitted to the hospital on Sunday and died in the very early hours of Monday morning. He did not have pneumonia; he had a perforated bowel. His bloodstream was overwhelmed by bacteria until eventually his organ systems went into shock and shut down. This is what we know.



My father lived in the neighborhood I grew up in for forty-four years, beginning when he was sixteen and ending with his death. We can speculate he liked rowhouses, or the routine of driving the same roads every night and every morning.



I gave my account, a video deposition, to the defending and opposing lawyers in the malpractice case, who were sitting around a conference table in Baltimore. I sat at a conference table in El Paso with a court reporter, who intermittently handed me tissues.



When my father died, I was completing an internship in Quito, Ecuador. I was already at the airport and I called my parents’ house. My aunt told me that my father had died, and I bought a bag full of candy and had a chair massage. Then I waited to fly to Miami.



My sister said later she bet my father’s bowel was damaged from fifty-five years of swallowing gum.  We laughed and laughed. Everything is hearsay.



He had a particular way of quantifying things when speaking about the past. If he was talking about lazy days with his grandmother as a child, he would look off into the distance and say: that was fifty years ago.



I have, for the last two years, known only the very basic details of the factors that combined to cause my father’s death. As far as I am concerned, I know all I need to know: he’s dead.

My mother and sister, both present in the time immediately preceding my dad’s death, will stand up at the trial and give their accounts of what the doctors may have done wrong. I’m just a damages witness. At the trial, I will only have to say how I was affected by the loss of my father, the suddenness of his death, how his absence feels.

I will do this so they can determine how much money the life of my father, a man, a man who lived and died like any man, a man who loved Gone With The Wind and books about the Gilded Age, was worth.

Please state, in detail, any mental, physical or emotional hardships you have suffered as a result of the negligence of this defendant.



I read about the ancient Irish funeral tradition of keening, from the Gaelic: caoineadh, caoinim, “I lament.” My mother had more telephone calls on the first St. Patrick’s Day after my dad’s death than on his birthday.



I talk about my father frequently.  I say, “He said,” I say, “He was,” I say, “He thought.” But in reality, I don’t know what he thought. I can’t remember, not exactly, not word-for-word, anything he did say. The only way I can talk about him is equivalent to speculation, to hearsay. I compile, I assemble, I repeat a list-like reckoning of the things that made him a man and made his life a life: once he gave flowers to Nicole Kidman. In 1968, he was stationed at Fort Richardson in Alaska. He majored in history, failed math. When I got my driver’s license, he hid behind a tree to watch the test, then cried.



At the viewing, my father’s coworker began to cry when telling me how much my father loved me. I didn’t cry.


I wrote a poem about my attempt to fill out the interrogatory given to me by my mother’s lawyer. The poem said nothing.



Grief has made me an anthropologist and a biographer. I talk about my father in lists; I examine the subject by attributes, by accumulation. I obsessively repeat important dates to myself in my head, locating my father within the events of the last century, and within the events of his own life.

He was sixteen when Kennedy was shot, he was twenty-two when a man walked on the moon. He took disco lessons.  He went to college on the G.I. bill. He was married at thirty-seven, he had his first child (me) at thirty-eight.



My dad had anxiety attacks, and since his death, I have them too. I once called my mother ninety times until she answered the phone; I was panicked and my stomach was in knots.



Please describe the relationship you had with your father.


How often did you see him in the year preceding his death?


Please describe the relationship between your parents, Thomas Murphy and E______ Murphy.




The obituary that appeared in The Baltimore Sun on June 13, 2007 featured a picture of my father that was two years old. In it, he was wearing glasses. He hadn’t worn glasses in over two years, due to an eye surgery. Was it really him?



He typed everything on an IBM Selectric typewriter. He liked a clean car. He spent a year in a Franciscan seminary after he failed out of Baltimore Junior College. When he was a little boy, he hid candy underneath his mattress. He always dressed up for St. Patrick’s Day, but rarely for Halloween. He was a peacemaker.  Everything is hearsay.



I wrote a poem about how drunk I got after his funeral. The poem said too much.


I am frequently scared that people will think I have a daddy complex, because I am a woman and because I don’t have a dad anymore.

It is awkward, now, to talk about my parents in social interactions. I say “My mom said,” I say, “I’m going to my mother’s house.” The assumption is probably that my parents are divorced.


A few months after my father’s death, my sister got a tattoo by which to remember him. It is the title of his favorite song (“I Hear A Symphony” by The Supremes) in italicized script, flanked on either side by a shamrock. It is on her lower leg. She asked me if I liked it and I said no, and she said “Fuck you.” My father hated tattoos.  My sister finds it offensive that I question her choice to memorialize her father in a way that she finds meaningful.



Did you seek any psychiatric help or grief counseling following the death of your father? If so, please elaborate.



I wrote a poem about the nature of grief. The poem sounded pretty.


When was the last time you saw your father alive?



During my deposition, the lawyers asked me if I was aware of any pre-existing health conditions of my father. The only thing I could think of was gout.

When I was a little girl, he would get gout attacks and have to wear sandals to work in the wintertime. He drank a lot of cherry juice, and would roar with pain if something as light as a sheet touched his toe.

He also snored.



Some days I want to laugh about my father; the way he skipped in restaurant parking lots to make my sister and I roll in hysterics, his strange mannerisms, how he wore sandals with socks. I want to tell random people stories about him, mention him in conversations where the subject matter doesn’t really fit.

Other days, I try to find him. Is he in the song that came on the radio? Is it a sign that I saw a Zagnut bar at the gas station?



I know a lot of other people close to my own age who have lost parents: some suddenly, some slowly. I went on a ski trip and got drunk off a jug of wine, me and my two friends huddled with cigarettes in the freezing cold, liquor loosening us enough to speak about the space, the gap, that a parent leaves in the world. We shivered and rolled our eyes, we stopped speaking awkwardly whenever anyone else came outside.



My father was the second of four children, three boys and one girl, all spaced four years apart: 1943, 1947, 1951, 1955. The three brothers, as adults, looked remarkably alike, except for things like extra weight or facial hair.


At his funeral, my father had two eulogizers, or maybe even one more, but my memory is hazy; I took Xanax. One that I know for sure was his best friend Wayne, whom he met while he was in basic training in North Carolina in 1967. Wayne gave a nice speech, full of history, affection, and respect. The other was his brother, the firstborn, my uncle, who did not speak but played a beautiful piece on the piano. I have no idea if he improvised it, if he wrote it before, or if it was a pre-existing piece of music that he found appropriate to eulogize his brother.


The day after the funeral, we went out to eat crabs and both of my uncles, the one who spoke and the one who didn’t speak, two of the three brothers (the once three brothers) made sure my beer glass was never empty.



The last time I saw my father alive was on June 1, 2007. It was at the airport. He wore a plaid short-sleeved shirt, I think, but I can’t be sure.



How would you characterize your father’s general health during the last year of his life?


My father worked as the building manager of a skyscraper in downtown Baltimore, a position he was immensely proud of and thoroughly enjoyed. By most accounts, he was a fair and understanding boss, and he considered the members of his staff friends. About a month after my father died, my mother, sister, and I were invited to come down to the building for an ice cream social in my father’s honor. In the last three or so years of his life, he had taken to wearing bowties, and so it was dubbed, “A Bow-Tie Ice Cream Social.” The owner of the company he worked for ordered hundreds of bowties and everyone wore them, even the women.When it was over, they presented us with a framed and matted picture of the building that had been signed by various coworkers and members of my father’s staff. We still haven’t hung it.



A year after my father’s death, I found a Mark Jarman poem entitled “The Supremes,” and itched to click print, mail it to him.



Of course, I know my father is dead, and that means I won’t see him ever again. Still, it seems almost impossible to me that the time since I last saw him will only continue to widen; five years, ten years, twenty years. A day will come where he will have been dead for as long as he was my father; then, longer.


I want to sell my father’s original (framed, matted) Reagan campaign posters on Ebay, but my mother won’t let me.

Shortly after my dad died, my mom went to the cemetery to see his grave. There was no gravestone yet, and she told us she ended up crying and crying at the wrong freshly-turned grave before she realized it wasn’t his. My sister and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.



Grief, at its basest nature, is continuous. It’s the perpetual ellipsis, the straightest line. My father has been dead for over three years; the sting has lessened, but the linger is long.

The legal issues complicate the process. There is always another question, another email, another need for the report.



My mother won’t go to the hospital where my father died, although she has to drive by it at least a few times a week. My sister keeps quiet.

We all did our depositions on the same day; the rest of my family in Baltimore, me in El Paso. My mom sent me $30 so I could take myself out to lunch afterwards.



There is an alternative narrative in my head, one where I fill-in-the-blanks with things my dad would have or could have said. In this narrative, he half-heartedly approves my purchase of a VW Beetle, and he sets his mouth in angry shock at Hillary Clinton running for president. He buys me a guidebook to the Southwest when I move to New Mexico, and he pushes my sister back into nursing school after she’s failed out. This is what I think I know.


These things haven’t happened. They only exist in my mind, where I can mold them, imagine them in full and flesh, and then rewrite them if they seem wrong.



When I was nineteen, I fell into a deep depression. I was attending school in Western Massachusetts; it was cold, I was lonely, I had stopped attending classes, and I begged my parents to let me to come home. They wouldn’t. I finished the semester, and my father sent me a card every single day until May. Six days a week, I had something in my mailbox.

Most of the cards were simple, signed “Love, Dad,” in my father’s absolutely perfect Catholic school cursive. He sent me one long letter after I called and said I was depressed; typed as always, with his “Thomas D. Murphy” letterhead. I saved it for two years, but in my post-college-graduation cleaning frenzy, I threw it away. Every time I go back to Baltimore, I search for the letter, hoping it will magically be at the bottom of a drawer I’ve overlooked, or in a book I haven’t opened in a while.

I had an email label for “Dad,” as much of our communication during my last year of college (also the last year of his life) was through email; usually three or four a week. I’ve never let myself read any of them until just recently. When I did, I bit my lip so hard it turned white.



It’s amazing, the pen-to-paper, the email inbox; these real and actual words that remain in the world.



I saw a picture of my uncle looking at his grandchild and I felt a poem inside me, but I left it there.



In your understanding, in what manner was your father treated by Doctor X? By Doctor Y? By Doctor Z? By _______ _________ Hospital?



I watched a clip of Michael Jackson’s eleven-year-old daughter speaking at his funeral eight times in a row.



There are many things I feel like I should have said to the lawyers during the deposition, ways I could have been more eloquent, clearer, angrier. Did I fail when describing my parent’s marriage, or the relationship I had with my father? How, though, can you recount things like that with any real representation of the truth? Everything sounds trite, sentimental.



If you need some time to answer the question, that’s fine. We don’t mind waiting.



I wrote a poem about being in my dad’s big-as-a-boat black Cadillac, late afternoon, him behind the wheel, listening to “Midnight Train to Georgia.” He said he loved that song. It was all I could remember, one instance I think I know for sure.


When the trial begins, the doctor shakes our hands. He is young, short, with shiny shoes and shiny hair. When they turn on the powerpoint presentation to show a picture of my father, the doctor’s long palm-frond eyelashes are shadowed on the screen. My mother and my sister and I don’t hold hands. We don’t pat each other reassuringly. We sit in the seats and we listen to the story. Everything is hearsay.