Nancy Murphy / Writer

writings and performances by Nancy Murphy

Baby Love

The large coach bus pulls into Framingham station and I’m excited. I lived in this town from ages 1 to 4 and I’ve never been back. But I remember it vividly, the layout of our house, the picture window to the left of the front door where my mother combed my hair while my friend waited outside. I remember the kitchen fire, the little bus to preschool, the fall in the sandbox, which was quickly followed by my mother pouring something from a blue bottle into my eyes as I lie screaming on a table.


But this trip is not to see my extended family in the Boston area or my hometown but rather to visit my boyfriend Brian’s daughter and her husband and their two little girls, the youngest one being only 8 weeks old. They live in a town about 15 minutes away. We exit the Boston Logan airport bus, walk out to the pick up circle and find Jessica there with the new baby on board. The baby is adorable and I jump into the back seat to sit next to her, her big eyes watching me as I start speaking ‘baby’. You know, “hello, well hello sweetie, aren’t you the cutest little button, aren’t you, aren’t you? Yes you are!”


I forgot how much I love baby talk! I know it’s annoying to listen to, but babies really like it.  She perks up and opens her eyes wide and starts moving her little rosebud mouth as if she is holding up her side of things. She is positively cooing, I even see a little smile start. I feel like a superhero. Back at the house now, I offer to hold her. I actually don’t know what I’m doing, it’s been 25 years since mine was a baby, but our plan to visit was accompanied by an offer to help out and do whatever they need so I can’t show any insecurity. The handoffs are a bit tricky, but then some things come back, support the head, rock back and forth, baby talk, oh and singing. The great thing about singing is that you don’t have to be good, you don’t have to know the words, in fact, you don’t even have to sing a real song, you can even just hum. Row row row your boat, merrily merrily…


I try to remember holding my own daughter when she was this small and it’s hard to picture it. I know what she looked like but I can’t see myself there again, I seem like another person. What comes through in my bones though is this memory of attachment and devotion, and responsibility. And fear. I ask Jessica when we are out walking, “Are you sure she can breathe in that carrier? Maybe check again.” And I hear myself asking other silly questions like, “she just drank one ounce from the bottle, should I try to burp her now or wait til she finishes all of it? Or half of it?” When she starts fussing and then crying, I panic that I have lost my magic touch with her, she feels my stress! I must relax, I must lower my heart rate, she’ll feel that. Yes, there we go. Baby meditation.


I see myself now as the worried parent that I often was, and how hard that must have been on my daughter. I never had that second child where you could start to ease up. I have often thought that I would enjoy grandchildren one day because I would be more relaxed this second go around. But holding this vulnerable little being now only reminds me how dangerous the world is. Maybe it won’t be so easy when it’s my own daughter’s baby I’m holding.


This visit is like a trial run for being a real grandmother. I’m only a pretend grandmother here. We are not blood. And Brian and I are not married so they want the children to call us Grandpa and Nancy. It’s strange to have a boyfriend called grandpa, which makes me wonder anew, at what age does calling someone your boyfriend sound a little ridiculous? I think it’s now, it’s when that someone can also be called grandpa. So from now on he is just Brian.


I’m not ready to be a grandmother. I think my daughter is still a few years away from having children so I’m safe for now. It feels like another level of old. I’ve already hit 60, this is the next step. I know someone can be a grandmother at 40 but it’s still generally associated with being old. As Brian says, his grandchildren are pushing us off the planet to make room for themselves. Our days here are numbered. Well that’s comforting.


During the week we are visiting, I fall in love with this new baby. And Jessica and I bond over that. As we give her a bath one day, we laugh together at her funny expressions of surprise and wonder as we take turns washing and rinsing her tiny body. Later Jessica shows me pictures she has taken of the baby, who is in the room, on her phone until her husband says, “Ok, I think you’re going a little overboard now!”


“No, not at all,” I say. I am genuinely enthralled, and I also want to support her. She should be overboard about her baby. And that’s something I imagine a mother would always share with a daughter, being crazy about the baby.  But I’m not a substitute mother for Jessica. Her own mother came out for the first couple of weeks to help.


My mother was planning to come out for the first weeks to help me too, she was so excited for her first grandchild and I was so in need of her help. But she had some complications from a chronic health condition in the months leading up to the birth of my daughter and then unexpectedly died a week after she was born.  My early baby days were a bittersweet mix of devastating grief and deep love and joy.


Before we leave Boston, we drive down the street my father remembers as the one we lived on in Framingham.  He doesn’t remember the number and nothing looks familiar of course. It’s been almost 60 years! But I feel happy to be here like some part of my mother is still here on this street, a piece of her life. I remember her telling me once that her mother didn’t come out here to visit much and she felt a little abandoned. My grandmother was a loving woman who just had too many children, 11 in total, and my mother was the quintessential middle child. I was the oldest of five children born in six years. It sounds like utter chaos, which is what I remember a lot of growing up, but she said those baby years were the happiest years of her life.


I was the same way, despite my grief, despite my worries. I had waited a long time to have a child, I didn’t even want one until I was into my 30s. I had to fight my husband for it, then my biology and then later lost my marriage but I was wildly happy in motherhood.  I used to say, ‘I love to complain.’ Meaning I loved all of it.


When I think of sharing this new baby time with my own daughter one day, I know I won’t really care about being labeled grandmother.  But I wonder if it may awaken new feelings of loss. I won’t truly know what I missed until I experience it. Yet by giving my daughter what I didn’t receive from my mother, I am closing this broken circle. And the new life is what pulls us along as it sparks new love in us.  There is always a way to heal.





Goodbye, I Love You

I should have realized when my mother chided me for being maudlin that we would not have a proper goodbye when she died. We were in the kitchen, our usual place for conversation; I was visiting from LA. It was 1985. Sitting at the round oak table under the tiffany style lamp, I looked across the burnt orange countertops at my mother as she stood at the sink rinsing the coffee pot. This was her favorite perch in the house. From there, she could see out the window to the driveway in the front of the house.  Whenever any of us visited, we would first spot her bright face in that window followed by her excited figure at the open front door as we walked up the sidewalk.


When we talked in the kitchen that day, my mother had recently been diagnosed with polycythemia vera a rare blood disorder.


“It’s more a nuisance really,” she said. “I just have to go on a blood thinner, and then get a blood test every week so the doctor can monitor my red blood cell count and adjust the dose if needed. “


“Oh,” I said, “so will that cure it eventually? Or do you have to do this for the rest of your life?”


“Well it is a degenerative disease so it won’t get any better but it’s not going to change suddenly or anything. It’s manageable.”


“Degenerative? What does that mean, it will get worse over time? Could it shorten your life then?”


“I suppose it could but really, it’s not a big deal.”


Lately I had been doing some math. I had moved to LA in my mid twenties and managed to make a trip home to Philadelphia about once a year. If I continued this pattern I would have maybe 30 more “parent times” in my life. That sounds like a lot of times but it seemed odd that this was a finite number; I had always seen that as an unlimited thing.  My parents had always been there for me. Now this new medical condition could further reduce the ‘mom times.’ Was that now 20? It was then that I realized she would in fact die one day. Up to then I never believed either of my parents would die. And this wasn’t because I was in denial exactly, I just didn’t think about it at all. That’s the innocence of being young.


Overwhelmed, I got up from the kitchen table that day and went over to my mother. I put my arm around her shoulder and leaned my head on hers. With tears starting, I said, “Mom, I don’t want you to die.”


She quickly stopped me and moved away a little, “Oh no! Let’s not get maudlin now, this is not a big deal. I’m not worried about it and I don’t want you to worry about it either. “


Not worrying her children was important to her, even when complications arose a few years later and she ended up in and out of the hospital in the months leading up to the birth of my first and only child, her first grandchild. She planned to come out here for the first few weeks to help us when the baby came, it was all we talked about. Then one day she called and said,


“I was thinking that if this doesn’t resolve itself, I might not be able to make the trip out there and maybe you should start making other arrangements for help.”


“What? You might not be able to come out?” Terror raced through me. Terror that she was really sick, terror that I had no idea how to take care of a baby.


She didn’t make it out here. She was at home the night I called to tell them Monica was born. They were thrilled, and she sounded happy and strong, at least on the phone. But she went back into the hospital a couple of days later and things really started to deteriorate. We spoke briefly that week, but then she was put on pain medication so calls became difficult.  She died eleven days after my daughter was born.


She must have known she was dying because she told my father that under no circumstances was I to come back for the funeral. She said I needed to stay home with the baby. Being bossy beyond the grave, that suited her. And of course she was right.


Even though she had an idea she was dying, she didn’t say goodbye. Not to me, not to anyone. Who starts that conversation anyway? None of us said goodbye because we were expecting her to make it. Isn’t it a betrayal if you say goodbye: You’ve lost faith in their ability to recover. Maybe you’d lost faith in..God….


And is it necessary (to say goodbye)? I have envied deathbed scenes friends have shared, how profound they seem, how much closure the person says they felt.  But maybe we weren’t the kind of family who could have handled that. It’s not part of the Irish character to express big emotions like that. Growing up, we laughed a lot, we got angry sometimes, moody at lot, but not “Goodbye I love you.” Weeping at the bedside.  That seemed very Italian. Operatic. That might have embarrassed us.


But still I wonder, would saying goodbye have made it easier for us to deal with her death? We were in such shock. It’s hard to say. And I forgive her, I know she was weak at the end; she fought as hard as she could, and then slipped away. It can happen that way. Her parting gift to us was each other. There were five of us kids born in six years. I think that makes us technically quintuplets. It sure felt that way growing up. Grief has a way of flattening you, you lose your pride, your defenses. We all became closer in grief than we would have in joy and we’ve continued to be there for each other over the years.


As a mother I’m similar to mine in some ways. Like her, I have a bottomless pit of interest in every detail about my daughter and her life. But on the other hand, I’m not as stoic as my mother. I’m more of an open book. She never let us see her cry. I never wanted to burden my daughter with my emotions, but there were times I felt it was healthier to be real.


I recently turned 60 and it felt like a wake up call, after all my mother died at 63. My own death, while probably not imminent, will happen. When it does, my parting gift will be to say goodbye to my daughter. And I want to tell her some things she can draw on later for comfort.  I want to assure her that she can get through grief and that it gets easier over time. I want her to know that that there can be beauty in loss. And lastly, I want her to understand that love doesn’t die just because a person dies. Once you’re loved, that love is alive and it is yours forever.