On May 24, 2009, the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, my wife, Debbie, and I took our five children on a float trip down the Meramec River with a group of friends and family. Just over an hour after our flotilla set off down the river that afternoon, our life with Margaret Olivia Murphy — our 4½ year old daughter — had come to an end.
This is Margot’s story.
As a reward for successfully addressing whatever near-term personal or professional challenges we faced, or perhaps as a temporary escape from those challenges, we frequently contemplated an outing to the river on property owned by Debbie’s family in Bourbon, Missouri. However, given our family’s relentless schedule of practices, games, school and other activities, it was always far easier to talk about such a trip than to make it happen.
Finally a plan did come together on Memorial Day weekend in 2009. After getting the word out to the many family and friends continuously looking for an opportunity to enjoy an excursion on the river, some two dozen of us agreed to meet that Sunday for a late afternoon float.
Rather than rely upon one of the area vendors to manage the river float, Debbie’s family keeps an ample supply of boats, canoes, trailers and lifejackets on the property so family members can enjoy the river whenever the spirit so moves them. This meant that the first hours of our visit to Bourbon were heavy with logistics. While the kids and dogs ran wild around the property, jumping in and out of the river under the supervision of their mothers, the guys were moving trailers downriver or upriver, gathering paddles, determining how many and what type of vessels were needed and then getting them to the riverbank.
After what seemed like an eternity, the requisite mix of vessels was assembled, and it was time to start the float — time to sit on the river and worry about nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Located some 50 miles southwest of St. Louis County, the stretch of the Meramec River we were floating is slow and lazy, only a few feet high in many stretches and so shallow in others that the boats and canoes need to be carried. Debbie’s family has been floating this stretch of river frequently for decades without incident, and there was nothing ominous about the weather or the river on that sunny, warm and pleasant day.
Not long after we launched our boats into the river it began to drizzle, so the flotilla moved from the middle of the river to the shores, where the overhanging trees provided some shelter. The oversized boat carrying an adult friend of ours as well as Margot, who was buckled securely in a lifejacket, and a few of her siblings and relatives had come to rest against a nest of logs and trees and branches toward the side of the river where the current had helped to guide them.
Alone in a large kayak, I paddled over to say hello to Margot, who was crying. For the last couple years of her 1,972 days on earth, Margot had been exceptionally bothered by what she called “moisture problems.”
Although Margot would swim in a pool for hours at a time, if a shirt sleeve was dampened when she washed her hands, the shirt had to go. It made no difference if we were at the zoo or a movie theater or in the car — if her clothing became wet for any reason, she would demand a change. Similarly, it was the definition of futile to attempt to clothe Margot prematurely after a bath. Her pajamas were not going on her body until Margot was satisfied that her hair was sufficiently dry.
On that day, however, I could do little about the moisture problem — we were floating on a river and it was raining. But as I pulled away from Margot to resume the trip, I flipped over in my kayak. For a split second, I thought I was in danger. The current was exceptionally fast through this logjam, and I had trouble getting the kayak off of me. When I finally struggled out from under the kayak, I hung on to the backside of the logjam, catching my breath. As I began to swim again, the current pushed me quite a bit downriver before I made it to the riverbank.
Around the time I reached the shore, I heard shouts upriver, and I think I heard Debbie yell that she didn’t know where the kids were. I ran back up the riverside to see what was going on.
For me, what happened next will always be unclear, but the details of the accident make no real difference to me. What I realized days later was that the boat Margot was in had flipped over sometime after mine had. While the rest of the crew made it out safely, it soon became apparent that everyone was accounted for except Margot.
As I stood on the shore, my mind was so blank I didn’t know what to do. Finally a friend standing nearby suggested we return upriver to the logjam where I had dumped into the water.
I ran up the bank, then waded in so I could float down to the logjam. Once there, I was able to stand on the river bottom and some large branches. I reached into the river and started feeling around under the water. After coming up with and discarding a seat cushion and a paddle, I reached again. To my eternal horror, I grabbed what I believe was Margot’s left ankle. To my further horror, she was not moving.
I remember little of my thoughts at the time, but in retrospect I seem to have concluded that because I was unable to pull her free, the only possible way to save Margot without hurting her was to hang on a nearby log and push her under the water through the logjam. This was stupid. If there was any remaining chance to save her, I was wasting it.
Thankfully, family and friends began making their way over. Eventually a friend hanging from a different part of the logjam was able to reach Margot, and we pulled her out together.After we freed Margot, a stranger perched within the logjam began administering CPR. But despite the efforts of people to whom we are forever grateful, I don’t think there was any chance of saving Margot once we got her out of the river. It had taken too long.
An hour or two after we pulled Margot’s body from the water, the float trip ended in an emergency room. I looked on in indescribable bewilderment at the sight of my dear wife curled up in a hospital bed, holding our dead daughter. I wish it were not possible for any human being to see a vision so haunting.
The day was not yet over, however. We still had one unthinkable act before us: getting in the car and driving off without Margot.
Days later, some time after the seeing his sister in a casket at the funeral home, Margot’s younger brother asked us why she was not in heaven. Surprised and shattered by the question, we assured him that Margot was indeed in heaven.
If that was true, he wanted to know, then who was it in that box?
I don’t blame myself, the river, anything or anyone else for Margot’s death. The adults in charge were sober, and many had made this same trip dozens of times. It was a tragic accident. There are an infinite number of ways it could have been avoided, but the cold, brutal reality is that accidents happen. I also don’t believe Margot’s death happened for a reason; that would require intent, and I don’t believe that God or the universe drowns 4½ year old girls to serve some greater purpose. Accidents happen because accidents happen. That’s life on earth.
But it’s also the cold, brutal reality that I could have changed that day’s events, and I failed to do so. When I consider what is required of me as the father of a young child, I am reminded of a statement by Tanzanian marathoner John Akhwari, who limped to the finish line long after the rest of the field after he was injured in a fall at the 1968 Olympics: “My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race,” Akhwari said. “They sent me 5,000 miles to finish the race.”
Margot was not entrusted to me with the understanding that I should do my best to protect her. My responsibility was actually to protect her. I failed. I don’t feel guilt over this failure — but I do feel anger and sickness at my inability to do the job assigned to me. I have no right, ability or willingness to judge any parent who has lost a child. But as for my judgment of myself, while I may recognize that Margot’s death was a tragic accident, my failure to protect something so valuable fills me with disgust.
Other than God himself, what in all of existence could be more valuable than human life? What are the other candidates — carbon, time, gravity? If the universe existed without life here or somewhere, who would care? Surely God would not create the universe for his own entertainment. Life can’t be an accident. It seems to me that life must be the purpose, and a life entrusted to me was lost.
Now, some two years later, each time I go to the cemetery, I find that Margot is still dead. It’s almost impossible sometimes to put the brakes on the litany of horrible thoughts that float through my mind: My 4½-year-old daughter is dead. We have a child buried in the ground. I’m never going to see her again on this earth. Her mother is not going to see her anymore. Her siblings will never play with her again. Margot will never again run around our home. She will never again play in the backyard. My baby girl is in the ground.
For most problems in this world, it seems a solution exists somehow: you just have to look hard enough. For this problem — this loss, this lack, this absence, this tragedy — no solution exists. Margot is gone. It cannot be undone.
Every human life is a uniquely valuable gift, and Margot was no exception. She had curled fire-red hair, beautiful blue eyes, a contagious smile, unbridled joyfulness, and an outsized strut and confidence. She turned heads wherever she went, and Margot’s loving nature was a gift beyond description to those blessed to know her well.
At every stage of her development, Margot had a unique energy and presence. She was electric. I don’t know what it was — but it was something. Maybe you could see the music in her, and it was contagious.
She said and did things that I’ll laugh about forever. At dinner one night after our dog had recently been skunked in the back yard, we asked 3-year-old Margot what she might do if encountering a skunk. Without any apparent intent to amuse us, she outlined her straightforward strategy: “I kick him in the balls.”
Margot’s occasionally colorful vocabulary once led to an old-school mouth soaping that nevertheless left Margot undaunted.
“Thank you, Mommy,” she said afterward. “Now my mouth is so clean.”
Margot was also a talented musical composer, with unforgettable ballads and rock songs about popsicles and other current events. However prolific Margot may have been as a songwriter, and although she was an equally enthusiastic dancer and singer, no amount of nostalgic reminiscing will make us forget that Margot’s singing voice was, in fact, terrible. But of course the pitch and tone were far less important than the energy, attitude and enthusiasm that made her performances so unforgettable.
Some five months or so after Margot’s death, I finally became impatient enough with myself to begin to believe that I had a responsibility to quit sulking and do something to attempt to remember and honor Margot.
Out for a run one Saturday morning, I came up with the idea to tell a story about Margot and how her life and spirit may continue to be present in our lives. Lacking the creativity to write exclusively about things of interest to a 4½ year old, I decided to create a story about Margot’s life that follows some mostly fictional characters whose lives were influenced by Margot in some small way and whose stories continue even after Margot’s death. I also decided I’d entitle each chapter with a song lyric that I found to be meaningful or reflective of Margot’s character.
One of the first lyrics that came to mind when I began typing possible chapter titles was part of the chorus from Neil Young’s “Walk On,” which seemed likely to fit somewhere within Margot’s story: “Sooner or later, it all gets real. Walk on.”
I love that song and that line, and it seemed somehow appropriate. Later that Saturday night, I was sitting alone watching football highlights after everyone had gone to sleep. I saw the red light flashing on my phone, indicating a text message. I opened the note from a friend whom I had not seen or spoken to since Margot’s funeral. The note read only this:
“Sooner or later, it all gets real. Walk on.”
When I asked about it later, my friend said he had heard the song on that day, thought of me and sent it along out of the blue.
A few weeks later, I was walking along our upstairs hallway and stopped dead in my tracks. For the first time since Margot’s death, I thought about the nightly daddyhorse rides I had provided to Margot and her sister on the way to bed. This daddyhorse had been trained to respond to commands they had learned at a friend’s stable. There were only two: “Ho” and “Walk on.” I thought about how hard Margot had laughed during those rides and could clearly remember her directing me to “Walk on.”
Is it possible that Margot could have inspired an old friend — one of her earth-bound angels perhaps — to help her deliver a vital imperative to her father? I don’t know. The easiest explanation is that this was coincidence and nothing more.
I’m not sure that the easiest answer is the best one.
As I progressed with the attempt to tell Margot’s story, I continued to notice possible greetings from her — a cardinal that kept tapping at my window, often at times when I was nearly paralyzed with sadness. One afternoon, in the midst of writing about seeing signs in everyday activity, I was disrupted by a loud crash. I discovered that our robotic vacuum, named Roxy by the kids, had knocked over a stand holding a large picture of our family’s 2008 Christmas card, which features a picture of all five our children. Dressed in their Christmas finery, they are holding up a one-word sign:
On a day when I struggled mightily through the writing of a brief section that opens with lyrics from Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” — “And stay right here, ’cause these are the good old days” — a woman named Natalie sent me several business emails. So I decided to listen to some of my favorite songs by Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs, wondering if I might hear something from Margot in there. Before I could even get a song onto my player, I remembered the lyrics from “These Are Days,” and hung my head and cried as I wondered what to make of it, if anything: “When May is rushing over you . . . See the signs and know their meaning. It’s true. . . . Hear the signs and know they’re speaking, to you, to you.”
The last potential greeting I’ll mention is the photograph of a cloud that an old friend sent to me at Christmastime. He’d been away on a cruise during Margot’s funeral, and we had not spoken since her death. During the brutally sad daily routine of opening Christmas cards, I saw that my friend had sent a photograph of a cloud which looked a great deal like angel’s wings. My friend noted that he’d taken the shot at dusk on May 24, 2009 — right around the time that Margot died — and my friend had concluded it was an angel escorting Margot to heaven.
Clouds, like songs and books, inherently lend themselves to malleable interpretation. So I asked myself, with a deliberate sense of skepticism, whether any of these signs may have pointed to anything beyond this world. I never observed a potential sign without honestly questioning whether a more rational explanation for its presence might not make more sense, or whether I was observing nothing but mere coincidence.
Whether there was a deeper meaning or not, I did observe many signs or potential greetings during the writing of my attempted story about Margot. Curiously, they mostly seemed to stop after I was finished. This lends itself to a perfectly rational explanation as well: a desperate imagination, stimulated by the writing, saw signs everywhere; when the writing was finished, my imagination relaxed and the signs disappeared. It seems equally possible, however, that, given how drained I was after completing the attempted story, my mind and awareness simply shut down and took a break.
Still, if I believe that those gone before us still exist, which I do, then it seems plausible that they might have ways to interact with those of us who remain here. This need not represent an intrusion upon our free will — communication or interaction between here and there need not imply that we’re simply toys acting solely as designed or instructed. But I think it’s possible that Margot — and other departed souls or angels — could invite us to see or remember or learn from them in a story, song, piece of art, or in the everyday things we’re able to observe and comprehend. Why should all of the work of this existence be left to us — the least competent? Why should the departed sit around in paradise doing nothing? Why can’t they help a little?
As I examined each of the instances in which it seemed conceivable that Margot may have been attempting to communicate with me, I tried my best to avoid interpreting them with the agility of an astrologer utilizing part fact and part imagination to create a story from nothing.
Could I have been fooling myself? Certainly.
Did these signs take away the pain? Impossible.
But I can’t deny that they lifted my spirits at some difficult moments. If that is all I will ever know for certain about them in this life, that’s good enough.
I did finish the attempt to tell Margot’s story, and I called it she must be, as that seems to fit, for many reasons. I know it won’t ever be possible for me to get Margot’s story completely right. I also know that I could never come up with anything as interesting or as beautiful as the story we’ll never get to see. Still, it provides comfort for me to hope that Margot’s story keeps going — that her death was not a destruction of beauty and value but a transformation.
As Margot may have said, “And the beat goes on.” Actually, it’s more likely she would have sung that, and probably off-key. After all, it may be that her story continues not as a book but as a song. If I could hear her singing to me now, I believe she would demand that I walk on — she would remind me that I have a responsibility to her, to my family and to myself, to respect and make the most of the gift that has been taken from her.
Patrick Murphy is the owner of Murphy Analytics, a St. Louis-based research firm providing coverage of smallcap stocks. James M. Lang ’91 assisted in the writing of this article. The longer version of the attempt to tell the rest of Margot’s story is available in paperback and as an e-book via the links provided at shemustbe.net.