For Murph

Some nights there are stirs of echoes in the dark. It’s an age thing, I think. Nights when sleep eludes you are the times when things past seem to take on lives of their own and present themselves to you as clear as yesterday. Sleepless. Reflecting. Longing sometimes. Moments when you maybe didn’t hold on strong enough or long enough and the spirit of them and the people in them return fully formed, making you understand the nature of regret.

            I wonder if everyone gets that. I wonder if it’s a part of the human condition to have to exist on the edges of your memory sometimes and replay scenes from your life just to see how much you can actually recall. I know it’s not just a First Nations thing. I believe that when you’ve lived here long enough, your past informs you as much as your present. If as, the Zen people say, the map is not the territory, then revisiting individual landscapes have much to offer us.  

            One sleepless night not so long ago, I remembered a girl I knew when I was sixteen. Her name was Murph. Well, that’s what we called her because her last name was Murphy and she was a free spirited, adventurous, darkly funny, ex-hippie chick looking to the 1970s for more freedom and peace. It was 1972. I’d left my adopted home and gone to the street, looking as all lost kids are for something big and important and valuable to hang my life on.

            I was a kid at the edges. I was new to the street, new to the idea of working for a living, new to the cusp of poverty and hunger, and brand new to the wide open world of other kids and hangers on who gathered in the gazebo inMontebelloParkinSt. Catharines,Ontario. I watched and listened more than I participated. We lived in a rock’n roll ethos. Our world was informed by music and the allure of pot, cheap wine and laughter that chased the darkness away.

            Murph had an eye for people on the fringe. She used to be one herself, she said, and she understood how it felt on the outside looking in. Her imagination was an active and living thing and she wrote poems, stories and songs. She painted. She sculpted. She dared to dream outrageous dreams that put her on the outside of the bland kids in her school. She could see me and she became a friend. She talked to me about the late 1960s and the things she’d seen and done. She was awesome.

            She’d been toSan Franciscoin the Summer of Love, seen the Grateful Dead, Gram Parsons and Janis. She’d spent time in a commune. Then names of the places in her travels brought out the longing in me for the open road and adventures and made me long for more of the world than I had already seen; Denver, Albuquerque, Tucumcari, New Orleans, Memphis and New York City. It seemed she’d been everywhere and she was an eager and colorful storyteller.

She was fascinated by my heritage and was surprised when I told her I didn’t know anything about myself.  Hippies tried to be tribal, she said but it never really worked. She talked about her Irish roots and how she really had no idea about that either. She told me about her dreams of the rugged coast ofIrelandand how she was on a boat that could never make it to land. She always awoke homesick for a place she’d never been.  So I wasn’t alone, she said.

            Every time we were together she made me feel special. She asked me about myself. She was interested and she got me to say things I never thought I would or could or even wanted to. Once when I had no work and was out of money, she took me to a diner, made sure I was fed and played great, riotous songs on the jukebox. Later, we walked along a path that led under an overpass so we could lookup at the stars. Murph was a great friend.

            She died in her sleep one night. She’d been out, sitting with us around a fire in a barrel listening to people play guitar and sing and she’d left early. Then, she went home to bed and drifted away peacefully. She wasn’t a drunk or a doper. She just died. When they told me I sat right down where I stood and wept.

Forty years later she’s an echo in the darkness. I don’t know if I loved her but I know I missed her. She added to my life. I knew her briefly but she made me more. That’s what friends do.

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About Richard Wagamese

I am a published author with 13 titles published by major Canadian publishers. I am a First Nations person from the Ojibway Nation in Northwestern, Ontario, Canada. As a professional writer since 1979 I have written for newspaper, radio television, magazines and book publishing. I love the culture of books and the people who populate it. 2012 recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media & Communications. View all posts by Richard Wagamese

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