Master of my Fate

“As the hinge of memory rusted in willed self-preserving neglect, she decided it was easier to remember only what she had negotiated with herself to remember.”  Kenneth Bush

Memories can be painful. But I instinctively knew that, for me, it was better to feel the pain than to lose the memories, than to forget. I write to remember. I write so that others can remember too.

I was getting ready for Dad to die from the time he last visited us in York. It was Mum’s birthday, 12th June 2015, and we went for dinner to celebrate, then onto a show. Over dinner, Dad had very little wine, yet his diction was imprecise. During the show he wriggled in his seat more often than was normal. He had always been thin, but he seemed bony now. I wished I’d brought him a cushion, though, through pride, he would not have used it. Ken, my husband, couldn’t join us; he was working late, speaking on a panel as part of the University’s Festival of Ideas, but met us afterwards. He and Dad walked home through the cobbled medieval streets of York: Walmgate, Fossgate, through the Shambles and onto High Petergate, beneath the long gothic shadow cast by the Minster. I drove back with Mum, detouring to drop my friend, Jan, to Huntington village. She showed us her garden, its flowers suffering from a summer that didn’t yet believe in itself. It was almost mid-summer, those days when sunset and sunrise bleed into one other, and when we said our goodbyes, only a faint tint of night stalked the sky. 

Did we have a drink and a chat when we got home? Probably. It was Mum’s birthday after all. But my memory tells me that Dad didn’t sit up, that he went to bed leaving us to it; he was worn out, fading, different. That little stain of darkness left a foreboding calling card on an otherwise lovely day.

Three months later, Dad would recite the poem Invictus at the last full family gathering – a night out at the local hotel in our hometown, where each of us six siblings, himself, and Mum, all did a turn. The next time we would all be together would be seven months later, the day he died. I knew that would be the last full family gathering, perhaps we all did. Dad recited all four verses of the poem, not missing a word, yet his diction was like water dropped on a letter penned in ink – blurred at the edges, where you have to squint your eyes to make it out. We squinted our ears, and we heard it all.

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.”

William Ernest Henley wrote this poem in 1875. Ten years earlier, aged just sixteen, he had had his left leg amputated following complications arising from tuberculosis. At the time of Dad’s reciting it, I knew nothing of the poem’s history, and I listened to the words, laden – as they were for me then – with sadness, overloaded with double meaning and cruel irony. We are not the master of our fate, I railed into myself.  But Dad seemed to know differently. He was, at that time, vanishing before our eyes with what was about to be diagnosed as Motor Neurone Disease, dealt to him, as far as we know, by fate. His speech was slurred yet distinct, that trick that could sometimes happen only with song or poetry, where he could fall into a musical rhythm of diction that would pull the phrases from him in a miraculous flowing spool, words that then disappeared into pits, words that sloped and hobbled and fell off the edge when in conversation.

I am the master of my fate’ – that is what he said, and he said it with unblemished belief. Did he mean that he had control over his response to this steady disintegration? Was he drawn to the idea of an intact soul when the clock stopped? I don’t know. Maybe he simply loved the poem, and, with his life more precarious than a rotten wooden gate falling off its hinges, its steady defiance brought him strength. The early verses are black and bleak with lines like, ‘in the fell clutch of circumstance’, ‘this place of wrath and tears’, and ‘the horror of the shade.’ Awful lines that make me shudder now to think about what he knew was ahead of him. But he had the heart to recite it aloud, nonetheless.

Fortune was neither friend nor foe to him. Fate was kind until it ran out, as it always does, although some have fate leave them in a less dramatic fashion. Of nurture I’m not sure, but I think there were enough hardships in his life to have nurtured a certain stoicism. As for nature, my father had a joyful nature of one who wanted to keep on living, someone who would never be ready to go, but who nonetheless could rise to the gargantuan challenge of living out Henley’s line when dying: ‘And yet the menace of the years / Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.’

And from that point I started to prepare myself for the end.

RIP Barry Murphy 08.10.38 – 13.04.16

13 thoughts on “Master of my Fate

  1. Hi, I really enjoy your pieces, and look forward to their arrival in my inbox.

    I have great memories of your father as VP in school too.

    Thinking of you as you remember him with such love


    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for sharing Eimear. I see that your father was born just 2 days before my mother in October 1938. She shared his MND diagnosis a few years after him, and in May 2019 she was taken probably as comparatively quickly as your Dad was. Preparing ourselves for the end was difficult. RIP Barry, and Maura.


  3. RIP Barry . A real gent. He instructed me on the rudiments of fishing ( albeit in your back garden ) and I enjoyed his craic along with some of his mates over a pint in Noel’s Bar


  4. I don’t know how to respond, I want to say I love it but I feel the pain in each word. It’s such a powerful piece especially relevant as I watch my talented carpenter brother deal with Parkinsons, so beautifully written, sending all my love Eimear,


  5. RIP Barry ….. a much loved Father as this piece clearly demonstrates.
    Eimear – you are consistent in your ability to make me cry – beautifully written xx

    Liked by 1 person

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