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KEVIN CULLEN

A spirit as deep as the sea

Photo courtesy the Murphy family

As summer approached, Danny Murphy counted the days until he got back to Popponesset on Cape Cod. He loved Poppy. He spent his summers there as a kid. His mother retired there, and it was where the sprawling Murphy clan from Jamaica Plain reunited every summer.

It was summer, 40 years ago, that everything changed for Danny Murphy. He had just finished his freshman year at Stonehill and was caddying at New Seabury. His buddies told the golfers that Danny was one of the Kennedy kids, and the golfers believed it, because Danny had the big Kennedy hair, the toothy Kennedy smile, the visceral Kennedy charisma.

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One morning, a few days short of his 19th birthday, Danny and his buddies sailed over to Martha’s Vineyard. A new kid in their crowd, Peter Farrelly, climbed on a piling, poised to dive into Oak Bluffs Harbor, and Danny reminded him of the seniority pecking order. Danny Murphy would dive first.

“How deep is it?” Pat Loftus, one of Danny’s classmates at Boston Latin School, called over to Danny.

“Deep enough for the ferry,” Danny replied.

Danny and Pat both dove in, but only Pat came up. Danny hit a shallow spot and broke his neck. At approximately the same time Richard Nixon resigned the presidency, Big Dan Murphy and his wife, Betty, were told their son Danny was paralyzed from the chest down.

Danny took his plight with remarkable equanimity, so much so that his friends and family were a bit unnerved. Shouldn’t he be more depressed? Shouldn’t he be railing, “Why me? Why me?”

He went back to Popponesset on the Cape every August, for his birthday, and for his mom.

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Instead, Danny tried everything he could to get better. When everybody around him wanted to cry, he wanted to make them laugh. During the year he spent at Mass. General, he was stretched out and rotated, like a rotisserie chicken. When he was facing down, his little brother Mark would slip under him and lie on the floor so they could talk. Danny would let a long string of saliva drip down, sucking it back just before it made contact with Mark’s face.

“Nothing had changed,” Mark Murphy said. “He was still my big brother, busting my chops. You hear how people become miserable after an accident like that. My brother was just the opposite. He became a saint, very spiritual.”

Danny Murphy became an inspiration for all his so-called able-bodied friends. He mocked the phrase “confined to a wheelchair.” Nothing confined him. There are some people who have full use of their legs and go nowhere in life. Danny Murphy was paralyzed and he went everywhere.

He finished college, got his driver’s license, got a corporate job, got married, built a house, got divorced, quit the rat race, and moved to Los Angeles and became a struggling actor. When he complained to his buddies Peter and Bobby Farrelly that they didn’t cast anybody in a wheelchair in their hit movie “Dumb and Dumber,” they gave him cameos in all their other films. In “Kingpin,” he was the mean guy who wrecks Woody Harrelson’s hand in the ball return. Danny was subversive. He liked the idea of challenging stereotypes, so everybody in a wheelchair wasn’t all sweetness and light.

After 10 years of trying to make a living in show business, Danny left LA and moved back to Florida and in with his sister Nancy. His youngest sister, Elly, lived in Florida, too. It was like a sitcom. Danny’s hands never worked as well as he’d like. Nancy would come home and find water spilled on the floor. She’d look at Danny and he’d tell her in some crazy, indecipherable accent that someone had broken into their condo and dumped water on the floor.

He went back to Poppy every August, for his birthday, and for his mom. Even after he was diagnosed with cancer last fall, even after they took out his bladder, Danny Murphy kept saying he would be back in Poppy by August, and he was. He came back this week, in a casket. I can hear Danny now: “I said I’d be back, and I’m back.” We’re all crying, and Danny’s laughing.

Before he died, Danny put a clause in his will to create a scholarship at Boston Latin for kids with disabilities who are interested in the arts.

“Danny wasn’t afraid of dying,” his old friend Pat Loftus said. “He said that when he was in the water, it took him a moment to realize that the things floating in front of his face were his hands and that he had no control of them. Then he lost consciousness, but he said it was very peaceful, like going to sleep.”

Life can float in front of us, like useless hands, sometimes uncontrollable, sometimes unfathomable. Danny Murphy rolled with it, teaching everybody else as he went along, because that’s how he rolled.

His funeral is Thursday, at Christ the King church in Mashpee, just down the road from Poppy. He will be buried in Bourne, next to his dad, Big Dan, on the Cape, where Danny Murphy spent his best days, in the bosom of his family, in the sun, in the breeze, in the salty water where he lost his mobility and gained everything else a man could want.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.
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