Chapter 1: Day 1 (The Phone Call)

Chapter 1

 DAY 1 - THE PHONE CALL

SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 19, 2016


It is a beautiful spring day on April 7, 2017.

Our family is standing by the stage at the Peoria Civic Center waiting to be introduced to a crowd of 2,000 people and receive the 2017 Heartland Hero Award from the American Red Cross on behalf of our son, Nicholas J. Murphy.

Nick is not with us this evening. There is a reason. Here is the video of Nick's story as told that night.

   The Murphy Family together in January 2016 right before Nick started boot camp

 The Murphy Family together in January 2016 right before Nick started boot camp

Back up. The story starts much earlier.

For all practical purposes, my life was perfect. A beautiful and smart wife, four wonderful children, a successful law practice, and generally good health for a 54-year-old male. There was not much more I could ask for. For whatever reason, God was good to me.

That was all about to change. At 12:05 a.m. on November 19, 2016, my nineteen-year-old and youngest son, Nicholas James Murphy, was struck by a car going 45 miles per hour while he and two other sailors from the United States Navy were crossing the street in Pensacola, Florida. Although Nick was essentially killed instantly, he remained “alive” for two more days for his organs to be donated and then transplanted into five other people. I did not know it yet, but my life and the life of all those around me was about to change forever.

It all started with a phone call in the middle of the night.

The phone call that every parent dreads and hope never comes. Ours came at 1:30 a.m. that morning. My wife Theresa and I were sleeping when the phone rang. Because the phone is not in our bedroom, it did not immediately wake us up. I heard it, but I was too late to get to it in time before they hung up. I looked at the caller ID and saw that it was a call from Nick. My first thought was that he was in trouble since it was the middle of the night, but I thought he probably got arrested or something like that since it was Nick himself calling. At least I thought it was him calling. I was concerned, but not in panic mode. That was about to change.

I immediately called him back. Unfortunately, Nick himself did not answer. Little did I know at that time that I would never hear his live voice again. “Baptist Memorial Hospital” was all that I heard. At that point, panic started to set in. I spoke to a nurse at first who told me that Nick was in a car accident and that he was not in good shape. She did not tell me that he was dead or how serious it was at first, but she did say it was bad and we needed to get down there to Florida as soon as possible. She was polite and nice on the phone, but she did not want to give us too many specifics. She couldn’t tell us much because Nick was being seen by the neurosurgeon, but she did tell us he had been hit by a car while walking across the street and that he was in serious condition. We were told to get there as soon as possible and that the neurologist would call us back as soon as they knew more. It was a short call, but I knew it was bad.

Throughout that call, my wife Theresa had gotten up and was watching me the whole time.

She couldn’t hear everything, but she knew something major was wrong.

I got off the telephone and all I could say was that Nick had been hit by a car, he was in the hospital and it was bad. My voice didn’t seem to work. I could hardly talk. It was all just a blur, and a nightmare all at the same time.

Luckily, the rest of our entire family of six were home that night because it was the beginning of Thanksgiving break. Our oldest son, Grant, was home from law school and our second oldest son, Alec, was home from college. The three of us boys were flying down to see Nick later that afternoon to spend a week in Pensacola with him for Thanksgiving break. My wife Theresa and our youngest child and only daughter, Delaney, were flying down on Tuesday after Laney got out of class from high school. All six of us were going to have a great Thanksgiving break seeing Nick in Pensacola. He was going to be out of class and off work from the Navy for a few days over the break. It was going to be a great family celebration. Unfortunately, all of that changed with that one telephone call.

Theresa and I sat there for a minute in the kitchen, both in shock.

We knew it was really bad, but there was still hope that he could pull through. I thought to myself that I hoped he was not brain damaged and that he was not going to be paralyzed if through some miracle he survived. However, all of that seemed impossible. I knew in my heart after the telephone call that Nick was not going to make it. Despite that, I was not completely freaking out. In fact, I sat there calmly like we were talking about someone else other than our son. I guess that is why God puts us in shock. It allows us to survive those moments in life that would be too painful to process properly if behaving normally.

At some point, our three other children woke up and were standing in the kitchen with us. I remember telling them that Nick was hit by a car and that it was not good. I told them there was still hope and to pray to God that he would make it through. We would know more in the next couple of hours and we hoped for the best. Against all odds, I still had hope. Then we kicked into high gear to get a flight from Peoria, Illinois to Pensacola, Florida as soon as possible.

For the next hour, that is all I remember. I was on the telephone with the airlines and we were able to get a flight from Peoria to Atlanta at 6:00 a.m. We would then have to drive from Atlanta to Pensacola from there and that would get us to the hospital around 1:00 p.m. that Saturday afternoon. That would work and that would get us to Nick in less than 9 hours. Pretty good for 3:00 a.m. in the morning. 

We told the kids to get packed and that we were leaving in an hour.

By now it was 3:30 a.m. and we were all just robots on automatic pilot. I remember going up to my 15-year-old daughter Laney’s room as she packed, and talking to her. She was very close to Nick. She hugged me and started crying. She told me she was scared. All I could do was hold her and try to comfort her. I told her I was scared too. There were no other words to say. This was a problem I could not solve. Despite being “Dad” and usually having all of the answers, I was just as helpless as everyone else.

We had to leave for the airport by 4:30 a.m. Right before we left home, we received a call from the neurosurgeon. I talked to him with everyone else in the kitchen watching, but only hearing my side of the conversation. It was too much to bear to put it on speaker. I couldn’t take that chance with the kids listening. In looking back, it was all just so surreal. It was not really happening to us. It was just like watching a movie in slow motion. I heard everything he said, but I couldn’t process it emotionally. In my mind, we were talking about someone else, not our “Nick”.

He told me straight out that it was really bad.

That they were not getting any brain stem functions in the tests and that it didn’t look good. He told me they were going to put a monitor in his brain to see if they got anything over the next few hours, but that it was not looking very good. He was very patient and very calm. He was a very good doctor who ultimately was a father talking to another father. He told me straight out that it was not likely that Nick would survive. I listened to it all as if we were talking about a stranger down the street who was hit by a car. I was clearly in shock and that is what was keeping me able to function, especially in front of the rest of the family. I told him about our flight plans and that we would be there by 1:00 p.m. He told us he would call us with an update after we landed in Atlanta.

I got off the phone and told everyone matter of factly that Nick was “gone”. I repeated the doctor’s statements, but I was just a robot going through the motions. I was hoping against hope, but it was still just a bad dream. Despite all of that, it still was not real. I was still hoping for a miracle, that his brain would restart, and he would be alive when we got there. It was wishful thinking, but it was all we had.

We grabbed our bags and started to leave for the airport. As we started out the door, my parents George and Dolores Murphy showed up to help comfort us. They gave us hugs and we talked briefly. We tried to be positive with them at the time. We didn’t want them to be hysterical and get all of us hysterical. They were great and told us to call as soon as possible after we got there, and then off to the airport we went.

Throughout all of this, and considering everything, our family was holding up well.

Theresa was a rock. She was in shock too, but she was unbelievably in control. She was not hysterical or crying or doing anything, but being there for me and our other three children. She could not have been stronger. She is the strongest person I know. Nick was her “baby boy” even though he was 19 ½ years old and a grown man trying to become a Navy SEAL. He looked like his mother. He was handsome, dark skinned and had dark hair. He had a wonderful smile and the personality to match. He may have only been 5’ 7” tall, but he was 167 pounds of solid muscle able to run 10 mile runs with a fifty-pound back pack on his back, swim for miles, and do a million push-ups, sits ups and pull ups. All because he wanted to be a Navy SEAL. He was in the best shape of his life. There is no way he could be dead. It just didn’t make sense.

Once we got to the airport, the first thing we did was run into some other high school parents of kids that went to school with Nick. They had no idea what was going on, and we had to be nice and briefly talk to them without falling apart. One of the parents was in the Navy for 22 years and always asked us about Nick. Luckily, he was off getting boarding passes when we went past them so we didn’t have to talk to him directly. There was no way we could have gotten through that conversation without falling apart and becoming hysterical. We said “Hi” to his wife and quickly got through security.

Once inside the terminal, Theresa’s mom Diana Brodeur called us. Theresa couldn’t talk so I had to talk to her. I walked down the terminal to get away from everyone and went through everything that had happened as best I could. I tried not to look like a complete fool sitting at the airport terminal on the phone crying, but it was to no avail. There is no way you can tell a grandparent that their grandchild is likely dead without falling apart, and I was no exception. It was tough to say the least.

We made it through the flight from Peoria to Atlanta by trying to sleep.

Once in Atlanta, we were all on autopilot again just going through the motions. Everyone was doing as well as possible and trying not to fall apart in public. The kids were great, especially considering they were also in shock. Once we rented our car, we were off to Pensacola to the hospital. It was a five-hour drive.

As we drove, we did our best to keep it together. We talked and and prayed all the way there. At about 10:30 a.m., as I was driving down the highway, the neurosurgeon called me back again. I answered the phone and hoped for the best. Unfortunately, the best was not to come. He told me that Nick’s brain monitor never did show any brain function and that Nick was brain dead. Although he was on a respirator and still technically alive for us to still see him and for the organ transplants, he officially was declared dead that morning. Nick was not coming back. It was over. It was real.

I thanked the doctor for all of his help and tried to keep it together driving down the highway going 75 miles per hour. That was it. The call was over. Nick was dead. There was no more hope, and more praying was not going to matter. He was truly gone. I told everyone what the doctor had said and proceeded to completely break down hysterically crying while driving down the highway. Luckily, we were able to get off at the next exit and pull over and simply let it all out. I will tell you as a parent, there is nothing worse than having one of your children die before you, especially a 19-year-old son in the peak of physical health. It is such a foreign concept that it could happen that is puts you in shock just thinking about it. It is not possible. It cannot happen. It is just a dream and I will wake up tomorrow and none of it will have ever happened. Unfortunately, it did happen and this is our story.

As we drove down the road, I was still hysterically crying, totally unable to control my emotions. Despite knowing for eight hours that Nick was likely not going to make it, the actual realization that he was really dead and not coming back is just plain horrible. No matter how much you want to stay calm and get through it, you simply can’t. When it becomes real, it hurts more than you can ever imagine. For the next two hours, all we did was cry driving down the highway.

It was about 1:00 p.m. on that Saturday afternoon when we pulled into the Baptist Memorial Hospital parking lot.

It was sunny and warm. Nick would have thought it was another hot day in Florida. He hated the warm weather and was ready to come home at Christmas and hoped for snow in Illinois. He was coming back home from December 19th through December 26th for Christmas break. It was going to be another great family celebration at home where all of Nick’s friends could come over while home from college too. Little did we know that they would see Nick instead over Thanksgiving break for his visitation and funeral.

We walked upstairs in the hospital to where Nick was located and into the waiting room. Waiting there for us were all of Nick’s commanding officers and various personnel from the Navy to help us, as well as four of Nick’s Navy buddies who had gone through SEAL training with him. They were his four best friends in the Navy who had been with him the past year trying to become a SEAL. They had all failed on their first try, but they were all close and all committed to making it back and succeeding the second time through. These were Nick’s people. The funny thing is that they are all huge guys. Most of them are over six feet tall and over 200 pounds of pure muscle. Nick was a “smurf” SEAL candidate, which was what they called the smaller guys trying to be SEALS. They may not be big in stature, but they are sure big in heart.

When we arrived, Nick’s friends did not know how bad it was and had not been told that Nick was brain dead. They still thought that he was going to recover when we first got there. Nick’s best friend Steven Torowus immediately came over and gave us a big hug and started crying. That was the best thing that could have happened because that put us in "parent mode" again and helped us keep it together. Just like for our children, we had to keep it together for his friends and be strong. We did just that. Having three hours in the car to cry it all out and get ourselves put back together definitely helped. By the time we got to the hospital, we were back in shock mode and in control, at least until we actually saw Nick.

As we walked in, all of the Navy officers and personnel were there to meet us.

They had been there all night since they were notified after the accident and had stayed with Nick. No matter what you think about the military and the Armed Forces, I can tell you from my perspective that they were nothing short of extraordinary with our family. They did everything humanly possible to get us through that first day.

After a few formalities and introductions, they asked if we wanted to see Nick and we immediately said yes. We then were escorted by a naval escort into Nick’s hospital room. Once inside, he left us alone with Nick. That was the first time we all were able to touch and hold Nick. It was hard, especially for the kids. No matter how tough you think you are, nothing prepares you to see your son or brother in a hospital bed hooked up to a respirator and brain dead. It was Nick's body, but it was not Nick.

As we sat there and looked at him, we knew he had gone to Heaven. His physical body was still there and he was warm and breathing, but our Nick was long gone with God. It was hard on the kids. Our four children are very close. Despite the fact that they are eight years apart in total, they could not be better friends. Grant was 23 and in his second year of law school at Valparaiso College of Law. Alec was 21 and a Junior at Eastern Illinois University. Nick was 19 and in the United States Navy trying his best to become a Navy SEAL. Laney was 15 and a sophomore at Dunlap High School.

No parent could ask for any better kids than Theresa and I have been blessed to have.

As a parent, I can tell you that we are so blessed to have had that weekend to be able to touch and hold Nick. I cannot tell you how much it meant to touch his warm body, hold his hand, kiss his forehead and tell him how much we loved him. Although he was gone spiritually, he was still in that room physically and it meant the world to me to be able to hold his warm hand. I felt like he was there and felt like I was able to have some sense of closure that weekend getting to hold him and talk to him. I was able to rest my head on his chest and hear his beating heart, to listen to his body breathing, to touch and hold his warm hand, and to touch and feel his muscular legs and arms. I know it sounds crazy, but looking at him on that hospital bed and feeling his body warm and "alive" was a tremendous blessing. Nick always wanted to be “huge”, and after gaining 27 pounds of muscle and bulking up to 167 pounds, my last view of Nick is of him being huge and strong and alive. It is a huge sense of peace seeing him that way and puts a smile on my face still to this day that he was working so hard to get into shape for his second round of BUD/s. He was a fighter until the very end and trying his best to succeed. That makes us very proud.

We got to see Nick that Saturday afternoon for a couple of hours and the next day on Sunday afternoon for a couple of hours before they did the surgery for his organ donations. Those two afternoons provided the closure we needed as a family and allowed us to say goodbye to Nick in person. It meant a lot and still does.

When Nick was hit by the car, he was crossing the street with two other sailors.

They were in the crosswalk, but it was dark and it took too long getting across. The car did not see any of the three of them and the three of them did not see the car. It was a dark intersection and Nick was hit directly in the center of the car. He was in the middle. Right next to him and in front of him was a female sailor and behind him a few feet was a male sailor who ended up not being hit and witnessed everything. None of the three saw the car until it was too late right before impact. When Nick did see the car at the last second, he pushed fellow sailor Breona Mackoff, who was in front of him, out of the way of the speeding car and she fell forward. That action by Nick saved her life. She was still hit by the car, but it was by the front right corner of the car instead of head on like Nick. She still had some serious injuries and had a lot of rehabilitation to undergo, but she healed up well and has fully recovered. She is back in the Navy and back to school and work. She is a beautiful young woman who will lead a long and wonderful life. Nick’s instincts and actions to push her out of the way do not surprise us at all. That was the kind of person Nick was.

On that Saturday afternoon, once we had seen Nick, we left his room and we were told that all of his friends had not been notified how bad it really was. They still thought he was going to recover like Breona. They had no idea he was brain dead and that his organs were being donated. They ask us if we wanted to tell them or if we wanted the Navy personnel to tell them. We told them we would tell them. These four young men were four of Nick’s closest friends. Some had gone to SEAL camp together three years earlier while they were still in high school. All had been together this past year and gone through two months of boot camp and two months of Pre-SEAL training in Great Lakes and through two months of SEAL training in San Diego and Coronado, California. All had tried and failed to make it to the SEALS teams their first try. There were Nick’s new “brothers” and they deserved to know his status. That was now our job.

  Nick loved everything about the Extreme SEAL Experience and made lifelong friends. (Pictured: Nick, Steven and Austin)

Nick loved everything about the Extreme SEAL Experience and made lifelong friends. (Pictured: Nick, Steven and Austin)

As I walked into the waiting room that Saturday afternoon at 3:00 p.m., we had only been there two hours.

Nick’s buddies had been there since 1:00 a.m. hoping for the best and hoping for good news. They were tired and scared. They had tried to sleep on the waiting room chairs. They were exhausted beyond belief, but were not leaving Nick’s side. That is the kind of friends and brothers they were. I remember walking out and looking at Steven, Nick’s best friend in the Navy. They had met three years earlier in SEAL camp in Virginia at the Extreme SEAL Experience hoping to learn how to become a SEAL. They became best friends instantly and it was a miracle that they both were assigned the same boot camp, training camp, BUD/s class, and then were both sent to Pensacola for IT training after they left Coronado. It was clearly meant to be that they were going through this journey together.

Steven is a big guy. All muscle and over 6 feet tall. Nick was 5’7”. The difference is that Nick thought he was a big guy and was in the middle of everything. That is what made Nick special. He had the heart of a champion and never gave up. As we walked into the waiting room, Steven and the guys looked up at us for word on how well Nick was doing. They literally had no idea it was so bad. They were expecting more positive news. I walked over to Steven and he and his friends stood up, just like you would expect from proper young sailors. They were respectful of age. I had to look at them and tell them the truth. I told them that Nick didn’t make it. They simply looked back at me in disbelief. They had no idea he could be dead. Steven immediately fell to the chair he was previously sitting in and starting crying hysterically. No matter how tough he and his friends are, they are still 19-year-old kids who have just been told their best friend is dead. It was horrible to watch. Theresa and I were there and immediately went back into parent mode. It was no longer about Nick. It was now about helping his friends get through it. Theresa and I hugged them and held them. Steven cried on our shoulder just like one of our kids. He was that close to Nick. It meant a lot to us that we could help him through this.

  Nick's buddies after boot camp graduation

Nick's buddies after boot camp graduation

The entire event was rough, but it is a part of the grieving process.

I am convinced that part of the process as a parent is to help those around you get through the process too. It is not all about you. We are not the only survivors suffering. We are all just trying to survive. Our kids, our friends, Nick’s friends, extended family and the community that knew Nick are all victims. Is it easy? Absolutely not. But it is necessary.

I have cried a hundred times more in the last few months than I cried the first 54 years of my life. I have had grown men and fathers cry in front of me just thinking how terrible all of this is and putting themselves in our shoes. I have seen more fathers cry since Nick died than I have seen over my entire life. Whenever a child dies, it affects everyone. It is not supposed to happen this way. We are supposed to die first. It is not fair. Or as I say in my Facebook posts, “it just plain sucks”. However, regardless of all of that, life is for the living and we must move forward. We cannot stop. We choose what to do after a tragedy and I choose action. I choose action because action means that Nick Murphy will never be forgotten and he and his legacy will live long after I am dead. That is now my goal. That is my dream. That is my passion. I choose to take whatever action I can to make the world a better place on behalf of my son because he is no longer here to do that himself.

This book is being written in part because of the positive feedback I received from all of my Facebook posts since Nick died. As you will see, I never really used Facebook prior to Nick’s death. That all changed on November 19, 2016 as well. It is my hope that other people will review all of this and be inspired to take action just like I have. To take a negative event and make it a positive. Please read these carefully and get involved. We are out here waiting for you to join us.

Later that night, after we were checked in to our condo, I made my first Facebook post.

It was Saturday, November 19, 2016. It read as follows:

Facebook Post #1: Today was a tough day. We lost our youngest son Nick in Pensacola. He was hit by a car this morning and didn't recover. Although he is brain dead, we got to hold him and hug him today when we got down to Florida. To hear his heart beating and feel his warm body was more important than you can imagine to us as his parents. We loved having Nick with us for 19 1/2 years. Every day was a joy. Now his organs will let some other families live on and he will continue to touch more families even in his death. We love you Nick. Thank you everyone for your kind words and prayers.

This was posted that Saturday evening after we had seen Nick in the hospital. It was the beginning of my journey to recover from this family tragedy. This is how Facebook has changed my life and allowed me to survive this tragedy. The next morning, I wrote again.

Whether it was therapeutic for me or not, I know I did it out of fear that my beloved son, Nick Murphy, would be forgotten. 

I am not unique in that thought. Almost every person that wrote a book about the death of their child or the death of someone in the military has a huge fear that their loved one will be forgotten. This is my road map to make sure that will not happen. Is it a lot of work? Absolutely. Is it a labor love? For sure. I loved Nick Murphy. I still love Nick. He makes me proud, both in his life and in his death. His story and ours will continue.