By the time Sally Laux Murphy of Grosse Pointe left this earth this past June, she had made every minute of her 53 years count.
After graduating from the prestigious Amherst College, the Washington, D.C., native studied neuropsychology at Drexel University. She married and had a daughter, Natalie. She went on a whale-watching exhibition in Alaska, rode an elephant, traveled to France, Ireland, the Caribbean, Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and beyond. Described by her alma mater as “brainy, beautiful, humorous, radiant, and brave” she barreled across the Arizona desert in a jeep, biked across the country and wrote a highly acclaimed children’s book.
But her most notable achievement was living with multiple sclerosis (MS) as though the disability was not so much, as her husband Paul Murphy put it: “the lack of ability as it was a window of understanding, an opportunity for growth ... Sally had plans that MS could not dampen. She had a quiet determination that was absolutely fierce.”
So it was entirely fitting that Sally’s last accomplishment – writing a children’s book – came to be all while Sally lay in a hospital bed at home, well past the point when many would have given in, and, in part, thanks to a husband with a laptop well accustomed to taking dictation.
“Silly Sally Goes to the Zoo” written by Sally Laux Murphy and illustrated by Chelsea Nebelung (a Center for Creative Studies graduate and Jackson native) was published two months before Sally died. Proceeds from the book are donated to LitWorld, the organization that seeks to combat global illiteracy, which was founded by her Amherst roommate, Pam Allyn.
In the book, Sally tours the zoo in a wheelchair accompanied by magical rhymes like “A quaint quartet of quiet quails quilting with the queen/Rhinos racing rocket ships painted red and green.” In keeping with its author’s sensibilities, there is no mention in the book of a disability; the wheelchair is an afterthought. “Sally wanted the book to be about having fun doing something that anybody would do,” said Paul Murphy, who is a speech writer for GM.
While Paul Murphy and Sally Laux went to same high school, the two connected after graduating from college. Murphy went to Johns Hopkins University for his undergrad and graduate degrees. His master’s is in fiction writing.
In June 1988, when both were in their mid-20s, they sunk what little money they had into a tandem bike and decided to bike across the country. They chose a bicycle built for two because it allowed the two to spell each other. If Sally was tired, Paul would ride ahead and take the lead, and vice versa. “In time the weaker of us would recover and soon we were together again riding as one, synchronized and coordinated,” he explained.
The bike would become a metaphor for their marriage: “Not that you would ever wish for MS on anyone but in some ways it actually did make us closer,” Paul reflected. “We always spent more time together than any other couple I know.”
Over the course of 55 days, they covered 12 states and 3,400 miles. “On the coast of Delaware we dipped the rear wheel of our bicycle into the Atlantic Ocean, and later near Florence, Oregon we rolled our front wheel into the Pacific.”
Along the way they became engaged, in spite of a surprise proposal that required many on-the-spot revisions. After the chosen place in Yellowstone Park was closed, Paul improvised, scooping up a handful of stones at the foot of the Grand Teton Mountains and asking Sally to choose her favorite. In typical Sally fashion, which Murphy described as “very playful and kind of impish,” Sally started eliminating stones: not this one, not this one, until they were gone. Exasperated, Paul improvised again, pointing to the mountains and saying: “Don’t they remind you of eternity and forever?”
Ever the scientist, Sally said “Well, no not really because eventually, they will just erode down to sand and into the ocean.”
Finally, “completely out of ammunition,” he got to the point. “I just said, ‘Sally will you marry me?’ She said yes, and we finished the rest of the bike trip as an engaged couple.”
Now that front bicycle wheel that rolled into Pacific hangs on the wall in their family room, a testimonial to their synchronicity. After marrying, Paul took speech writing positions in Arizona, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., before landing the GM job in Detroit in 1999.
While in early years Sally’s MS symptoms would wax and wane, the disease evolved into a chronic, progressive form of MS. All the while Sally was proactive, taking ice cold showers and , doing laps with her walker around the first floor of her house — 77 feet per lap. “For every hour you saw Sally, she had spent several hours preparing.”
In 2011, a major seizure marked the beginning of her decline. After spending three months in the hospital, the first thing Sally said when she finally was back home was that she wanted to write a children’s book. Slowly but in sure and steadfast Sally fashion, the book was published in the spring (it is available at lulu.com.) True to form, it is her playfulness and sense of fun — not her MS — that is evident in every page.