SLOAN COLUMN: Remembering Garrison
When you refer to Garrison Murph as a special needs child, make sure you put the emphasis on the word “special.” If Garrison was anything, he was certainly that.
The 11-year-old boy with bright blue-green eyes and an undaunted spirit beat the odds for nearly a dozen years. In doing so, he left an indelible mark on those with whom he came in contact. Garrison was one of those remarkable people you don’t soon, if ever, forget.
The Hartsville community certainly won’t. The seats of the Center Theater were nearly full Thursday as friends, loved ones, and, I’m quite certain, a great many others who had never met but had heard about Garrison, came to remember him and pay their respects. Garrison passed away on Sunday, leaving this world a little better and a lot brighter than when he first arrived.
A pair of firetrucks, complete with long ladders and hoses, sat parked in front of the theater, the bright red paint and polished chrome sparkling in the afternoon sunshine. Garrison would have screeched in delight. The boy loved firetrucks.
Following the memorial service, those same firetrucks would lead a procession from the theater to Byerly Park where dozens of balloons were released at “Garrison’s Place,” a park for special needs children that was named in his honor.
The park is but a part of the incredible legacy Garrison leaves behind.
For me and for many others, Garrison was a reminder to never judge by outward appearances.
The young man was a warrior. His fragile body may have tried to convince you otherwise, but the kid was a fighter at heart. Dr. Phil Thrailkill, the pastor who led Thursday’s service, referred to Garrison as “a brave solider in a very long war.”
Garrison was born with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a rare inherited disease that destroys nerves and muscle cells in the spinal cord and brain stem, producing weakness in muscles used in swallowing, breathing and the use of limbs. He had little or no motor skills. He could not move on his own. He could not speak, but he could hear, and he could feel, and he could most certainly think.
When he was first diagnosed with SMA, doctor’s told Garrison’s parents, Angela and Leon Murph, their baby boy would likely not live to see his first birthday. Garrison had other plans.
Angela and Leon would not accept the diagnosis. They researched the disease and sought support and help from other families with children who were diagnosed with SMA. They never gave up hope.
With each passing year, Garrison beat the odds. He went to school with other children, inspiring his classmates and teachers with his spunky spirit and determined attitude.
In 2014, thanks to efforts led by Angela, city leaders, the Byerly Foundation, and others in the community, “Garrison’s Place,” opened. The playground’s equipment includes a wheelchair platform swing, adaptive swings, and an adaptive zip line all suited for children with disabilities. Garrison loved spending time at his playground. He could swing and slide and hang upside down just like any other kid. Many other special needs children surely must have felt the same way.
When the park was dedicated to her son, Angela said that while she knew Garrison’s illness was terminal, she knew the playground would keep his memory alive and would be a legacy for children in the community. It will most certainly do that.
The city has continued its efforts to accommodate special needs children. It now has and accessible equipment at other playgrounds, a sensory garden, and recently made special water wheelchairs available at the Piratesville Splashpad. Garrison was able to take advantage of all of them.
The playground, the garden, the water wheelchairs and the equipment are all a part of Garrison’s legacy, but they are not the most important part. That would be his infectious and unconquerable spirit.
Truth be told, I only met Garrison one time and it was only for about half an hour. That was enough. He is the only person to ever speak to me through a computer.
He was using an Eyegaze tablet, which allowed him to use his eyes to type on a digital keyboard. When I met Garrison he was only five or six and was just learning to use the Eyegaze. “Hi” and “What is your name?” were the first words he spoke to me. As years went on, he apparently became quite proficient at using the tablet, so much so that his mom and big sister admitted that it was sometimes hard to get him to shut up.
At Thursday’s service, a friend, Cara King, read a very heartfelt letter Angela had written to her son. Angela told Cara “to make sure they know how amazing he was.”
Angela wrote that her little boy as “the brightest, smartest, sassiest person I ever knew.”
Garrison’s big sister, Taylor, then read a letter she had written. She said her little brother could be very annoying, but that she would give anything to be annoyed by him one more time.
Leaving the theater following the service, I stopped and paused by a long table filled with lots of photos of Garrison and his family. He looked happy, very happy. I could see that spirit in his eyes.
There were also books on the table for people to sign and share memories of Garrison. I picked up a pen, paused for a moment, and then wrote, “Your son was very special and he touched the lives of many, many people.”
Garrison Murph. Very special, indeed.
In lieu of flowers, the family request that memorials in Garrison’s honor be made to Leo's Pride Foundation, www.leospride.org.