Tom Morphet sat on the couch in the living room of his family home on War Trophy Lane in Middletown, taking stock of what his brother John had left behind. On Friday morning John had gotten up from the same couch, where he had been sleeping in recent months, and where he had slipped into depression and paranoia.
And as the sun rose, John left his wallet, his keys, his cell phone, and his headphones, which, as a drummer, he was rarely without.
He walked out, and, his family fears, into the woods. No one has seen him since.
Now, the Morphet house has become home base for the search for John, 54, a cook, a father, and, forever, the drummer of Jimmy Shoe and The Shine, which for a time in the late ’80s and early ’90s were a mainstay of club listings, playing gigs on South Street and all through Center City and Media and beloved by connoisseurs of their Delco-rock-ska-punk-reggae sound.
“They had a real following,” said their former sound engineer, C. Thompson, now an editor at Bloomberg News, who had not seen John in 25 years but went to the house this week to search. “There was an army of people who loved this band and followed them everywhere. At least in the five-county region.”
The Morphets have suffered an almost unimaginable parade of losses in recent months. John and Tom’s father died this winter of pancreatic cancer. Then their brother Paul, a foreman on the loading dock at Dee Paper Box Co. in Marcus Hook, died by suicide.
Two weeks later John went for his walk.
Even before the deaths of his family members, it had been a hard year for John. His cherished dog, Boston, died — John used to take him on hours-long tramps through his favorite patches of woods and streams at Smedley Park and Ridley Creek. John’s health was declining, and for a time, he had no health insurance. A popular cook in Delco restaurants, he had left his job, and his apartment, decamping for the family couch.
He wasn’t doing the things he loved, Tom said. But he had begun to open up to Paul, in long conversations about their lives.
He seemed to unravel after his brother’s death. He fell into a cycle known to many whose loved ones have suffered depression. As Tom put it: “Indecision, immediate regret, remorse, self-loathing.”
At the same time, his family was trying to navigate a mental health care system whose inadequacies are well-known to anyone familiar with such issues. The Morphets told doctors at an emergency room how he’d been expressing dark thoughts — if not explicitly suicidal. Doctors asked two questions, Tom said: Do you want to hurt yourself? Do you want to hurt anyone else? John said no, and was told his insurance wouldn’t cover a hospital stay.
Friday, Tom woke up to an empty couch.
The family’s only solace is the outpouring of support from friends and band members eager to help search the woods and the paths that John loves.
Tom, a former newspaper editor and current assemblyman in Alaska, is posted at the house with John’s daughter, Nicolette O’Hara, 21, answering calls and directing searchers. Two people who didn’t know John have reported possible sightings. State troopers are investigating the disappearance as that of a disabled missing person. The family is asking for volunteers to help search — or just to look at the Facebook page they created, John Morphet Search.
“He has been a very present father," Nicolette said. “He’s the most rational person I know, even when I’m struggling. So it came as a shock that his mental health could change in a matter of months.”
And Jimmy Shoe and The Shine have showed up. There’s Jimmy Ziegler, the frontman, whom John called Friday morning — shortly before he left the house, the family believes. John called Jimmy’s work number, so he wouldn’t pick up, and left a message. “I love you, Jimmy,” he said.
Bruce Scott, the bassist, came too, because the band is family, and John was at once the emotional, passionate little brother of the band and — like any good drummer — the one who kept them all on pace.
And Thompson rushed to the house after seeing a story on John in the Delaware County Daily Times. He checked in with Tom and has spent the days since walking the woods. Tuesday, he pulled up to a spot in Ridley Creek State Park where the band once used an old house for rehearsal space, playing into the night and throwing parties that scared away the deer.
The house, Thompson discovered, is gone now, demolished some years ago. He looked at the void for a long time. And then he walked farther into the woods.
Postscript: Wednesday night, the family called: John’s body had been found nearby in a secluded area. Authorities told them his death was an apparent suicide. “He was a sweet guy,” Tom Morphet said of his brother through tears. “He tried to carry the weight of the world on his shoulders. He wanted happiness for everyone — and lost sight of his own.”