Grief and Laughter

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 Tears are expected,
but sometimes laughter feels like the much more appropriate
— and the much more restorative, healing, even — response.
Laughter mixed with tears works, too.
And laughter takes the edge off those times
when tears are, in fact, unavoidable.
— MFS, personal blog

It occurred to me this morning that my thrifty sister would have heartily approved of the tax benefits related to the timing of her birth and death. We Harpers exult in saving money! Margo was born a few days before the end of the year, giving my folks a welcome tax exemption for that short week in 1948. She died at the beginning of January, giving her husband an exemption and joint filing for 2016. Way to win! Take that, IRS!! [Further, the airfare to travel back there was amazingly low. Who travels to Chicago in January?] Time sifts the pain and grief and gives us eyes to see the humor.

This may appear irreverent, but, my brother-in-law and I shared a good horsey laugh talking about it. I can hear Margo’s chuckle in my head and some pseudo-modest acknowledgment: Not bad for a bear with very little brain! [She had a brain tumor removed in 1980.]

The Comfort of Bach

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Q. 1. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. 1. That I belong — body and soul, in life and in death —
not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ,
who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all my sins
and has completely freed me from the dominion of the devil;
that he protects me so well
that without the will of my Father in heaven
not a hair can fall from my head;
indeed, that everything
must fit his purpose
for my salvation.
Therefore, by His Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life,
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
— The opening of the Heidelberg Catechism


When I ordered My Only Comfort on 1.1.16 I had no idea that my sister would die two weeks later. All I knew was that this book scratched two of my favorite itches: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the Heidelberg Catechism. Margo’s death and my grief are inextricably knit into my response. A Bachophile, she listened nightly to a ‘Bach’s Variations’ CD as she fell asleep.

There was no way I could simply read this book. I was compelled to listen multiple times to Bach’s chorales, cantatas, and arias while Stapert explained the structure and form, exposed the chiasms, and pointed, whispering See what he did there? I switched from being a reader to becoming a student, immersing — bathing in Bach. I discovered a whole realm of YouTube videos that opened up a kingdom of sublime, profoundly sad, and intensely joyful music.

“Over and over we hear the dissonance of pain resolve into the consonance of joy.”

“The heaven-haunted music I hear in Bach can be found in any of his instrumental genres — suites, sonatas, concertos, fugues — as well as in his church music. But, of course, in his church music, words can lead us to places where there is likely to have been a special intention to try to capture something of what ‘ear has not heard’ and make it audible.”

My current favorite aria is from St. Matthew’s Passion.

The translation for Enbarme dich —
Have mercy, my God, for the sake of my tears!
See here, before you heart and eyes weep bitterly.
Have mercy, my God.

Reading, studying through this book was one of the most profoundly comforting experiences of my life. Bach’s glorious music pierced me, the beauty often leveling me to sobs. But after the leveling was a lifting: it refreshed my spirit.

Hence, I have resolved two things:

1. To read the other four books Calvin Stapert has written. (Haydn, Bach bio, The Messiah and Early Church Music await me.)

2. To systematically listen through Bach’s canon. I’m not sure how I will sort this, but there are too many wonderful pieces I have never heard. Simply working through the cantatas might be a starting point. I don’t care about BMW‘s; it’s BMVs (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis — a number assigned to each known composition of Bach’s) for me! Do you have any ideas?

I could easily begin again at the beginning of My Only Comfort for a second harvest. I probably won’t right away, but the book will remain on my shelves (the highest compliment I can give these days).

Awake Thou Wintry Earth

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Chives growing in my garden, February 12, 2016

Awake, Thou Wintry Earth is almost a life anthem. I came to Thomas Blackburn’s poem by way of Bach’s Cantata 129. When I heard it, I came to understand in a new way that spring is an annual demonstration of resurrection. Listening to this still gives me shivers. Singing it means I end up whispering to tell that dead is dead over a voice that is breaking.

I took a walk around my backyard this morning and was delighted to hear garlic and chives laughing at winter, death, decay.

Awake thou wintry earth,
fling off, fling off thy sadness;
ye vernal flowers laugh forth,
laugh forth your ancient gladness.
A new and lovely tale
through-out the land is spread;
it floats o’er hill and dale
to tell that death is dead.

Here is a joyful organ. 1 1/2 minutes that will lift your day high. Sing along! It’s pretty loud; turn your sound down. Or don’t. The organ is a dominating instrument and its volume is glorious!

A Scrabble Proposal

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By David Harper

I was struggling to find a text that would fit Margaret. My wife read this to me and I’d like to read it to you. Now the Proverbs are difficult, sometimes, to understand. I’ll give you my take on this particular verse.

All the days of the afflicted are hard,
but the cheerful heart has a continual feast.
Proverbs 15:15

You’ve already heard that Harpers like food…and you can tell! But, I think that the contrast here, as it ought to be interpreted, is the contrast of the afflicted in their person, in their soul.

I’m going to apply it to Margaret. She was afflicted and endured many days of difficulty. Difficulty that I don’t know anything about, and most of us don’t. She endured a lot of affliction in her person, but not in her soul. She was a cheerful person. I don’t think I ever heard her complain. She was a joyful person.

I remember when she came out to visit us, she had just graduated [from college] and it was December. She came out to Johnstown and I had gone over to pick her up. She had headaches then. She came to our house, and her headaches were so bad she was continually throwing up. It was that tough.

We didn’t know what to do. So, we took her to our family doctor who was on vacation; he had a substitute who couldn’t get rid of her fast enough. He thought it was bad, and it was. She went to a neurosurgeon in Altoona. He didn’t have any ability or didn’t think he could do anything about it.

So we took her to Pittsburgh to Montefiore Hospital. She was still in pain and they were arguing, as neurosurgeons and neurologists do. Arguing about what kind of tack to go with her. They couldn’t decide because they didn’t know what was going on.

The thing that gave her relief was a spinal tap to take fluid off her spine. It gave her relief for a day or two then they would have to do it again. The rest is the long struggle that she went through. She was afflicted, but I never saw her without a smile on her face.  Even when she was in that kind of pain, I still remember that.

But, she is now with the Lord and none of us would want her back. Well, maybe John would. But I think we all realize she is far better off now.

One of the things we did as a family —the John Harper family is large, in more than one way— as we grew up, part of our time was [living] out in the country. Dorothy, Margaret, and I went to the old Bogan School. That school was a two-room school house with four grades. Did you go too, John? It was a tough go. It was five miles from our house (or so it seemed) and it was uphill both ways.  It was hard! We went to this little schoolhouse and I just think about my mother who for three-and-half-years raised seven contentious children [alone].

Then we went to Bair Lake [Bible Camp] in the summertime, most likely because it was free room and board for seven kids. My dad was the manager of the camp and that’s where we got to know a lot of friends. We were there every summer and enjoyed it. Love for camp came from those days. Even when I was in high school we would go from Chicago back to Bair Lake. When I was in college we would do the same thing: go on weekends. And build things and do things. It was something I really enjoyed and I think all our family did.

One thing I want to remind all of us here, was one of those situations that was not dealt with happily by my sister. One of the services she performed for us brothers: more than once her girlfriends became our girlfriends. She was just a bit miffed about it. I remember that. It didn’t take except for Dan. That worked well. Real well.

One of the things I especially appreciated about Margaret was her happy spirit and this verse reflected that.

She loved food. We all loved food. But she couldn’t really appreciate the other senses of life. Walking around. Getting up. I sit for a while and I get kind of sore. And I think Margaret must have gotten a lot of soreness, too. And I appreciate what she went through to the limit and extent that I can.

I want to tell you about a time that Margaret was in Grand Rapids and was in the hospital. She had just had a number of mini-seizures and she was flat on her back.  I came in to visit her. I’m talking to her. She’s still her joyful and smiling person. Then she told me this thing that stunned me. She told me about this guy, John Walker, who had just asked her to marry him.

I said, really?

Yeah, but I am going to tell him no. (I don’t think she actually told him no, but she was planning on telling him no.)

He deserves far better than me, she said. Of course they became good friends, not only at River Forest, but playing Scrabble. (She could beat me. Whupped me.)

I said, Well, why would you say no?

I can’t give him children. He deserves far better than me. Look at me! I can’t do anything.

Margaret, it’s very clear that John loves you. He doesn’t love your body, he loves you as a person. And if I were you, I would get on the phone and say yes.

The way it turned out is that in Scrabble ‘YES’ is more points than ‘NO’. So Margaret said, I’m going for the big word!

As far as our family is concerned, John is a prince. I could not do what John has done. Over twenty-one years. Truly remarkable. And we thank the Lord for you, John.