50 Years

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I woke up this morning to my brother’s Facebook update.

Psalm 62:8 (AV): Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him: God is a refuge for us.      My father read this to our family 50 years ago after the totally unexpected death of my mother, Nellie. Perhaps the most important event in our family’s history.
I still miss her.

In January, Dan and I talked about 2018 being the fiftieth year.  FIFTY. years.

Somewhere (WHY didn’t I copy it down?) recently I read about a man in his nineties who still mourned his mother’s death who died when he was a young boy. I spoke aloud, “I get that.”

No one has ever told me “Get over it”  but no doubt some have thought it. Oh, my friends. Bereavement has no expiration date.

Grief is a daily companion. A few calendar days make it acceptable to press the un-mute button, to give voice to the grief.

My friend Curtis said yesterday, “I was raised in the soil of sorrow.”

Some want an easy cure, a quick fix; some hate feeling uncomfortable; witnessing affliction is awkward. So they rush the mourning process and roll their eyes to silence the sobs.  They avoid minor keys. They cover pain with inane words.

It’s a delicate dance.
Acknowledging the lament without permanently lodging in it.
Expressing my hope without repressing my grief.
Growing in gratitude while voicing my groans.

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Ecclesiastes grows more precious (well, more understandable) to me every year.
A season for everything. A time to mourn.
A time to be born, a time to die.

So this is today’s 50th anniversary plan.  I will honor Nellie Harper’s memory by imitating her. I will plant my garden and make a meal to take to some friends who just moved.

I often listen to audio books or podcasts while I do chores. While they enrich me, I can use them as a narcotic. Today I will listen to the neighborhood collared doves, rustling leaves, and barking dogs. I will soak up memories of mom. I will hum her favorite hymn, Great Is Thy Faithfulness, while I push seeds into the ground.

I will have a one-sided conversation with her, describing her ‘grands’ and her ‘greats’. I will say how I finally like coffee after all these years. I will review new and old mercies. I will remember her smile, her chuckle, her sighs. I will wonder if she ever ever guessed how much she impacted her world.

I will pray. I will sing. I will plant. I will weep.

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The Night My Dad Died

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My Dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer Christmas Eve 1986; he had less than eight weeks left. I got the call, “Come.” I flew out the next day, met my brother Jim and my uncle Bob at Midway airport and drove to Dubuque. My dad was still breathing, six siblings gathered and we sang hymns and watched. A night and day and night and day passed.

Although he was in a coma, Dad hung on, waiting for my brother Dan. When Dan and Val came, we sang, talked to my dad, and took turns napping, no longer able to hold our heads up.

When the nurse told us the end was imminent, Mary Ann (my stepmother), my siblings, and I  stood around his bed. We just had time to say ‘I love you’ when he exhaled his last breath. It was around two in the morning.

We collected our coats and scarves and trooped over to my dad’s house. Witnessing his death was profound; we needed time to process. So we lingered in the living room and told stories. All I remember about the next hour was how loud we guffawed. Every story ended in raucous laughter followed by awkward silence. Nothing was that funny…but laughter was a way to exhale pent-up emotion.

Eventually our need for sleep superseded all others. Down in the basement we lined up borrowed sleeping bags like cord wood: seven siblings and two spouses. Lights went out, we whispered good-nights, and rhythmic breathing began.

Not for me.

All I could think of was that Mary Ann was sleeping alone. We weren’t especially close; our relationship was more wary than warm. But that empty place in the bed beside her became the overarching tragedy in my sleep-deprived mind.

This impulse came to me. You should go sleep next to her.  I didn’t want to. I just wanted this episode over. You should at least offer.

I argued with myself. I might step on my brothers and sisters; the basement was pitch black. Just go and check on her.  I don’t want to!  Go!  No!

Finally, I picked up my pillow and tiptoed across the basement, trod with care up the steps, opened the door, took a breath, and faltered down the hall.

I tapped on her bedroom door and whispered, Mary Ann! Nothing. I took to hissing. Mary Ann! I rapped a little louder, but still no response. In my misguided trajectory, I had to make sure she wasn’t afflicted with insomnia.

I turned the doorknob centimeter by centimeter and bent down by her ear. Mary Ann, do you want me to sleep with you?

Huh? growled a male voice roused awake. He sat up. Yikes! My dad’s bedroom was occupied by Mary Ann’s sister and brother-in-law.  Sorry! I sputtered.

Heart exploding, I skedaddled across the house, danced down the steps, tripped across the room and dove into my sleeping bag, all thoughts of being helpful dissolved.

 

 

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).

Lucy and Aslan

Margo Walker

“It isn’t Narnia, you know,” sobbed Lucy. “It’s you. We shan’t meet you there. And how can we live, never meeting you?”

“But you shall meet me, dear one,” said Aslan.

“Are -are you there too, Sir?” said Edmund.

“I am,” said Aslan. “But there I have another name. You must learn to know me by that name. This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.”

::     ::     ::     ::     ::     ::     ::

“Oh, Aslan,” said Lucy. “Will you tell us how to get into your country from our world?”

“I shall be telling you all the time,” said Aslan. “But I will not tell you how long or short the way will be; only that it lies across a river. But do not fear that, for I am the great Bridge Builder.”

Read (exquisitely) by my sister Dorothy at my sister Margaret’s funeral.

Five Seven

img022Five Seven. An unforgettable date. We may not remember Three Twenty-Three (her birthday). I don’t even know her wedding date (the year was 1945). But this day, oh I know Five Seven. The calendar starts fomenting emotions around the third or fourth.

I revisit my last goodbye as I trotted towards the car, facing forward out the front door, head turned on the final step as I sing-songed my farewell: ♪♫♪ Bye Mom! ♪♫♪  I see my father waiting for me at the edge of the school grounds, and I hear the deadly quiet when we entered the house.

Last night when I read about Kara Tippett’s family’s first event without her I burst into sobs. Have you followed Kara’s story? Her shimmering grace, her honest struggle, her big love. I look at her kids and I know a small piece of their story. The oldest girl, who will mother her siblings the rest of her life. The girl and boy in the middle whose grief might get overlooked, who will consider their dad’s cares. The youngest girl, the focus of concern for all, the girl who turned six this week.

Although Five Seven can never be the second Sunday in May, it is always in the suburbs of Mother’s Day. Sorrow scoots over and makes room for gratitude. For too many, the grief of Mother’s Day is the ache of having had a mom who couldn’t or wouldn’t, but clearly didn’t express love and kindness. Their focus is on breaking the chain of affliction, expunging the critical words, watching others to figure out how to be a good mom.

I learned the goodness and kindness of God through Mom. Sure, she taught us and corrected us; but she sang while she laundered, she cheerfully plowed through sandwich-making every school day morning, she wrapped her long arms around us, she prayed. What didn’t she do? She never gossiped, she didn’t complain, she didn’t worry, she didn’t fear. Sometimes she sighed, and I know she groaned. But she lived a simple, authentic life, a small life really, that influenced many for good. And she loved me, this I know. To know your mom’s love is a gift of unfathomable magnitude.

Thank you, Mom. I love you.

Nellie Arlene Stover Harper
3/23/1920 — 5/7/1968

The Last Verse

old_handThis post is dedicated to dear Sally W.,
who is singing her last verse with grace & peace.

One of the glories of old hymns is their last verse. Singing them was a weekly reminder that death would come, that life follows death, that we have promises on which to stand. The regular drip irrigation of those last verses watered our hope and confidence.

Here’s a few that I found in my hymnal.

Great things he has taught us, great things he has done,
and great our rejoicing through Jesus the Son;
but purer and higher and greater will be
our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.

Through ev’ry period of my life your goodness I’ll pursue;
and after death, in distant worlds, the glorious theme renew.

E’en down to old age all my people shall prove
my sovereign, eternal, unchangeable love;
and when hoary hairs shall their temples adorn,
like lambs they shall still in my bosom be borne.

He will keep me till the river rolls it waters at my feet:
then he’ll bear me safely over, made by grace for glory meet.

Jesus loves me, he will stay close beside me all the way:
if I love him, when I die he will take me home on high.

Now by this I’ll overcome—nothing but the blood of Jesus;
now by this I’ll reach my home—nothing but the blood of Jesus.

He will gather, he will gather the gems for his kingdom,
all the pure ones, all the bright ones, his loved and his own.

Then he’ll call us home to heaven, at his table we’ll sit down;
Christ will gird himself and serve us with sweet manna all around.

Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes;
shine through the gloom, and point me to the skies;
heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee:
in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

And when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil a life of joy and peace.

While I draw this fleeting breath, when mine eyelids close in death,
when I soar to worlds unknown, see thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.

When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of death, and hell’s destruction, land me safe on Canaan’s side;
songs of praises, songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee, I will ever give to thee.

And when my task on earth is done, when, by thy grace, the victory’s won
e’en death’s cold wave I will not flee, since God through Jordan leadeth me.

I’ll love thee in life, I will love thee in death;
and praise thee as long as thou lendest me breath;
and say, when the deathdew lies cold on my brow;
if ever I loved thee, my Jesus, ’tis now.

I’m so glad I learned to trust thee, precious Jesus, Savior, Friend;
and I know that thou art with me, will be with me to the end.

Jesus lives and death is now but my entrance into glory.
Courage, then, my soul, for thou hast a crown of life before thee;
thou shalt find thy hopes were just: Jesus is the Christian’s trust.