Margaret as Mentor

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by Valeri Harper

In 1974, when I decided to change my career from banking to nursing, I would never imagine I would meet the person who would become my role model, and later my sister-in-law.

I met Margaret when I was hired as a nursing assistant at Belmont Hospital. I was assigned to the fourth floor, Med-Surg unit, on the 3:00-11:00 shift, and Margaret Harper was my charge nurse.

She was fun to work with and she made sure that we gave the best care to our patients. She didn’t tolerate sloppiness; your duties were to be done properly with no shortcuts. As I progressed through nursing school, I used to share my newfound knowledge with Margaret, excited to explain to her something in detail that she already knew.

She was always happy to hear me out and give me encouragement; and I really needed her affirmations, since I was returning to school after working four years and had my doubts about being able to succeed. So, for the next four years, as I studied at Truman City College to obtain my nursing degree, I was already learning to be a nurse as I worked side by side with Margaret.

I observed and absorbed everything I could as I watched her care for our patients: gently rolling of a comatose patient when changing a bed sheet; combing their hair and speaking softly to them with respect; softening hands and feet with lotion. They were not awake and they couldn’t say “thank you” but it didn’t matter to Margaret.

Calming a confused and combative patient without showing frustration or anger. Loving them by understanding they were not in their right mind. Not taking personally insults or complaints made by someone just diagnosed with cancer. Hugging a patient going home after spending several days in the hospital. Finally, going home.

Margaret taught me to look beyond a person’s behavior and consider “what are they going through?” Try to understand. Go beyond the textbook.

I’ll never forget the sinking feeling and confusion I felt when Margaret walked on the unit one day, tearful, with Audrey St. Marie at her side, and complaining of a severe headache.

After her diagnosis of brain tumor, and decision to have surgery at Mayo Clinic, I wanted to show my love and care for her by visiting her there. I had never met Dan, but she asked him to call me and suggest I drive up with him and another friend. I agreed, and that was the beginning of what would become our marriage a year later.

Margaret gave me two precious gifts: the privilege of learning how to pass on the love of Christ while ministering to the sick and the dying, and secondly, the opportunity to meet her little brother, Dan.  I am blessed. Thanks be to God.

Deep Sorrow

Harper Kids Sturgis

The tagline for my blog is Solid joys, deep sorrows, aggressive hope. I’m in a period of Deep Sorrow.

Here is a photo of my brothers and sisters taken circa 1959. I’m the youngest on the left. We are seven. Last week my sister Margo (middle girl) died at the age of 67 from respiratory failure related to pneumonia. It’s remarkable that she was just three years shy of threescore years and ten.

In 1979 she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor (a glioblastoma). After chemotherapy, radiation, and a surplus of surgeries, her tumor was encapsulated. But the “cure” brought a lifetime of disability. Her life was difficult but her signature response was “Blessed.” She enjoyed describing herself as not in her right mind.

This is the first of several blog posts introducing you, dear reader, with my dear sister and my forum for processing my grief. I’ll write about how we “sang her to heaven” and how we honored her life.

These are my [edited] reflections which I read at her service.

My Sister Margo

There were just enough years and sufficient siblings between Margo and me that we seldom quibbled and rarely quarreled.

After I left Lombard, she was the Great Communicator. A punster, she loved clever quips and sent me many, many funny cards. Like all of my siblings, she devoured books and music; she insisted I read My Name Is Asher Lev, Lord Peter Wimsey, and a boatload of Brock and Bodie Thoene books. Ten years ago, she and her husband John made a dream come true, by taking me to see the great cellist YoYo Ma at Ravinia.

Our friendship was sustained by annual visits. When finances and young children constrained my travel, she ventured out to Oregon. One October she joined our family’s hunting camp and kept the fire burning. As a nurse, she was fascinated with gutting, skinning, and hanging a deer, disappointed that our guys came up empty.

In 1994 she brought John to meet us. Soon there was a wedding. She was 45. In recent years, I came to Chicago. The sweetest moments we shared were our evening meals. We lingered long after the last bite was chewed and reviewed memories. In the dimming light, she relived school stories, recounted old friendships, told of her travels and took comfort in the simple benediction of remembering.

We played Scrabble. If you know Harpers, you know we compete. Year after year I could not beat Margo at Scrabble. I certainly tried. In 2014 I eked out a one-point win. Oh yeah! I crowed and danced, hands above my head. She leveled her gaze at me and smirked, “You are celebrating beating someone with only half a brain?”

Her life was beset with brokenness and besieged with pain, a continuous series of losses. She lost her balance, her manual dexterity, her ability to walk, travel by plane, hearing in one ear, and eventually clear speech. She steadfastly refused to complain; instead, she reckoned herself blessed.

Margo thrived on belonging. She relished belonging to the wild roundup called the Harpers. She valued belonging to the Lombard Gospel Chapel family. Back in the day, she belonged to her people at Bair Lake Bible Camp, Emmaus Bible School, Pacific Garden Mission, Sunshine Gospel Mission, Belmont Hospital, Rest Haven Homes.  She belonged to John; johnandmargo became one word.

Margo belonged to Jesus. The Heidelberg Catechism begins: What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful savior Jesus Christ. He was her rock, her fortress and her might.

Finally, Margo was beloved. The response to news of her passing is a witness. As a young girl she was warmed and nurtured by her mom. In Margo’s last years of life, Mom’s love — Mom’s praise — was a diamond she pulled out of her pocket and prized. “Mom used to say, ‘You are such a help to me,’” Margaret remembered.

Our brother John was a faithful friend and support, especially the last dozen years of her life. He brought meals, helped her exercise, encouraged and cheered. His love was an important aspect of her life.

When she had long adjusted to life as a single woman, God brought John Walker to Margo. He loved her; her delight in him knew no bounds. Joy and laughter took up residence in her life. Look at the photos! Their marriage was the gospel made plain. He cared about her as he cared for her. His sacrifices shouted “My life for yours.”

Margo’s disability went from challenging to difficult to arduous. John’s love was a counterpoint to her struggles. The more dependent Margo became on John, the more evident was his love. Few wives are acquainted with the depth of love that Margo knew. Indeed, she was ‘blessed.’

Margo loved Narnia; she adored Lucy. Margo’s journey on earth is done. She can say,

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now…Come further up, come further in!”

Our ‘Lucy’ — I think of her as Queen Margo the Valiant — has gone ‘further up and further in’. Her faith is sure, her hopes are fulfilled, her love remains.  Goodbye, Margo.

The Habit of Be-ing

DSC_4059It is my favorite cozy: snuggled in with a grandson, listening to him read. When Noah sounded out the word “before” we took a detour.

Oh, I love be- words; I actually collect them, I said.
You do?
Yes, let me show you!

I grabbed my journal. I am burdened with an insatiable urge to show-and-tell.

DSC_4088Be- words delight me, I explained. So when I spot  one, I write it down.

Later, when all the rest of the house was napping, I watched Noah cut and paste. He decided to make a little booklet. Well, now. Here’s something even I could help with. We could make you a be- book, I shamelessly suggested.

DSC_4063He started scanning every Bob Book in his possession, not the best place to find vintage words. But he found a few! I didn’t quibble about words that began with be that weren’t the prefix be- e.g. Benjamin, best, bend. One has to start somewhere.

DSC_4061When Noah loaded up to go to Safeway with Papa, he grabbed his book and a pen in case he found some more be- words. They found themselves in the beer section (a word he missed!) when Noah backed up into a stack of whiskey. It’s what they call in literature a destabilizing event. Curt threw out his hands trying to steady the waving bottles, mentally calculating the cost of this quick trip to the store. Fortunately, none fell.

But, suddenly, Noah is sitting on the floor with his book in front of him, writing down “Beam.” Few lessons could be found in a more unlikely location.

DSC_4079The next day Noah told Aunt Lindsey about his book. The first words out of his mouth were, Well, I love be- words. Like boat and baseball and balance? she asked. No, b-e- words like before and below. His younger brother Levi chimed in, I love be- words, too! What is your favorite? she asked him. Begin! What is your favorite? she asked me. I looked at her, a vibrant newlywed, and smiled. Beloved.

Back Home Again

DSC_2117 October was a friendship-saturated month.

DSC_2151When I had an empty day in a city far from home, I contacted Faith,
an online friend. We picked up as if we had known
each other forever, drinking pots of tea and talking nonstop.

DSC_2213A week of solitude meant garden clean-up, reading, walking,
and a trip to the wildlife refuge to feast on the Harvest Moon.

DSC_2268My husband and I had a few days in the middle
where our schedules synced. The joy of reuniting, ah!

DSC_2281I met two year old Max and his mom on a flight to Minneapolis.
When he got antsy, I snapped a photo and let him see.
Take another, he urged. He drew in my journal with many colors;
years from now his drawing will remind me of our brief friendship.

DSC_2287A fire is a great conversation accessory. On my cousin’s
back deck we not only caught up on our 17 years apart,
but I—thanks to her transparency—got a tutorial
on life as a new widow.

DSC_2299We gloried in fall colors.

DSC_2347Our dads were brothers. We talked through our
family history, all those quirks we recognize.

DSC_2371And we laughed.

October 2014Then to Chicago for my annual visit.
I enjoy studying each my sister Dorothy’s dozen grandchildren:
their gifts, what motivates and aggravates them,
their unique personalities.

DSC_2525My sister Margaret soldiers through many infirmities.
Cancer and a stroke have attacked but can’t quench her spirit.
Through the pain I never hear her complain.

DSC_2625Several other friends blessed me with time and attention,
a precious gift. Our friendships span the years.
Stories jogged memories.

DSC_2423Tender mercies, all.

Emma’s Wedding

DSC_0991Today, it’s been two months since my niece Emma married Glyn. In my life, the big things aren’t cemented until I’ve written them. From writing this wedding I have cowered, knowing my word hoard hasn’t the depth or width required. I refuse to use ‘epic’ and ‘awesome’, yet I’m still searching for the best words.

July 20142It was a grand Coming Together. Emma is American. Glyn is British. They live in Turkey. Their friends live all over the world. Each mileage sign represents someone who came to the wedding.  The only continents not represented were South America, Australia, and Antarctica.

lobsterfeedThis wedding occupied three days. Everyone was invited to the rehearsal dinner aka Lobster Feed, the wedding the next day, and a brunch the day after the wedding. It resembled the medieval feasts that I read about in my books.

DSC_0860The ceremony was held under the ancient apple tree.

DSC_0877The background was my sister-in-law’s glorious garden.

DSC_0763She grew almost all the flowers for the wedding.

DSC_0653My daughter-in-law made the bride’s bouquet.

DSC_0857A sail cloth tent hovered over the festivities.
My grandson said, “Nana, it looks like Narnia.”

DSC_0909The tables were set.

DSC_0910Mismatched china completely charmed me.
‘Elegant simplicity’ set the tone.

DSC_0915All the cloths under the flowers were purchased
at the bazaar in Istanbul.

DSC_1021My brother, the tenor, sang Simple Gifts, a song
that he sang at the wedding of Emma’s parents.

DSC_1022Emma and Glyn listen.

July 20143Kids were welcomed with open arms.
Not often does one hear, “I’m so glad you brought all your kids!

July 20144We’ve always loved Emma; it was easy to see why she loved Glyn.
They are both strong, generous, compassionate, and fun.
Not to mention smart. They have our deep respect.

DSC_1000As long as I’m giving honor, let me say that my brother Jim
and my sister-by-marriage Kathleen were stellar. This event was
the culmination of a lifetime of love invested in their family, work on
their homestead, their habits of beauty, blessing, and hospitality.

DSC_1016Emma’s older brother Will—best friend of bride
and groom—officiated. This was his first gig. We called
him—tongue in cheek—”Brother Will.”

DSC_1163There were some great toasts: sweet, witty, heartfelt.
But at the end of the day, what everyone remembered
and remarked on was Jim’s toast to his daughter.

DSC_0887Then we took the party to the barn.

DSC_1188My grandson (with the hat) rocked the reception
with his unique style of dance.

DSC_1224It is a Turkish custom to have fireworks at a wedding.

DSC_1219It was a magical evening.

BakkerfamilysanscollinThis is our family (missing our son Collin).
The extended tribe (my siblings and their descendants)
present numbered 39. There were gaps here and there.
We cherish time together and relished the gift.

With the help of Facebook and texting, my kids and their cousins
are much closer than my generation was with ours.
It is a delight to see their friendships deepen.

DSC_07052014 will forever be the summer of Emma’s wedding.

My photographer brother’s photos.

Link to the magnificent photographer’s pictures.
(She shoots film.)

Alan Bradley and Bill Bryson

Alan Bradley and Bill Bryson

Alan Bradley, left; Bill Bryson, right.

It would have made a great story. If only the facts would cooperate.

Last night I finished listening to Bill Bryson’s book about Australia, In a Sunburned Country. I listened with joy to his elegantly turned phrases, self-deprecatory humor, and characterizations of the people and landscape. His dismay at the treatment of aborigines provoked me to care, too. At times Bryson’s tone veers to the suburbs of crass, and he inserts a few liberal rants, but overall I liked it very much.

As it happens, I also finished Alan Bradley’s latest Flavia de Luce mystery, Speaking from Among the Bones.  Because it’s how I’m wired, I read through the acknowledgments, and there two thirds down the page were these sentences: Family, too, have been there to wave flags and shout encouragement at every way station, and I’d like to especially acknowledge …Bill and Barbara Bryson

What? Bill Bryson in Alan Bradley’s family section? Crazy!  I skipped out of bed to explore this connection. Alas, Bill Bryson, the author, is married to a Cynthia. Bill’s father, William, is married to an Agnes Mary. I can’t detect anything other than coincidence in the names.

My favorite excerpt from Bryson’s book is his description of how he sleeps:

I am not, I regret to say, a discreet and fetching sleeper. Most people when they nod off look as if they could do with a blanket; I look as if I could do with medical attention. I sleep as if injected with a powerful experimental muscle relaxant. My legs fall open in a grotesque come-hither manner; my knuckles brush the floor. Whatever is inside—tongue, uvula, moist bubbles of intestinal air—decides to leak out. From time to time, like one of those nodding-duck toys, my head tips forward to empty a quart or so of viscous drool onto my lap, then falls back to begin loading again with a noise like a toilet cistern filling.

And I snore, hugely and helplessly, like a cartoon character with rubbery flapping lips and prolonged steam-valve-exhalations. For long periods I grow unnaturally still, in a a way that inclines onlookers to exchange glances and lean forward in concern, then dramatically I stiffen and, after a tantalizing pause, begin to bounce and jostle in a series of whole-body spasms of the sort that bring to mind an electric chair when the switch is thrown.. Then I shriek once or twice in a piercing and effeminate manner and wake up to find that all motion within five hundred feet has stopped and all children under the age of eight are clutching their mothers’ hems.

Flavia’s humor is dry, more inclined to make me smile in appreciation than to laugh out loud. And tucked in unexpected places the whiz kid chemist wonders about life.

How odd, I thought: Here were these four great grievers, Father, Dogger, the vicar, and Cynthia Richardson, each locked in his or her own past, unwilling to share a morsel of their anguish, not even with one another.

Was sorrow, in the end, a private thing? A closed container? Something that, like a bucket of water, could be borne only on a single pair of shoulders?

 

Edit: I received a gracious and funny email from Mr. Bradley confirming that his Bill Bryson is not the American author Bill Bryson.

Given a New Life

DSC_4500

Three brothers loving their baby sister, Aria

::Our son led worship on Sunday. These are his words::

Over the last several months, the boys have had a ritual of kissing the baby goodnight before bed. We will all be in the living room together and they will one-by-one come through and kiss the belly and say “I love you, baby sister.”

So we have three boys and two parents that love this baby before she is born. Before we have held her, before we have looked into her big eyes, before we have seen her smile, before she can walk, before she can talk, before she can do anything that would earn our love—she has been loved.

Our Lord has done the same thing for us only on a far greater and way more awesome scale. Paul tells us in Ephesians that before the creation of the world God chose us to be in Him. This means that before we were born, before creation even, God chose to redeem, justify, sanctify, and glorify us in Jesus Christ.

[…] When we see this grace, we should respond with humility and praise and worship. We have been given a hope and a confidence that apart from God cannot be found. We have been given a new life, a new life made to glorify and bring Him honor. This is the God that we’ve come to worship this morning, so let us worship with every ounce of our being. Let us live our lives, worshiping him in everything that we do.

Rejoice with us in the birth this morning of our granddaughter, Aria!                             (After three sons and six grandsons, we are thrilled that Aria has joined our family.)