She’s Not Here, A Short Story

phoneThe young girl sat up in her bed, rubbed the sleep out of her eyes, threw her hair off her face in one easy motion, and scrambled out of bed.  It was an early Saturday morning in May. The house was hushed.  With the stealth of a burglar she tiptoed down the hallway and carefully descended the creaky stairs.

After some domestic disarray, the ten-year old clung to the solid comfort of this familiar routine.  She turned on the stereo, adjusted the tuner, and turned the volume to its lowest setting. Grabbing some throw pillows, she dropped to the floor inches from the speaker, flat on her stomach, her elbows in the pillows and her hands cupped under her chin.

The next two hours brought radio programs for children.  Thirsty for story, she drank in the drama while the rest of the house slept. Midway through the last show the jangle of the telephone pierced the quiet.  Like quicksilver she jumped up and grabbed the receiver before the phone rang again.

“Hello,” her high childish voice could barely be heard.

“Hi! Is your mommy there?”  the other voice trilled.

“Mmm…no,” she whispered tentatively.

“Would you leave her a message, please?”

“’kay…,” her voice wavered.

“The chair she had reupholstered is finished and is ready to be picked up at the shop.”

 “Thanks. Good-bye.”

She replaced the receiver and returned to her position on the floor.

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~     ~     ~     ~     ~     ~

The next Saturday was the same. The family slept while the young girl listened to Aunt Bee, Ranger Bill, and Sailor Sam. She took every precaution to listen without waking them.  Once again, the clatter of the telephone shattered the solitude. She darted to the dining room side table and grabbed the phone before the second ring.

“Hello.”

“Hello!  I’d like to speak to Nellie Harper!”

 The girl paused; she finally said, “She’s not here.”

 “Well, listen hon, this is the upholstery shop calling, and I called last week and left a message.  I told her when she brought it in that it would be ready in two weeks, and this chair has been in the shop for a month now, and I really need your mom to pick up this chair.  Would you puh-lease let her know?”   Her voice was a mixture of artificial sweetener and ill-concealed irritation.

 “Hmmm.”  came out in hushed tones.

 “Thanks, hon, I really appreciate it. You have a good day, now.”

~     ~     ~     ~      ~     ~

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A week went by.  The light was lasting longer, birds were chirping in the trees, and  school was winding down.  Summer had almost arrived, though the markers of seasonal change were little noted in that house.  Again, the young girl woke up early Saturday morning, crept around the squeaky spots and kept her rendezvous with the radio.

She wasn’t surprised when the phone rang; she answered it as she had done before.

“Hello,” spoken softly, so softly.

 “Hi!”  spoken in the tone of one eager to check off items on her list.

 They both recognized the other’s voice; they both had the script memorized.

 “Honey, look, is your mommy home this morning?” came the coaxing plea.

 “No.”   The single syllable dangled in space with nothing to support it.

 Exasperated, the woman on the other end of the line raised her voice.

“Well, where is she?  I’ve called, I’ve left messages, and still Nellie has not picked up her chair.”

She clipped each word shorter than a buzz cut.

The moment of truth could be delayed no longer.  The words that were stuck in the child’s throat, words that could not be spoken the previous Saturdays, words that were impossible to say, even today, were forcefully dislodged.

 “Ummm………she………well……..ummmm.   She died.”

 “Ohmygosh, she died? She died?  Your mommy died? What happened?  Oh, honey, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.  Was she in an accident?  She died?  I had no idea.  Oh, honey, I’m so very, very sorry.  Oh dear.  I–am–so–sorry.”

 “No…..she…….just……died.”

The silence was more uncomfortable for the girl than for the woman.  She sensed the shock, the awkward drop, the conversational vertigo of the voice on the other end.  The ten-year old knew she would have to bridge the gap and end this call.  The girl found her voice and began to comfort the caller.

“It’s all right.  You didn’t know.  It’s okay. No one told you.  I’ll tell my daddy about the chair when he wakes up, okay?  He’ll come to your shop and get the chair.  It’s okay.  You didn’t know… Good-bye.”

She walked back to the stereo, turned the radio off, sat down on the floor and sobbed.

 
[Originally posted November 2006]

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).

Reviving A Comatose Pencil

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Curt and I, young and pre-children, had moved and were getting to know our new pastor at our new church in our new city. We explained that we’d loved to involve ourselves, but were burned-out and needed a season of rest. This wise man replied, “Take time. Sit down. Be still.  When the urge to serve comes back—and it will—, call me.” 

While I am not overburdened with my writing schedule (cough, cough) the urge to write is back. It’s time to revive A Living Pencil. Beginning with a few random thoughts.

::        ::        ::

Has there been a decline in blogging? I think Facebook/Twitter/Instagram is to blogs what Walmart is to downtown boutiques. I find it oh so easy to post a photo to Facebook or write a sentence about the irony of including Man-Pleasing Chicken on our Mother’s Day menu.

The problem: so much content on Facebook (read Walmart) is generic and/or derivative. Most blogs offer a unique perspective. And most of the small blogs have closed up shop.

 ::        ::       ::

I made it through the toughest weekend of my calendar. The anniversary of my mom’s death was on Saturday and Mother’s Day was Sunday. I also remembered my friend Carol, (my surrogate mom’s youngest daughter) who died in January, and her beautiful daughters experiencing their first Mother’s Day sans Mom.

I never want to drum up grief because of the day on the calendar. No. There was no need for drumming.

But this is what I realized this cycle: I always—for 48 years—carry grief with me, deep in the warrens of my soul. But May 7th is the day I give sadness permission to surface. I give myself permission to acknowledge the wound. I think that is a good, even healthy, thing to do.

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.

A Different Kind of Fairy Tale

Young Margo

By Daniel Harper

Margaret was a complicated person. Now, when someone says that at a funeral, alarm bells should go off inside your head.  But what I mean is that Margaret was a mixture of different characteristics like most of us.  Loving.  Patient.  Stubborn. Funny. Tough. Patient.  Stubborn.

I’m repeating myself. Let’s go back to childhood and try and remember some things about Margaret.

First off she was much older than myself.  6 whole years.  At that age, 6 years seems like an eternity.  Along with Dorothy and David, she seemed much older, cooler, and smarter than I would ever be. She had interests and knowledge I could never match.

But we shared one huge event as a family.  The death of my mother when I was 13. In many ways this shaped all of us because my mom was the anchor of our family and to lose her at such an early age brought many changes.  One random memory from that time is a chicken dinner which Margo prepared. (And maybe Dorothy was involved. I plead teenage male goofiness). This was fried chicken in some kind of cake batter that puffed up as it bubbled in the oil in a cast iron skillet.  We shared a love of good and wonderful food.

Later, she went to nursing school and took her first job at Belmont Hospital. After living in an apartment overlooking the Eisenhower Freeway with all the noise and traffic she moved to 804 S Euclid in Oak Park which was a two flat also known as the Harper Hilton. Two older brothers, David and John, lived in the upstairs flat and Margo along with various roommates lived downstairs.

In 1977 I moved in upstairs and little knew how much Margo would change my life.

Through sheer ineptitude I managed to flip a 3 wheel construction cart on my left foot and was off work for a month or longer. During this time Margo, Bette Unander (now Smillie) and I visited my brother Jim and his wife Kathleen in Portland, Maine.  We took the tour of Boston, parts of New Hampshire, and Maine where Jim and Kathleen gave us a royal visit of that wonderful state.

As I recovered from my foot injury I had time to prepare late night steak bbqs for Margo and Bette when they came home from the 3 to 11 shift.  Our bonds as brother and sister grew especially in the Tuesday night Bible study that met downstairs in their apartment.

At this time I was taking voice lessons, singing solos in a large church choir, and being a member of the Chicago Symphony Chorus.  Margo encouraged me in my singing and attended many concerts with our circle of friends, mainly from the Tuesday night Bible Study.

It was during this time that Margo developed severe headaches. While visiting my brother David she had to be taken to Pittsburgh for treatment but the brain tumor was not discovered for some time.

In the early summer of 1979 the pain was even worse and finally she was diagnosed with a severe and dangerous brain tumor which she decided to have the needed surgery at Mayo Clinic.  While she was there she called me and asked if I would give a ride to a co-worker that wanted to visit her for that week in Minnesota.  I gladly agreed and gave Valeri Kijak a ride up to Mayo Clinic. (And my life was changed forever!!)

Margo had many radiation treatments and at the end of those we planned a celebratory lobster dinner (sent by my brother Jim from Maine).  It was during this dinner (ironically before we ate the lobster) that Margo had a seizure.  This was in September of 1979 and for Margaret the prognosis looked very grim. Later, the whole Harper clan all gathered at brother David’s house for Christmas and most of us thought this would be Margaret’s last Christmas.

God had different plans.  For some unknown reason Margo’s body enveloped the brain tumor and stopped its growth.  But the damage from the treatment had taken a toll on Margo’s body.  She was told that from then on her life would be very limited.

She would never work again.
She would never drive again.
She would never live on her own again.

Here is where her stubbornness comes in.  This is where her toughness comes into play.

Margo did all those things.
Work two different jobs.
Buy a new car. And drive it.
Buy a condo on her own.

But.  The damage from the cure was tremendous.  Margo’s body was never the same again. Her amazing piano skills were never the same. She had much difficulty in moving and having the stamina for being a nurse.

God gave Margo a difficult path to walk.

Here’s where we need to learn what Margo knew all those years ago: God’s way is best even when we don’t understand.

Bitterness only eats up those who are bitter.
Each day is a blessing even with all the challenges that Margo faced.

In the midst of this God sent a gift to Margaret in the form of John Walker. John loved Margo for who she was including the physical deficits because he saw the real Margo that was hidden behind those physical problems.

In 1994 John and Margo were married.

We think of fairy tales as the young prince who carries off his young bride in some idealized Hollywood movie. Let me give you another version:

A 40-something cancer survivor meets a young man who sees the fairy princess locked up inside her own body and loves her for who she is.  

THAT is a movie I want to see. John has been a  faithful and loving husband to his bride, Margaret.

In the last conversation I had with Margo a month or so ago she amazed me with her wit and intelligence and I hung up the phone exhilarated and rejoicing in who Margo was. And is. I selfishly would love to have that conversation with Margo again but I know that as of right now Margo is in the presence of her Lord and Savior.

Free from pain.
Free from limitations.
Free from a body that served her well but imperfectly.
And at rest and at peace with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Amen.