Margaret and Music

Harper7

By Jim Harper

So, as you all— I am Jim, by the way, the middle brother —as you all probably know, music is very important in the Harper family.

When we were growing up, we were each either assigned or picked an instrument to play… some of us went further with this than others. (laughter) And I always sort of thought of it in my mind as the Bach Family Orchestra. I sort of thought that maybe Dad had so many kids to fill the gaps in the orchestra. But, that never panned out.

So, Margaret played the cello. That was her division, her instrument. And she also played the piano, just like Carol and Dorothy. But she also loved to sing.

She got together with Judy Petke and Rosalyn Hines at Bair Lake Bible Camp — we spent most of our summers at Bair Lake Bible Camp — and they formed a trio: The Bair Lake Lovelies. And they had wonderful harmonies.  And I think they even sang out here, in Lombard, under a different name: The Lombard Lovelies.

But I came across this quote by Garrison Keillor, who I think Margaret enjoyed listening to, from a piece he wrote, Singing with the Lutherans. And I presume by that, he meant Singing with Sanctified Brethren, because that’s who he grew up singing with.

“Lutherans are bred from childhood to sing in four-part harmony. It’s a talent that comes from sitting on the lap of someone singing alto or tenor or bass and hearing the harmonic intervals by putting your little head against that person’s rib cage. It’s natural for Lutherans to sing in harmony. We’re too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison. When you’re singing in the key of C and you slide into the A7th and D7th chords, all two hundred of you, it’s an emotionally fulfilling moment. I once sang the bass line of Children of the Heavenly Father in a room with about three thousand Lutherans in it; and when we finished, we all had tears in our eyes, partly from the promise that God will not forsake us, partly from the proximity of all those lovely voices. By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.”

So, when we turned off life-support for Margaret, we sang her into heaven. She lasted two songs, and her heart stopped.

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

Here is my playlist for the prelude with some choice lyrics. One of my favorite piano quotes is from my sister Dorothy: Play the words.

Sweet, Sweet Spirit  — Without a doubt we’ll know that we have been revived when we shall leave this place.

King Jesus — For He opens doors for me, doors I’m not able to see, That’s why I say King Jesus will roll my burdens away.

He’s Able — I know my Lord is able to carry me through.

Softly and Tenderly — You who are weary, come home.

There Is a Fountain — Redeeming love has been my theme and shall be till I die.

I Will Sing of My Redeemer — How the victory He giveth over sin and death and hell.

I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say — I came to Jesus as I was, so weary, worn, and sad. I found in Him a resting place and He has made me glad.

Wayfaring Stranger — I’m only going over Jordan; I’m only going over home.

Come Thou Fount — Tune my heart to sing Thy grace.

Abide with Me — Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee; in life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

My God Is Real — [written by Mahalia!!] His love for me is just like pure gold, My God is real, for I can feel Him in my soul.

Come, Ye Disconsolate — Earth has no sorrow that heaven cannot heal.

Precious Lord, Take My Hand — At the river I stand, guide my feet, hold my hand, take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.

Blessed Assurance — Angels, descending, bring from above echoes of mercy, whispers of love.

 

 

Margaret as Mentor

3815225880_5dc3e4fd3d_b

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.

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 Double Comfort Safari Club

DSC_8889The Double Comfort Safari Club is, I believe, a superb summer read. There’s a little mystery, several chuckles, a few snorts, a large dollop of satisfaction, a sob of grief, and beautiful words like quietude. When is the last time you’ve read quietude? It’s light reading that nourishes and feeds.

There is a moment that capsizes me. It’s when I read a phrase or paragraph that so perfectly captures what I’ve always known, but rediscover as though it is a new truth through the author’s description. That click makes me say Yes!, Of course!, or How did you know?

Here’s what I’m talking about:

Some kind people may not look kind. They may look severe, or strict, or even bossy, as Mma Potokwane sometimes did. But inside them there was a big dam of kindness, as there is inside so many people, like the great dam to the south of Gabarone, ready to release its healing waters.

And this:

…this woman, moved by some private sorrow as much as by the words being spoken, cried almost silently, unobserved by others, apart from Mma Ramotswe, who stretched out her hand and laid it on her shoulder. Do not cry, Mma, she began to whisper, but changed her words even as she uttered them, and said quietly, Yes, you can cry, Mma. We should not tell people not to weep—we do it because of our sympathy for them—but we should really tell them that their tears are justified and entirely right.

What makes me love Precious Ramotswe? The way she thinks of and remembers her late father; her sense of justice and putting things to right; her gratitude for the life she’s been given; her directness when dealing with difficult questions; her acceptance of the imperfections of life; her musings on the changes in Botswana, her unswerving hospitality; her patience with the impetuous Mma Makutsi. In a word, she is kind.

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.

Never Used to Your Absence

Nellie Harper 3/23/20 – 5/7/1968

 

My mom’s death from an undiagnosed autoimmune disorder was sudden. There were no good-byes other than a casual “bye, Mom!” tossed over the shoulder as I left the house.

As I re-read some of her letters, I notice how she said good-bye to my dad, a college professor teaching in another state. And, these many years later, she continues to instruct me.

 

 

I miss you here – really seems lonesome without you – just a few weeks like we had in Sept. spoils me.  But since I love you so much I know that it will always be that way – I don’t get used to you being away, I just wait for you to come home.

Je t’aime beaucoup, beaucoup…

Now I must close – surely do miss you.  Guess I didn’t write partly because I was just too lonesome and didn’t want to sound too sad.  Those spells come when I feel as though I just have to see you, and anticipating a week end without you seems too much.  I just must not think ahead to weekends but take each day as it comes.  And the thought of you using so much time and energy and losing out on your studies just to come home doesn’t cheer me any either.  All in all it is not the most satisfactory situation, but it is the best one for us now or else the Lord would change it, of that I’m sure.

Must close for now.  I do love you and, like Danny, I often would like to give up because “I want you”.  But because of you I take heart and strive to do a good job here.

But we’ll keep on in our feeble way.

I love you and I just can’t get used to having you gone so much — howbeit the Lord has given joy and peace just to know that you are busy for Him.

Time to close — wish you were here to talk to instead of writing. Take care of yourself these busy days. We love you and your name is mentioned ump-teen times a day. I’m learning that when you really love a person you never get used to having him gone — it gets worse instead of easier. Hurry up, summer!

I love you and miss you so much. I would like to have a week or so together with no other responsibility but to catch up on all we’ve missed this winter. But we can only dream of such a time with all the cares of this world upon us.

Like Jimmy says “Daddy can fix anything.” But it is not primarily a handy man that I need here, but to have your love and fellowship in person.

Oh, Mom. I remember you. Forty-five years it has been and I continue to note your absence. I wish that your daughters-in-law, your sons-in-law, your grandchildren and your great-grandchildren—every one of them—could know you the way my brothers and sisters and I know you. I wish I could call you on the phone and exclaim today’s good news: the next baby is a GIRL!! I can hear your chuckle at my exuberant joy.

Your letters inspire me. I can take heart and strive to imitate you, to become a Nellie Harper to my people. Thank you for pouring yourself out for us, for giving us yourself, day after day after day. Thank you for being the best mom ever.

Always yours,

Carol

 

Other May 7th posts:
Dear Mom
A Reduction of Tears
Lighthearted on a Heavy Day
May 7, 1968
She’s Not Here

Letters from Mom

What To Expect When You’re Grieving

 

Dear friends recently lost their dad. I remember being surprised after my dad died at how bone tired I was. As one acquainted with grief, I offer this short primer, not as a scientific study, but as an anecdotal narrative of what I’ve experienced, what I’ve observed and what you may expect.

1. Exhaustion   
Emotional work is physically exhausting. You will wake up tired, your sleep patterns will be disrupted, a deep weariness settles in. Make allowances for being tired; avoid extra responsibilities if you can. Take a nap without apologizing for it.

2. Disorientation    
Your brain is overwhelmed with thoughts and feelings. It is hard to focus. You repeat yourself in conversations. You begin a sentence, but can’t finish it. Fog is everywhere. Your ability to think sequentially is diminished. Basic decisions—where to eat, what to do next—are challenging.

3. Absorption
When someone you love dies, you look for clues, for signs, for anything that can help you make sense of his/her life. Or make sense of his/her death. You examine the relationship you shared, reviewing communications, reminding yourself of what is true. The more contradictions there are, the more you ponder. We want to understand, but the understanding doesn’t always come.  

4. Apathy
You couldn’t care less.  You stop eating. Or you can’t stop eating. Personal hygiene slips. You are tempted to veg-out with TV, computer games, mindless occupations. Habits help. Brush your teeth, take a walk. 

5. Isolation
Grief is a lonely thing. After the outpouring of your friends’ comfort and compassion, life for them returns to normal. But your life is unalterably changed. Grief makes people uncomfortable, unsure of their response, so they may avoid you in an effort to protect themselves. You may be reluctant to articulate your grief to yourself, let alone to others. Living in community can propel you into social situations that insulate you from isolation. 

 

There is no getting around the fact that grief is painful. We don’t like pain, so we search for shortcuts that will make the pain go away. I’ve seen folks allot 4-7 days to grieve and then pack up their grief and put it into storage. But grief too quickly stowed will return, ringing the doorbell, insisting on being present. 

How long will this last? Ecclesiastes 3 gives a clue: To everything there is a season, a time to every purpose under heaven. (emphasis mine) Three months is a normal time to experience the deep initial wave of grief. The loss will be with you until the end of your days; you will never be “over it.”

And then there will be the realization that—for a moment—you had forgotten how sad you were. It feels like betrayal to experience a slice of joy.

Another time will come when you feel like you should be sad, but the emotion is just not there. Then you make a decision to either manufacture the sadness or to let that moment pass. There is a ditch on both sides of the road: the ditch of denying grief, pretending you are fine; and the ditch of gripping grief with clenched hands that won’t release it.  When the tears come, let them. But don’t force them.

The summer after my mom died, I remember a scene of social awkwardness and resulting tears at a summer camp. Some girl impatiently demanded to know why I was crying. I was too embarrassed to articulate my awkwardness, so I played my trump card: “Well, wouldn’t you cry if your mom had died?” It was patently dishonest, and my ten-year-old self recognized—and regretted—the manipulation the moment those words left my mouth.

Underneath all of these thoughts is my faith that God is sovereign, that He knows my tears, and that I can trust Him. He doesn’t erase the pain as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but He does promise to comfort us. And that is enough.

Colson Memorial Service

Curt and I just finished watching Chuck Colson’s Memorial Service held in the Washington Cathedral, on May 16th, 2012. It is close to 2 hours, but time well spent. You can scan the program to see the musical selections and the order of service.

His daughter Emily’s remarks were awesome. Any father would want his daughter to be able to say what she said. The music was over-the-top wonderful. We need to be nourished by the words of the Bible spoken. There was a joyful solemnity infused into the whole service.

I love a good funeral.

Dear Mom

Dear Mom,

We love you. We miss you. We remember you.

Even though we are separated by that grand canyon between mortality and immortality, our love for you continues. You left an enduring imprint on us. We all have ways that embody Nellie Harper. Your kindness is part of each of our DNA. It would be fun to tell you about the kindness of your children, exhibited just this year. That quiet kindness abides in each of your grandchildren, too. It isn’t always evident between siblings (wry grin), but they are kind people.

We all have wishes.

We wish we could honor you, our mom, face to face. As the years accumulate, we see with greater clarity what we owe you. What was a given—your smile, your excellence, your steadfastness, your encouragement—when we were kids, we now know was such an immense gift. You shaped us into who we are. We all would love to ‘praise you in the gates’. To have you hear our gratitude, feel our hugs.

We wish our kids knew you…beyond the stories we tell. Ditto, for the husbands and wives who never met you. They get the trace elements of you through us, but we’d love them to know the real you.

And Mom? We all wish we were more like you. Sometimes that is the grief we silently share, more than missing you. Your wisdom: your sweet, practical wisdom. Your generosity. Your faith. You made such an impact on more than one community. You were extraordinary in such an ordinary way.

We’re getting together for Anne’s wedding soon. A large, unruly, talkative, loud crowd of relatives. It will be a great time.

It always comes round to thanksgiving. The hollow years without you can’t compare to the full years of having you. You filled us up; you fed us; you nurtured us; you made each of us know how special we were to you. The tears have slowed to a tiny trickle. We all get throat-lumpy in May. But it is thanksgiving that we feel in the end. Another of your legacies is the lack of bitterness in your children.

Mom. We love you. We miss you. We remember you.

Carol, for all of us