Squinting in the hotel mirror
Reaching for my glasses. On the lenses
I notice many tiny specks of salt
Remembrances of Monday
Remembrances of Margo
How fleeting are our lives
As seen in those precious
Squinting in the hotel mirror
Reaching for my glasses. On the lenses
I notice many tiny specks of salt
Remembrances of Monday
Remembrances of Margo
How fleeting are our lives
As seen in those precious
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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. 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