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.

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Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog

DSC_8942My husband, home sick from work, was fixing to fascinate me with stories about locks at the hospital. My responses cycled between “Hmmm” “Oh?” “yeah” and “wow.” He shook his head in exasperation and complained, “I’m trying to impress you and you aren’t responding!”

“Babe,” I lifted my head and made eye contact. “I have three pages left of this book.”

“Oh?” he said. “What are you reading?”

“Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog … a book about diagramming sentences.”

We dissolved into laughter at the absurdity of diagramming edging out locksmithing.

When I was a student, I was not gripped by grammar. Caron, my camp friend, used to amuse herself by counting the spelling and grammar mistakes in my letters. The fun flattened when the error count declined to three or four. I still stumble over less and fewer, lay and lie, hopefully and I hope.

Kitty Burns Florey is a fun look back. Moderately fun. To those who suffered through grammar, it has about the same nostalgic power as a teeter-totter has to two chunksters in their fifties. (Have you noticed that teeter-totters disappeared from playgrounds? Hmmm?)

Relax! Florey’s acerbic tone spices up this bland subject. She calls Eats, Shoots & Leavesa “popular scold-fest.” I enjoyed her prose and reveled in her side notes.

The fact is that a lot of people don’t need diagramming or anything else: they pick up grammar and syntax effortlessly through their reading—which, in the case of most competent users of words, ranges from extensive to fanatical. The language sticks to them like cat hair to black trousers, and they do things correctly without knowing why.

I learned details about words, a bonus she couldn’t resist throwing in. (When Kitty isn’t writing books, she is a copy editor.) I learned that enormity means a very great wickedness, not a very large hugeness. Likewise, infinitesimal means endless, not very, very small. She explained that a Lion’s share is 100%, not a majority. Ain’t, don’t you know, exists because we don’t have a contraction for “am not.” So ain’t used with the first person singular (the pronoun I) is technically correct.

My opinion is that English grammar can be taught with more ease and more adhesion through the ear rather than the eye, with vocal chants/songs such as those used in The Shurley Method or Grammar Songs. But, I enjoyed the refresher course on sentence diagramming.

The visual delight of the book are the diagrams of unwieldy sentences by James, Hemingway (whose sentences are normally spare), Fenimore Cooper, Twain, Proust, Oates, Updike, Kerouac, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Welty and Powell.

I couldn’t resist trying a long sentence myself. Above is the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism. Corrections are welcome.

Poetry in Motion

DSC_0051We were two twenty-something girls enthusing over football. Lisa said, A well-executed play is poetry in motion. Surely, I had heard the phrase poetry in motion before; The Wind in the Willows was one of my favorite childhood reads. But it was then that it grabbed me.

The beauty of coordinated movement makes my heart sing.

A five-way intersection near my house can be a concert or it can be disconcerting. When two left turns, two straight-aheads and one right turn flow—without a brake or jerk—, I spend the next mile with my mental math compass recreating the scene on (mental) paper, drawing arcs and straight lines, pleased down to the perimeters.

Planes landing, taking off, banking: a colorful three-dimensioned x-y graph.

Canadian geese writing vees in the sky.

Mallards settling on the water.

Ping pong and volleyball volleys that make you forget to breathe.

A homely illustration. My husband and I regularly invite people over for dinner. Like the five-way stop, an evening can flow smoothly or it’s a herky-jerky highwire.

On fluid days we prepare food, space, and settings with intuitive understanding. Curt gets home, takes a reading of the climate, and does the next thing. After people leave, the cleanup begins with the tacit agreement to keep on until the chores run out. Or until we say, “Good enough!” The warp and woof of well-executed teamwork is satisfying.

Where do you see poetry in motion?

Les Misérables – No Spoilers

I had planned on a solo viewing of Les Misérables. My husband doesn’t do musicals. But, he replied, I do dates with my wife. He was familiar with the story: we had watched the 1998 film with Liam Neeson.

In some mysterious way, Curt has learned how to see things in movies that astonishes me. In a movie about redemption, there are many symbols. But when we got home, Curt pointed out three crosses that you should look for when you watch this film. There is a cross of slavery, a cross of redemption, and a cross of salvation.

 

Walk with Me

I was spearing some brussell sprouts when the truck motor caught my attention.

I looked out the window and the blood drained from my face. The words Oregon State Police were painted on the truck door. The speed was slow; the driver looked carefully at the numbers on houses.

I walked to the screen door and stood there. My guys are out hunting. I waited to see if this officer was sent for me.

He drove past the house; I blew out the air that I’d been holding in reserve. Two doors down, he pulled into the driveway and turned around. Again, the truck idling, he tilted his head and scanned the fronts of houses.

“Walk with me, Jesus,” I prayed/commanded as the truck slowed in front of my house. In these moments—silly me—, I begin lining up pallbearers.

Then the Oregon State Police continued down the block. Breathe deep. Exhale.

It was only a rehearsal. 

Making the Bed

I think about death. I do. When my husband falls asleep on his back with his hands on his chest and his chin falls down, I call it the coffin pose. My funeral playlist is an oft-pondered subject. I am more inclined to say, “I love you” to people who don’t expect it, because I know that one sometimes doesn’t get go-backs. I remind myself that our days are numbered. And this is a sober introduction to a playful subject.

Because, if I survive Curt, one of the things I would miss the most is making the bed with him.

There is a history.

Three weeks into our marriage, we experienced an unsettling reality: we had different ways of doing things. What we were doing was making the bed.

It started with the fitted sheet. There is a correct sequence: first a top corner, then the opposite bottom corner, like an X…then the other top corner, and finally the opposing bottom. Fewer wrinkles or gaps. Curt disregarded my domestic dogma and just put the sheet on…however he saw fit.

Next was the flat sheet. Back then, there was a right side and a wrong side. Which side faces up? I said the right side, because…that is right. He said the wrong side so when you folded the sheets back to get into bed, both sides were right. (I concede, he was right.)

But the pinnacle of our disagreement was pillow placement. He said the open sides of the pillow were in the middle. I said the seams were in the center, open sides at the edge. And, you see, one of us had to give.

Because we were twitterpated there was no rancor in our disagreement. Just lots of teasing.

 

Life filled up and I ceased caring about X corners and pillow placement. The bed just had to be made. Early on, however, it became a game.

After the bedspread/duvet is smooth and folded back, we race to put the pillows in the pillowcases. And there are no rules, no holds barred. Everything is fair play. If I am on the verge of victory, he lunges across and yanks the half-cased pillow out of my hands. I hide his pillow case and begin before he’s retrieved it. We giggle like idiots. It’s hard to case a pillow when you are shaking with laughter. The winner flings the pillow on the bed with a flourish and a shout.

Making the bed.

Ordering the common life.

This is what we keep striving towards: get the work done, but infuse it with fun. (I hope we have 34 more years of laughter.