When Joy and Grief Cohabit

 

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I was telling a friend about a fresh grief, one with, potentially, a long shelf-life. About gripping tighter to joy. How joy and grief were now roommates in my soul. They share the same space, and even cross over the boundaries I’ve drawn for them.

I’ll never forget Josh and Katie’s wedding two days ago…how the beautiful and broken bits of life mingled.

The gnawing absence was Katie’s adored dad, who died two years ago. A loss most conspicuous those two minutes when the bride (usually) walks down the aisle holding her father’s arm.  Katie had no suitable substitute. Their solution to this dilemma was brilliant and heart-breaking.

Josh and Pastor Scott took their position at the front and the attendants walked forward. When the bride’s processional music began, Katie waited alone at the entrance. Josh picked up two red roses and approached Katie. Beside her was a table with a framed picture of her dad, his sweat-stained hat (which remarkably had her new last name on it), flowers and other reminders of his life.

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Josh and Katie placed their roses before her father’s photo and took a moment to silently acknowledge his contribution to their joy and the gap of his absence. Then Josh offered his arm and escorted his wife-to-be to the ceremony.

Joy and grief sharing every step.

Katie’s face was wistful, Josh’s somber.

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I loved the respect they showed in acknowledging her dad. How they faced the pain together. How their joy came in the mourning.

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July Joy

DSC_4732Joyous weddings nurture my spirit.

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Daddy dance: our son and the flower girl (our Aria) dancing

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Wine tasting with Dan and la Bella (my brother and sis-in-law, Valeri)

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I’ve wanted one of these giant (= mellow) wind chimes for years. An early birthday gift!

DSC_5160Kizzy, Little Bit, Jemima, Baby Girl, Violet, Pony Boy, Cookie

DSC_5243The Bee Gee’s “Stayin’ Alive” is this plant’s theme song.
Not to be dramatic, but sometimes keeping it alive seems my greatest challenge.

DSC_5250Reintroducing radishes to my palate.

DSC_5210A royal bloom

DSC_2836A byproduct of forced frugality early in life is the thrill of a matched set later in life!

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Reading aloud to my grands is one of my passions. I often read during meals as they eat. Water colors, sketching, markers, or play dough also help occupy their hands during non-meal times. This was my oldest grandson’s creation during today’s read aloud session.

A Scrabble Proposal

blank forms                                                                                                       002

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.

Come Rain or Come Shine, The Book

I once prayed, Lord, please let Jan Karon live long enough to get Dooley and Lace married. The answer to that prayer was a whelming flood; I started crying on page 32 and sniffed and sobbed my way—punctuated by laughs—to the final page. Redemption, benediction, healing, holy amazement, connection. Reading this brings the satisfaction of resolution, the “two bits” after the “shave and a haircut”.

Weddings are my thing. Joyful solemnity, giving, sharing, joining, celebrating, laughing, crying, hugging, singing, dancing, rejoicing, thanksgiving. I love a good wedding and I’ve been to a few profoundly remarkable ones.

There was joy in the air; you could sniff it as plain as new-cut hay.

The focus of Come Rain or Come Shineis on the month before and the day of The Big Knot. Dooley and Lace want a small, intimate ceremony at Meadowgate Farm. Karon enjoys poking fun at the myth of a ‘simple country wedding.’  There are obstacles and annoyances. There are secrets and surprises. There is the unrelenting pressure of diminishing time to get the place wedding-ready.

DSC_0964The main character is Lace Harper. Her journals reveal her heart, her hopes, her fears, her loves. She wants to find a wedding dress for under $100; she is thankful for the callouses which document her hard work. She wants to get it—this whole starting a new family—right. I appreciated the ways Dooley and Lace honor the memory of Sadie Baxter (benefactor) and Russell Jacks (Dooley’s grandpa) in their wedding. Fun stuff: there is a Pinterest page for Lace Harper’s wedding!

Jan Karon and Wendell Berry are both skilled at portraying a community where giving, helping, and reciprocating are the norm. In their novels they don’t cover up the hurts, the anger, the tensions, the troubles. Weddings can be awkward with family drama. Karon handles the presence of Dooley’s birth mom, Pauline Leeper, in the same room as his siblings with utmost care. There is no easy resolution, no instant reconciliation, just baby steps, tiny beginnings towards the on-ramp to healing.

I connected with this book in many ways. This summer we went to a small, simple country wedding (see picture above) in a pasture. My son and daughter-in-law have a wind storm and fallen trees in their wedding story, too. I know what it is to be gob-smacked by blessings, reduced to silent tears of joy. Live music is the best for dancing the night away. I love the song in the title.

‘Why can’t life always be lived under the stars,’ she said, ‘with great music and family and friends?’

♪♫♪ Come Rain or Come Shine ♪♫♪ is a standard (music by Harold Arlen, lyrics Johnny Mercer) that has been covered by scores of recording artists. I used it ten years ago when I made a PowerPoint slideshow for Curt’s folks’ 50th wedding anniversary. In the course of my work, I listened to B.B. King and Eric Clapton on endless repetition. And I can honestly say, I never tired of it. But there are so many recordings of this song, that I put my listening of them in this post.

This book.

I finished it last night. I started it again this morning.

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.)

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

Public_transport_in_Gaborone(Public transportation in Gaborone, Botswana – photo Wikimedia Commons)

Alexander McCall Smith did a good thing when he crafted the character of Mma Precious Ramotswe. In each book, she is consistently the kind, traditional, perceptive, tender-hearted, contented woman I’ve come to regard as my friend.

And yet, he doesn’t filter out all the unsavory aspects of Botswana life. In this 12th book of the No. 1 Ladies Detective series, we see a young mother who treats her children with utter indifference, cattle killed, a menacing man and a cowed woman.

I recently finished The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party, the twelfth book. I’m reading them out of order, according to library availability.

The title of the first chapter is The Memory of Lost Things; could it be an allusion to Proust?

As with every book in this series, I care about Mma Ramotswe’s culture ten times more than whatever mystery needs to be solved. There’s a dig at mobile phones, complainers, fathers who don’t take responsibility for their children. On the plus side is Mma’s abiding love for her late father and for her ‘late’ tiny white van, her compassion for those who suffer, the poetry of night sounds, her gratitude for Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, her encouragement to an undeserving recipient, and the joy of an abundant wedding feast.

There is a tender moment between two bereaved women. I have a late baby, Mma. It is a long time ago. ~ I have a late child too, Mma. McCall Smith understands the permanence of grief. Almost every book has a small reference to the baby Mma Ramotswe lost.

In the end Grace Makutsi marries Phuti Radiphuti, which means she will never have to ride in public transportation again, and she can indulge her love of loud shoes. The wedding doesn’t have the prominence that the title gives it, but that’s OK.

Here is a quote to whet your appetite.

Nowadays, people are always thinking of getting somewhere—they travelled around far more, rushing from here to there and then back again. She would never let her life go that way; she would always take the time to drink tea, to look at the sky, and to talk. What else was there to do? Make money? Why? Did money bring any greater happiness than that furnished by a well-made cup of red bush tea and a moment or two with a good friend? She thought not. 230