Where He leads

How do you say goodbye to the love of your life?

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Alone in his bedroom, John Harper (name changed) dresses in preparation for the funeral of his wife of 21 years. Mary Harper (name changed), 43, died Jan. 20, after an almost two-year battle with ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. “I remember the first night I had to go to bed alone,” John says. “I wept and I wept and I wept.” (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) A friend reassures Jessica Harper (name changed), 13, as she waits for guests to arrive for her mother’s funeral, Jan. 24, near Springfield, Mo. “She was sweet, pretty, loved the Lord, loved to cook and had a servant’s heart,” Jessica said of Mary. (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) A family member reaches out to comfort John Harper, left, as he cries during Mary’s funeral. “I always loved to look at her beautiful green eyes,” he said. “And they really showed her heart, because her heart was what was beautiful. She was pretty on the outside, but she was beautiful on the inside.” (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) Coming from as far away as Turkey, former missionary colleagues and teammates joined dozens of family and friends who gathered to celebrate Mary Harper’s life. Alex Kirk (name changed), who served on the Harpers’ team in Central Asia, embraces John in a tearful hug. (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) Guests view family photos and Mary Harper’s Bible as they wait in line to greet John and his daughters, Lindsey (name changed) and Jessica, following the funeral service. (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) A friend wraps her arms around Lindsey, 15, at church on the Sunday following Mary’s death. Lindsey admired her mother’s hospitality and says it’s one of the things she’ll miss most. (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) IMB President Tom Elliff speaks with Mary Harper’s parents at her funeral. “In the days ahead, I know that you’re going to be calling on the well of God’s strength time and time again. … and it will never run dry,” Elliff said. (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) A cold wind whips through the small cemetery near the Harpers’ home where family and friends gather to bury Mary’s remains. “The Bible says that the Lord delights in the death of His saints,” John said. “I know that when she breathed her last of this oxygen and breathed her first breath of celestial air, that the Lord looked at her … and He said, ‘Well done. You fought the fight. You finished well.’” (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) Jill Foster (name changed), right, hugs Jessica at the Harpers’ home following Mary’s funeral service. Foster was one of the Harpers’ teammates in Central Asia; she also lost her mother at about the same age as Lindsey and Jessica. “Mary was a friend, a mentor, we did Bible study together, we ministered side by side. But more than that, I was a mentor and sister to her girls,” Foster said. “They may not see or understand it now, but God in His sovereignty has promised that everything that comes from His hand is for our good and for His glory — even though right now, it hurts.” (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) Mary’s brother, Steven, reflects at the Harpers’ back door during a moment of solitude. (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) With Jessica supervising, John Harper cuts wood for the stove that provides much of the heat for the family’s century-old house. “One of my fears I had was that my daughters would be angry at God,” John said. “They know He has the power to heal their mother. They know He has the power to put her ashes together once again and burst her out of that grave.” (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) Jessica Harper cooks pancakes as the family prepares breakfast; it’s one of the many household duties that now fall to the girls in the wake of Mary’s death. “Her preparation was first teaching her daughters to be disciples of Christ,” John said. “But she also worked hard to teach them to cook, clean, how to run a household.” (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) John Harper reads his Bible in church the Sunday following Mary’s death. “My job is to seek God’s kingdom first,” he said. “The Great Commission is to make disciples and impact people’s lives for the Gospel, so that is what I’m going to do.” (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) Leaning on his good friend, Casey Haynes, for comfort, John Harper breaks down in tears during church the Sunday after Mary’s death. “There will always be a hole in my heart that can never be mended,” John said. (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) Casey Haynes, right, and John Harper relax during a get together at a friend’s house. “I couldn’t have made it through that first night in sanity without Casey,” John remembered. “He couldn’t stop the hurt that is still in my heart. But just having a good friend there to put his arm around me, even in the most strange of situations, us both sitting there in our boxer shorts on the edge of the bed, crying.” (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) While the adults chat upstairs, John Harper makes times to wrestle in the basement. “Our house has always been full of humor and laughter, even in the hard times,” he said. (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) John Harper tends to one of his weekly chores — burning trash — in the family’s backyard. As a single parent, he’ll now pull double duty, helping Lindsey and Jessica run the house. (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee) Alone with his thoughts, John Harper washes dishes in the family’s kitchen. “Before God can use anybody greatly He has to hurt them deeply,” he said. “He has to prune them deep … It hurts. It’s painful. But He is faithful.” (IMB photo by Paul W. Lee)

‘I will miss her until the day I die’

Central Asia

‘I will miss her until the day I die’

By Don Graham

SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—Mary Harper* didn’t want to fight anymore. For months, ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) had gradually robbed her body of muscle and strength. She resisted with exercise, dietary supplements and prayer. But now, sitting in a wheelchair in the family’s kitchen near Springfield, the 43-year-old mother of two was ready to yield. The disease had won­­. ALS had finally crushed her spirit.

“I’m tired,” Mary told her husband, John,* as tears began to stream down her cheeks. “I’m tired of fighting. I’m tired of y’all seeing me suffer.” Until that moment, there had been hope for a miracle. That God would heal Mary, or at least, stop the disease’s progression. But as John listened to the weariness in his wife’s voice, suddenly he knew — the woman he had loved for the past 21 years was going to die.

It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Eight years ago, the Harpers uprooted their family and moved to a spiritually dark corner of Central Asia to spread the Gospel as Southern Baptist missionaries. By 2012, they were entering the prime of their ministry. That’s when ALS changed everything. Forced to return to the United States, Mary was given three to five years to live. But she worried she wouldn’t last that long. Instead, she asked God for a single “good year” —enough time to transition her family back to America and teach her teenage daughters, Lindsey* and Jessica,* how to make a home without her.

CRUEL DISEASE

ALS is a cruel disease. It attacks the nerves responsible for muscle movement, gradually paralyzing the body while sparing the mind. Many ALS victims eventually become “trapped” in their own bodies, unable to move, eat or even speak.

Mary’s symptoms began with twitching in her arm and shoulder. By April 2013, she had lost the use of her right arm completely. She was growing weaker, too, and tired easily. Even small tasks, like putting away dishes, were a challenge. Soon, cooking, cleaning and laundry were all handed over to Lindsey, Jessica and John. 

“She had such a servant’s heart,” John says. “But she wasn’t able to serve. She had to be served.”

Mary’s condition continued to deteriorate rapidly. It was November 2013 when she told John she was tired of fighting. By then Mary could no longer dress, bathe or even use the bathroom by herself. She wore a scarf to hide the dramatic muscle loss in her neck and chest.

“She didn’t want to go some places because I would have to feed her,” John remembers. “It was embarrassing to her. She didn’t want people to remember her that way.”

ALS even took away simple pleasures. When they went to bed, Mary would often fall asleep with her head on John’s chest and her arm across his waist. But her muscles were now too weak to hold that position without straining. So they held hands instead.

“It just killed me. It really hurt [to see her suffer],” he adds. “She never complained about her inabilities. She got frustrated at herself… [but] not mad at God.”

MARY’S HOMECOMING

On the morning of Jan. 20, 2014, Mary was having trouble breathing. She couldn’t seem to get enough air and felt like she would faint. She began choking sporadically. John was frightened.

“I asked her three times, ‘Do you want me to call you an ambulance?’” he remembers. Each time she answered, “Why?”

“I think she knew she was going to die that day,” he says. Mary’s parents were already at the house; John’s brother rushed to school to pick up Lindsey and Jessica. John was worried they wouldn’t make it in time, but Mary held on.

Family and close friends came to say goodbye, too. They held Mary’s hand, kissed her forehead, and cried as she struggled to breathe. Ahsan* and Iman,* the Harpers’ closest friends and ministry partners in Central Asia, called to pray with her.  

“Go be with your God,” John remembers telling Mary through his tears. “Quit fighting. Quit struggling.”

As more time passed between breaths, her eyes closed. “Heaven is such a beautiful place,” she said. Those were Mary’s last words. She lost consciousness and died soon after.

“Blessed be the name of the Lord. Though He slay me, I will trust in Him,” John cried out as he wept over her body. “And I kept saying, ‘My sweet Mary. My sweet, sweet, Mary.’ Because she was so sweet. Everybody loved her. She was easy to love.”

People filled the church in Ozark, Mo., for Mary’s funeral. Many shared stories with John of how Mary had personally impacted their lives, often with the truth from the Bible.

Great is Thy Faithfulness was sung at her request. “That was her testimony through all of this; that God had been faithful,” John says. “Even in death, she is still sharing the Gospel.”

LOOKING AHEAD

Today, the Harpers are learning to live with the hole left by Mary’s absence. It’s hard, but they’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support they’ve received. People they barely know have brought meals, helped clean their house, even given special “love gifts,” like a box of shotgun shells so Jessica could go hunting. Not to mention dozens of cards and letters from believers across the country offering encouragement and prayer. 

John says some of the changes just feel weird — like sleeping alone or not knowing whether to mark “married” or “single” on the visitor’s card at his new church. “I just left it blank,” he admits.

He misses Mary’s “beautiful green eyes,” practical wisdom and ability to “straighten him out” with a single look. “Every weakness I had was her strength, and every weakness she had was my strength,” he says. “And I will miss her until the day I die.”

What he’ll miss most, he thinks, will be watching his daughters grow up without Mary by his side. “She won’t get to see the godly young ladies they are going to become,” he says.

But he can’t dwell on his grief. He’s got a family to raise and a new job to find. He doesn’t know whether he’ll ever return to Central Asia, but that won’t stop him from sharing the Gospel — that calling has not changed.   

“I have absolutely no idea what the future holds,” John says. “I think everybody is going to be amazed at what God can do with a hillbilly like me. … Our story isn’t over.”

Don Graham is a senior writer at IMB.

*Name changed

CONNECT

  • The Harpers relish your prayers and encouragement during this difficult time. Write them at:

    John Harper
    P.O. Box 165
    Rogersville, MO 65742-0165
     

  • Help continue the Harpers’ work in Central Asia. Give directly to support evangelism efforts among the Harpers’ people group via a special Lottie Moon challenge project created in their name: “Evangelism outreach in honor of John Harper and Ahsan.”

PRAY

  • Ask the Father to strengthen and encourage John as a single parent, and to place godly women in the lives of Lindsey and Jessica.
  • Pray that God will continue to tangibly reveal His love, goodness and mercy to the Harpers as they struggle with Mary’s absence.
  • Ask the Lord to bless John with wisdom and opportunity as he seeks a new career and new ministry opportunities.

GIVE NOW

  • To donate to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions, go here. For other giving opportunities, go here.

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