They called it “Blue Christmas” at Arborlawn United Methodist Church in Fort Worth the other night. Narrator/ soloist Deb Sewell organized the mostly-musical program, offered for the community’s “whosoevers” — the ones keenly feeling the loss of loved ones, or other cuts from life’s jagged edges.
More than 100 people gathered for the balm of song and Christian testimony, the latter provided by Yvonne Harpole, who was widowed in the fall of 2006.
That’s when James Harpole, who had held emphysema at bay for six years, succumbed, ending a marriage of 51 years…
At the lectern, Yvonne exercised her right to claim “selective memories.”
And why not? In the great sea of memories, the precious ones serve us best, even when we have to reach for them.
Several in the audience remembered her husband well. The “tenacious tenor” had inspired fellow choir members by the spirited way he kept pace — sometimes even running ahead — despite the encumbrance of oxygen tanks…
Two of Yvonne’s most precious memories center on her husband’s renditions of “The Lord’s Prayer.” Both were sung to her exactly 50 years apart — the first time at their wedding in Gainesville, their hometown — and the next time in Fort Worth.
She planned the wedding, but it was James who insisted on the vows renewal ceremony on August 5, 2005.
About 300 friends gathered for the ceremony; all were touched, particularly by “The Lord’s Prayer.” It was sung far differently this time. As James proceeded, he sang faster and faster. Organist Jerry Westenkuhler could hardly keep up…
It was an emotional time, causing above average oxygen consumption.
“I’m the one who knew how much oxygen I had left, so I sang fast,” James laughed.
So did the on-lookers, each of whom had special memories of the veteran choir member. At one time, the choir had just seven members, including James on oxygen and another member on a cane. “Excuses others might have made came across as pretty lame,” Director Tom Stoker recalls…
James wanted no special treatment, at work, at home or at church. He had breathing contraptions under his desk at Bell Helicopter Textron, a portable unit for his van and another at home. For walking, he had a tank on rollers. That’s the one he pulled behind him as they marched down the aisle to take their places in the choir loft.
He never missed rehearsals or any choir presentations. And when they were on tour, he and Yvonne were in a van behind the bus. Safety precautions precluded compressed oxygen on the bus…
“He just never went half-speed,” Stoker said. “James was the ‘life of the party,’ always pushing tempos, giving the rest of us plenty of reasons to laugh. He made choir fun,” the director added, “And when others saw the way he handled adversity, the choir started growing. Now there are about 70 members.”
In everything, the plucky tenor persevered. One day, Stoker saw Harpole laboriously mounting a stairwell, taking a step, then lifting the tank. He raced over to help, but James objected.
“Look, I have a selfish interest,” Stoker said. “I’m counting on you having enough breath to sing when we get to the next floor!…”
In the early days of 2006, things got tough. Four days into the year, James could no longer work. A few months later, this man of music made one of his toughest decisions: to drop out of choir. James, a member of the One O’Clock Lab band while in college at North Texas State, made great claims on music. Rich with a wife, three children and seven grandchildren, he crowded much into 73 years, depending on love and laughter for the harmony of life. He died on September 17, 2006, fully expecting Yvonne and others who loved him most to continue claims on smile-inducing memories.
True, congregants had gathered for a “Blue Christmas” program. But, touching remarks enhanced by beautiful music celebrating our Savior’s birth greatly “whitened” Christmas.
May yours be merry and bright. Claim the best of your memories, and make some more good ones for the new year…
Don Newbury is a speaker and author whose weekly column appears in 125 newspapers in six states. He welcomes comments and inquiries. Call him at (817) 447-3872, or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org His Web site is www.speakerdoc.com.