Monday, April 12, 2021

Saying Good-bye To An Angel


I have had one great, enduring love in my life.  My Sweet Susie and I have been married for more than 53 years.  She is absolutely the best thing to ever happen to me.  She is my wife, lover, confidant, quiet critic and encourager - the person who has shared the many great joys and successes in my life for more than a half-century and the person who has given me strength to move forward in troubled times.  I love her with all my heart.


And yet, there has been another love in my life - a woman I’ve known for more than 60 years - a beautiful person no matter how you measure that word.  I think I’ve loved her most of my life - as I would love a sister and great friend.  I’ve never held her hand, stolen a kiss or tried to woo her, but over the decades we have shared hugs that have meant more than any of that.  We have been there for each other - she more than me - and had an enduring bond since we met as teenagers.  And now she is gone…


My dear friend, Sherry Harper, died in the early morning hours of March 13, 2021 following her recovery from the removal of a banana-sized tumor from her brain by skilled surgeons at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach.  During her recovery she began to show signs of the return of her illness - a Grade 4 Glioblastoma, an incurable form of cancer.  As a woman of great faith, she assessed her options - her children wanted her to place her wellbeing in the hands of one of the cancer research hospitals in Southern California, to see if some kind of undefined experimental treatment could solve the problem - and she chose to place herself in the hands of God.  36 hours later she passed away at her home, surrounded by those she loved most in this world, each of whom knelt beside her bed, exchanged words of love and gave her their permission to depart this world.  It was a perfect departure for my friend.


My friend was born Sharron Lee Graves on June 12, 1944 and was raised in Petaluma, California by her mother, Shirley and adoptive father, John Graves.  In her youth she became a champion water ski racer, skipping across the waves at more than 70 miles per hour.  She was also a beauty queen - Miss Sonoma County, 1962, a title she won the day after she broke her nose in a water ski racing accident.  She flew as a stewardess for American Airlines from 1964-1966, then became a ticket agent at the San Francisco Airport for a few more years.  She married Al Coppin in 1966 and had three wonderful children, Shawn, Daniel and Michael.  Sherry and Al were married for 14 years.


Following their divorce Sherry Co-founded the Singles Ministry and Divorce Recovery Ministry at Marin Covenant Church in 1980, where she was the Minister to Singles.  During this time she met her second husband, Sanford (Sandy) Harper, to whom she was married for more than 25 years until his death from Leukemia.  For a couple decades they traveled the country in motor homes - 15,000 miles a year - making friends and spreading her Divorce Recovery Ministry far and wide.  They eventually settled down in Tucson, Arizona.  With Sandy came a step-son, Chris, who became Sherry's 4th child in every sense of the word.


Sherry came into my life as a pal of my sister, Linda, when they met and became close buds during a vacation at Clear Lake, CA.  Back then Sherry was just a cute little target of teasing and jokes.  My cousins and I would drag her out of the tent in which she slept - sleeping bag and all - carry her down to the dock and dump her unceremoniously out of the sleeping bag into the water.  She was a great target.


Our families would coordinate our vacations at Clear Lake and we had some wonderful times.  Sherry and I both became pretty darn good water skiers - but she was the brave one.  She dominated women’s water ski racing on the West Coast for many years - a tiny slip of a thing, skipping across the water, holding off all comers.


As the years passed we drifted apart, but she still insisted in driving down to Fort Ord to rescue me and an old high school pal from Basic Training on a weekend pass at the end of 1963.  And, her father, John - one of the really fun men I’ve ever known - insisted in taking us for a boat ride on the Petaluma Slough in his hot boat, The Big Deal, before we took the bus back to Fort Ord.  So, early that Sunday morning we began running hot laps past the warehouses along the waterfront, the dry stacks of the 392 Chrysler engine blazing away.  We woke up the entire city and several hundred people lined the waterway to see what was going on.

When I was assigned for duty in New York City following Basic Training, Sherry - then a stewardess for American Airlines - would occasionally end up in the Big Apple, so we would do stuff - take the Staten Island Ferry, trek around Central Park, etc.  She was a great friend when I really needed one.


When I got out of the Army the end of 1965 I had no car - my ’57 Chevy convertible was long gone - so Sherry, who was based in the LA area, would let me use her nifty little 1962 Austin-Healy Roadster from time to time.  In fact, I drove it north to Petaluma for her at the time of her wedding.  Again, she was there for me.


In 2003 my best friend since we were 5 years old, Larry Moore, crashed his motorcycle outside Las Vegas and spent the next 6 weeks in the hospital there before he passed away.  Sherry and Sandy drove up from Tucson, not to see Larry, but to see how I was doing… She was that kind of friend.


Susie and I were good friends with Sherry and Sandy.  We would visit each other’s homes when our respective schedules permitted.  Susie really became great friends with Sherry when they traveled to England together and spent a month visiting friends and relatives.  We have joked about how it was like traveling with me - Susie is an early riser and Sherry, like me, was NOT!  They remained great friends ever since.


Once the decision was made to transport Sherry to her home in Mission Viejo under hospice care her wonderful daughter-in-law, Elizabeth Coppin, somehow convinced the transport drivers to take a detour to our home on the way.  They stopped in front of our house, opened the rear doors of the ambulance and, as we began to talk to Sherry, they stopped us.  They had more work to do!  They carefully pulled the gurney holding our dear friend out onto the street in front of our home so we could hug her, give her a smooch and tell her we loved her.  I will be forever grateful for that act of kindness - and for Liz’s persistence.


That was the final time we saw our friend, who passed away peacefully at her home 36 hours later, surrounded by those she loved.


Last Friday, April 9th, a mass was held in honor of our friend at the Catholic Church she regularly attended.  She had become a devout Catholic over the past couple decades.  It was a wonderful event with many family members speaking.  We were in tears as we watched the video feed.


Then, on Saturday, the 10th, a Celebration of Life for her was held at a non-denominational church in Orange.  This was also a wonderful event, attended by more than a hundred friends and family members (with proper social distancing, of course!), including her ex-husband, who was among those speaking about Sherry.  I was asked to be the first speaker - the lead-off hitter in the line up that day. I just hoped to not strike out swinging with all the power hitters to follow me.  Choking back tears, I spent several minutes telling the audience about “My Sherry” - about our more than six decades of friendship and how much she meant to Susie and me.


I was followed by presentations by her children and grandchildren, and her ex-husband, all of whom shared stories about Sherry and what a wonderful wife, mother and grandmother she was.   Her daughter-in-law, Liz (Lizzie, as Sherry referred to her), chronicled the last two weeks of her life for us.  Her husband, Mike, explained how much her loss meant to him.  Her daughter, Shawn, spoke of her unfailing love and how much she inspired her to follow her own ministry.  Her former husband, Al, had a tough time explaining his feelings for her - clearly still very deep after all these years.  Her stepson, Chris, told us just how welcome she made him feel as her "fourth child."  Her son, Dan, a wonderful single man still searching for the right woman, explained how his mother had filled the nurturing, supportive role he sought in a wife.  Son-in-law Bob King read a long note from Sherry’s brother, Bill, who could not attend, which attempted to chronicle all the men in Sherry’s life, and how she had trusted him with her Austin-Healey and taught him to drive.  A friend, the daughter of one of Sherry’s old friends from when she was a young mother, read a note from her mother talking about how much Sherry’s strength and support meant to her.  Through all these speeches the common thread was what a supportive, giving person Sherry was.   I had very wet cheeks as I listened to these words.


Following the service we enjoyed some refreshments with other attendees and several folks stopped by our table to say hello.  One woman spent quite awhile with us, chatting about the impact Sherry had on her life - she was a participant in the Divorce Recovery Ministry very early on and she and Sherry became great friends.  Others shared similar stories.


So, we said good-bye to our friend, a woman described by family and friends as “the rock” of their family - always there when she was needed, even at times when she anticipated that need and showed up just to chat and listen.  I knew THAT woman well.


My friend is survived by her ex-husband, Al Coppin, her daughter, Shawn King (Bob), son Daniel Coppin, son Michael Coppin (Elizabeth), step-son Chris Harper (Sarah) and five grandchildren, Aiden and Avery King, Samantha Bell and Jackson Bear Coppin and  Hanalore Harper.


Of all the thousands of images of my friend that were circulated as a result of many of us rummaging through scrap books, photo albums and other archives, this last one is my favorite. It is one of the very last images captured of her by one of her children.  She is laying on her side with a beautiful, contented smile on her face, on her bed at home - the place where those she loved best knelt beside her to say good bye and to give her their permission to leave.  That image captured exactly who she was - a woman sharing all the love she had to give and clearly at peace with her decision to depart.  I’ll forever be grateful for that image of my friend.

For more than 60 years Sherry was my friend in the truest sense of the word.  I’ve loved her as a sister.  She has left a huge hole in our lives.  I will miss her great sense of humor, her kindness, her patience and the friendship, wisdom and love she shared with us all.  So, good-bye, my dear Sherry.  You served us all well during your time on this earth and we know that you will be there, among all the other angels, watching over us from above.  We love you, dear girl.

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