There is no guidebook instructing someone how to die.
Bryan Harper of Florence wished he knew the answers, wished he had some advice on how to deal with his body shutting down while his mind remained clear and vibrant. There was no life experience to dwell on for comfort. He was convinced he was headed to a better place, but thoughts of heaven were still clouded with uncertainty.
“I don’t know what to expect, step for step,” Harper said Oct. 3. “All I can do is make the next step.”
Harper kept fighting, but he knew it was getting worse and worse. He had less energy every day. He said it would have been easier to quit, to just stop taking the medicine. He said on Oct. 3 that he was both afraid of death and curious about what the next step would hold.
Fear was not his motivation. He believed he was being tested by God; if he had given up, his standing in the afterlife would have been affected. He also wanted to see his grandchildren as many times as he could.
Friends and family had been what kept Harper alive. His health deteriorated sharply in his final two months. He had to turn back to modern medicine, taking steroids to halt the headaches, which felt like a small hammer pounding on his cranium repeatedly to the beat of an unknown metronome. He thought of his grandchildren as he took those pills — the faces of Hailey, Jeffrey, Garrett, Addison, Brogan, Jordan, and Dominic, ages 4 months to 10 years old.
He died on Monday, more than a year later than any doctor expected.
In February 2011, Harper was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Although he had an affected kidney removed, the cancer spread to his lungs. The doctors at Newton Medical Center gave him three months to live.
Harper fought the disease and he fought his way. Medical science told him there was no hope so he turned to holistic medicine. He started a strict diet and a regimen using 25 different herbs. After six months of that treatment, when his digestive system was flushed and prepared, he felt much better. The cancer moved out of his lungs; he said he did not have so much as a cough. However, he surmised that the cancer was searching for a weak spot, and found it with his brain.
Harper had two brain tumors on the left and right sides of his brain. Their effect was that it destroyed his equilibrium. He couldn’t drive a car, fearing he would swerve off the road. He couldn’t walk straight without assistance; he could see the path, he told his body to put one foot in front of the other as he had done his entire life, but he wobbled to one direction or another.
There were plenty of things Harper missed, independence being foremost. He was embarrassed that his mother, Sandy Harper, helped him get down his stairs. Even though he took an entire morning to gather strength for the task, he could not descend from his residence without her help.
What Harper tried hard not to miss were the moments to live his life. Over the past year and half, he crossed a few items off a “bucket list.” He recently went to Colorado. He couldn’t hike but he could see the peaks of valleys of the Rocky Mountains from the frame of a car window; he could smell the fresh mountain air scented with pines. He also went to Las Vegas, Nev., to take in the shock of light and noise of the bustling city. He saw Alan Jackson; armed with backstage passes acquired from one of his friends in Florence, Harper met the country music star.
Although these experiences stand out, Harper kept coming back to the simple joys of being with friends usually out hunting and fishing. Harper had an entire room in his house dedicated to hunting supplies. He intended to go on a turkey hunt Saturday despite his weakened condition.
Again, Harper could only try to do things his way. He was married twice. His second wife collapsed out of the blue on Thanksgiving Day four years ago, dying instantly of a massive stroke at 43 years old. He remembered interrupting about 20 different holiday meals to relay the tragic news. He remembered the scramble to make funeral arrangements.
“It makes you look at life a lot differently,” he said.
He made sure no one would have to go through that with his death. Harper had already selected a plot and headstone where he’d be buried. He had also decided he wanted a closed casket because he wants his friends and family to remember who he was — the happy-go-lucky guy with a fishing pole in one hand a beer in the other.
He had planned to have upbeat country songs played, “Red Solo Cup” being one example, because he wanted the event to be a celebration.
“They’ve got those dates, born this date and died this day. Celebrate the dash,” Harper said. “You don’t have to mourn at a funeral. Celebrate that guy’s existence.”