It sounds like a mantra concocted specifically for a bumper sticker or one of those wall-hangers that you’d find in your local HomeGoods – “Life is what it is, just live it.”
For Judi Harpum it was more than just a saying. It was a lifestyle, one that propelled her and her family through the day-to-day mundanities of life, one that she said over and over to husband, Rob, every time his Type-A personality wound him into a ball of stress, an affirmation that comforted the seemingly unflappable Brit during her seven-year journey with ovarian cancer.
Judi met Rob at work in 1992, a meet-cute that the latter remembers much more vividly than the former, and the soulmates were married seven years later, immigrating to the United States from England just two weeks after tying the knot. What followed was an uphill battle with in vitro fertilization, one that on the final try was successful and saw Christopher David Harpum born on Jan. 27, 2004.
As is the norm for most children who end up playing golf, Chris was taught as a toddler by his father, who bought his 2-year-old three plastic clubs from Walmart and encouraged him to grip and swing. To Dad’s surprise, the kid had a knack for the game and was a quick learner, even getting creative with how to “practice” at such a young age.
“He dropped raisins on our tile floor in the house in Humble, Texas, and whacked those raisins all around the house to keep them away from the dogs,” Rob remembers. “Even at 2 he never missed the raisin with the big plastic club. He used to hit Wiffle balls over the swimming pool and the sandpit in the backyard, saying, ‘Daddy, I need to clear the water hazard and then the bunker.’ He nearly always did. He learned his swing by watching the PGA and LPGA on the TV and copying the swings with his plastic club.”
As the years went on, Chris would begin to accompany his dad to the golf course with Judi content to watch the father-son duo do something they both enjoyed. Though it wasn’t love at first sight for Chris, he soon found a passion for the sport, one that’s become an integral part of his personality and identity.
“When I was younger, I used to hate golf,” Chris admitted. “But then as I grew older, when I got to 7 or 8, I was like, ‘Huh, this is fun.’ I like how you have to think about every shot. You have to be focused no matter where you are. You could have a five-shot lead and you still have to focus all the time. And that’s why I think it’s one of the hardest games because if you lose focus for one second, that could derail a whole round. That’s a big part of why I like it and why a lot of people are reluctant to try it because it takes so much mental strength to get through a regular round, let alone a whole tournament round.”
“I don’t really remember much because I was so young at the time. But when she was first diagnosed, I remember she went in for surgery. And I didn’t really understand the magnitude of it …” – Chris Harpum
Little did he know that the mental tenacity required on the course would become a necessity for him and his family off the course. When Chris was just 10 years old, his mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, a blow to the Harpum family that no one saw coming.
“I don’t really remember much because I was so young at the time,” he recalls. “But when she was first diagnosed, I remember she went in for surgery. And I didn’t really understand the magnitude of it, but I could tell my dad was worried, and she was worried. They just tried to keep it as normal as possible.”
But, as was Judi’s way, she never let on about her struggle with the disease. Countless hours were spent in chemotherapy and clinical trials and visits to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston became a regular part of the Harpums’ routine. She never spoke of the internal war that was waging inside her body and never wanted any attention for it, just courageously and quietly continuing on with life, constantly reassuring her boys that everything would turn out as it should be, refusing to let on that she was indeed in a fight for her life.
“She made it really normal,” Chris remembers. “If you wouldn’t have known us personally, you would never have known that she had the disease and the severity of it. You would never have known. She made it so normal for me. She just wanted me to be happy and live a normal life. And that’s what she did. She was pretty amazing.”
As the years went on, the cancer would sometimes subside, with Judi going into remission three different times, giving the Harpums a brief respite from the worry that comes with the sickness of a family member. But it always came back, stronger and tougher to fight, until nothing more could be done medically to save her.
Judi Harpum died at 1:11 p.m. on Wednesday, June 9, 2021.
Losing a parent is something no child should ever have to face, especially at 17 years old. But like his mother, Chris chose to just continue on with life, turning his mind to the game he loved when the sadness started to well up inside him, finding solace on the course, shifting his thoughts away from the trauma he and his dad were going through.
“(Golf has) been my escape,” he said. “Whenever I’m sad or something happens outside of golf, the first thing I want to do is go hit a bucket of balls or go up to the course and just do something and listen to music. It’s very tough to balance. It takes time with everything that I’ve had going on. But it’s definitely been a bright spot.
“I really struggled at first. In the beginning of June, I really struggled. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to play. I didn’t want to be in a tournament because your mind is in two totally different places and any golfer knows that’s not enjoyable when you’re in the middle of a tournament round. But I feel like after she passed away, I feel like the last couple of months (playing golf) is what she would want me to do because she knows how much I love it, how happy it makes me. She would just want me to go golf. I find peace with the world when I go out and play. I know every round isn’t going to be perfect, but I’m out there enjoying and doing what she would want me to do.”
Just over a month after Judi died, Chris played in the IMG Junior World Championships at Torrey Pines in California as well as the U.S. Kids Golf World Teen Championship at Pinehurst in North Carolina. He won the Ohio regional qualifier for the Notah Begay III Junior Golf National Championship in August by four shots with scores of 65-70. During his senior season at Ryle High School, had two wins and five top-five finishes including runner-up at the regional tournament. His team would finish fourth at the state championship.
“Chris was so level-headed about it all and handled everything with a maturity way beyond his years.” – Rob Harpum
While his golf achievements are impressive, his father is more proud of his son for how he’s handled the past five months and how he’s conducted himself amidst tragedy. The bond that Rob and Chris have as parent and child is unbreakable, deeply rooted in their shared experiences throughout the last seven years, strengthened even more so now that they’re each other’s only support system.
“Chris was so level-headed about it all and handled everything with a maturity way beyond his years,” Rob said of his son’s resilience. “He’s very pragmatic and stoic about it, again like his mum. Our bond has always been strong. We were always very close as dad and son but the last seven years brought us so much closer because we lived through it together. It’s a cliché, I know, but he is not only my son but one of my closest and deepest friends forever. Many times since Judi passed away our roles have become reversed and he is the father to me which shows how incredibly mature and how caring he is. I cannot adequately explain in words the depth of love I have for him and he for me. It is unshakable for sure.”
Having just recently committed to playing for the University of Cincinnati Bearcats men’s golf team in 2022, Chris tees it up in the Notah Begay III Junior National Championship this week in Louisiana. Although he’ll be missing his mother, he’s excited for the opportunity the event presents.
“When I won the regional qualifier, I was walking up 18, and I was an emotional mess,” he said. “I was looking up at the sky and that whole tournament, I never got off to that type of start in a tournament. I just had a feeling that those two days were my days to finally get over the hump of connecting two rounds together and I definitely felt like she was with me. It’s obviously a big opportunity as well as a big experience. I’m just looking forward to going down there and trying my best. I’m excited to go down there. I watched last year’s tournament on Golf Channel, and this time I’ll be in it. So that’s pretty cool.”
No matter how he plays, it’s what Chris Harpum has learned off the golf course over the past five months that means more than anything. The lessons derived from a journey with cancer – whether you’re the one with the disease or a family member – are some of the toughest any of us will ever have to learn. For a 17-year-old to come out on the other side of his mother’s death in the manner that Chris has is a remarkable testament to the legacy that Judi left behind in her son. Armed with her wisdom and stolid resolve, Chris is more than prepared to move forward, keeping his mother’s memory alive in the way that he lives, honoring her by being the young man she raised him to be.
“It’s definitely taught me to never give up,” he said. “She never gave up. She always fought until her last breath. And that’s something that’s really inspired me. The way she lived, she just enjoyed living. She was happy. She loved the little things and appreciated the little things. She took everything in stride and she lived in the present and that’s something that I aspire to do on the golf course. I have not perfected it yet but I’m trying.
“In my life, it’s the same thing. Stuff happens and you’ve just got to take it in stride. You can’t think too far ahead, and you can’t think too far in the past. I just take it all in stride. I got that from my mom. Just take it as it comes and it’ll be what it’ll be.”
Photos: Courtesy the Harpum family
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