I love dogs and I’ve always felt that the Holy Spirit is like a good border collie. Border collie experts say that a good herding dog has a way of moving sheep that is not traumatic for the sheep. They may nudge, or bark but they ought never bite. Sometimes just the mere presence of the dog, will cause the sheep to change direction. Sometimes we feel a nudge or an inexplicable change in the direction of our lives. When we look back we may be able to see that it was Holy Spirit herding us into a new direction.
This happened to me when I was 25 years old and working as an EKG tech in a Berkeley hospital. That is when I met Kelly Meagher (pronounced “mayor.”) There was a STAT page to the ER, Code III (possible death). Usually my boss took STAT pages, but he was busy so I said I’d go do it. Probably another heart attack.
In the past, I’d always stop at the nurses station and ask, “Which room for the EKG?” But this time I didn’t because I heard screaming and smelled burned flesh the moment I walked in. I pushed my way into room #5 to see a guy, just a couple years older than me, with hands that looked like charcoal briquets. The skin on his chest and thighs looked like an overdone turkey.
He was in horrible pain, writhing and swearing. (Years later in a newspaper story he would say, “I felt no pain,” but I’m here to tell you different.) Nurses were trying to start I.V.’s, a doc was yelling, “Let’s get started on that EKG!” The thing was, that I had to attach electrodes to his wrists which were briquets. I had to find another place higher up on his arm. And where to put the chest leads?
It turned out that he was a house painter taking down the scaffolding, when a part of it started to fall. He grabbed for it because he was afraid it would hurt someone down below. The piece of scaffolding hit a live power line and he was electrocuted. The power company had not complied with his request to shut off the electricity. The surgeons ended up cutting off his hands.
Now here is where the Holy Spirit comes in. The next day, I felt compelled to see him. Why? I was an EKG tech—not a chaplain. But it was if I couldn’t stop myself. At first the Burn Unit staff was completely confused when I showed up. No one ordered an EKG! But then I explained that I just wanted to visit him. They were okay with me visiting that day and every day for the next three months.
I was deep into my evangelical Christianity at that point and wondered if I could “witness” to him and then he would be “saved.” But somehow I couldn’t quite make myself do it. Instead we talked about music, watched the TV show M*A*S*H, and made plans for all the things we were going to do when he was discharged. He was funny and smart and brave.
And then he was discharged to his brother’s home in San Diego to get stronger. I couldn’t wait until he came back to Berkeley. And he did! And I went to his house and we took his Golden Retriever Easy for a walk in the Berkeley Hills. We were outside together—such joy!
And then there was silence.
He didn’t return my phone calls. I sent him funny postcards. Once I went and knocked on his door. No answer–nothing. I watched M*A*S*H reruns alone.
A year later I was at the DMV renewing my drivers license. I looked around and there he was, standing in line to get a state identification card, his prosthetic hooks sticking out of the sleeves of his flannel shirt. I walked over and cleared my throat. He turned around and for a moment, neither of us moved. Then he held out his arms and carefully hugged me.
“Let’s go have coffee,” said. We went next door where he ordered coffee (with a straw). I didn’t even have to ask. “I want you to understand,” he said. “I couldn’t stay friends with you and the nurses at the hospital. I had to move on. I had to make a real life.” Of course I understood, but I was really glad that I didn’t order any food because I had a huge lump in my throat. Just a few months after that he left the Bay Area.
A few years later I interviewed for a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program. I decided to do just one quarter on a “whim.” (The Holy Spirit!) CPE is a requirement for seminarians. The supervisors were confused. I wasn’t in seminary, so why was I applying to this program? “What makes you think you would like being a hospital chaplain?” they asked. I told them about Kelly. They nodded and exchanged glances. Later that week I got in.
So, I grew up to be a hospital chaplain and years went by. In 2013 on a “whim,” (you-know-who) I tracked him down, wrote him a letter and sent him a copy of my first book in which he appears. I gave him all my contact info. No response. Then, a couple weeks ago on another “whim” I Googled him.
It turns out Kelly died last year on Thanksgiving Day. I looked back in my Morning Pages from last November to see if perhaps I felt something: a funny feeling, a sense of doom or a sudden sadness. But there was no odd twinge of grief or despair. There was just lots of talk about sweet potatoes, Brussel sprouts, green beans and deep-fried turkey. And in the midst of all that Kelly died. How could I not have known? You’d think the Holy Spirit would have prodded me to reach out to him.
As the year is drawing to a close I am so grateful for the whims I have followed. They have ultimately led me to my greatest joy. I hope we all can recognize the sneeze, the snort, the wet-nose nudge of the Holy Spirit. Where is it leading us?
All photos by Rev. Catherine Foote