Earl would tell you how angry I was when we were introduced.
Sitting at the nurses’ station one afternoon I saw him. Tall with dark wavy hair and wearing a blue lab coat, he was walking away down the hall.
I leaned toward the nurse I was working with and said, “Ralph, do you see that guy?”
“I’d like to go out with him.” Now, I never dated men I worked with, and I guarded my private life at work. My heart skipped a few beats. How could I think this, let alone say it out loud.
“Haven’t you met Earl? He’s the chaplain,” Ralph said.
Raising my hands as a shield, I said, “Chaplain? Never mind! I don’t want anything to do with a preacher.” There was no room in my life for a Jesus freak to tell me how to live.
When Earl came back up the hall Ralph called him over, “Earl, this is Bert.”
Earl looked me in the eye, “Hi.”
“Hi.” I looked away. How am I supposed to talk to a chaplain?
Earl worked days and I worked afternoons, and he began calling and inviting me to eat supper with him in the cafeteria. We talked. I told him about my three-year-old daughter, Kari. I tried to explain why I’d left her with her father when we divorced but couldn’t. I filled him in on my nightly escapades at The Caravan—my bar. Maybe I was trying to shock him, but I learned he grew up in North Memphis and had his own stories to tell.
He was a seminary student at Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. He was doing an internship in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) there at Methodist Hospital Central in Memphis. I didn’t know what any of that was, and I didn’t ask.
Early in my shift one afternoon in late August, Earl came to see me without calling. “Can you come out by the elevators for a minute?” he asked. We stood alone, “My internship is over and I’m going back to seminary.”
With my arms folded over my chest I asked, “When are you leaving?”
“My car is already packed and ready to pull out. I wanted to say good-bye.”
“When are you coming back?”
“I haven’t decided whether or not I am coming back.”
We hugged for the first time. A moment. And he got on the elevator and was gone.
I didn’t understand what I felt as I remembered his arms around me. The dam burst and tears poured from eyes that had been dry for many years. I told myself I didn’t care about him.