“A physically nondescript young nurse in her twenties, she moved with the confidence of a veteran who knew exactly what she was doing. It was her voice, though, that stood out the most. Gentle and firm, it was oddly familiar, and provided surprising comfort. It had a quality that put me at ease the moment I heard it; like a favorite song from a long time ago.” (from The Color of Rain)

When my wife Cathy lay dying in a gray and lifeless room at Beaumont Hospital in Michigan, I stood at her bedside, helpless. At that moment an angel appeared, in the form of a nurse. She told us to call her Christina. In an instant we felt comforted. Recognizing that I needed to be a part of Cathy’s care, what little there was left, she simply allowed me to be. She called us by our first names. She stepped in when an insulate doctor flaunted his ignorance. In the midst of cancer’s horrific assault, she brought gentleness into the room. It was simply amazing.

Christina went off her shift just a few hours before Cathy passed. I asked a nurse to write her name for me on a scratch piece of paper as I had the notion of sending her something as a thank you. I never did. All I had was a name on a piece of paper. No address, no phone number. So I took the piece of paper and put it under the clear cover on my desk. I see it every day. For 5 years, 8 months and 20 days now, I have looked at her name and said a small prayer; that she is still in nursing, caring for others and that somehow, in some way, she might know what she meant to me.

Last week a friend, Kay, who also is the mother of a former basketball player of mine sent me an email. She congratulated me on the book. She also said this:

“I have worked at RO Beaumont as a nurse for 32 years. In my current administrative role, I felt a calling, need, desire (and have the means and opportunity – gee, I’m thinking divine intervention here)… find Nurse Christina.  She is, as you described, the way a nurse should be.  The way, we want all nurses, especially Beaumont nurses, to be.  With the help of 3 nursing managers (all of whom I told, ‘just read chapter 21 and call me back’), we found Christina.”

Yesterday I was invited to Beaumont Hospital to speak at a meeting of several hundred staff members, including the President of the hospital. I told them that, whether or not they were successful at fixing the various illnesses they treat, they always have the opportunity to soften hearts and touch souls.

When I was done, Christina was brought up to the stage where we hugged for a very long time. She was honored by her peers as an example of how all nurses should be.

I had the chance to speak with Christina afterwards for quite a while. She told me that she remembered Cathy and remembered leaving the shift that day wondering if she had done enough. I told her about that little slip of paper on my desk.

My friend Kay, the hospital administrator, wrote me this morning, thanking me for coming. She tells me that this story will impact how care is given at the hospital. She also said that Christina’s life has been changed.

Later tonight I will go to practice with my new team and forge all new relationships with new guys – and their families. I love the wins and losses, the excitement of Friday nights, the timeout huddles and the last second buzzer beaters. But that’s not why I coach. I coach because it connects me. To enthusiastic athletes and their families. To smart and dedicated coaches. And to a community of people who in countless ways, take care of each other. I coached Kay’s son years ago. He was one of the good ones. Funny, smart, respectful. (And a wicked pro-hop finish when he drove into the lane!) Now, years later, his mom connects to me again through circumstances beyond comprehension and provides me with a moment for which I will never be able to thank her sufficiently.

I am so thankful for these connections. They are woven into the fabric of my life and create an inspired pattern of unexpected grace. And I am humbled by it all.


By the way…

The little slip of paper is still on my desk. Today is 5 years, 8 months and 21 days. I have all new prayers for my friend Christina. She told me that she now is married to a man named Dan. And they have two little boys. Matt and Drew.

The Color of Rain Excerpt: Mullett Lake

The following excerpt is from Chapter 2 of The Color of Rain by Michael & Gina Spehn. The book is written in dual, first person voices alternating between Michael & Gina.

Mullett Lake is written by Michael.

Cold spring waters run over the small rocks at the far end of Grandview Beach, providing the only sound to the predawn stillness on Mullett Lake in Northern Michigan. The perfect crystal surface rests, motionless. In the distance, at the first break of light, a lake perch stretches up toward the tangerine sky just enough to gulp a breakfast of fallen mayflies, then disappears quietly below the surface. The silent ripples on the water glide toward the now-smoldering horizon. As the sun begins to wrestle the darkness into retreat, I wish the world could remain this perfect for just a while longer. As I wallow in the calm, the moment quickly becomes bittersweet with the realization that, in the blink of an eye, this perfect tranquility will surrender to the sound and fury that accompany each new day. Cars and boats, people and noises, busyness and bills to be paid, and all of the blessings and curses that occupy the space between dawn and twilight will soon be upon me. In the end, the silent bliss that is morning on Mullett Lake is friend and foe alike; a beautiful and cruel Shakespearean device that each day seduces me with its promise and then shatters me with its heartbreak.

For my wife, Cathy, this was a unique and spiritual place. Her parents, Larry and Jill Lutz, owned a cottage on Grandview Beach, a pretty stretch of sandy shoreline at the far end of the lake, and Cath spent many summers there. One of the largest and deepest inland lakes in the U.S., Mullett Lake seemed to call out to her each time she stayed away a bit too long.

She became a different woman when she was up north. (That’s what the locals call it; when one goes to the lakes in Northern Michigan, one goes “up north.”) Along with flip-flops and waterproof sunblock, Cathy put on a new self when she was there and it looked good on her. Her slender frame seemed taller than the 5’6″ listed on her driver’s license. Her summer hair caught just enough of the sun’s magic to brighten with highlights. Her skin, fair and pink for nine months out of the year, grew deep brown, making her teeth piercingly white when she smiled. Being at the lake agreed with Cathy.

While she and I were still dating, I had to be dragged there. “Come to my parents’ cottage,” Cathy pleaded.

I wanted none of it. I was strictly concrete. I loved the city and was never going to be a “happy camper.” Roughing it for me was when room service stopped serving at midnight. Plus my only notion of a “cottage” came from the dreadful visits to Wisconsin where my dad had taken my three siblings and me in order to get a little outdoors in us.

“You’ll love it,” Cathy insisted.

“I will not love it,” I said, channeling Woody Allen. “Crappy fishing shanties and deerflies the size of Volvos …”

“It’s not like that,” she said. “Besides, we need a nice getaway.”

“Getaway has words like Hyatt in it. Spas and tee times. That’s a getaway! The only thing we’d be getting away from up north would be indoor plumbing and twentieth-century dentistry.”

Yet, as we all know, love makes you do the occasional foolish thing. So I packed a case of SPF 90 and a five-gallon canister of calamine lotion, and we drove north out of Chicago.

As soon as we arrived, all of my fears of outhouses and backwoods banjos were put to rest. It turned out that her parents’ “cottage” was actually a beautiful and well-appointed lake home with four bedrooms and two bathrooms. Being a top salesman in the furniture industry gave Larry Lutz not only access to the finer things but a taste for them as well. Their home was spotless, with a clean, contemporary style and a touch of up-north charm. The meticulous white walls remained free of any clutter, except for three large framed photographs that Larry himself had taken and hung prominently in the great room. They had more than one hundred feet of lakefront and all the water toys you could desire: ski boats and pontoon party boats, flotation devices of every kind, and even a SeaDoo to ride.

Nearby I discovered a golf course called The Secret—a fabulous little semi-private track carved out of the virgin pine forest that always seemed to have an opening on the first tee whenever I asked. The people there were great and the course not too difficult. I soon developed a love/hate relationship with the par-five eighth hole, which always taunted my ego into going for the green in two, though there was a well-placed pond in front. This diamond in the rough (all puns intended) was the deal maker for me with Mullett Lake. I began to look forward to going up north as much as Cathy.

Eventually I mustered the courage (brains really) to ask her to marry me. As I waited for her at the altar on our wedding day, I looked around the church at the countless friends and family gathered. My dad caught my eye and smiled a wedding smile at me and then turned toward the back of the church. Just then Cathy appeared, glowing at the end of the aisle. Dad wheeled around and caught my eye again. This time, though, he appeared dazed by the vision he’d just seen. I understood. Cathy had that effect on people.

It was her smile that took me captive the day we met, and never once let me go. There was an authentic quality to her smile that made people stop and look; a basic human truth that seemed to emanate from deep within her and naturally find its way upward and out. Like the magma flow from Vesuvius, there was simply no stopping Cathy’s smile. It could freeze people where they stood and hold them there, sometimes forever.

That’s what happened to me anyway.


Additional excerpts will be posted throughout the next several weeks. Please check back often or subscribe to this blog using the RSS Feed at the top of the page.