And then the sun came out. I found the door to the flat was standing open. I put the key into my pocket and stepped inside. The flat was empty of furniture, and the vacating tenant—a tiny, blond spark plug of a woman—was busily cleaning and packing the last of her belongings into cardboard boxes while Harriet, her highly irritated cat, scowled at her from a corner. She turned and, flashing me her enormous smile, reached out her arms to give me a hug.
“Hey, Owen!” she cried in her raspy voice.
“Hey, Keg,” I replied as we embraced.
The memory of Kathleen Erin Gahagen—or “KEG” to her friends—never ceases to bring a smile to my face. She was one of the first friends I made at LTSP. I was ten years older than she but a year behind her in seminary. As an upper-classman, she showed me the ropes, warning me about campus burglaries and firing my imagination with harrowing tales of her recent adventures as a hospital chaplain. She and her then-husband graciously invited me and my then-wife to join them for dinners and nights at the theater. Her joy and energy were infectious. I used to think how appropriate the nickname “Keg” was because she struck me at the time as a bubbly sorority girl who always seemed to bring the party with her.
I found her friendship a blissful respite during study breaks. She worked in the campus bookstore, and when I wasn't in class I'd browse the stacks and share gossip and student angst with Keg. She was always a listening ear, and she always made me laugh.
Our friendship was cemented in the summer of 1996 when, because of my background in public education, I agreed to take the position of principal of a tutorial summer camp at the Lutheran parish where Keg was serving her internship. Vicar Keg was my immediate supervisor. We worked together to finalize the camp's schedule and arrange field trips and enrichment activities for the student campers. I remember how impressed I was by her ability to connect with the teenagers who had been chosen as counselors-in-training, how she engaged them and taught them games to play with their grade-school-aged charges.
But the summer was something of a nightmare for me. I may be a teacher, but I discovered I have very limited gifts as an administrator. Indeed, just about everything that could go wrong with a summer day camp went wrong that summer. The health inspector showed up as the one and only cockroach I'd ever seen crawled across the kitchen floor. Food deliveries were late, as were the teachers who chronically missed their buses. The music teacher actually died and needed to be replaced. Neighbors complained of noise. Church members complained of mess. Discipline problems abounded. Unseasonable rain canceled many of our planned activities. A child accused a counselor of sexual misconduct. Parents were negligent in tuition payments, and the congregation took a substantial financial loss. I wished I had never agreed to take the job. Keg, however, took it all in stride. I remember commiserating with her during our one day off—the Fourth of July—as we enjoyed a rain-soaked barbecue on the porch of her city row home. “It'll be all right,” she assured me.
On the night of the closing exercises, after all the dust had settled, I asked Keg if she wanted to go out for a beer. The two of us sat at the bar of our local watering hole, two seminarians in clergy collars sucking down suds. I used her as my priest and made my confession. “Keg, I think I really f----d things up.” I poured out to her all the mistakes I thought I'd made in managing the camp, and concluded by telling her I'd hoped I had not lost her respect. She graciously granted me absolution, letting loose a raspy monologue on why she thought the whole venture had been a mistake from the start and all the errors in judgment she felt others had made before I had been asked to come aboard. She concluded her tirade by saying, "...and those campers were the worst bunch of brats I've ever seen in my life!" We had a good laugh about all of it, and I went home feeling greatly relieved. I'll always be grateful to her for that.
A year later we said our good-byes in that top floor apartment. She'd generously left me some cleaning supplies in the cupboard. She told me she'd pray for me and my soon-to-be-ex-wife, too.
“Where are you going?” I asked her.
She smiled proudly. “I've been called to Abiding Savior Lutheran in North Tonawanda, New York. It's near Buffalo,” she said.
“Never heard of North Tonawanda. Or South Tonawanda for that matter. But I know they'll be lucky to have you.”
“Yeah. One guy in the church said he's really looking forward to my coming, but he didn't think I looked like a lady Lutheran pastor. So I asked him, 'What's a lady Lutheran pastor supposed to look like?' He said, 'Like Martin Luther with breasts!'”
We laughed until we cried.
Now, I've never known if it was true or not, but the rumor always was that Keg celebrated her call to Abiding Savior by having the Luther rose tattooed on her thigh. I guess you have to admire her commitment.
Yesterday, while reading the The Lutheran magazine obituary page (and I guess I must really be getting old when I read that), I saw Keg's name. I had always known that she suffered from cystic fibrosis, but the raspy voice, the fragile limbs, and the omnipresent medicine pump seemed to be something she wore with casual indifference, just as she would choose a blouse or a skirt. Her illness was part of her, but it never defined her. In the back of my mind I understood that there was a chance she would not enjoy a very long life, but I never believed she would really die.
But today I feel as if another light has gone out in my life. I'm sure the people of Abiding Savior, where she served for sixteen years, are still missing her greatly—this spunky little character who told jokes and preached in her bare feet. I admire her dedication, and I believe through her great humor, compassion, and kindness that she was a true pastor in the very best sense of the word.
My prayers go out to her husband and family and to the good people of Abiding Savior. Rest in the peace you have earned, my friend, my colleague, my sister in Christ.