80: Hand on My Shoulder

80: Hand on My Shoulder

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Miracles Happen

Hand on My Shoulder

There is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved. It is God’s finger on man’s shoulder.

~Charles Morgan

It was late summer, smoggy, the daylight slowly fading away. The sun hung low in the western sky, coloring the San Gabriel Mountains a hazy purple. The temperature hovered near 95 degrees. Fortunately, a gentle breeze and some filtered shade from a nearby tree helped to cool the air. From the hillside, I could view the scenery and I felt the peace and quiet in the stillness of the early evening. Green grasses, mixed with clover, carpeted every hill as far as the eye could see. Nearby, on the left, stood a large Aleppo Pine, shading the area around me. The wind blew through its branches. A large bushy-tailed California gray squirrel sat on the lower branch of the old pine, overlooking his kingdom.

Changing my focus to the task at hand, I knelt down in front of the grave marker and cleaned it off. It had been overgrown with weeds and covered with pine needles. I could see the marker clearly now. It read “Raymond Earl Harrel.” Dad had always loved the mountain pines. I tried to wipe the tears from my eyes, but that just opened the floodgates. I clutched my Bible, holding it tightly to my chest, and wept uncontrollably.

My dad had worked as a firefighter for the Los Angeles County Fire Department for almost thirty years. He retired early at the age of fifty-five, so he could have time to enjoy his retirement with his family. However, that was not to be. Cancer showed up a few months after he retired; it spread quickly. His death overwhelmed me. I felt lost and alone.

I had never hurt so much in my life. “Oh God, please help me! I don’t want to live this way any longer.” Self-destructive thoughts poured in like a flood. As I pondered the options of living or dying, the minutes drifted by… then the interruption came.

I felt a tap on my left shoulder. Thinking that pesky squirrel had scampered down the tree and jumped on my shoulder, I swung around, ready to bat him away with my right hand. But I saw nothing. Looking up at the pine tree, I could see the squirrel still perched there, watching me. His tail stood at attention, his glare steady and his posture motionless. Maybe a pinecone had fallen on me. I quickly scanned the area but saw none.

Distracted for a moment, I soon drifted back to memories of Dad. Closing my eyes helped focus my thoughts. Then, I felt it again. This time, however, it wasn’t just a touch but a steady pressure across my entire shoulder. Someone was leaning on me from behind; I could feel the weight of a hand, the fingers gently gripping my shoulder. This was not a squirrel!

I could hear the squirrel, who had been quiet the entire time, now chattering up a storm. Not the normal squirrel chatter or warning sounds, but a friendly alert, one of recognition. Did my squirrel companion see or sense something? Maybe.

A warming sensation flowed from my shoulders, down my back, across my legs, and into my toes. Time seemed to stand still. I kept my eyelids closed and dared not open them to look around, lest this mysterious visitor leave. Then I heard the whisper. It sounded like the wind, which had blown through the pine branches earlier. I could feel the breath on my ear. It was cool and warm at the same time. Soon the words were audible in my left ear: “Charles, Charles…” The squirrel chattered on in the background, making those cute little chirps. The voice paused for a moment, and then continued, “Your father is not here. He lives in Heaven now. Go tell your mother.” The inflection was deep and gentle—a man’s voice.

I felt more pressure on my left shoulder, and then the weight lifted. I stayed kneeling for a second or two. When I opened my eyes and looked around, no one was there. The hillside appeared empty. No cars, no one walking down the pathway or roadway, nothing. Only the squirrel remained, standing erect on two feet, watching me. So, I asked him, “Did you see the angel?” He pointed his bushy tail upright and spun around a couple of times. Smiling, I said to myself, “I’ll take that for a yes.” Looking down, I noticed three clovers clustered together by the grave marker. I decided to pick them.

The sun had set now, with darkness settling over the cemetery grounds. The park would close soon. As I walked down the hill toward my car, I tucked the shamrocks safely away in my Bible. I turned around to take one last look at the gravesite on the hill and saw the squirrel scampering up the old pine, heading for home. I needed to get back home too. Reflecting on what had just transpired, I drove out the front gate of Glendale’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park. For the first time in a year, hope filled my heart. I felt happy inside; life had meaning again. God was real too, really real. And I had a plan.

I waited until Christmas to tell my mother the story. In fact, I wrote the angel’s message in a letter and attached one of the clovers from Dad’s grave marker. I left it under the Christmas tree at her house. She called me early that morning. She was in tears. “I believe you. You really did encounter an angel of God.” Then she told me about the last week of my father’s life, something I never heard before: “Every day about evening time, Ray would see a large bushy-tailed squirrel, just like the one you saw at Forest Lawn. At first, I believed he was dreaming or hallucinating. But like clockwork, the squirrel appeared to him at dusk every evening during the final week of his life.”

After hearing about my experience, Mom pondered the correlation between the two bushy-tailed squirrels. I really didn’t have an explanation for her. Still, I believed God orchestrated it. Mom believed the squirrel appearances were further confirmation that my angel encounter was real and his message true. “This is the best Christmas gift ever,” she said. “Now tell me again, what happened and what did the angel say?”

Later that morning, I gathered my family together and drove to Mom’s house in Sandy, Oregon. After dinner and opening presents, Mom and I visited for several hours. That was the last time we talked intimately about spiritual matters.

I felt that warm, weighty hand on my shoulder one other time. It happened the morning my mother passed away. I didn’t hear a voice of encouragement or see a heavenly visitor that day. I didn’t need to—his simple touch was more than enough.

~Charles Earl Harrel

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