“Someone’s getting out of his car in front of our house, and he looks just like Simon!” Priscilla called out to me excitedly from her office one Saturday morning in May 2014. “Reeea-lly?” I responded from the kitchen, stretching out the word to suggest that maybe I knew more about this than I’d let on. “It is Simon!” she exclaimed. “And he’s coming to the door. What’s he doing here?”
That was a good question, since Simon, whom we’d known for over twenty years, ever since he came to our Massachusetts church as a college student, lived in a major city on the East Coast. Priscilla wheeled herself to the front door and was there to greet him when I let him in. “What are you doing here?” she asked, now able to get an answer directly from the source. “I came to see you,” he replied. “I know that,” she responded, “but what brought you to East Lansing in the first place?” (People would sometimes stop to see us when their work brought them to town, for research collaborations at Michigan State, for example.) “I came to see you,” he repeated. Then she understood that he’d made the ten-hour drive just to see her.
He and I had conspired to keep the visit a secret until the last moment because Priscilla had been experiencing agitation as a symptom of ALS and it was best for her not to have to anticipate out-of-the-ordinary events. Simon had driven most of the way after work on Friday, stayed in a hotel along the route, and come the rest of the way this morning. He’d set up in a local coffee shop and I’d phoned him to come to our house as soon as I’d finished helping Priscilla get ready for the day, around 11:00. And so it was that he appeared at our door, bearing a fresh dozen of our favorite bagels, just as we were coming out for our customary late breakfast.
We had a marvelous time sharing this meal and then went out onto the back deck to visit some more. Simon helped us with some yard work, just as he’d done in his student days. Around 3:00 he explained that he really needed to get going, as he’d made plans with his wife and children for the rest of the weekend. After some heartfelt goodbyes, he got into his car and drove all the way back to the East Coast!
So what was the point of making a 20-hour round trip for a 4-hour visit? Simon made this trip for the same reasons as the many other visitors who came to see us over the next several months—more than 70 in all, from some twenty different states, provinces, and foreign countries.
They came, first of all, to pay tribute to Priscilla’s life. They wanted to tell her what impact she’d had on their lives and thank her for it. One relative who lived at a considerable distance, whom she’d really believed in and helped over the years, found out on a Wednesday that she had a fatal illness and arranged to come with his wife that weekend, to be sure he’d have the chance to express his appreciation. Along these same lines, some visitors wanted Priscilla to meet their young children, and for them to meet her, so the children could share a little bit of of the experience they’d had with her.
But while these visitors were with us, they were also able to help us in practical ways. This had been happening somewhat already. For example, a couple who were our close lifelong friends came with their two teenage daughters in the fall of 2013 and winterized all of our gardens in one weekend. In 2012 it had taken Priscilla and me five weekends to do this, and we knew there was no way we could even attempt it on our own now.
But what had been a trickle now became a flood. Every set of visitors always asked, “What can we do to help?” We gratefully prepared a list for each of them. For one thing, they helped us keep up throughout the growing season with our lawn and gardens, which were a source of joy and fulfillment for Priscilla when they were orderly, and of distress when they weren’t. In one case, a first set of visitors cut down some brush, the next set cut it up into pieces, and a third burned it in our fire pit!
In another case, when the influx of grass and weeds among her flowers became too distressing for Priscilla, she prayed that God would send someone to help. Without knowing anything about her prayers, a couple who were our good friends began to feel strongly that they wanted to do something for us. They kept asking about this and ultimately sent the wife to us for several days while the husband held the fort and cared for their children. When she arrived, we tentatively went over a short list of neglected household tasks and Priscilla finally asked, “How do you feel about gardening?” “Oh, I love gardening!” she replied. “I can do it for hours without noticing the time go by!” By the time she left, the influx had been beaten back. Priscilla knew that neat gardens were a “want” rather than a “need,” but her kind Heavenly Father had sent just the right person to help with that anyway.
Visitors also helped in countless other practical ways. For example, upon learning that the weight of the blankets had become too much for her, one of Priscilla’s brothers ingeniously fashioned a “blanket lifter” for her out of thin PVC piping. But this was not all our guests did for us. Priscilla and I realized, in the midst of the “flood,” that they were also helping us to anticipate what heaven would be like. We were enjoying timeless fellowship in rapid succession with people who came from many different seasons of our lives, as a foretaste of what lay in store for us when we would all be together forever.
And still later in the year, we recognized one more reason for, and value of, all these visits. We realized that each our guests was walking a bit of the road with us, for anywhere from a few hours to a few days. This helped our difficult road feel a little shorter and a little bit brighter. And for that we were, and are, very grateful.
As “The Servant Song” by Richard Gillard puts it:
We are pilgrims on a journey.
We’re together on the road.
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.
I will weep when you are weeping.
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we’ve seen this journey through.
When we sing to God in heaven,
We shall find such harmony
Born to all we’ve known together
Of Christ’s love and agony.