If I’d been able, I would have been at Priscilla’s bedside in the hospice throughout each day as her “patient advocate.” I couldn’t do this, however, because I needed strict bed rest for the foreseeable future. But our niece Ashley was scheduled to return in a few days and she agreed to take this on as her new role. In the meantime, volunteers from our church took shifts being the advocate.
I spoke with Priscilla over the phone in the mornings after she was out of bed, and in the evenings just before she went to sleep. She told me happily that there was a bird feeder right outside her window and that a cardinal and a slate-colored junco, two of her favorites, had been there to greet her when she arrived.
On Friday, New Year’s Day 2016, a young woman from our church was saying her evening prayers. When she started praying for Priscilla, as she did each night, she suddenly had “a beautiful glimpse of her dancing in heaven with the vigor and enthusiasm of a child.” In this vision, she told me later, Priscilla was “right inside a pair of heavenly golden gates, with a blur of indescribable colors all around her. I could see that she was overflowing with joy.” This was only Priscilla’s first full day in the hospice, but this young woman wondered whether the vision meant that she would soon be going home to heaven.
The next evening, after I’d spoken with Priscilla over the phone to say goodnight, we started signing off in our usual way. We’d gotten into the habit of saying the biblical blessing from the book of Numbers to one another each night. She started: “The Lord bless you and keep you . . .” But then she ran out of breath. So I finished: “The Lord make his face to shine on you and be gracious to you, the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace, and joy, now and forevermore.” (Those last words were ones of our own that we’d taken to adding at the end.)
That same Saturday night, another young woman from our church, one of the ones who’d been taking shifts as Priscilla’s patient advocate, had a vision in which the red quilt and red pillow cases on her hospice bed turned white, and a number of figures in white robes surrounded the bed and lifted her up from it. She broke into tears and asked herself, “I wonder whether God will bring Priscilla home tonight or tomorrow morning.”
Very early on Sunday morning, around 2:00, Priscilla experienced “air panic” for the first time in the whole course of her illness. She was right where she needed to be. The hospice gave her liquid morphine, the symptoms subsided, and she fell back to sleep.
Priscilla had often expressed the hope that she would be able to go home on “the Lord’s Day” (that is, on a Sunday). When our niece was with us, we would read together through Amy Carmichael’s biography for our morning devotions. When we got to the place that told how Amy’s father had died “just as the church bells were ringing for the Sunday morning service,” Priscilla commented, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be called up to worship in heaven just as worship was beginning on earth?” And that’s exactly what happened for her. A few minutes before our church’s worship service began at 10 a.m., her bedside advocate noticed that she’d stopped breathing.
We had framed prints of Thomas Cole’s series The Voyage of Life on our dining room wall. During her illness, Priscilla would often look at the last painting, in which angels come for a man who is at the end of his “voyage,” and say, “I want the angels to come for me when I die.” Based on our friend’s vision of the white-robed figures, maybe that happened for her, too.
Mercifully I’d gotten twelve hours of sleep that night, and so when I was called with the news of Priscilla’s passing, I felt strong enough to go to the hospice and say goodbye before her body was taken away.
While she was in the hospice, our bird feeder was deserted. I remember looking out at it repeatedly and asking, “Where are the birds?” But when I came home from the hospice that morning, I discovered the feeder swarming with birds—more different species than I’d ever seen at once, including some I’d never seen feed together before. They were having a party to celebrate her homecoming.
It made me think of a letter that Samuel Rutherford wrote to a friend who’d lost a loved one, a letter that Priscilla and I had read together several times. It says, in part: “She is now above the winter. . . . Christ is to her . . . as a new paradise to a traveler, broken and worn out of breath with the sad occurrences of a long and weary way. Now she lives for eternity in a very considerable land. . . . Oh, what spring-time is there! What a singing life is there! There is not a silent bird in all that large field; but all sing and breathe out heaven, joy, glory, dominion to the high Prince of that new-found land.”
[Samuel Rutherford, Letter to Lady Ardross, 1646]
I sent out a note to our Dear Praying Friends to tell them about Priscilla’s passing and some of these circumstances that had accompanied it. I ended with this quotation from Scripture: “I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Blessed are those who die in the Lord from now on.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they are blessed indeed, for they will rest from their hard work; for their good deeds follow them!’”
At the end of the day, when I lay down to try to sleep for the night, instead of grief or sorrow, all I could feel was joy. I realized I was feeling Priscilla’s joy to be in her Savior’s presence. I could practically see those green eyes sparking.