In 2011 I had a revelation.
It was Saturday 29 January. I knew I would be preoccupied the next day, so I decided to do Sunday’s Bible reading on Saturday evening. The set passage was Psalm 116. As I read the psalm, the following words jumped out at me: “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints”.
I knew immediately that God was preparing me for my mother Evelyn’s death. These words of Scripture made me realise that she would die the next day (Sunday 30 January) and assured me that Evelyn was one of God’s own (a “saint”, a faithful one). Hers would be a precious death.
To explain why, I must begin my story several weeks earlier…
It was the first week of January 2011.
Evelyn had been admitted to hospital. She needed specialist medical care. Evelyn had been in residential respite care for several weeks while Tony and I were away. Around the same time she took ill, Evelyn was due to return home.
For the last 8 years of her life Evelyn lived with us. Our home was her home. I have written previously about the significant contribution she made to our household (Pasta Bake, February 18, 2016). However, after Evelyn underwent major surgery in 2006, at the end of her 90th year, she was no longer able to contribute in the same way. She required full-time care. Furthermore, from age 91 she began to show signs of dementia, which increased in severity over the next few years. (Read My mother, a young woman, May 6, 2016.)
Evelyn was unhappy being in hospital. As is common for someone with middle stage dementia, being in a new strange place was frightening for her. She was confused, fearful and restless. Whenever Tony and I visited her, while she could still speak, she would plead: “I want to come home.” I was well aware just how much she wanted to be at home with us. My usual response was, “Not now, Mum. You are not well enough. You have to get better first.”
The days turned into weeks.
Evelyn’s condition deteriorated. She could no longer walk. She refused to eat and drink. Sadly, she was not getting better. I realised I couldn’t keep up the pretence that she would be coming home. I thought it was cruel of me to let her think that she could, when I knew differently. So, when she begged us to take her home, I would say, “Mum, you can’t come home with us. You are going to a much more beautiful home. A new home, your home in heaven. Jesus will be there.” I could say this with confidence, because Jesus told his followers that this is so (John 14:1-4). Not that these words were easy to say.
During Evelyn’s stay in hospital, members of her family came to visit her. Each one wanted to spend time with her and let her know how much she meant to them. As hard as it was for them to accept, they realized they were saying “Goodbye” to her. It was a cherished time for them, and for Evelyn as well. It was clear that she knew each one, and she responded as best as she was able.
Evelyn’s ability to communicate had been faltering for months, a sign of advancing dementia. When she spoke, she used just a few words, in a weak, faint voice. While in hospital, she spoke very little. It was difficult for us to know if she was aware of what was happening around her and what she remembered. One day I had a message for her from our son Daniel, a professional musician, who lived and worked in Vienna at the time. He was unable to visit her, but he wanted her to know that he loved her and was praying for her. After I gave Evelyn his message, I asked her: “Do you remember Daniel? Who’s Daniel?” Her reply, almost inaudible but unmistakable, brought me to tears. She said, “He plays the violin.”
Evelyn spent her 95th birthday in hospital.
It was 14 January 2011. Tony and I wondered how to “celebrate” her birthday, to make it a special day for her. What could we give her? She needed for nothing. We decided to take her our CD player and three CDs of music she knew and loved, the cross-stitch Biblical text “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you” (Philippians 1:3) that hung in her bedroom (I gave it to her as a gift several years previously), a homemade birthday card and some photos. We sat with her, held her hands, played the music, sang to her and talked with her. But it wasn’t a celebration. Her eyes were tightly closed the entire time we were with her. She made no response. It was her birthday, but we left her that day feeling so sad.
We discovered that some days Evelyn was more responsive than others. On her birthday she lay in the hospital bed, seemingly fast asleep. The next day, and for several days afterwards, when family members visited, Evelyn surprised us all by sitting propped up in bed and being relatively attentive.
Often when we visited Evelyn in hospital we found her agitated and unsettled. But as we played the hymns and spiritual songs she knew and loved, sang with her, prayed with her and for her, God graciously comforted her and gave her peace. It’s an example of David’s testimony in Psalm 23:4, “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.” The transformation was remarkable. When Evelyn could hardly speak my name, she still could sing, or mouth, the words of Jesus loves me and What a Friend we have in Jesus. She remembered the words, and could say them, despite her frailty. My brother Bevan was with me and Tony on one occasion when she sang “Jesus loves me” with us. Bevan was amazed.
After a couple of weeks, each day when I visited Evelyn in hospital I thought it might be her last. As I left her each day I said what I thought might be my final “Goodbye”. I couldn’t hold back the tears as I told her I loved her, I would miss her and that she was very special to me. I reminded her that Jesus was looking after her and was with her, so there was no need to be afraid. As you can imagine, this daily routine took its toll on me emotionally.
A different kind of care
On Thursday 27 January 2011, Evelyn was transferred from The Wesley Hospital to Canossa Private Hospital, where she was admitted to the palliative care unit. From the moment she arrived, Evelyn was treated by the staff at Canossa with great dignity, respect, love and compassion. Tony and I were treated by the staff with the same level of dignity, respect, love and compassion. The staff did not shy away from speaking to us about Evelyn’s prognosis, but with such kindness and grace. They inquired about funeral arrangements.
Being in this place was a great blessing for Evelyn and for us. For Evelyn, it signalled the culmination of a prolonged physical and emotional battle, especially during the past 3-4 weeks. For us, it was a blessing to know Evelyn would be given the loving care and attention she needed in her last days.
What I earnestly sought for my mother was a “good” death. A passing from this life to the next without suffering. And I wanted to be with her when she died, just as I had been with my father when he died. Sitting alongside a person who is dying, holding their hand, telling them how much they are loved, is a great privilege. As a friend of mine once said, “It’s like being on holy ground.”
It was on Saturday evening, 29 January, that I read Psalm 116 and the words “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints”. These words were a revelation. They gave me insight and great comfort. They made me think about my mother’s death from God’s perspective. The verse assured me that the death of a believer – someone who has professed faith in Jesus – is neither fearful nor tragic nor terrible, but “precious”. From God’s perspective, Evelyn’s death would be “good”, “excellent” or “honourable”. A precious death.
On Sunday 30 January, I sat with Evelyn from 7.00 am. Evelyn’s doctor called in to see her at 8.30 am. She confirmed that Evelyn’s condition was terminal, but stable. For the entire day, Evelyn’s eyes were tightly closed, she couldn’t speak and her hands were listless. Her breathing was laboured. It’s a day I hope I never forget. I treasure the hours I spent with my mother that day. I held her limp hands, stroked her hair and wiped her moist forehead. The tears flowed. I told her how much I loved her and would miss her (as I had done so many times before), sang to her and prayed with her. I recalled the Bible verse, which revealed she would die that day.
Tony joined me by Evelyn’s bedside around 10.30 am. Earlier, he attended the 8.30 am church service at St Andrew’s Anglican Church South Brisbane where he had been rostered to lead intercessory prayer. Tony told the congregation about Evelyn’s condition (she was a member of that congregation) and the church prayed for her and for us. Tony remembers feeling uplifted by the love and care shown by our church family. Our minister and his wife came to see Evelyn around midday and prayed with her and us.
Throughout the day the room was filled with beautiful music (hymns and spiritual songs Evelyn knew and loved). One could feel the presence of the Lord. Even the staff said so. At one point, as we spoke to Evelyn and listened to Hayley Westenra’s poignant rendition of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu, Evelyn shed a few tears. Tony and I both witnessed this. Evelyn knew we were there! She could hear us and she could hear the music! In the midst of sorrow, this knowledge filled our hearts with unspeakable joy.
At 5.00 pm, Tony and I agreed to go home for a while, to rest. It had been a long day and very emotional. There was nothing more I wanted to say to my mother. I had said it all. So, as we left her that day, I said to her, “Goodbye, darling. Tony and I are tired. We are going home for a little while to rest, but we will be back. Jesus is with you. And if you want to leave us now, that’s okay. You can go. We love you.” We told the staff we were going home and we asked them to let us know as soon as there was any change in Evelyn’s condition.
Under the Lord’s watchful eye
I didn’t feel anxious leaving Evelyn. I had done all I could for her. And, more than this, I was confident the Lord was watching over her. “The eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love” (Psalm 33:18). Furthermore, the words of Psalm 116:15 assured me that God was watching over Evelyn in a special way, as she faced death.
By 9.45 that evening, we hadn’t heard from the hospital. I had been so sure that this was to be the day of my mother’s death. Was I mistaken? Had I misread the Lord’s guidance on such an important matter? I remember saying to Tony, “My mother is a fighter. She’s still with us. It’s just amazing.”
At 10.30 pm Tony and I decided to go to bed. We had just switched off the bedside lights, when the phone rang. It was the registered nurse on duty at Canossa. I knew what he was about to say. “Your mother just died. We came and found her a little while ago. Would you like to come and see her?”
Of course we wanted to come and see her.
After phoning my brother (who lives 700 km away), Tony and I returned to Canossa. It was about 11.30 pm on Sunday 30 January.
This is what we found when we arrived. The music was still playing and a scented candle was lit and placed on the table. The bed was made and Evelyn’s body was draped in a clean nightgown. She looked beautiful. Her hands were folded neatly and placed on her chest just below her chin. The sweet-smelling gardenias from our garden I had brought in earlier that day were placed on her chest. Her eyes were closed. She looked like she was breathing normally (of course she wasn’t) and her body was still warm to touch.
We spent half an hour or so in the room with Evelyn’s body. There were no tears, just thankfulness. We had shed all our tears earlier that day and in the weeks before. Now we felt strangely peaceful. We knew that Evelyn’s spirit was no longer there. As the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:8, from the moment a believer dies, he or she is “absent from the body” but “present with the Lord”. The person we had known was not there.
Evelyn’s Funeral Service was held at St Andrew’s Anglican Church South Brisbane on Monday 7 February 2011. One week later, on Monday 14 February, a Memorial Service was held in Rockhampton, at the Rockhampton Crematorium Chapel. Evelyn lived in Rockhampton for 58 years of her life, so this service gave her extended family and friends there an opportunity to remember and honour her.
At Evelyn’s Memorial Service, I delivered the message (“Words of Hope”). I felt compelled to tell those gathered what the Lord had revealed to me through the Scriptures. I shared how the words of Psalm 116:15 prepared me for my mother’s death and gave me the hope, comfort and reassurance I needed and sought. Evelyn’s was truly a precious death.
Our son Daniel came home for a few weeks following Evelyn’s death. He played the violin at both services.
FOR FURTHER READING
Alzheimer’s and Dementia in Australia. Online: http://www.alz.org/au/dementia-alzheimers-australia.asp
The Simplicity of Dementia: A Guide for Family and Carers. Huub Buijssen. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia. 2005.
Facilitating spiritual reminiscence for older people with dementia: A learning package. Elizabeth MacKinlay and Corinne Trevitt. Centre for Ageing and Pastoral Studies, St Mark’s Theological Centre, Barton, ACT. 2006.
Online Bible Commentary. Psalm 116:15. http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/treasury-of-david/psalms-116-15.html
Pink, Arthur W. (1886-1952). Comfort for Christians. Chapter 17, Precious Death, Commentary on Psalm 116:15. Online: http://gracebbc.dyndns.org:81/PreciousDeath-Pink.html