The 85-year-old woman had a brain tumor. As time went by, she was less and less able to respond to her daughter who sat by her bedside, or to Philippa Shepherd, a chaplain for the nondenominational Montgomery Hospice Society in suburban Maryland who had been making regular visits.
Philippa knew the dying woman enjoyed music. To the fading patient, Philippa sang songs the woman liked -- "In the Garden" and "The Old Rugged Cross."
"In my experience," Philippa said, "music and singing can sometimes reach people who are dying."
One of the woman's favorite songs was "The Great Speckled Bird."
What a beautiful thought I am thinking, concerning the great speckled bird.
And to know that my name is recorded on the pages of God's Holy Word.
Her daughter, who often played it for her mother on tape, said that the idea of the Great Speckled Bird was very important to her mother. But she didn't know why. She asked Philipa where the song came from and its significance. Easier said than done.
"We knew it sounded like it was from the Bible," Phillipa said, "but nobody seemed to know where it came from."
At her church, Philippa asked a passel of folks, including "some extremely learned clergy." Only the assistant music director had heard of "The Great Speckled Bird," and then only as a song.
"I kind of despaired," Philippa said. "None of them knew where to start."
One of the folks Philippa asked was my wife, Jan, who in turn asked me.
I, in turn, turned to the Internet.
First I found the lyrics at the House of Son-Shine , a religious site in Texas. Rather than print them out, I copied them by hand on a legal pad.
From there I moved to CD Now and called up several versions of the song. Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams and others have recorded it over the years. I played for Jan a snippet by Jim and Jesse McReynolds.
Her wings shelter men of all nations, of earth's every color and race.
She has gathered them all in her keeping, to present to the Lord face to face.
When Christ cometh descending from Heaven on a cloud like he said in his word,
I'll be joyfully carried to meet him on the wings of the great speckled bird.
Then I turned to Bible Gateway , a Web site of searchable versions of the Bible and discovered that sure enough, the reference came from Jeremiah 12:9.
Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her; come ye, assemble all the beasts of the field, come to devour.
Jan passed all this on to Philippa.
"Where the church had failed," Philippa laughed, "the Internet had provided. Chapter and verse, the whole thing."
Philippa said the daughter was touched and delighted to have answers to her questions. The scripture was slant, poetic and open to interpretation, but "this became a marvelous opening," Philippa said. "In my ministry, to be able to talk about things that are helpful to people at this time is wonderful."
Together they explored the metaphor. "We began to think of the whole thing as the mother becoming the speckled bird and as the bird taking her away on those great wings to heaven," Philippa said. "All in all, it was a very satisfying spiritual episode."
The mother died in October.