Light Notes

Was it a sign from heaven? Daughters call it the ‘Red Cardinal Miracle’

It arrived on a wing and a prayer – a hoped for answer that felt heaven-sent. But years earlier, this “wink” from above could never have been imagined.

“My sister, Jeanne, and I talked to our mom about when she got to heaven if she’d just let us know she’s happy and safe – of course she’s safe – but that she made it,” Deborah Patteson said, recalling how they had brought up the subject with their aging mama. “She’d say, ‘I’m not ready to go yet, but I’ll see what I can do!’ She always knew she’d go to heaven, of course, and we said, ‘Hey! Send us a sign when you get there. Let us know.’”

It would need to be extra special – not just shiny pennies – but something bright they would recognize as a loving note from above. Daughter Jeanne prayed that God would do it in a way they could never imagine.

“Like we love birds,” Deborah said, remembering how she and her sister decided on a sign especially meant for them. “And so, Jeanne said, ’Send us a cardinal, Mom’, and I said, ‘Yes, send us a cardinal!’” an idea their mama agreed would be quite distinctive.

One could expect to see a few birds on the 700-acre Kittiewan plantation in Charles City, Virginia, where Deborah and husband Brian live, but a cardinal sighting wasn’t commonplace. Nevertheless, Dorothy Booth made a promise to send a tiny red bird once she reached the other side someday, a vow she hoped to keep with heaven’s help.

“My mom had a really childlike faith in God and she lived for the Lord,” Deborah said, reflecting on a faith and love for family that this daughter observed up close as she cared for her widowed mother for 26 years; her studio apartment adjoining their home. “We were close, very close. I could talk to her about anything.”

But on January 9th, her 97-year-old mama’s voice stilled, the emptiness echoing. While the physical bond was now only a memory tucked into Deborah’s heart, she tried to picture her precious mom smiling and filled with joy in heaven. After the final goodbye’s it was nearly impossible to hang onto that vision through wet tears. Deborah and her sister mourned together while reminiscing about their hope for a heavenly sign, holding close their heartfelt prayer to see a red cardinal.

The day after the memorial service, wave upon wave of grief still matched the gray winter sky … until God’s love gently fluttered in to comfort the two daughters’ hearts.

“It was very cold and we were just sitting around playing Canasta, my mom’s favorite game. We heard this little thumping at the window,” Deborah said, recalling how she and her husband went outside to check on the sound, returning with their surprising discovery.

A. Red. Cardinal.

“It was so much more than we could even speak about or even dream up,” Deborah said about the sign – the message asked for in simple faith. “We were just ecstatic.”

Not only did Deborah hold the ruby red bird, but it stayed on her finger for minutes at a time. When she put it on her sister’s shoulder, it fluttered down to nestle by her heart, Debbie said. Cameras clicked to capture this amazing moment, joy filled the room.

Nearly a quarter of an hour passed until the time came to let the little bird go, out beyond the front porch where open-armed trees reached skyward.

“We went outside and I held it up in my hand and sort of gave it a swish and ‘Thank you! You’re a miracle!’ Deborah said, remembering how she was astonished at what happened next. “And then it flew back onto my shoulder. It didn’t want to leave.”

Captured on video, the scenario continued for another ten minutes or so – a clip of the amazing experience shared through social media. And on two more occasions, a cardinal – male and then a female – have visited at the same window, allowing Deborah to hold each one.

“I was overwhelmed with God’s love that he’d answer the prayer of our hearts, and that he answered mom’s request when she got to heaven,” Deborah said, her voice filled with emotion. “He just sends his love and faithfulness to us. It was just remarkable that he cares enough to answer our prayers.”

A sign from above … on the wings of love.

Lucy note: Deborah and Brian have now seen as many as 34 cardinals in the yard at one time, something that has never happened in the 36 years they have lived in their home. See more clips of the “Cardinal Miracle” at (Courtesy Angela Abbott Patteson and David Wright)

Lucy Luginbill is a syndicated Tri-City Herald columnist, religion editor and career public television producer and host. Her popular Light Notes column reflects inspirational and faith-focused stories. She’s been working in journalism for more than 30 years.