Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Golden Moments at the Golden Gate - Kim's Day

In November 2008 I spent a wonderful and significant day with my sister, her husband, and my wife. They flew out to meet me in San Francisco for just the day. My sister is terminally ill and had just been told by her doctor that her treatment options were exhausted, and that she likely had just a few weeks left in this life. I wanted to give her the gift of a beautiful, memorable day. An experience fresh in her mind that might help sustain her through the days ahead when she would surely be bed ridden and confined to her home. With the help of some of our dearest friends from Rodger's Memorial Theatre I pulled together a trip within a few days of the bad news, while she was still able travel. It was supposed to be a gift for her, but it turned out to be an inestimable treasure for me. In tribute to her I would like to share with you the gifts I received on Kim's Day, and what it taught me.

My idea was to fill her day with gardens, beautiful vistas, and of course the ocean. In her later life she became close to the earth and growing things. She loves gardens, and is a master gardener herself. I knew there were gardens in Golden Gate Park she had always wanted to see, but had never gotten the chance to visit. And I knew she loved the ocean. That it made her feel spiritual things, and brought her close to her maker. I threw together a list of sites, and decided to see how many places the day would allow us to visit.

I met the three of them at the airport. It had only been a few days since I had seen Kim last, but she had already dramatically begun to loose her strength, and you could see the short flight had sapped her waining strength. "I've made a mistake", I thought. I wanted the day to be a blessing, but I could see that with her physical discomfort, her pain, and how weak she was feeling, it might end up being a grueling torture for her instead. She need a portable oxygen machine, and it was apparent she would need to be in her wheel chair for the day. I just hadn't expected her to be so weak. I thought she would still be able to walk quite a bit. That she would still be as strong as when I had last seen her. But now my plan meant dragging her all over San Francisco's rugged beauty in a wheel chair, with every bump an insult to her poor tortured insides. For a few moments I felt true despair and truly foolish as I sat in the car at the airport curb waiting for them to take her back inside for the first of several bouts of retching and diarrhea that have now become her daily companions.

But at that awkward moment of what I thought was a total failure on my part, came the first glimmer of the blessings we would enjoy that day. It started with my wife Donna. She is a stalwart and beloved companion. Trustworthy, loyal, and sweet. She knows how to be a good friend, organize anything, and best of all, how to brighten the dreariest day. But this day, she became Kim's guardian angel (or as they later referred to themselves, Potty-Partners). Donna's cheerful attitude and loving care of my sister that day, was so selfless and tender that I found myself awash with admiration, love, and gratitude for the service she rendered us all. It was like a great burden was lifted from my shoulders, and dark clouds dispersed from around me. I will probably never be able to tell her just how much her service meant to me that day. I found myself thinking about how our Savior said "when you do it unto the least of these thy brethren, you do it unto me." So dear to my heart was my concern for Kim and Dave that day, that as my wife ministered to them, she surely did it unto me also.

It was the most gloriously beautiful, warm, clear day that had ever happened in San Francisco in the middle of November. God must have been watching and sent such a day as his best gift for his little band of sons and daughters. First we visited Golden Gate Park and took a stroll through the San Francisco Botanical Gardens. My second gift came as I watched Kim soak in the green life around her. Even in her discomfort her eyes lit up as she named off so many plants that she knew, and delighted to see some new ones she was not yet acquainted with. It warmed my heart to see her, and reminded me of the gift this life is to us. She had found a passion in gardening, and pursued it with no reservation (just visit her yard and you'll know what I mean). You could always tell the joy and satisfaction it gave her. It made me realize how I have denied myself so many worthy pursuits that might have brought me much joy, just because I could not find the time to put aside my pursuit of making a living. I resolved to change that while precious time is still mine.

The morning turned to noon as we arrived at beach just off the West end of the park. It was picture perfect. We sat in the sand and watched the waves break on the ivory beach. Another gift was bestowed as a beautiful contentment settled over us. The sound of the breakers and the soft scratch of the breeze filled the air with life, yet there was at the same time a feeling of reverence for the majesty of God, and the beauty of his handiwork. I watched Kim rise from her wheel chair for the only time that day and walk along the beach hand in hand with Dave, still lovers through all the pain. And again my heart was pricked to think that I had ever passed up a chance to share such moments with my wife or children! Time is to short, too precious to squander. Again I resolved to make the time. To wrest it back from all the mundane tasks of life and work, and lavish it on those who are so important to me.

We made our way across the Golden Gate Bridge in the early afternoon, and drove the narrow winding road to the Muir Woods. Its a quite undistrubed grove of giant redwoods hidden away in the folds of the small mountains that border the sea north of San Francisco. As you walk into its deep shadows and cool moist air, you can't help but feel a certain kind of reverence born of awe and buttressed by the powerful aura of ancient life around you. It was a bit of a rough road pushing that wheel chair through the forest, but Dave bore it like a badge of honor and refused the least bit of help. And as I watched him carefully tend to her every need and comfort, I saw in him a great example of unconditional love exercised to the very end. Not only that day, but everyday of her struggle. I have often thought as I've seen his careful loving service to her, that I want to be like him. And that I must do better in showing that same focus and concern for my loved ones each day that I am blessed have them.

As the day turned to late afternoon, we wound our way back up the mountain side to the site of an old WWII gun emplacement high up on the sea cliffs. A place we could watch the sun as it set far out over the silvery blue water. We sat on the brow of a steep thousand foot drop to the rugged ocean shore below. From our vantage point we could see the west side of San Francisco just a few miles south of us as it tapered down to the sea.

Kim was so tired. The day had drained her limited strength, so we let her sleep in the car while we watched the sun slowly drop lower in the sky on its way to evening. We wanted to end the day with a glorious sunset, and watched intently so we could wake her in time for the moment. The three of us sat quietly in in the cool gentle breeze as a profound peace settled around us. I couldn't help but cry out in silent prayerful thanksgiving for the day we had been given. All my misgivings and concerns had melted away in the blessed moments and lessons learned. Finally the moment came for us to wake her, and the four of us sat and watched the day pass as the fiery golden sun slowly sank below the horizon of a calm western ocean.
I thought about the day as I sat there. I had watched her soak in the beauty of the gardens, commune with the rushing surf of the ocean, and with hushed reverence, immerse herself in the ancient life force of the redwoods. And then finally with quiet gratitude, and grace, rest her head on Dave's shoulder and watch the glorious demise of the light. I thought my heart would rend to watch them cling to the moment and to each other as the golden light slowly faded.

It occured to me that if I had been in her place I might have lashed out in frustration at that moment, at the injustice of my fate. The beautiful poignant scenes of the day might have only driven home to me what would soon be lost. Yet she viewed it all with a sweet thankfulness to have the chance to say good-bye, firm in the belief that this was only the beginning of the wonders she would shortly see. She treated the day not as the closing finale, but rather as a pleasant preview of the next act. I wanted to be like her too, and wondered if my soul would grow enough to exhibit such a cheerful obedience to the will of God when my time comes.

At one point earlier in the day, as we had stood on the beach, she remarked a few remembered lines of a poem she once read. That death was like the horizon of the ocean we looked out over. Life never ends, we simply sail over the horizon and out of sight for time. The thought resonated through my spirit as though it had been struck like a bell. And now as the sunset had reached its pinnacle of color and glory, halfway
out to the horizon I could see a graceful white sail boat, dancing with the golden flecks of light on the water. Again the imagery of death as only a horizon that we sail over, came to me with such force and power that the spirit of God testifying to me of the reality of life eternal filled me like a blaze. The moment left such an impression on me, that a part of me could not rest until I later found the poem and had a chance read it in its entirety. It turned out to be by a woman that goes by the pen name of Ladywolf.

I stand upon the ocean shore.
As a ship at my side opens her sail to the morning breeze and begins to glide across the water blue.
She is a beautiful sight.
I stand and watch her as she glides with grace and strength into the clouds on the horizon.
Just where the sky and the ocean meet and come to mingle with one another.
When I hear someone cry out, "She is gone."
and I must turn and say to them, "Yes, but gone only from sight."
For within the mind and heart she can always be found.
For life is eternal, Love is immortal, and death is only a horizon, and a horizon is nothing save the limits of our sight.
I am a ship who has slipped beyond the horizon just out of sight, but not out of mind or heart. For my sails have now become wings and now I can soar.

The day had taught me the face of Grace, Love, Companionship, Compassion, Tenderness, Strength, and Faith. I was spurred to change my life for the better, and received testimony born of the Holy Ghost of the reality of Eternal Life. I could not have foreseen the depth and breath of the gifts I would personally receive on Kim's day, yet there was one more to come.

As wonderful as all these experiences had been, yet I still felt as if there was another reason the day was so cherished in my heart. Finally it occurred to me ... I had her to myself for the first time in many many years ... since she was my closest playmate when we were little children. I realized how much I had missed that little girl that was my co-conspirator, my nemesis, my friend. Looking back over the years I could see how she had slowly slipped away from me. Year by year the normal forces of time and life had eroded away that special place I had, to give way to teenage pursuits, becoming a woman, a wife, and a mother. She was all mine then, my little sister.
We were such a big part of each others lives back then, but now I had receded to become just a small part of the much larger picture of her life, just as her place in my life had diminished over time. It wasn't a horrible thing that had happened, actually just normal, and appropriate that we had moved on to the pursuits and paths of adulthood. Yet I have always felt a little ache somewhere in my soul that the closeness of those moments playing together as carefree children had passed into history. Yet here she was, mine one more time. Here to play with me, to be mine, and for a glorious day the warmth of that special time of our former young lives kindled again for me. And with it the dark clouds of grief and loss gathering on my horizon were burned away. One more day was enough for now.

My sister has continued to cling to life for these many weeks since our little trip, despite the pain and inability to eat more than a few morsels a day. I've spent many more hours with her and her wonderful family. Hours of thoughtful discourse, as well as laughter. I have watched a constant stream of people visit her beside at every hour. It is apparent that she has touched the lives of many, and been a force for good among her neighbors. The love that is poured out upon her home is a marvel. And through it all she has graciously continued to serve her many friends as best she can, but mostly by drying our tears, and strengthing our faith in God. Her family just as graciously sets aside their own greif and fears, and generously opens their home despite their own needs, to allow so many to come and partake of her friendship one last time. They have taught us all a great lesson of service, sacrifice. and faith.

I visited her the evening I made this post. Tomorrow I must travel again for my work. As I left her bedside my wife remarked that I may have spoken to my sister for the last time. Before I left I promised Kim I would finish this blog tonight so she could read it in the morning. So it may be that this is the last I will ever speak to her in this life. If it is, then know little sister that I have shared the truest feelings of my heart. I'm sorry I could not speak it to you in my own voice, but you know I would never be able to get a word out past my tears. You are one of my heros. I love you, and I hope you will soon be free.....The day was suppose to be a gift for Kim, but it turned out, as it often does when we offer our service to others, that I was the one who received the greater gift.

Kim Ellis Madsen, Sister, Mother, Friend, and Hero passed away after a prolonged battle with ovarian cancer on February 9th, 2009, at 2:10 PM. She is a light unto those know her and an example to us all of how to live our lives. We love you and will miss you Kim.


Kim Madsen said...

Dearest big brother, thank you for such eloquence, and sincerity. Your words were the bow on the gift. They brought your audience to tears. I love you. --Kim

Sherry Ringholz said...


As I have been reading this beautiful tribute to your sister Kim, I find tears blurring my vision. I would like to express my gratitude for reminding me of how much I should cherish my family and friends much more than I have been. I believe Kim is now rejoicing with loved ones who have passed before her. I also pray that our Heavenly Father may ease the pain of grief and loss, that you may always remember the beautiful sunset you referred to while sitting on the beach. I know I now always will.

Sherry Reid Ringholz

Sandra & Brent said...

I found this blog while checking Chrissy's blog. What a beautiful tribute to Kim and remembrance of a golden day. Kim so enjoyed this day with you and Donna and she was so grateful for the gift. I wish you peace and comfort in the coming weeks. Love to you and Donna, Sandra

Amy said...

Dear Dad,

Kim is right, you have a very special gift with words and with your pictures. This is a great monument of a special gift you game to Kim.

I would like to quote you when you said,"I watched Kim rise from her wheel chair for the only time that day and walk along the beach hand in hand with Dave, still lovers through all the pain. And again my heart was pricked to think that I had ever passed up a chance to share such moments with my wife or children! Time is to short, too precious to squander. Again I resolved to make the time."

Seth and I enjoy all the time we are able to spend with our eternal family and love you so much! Thank you for all you do for us and all that you will do!
Thank you for this post and memorial.

Your favorite daughter-in-law,
Amy Jean Ellis