As I ascended the stairs to the mortuary chapel, I felt the tears that I had been fighting off come to my eyes. I entered the chapel and glanced nervously from side to side, looking for a familiar face among the two dozen or so people already seated. With relief, I slid in beside the ward Relief Society president and began reading the small folder in my hand. “In memory of Virginia Mae Madsen …” Immediately my mind traveled back two years to when I had first readied myself to meet Sister Madsen, the newest of the sisters I was assigned to visit teach.
Under the direction of the bishopric, I had been assigned no companion, and so I faced the prospect of meeting her alone. Furthermore, it was raining that day, and my two children were struggling with the usual colds of the winter season. The clock ticked away as I thought over what I might say. Of course I would introduce myself. Then what? Should I give the message? The Relief Society presidency had told me that Sister Madsen was in ill health and hadn’t been to church for years. Perhaps her husband, a nonmember, might turn me away in his efforts to protect his wife.
I recalled the gruff voice on the other end of the line when I had talked to her about coming to visit. Then, on the appointed day, the Relief Society president, realizing that my children were sick, had come herself to watch the children. I left in a rush, with Sister Madsen’s address and a copy of the message in my hand.
When I arrived, I paused for a moment outside the door for prayer. Then I rang the doorbell and waited. After several minutes, I rang the bell again. From the street corner, a gentleman called to me: “Are you here to see Virginia?” In response to my nod, he called, “The door is open. Just go in.” I turned the knob and entered a dimly lit foyer.
“Hello,” I called, trying to sound cheerful and unharried. A woman in a wheelchair slowly came around the corner. “Sit down,” she invited. I complied, and after an awkward moment, broke the silence. “You must be Sister Madsen. I am Susie, your new visiting teacher. A gentleman outside on the corner told me to come in.”
Now, more comfortable, I began to take more notice of Virginia Madsen. She sat in her wheelchair in a stately fashion, carefully dressed in a fresh nightgown and robe. Her hair was softly and neatly coiffed around a sturdy, yet gentle, face. Her makeup was simple, yet showed concern for her appearance. The large surgical hole in her neck to aid her breathing was obvious, and I realized that her gruff voice came not from unfriendliness but from the effort required for each painful breath and spoken word. My thoughts were interrupted by her efforts to converse.
“Tell me about yourself,” she said.
I replied, “My husband and I moved here about a year ago. We have two daughters, ages six weeks and three years.”
“Then you have everything, my dear. Children are wonderful,” she said kindly. “Please bring them with you when you come next time.”
So I was welcome, I concluded.
Sister Madsen continued, “The man on the corner is my husband. He was supposed to be picked up for a meeting. Please go outside and see if he is still there.” I obliged and returned with an affirmative reply. She looked at me and smiled. “I would love to visit with you, but I would be even more pleased if you could give my husband a ride to his meeting.” I told her I would find a ride for him, then I set up a time for another visit and said good-bye.
In the months that followed, I visited Virginia Madsen regularly. Through her, I developed a new perspective about visiting teaching. It was much more than an opportunity for pleasant conversation. I made friends with a unique and wonderful person I would never have known were it not for the visiting teaching program.
My testimony of the importance of visiting teaching grew, and I looked forward to each visit. We met on Wednesdays, when her husband was gone, and I brought my children, according to her request. As we grew closer, Virginia told me about her own family. She had raised a large family of her own children and foster children. We shared stories, and she expressed concern about their trials and failures and joy about their victories. She cared deeply for her children and was determined to watch out for and support them, despite her weakened condition.
She realized that her situation wouldn’t change, and she made the best of each day, accepting the things she could not control.
Each month, I watched the pain silently overtake her. Although I knew she was suffering, I never heard her complain. She sat patiently, at peace with herself. Her independent spirit shone as she resisted efforts to help her with little chores. But occasionally, she would ask help for someone else, such as changing sheets on the bed for her grandson’s visit, “to make things nicer for him.” Even though she was confined to her home during the two years I knew her, her smile was always contagious and she maintained the freshness of a new rose.
I abruptly returned to the present as the service began. As Virginia’s son spoke of her career as a singer and her dedication as a mother, I thought of how much I had grown from knowing this unique sister. I was also saddened when I realized how very few had known her.
As I left the chapel, my eyes met those of a sister who had been Virginia’s visiting teacher before me; she had moved from the ward. Now, in a bond of common understanding, we reverently whispered, “Weren’t we the lucky ones to know Virginia Mae Madsen!”