Most times life simply bumps along in an ordinary way from day to day, sometimes more smoothly, sometimes not: shopping for dinner, picking up the mail, folding the laundry, or just getting the kids or grandkids and ourselves ready for bed.
But sometimes, life just stops.
Recently, some friends had a moment like that: they were together in a golden time-globe that formed magically like a transparent bubble in mid-air, floated there intrinsically complete and still — before falling open to become once again part of the regular continuum of days.
How did this come about?
Our dear friend, sister, cousin, neighbor — Kirsten Gleb — is one scion of a deeply rooted Peninsula family and for many years struggled with cancer. As granddaughter of Marcel and A. Douglas King (with ties also to the Williams family), Kirsten years ago purchased the family home in Ocean Park called King’s Haven. (Earlier this year I wrote about Marcel gifting the land upon which the Ocean Park Timberland Library was built; and, in 2000, Marcel’s son Douglas gave another piece of property for a library expansion.)
Anyway, Kirsten’s main residence was up north of Seattle, but she always considered Ocean Park home. Four weeks ago, she came home for good. Those of us who knew Kirsten figured she could do anything. As far as we knew, she excelled at every task she took on, whether it was 20 years as a fireman or her subsequent career as a librarian. She was also skilled at knitting, bookbinding (she was part of an international contingent of experts), art projects, collecting antiques, or any number of major repairs around her (aging) home.
Nothing phased Kirsten, including how she was going to move to King’s Haven with her several-ton commercial paper cutter. Well, yes, it had been hoisted up and through a second story window of her north Washington home, but — no problem — she’d figure how to get it to the Peninsula when the time was right. This summer the time was right.
Kirsten was the quintessential independent woman. Maybe that’s why she worked so gracefully and confidently in the predominantly male world of firefighting. Maybe this was partly why what unfolded last week was just meant to be.
Off to the beach
With her indomitable will, the guidance of an extraordinary Chinese medicine practitioner, and a dedicated team of Western doctors, Kirsten kept her cancer at bay for so much longer than any of us thought possible. But when we saw her lying in her bed these last weeks, we all knew her time was near.
But wait — last Monday Kirsten roused and had one request. “I’d like to go to the beach!” Her family and caregivers looked at each other dubiously, maybe a little hopelessly, until Nanci Main, another unstoppable woman, moved into action. She immediately called the Pacific County Fire District No. 1's Ocean Park station. Meanwhile, one of Kirsten’s college friends (whose husband is a battalion chief in Seattle) scoffed, “You can’t call the fire department for that. There’s no way they’re going to do that. No way!”
Just as “no way” was echoing off the walls of King’s Haven, the OP fire department pulled up, lifted Kirsten from her hospital bed onto a gurney and into an ambulance. Off they went to the beach.
Kirsten’s house sits in the middle of a close-knit neighborhood adjacent to the Ocean Park Elementary School. Somehow word spread that Kirsten was going to the beach and folks emerged from their homes to be with her. Everyone came together just as the firemen rolled Kirsten out into a perfect beachy afternoon on the Bay Avenue approach.
When the sun and a salty whiff of breeze hit Kirsten’s face, she beamed. Long-time friend Alta, a Pacific Northwestern native visiting from North Carolina, placed a crazy sun hat on Kirsten’s head. Someone lifted sand up to her feet to give her that familiar sand-between-the-toes feeling. The whole event happened so smoothly, came together so effortlessly, that it was almost as if it had been divinely scheduled and written into Fate’s Big Book. Time did stop.
When time started up again, Chief Jacob Brundage, Assistant Chief Brad Weatherby, EMTs Nick Haldeman and Jeff Archer took Kirsten home and put her gently back into bed at King’s Haven. She died the next day.
Let’s do it
Brundage recounted the beach visit this way. “When Brad relayed Nanci’s request to me, I said, ‘Let’s do it!’ We’ve done this a number of times before for other people, but we don't advertise that because it’s a real private thing so we keep it that way. Some people call with a last request — they want to go out and smell the ocean air.”
He continued, “When people are dying, the family — everyone — is extremely vulnerable so we want to maintain their privacy, provide dignity for the person dying and a safe way to shield them. When they ride in the ambulance, we can at least open the doors and get them close to the beach. We had two EMTs because we weren’t sure how much logistics and palliative care would be needed; we wanted to move Kirsten carefully with as little jostling as possible.”
Nanci adds, “You even brought warm blankets!”
“Yes, we may have more requests after your article!” Brundage said. “But we’re OK with that, within reason. It’s a privilege to go on calls when somebody asks you to be a part of a family’s most vulnerable times and they trust you to provide some ease of suffering. That’s a privilege, when somebody honors you enough to be there for their last moments.”
“A lot of times we go into a situation and there’s nothing we can do to fix the problem, but this kind of call is an opportunity to provide service. We have the resources, we have the availability to do it. These are the things we should be doing. We’re a small community fire department, the community pays for our service — there are other things that are just as important to this community as responding to a house fire or somebody who’s wrecked their car.”
“We have a lot of type-A personalities on staff, they’re not necessarily touchy feely — sometimes they don't understand the emotional side of all the things we provide. Especially in someone’s last moments, it’s awkward, sometimes they’ll think, ‘I’m not sure if I’m supposed to talk. What do I do?’ But one of the fellows who helped Kirsten said to me, ‘I get it now. I get that there’s more to being in this role.’”
The fire crew also took Frank Glenn on his last-wish ride — he wanted to see his cranberry bogs one last time.
What we can do
When asked how we might thank the fire department, Brundage said, “We’d love to get one of those beach wheelchairs. Long Beach has one and the Ocean Park Resort has one that they make available. But often we find people in our home visits who’ve had a stroke, or broken a hip, who haven't been able to go to the beach. This is something we could provide our citizens.”
If you’d like to help in honoring career fireman Kirsten Gleb, make a check out to “Pacific County Fire District 1,” and note “Kirsten Gleb Fund” — send it to P.O. Box 890, Ocean Park, WA 98640, or drop it by the office, 26110 Ridge Avenue.
With our own OP Beach wheelchair, our firemen can help others experience that radiance we saw in Kirsten’s face on her last visit to the beach she loved so much.