A few weeks ago, my girlfriend Jackie and I were having breakfast at a tiny “down home” diner in a small Lake Winnipesaukee town in New Hampshire. The fare was simple, good and the place had a great folksy, backcountry feel. As we talked, I noticed an elderly couple, maybe in their late 70’s or early 80’s sitting in a booth a few feet away from us. The woman was very attentive to her husband who appeared to be listening to her intently as she spoke. I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but she kept reaching across the table, touching his hand and arm. It wasn’t until they were finished, when she got up to put her coat on and he sat there unmoving that I realized he was most likely suffering from some type of cognitive decline. He looked up at her and she moved over to him, reached under the table and pulled both of his legs out into the aisle to get him to stand up. He could not. It was also then that I noticed this was a very large man. Not heavy set large, but he looked like he could once have been a professional wrestler. Even sitting down, his size was deceiving. He had very broad shoulders, big arms, and a powerful looking build, but the look on his face was like that of a child, simple and unassuming. He had white hair, a close-cropped white beard and was dressed like a lumberjack. She grabbed him under his arm to get him to stand up and he still could not do so. I watched her and she again pulled very hard a second and third time as he just sat there.
I told Jackie I was going to try to help her, got up from my seat, walked over and asked if she needed any help. She looked up at me, smiled and in a very low voice said “please”. I reached under his other arm and we both pulled until we finally got him to stand up from the tight breakfast booth. When he stood, he towered over me by what appeared to be about a foot. He looked down at me with piercing blue eyes and smiled warmly like he knew me all his life and it took me totally off guard. I asked him his name and he just looked at me…his wife said “Frank”. I said, “Hi Frank, do you mind if I help you walk outside?” He just continued looking at me, smiling and reached toward me. We locked arms, side by side, the same way a father would walk his daughter down the aisle. His hand was huge as he grasped mine, and I could feel his strength as he gripped my arm. He continued smiling, and I could do nothing else but smile back at him…it was infectious. As we walked toward the door, he took small, measured 6-inch steps. Finally outside and down the small set of stairs, we started walking toward their car about thirty feet away, Frank still taking 6-inch steps.
As we approached the car, I could see a United States Air Force sticker on the bumper of the white sedan, and I turned and asked him if he was once in the Air Force. He just looked at me and his wife answered, “Yes, he was”. Still on the sidewalk, Frank suddenly stopped walking. I was on his left, on the street side and I looked over at him to see why he stopped. We had been walking past a very small, quaint looking New England house, which had a well-kept front lawn and a short one-foot concrete barrier angling straight up from the sidewalk. With his right hand he pointed straight down at the lawn. I looked to see what he was pointing at and it was a singular, small yellow flower growing all by itself. He glanced at it, turned to me, looked me straight in the eyes, still smiling and said “dandelion”. That one simple word struck me like a thunderbolt. Here was a man, probably nearing the end of his life, in the absolute throes of dementia, who had stopped to gaze at a simple flower.
Even on our best days, none of us would do that. Every day, we let our surroundings fly by and miss the most beautiful things, our eyes glued to our cell phone screens, ear buds in or talking with someone or thinking about mindless things as we let life pass us by. This man didn’t even know how to say his own name, but he took the time to “stop and smell the flowers”. The ironic dichotomy between those of us who are perfectly present and lucid and this man who dwells in an unknown world hit me hard.
I opened the door, helped Frank sit down in his car and lifted his legs inside. He looked up at me, still smiling with his large, loving eyes and reached his hand out. I took it and didn’t want to let go. I wanted what he had. Not his illness, but his simple love of life and the spark of what once was. I thanked him for his service, shut the door and turned to his wife. She had her own pleasant, beautiful smile and said, “Thank you so much”.
To have been allowed to be a part of something like this, something that permanently shakes one’s foundation for the good, was an absolute privilege and gift. I thanked God for granting me this honor.
I will never, ever forget Frank. And for those of you who read this story, I hope you won’t either.
Folks, take the time to “stop and smell the flowers”.
Our lives are like the flicker of a match, once lit and then extinguished…and we may not get a second chance.