It was my birthday yesterday — the same day I found out that Fernald, a World War II veteran and one of the wisest, bravest and most adorable people I’ve ever known, had passed away.

The news certainly wasn’t the gift I’d hoped for, as I prefer not to weep while celebrating my continued existence on this planet. But it ended up delivering a lavishly benevolent jolt of memory, appreciation and perspective.

Fernald and his favorite president, on The National Mall in Washington, D.C.

I’ve written about him in this space before. We first met in 2016 on a Journey of Heroes trip to Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Vital Life Foundation and Wish of a Lifetime. On the morning of our departure flight from Portland, OR, he showed up at the airport with a ghastly black eye, sustained by falling off his bulging suitcase while trying to close it. I can’t do the story justice, you really need to hear him tell it himself.

The temperature was chilly as we set out the next morning to explore the World War II Memorial, and I asked if he needed to put on his coat. “Cold?” he replied. “I was in the Battle of the Bulge. This isn’t cold.”

Fernald had actually been one of the early donors to the Memorial project, and was proud as a parent when he finally got to see it that day. Later, back in his assisted living apartment, he showed me a binder full of receipts, canceled checks and even a letter from Sen. Bob Dole thanking him for his support.

Over the past couple of years, our paths crossed several times, as he quickly became one of my favorite and most inspiring people to talk to and interview. For a video featured at a Vital Life fundraiser, he told the very amusing story of how his wife fell into the creek on their first date, and shared some thoughts on love and online dating. At the end of that shoot, he and I had an on-camera interaction that turned into more of an intervention, and will always be one of my most treasured memories.

Thinking about him in the wee hours of birthday morning, along with an occasional ambush of tears, left me grateful for whatever cosmic power made our connection possible. I’m also pondering all the other Fernalds in long-term care settings who have immeasurably inspired and improved me — who at the end of their lives left a legacy of wisdom and pure goodness that will stay with me to the end of mine. If I was half the person they were, I’d be triple whoever I am now. It’s true. I’ve done the math.

I’m talking about people like Fran, who after crawling fearlessly into an open-air Stearman biplane gave me a pep talk about embracing opportunities and challenges. People like Julie, also a World War II veteran, who I wrote about reverently in McKnight’s, and who taught me the magic of Velcro slippers. People like Doris, who just in the nick of time reminded me that, “You can always start again. It’s never too late.”

Though with us now only in memory, theirs are the seeds that scatter and grow. By living lives that keep on giving and guiding, they’re actually immortal.

Sitting now in the bittersweet afterglow of yet another birthday, Fernald and the many like him remind me that we each have really only have one responsibility in our brief time on this planet — to make sure the seeds we scatter in our own lives give life and inspiration to others, long after we’re gone.  

Things I Think is written by injury-prone Gary Tetz, a national Silver Medalist and regional Gold and Silver Medal winner in the Association of Business Press Editors (ASBPE) awards program. He’s been amusing, inspiring, informing and sometimes befuddling long-term care readers worldwide since the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.