Working in the fast-paced world of long-term care, things can get a little too harried in a typical day to leave much room for stillness and actual insight. So sometimes life has to wallop you upside the head before you learn anything. For me, it took two solid smacks recently to get me to pay attention.

The first epiphany manifested itself as one of those agonizing, real-life scenes that play out in slow motion. As the priceless crystal goblet accidentally slips from the inattentive hand, the horror-stricken bystander rushes forward, arms outstretched. He mouths a futile “Nooooooooooooooo!” as it plummets and shatters in a spray of exploding shards.

This all-true calamity occurred as my sister and I helped prepare dinner while visiting our parents in primitive Canada last week. Over decades, we’ve gingerly washed and carefully dried that particular piece of glassware probably hundreds of times. It was one of a set, a family treasure, irreplaceable, and the needless loss made us heartsick.

Until it didn’t.

As our profuse apologies began, my father seemed oddly unperturbed and unsentimental. “Don’t worry about it,” he said. “Back when you were little, one of those glasses came free with every fill-up at a Texaco station. We got the whole set that way.”

After drinking from them with reverence for 50-plus years, it came as a bitter shock to be reminded that the value of things, or a sudden lack of it, is all a matter of perspective. Later, we found shards in the salad.

That overvalued falling glass, once so precious, illuminated another recent experience I’d had, but in reverse, with a favorite resident at an assisted living facility.

Over the past few months our paths had crossed frequently, and Fran and I had become friends — I called her my Zen master, she called me “that Canadian.” Funny, wise, practical and direct, she was always able to set me straight in a way few have ever dared or achieved — as this video proves, taken right after she took a fearless ride in a Boeing Stearman biplane.

Besides being 94, she wasn’t well, and I’d been planning to make a quick visit to her bedside for weeks. Life and work being what they are, I hadn’t managed to actually do it, always finding some reason I couldn’t go. But one day when I was near her facility, and lacking yet another handy excuse, I finally followed through and went to see her.

Her door was open, and she greeted me with a twinkle in her tired smile, saying, “There’s that Canadian again.” We engaged in our usual playful banter, and I promised to report that her call light wasn’t working properly, which I dutifully did on my way out. Then I squeezed her hand and went home — and the next week found out she had passed away.

Suddenly, that last brief, undervalued conversation took on full treasure stature. Though my visit seemed trivial at the time compared to all those other ultra-important things on my plate, just another item to cross off my list, it has attained epic, irreplaceable value.

While objects and possessions invariably diminish under scrutiny, open-hearted attempts at connection with those we serve, and serve with, always create growth in both giver and receiver. A trivial act of kindness offered in a facility hallway can seem like nothing to the CNA who paused even when she didn’t have the time, but to a resident or family member it can change the whole trajectory of the day.

In an ego-driven, impermanent world where possessions masquerade as precious, every genuine human interaction matters and no effort is ever wasted. The kitchen has been swept and the broken remains of that cheap Texaco glassware long ago discarded, but my last conversation with Fran will nourish my heart forever.


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 has amused, informed and sometimes befuddled long-term care readers worldwide since his debut with the former SNALF.com at the end of a previous century. He is a multimedia consultant for Consonus Healthcare Services in Portland, OR.