“Look at all the sugar in these cereals,” the shrunken, 85-year old man said aloud at my local CVS drugstore. As he reached for the Cheerios off the shelf, our eyes met. “I’m down to one teaspoon in my coffee, instead of three. Heck, during WWII I was happy if the coffee was even hot.” His eyes welled with tears. “I never used to cry, but I seem to cry all the time now,” said the man I’d soon learn was called Frank.
“That’s good,” I replied with a big smile, “it means you’re normal and human.” Frank returned the smile as he started to tell me more about his buddies in the service. I glanced at the milk I had just put into my cart, and thought about how much more needed to get done during this busy holiday season. When I looked up at Frank, our eyes connected once more, and my heart made a decision to be in the moment and enjoy the gift of conversation.
Together in Aisle 9, I listened as he talked about his wartime experience, and the largest land battle ever fought by our country — the Battle of the Bulge. “Do you know that there were over 70,000 American casualties during that battle alone?” “Yes, I do because my Dad was captured in that Battle, and became a Prisoner of War in Stalag 11B.”
Frank’s eyes were alert when I shared the story of how Dad’s frozen feet were saved thanks to the friendship he developed with Peter, the cook’s 8-year-old son, during his brief hospital stay. The boy, who wanted to learn English, was drawn to my Dad’s warmth, smile and playful nature. As a thank you for a full day of lessons, Peter brought Dad a bottle of schnapps the night before the German doctors were going to amputate his feet. Dad drank the liquor, massaged his feet all night through the intense pain and got enough circulation going to prevent the operation. Frank chuckled when I shared how Dad ended up playing professional football for the Detroit Lions and Philadelphia Eagles with those same feet!
Our conversation went back and forth, and I lost all track of time. Eventually, it came to a natural close. Frank put out his hand, and warmly said, “Thank you for taking the time to talk with me.” “It was my pleasure,” I said, “but a handshake won’t do. I want a big holiday hug!” As I held this sweet, dear man in my arms, I could feel his body shake as he can no longer hold back tears.
As I took my warm milk to the check-out counter, I reflected on the incredible gift of perspective Frank had just given me. Who cared what didn’t get done today?! I had the freedom and privilege to sleep in a warm bed tonight and enjoy a hot cup of coffee tomorrow. Plus, Frank reminded me of the one gift that’s difficult to find, yet never requires wrapping- the gift of time. May you choose to give this incredible gift to those you love – including you.
Article originally published in Professional Development magazine.