If I heard my mama say it once, I heard her say it a lot: “Give me my flowers while I’m living and I can still enjoy them. Don’t care about them after I’m gone.”

When I saw recently a good-news story about a memorial service for an octogenarian, a veteran who had no known family, I thought about Mama’s oft-repeated proclamation.

The NBC News story reported that after a funeral home in Naples, Florida, included a note in Edward Pearson’s obituary that the 80-year-old veteran had no immediate family and “all are welcome to attend the memorial service,” thousands of people showed up to pay their respects. The event had to be moved to a bigger arena to accommodate all the people, and traffic in the area crawled to a near-standstill. Long after the service ended, visitors continued to stream into the cemetery.

Wow. One of the attendees interviewed for the story commented that it was “overwhelming to see the love and appreciation and honor that was being shown.”

I agree with my mom.

I would prefer to receive the love and appreciation and honor while I can enjoy it. Sure, it was touching, having all those people turn out for the service, but let’s be honest: Mr. Pearson did not get to enjoy any of that love … or appreciation … or honor.

It made me wonder how many of those people would have paid him a visit while he was living if they had been made aware of this dear gentleman.

Please understand. I do think this was a lovely gesture, but it was also a reminder that we often wait too long to express our love to those longing to receive it.

A few years ago my husband and I, along with our daughter Emily and her family traveled to Washington, D.C., for a few days of sightseeing. Some friends from the area joined us and made arrangements for a guided walking tour of the monuments that have been built to honor our nation’s war heroes. While we were viewing the World War II memorial, a group of veterans arrived through Honor Flight, a nonprofit that transports veterans to the nation's capital to see the monuments honoring them. 

The pageantry that followed was exceptionally moving. An honor guard presented the colors. A band of uniformed servicemen played. A lone soldier bugled "Taps." Most of the veterans were in wheelchairs and were accompanied by a family member or other caregiver. Many wore baseball caps emblazoned with the Honor Flight insignia or the name of “their” war. Most had served during World War II, but there were also servicemen and women from the wars in Korea and Vietnam. I watched in silent admiration that gave way to awe as I looked into the faces of these aging warriors who had served so well and sacrificed so much.

After the ceremony ended, our family spent an hour visiting with these heroes — shaking their hands, telling them thanks, giving them well-deserved hugs. Each one of them eagerly accepted the accolades we bestowed, often with tears. What surprised me most was the gratitude shown by the caregivers. Many of them also were crying as they thanked us profoundly for taking the time to notice their loved ones. Notice? We felt as though we were greeting celebrities — only better. It was a truly satisfying experience to have the opportunity to express our appreciation to these veterans.

When I was a nurse in long-term care, I always felt it was a special privilege to care for a veteran. Quite a few of my patients had served in World War II. They were always gentlemen — always kind, always appreciative.

One was especially charming. His claim to fame was serving on the Navy frigate USS Pocatello with Buddy Ebsen, the actor who later starred as Jed Clampett in "The Beverly Hillbillies." "Lefty" (as he liked to be called) kept a framed photo of the ship’s crew on his nightstand and took great pride in showing it to staff. He had no family and hardly any visitors, so we became his family. When he passed away, a group of about five staff members from the nursing home were the only ones who attended his funeral at a local mortuary. Attending the service made us feel good; but even more satisfying was knowing that Lefty had been loved and well-cared for during the waning months of his life.

Yes, we should pay honor to all the men and women who have served America to preserve our status as the land of the free. We should let them know we realize this is only possible because we share our home with them — the brave. Let’s not wait until they are gone to express our gratitude. Now is the time to show our veterans how thankful we are for their sacrificial service.

Monday, Nov. 11, we will observe Veterans Day, a federal holiday in the United States to honor all the men and women who have served in our Armed Forces. Please set aside some time not only to remember the veterans in your family, neighborhood or church but also to seek out those — in nursing homes or homeless shelters — who have no one else and show them the love, the appreciation and the honor they deserve.

 

Ruth Z.W. Johnson of Burlington wrote the Caregiver to Caregiver column for the Times-News. See her website at caregivertocaregiver.info, where this column was first published.