The Small Stuff of Dignity

At my father’s hospital bedside, during the end stages of his cancer, I noticed his fingernails were in need of a trim. When I asked him why they were so long he replied he had been asking for two weeks for someone to clip them. I proceeded to groom my father’s hands, and then his feet, and realized while I was tending to him, the small things, the things that help a person hold on to their dignity, are frequently unintentionally overlooked by otherwise loving, caring people, when in the throes of great suffering, grief and chaos. I wrote about this particular incident, and numerous other lessons my wise father taught me, in the opening chapter of my book “We are Here for a Purpose: HOW TO FIND YOURS.”

I was reminded of my father’s fingernails while I was a guest at a friend’s gathering in Colorado. Twenty people of various ages and genealogies had come together for dinner. An elderly woman, tastefully dressed in a Pendleton plaid skirt and matching emerald jacket, who lives next door to my friend’s parents, was left at the table alone with me as the younger guests scattered for the television or for other conversational opportunities, while the more dutiful ones tackled the dirty dishes in the kitchen.

Sitting across the dining table from each other, we found our way through a variety of topics and I learned she has been living alone ever since her brother passed away five years ago. I listened closely as she shared the story of her husband’s passing many years earlier, the unfortunate spill she took several months ago that left her with constant back pain, as well as the more recent condition of macular degeneration that plagues her and prevents her from being able to drive. Now at the age of 82, it has fallen to my friend’s parents to do what they can to help her remain independent and continue living in the modest home she has kept for thirty years.

Somehow, as is so often the case with conversations with strangers, that usually take place on airplanes or in hospital waiting rooms, I learned some especially personal things. Finding at least a willing ear, or maybe sensing I was a kindred spirit, she expressed her frustrations about her situation without complaint or whine, without exaggeration or repetition. I was reminded how much we need one another especially in times of sickness and as we grow old. I was also reminded how easy it is not to think – when we are in our own fine health – about the limits to our independence and the luxury of freedom and how we too often take them both for granted.

The thing that troubles this elderly widow doesn’t have anything to do with health insurance or money or the lack thereof, or with regrets and guilt. None of the big stuff that tends to weigh upon even the youngest of yuppies. It’s toenails that concern her now and how, since her macular degeneration, she’s not able to care for her feet the way she wants to do. Without hesitation, or thinking it might be even the slightest bit forward or peculiar, I offered right there at the dinner table to clip her toenails if she wanted me to.

It was one of those times, sort of like a Hallmark card kind of moment, where you can’t help but get the message loud and clear that happiness doesn’t always require attention to the big stuff. It’s usually the small stuff, the stuff of toenails.

— Giselle M. Massi © 2004