The wind had blown the snow across the lawn, building up against the fence line like a rising wave preparing to crest. The way the snowflakes seemed to ride the curve of the growing pile made Jake think of a leaf dancing in the wind.
He had already been shoveling for what felt like an hour when he finally hefted the last of the powdery cotton off the driveway. With a relieved wipe of his shirt sleeve, Jake cleared the growing beads of perspiration from his forehead.
He was exhausted.
With a sigh, Jake glanced around the area and took in his handiwork. He knew the storm expected later that week could undo all his effort, but for now he felt good knowing he had brought order back to his world.
Jake tapped the shovel against the edge of the driveway to clear the last of the snow from his trusted companion, then began walking back towards his house.
As he approached his front steps, he brushed his foot across the bottom one to clear a final trace of melting snow he had apparently missed. Jake turned to draw in one last view of the sidewalk and driveway, scanning for anything he might have overlooked.
It was then that Jake noticed the house across the street and two doors over. The drive and walkways were still deep in snow, clearly ignored or forgotten.
He hadn’t ever really talked with the old couple that lived there, but he had admired them often. They were a friendly neighborhood staple, regularly taking slow walks together, or whiling away hours on the bench in their front yard under their large oak tree. They had apparently lived on the street longer than anyone else, besides Mr. Davenport next door.
Jake had noticed recently how much slower the old couple seemed to move. They took the longest time to get into their car anymore. The old man would always walk his wife to her door, open it, and then stand there with a smile as she arduously worked herself into her seat. He would then slowly find his way back around the car and lower himself into the driver’s seat.
He often wondered how they managed to do things around their home. As laboriously as the man seemed to do simple tasks such as roll the garbage can out to the street, or mow his lawn, it worried Jake to think what other more challenging projects might be like.
Aside from friendly waves when passing as the couple would drive down the street, Jake had never actually even interacted with these neighbors. He honestly didn’t know them at all, but everyone who spoke of them seemed to think the world of them. Perhaps based purely on reputation, Jake felt admiration and respect for his senior neighbors.
It was then that Jake felt the gnawing urge to take his shovel across the street and clear the driveway for the old couple.
He fought it for a moment. He was drained after the monumental task of clearing his own drive. Before that he had been working inside, moving some bookshelves downstairs that also required the repositioning of a couch and two end tables. Fact of the matter was that Jake did not feel like doing anything more that day, for himself or anyone else.
His wife Katherine had planned a date night for them that he was already behind schedule in getting ready for. They were doing dinner and axe throwing or something with a couple whose wife Kat had befriended at her spin class. Jake still wasn’t sure how he felt about it, but he knew he had no choice but to be there.
He didn’t want to do any more shoveling, and he had a perfectly reasonable out. Still, Jake knew he would not be able to relax that night if he didn’t help the neighbors. There was just something pulling him to do it.
With much less excitement than he would like to admit, Jake began walking towards the old couple’s house.
The sidewalk wasn’t too bad, and even the first few shovelfuls of the driveway felt fairly light, but before long, Jake could feel the muscles in his lower back tightening up. He looked at the long driveway and knew he was going to feel extremely sore in the morning. Nonetheless, he continued his pace without hesitation, ignoring the growing blister on his right hand.
Eventually, Jake was down to his last two shovel loads when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. As he lifted the final scoop and turned to toss it onto the growing pile at the edge of the drive, the old man struggled down the steps at the end of his long porch, and spoke.
“Thank you. I appreciate your kindness.”
The man’s lower lip appeared to be quivering, and Jake assumed the cold was chilling the elderly man to an uncomfortable level.
Jake felt that the man wanted to say more, but he wasn’t sure if he should wait for it or respond.
“You’re welcome.” Jake softly replied. “It looked like it needed done. Don’t worry about it, I was happy to help.”
The man nodded, and Jake felt a sense of uncertainty about having done the task.
“Well, you have a good night” Jake said, then began to turn to head back to his house, when the man’s shaky voice broke the silence.
“I’ve been meaning to get out here, but….”
Jake saw the man straining. He appeared to be holding back a tear. Jake felt torn between engaging and fleeing. The feeling to run grew as he felt his own eyes moistening.
“My wife…” the man’s trembling voice continued “… She’s been sick the past few weeks so I haven’t been able to do much. Last night she…”
The trailing words drew Jake in with curiosity and concern.
An eternity passed as the man pulled his strength together to finish what he was saying.
“… she… went home.”
The man lost his fight with the tears that had been forcing their way past their barrier, and he stepped forward to place his hand on Jake’s shoulder.
“I’m sorry… I just…”
The man began leaning forward until he was resting his head on Jake’s shoulder. Jake was surprised, but felt a sense of purpose in allowing the man to fall into him.
Had he heard the man correctly? Did he say she went… home?
“She’s gone…. my sweet Mary.”
There was no strength left in the man. He broke down as Jake took him into his arms and held him as he cried.
Within seconds Jake joined him, unable to hold back his own tears. Had this man’s wife really just passed away?
Together they let the sadness flow from their eyes, Jake for the sorrow the man must be feeling, and the man for the loss of his lifelong partner.
Despite the emotions flooding over his body, Jake stood firmly to provide the man a place to let go. He felt trapped, but he also felt he was exactly where he needed to be. No matter how awkward the inner voice in his mind wanted him to feel, the voice in his heart told him he couldn’t possibly be anywhere else.
After a few more minutes of silent companionship, the man was able to gather himself enough to step back and speak again, face and eyes red from shame and sadness.
“I’m sorry… I…”
Jake looked up at the old man and their eyes met. For the next few seconds a hundred words were shared without a single one being spoken.
Jake took the man back into his arms and hugged him tightly.
“Heavenly Father, help this man in his sorrow” Jake thought to himself, embracing the man tighter.
“You don’t have to apologize at all…” whispered Jake, “I’m so, so sorry for your loss.”
The man broke down again, sobbing into Jake’s coat. The wind had picked up again, and the chill of the fading day settled upon the two of them. In spite of the encroaching cold, Jake felt a warmth he could not fully explain.
After a few more moments, the man leaned back and looked at Jake with solemn gratitude.
The men shared a few more minutes of quiet conversation, discussing the details of the man’s loss, and plans for the coming week. Tears continued to leak from their eyes, but neither of them were concerned.
Jake assured his new friend that he and Kat were there to help him in any way they could. They would bring dinner over the following day, and they would see to it that he was checked on regularly by the neighbors.
The man told Jake that his own son would be there in a few days, having adjusted his work schedule to fly in and help with the funeral arrangements. He would have come sooner, the man expressed, but it had all happened so quickly and he was frantically coordinating his soonest arrival.
Time crawled as the men let the few words that passed between them convey deep and profound emotions. There was a connection and unity that both recognized, and both desperately clung to.
Finally, Jake gave a firm parting squeeze to his neighbor’s shoulder, then turned to walk back towards his home as the man pulled his own door closed behind him.
As he slowly walked himself home, Jake felt a deep sense of gratitude for the impressions which had led him to the man’s driveway that evening. Little did he know just how important that decision would be. He was so humbled that he had been open enough to follow the promptings. He was so grateful that night to have been more than just a man clearing his own driveway from the snow.