Winters can be tough in New England: cold that turns toes blue and fingers to stone, winds that sting exposed skin like a swarm of killer bees, weeks of grey skies that crush the good cheer of the holidays into joyless dust, and, of course, snow – both the magical weightless whitecaps that ride in on bitter cold, as well as the nasty leaden slurry that bends shovels and breaks backs.
We all cope with winter in our own ways (except those of us lucky enough, or smart enough, to live in more moderate climes). Some of us grit our teeth and curse each cold snap with cathartic vigor. Others engage the elements on skates or skis. Still others simply build roaring fires to temper their souls on crackling cold nights. But nearly all of us share one ritual: snow shoveling, whether it be to clear driveways, sidewalks, or cars buried beneath wind-blown drifts or walled-in by city plows. The few who escape this unenviable task, for better or worse, are folks like me, that is, folks who are confined to wheelchairs. Though most of us try to pitch in with everyday household chores – emptying the dishwasher, folding laundry, cleaning out the litter box – scooping snow and tossing it onto a relentlessly expanding mound is, sadly, beyond our physical capabilities.
In my household – with both of my daughters having moved too far away to lend a hand when the flakes pile up in earnest – the snow-shoveling chore has unfairly fallen on my wife’s shoulders. And while Jennine is very capable of tackling most storms alone (a result of regular gym sessions, weekly hikes on various nearby trails, and a bit of Qi Gong), I still worry about her slipping on a hidden patch of black ice, or just slipping a disk trying to toss a particularly heavy shovelful of slush over a four-foot snowbank. Which is why an unexpected kindness this winter was so welcome.
It was the first significant storm of the winter – the snow piling up quickly on our rather steep driveway. This is only our second winter in this home, and last year was a gentle season snow-wise. But each new storm is a challenge. Being a practical person, Jennine often clears the drive as soon as three or four inches have accumulated in order to minimize the need to carry heavy shovelfuls, which are the biggest danger to straining muscles. But this storm started in the evening and continued through the night, putting a crimp in her strategy. As we sat in the living room watching the usual fare of reality shows, sitcoms, and scary news flashes, we could hear the DPW plows scraping by with time-clock regularity, each pass keeping the street clear … but building a wall of snow at the end of our driveway that would likely turn to cinder-block consistency by dawn.
The next morning Jennine bundled up appropriately for the post-storm blast of arctic air, then trudged out to tackle the driveway and front walk. I sat glumly at the kitchen table looking at our blinding-white, snow-laden deck feeling rather helpless. After an hour, she tromped back in, hung up her down jacket, which had been discarded not long after the shoveling began and her internal furnace kicked in, and gave me a quizzical look.
“Somebody plowed the end of the driveway,” she exclaimed. “So I only had to do the upper part. Not so bad.”
Neither one of us had a clue as to who might have done us this surprising and immensely helpful good deed, but we were both glad they did.
The next storm was the same. And the one after that. Somebody was stealthily plowing the end of our driveway. Finally, during the fourth storm, I spotted the culprit as he made quick work of the snow piled up by the city plows. But I didn’t recognize the truck, nor have time to get to the garage door in my wheelchair to flag him down – that’s how quickly he reduced the toughest part of snow removal to nothingness.
Determined to track down our anonymous angel, Jennine made a few calls to some neighborhood seniors, who we figured hired plows to clear their drives. She struck gold on the second call. An elderly woman who lives around the corner confessed that she’d asked her brother, who mounts a plow on his pickup just to keep busy in retirement, to swing by and help us out knowing that my wife was the one-and-only shoveler in our household.
Well, Jennine immediately got on the horn to our benefactor and thanked him profusely, offering to pay him for his troubles. Of course, he refused. He said that the pleasure of helping us through a punishing New England winter was all the pay he needed, and figured he got more satisfaction from doing a good deed than we got from receiving it. I think the balance is more even than that, but I wasn’t about to argue.
All of which brings me to the main point of this story: I can be a stubborn cuss. When I first ventured into the world alone in a wheelchair, I wouldn’t let anyone help me with virtually anything. I’d insist in opening every door by myself, push myself up the steepest ramps, fold and lift my wheelchair into the back of the van, then inch my way along the side to the driver’s door to the horror of onlookers. (Don’t panic, I use hand-controls, not my legs to drive.) But more recently, I’ve come to realize, letting people help me with the small (and not so small) tasks not only makes my life a bit easier, but makes them feel better too. People naturally like to help their friends, but probably get an extra dose of self-satisfaction helping a stranger.
So that’s now my mantra: gimmee-a-hand-and-I’ll-give-you-a-sincere-thank-you. It’s good for these kind strangers, and it’s nourishing for me, too. In fact, now I’ll even let Jennine help out with things I used to stubbornly try to do myself (sometimes with a bit of grumbling, I must confess). In many ways it’s easier for her to help me than watch/listen to me struggle, and, admittedly, it’s easier for me, too.
Don’t get me wrong, though; I’ll still empty the dishwasher. After all, I don’t want her to have all the fun.
Rick Blum has been chronicling life’s vagaries through essays and poetry for more than 30 years during stints as a nightclub owner, high-tech manager, market research mogul, and, most recently, old geezer. His writings have appeared in The Literary Hatchet, The Satirist, and The Moon Magazine, among others. He is also a frequent contributor to The Humor Times and has been published in numerous poetry anthologies. Mr. Blum is a two-time winner of the annual Carlisle Poetry Contest. His poem, Tomfoolery, received honorable mention in The Boston Globe Deflategate poetry challenge.