When the sun came out this weekend and warmed the earth, we stepped outside, donned brand new gardening gloves, pulled each weed from our garden plot, trimmed last year’s death away from our irises, washed grime off our outdoor chairs, and began to see signs of promise.
We began to look forward to the next phase where we’ll push seeds into the ground — carrots and peas and beets and radishes– and when we’ll spread fresh mulch on our flower beds. Maybe this year we’ll actually find some time to plant some annuals.
Signs of new life are all over campus. Tiny green leaves have sprouted on the wild blackberries at the edge of the woods behind our yard. Peonies and tulips have broken through the soil just as the daffodils have begun to take their final bow. The rose behind our house, pruned a few weeks ago, is thick with leaves and hinting at buds.
Do I dare to walk out to check the lilac? Could he be waking up, too?
Is it possible that we’ll soon be able to move some of our hours outside? to emerge from our four-walled isolation? To touch the earth? To smell the flowers? To feel the breeze on our skin?
Soon. The weatherman says it’ll be cool with scattered showers for the next week or two. This flash of 70s and sunny was a glimpse of what’s coming — a glimmer of hope.
So we leaned in. We played 80s jams — Doobie Brothers, America, Steely Dan — and sang along as we sat loosening the weeds from the soil. We smiled as we chatted, not rushing, just happy to have our hands in the dirt, to smell the earth, to feel the sun on our faces.
And as we were working there, on our knees in our garden, an unfamiliar Buick rolled right up next to us. An elderly man opened the passenger door and stepped out — no mask, no gloves, just a Laborers for Christ baseball cap. He told us his name and said, “Twenty-five years ago I stayed in these dorms for six weeks while we remodeled them.” My husband put down his tools, stood up, and stepped closer. He reached out his now ungloved hand, saying “Thank you so much! What a difference you made! Your work is still making a difference!” He shook the man’s gnarled hand, looked him in the eye, and smiled.
The man continued on, stringing memories together, a little confused, wondering if the dining hall was open or if he could go into a residence hall. Well no, my husband said, not with the pandemic. “Oh, right, right,…” the man said, as he got back in the car that his son was driving. They turned the car around and drove away.
I guess it was a sunny day and they just needed to get outside, to go for a drive, to remember a different time, and to make sure that the work of a long time ago still mattered.
It does. Even though the residence halls are all but empty. Even though some of them are due for another round of sprucing up. Even though he couldn’t peek inside. His work still matters.
I’m glad my husband instinctively knew what this man was looking for. After weeks shut in at home, with little outside interaction, knowing that he’ll likely not walk this earth too much longer, he wanted to see if the work of his life mattered.
My instinct when my husband reached out his hand, I have to admit, was fear. I almost said, “Stop! Wait! Don’t shake hands! We’re not shaking hands right now!” Wasn’t my husband the one who just yesterday took great pains at the park to walk off the path and to wait patiently for others to pass so that we could maintain our six feet of distance? Isn’t he the one, with me, who opens each piece of mail at the door, refusing to let the outer packaging come in the house, the one who washes each purchased item, each piece of produce, before it’s allowed to sit inside our fridge?
Did he suddenly forget all the precautions we are taking?
Maybe he forgot.
Or maybe his heart noticed a greater need. One that — ever so occasionally — trumps the precautions we’ve been taking for weeks.
For weeks we’ve touched no one except our spouses and possibly our children. For weeks we’ve seen no one in physical form other than those living inside our homes and the people we strategically avoid in public spaces, delicately shifting to the other side of the path, the street, the aisle to keep our distance. We’ve had all of our interactions over the phone, Zoom, and FaceTime. We’ve stayed within our private spaces in order to slow the spread of disease, flatten the curve, and protect ourselves and others.
But sometimes after you’ve seen no one in the flesh since sometime in March, an elderly gentleman steps into your garden, wondering if in his life he made an impact, and it suddenly becomes exactly the right thing to do to reach out, shake his hand, and say, “You made a difference.”
Touching can make a difference.
We won’t be making this a practice any time soon — touching friends, family, or complete strangers who step into our garden — but for this gentleman, who needed some reassurance on a day that offered the hope of Spring, touch seemed more than appropriate. It seemed like the human and loving thing to do.
This afternoon, my husband asked if I’d seen the lilac bush near our house. I told him I hadn’t, so we walked, plucked a small sprig of blossoms, and I held them to my nose and breathed in.
They smelled like Spring; they smell like hope.
Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.I Thessalonians 5:11