Angels are all around us, and sometimes they’re not what you expect. Today I encountered one who wore denim, listened to Aerosmith, and carried a shovel.
On November 8, we buried my beloved sister-in-law Mary Ann. She was made of pure love and kindness. I can’t even begin to describe how grateful I was to her for the generous spirit she always extended to my mom. She and my mom – her mother in law – had their own special relationship and it was a joy to behold.
Because of the age difference in my brothers and me, Mary Ann was like a second mom to me. She was also the rock of the family. I’ve always said every family needs a Mary Ann. I’m still not sure what we’re going to do without ours.
Mary Ann and my brother, Jackie, were married 56 years. Laying her to rest on what would have been her 72nd birthday was hard on him, as you might expect. It was hard on their sons, daughters in law, and the rest of the family. And on everyone else who knew her.
This afternoon, I went to the cemetery to take the flowers from the funeral off. My brother mentioned he needed to do it and I wanted to do it for him. After all, it was something I could do, and at times like this there is so little we can do for those we love.
A few trips back and forth to the trash can left the grave clear of all but the casket flowers, which were not in a basket that could be moved. I decorated some graves on the other side of the street and returned to Mary Ann’s grave with a now empty sack to contain the remaining flowers.
The whole time I was at the cemetery, there was a man working on another grave. The truck said, “The Wilbert Way,” on the side. The man was working intently to fill a grave and seemed engrossed in what he was doing.
The dirt on Mary Ann’s grave was uneven, no doubt settling from the recent rain. As I was driving back across the road, I decided I’d offer that gentleman some money to smooth out the top of it. Partially I wanted to do it for Mary Ann, but mostly I wanted to do it for my brother so he would not have to do it himself.
I approached the truck as the man was finishing his work. He placed matching sprays of yellow flowers on the perfectly mounded grave he had finished, and then set another basket of flowers in the middle of those. Momentarily, he disappeared from view as he bent down on the other side of the truck, and then I saw him replace one lone flower in the basket. He put it back in, looked at it, and then moved it to a more ideal position. I waited patiently as he picked up his tools and then asked him for the favor.
“Could I pay you to smooth out my sister in law’s grave,” I asked, my voice cracking with emotion.
“You don’t have to pay me,” he said. “I’m happy to do it.”
I thrust a $10 bill at him and said, “I’m happy to pay you,” I said. “I don’t want my brother to have to do it.” I rarely carry much cash, but was happy to have found that to offer him.
“No, Ma’am, no,” he said. “It’s my job, and I’ll do it out of respect.”
Not giving me time to do anything more, he started toward Mary Ann’s grave a few feet away. It took him about five minutes to smooth it out carefully. He patiently – even I would say, lovingly – tended the Earth that holds my sister in law’s remains. I thanked him profusely. He had as calm a demeanor as one could imagine – an obvious asset in dealing with people in grief.
I was reminded how much simple kindnesses from our fellow humans can matter. I didn’t even ask his name – he struck me as a man who preferred to go about his work as anonymously as possible. He is a testament to how some angels go quietly about their business wearing work shirts and boots.