the short story project


Stephanie Mueller

Footprints of Kindness

The other day, needing to clear my mind, I headed to the Oak Hill Cemetery.  This may seem like an odd place for most, but it relaxes me. The paths are quiet and peaceful amongst the graves and the lush green grass landscape. The mature maples and oaks create a serene canopy overhead, and I rarely see another face along the trails.  Here, I can breathe deeply and clear my mind from the everyday chaos of society.

As I walked the paths, freshly bathed in the rich jewel tones of autumn, I turned a corner and noticed an elderly gentleman resting on one of the granite memorial benches, gazing up into the sky.  Beneath the glow of a stunning red maple, I could see the midday’s rays highlight the years etched deep in the wrinkles of his face. His hair was as soft and white as freshly fallen snow, and he hid the weariness of his eyes behind a pair of silver-framed bifocals.  

As is my custom, I smiled and said, “Hello”, as I passed.  

He returned the smile and said, “What a beautiful day, isn’t it?”

I kindly nodded and he invited me to join him on the bench.  After introducing himself as Joe, he shared that he often comes to the cemetery to visit his wife, Anna, of fifty-three years, who passed away almost twelve years ago now.  When he misses her, he finds solace here with her spirit. Then, he asked if I had family here as well that I come to visit.

I responded, “No,” which clearly was not the answer he was expecting from the curious look on his face.  So, I went on to explain why I enjoy walking the paths at this cemetery.

He smiled and said, “Huh, I guess I learn something new everyday, even at my age.”  Then, he looked back to the sky, and in a quiet voice asked, “Do you ever just look up and wonder what lies above?”  

“Above? Like heaven?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.  “Heaven, God, his Angels, the Universe, all of it.”

“Well, I actually think about it often.” Then, laughing I said, “Maybe that is why I find peace walking here at the cemetery.”

He chuckled heartily and then asked, “Well, then, what do you see up there, young one?  What do you see when you look beyond the clouds?”

Somehow, this old man was reading my mind.  The past few weeks I had been mesmerized by the clouds’ unique beauty, delicateness, and strength.  I simply smiled and began to explain how I imagine that the clouds reflect the Lord’s feelings, almost like a window into his heart.

“How so?”  he asked.

With only these two words and the deep furrow of his brow, I could tell I peaked his interest.  So, I went on. “Well,” I said pointing up, “See the quiet beauty of the high cirrus clouds, for instance.  These whimsical clouds tend to grace us on gorgeous weather days like today. So, I imagine the Lord’s heart is content and at peace.  The purity of these clouds always reminds me of floating angel feathers, reflecting the softness of His kindness, of His love. These clouds always make my heart smile.”

Looking at me intently, Joe said, “Interesting; go on.”  

“Then, there are the low, hazy, gray clouds that hang over us like a blanket.”  

“Ah, the ones put everyone in a bad mood. Yes, I know them well.” Joe said.

“Yes, those are the ones,” I said.  “And, it’s true; they tend to bring us down.  But, do you know why? It’s because they are made of teardrops, the Lord’s teardrops. I imagine that when these clouds cover us and rain down upon us, the Lord is crying.  He sees too much of our hatred, too much violence, too much hunger, too much pain. The hurt and the sadness that he feels overflows and He weeps.

“But, these clouds are much more; they also have magic hiding inside.  As His teardrops fall, they water us. They cleanse our bodies, our minds, and our hearts, so we may see the possibility of tomorrow.  After the fog lifts from our eyes, we are again able to appreciate the sunshine. We greet a new day with a thankful heart and welcome the chance to love more than yesterday.”

“Wow, you see all of that, huh?” Joe said with a doubting smile.  

I shrugged, a little embarrassed.

“Anything else you see up there?”  he asked.

“Well, yes, I guess,” I said, now answering a little more shyly.  “Have you ever really looked at the ominous thunderheads that roll in before an explosive summer thunderstorm?”

“Of course.  Let me guess, those show the Lord’s anger.” Joe said with a smirk.

“Yes, exactly.  I believe those towering thunderheads show us the Lord’s power, his strength.  His frustration over our greed and selfishness becomes so great that the lightning lashes out across the sky to get our attention.  Then, His thundering voice rumbles from above, as if to say, ‘Wake up!  Look around you!  This is it; Life is the secret you seek.  You are here to change the world for the better. Of what would your footprints tell?  Would they speak of forgiveness? Of generosity? Of compassion? Of love? Would they reflect Me?’  

“Those clouds remind me that we, as human beings, are not in control of our lives; He is.  Rather, our control lies in how we react and what we learn from each experience, from one another. The Lord has brought us here to grow in strength, in faith, in love, and in our purpose.  His lightning flashes and His voice thunders to remind us that wherever we walk, we are to make this world a better place.”

As I finished my thought, I turned toward Joe.  He was staring down at his feet. A tear streamed down his wrinkled cheek.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to upset you.” I said. “Sometimes I can get carried away.”

He sat for a moment, and then looked up at me.  “No, you don’t understand. My wife was very much like you.  She was very spiritual and believed in the Lord’s grace. She often spoke of our journey and how we are each here for a reason, for a purpose.  Anna passed away from lung cancer. By the time the doctors discovered it, the cancer had already spread.  She passed very quickly, within only a few months. But, before she left this Earth, she asked me to make this world a better place.  She believed that one small act of kindness could start a ripple that would reach around the world.”

“What a beautiful intention.” I said.

“Yes, but that is not why I am crying,” he said.  “You see, I have failed her. Right after she passed, I made it a point to help others.  I cut lawn. I plowed snow. I volunteered at the church’s fall dinner. I even rang bells for the Salvation Army at Christmas time.  But, each year that passes, I grow weaker and lose motivation. Life has become so hard. I just don’t have the energy to keep Anna’s dream alive anymore,” Joe said.  “I have let her down.”

“Trust me, you could not let Anna down.  I am sure that she understands the pain you face each day.  In fact, I bet Anna was the reason we met today,” I said with a glimmer of a smile.  

Joe managed a weak smile in return, his eyes glistening through the weight of his tears.  

“Look,” I continued, “As long as there is breath in your lungs, kindness is possible.  That is the beauty of kindness. It exists even in the tiniest of deeds. To make a difference, you do not always need to make a grand gesture.  Talking with me today has lifted my spirit and reminded me that everyone I meet is my teacher. A simple conversation with a stranger is the heart of kindness.  Holding the door for someone, saying a prayer for another, returning a dying worm to the open dirt are all acts of kindness.  You can do great things even when they appear to be small in stature. They also leave deep footprints on the Earth.”

Nodding gently, he said, “You’re right.”  Then, he lowered his head and said, “Well, I never would have guessed it was possible.”

“What’s that?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“He finally did it.  God actually sent me an angel when I needed one the most, just like Anna always said he would.”

I smiled humbly back at Joe.  This time a single tear rolled down my cheek.  I thanked him sincerely, embracing him with a hug.  At that moment, I knew that the Lord had sent an Earth angel to me as well.  Joe and I said our goodbyes and joked about seeing each other on my next walking tour of the cemetery.

It has now been two months since my cherished conversation with Joe.  I have returned a few times to the Oak Hill Cemetery to walk the quiet paths and clear the worries from my mind.  However, I have yet to see my dear friend visiting his wife, Anna. Each time I turn the corner and glance at Anna’s memorial granite bench, peacefully shaded under that flaming red maple, I picture Joe sitting and staring up at the clouds in wonder and remember his wife’s mission of kindness.  Like the high peaceful, beautifully painted cirrus clouds against the crystal-blue sky, I think, How rarely do we recognize the footprints of kindness we leave on the hearts of those we meet.

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