ESSAY- On shoveling: One step closer to the grave?

Oh, that scrape... scrape... scrape of the shovel. Having grown up in New England, that's a sound as familiar as my own heartbeat. As a little kid, lying in my blissfully snug bed, I'd hear that steady rhythm of steel against tar as my father cleared our driveway so he could make his way to yet another day at the car dealership.

As I grew a little older, I rejoiced in no-school days, but began to worry about my father's heartbeat, worried that Dad would shovel a path to his own grave– to another heart attack. He had come very close to death at the age of 39 from a massive coronary, and shoveling was one of the items on the list of things he wasn't supposed to do if he wanted to live a long life.

Smoking was another. But before every storm, my mother made sure there was a stash of at least four packs of unfiltered Camels in the junk drawer, in case Dad ran out of cigarettes. You wouldn't want to be snowed in with him if he didn't have his cigarettes.

The sound of shoveling was both worrying and comforting. Worrying because Dad could drop dead at any moment, and comforting because, if I could hear that insistent scrape...scrape... scrape, it meant he hadn't dropped dead yet.

The enterprise of shoveling puts a painfully fine point on all of life. It's a reason to ask ourselves: Why are we doing this– any of this? So much of life is difficult and unpleasant, and that's before nature throws up her nasty roadblocks. What's the point of shoveling? It's going to melt, eventually. Can't we just sit back and watch it slowly disappear, instead of trying to control everything?

No! There is bread and milk to fetch, there are jobs to get to. It's important. It's all so important. Until one day your heart stops, and as you sink into the snow you think: What was that all about? And, suddenly, none of it matters.

Maybe the secret is to enjoy the shoveling. Recently, my 91-year-old mother told me that Dad actually liked to shovel snow. His life as an accountant was so sedentary that snow-shoveling provided an opportunity to spend time outside, to feel the bracing cold and nevertheless build up a sweat.

People, like my father, who recovered from heart attacks in the 1950s and ‘60s were not told to exercise; they were told to take it easy. Don't pick up your kids; and for God's sake, don't shovel snow.

Maybe it made him feel rebellious. There aren't too many ways for a responsible, middle-aged man to feel rebellious. So he smoked two packs a day and shoveled snow.

And he died suddenly at the age of 53. Heart attack.

Snow falls, winds blow, the ground shifts below your feet. Tectonic plates dive and split. What can you do about it? If you're still standing, you can pick up a shovel and dig your way out.


Free Union resident Janis Jaquith often finds that her essays have been picked up for audio broadcast on area public radio stations.