I could always tell when it was going to happen. Before the leaves began to turn beautiful autumn colors of red and yellow, even before I had to wear a jacket to go out and play at night after school, I somehow just knew when Dad was going to say it.
“Autumn’s here,” Dad would announce on a cool September night as we all sat around the dinner table. “Soon it’ll be too cold for gardening, riding bicycles, and swimming.” Then he’d look at me, sitting right next to him because I was the oldest. “Danny, soon I’ll be cleaning out the shed,” he’d say, like it was a brand-new idea, even though we had done that every year for as long as I could remember. “Are you going to help me again this year?”
“Sure, Dad. You know I will,” I’d burst out excitedly, and the whole family—Mom, Dad, and my three sisters, Randi, Sherry, and Cathy—would laugh. Sometimes it seemed to me that Randi, who was a year younger than I and always trying to act like the oldest, was laughing extra loudly at me.
But I didn’t care, because Dad knew how much I enjoyed helping him clean out the shed for winter. It was a big old wooden shed that Dad had built a long time ago, with windows on two sides and in the door. It was white, with lots of rusty nailheads showing through the chipped paint. We used the shed to store everything from shovels and rakes to bicycles and barbecues. During the spring, summer, and fall, we were probably in the shed as much as we were anyplace else. But by the time winter came, Dad would have the whole shed cleaned and organized and ready for the next spring.
The reason that I liked cleaning the shed so much was that Dad and I would talk. He was so interesting that it wasn’t like a job at all. He’d tell me about the cold, bitter winters he remembered as a boy in Indiana and about how much sweeter the spring always seemed after a harsh winter. “But no matter how bad the winter is, Danny,” he’d say, “whether it’s here in New Jersey or back in Indiana, remember that winter is just God’s way of putting the world to sleep for a short time. And then, in the spring, God wakes the world up with beautiful flowers, green grass, warm sunshine, and the singing of birds. The beauty of spring is one of the miracles of life.”
And before I knew it, the shed was clean, everything inside was reorganized neatly, and a big sheet of plastic was fastened over the roof so that snow wouldn’t get inside. The day would be almost gone, and Dad would slap me on the back. Then we’d gather up the whole family and go down to Mr. Watson’s for ice cream.
Then one day last year, just after I had turned eleven, I came home from school and found Mom upstairs in her and Dad’s bedroom, sitting in a rocking chair with an open photo album in her lap. When she saw me, she started to cry.
“Danny, your father’s in the hospital,” she said through her tears. “He became ill at work. … I don’t know when he’ll be able to come home.”
During the next few weeks, as we visited Dad in the hospital, I knew that he wouldn’t be home soon. The doctor told us that he was getting better, but that it was a slow process and that it was best not to rush things. It made my heart ache to see him lying there, looking so tired.
On my way to see him one Friday after school, I noticed that Mrs. Simmons’s big old oak tree was ablaze with autumn colors. So I knew that it was time to clean out the shed. I also knew that Dad would not be there to do it and that it was up to me. I couldn’t let him down.
I was up early the next morning, and I ate breakfast so fast that the food barely touched my mouth on its way to my stomach. Once outside, I looked up at the sky; it was a gray day with a chilly breeze and thick dark clouds. The weather report was for rain later in the day, possibly changing to snow at night.
When I pulled open the shed door, a leaf rake came tumbling out and nearly hit me in the face; we hadn’t been too careful about how we had put things back lately. Suddenly I felt sad and lonely because Dad wasn’t there with me, so I said a prayer that Dad would get well soon and be back with us. While I was at it, I asked Heavenly Father for help to do the job. Afterward I didn’t feel quite so lonely.
I had never realized what a big job cleaning out the shed was. Dad’s stories had always made the time fly, and it had never even seemed like work. This time it was only me, with nobody to talk to, or ask questions of, or share a laugh.
It seemed like there had never been as much stuff inside the shed as there was this year. To make matters worse, the clouds were getting thicker and darker and the chilly breeze had turned into a cold wind. I knew that rain was on the way, and soon. I didn’t even have everything taken out of the shed, and I still had to clean it, reorganize everything back inside, and stretch the plastic over the roof. I’m never going to make it, I thought.
I tried to hurry, and that was a big mistake. In my haste to move everything outside, I dropped a shovel on my bicycle, scratching the fender that I had tried so hard to keep looking like new.
I felt tears rush into my eyes. “I’m never going to get this done,” I said aloud, past the lump in my throat. “Oh, Dad, I’m sorry that I let you down.”
Just then a voice called: “Can I help, Danny?”
It was Randi! My first reaction was to say no to her offer. I felt that it was my job because of a special bond between Dad and me and that by letting Randi help, I would somehow be breaking that bond. But I quickly realized that my real responsibility was to Dad and the rest of the family. “Sure, Randi,” I said. “I could use some help.”
Randi smiled a big smile and got right to work.
I learned a lot about my sister that day. She worked as hard and as fast as I did, and she listened to my instructions about where to put everything just as I had always listened to Dad’s. We worked most of the day, and, just as we hammered the last nail into place to secure the plastic to the roof, the rain began. We both ran to the house, feeling happy and satisfied.
Mom met us at the door with some exciting news. “Danny, Randi,” she said, laughing and crying at the same time, “Daddy’s coming home next week! Isn’t that wonderful?”
That night we had the happiest dinner that we’d had in a long time, and we went to Mr. Watson’s for ice cream! I couldn’t stop thinking about how helpful Randi had been, and how it had really been fun talking with her as we worked. I decided that I wanted to do something to show her my thanks. “Randi,” I asked, “has Dad ever told you about how cold the winters were in Indiana when he was a boy?”
“No,” she said, her eyes sparkling, “but I’d love to hear about it.”