Clockwise from top left: Nema Semnani, Meg Stankiewicz, Maureen Erne, Nathan and Rachel Beachy, and Patricia Wudel. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

In the darkest season, when the days are short and cold, a special kindness blossoms. At this time of year, charitable donations spike, and the plight of those who struggle edges closer to center stage.

But ask people about the best thing they’ve ever given to someone else, and their memory search stretches beyond the cheery rituals of Christmas. Ask about the gift that meant the most to both the recipient and the giver, and people talk about the most unexpected of moments, gifts that were neither neatly wrapped nor intricately planned.

What rises to the top of the list are impulsive, instinctive gestures, often small and quiet, that carried a grace that couldn’t have been predicted. An old man falls and a stranger offers a gift of presence and time. A sad story on Facebook about an accident and a loss leads a man 1,600 miles away to offer a song of solace and friendship.

When words fail a woman whose sense of self depended on them, her husband hands her an envelope full of just the right ones.

We start with a gift that soothed the most wrenching of human trials, a solitary battle against a fearsome illness. A co-worker steps in, unasked, because no one should be alone.

And we end with the plainest and most powerful of gifts. When all seems lost, a woman gives a present that costs nothing and delivers all: She decides simply to be near.

Meg Stankiewicz, left, and Maureen Erne at the Bob Evans where they work in Cleveland. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

One Bob Evans waitress was looking another in the eye.

“You’re not going to die,” she said.

They had spent years working together at this tired breakfast chain, and had always bonded over how much they had in common. Regulars would mix up their names, Meg and Maureen, because they both had brown hair. But their bond was deeper than looks. Meg Stankiewicz had stayed in Ohio after high school, married a wholesome Midwestern boy, had three kids and worked two jobs to make ends meet. Maureen Erne, 10 years younger, had followed the exact same path.

But now, Maureen’s life was starting to mirror the worst part of Meg’s.

The lump.

The doctor’s visit.

The diagnosis.

Seventeen years earlier, Meg’s breast cancer had appeared. She was 35 years old. Her mother had died of the disease at 45. Meg tried to tell herself she wouldn’t go the same way. She had a double mastectomy. When she singed her wig in the oven while trying to bake her son a first birthday cake, she went out and bought another wig. She marched on as if everything was fine, until, one afternoon before Christmas, she broke down in the baby clothes section of Macy’s, where she realized that if she bought her children clothes big enough for them to grow into, she might not be around to see them fit.

But her children grew, and Meg lived to see it. Her path was to survive. Now, Maureen needed to follow that road.

“You are not going to die,” Meg repeated to Maureen again and again. But she understood what it feels like when dying is just one of many fears that consume you.

Maureen couldn’t afford to lose her job at Bob Evans, but in the days following radiation and chemotherapy, she could hardly lift herself up from the couch, let alone put on her polo and apron and spend hours on her feet carrying hot plates. So Meg picked up Maureen’s shifts, on top of her own and on top of her second job as a substitute teacher.

Meg kept it up as Maureen struggled through treatment.

Through all those months, Maureen learned to put on a happy face until her kids were on the school bus. She watched the envelopes marked “BILL” stack up. She grew teary when all the waitresses chipped in and bought her sons the Xbox they wanted from Santa. She tried to imagine what it might be like if she wasn’t around for Christmas next year. Finally, she summoned the energy to put her apron on and head back to Bob’s.

There, Meg pulled Maureen aside in the break room.

“Here,” she said, forcing a thick yellow envelope into Maureen’s hand.

With the same stern voice she had used to tell her friend not to die, she said, “Do not give this back to me.”

Inside was every dollar Meg had earned working Maureen’s shifts.

Maureen didn’t give it back. She’s made it to all four Christmases since.

Jessica Contrera

Nathan Beachy surprised his wife, Rachel Beachy, with letters from her favorite authors to encourage her to continue writing. The couple is photographed in their home in Indianapolis. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

At the end of one year of marriage, Rachel Beachy had a new name, a new job and a heavy new role: supporting her husband while he finished medical school. But she had lost something, too: a lifelong devotion to writing. That had been a daily love for the small-town Indiana girl who penned her first short story in kindergarten and wrote a novella in college. Now, life had pushed her into marketing and something essential began to fade.

“Writing has always been part of who I am,” she says.

That was a mystery to her husband Nathan, a pure left-brainer. He posted a perfect SAT math score, but drafting a thank-you note paralyzes him. He doesn’t get writing. But he gets Rachel.

“I didn’t want her to lose it, but I had no idea how to encourage her,” he says.

So Nathan went to the experts. In the middle of preparing for the biggest exam of his career, he launched a methodical bombardment on the world of authors.

Scouring Google, he filled a spreadsheet with the addresses of Rachel’s favorite writers. The research was easy. Writing his appeal was agony. But he mailed his first letter and included a stamped return envelope, addressed to his parents’ house. He wrote one or two a day during study breaks, more than 30 in all.

On their first anniversary, the day after Nathan’s exam, the couple arrived late at a rental cabin in the Smoky Mountains, dining on leftover turkey sandwiches from their cooler. For the paper anniversary, Rachel gave Nathan a first-year scrapbook. Nathan handed her a fat manila envelope. “Honestly, as I gave it to her I wondered, ‘Does this even count as a gift?’ ”

The first one made her smile. It was a sweet letter from Nathan, but not to her. “Mr. Berry, My wife is a gifted and aspiring writer . . . I want to encourage her . . . if you could find the time . . .”

The next one — the next six — made her cry.

“Writing is skill,” wrote Rufi Thorpe, the author of “The Girls from Corona del Mar,” in a long reply. “It’s not magic. . . . You have to put in your 10,000 hours. . . . Lucky to have a husband who supports your writing. . . .”

“You must expect discouragements, and the voice that tells you what to do then will be yours,” said Kentucky sage Wendell Berry in two pages of wisdom written in a fine patrician hand.

Meg Wolitzer, Chris Bohjalian, Gerald Toner, David Nicholls — page after page. A Greek chorus sprang from her own bookshelf, and what they sang was: Write for yourself.

“It was the most surreal experience of my entire life,” she says.

The next morning at 6, with dawn rising over the hills and Nathan still asleep, she sat down and began to type. She hasn’t stopped since. Finding an hour each morning over the past year and half, that first story has turned into a trilogy of three complete novels. She would like to publish them someday, sure. But that’s not the point.

The point is the writing. And that was the gift.

Steve Hendrix

Singer-songwriter Jonah Smith at his home and studio in Los Angeles. (Ian Maddox /For The Washington Post)

Mike Wedeking’s sister, hit by a car as she crossed a busy street in Ocala, Fla., was dying. Mike had always prided himself on being a private person, but sitting by her bedside, he felt compelled to air his sorrow.

Across the country, his friend, Jonah Smith, was scrolling Facebook when he saw Wedeking’s post. He read it and reread it, his eyes brimming with tears, until the words read like a melody.

Wedeking wrote not about his sister, but about the driver who had hit her. The driver had draped her body over his sister’s to protect her from traffic until paramedics arrived.

Mike felt compelled to share a story he had told almost no one: More than two decades ago, he had witnessed a car accident, the young female driver thrown from her car. Mike had held her in his arms. She begged him not to let her die. He wasn’t allowed in the ambulance with her, and she died on the way to the hospital.

Mike had buried the pain and the regret until he sat by his sister’s bedside and watched her die.

Smith, a singer-songwriter in Los Angeles, had known Wedeking for nearly a decade. He had played many gigs at Wedeking’s barbecue joint in Des Moines.

Now, as Smith read his friend’s post, he heard the story as lyrics. He heard a voice in his head, the voice of the driver who hit Wedeking’s sister. Smith wrote:

I started crying when he thought to take a closer look

His eyes were teary as he read me like an open book

Just when I thought he would get angry his voice got low

And he was telling me a tale from twenty years ago

“That sort of beautiful empathy and humanity screamed at me and forced me to write that song,” Smith said. “As I was writing it, it felt like a gift to me.”

Smith’s gift to his friend Mike, or a gift to himself? Was there even a difference?

Smith worked on the song for a year and a half, never mentioning to his friend that he had seen the original Facebook post. Then, this spring, he sent Mike a demo of a song he called “Ocala.” Smith told his friend it was inspired by his story. Wedeking wept the first time he listened to it, and when he listened to it again, and again, and again.

In October, Smith returned to Iowa, to Wedeking’s Flying Mango restaurant, a small, colorful eatery that stands alone on a busy thoroughfare, the rich smell of cherry wood-smoked meat wafting into the parking lot.

Smith sang the words that gave voice to Wedeking’s pain. For Wedeking, it was the single greatest gift he’s ever received.

But Smith is the one who feels blessed.

“Social media is filled with a lot of trite stream of consciousness, but his post moved me,” he said. “That sort of feeling is that feeling I want people to have when they listen to my songs. As I was writing it, it felt like a gift to me.”

Colby Itkowitz

Nema Semnani witnessed an elderly man lose his balance and fall. The man suffered a concussion and broken ribs. Semnani helped the man, contacted the man's family and stayed with him until they arrived. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

If Nema Semnani hadn’t been in Maryland for a work trip, and if a friend hadn’t canceled their dinner plan, he never would have found himself getting a haircut at a shopping center in Owings Mills outside of Baltimore on a rainy Friday evening in September.

And when he left the barber shop, Semnani would never have spotted the elderly man gingerly making his way up a grassy incline in the parking lot. In one hand, the man held out a pizza box, as if to help balance himself.

Semnani picked up his pace. His plan, he said, “was just to get there and help him make those final steps.”

Too late. Before Semnani could reach him, the man fell, face first. Semnani ran to him, already dialing 911. As they waited for an ambulance, Semnani tried to make sure the man didn’t lose consciousness.

After paramedics arrived, Semnani looked for a way to contact the man’s family. He found an old-school flip phone and looked up its most recently placed calls. After a few tries, Semnani finally reached the man’s son, listed on the phone under “Rob.”

About 60 miles away, Robert Udoff was having dinner with his wife at a restaurant on Kent Island when his phone flashed: “Dad.”

The voice on the other end was not his dad’s.

“I have found your father laying in a parking lot,” Semnani told the son. “He’s in pretty rough shape.”

Udoff and his wife, Lisa, rushed to pay the bill, then sped toward Owings Mills. Robert didn’t think to ask the caller’s name.

Semnani jumped into his own car. Why did he follow the ambulance to the hospital? He hadn’t discussed it with anyone. He just did.

He thought about the man becoming “more coherent and there’s no one there for him,” Semnani said. “I didn’t want him to be lonely. That’s scary.”

Semnani arrived at the hospital, knowing the man’s family wouldn’t be there for some time. Semnani waited.

About two hours later, Robert and Lisa arrived. Robert remembers “seeing this man walking up towards me. I didn’t know why.”

Semnani introduced himself as the man who had found their father.

They thanked him profusely. As Semnani left the waiting room, Lisa took her husband’s hand. “We just met Dad’s guardian angel,” she told him.

“Everybody says ‘Yeah, I would help,’ but a lot of people don’t,” Robert said.

In the months since, his father has recovered from a concussion and broken ribs.

The Udoffs friended Semnani on Facebook. They consider him a member of the family now. “I don’t consider myself religious,” Robert said, “but I certainly believe there’s something. . . . I certainly don’t know what. But there’s a reason why that man was there.”

Semnani still thinks about “the serendipity that put me in that place.” He suddenly had time to get a haircut. He chose that barber shop at random.

The incident brought back a strand of memory of Semnani’s mother, who died of cancer several years ago. The old man walking shakily in the parking lot summoned an image of Semnani supporting his own mother’s wobbly gait during her last months.

“What I did is something anyone would do,” he said. “If it was me, I wouldn’t want that person to be alone.”

Amy B Wang

Patricia Wudel started as a volunteer at Joseph’s House in Washington and is now its executive director. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

She felt lost back then, unsure of what someone like her had to offer.

What if the men didn’t accept her? What if she made a mistake? What if she couldn’t make a difference?

Patricia Wudel was straight and white. They were gay and almost all black. She had grown up in rural Canada. They had, in most cases, grown up in gritty Washington. She was healthy and in her 30s. They were stricken with AIDS, destined to die.

She wasn’t a nurse or a therapist, and yet, desperate to give something, she had agreed in 1991 to move in, as an unpaid volunteer, to Joseph’s House, a home in the Adams Morgan section of the District that had opened one year earlier as a refuge for homeless men suffering from one of America’s most stigmatized illnesses.

Every night, she and another woman each worked half of an eight-hour shift, staying awake to fetch glasses of water, aid with trips to the bathroom, whatever the men needed.

Not long after she started, a man in his early 30s named Hugh moved into the home, which at the time housed up to 13 residents. He was tall and handsome, with intense dark eyes and a voluminous Afro. Tormented by a skin condition that no medication could ease, he was quiet, even reclusive. Hugh seldom joined his housemates when they gathered for coffee or cards at the communal dining-room table.

For months, he stayed up each night staring at the small, boxy TV on his bedside table. Hugh couldn’t sleep, Wudel learned, because he feared he would never wake up.

And so, one night, she walked into his second-floor room and began a routine that would continue for weeks.

“What are you watching?” she’d say. He might answer or he might just motion to the Western glowing on his screen.

Then Wudel, sometimes with two bowls of ice cream in hand, would ask if she could sit on a stool next to his bed and watch with him, and he would say okay.

Wudel had longed to help the world, or at least a piece of it, since she’d run away from home at 17, disenchanted with a community that claimed to love God but didn’t always love people. Wudel had hitchhiked across Canada, worked in a bar, earned a college degree, gotten married, found a good job, lived in affluence, moved to Washington, gotten divorced and begun staying in a house of near-strangers before she discovered, during one night with Hugh, what it took to make a difference.

“Why don’t you lie down?” he asked her at a time when many people believed AIDS could be transmitted through a touch or a breath. Wudel didn’t refuse. She crawled into bed between the wall and the dying man, his emaciated hips and sharp shoulder blades pressing against her through flannel pajamas.

Neither of them spoke until, at last, she closed her eyes. And when Wudel awoke, it was to the sound of him snoring.

Hugh, she realized, had fallen asleep.

A decade later, Patricia Wudel became executive director of Joseph’s House, a position she still holds.

John Woodrow Cox