I often hear wise, elderly people say that time will come when all the things that used to be so important won’t be as important anymore and that only the simple pleasures in life matter. Someday we’ll learn how to value friends over schedules and love over material things.
It’s also sad to think that one day, we too will grow old and witness the ones we love die one by one. “It’s only a matter of who goes first”, some jokingly say. But for those who are left alone, I can only imagine how sad life might now be for them, especially when they had to give up things that meant so much and all that’s left to them are memories. Imagine the lives of the elderly living in nursing homes…
Kent Nerburn was once a cab driver who roamed New York City during nighttime. He’s used to hearing people’s confessions as soon as they climb into his taxi.
“We may not all live holy lives, but we live in a world alive with holy moments” -Kent Nerburn
But he was somehow enlightened about a powerful yet sad truth when he took an elderly woman as his last passenger one late night in August.
Nerburn arrived at the address where he was asked to pick up a passenger. He honked the horn and waited for the passenger to come out. When no one did, he thought whether he’d just leave or continue waiting in the cab. But he chose to park his car and knock on the apartment’s door instead.
Nerburn heard a sound from behind the closed door. It was like something heavy was being dragged on the floor. He then heard a frail voice answer, “just a minute.”
When the door opened, he saw an old woman who looked like she just came out of a 1940’s movie. He guessed she was maybe in her 80’s or 90’s. The old woman was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil. The sound he heard came from the small, nylon suitcase she was dragging.
He scanned the apartment where the old lady came from. It looked like the place had been neglected for years. All the furniture were covered with white linen and cardboard boxes with glassware and photos were in stacked in one corner. There was nothing left hanging on the walls.
He carried the old woman’s luggage and assisted her into the cab. All the while, she kept on thanking him for his kind gesture.
“It’s nothing… I just treat my passengers the way I would want my mother to be treated”, he said.
“You’re such a good boy”, the old lady replied.
The elderly woman then gave him an address but asked to drive her through downtown instead. Puzzled by the longer route she preferred he said, “It’s not the shortest way.”
“Oh, I don’t mind. I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice”, said the old lady.
Nerburn looked at his passenger through the rear mirror and noticed how the old lady’s eyes glistened. And in a very soft voice she added.
“I don’t have any family left. And the doctor says I don’t have very long.”
He quietly reached over the meter and shut it off. Then he asked her where she wanted to go.
For the next two hours, they just drove to the city.
She showed him places that meant dearly to her including where she used to work as an elevator operator and where she and her husband lived after they got married. The old lady also took him to the ballroom where she used to dance, but the place is now converted into a furniture shop.
There were moments when she’d ask him to pull over to a curb or in front of a building, but she’d just sit in silence, staring into the darkness.
At the first hint of sunlight the old woman said, “I’m tired. Let’s go now.”
He finally took her to the address she’d given him. It was a low building that resembled a convalescent home. He saw two orderlies in front as if they were already expecting her. They went up to them as soon as he pulled over. He got out and opened the trunk to get her luggage and saw that the old lady now sat on a wheelchair.
“How much do I owe you?”, she asked as she reached into her purse.
“Nothing”, he replied.
The old lady insisted, saying how he has to make a living. But Nerburn just said, “There are other passengers.”
“You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,” the old woman said. “Thank you.”
Without thinking, he bent down and gave the frail lady a tight hug. He then stood up and squeezed her hand before he turned his back and walked back towards the taxi.
She, on the other hand, was wheeled inside the hospice where she’d spend the remaining days of her life.
Photo credit: Anette Iren Johansen
Nerburn did not take any other passenger during his shift. He drove aimlessly while contemplating on what could have happened if he chose to drive away that night? Or what if she had gotten an impatient driver?
It was a short bitter-sweet encounter that he’ll never forget- one that made him realize what’s important in life.
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