October 11, 2019

Our Works of Charity / David Bethuram

Compassion at the heart of senior’s most important life lesson

David Bethuram

(Editor’s note: The names used in this column have been changed to protect individuals’ privacy.)

Research shows that both older adults and their caregivers benefit in a variety of ways from storytelling. When an older person relays tales about the things that have mattered most in his or her life, it helps the older person recall important life experiences, and the caregiver’s experience is far more personal and richer.

I found this especially true when I visited a relative or fellow parishioner who was homebound. There was one gentleman, Charlie, whom I visited twice a month for nearly a year. He shared this story with me of when he worked as a taxi cab driver in Chicago many years ago. It changed him.

Charlie’s story was about a time when he picked up a passenger in the middle of the night. When he arrived at the address, the building was dark, except for a light in a ground-floor window. He said that many drivers would wait for a couple of minutes and drive away in such circumstances. But he thought of passengers who might need his assistance, so he went to the door and knocked. He heard the weak voice of an elderly woman: “Just a minute.” The door opened, and he saw a small lady in her 80s, wearing a dress and a pillbox hat. She had a small suitcase in her hands.

He took the lady’s suitcase and helped her walk to the cab. “Thank you for your kindness,” she said. “It‘s nothing,” he said. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated.”

She said, “You are a very decent person. I’m Grace.”

When they got into the cab, Grace told him the address and asked Charlie to drive through downtown. He told her it was not the shortest way, but she said she was in no rush. “I am on my way to a hospice,” she told him. “I have no family left.” Charlie noticed tears in her eyes.

He quietly switched off the meter and asked what route she would like him to take. While they drove through the city, Grace showed him places that were important to her: the building where she worked as an elevator operator, the house where she and her husband lived just after they married, the warehouse which used to be a ballroom, where she went dancing as a young girl.

After two hours of driving, Grace quietly said: “I’m tired, let’s go now.”

As soon as they arrived at the address, two orderlies came out to the cab. They seemed to be waiting for her. Charlie took Grace’s suitcase while she was seated in a wheelchair. She asked how much she owed him. He said, “Nothing.”

She responded, “But you have to make a living.” Charlie gave her a hug. He told me that she held onto him tightly. “Thank you for giving me those moments of joy,” she said.

While he was walking to his cab, he heard a door shut. He told me that he thought it “sounded like the closing of a person’s life.”

He didn’t pick up any more passengers that day. He just drove without any purpose, lost in thoughts about the old lady. What if she had gotten an angry or indifferent driver who was impatient to end his shift? Charlie would always say at the end of telling me this story, “That drive was the most important thing I’ve done in my life.”

We always look for great moments, but sometimes great moments catch us unaware, beautifully wrapped in what might be considered as nothing in particular.

(David Bethuram is executive director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Catholic Charities. E-mail him at dbethuram@archindy.org.)

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