Monday, September 14, 2009
When Tom Chappell pulled up for a routine pick up one weekday afternoon, he was late. He knew Phoenix pretty well after covering these streets for some twenty years, but this time, he got confused. It was a full twenty minutes after the dispatcher told him to be there, and his passenger was not pleased. He understood. It was a quiet drive through town as Tom delivered his passenger. No tip. Later, she said, “I expect a cab driver to know where he’s going.”
In the next couple of weeks, he got the call again from the dispatcher. Then again. Same passenger. Same destination. No more tardiness. By now the route was all too familiar. Tom is one of those friendly cab drivers who likes to engage in conversation, if the passenger is willing. One of the reasons he enjoys the job, he says, is because he meets interesting people on their way to interesting places. “If they need it, I’d give ‘em the short off my back,” he told the interviewer.
But this passenger sat quiet in the back seat, no interest in small talk.
He wondered why she made these regular stops at the clinic. It was plain to see, she didn’t like it. He had always been healthy himself, a wiry guy with a bushy mustache and a baseball cap, barely a hundred and fifty pounds, active, hard working and not much in tune with medical issues. He had to stop by a library to look up the word “Dialysis” which was on the door of the medical building where Rita Van Loenen went several times a week. There, in the local library, Tom came to understand Rita’s crankiness. Sitting alone next to a clicking machine for three hours at a time with one big needle in your artery and then one more back into your vein to mechanically clean out your entire supply of blood is no pleasant affair. So Tom just brought it up outright one day, and Rita opened up for the first time.
She confided in him that she needs a kidney transplant, but no one in her circle of friends or family is a match. She’s on the national registry, but it is a long, unpredictable wait. No guarantees. So she sits at the machine. Without it, the toxins would take her out in a week or two.
Wow. Tom said.
The next week, Tom shocked Rita with a question. “Can I get one of those tests?”
“What test?” Rita asked, nonplussed.
“The one that tells you if you are compatible,” Tom said.
Rita, to this day, could not believe what she was hearing. Tom later told CBS newsman Steve Hartman that he had a little talk with God about it and got the go-ahead. When the results of the testing came back, Tom and Rita, chatty cabbie and reluctant passenger, were confirmed as a perfect match. Tom said, “According to the doctor, we are so close, we could be siblings.”
The news of this rare close encounter of the “coincidental” kind hit the local media outlets. Tom scheduled the surgery. It takes several months. Rita can barely speak when she talks about her unlikely donor.
But that is not the end of our story.
“One of the reasons I’m doing this,” he tells Rita, “is that you’ve got a life. I didn’t think I had that much more to live for anyway. No big deal then.”
Shortly after the account of Tom’s offer aired on the local news and appeared front page on the Phoenix newspapers, Tom got an unexpected telephone call. On the other end was the daughter who left at age eight with her determined mother when Tom’s wife walked out and disappeared over thirty years ago. It had been a nasty divorce. The cab driver pulled a picture book out from the dashboard glove compartment of the taxi and showed Hartman the photo of his estranged daughter, a little girl with curly strawberry blond hair and a bright smile. He brushed away the tears when he said, “Not a day has gone by in these last thirty years that I didn’t think about her…”
“Dad, I heard about the kidney,” were her first words on the telephone. It was as though she missed him, too. The word reached her in Kentucky. The act of kindness made this obscure Phoenix taxi driver something of a local hero, not only to the folks in the neighborhood who knew him and Rita’s friends and family, but now just as much a hero to the daughter who left at age eight so long ago, now a mother with children of her own. “I found out about the grandchildren I didn’t know existed,” Tom told Steve, choking up again with emotion. “She wants me to see the children. To get to know them.”
“This whole thing didn’t just give you a life,” he explains to Rita. ”You gave me a life, too.”
Hartman gave us more good news as he signed off. Tom’s employer, the owner of the taxi company, will not only put Tom on paid leave for the time it takes to extract one of his kidneys and then recover, they will also pay for the plane fare and more time off so Tom can be reunited with his daughter and meet his grandkids.
So today, on this Monday morning, fellow leader, whom might we meet? Are we listening? An unsolicited act of kindness. Where may it take us?
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2009