I watched the hospital's oversize revolving door from the driver's seat of my idling taxi, awaiting the discharge of my customer, Kerry McDougal. Right on time, a pretty, round-faced woman of about 40 emerged, caught my eye and signaled the connection with a hand wave. As she drew closer, I could see that she looked beleaguered, possibly on the brink of defeat.
"Kerry, I'm Jernigan," I said and, with her approval, relieved her of her brown shopping bag, which looked to be haphazardly stuffed with clothes. "I'll be driving you down to Brattleboro. You can sit in the front if you'd like. Really, whatever's more comfortable for you."
"Yeah, the front will be great," she replied softly. I could tell that even this simple communication wasn't easy for her. "Thanks so much for doing this."
"Hey, no problem. We got a beautiful afternoon for the ride."
As Kerry was climbing into her seat, two hospital employees came rushing out the door and up to my cab. "Kerry, you're going to have to wait," said one of them. "Brattleboro's now saying they don't have a bed for you."
"That's crazy," Kerry said, her disappointment spilling out. "I just got off the phone with them, and they said everything was all set up."
"Just give us a minute," the hospital person said. I couldn't tell if she was a nurse or a social worker. "Let's see if we can clear it up. I'm going to call them back."
As they walked back in to make the call, Kerry said, "I don't know what I'm going to do if this falls through. I really don't."
Five anxious minutes later, the hospital worker came out smiling and giving us the thumbs-up sign. "It was apparently a bureaucratic mixup," she explained. "Kerry, you're all set, honey."
As we pulled away from the lobby, my seatmate exhaled a deep breath, saying, "God, I really didn't need that."
"Yeah, that was nerve-wracking," I commiserated. "But it all worked out."
Brattleboro is about as long a ride as you can take from Burlington and remain in Vermont. But it's a straight shot on the highway, 89 to 91, so I penciled in just five and a half hours for the 300-mile round trip. It might go even quicker, depending on how far the Retreat was from the highway exit. I'd never dropped anyone there before, and I couldn't quite determine the distance from the place's website and my GPS.
"Oh, gosh," Kerry said as we attained my regular highway speed, just under 70. "I need to call my husband, and I realized I don't have my phone."
"Here, use mine," I volunteered, lifting my cellphone from the dashboard cradle and passing it over. "You're good with an iPhone?"
"Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, I'm fine."
I muted the soft-rock radio station as she dialed. "Oh, I'm so glad I got you," she said to her mate. "Yes, yes, they had a bed for me. I should arrive there about six or so. The hospital arranged for a taxi."
She held the phone to her ear with both hands as her husband spoke to her for a few minutes. Though I consciously tried not to eavesdrop on his words, I couldn't help but pick up on his tone: encouraging, heartbroken yet abundantly loving. "Yes," she said quietly, "I love you, too," and passed the phone back to me.
"Do you mind music for the ride down?" I asked.
"Sure, that'll be fine. Whatever you like."
I felt a keen responsibility, and not merely to transport this person safely to her destination. That's my duty on every fare. Kerry was about to enter a serious rehab program, and I was sensitive to her fragile and vulnerable emotional state. The Brattleboro Retreat has been providing this service, in evolving forms, since the mid-1800s and is the largest facility of its kind in the state. For those whose lives have reached a dead end, it offers a pathway to a new way of living. Not an easy one, but a true chance.
We spoke little on the drive down. At one point, we briefly discussed Chittenden County's addiction programs and agreed that it should have one of the Retreat's size and scope. For the most part Kerry remained contemplative; I sensed she was mustering her resolve.
As it turned out, the Retreat was just 10 minutes from the highway. I'm not sure what I was expecting (a hospital setting?), but the campus looked like just that — the campus of a classic small New England college.
Pulling in and circling to the admissions entrance, I was struck by the total absence of people. The dinner hour was a likely explanation, but still, it was eerie. I also noticed two elephant-themed sculptures and wondered about the story behind them. But mostly I thought about the meanings of "retreat": to withdraw from the battlefield; and a place of refuge or sanctuary. Who among us doesn't need such relief at some point in their life?
"Let me walk you in," I suggested. "You know, just to make sure you're good to go."
"That would be great," Kerry assented.
The admissions person was expecting her, and offered a welcome. Thank goodness, I thought.
"Thank you so much," Kerry said, turning to me.
I shook her hand with both of mine, saying, "God bless your recovery."
Walking back to my cab, I thought maybe I should have said, "Your higher power as you understand it." Because God, for many, comes with a lot of baggage.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.