"Noreen Johnson?" I was speaking to the receptionist at the emergency department of the University of Vermont Medical Center. To my left was the waiting room, occupied by about a dozen people in various degrees of physical distress. The thought passed through my mind that, presumably, they'd seen the triage nurse and awaited their turn based on how in extremis their condition.
This was followed by my stray, bonus recollection that the concept and practice of triage originated on the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars. (I have accumulated random facts in the manner of a hoarder collecting knickknacks.)
"Somebody called about a ride for this patient?" I added. "To Fayston, I think it was?"
"Oh, yes," the receptionist replied, and pointed out an elderly lady seated to our right. "Mrs. Johnson," she called out to her, "your cabdriver is here."
Mrs. Johnson and I walked gingerly out to my cab, and I helped her into the front seat. "I bet you're glad to be out of there," I said, firing up the ignition.
This is a line I often use when picking up someone just discharged from the hospital. I figure it's sympathetic without being invasive.
"I sure am," she replied. "It was the darnedest thing. I was driving up to do some shopping in Burlington this morning and, on the highway, I suddenly had this dizzy spell and had to pull over. The police showed up and they opened up an emergency gate — I think it was in Bolton — and they parked my car in a parking lot for the Long Trail on Route 2."
"My goodness. Did they drive you to the hospital in the cruiser?"
"No, they called an ambulance. I told them it wasn't necessary, but they insisted."
"Well, better be safe than sorry. You're feeling better now, I take it?"
"Yes, the tests showed no problems, but the doctor said I shouldn't drive for a couple of days."
Steering our way off the hospital grounds, I asked, "So, Mrs. Johnson, are you a Vermont girl?"
"Well, first off, you're going to have to call me Noreen. And no, I grew up in Flushing, Queens. My father died when I was young, and I went to night school to learn accounting and help support the family. Not long after that, my first husband died in a car crash in the early years of our marriage."
"Gosh, you've been tested in life, haven't you? How'd you end up in Vermont?"
"My second husband, Frank, and I bought the place in Fayston some 40 years ago."
"Were you skiers?"
Noreen chuckled. "I actually met Frank on a ski trip and told him that first day, 'I want to spend my life having ski adventures all over the world.' You could tell I was a cheeky girl. But that was fine and dandy with him, and he didn't let me down — we had many glorious vacations. Frank passed away a few years ago, but we had 10 good years after he retired. In fact, he was flying his plane a week before he died."
"What kind of work did Frank do?"
"He was an engineer and inventor. Have you noticed the cables that connect the cab of a truck to the trailer? That was just one of Frank's inventions. Together we built the company, before we sold it to a German outfit."
"It sounds like you were involved in the business."
"Well, I was home with our three boys for most of the time. But when we first started, it was just the two of us. The office was the kitchen in the home we rented. During breakfast, the phone would ring, and I'd play secretary. We rented from a lovely couple, a dentist and his wife. They eventually lent us the deposit to buy our first home. We never asked them; it was their idea. I'll never forget their generosity. Isn't it something how people can be that kind?"
"It is something, Noreen, and I have the feeling that you and your husband were generous to others in similar ways through the years."
Noreen smiled at me but didn't affirm my inkling. Which made sense, as humility goes hand in hand with true generosity. It appeared as if good fortune had shone its light on Noreen and Frank, and my guess is the couple had found ways to spread the wealth in the course of their life together. Granted, this was just my intuition speaking, but, taking the measure of this woman, I'd bet dollars to doughnuts.
We reached Noreen's property in Fayston. She explained that they'd sold the main house and she was now living in the guesthouse under an agreement with the new owners. As she paid the fare, she told me she was planning a move to New Jersey in the fall to live with one of her sons. Such is the cycle of life.
According to the arrangement I had made with Noreen, the following morning I drove with my brother to retrieve Noreen's car in the Bolton parking lot. When we got there, it was exactly where she said it would be, which was a relief, given the exigent circumstances of her previous day. Getting behind the wheel of the vehicle, my brother followed me in my taxi back to Noreen's Fayston home. (I had told my brother that Noreen was a great old gal and he would like her when he met her. He did.)
Before we parted, I proposed to Noreen that, if it made sense for her, I could drive her down to New Jersey in her car when she relocates and return in a one-way rental. She thought that might be a good option when the time came.
I haven't heard from her yet, but I'm still hoping.
All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Ring Me, Noreen"