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The Crucible 

Published May 18, 2016 at 10:00 a.m. | Updated May 24, 2016 at 5:15 p.m.

"I bet I'm the only sober person taking a cab this time of the night, or should I say morning?" said my customer as he settled into the backseat.

Looking at his reflected image in the rearview mirror, I saw a clean-shaven, bright-eyed young man smiling back at me. And he was correct: Of those taking cabs after last call at the bars, few would pass muster as sober.

I chuckled. "You'd likely win that bet, brother. Could I ask you why you're not drinking?"

"Well, over the past couple of years, I've faced some serious health challenges, and the docs say it would be helpful to stay off alcohol. Technically, I guess, I could have a drink or two, but I figure, why risk it? My friends are ribbing me 'cause, of course, they want me to party with them."

"You said Bartlett Bay Road, correct? The neighborhood behind Magic Hat brewery?"

"Yup, that's the place," he replied, and I steered south toward Shelburne Road.

"So, getting back to your friends, don't they know about your health issues? They seem kind of — I don't know — selfish."

"No, they're good guys. They all know I've battled leukemia. I've been in remission now for about a year."

"My goodness, what a thing to face, and you're such a young guy. Did it all happen up here, at — what are they calling it now? — the UVM Medical Center?"

"Part of the treatment, yes. But ultimately I ended up at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. They located a girl in Poland who matched me for a stem-cell donation."

"That's amazing. Did she get, like, paid for that, or is it basically out of the goodness of her heart?"

"Basically, like you said, out of the goodness of her heart. The system works differently in the EU than in the United States. Here you have to sign up to get on a donor list. In Europe, the way I understand it, everyone is automatically on the list. That's the default, unless you opt out. But any way you cut it, that girl saved my life, and don't think I don't know it."

"It sounds like you're doing great now. Are you back to work or school?"

"Yup, I'm working at an insurance company in Montpelier, which is my hometown."

"I love Montpelier. There's something about that town. Did you graduate from U-32?"

"Nope, I was just up the road at Montpelier High School. U-32 was our big rival. Go Solons!"

"So you commute to work every day?"

"Yeah, I'm living here with two old college friends."

"How did your friends react when you were diagnosed? I imagine some avoided contact, while some stuck with you?"

"Exactly, some did drift away. You really find out who your friends are with something like this. But, honestly, I can't judge anyone. It's tough for everyone to deal with. My friends all did the best they could, and lately I've reconnected with some who couldn't handle it at the time. I mean, there's no hard feelings. My brother, he's been the real rock for me. He's a personal trainer and has kept me working out through everything, keeping me strong. Not just physically, but, you know, mentally and emotionally."

The traffic lights on Route 7 were blinking yellow as we cruised south under a full moon. Late-night hacking is a different world. With essentially no traffic to occupy your attention, the conversations with the customers can range into deeper, more intimate territory. The moving taxi becomes a bubble, a sanctified space.

I found myself admiring this young man. Facing a life-altering illness changes a person. This is what I've observed: With your life on the line, your heart either grows or shrinks — the status quo ceases to be an option. I didn't know what this person was like before facing the crucible of leukemia, but I sensed he'd come through it with an expanded capacity for compassion toward himself and all the people in his world.

I wondered about his parents — what it was like for them? How did they cope? I asked him, "How have your folks held up through all this?"

"They've been great. It's actually brought us much closer. I see them all the time 'cause I work in Montpelier."

We took the right onto Bartlett Bay Road. The time was overdue to discuss the weather, an essential subject I'd inexcusably neglected. We had just gone through one of those weird shifts featuring snow one day followed by 70 degrees the next. So, a lot of juicy material.

My customer, evidently on the same page, beat me to the punch. "What do think of the weather lately?" he asked. "Been kinda crazy, don't ya think?"

"That it has," I replied, as he pointed out his house and I eased to a stop. "But nothing you haven't seen before, a Vermont boy like you."

All these stories are true, though names and locations may be altered to protect privacy.

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About The Author

Jernigan Pontiac

Jernigan Pontiac

Jernigan Pontiac was a Burlington cab driver whose biweekly "Hackie" column appeared in Seven Days 2000-20. He has published two book-length collections, Hackie: Cab Driving and Life, and Hackie 2: Perfect Autumn.


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