January 19, 2014

The Occasional Car

There's nothing special about our neighborhood. No quaint cul de sacs. Just streets that run north to south, sandwiched in between two busy avenues. It's a throwback place -- a hub of post-WWII homes and tree-lined streets whose limbs form a sort of cathedral ceiling.

It's a silent night neighborhood.

After dark, outside of a few who power-walk dogs begging them to go potty or poop and the occasional car slowly driving north or south, everyone's inside at nighttime.

At midnight, Jamie and I were driving that occasional car, returning from a date night while Georgia was at a sleepover. The sky was clear, snowflakes sprinkled past the streetlamps and the streets and sidewalks were empty.

Modern Love came on the radio as we began making the slight ascent to our block. We sang along and I knew we'd have to abandon it and our singing by the time we parked. We reached a stop sign at the top of the hill, and Jamie checked for any occasional westbound or eastbound cars sojourning home.

I was about to ask him to loop the block so we could hear Modern Love in its entirety rather than abandon it when I saw an eerie, apparition-like figure against the streetlamp's orange-ish cast.

A silhouette was pasted onto the empty street, a foot or two away from the curb and behind a parked car.
We slowly passed and exchanged puzzled expressions.
Jamie, that's not right...something's not right. Why is she just standing there?
Maybe she was waiting for a ride, he reasoned.
Well, let's loop around the block to find out.

So we did. And it was clear she wasn't.

The elderly woman wore a blue babushka that blended in with her matching spring coat, leaving only a sad, mask-like face exposed. A walking stick was in her left hand and her right hand braced on top of the left. From head to toe, she barely stood 5 feet tall. She was motionless, staring past this silent night neighborhood, the few occasional cars and me.

Ma'am...are you okay? Are you waiting for someone?
She shivered, uttered a whimper but nothing I could understand.
Do you understand English?
A little, she said.
It's okay....don't worry. We're going to help you.
I didn't know how we were going to help her, but we couldn't leave her.

So we didn't. We brought her home and called 9-1-1.

She had no wallet, no purse, no identification. Just keys.

An hour later, an officer arrived. He determined that she spoke Serbian and called the station for a translator. It was 1:45. No translator could be found. I remembered the 2-1-1 service at the nonprofit where I work uses a language line and contacted them. The operator gave me a number to the language line (thanks, Natalie) and I gave the number to the officer.

While he called, I sat down next to our visitor, gently rubbed her back and told her she was gonna be fine, knowing full well I wasn't speaking Serbian and that she couldn't understand English.

She looked at my face, my eyes. I noticed that hers were green. They must have sparkled a long time ago, I thought. I looked at her hands. They were working hands, un-dainty and large for a woman. I wondered about her former life.

I thought about how she must have felt -- knowing that at one time she had clarity of mind and tenacity to leave her country and come here. And how she must have felt now, sitting in the living room of strangers, vulnerable and not knowing where she was or how she got here.

Your hands. She looked at her hands.
They're so cold.
They were white from the cold, even after being out of the elements for the hour since being at our house.
I think her hands are frostbitten I told the officer who by that time had struck out twice finding a Serbian translator at 2:00 on a Sunday morning.

I put my hands toward hers and she held them. And we sat that way. Holding hands. Not understanding each other, but understanding all the same.

Still unable to find a translator, the officer decided the best thing to do would be to get her to the station and try other avenues there. We asked him to follow up with us.

And he did.

It was 3:30 when the officer called to tell us they located a translator, and they discovered she lives independently, only five blocks away from us and she had since been taken home.

Does she have relatives who check in on her? We don't know.

How long had she been standing motionless in our silent night neighborhood?
We'll never know, but I've thought about it more than once.

What would've happened had we not driven up the street at that time, that hour?
I don't like thinking about that, not even once.

I'm just glad we happened to be behind the wheel of the occasional car last night.


Originally written because it was on my heart; and submitted to Yeah Write's Weekly Moonshine grid.


  1. God bless you both for helping her. If we all had the courage to commit one small act of kindness, what a better world this would be.

    1. Thanks, Lisa.

      I don't think we were courageous, though. We were scared and second-guessing the whole way through. Half of doing being able see what's out there, and I think we all just end up springing into action when we see it.

      For those of us who are a little slow on the uptake, sometimes it takes a virtually deserted street for us to see what's really there. Well, at least in our case...we're slower than most. ;)

      Thanks for reading. Really. Thank you.

  2. I just spent the last six weeks of my Dad's life in another state with him.Their entire network of friends are all gone or over eighty, it was so eye opening to see how many elders I grew up with were so very on their own. Not even their children are aware enough of how truly fragile they are. It made me become so much more aware of how important calls, letters, check ins are on my own street at home for others who may be fragile, sick, unemployed, hurt....and after six weeks of caring for my dad, it's not about money, or ability to pay...for he had those things..but the care of a person who has a heart. Your kindness was so very important, so many simply drive on. Thank you for sharing your story. I am a first time visitor here, but will be back, your writing is lovely.

    1. Sweetie, I'm so sorry for your loss. Treasure the time you had with your dad -- and its a blessing you were able to be there in those final days.

      It's funny...before this happened, it never had occured to neither my husband nor I to be aware of what goes on with our neighbors in our quite neighborhood after dark. I can tell you that now we pay attention and keep an eye out for everyone.

      Thanks for reading.

  3. Replies
    1. Thanks Nichole...I'd hope that everyone would've done the same thing.

      Thanks for reading.

  4. There is much to be said for people who are willing to stop and help someone else. It doesn't happen as often as it should. You did good.

    1. Thanks, Jack.

      Just like it could've been anyone one of us driving that car, it could've been any one of us -- or someone we loved -- standing out in the cold.

  5. Wow, what a story. My heart breaks for the lonely and suffering, so I am glad you guys stopped. It feels sometimes in my town that one could die on the street and no one would notice. :(

    1. Feels the same way around here at times too, Natalie. But I figure if enough people respond to the needs that pop up in front of them, then a sizeable "dent" is being made...and the people who benefit notice.

      And that's all that really matters...right?

  6. I thought this was going to be a made-up ghost story, but oh my goodness! I'm so glad that you found her.

    1. Cynk, the next day I felt like "Did that really happen?" Like it was the Twilight Zone or something.

      Talk about everything happening for a reason...

  7. Very inspiring! Thank you for setting a great example for all of us!

  8. Rochelle, Thank you for visiting my blog and for your encouragement :)

    Your writing is beautiful. This is a very moving story. Small kindnesses are often lost these days. People are either too busy or too afraid to extend themselves for others. I hate to think what might have happened to your neighbor if you hadn't stopped to help her. I am sure she was grateful, even if she couldn't tell you.

    1. Robin, thank YOU for your encouragement.

      ...and keep-at-it, keep-at-it, keep-at-it. :)