In December of last year I wrote a story for The Salvation Army Toronto Grace Health Centre’s (TGHC) website about Tommy, a palliative care patient, and a cab driver who eventually became known as Tommy’s friend. Just after the story was posted on the TGHC website, Tommy, who had no family here in Canada, passed away from lung cancer. The senior staff at the hospital wanted to contact the cab driver to tell him of Tommy’s passing and to thank him for helping Tommy during his illness.
There was a problem, though: except for the fact that everyone knew he was a cab driver and Tommy’s friend, no one could recall his name. The cab company was contacted but they were not forthcoming with finding this driver. Trying to contact him was proving difficult and the effort was left to chance.
Last week, we got our chance.
I was at the TGHC when Kevin, the communications switchboard operator, noticed that Tommy’s friend had dropped off a fare and was about to leave. Kevin, who had seen him many times before with Tommy, recognized him, and he immediately came to get me. When we approached him, I called out, “…You’re Tommy’s friend.”
A little bewildered at the sight of two men blocking the exit, he smiled and replied, “Yes.”
I asked him his name and if he would take some time to share his story and he agreed.
His name is Charles. He is a hard-working cab driver who arrived in Canada in 1988 from the West African country of Ghana. He has been driving a taxi for over twenty years and has raised three children. His daughter, now thirty years old, has a Masters in nursing; his elder son is twenty-five and a civil engineer; and his younger son, who is seventeen, plays soccer for the Canadian national team. Charles proudly told me he has also recently become a grandfather.
I first asked Charles if he had read the story about him and Tommy on the TGHC website. He replied that he had, but that there was a slight error in it. Charles told me that Tommy did not introduce him to the nurses as his friend but rather as his brother.
Charles recalls that the first time he met Tommy he was taking him to Humber River Regional Hospital. On the way to the appointment Tommy told Charles he liked the way Charles drove his cab. He also told him that he felt very comfortable with him and asked if he could call on Charles again when he needed a cab. Charles said that was fine. He handed Tommy his card and told him call him anytime.
Tommy immediately pre-arranged a time to be picked up later that day. Thinking he was going to drive him back to the TGHC later that day, Charles returned for Tommy at the agreed time. When Tommy didn’t show, Charles left. A week later, Charles got a call from Tommy, apologizing for not keeping to their pre-arranged time. He told Charles that he had just got out of the hospital and that the procedure had taken longer than he thought it would. “It was considerate of him to call,” said Charles. “We got along immediately and quickly became friends…And that is how we became family.”
Charles began getting calls regularly from Tommy to pick him up and take him to Chinatown. Tommy liked his Friday excursions to Chinatown.
“What would you do there?” I asked.
“Tommy would go shopping,” said Charles, “and I would go with Tommy and carry his packages because he would get easily fatigued carrying his mobile chest drain.”
“How long did you spend shopping?” I asked.
“Sometimes one hour,” Charles told me, “sometimes two. It depended on how tired Tommy got.”
“When we were finished,” he continued, “we would pick up Tommy’s food that he had pre-ordered at a restaurant he liked, pick up his Vietnamese newspaper, and I would take him back to his room at the TGHC. We would give each other a hug and Tommy would say, ‘See you later brother.’”
“Tommy was very kind to me,” said Charles. “Sometimes with his order he would also pre-order a barbecue chicken for me to take home and share with my wife and kids.”
Smiling, Charles recalls how Tommy would say to him, “Very fresh, very fresh, good chicken.” Then Tommy would call him up later and say, “Brother, how was the chicken?”
“Did he always call you brother,” I asked Charles.
“Not right away,” said Charles, “but on one particular outing, after a few times of taking him out to Chinatown, I remember we were very engaged in a conversation. Suddenly, Tommy stopped the conversation, looked at me, and said, ‘You know, you are my brother.’ After that,” Charles continued, “he kept introducing me as his brother, and because he kept introducing me that way, even the other patients in his room would greet me as Tommy’s brother.”
As Tommy’s illness progressed, it became too difficult for Tommy to travel out into the community, so sometimes Charles would pick up his food and his newspaper and deliver it to his room. Charles was generous with his time and flexible with charging Tommy, but he told me Tommy would insist on paying him. “If Tommy didn’t have the money, said Charles, “I knew he would pay me when he could.”
“Sometimes,” he added, “I didn’t charge and other times I would get a call to come by the TGHC and that’s when his disability cheque had arrived. He would say, ‘Brother, come. I can pay you now.’”
“When did you hear Tommy had died?” I asked Charles.
“There were times when Tommy would call me and arrange all his appointments,” said Charles. “It had been a little too long since we talked,” he continued, “and I felt the need to go see him.”
When Charles arrived, he went to Tommy’s room on the fourth floor. He didn’t see him but a nurse recognized Charles and told him of Tommy’s passing. She also told him there was a story about him and Tommy on the website. Overwhelmed with grief, Charles didn’t bother waiting for the elevator and headed for the stairs where he could take a moment to compose himself. Regretfully, he had missed seeing Tommy before he passed.
Charles recalled that in the story I had written that donations could be made in honour and memory of those who are a part of our community and beyond by placing a star on the ‘Tree of Memories’. He asked how he could make a donation for Tommy and could I help him?
“Absolutely,” I said, “and thank you for taking time out of your busy day to give me an interview. More importantly the TGHC staff would like to thank you, Charles, for the goodwill you showed Tommy.”
By Gerry Condotta