The Empty Cell Phone

I stabbed the brakes in panic as I came around the bend. A car was in the middle of the road and steam was pouring from under the hood. A woman that looked like she was over seventy had both hands on the trunk and was unsuccessfully attempting to push the broken down car up the mountain. She shot a startled look behind her as she heard the gravel crunching under my tires as I pounded the brake and swerved to the side of the road to avoid a collision.

The van was barely stopped before I had the door open and sprinted to the car to help push. With adrenaline still pounding through me from my panicked braking I yelled to the woman in the driver’s seat to steer for the side of the road. A moment later the car was safely on the shoulder and I wiped sweat from my eyes as I walked on shaky knees to the open passenger window and glanced inside.

Nowhere to Go

The woman was staring blankly through the windshield, hand wrapped tightly around the steering wheel. A lazily smoking cigarette was clenched in the side of her mouth and there was an open beer can pinched between her legs in her lap. Before I could say anything she darted a quick glance in my direction and demanded, “Can you make this thing run again or not?”

Slightly taken aback I looked at the steam pouring from under the hood and replied that it was unlikely, but I would look at it. It took less than a moment to spot the broken coolant hose connected to the bottom of radiator. I returned to the open window and delivered the bad news. My announcement that the car would need at least a new hose to be operational again was met with soft cursing and a flat statement, “I ain’t got no money to fix it and can’t afford a tow.”

Nobody to Call

Noticing a cell phone on the seat beside her I asked if there was anyone she could call. My question was answered with a bitter laugh and a twisted smile. She flipped the the phone open, angled it so I could see it, opened the contacts file and scrolled through the empty slots. “There ain’t nobody to call” she said flatly. The older woman, who had returned to her place in the passenger seat while I had been inspecting the radiator, asked, “What about Danny?” That question was a met with a snort from the driver. “He wouldn’t answer the phone if I called or come and get us if he did. Besides, it’s after five on a Saturday and he will already be drunk.”

I asked where they lived and discovered they were neighbors who lived beside each other in a trailer park on the other side of the mountain. I would pass the place on my way home and offered to give them a ride there. There really wasn’t any other choice for them so they climbed in the van. With a little prompting I was able to get the full story of how they had come to be there.


The older lady’s husband was hospitalized in the big regional hospital, an hour and a half’s drive from where they lived. He had been there three and a half weeks and was not expected to live. With no car she had been unable to visit him. Her neighbor, the driver, had volunteered to take her. They had made the visit and were on their way home when the coolant hose had broken. Neither of them had any friends they could call. Danny was their neighbor across the street, but apparently not a friend. The driver had relatives who lived in the area, but they weren’t on speaking terms and she didn’t know their phone numbers anyway.

The conversation lagged and I searched my brain desperately for something else to talk about. The silence was tense and uncomfortable. At the top of the mountain the baby woke up. Startled to see a stranger in the seat beside her she started to cry. Immediately the other children started singing Amazing Grace. Singing was the usual remedy for the baby crying in the car and Amazing Grace was the most effective song. “Hey!” the driver blurted out, “I know that song!” Both of them joined in the singing on the next verse.

We sang the rest of the way to their neighborhood. During the final verse of Amazing Grace, in the glare of passing headlights, I glanced over and caught a glimpse of tears rolling down the cheeks of the elderly lady.

We dropped both of them off at the driver’s place. They thanked us for the ride, fussed over the kids, and the driver insisted on giving them all some candy. We drove away, continued to our house, tucked the kids in, and went to bed.  

Blessings Taken for Granted

I couldn’t sleep. I lay there, staring at the ceiling, thinking. I got up, walked across the room, and found my phone. I opened my contacts list. Familiar names greeted me. I scrolled through them. Dad and Mom. My brother. My in-laws. My brother in law. Friends. Neighbors. Co-workers. My pastor. Church family. People who would visit me in the hospital. People who would drive me to the hospital. People who would sit by my bed for weeks if I was sick. People who I could call if I was stranded. People who could come pick me up. Who would fix my car. I looked at names who would pay for the tow truck if I needed it. Names of people who would give me their car if I needed it.

I bowed my head in thanks and crept back to bed. This time as I lay there I pondered how, before tonight, I had taken something amazing and profound for granted. What riches, what fortune could compare to the priceless treasure of knowing there were people I could call, people who cared about me, people who loved me?

Finally I fell asleep, but I slept poorly. My dreams were nightmares, haunted by the cold hollowness of a life with an empty cell phone.  

Remembering and Taking Action 

I can’t remember anymore what time of the year it was when this event happened, but I start thinking about it a lot more every year around Thanksgiving. When I am asked what I am thankful for now I think first of the friends and family who help me through life and how much I take them for granted, assuming everyone else has the same. The women in the car reminded me that reality isn’t true for everyone.

As Thanksgiving moves towards Christmas this memory stays in front of me. What gift could I ask for that would be worth more than a list of people who care about me and stand ready to help me in anything? What gift would be more worth giving than to be on that list in someone else’s phone?

Still, I remain haunted by one more question: This Christmas, this past year, this coming year, what have I done or what could I do to find those with empty cell phones? How do I get on their list?