By Rebekah Henson
My parents made friends with a toll taker on the Betsy Ross bridge. The relationship began in 2007, when I was in college and my mother was in the hospital with a lesion on her lung the week before Thanksgiving. That November was the scariest month of my life. She was in her early 60s, and when you're a 20-something in college and your parents are in their 60s, you can't help but devote a few hours a week to wondering what might happen if their vices or genetics get the best of them before they watch you graduate college. My Mom's surgery day was the worst, especially when my Dad didn't call, as he had promised, to tell me that everything was all right.
What I didn't know was that my dad was even more scared than me. I've seen my Dad scared before: When he was diagnosed with agoraphobia in my high school years, I saw him spiral into sweating, hyperventilating panics at the mention of piano recitals, family reunions, and going to work. But I never remember seeing him flinch in the face of health, finances, or creepy-crawly insects -- the kinds of things that scare me. His eternal motto is that God provides for His children and faith is bigger than fear. But this time, the threat to my Mom's health scared him so much that he asked for prayer from a toll collector who wished him a "God bless," as he collected the $4 toll.
My Father had met this man before, on one of his many trips to pick me up from college for a weekend at home. My Dad might be agoraphobic, but you'd never know it when you watch him talk to strangers. He loves strangers, but more importantly he seems to love connecting. Connecting in a way that makes strangers feel heard, appreciated, accepted. Connecting, perhaps, in a way he imagines Jesus would. And not the Republican-voting, welfare-hating, white-upper-middle-class-loving Jesus, but the Jesus who touched dirty contagious lepers, talked to prostitutes, and ate and drank with hated tax collectors That's what I've watched both my parents embody for the 25 years I've been alive.
So, my Dad connected with this man four years ago on his way to drive me home from college. Their first exchange happened in October, the weekend of Fall Break. On the ride home, my Dad told me how happy this guy was and how he wished him God's blessings as my Dad drove off from the toll booth. The next time he drove across the bridge to get me, he made a point of driving through that same toll booth to see his new friend, Robert. Over the following weekends, he learned how Robert should have been retired but couldn't afford to stop working, how much he loves his wife and family, how he wants his toll booth on the Betsy Ross Bridge to be his mission field of showing God's love to everyone who drives through. And that weekend before Thanksgiving after my Mom's surgery went well but my Dad was still scared, he asked his new friend for prayer. And Robert looked at my Dad and said, "I believe that God is going to heal your wife. I'll pray, but I already know that she's going to be all right." My parents returned the favor a few months ago when they saw him at the toll booth again (this time on their way to visit my apartment in Philly) and he was concerned for his own wife's health. He also told them he'd be retiring in a few weeks.
I met Robert in January, the week before he retired. My parents took me to lunch that afternoon and pulled through his toll booth when we back to the city. I listened while my Dad asked him about his wife and thanked him again for his prayers four years ago. He introduced me and I waved from the back seat. He asked Robert about his retirement plans and didn't care that a line of cars started to build behind us while they chatted. Connected. They promised to visit next week the day before his last shift.
They visited, all right. They drove to the Delaware River Port Authority with a retirement cake and a letter for an old man they had only interacted with from behind an open car window. As it turns out, someone else was covering Robert's shift that day, but the manager assured them he'd see that the cake and kind words reached their friend.
Robert called a few days later and left a message to thank my parents for their kindness in the last four years, a message they still had on their answering machine two months later.
Sometimes I feel embarrassed by the lengths my parents take to connect with peopl, but then I feel refreshed and inspired. My parents love, and they love everyone. I hope some day I have the courage to love the same.