When I saw you yesterday on the freeway on-ramp, I thought you looked a lot like my 13-year-old daughter.
You saw me, didn’t you?
I squinted to read the handwritten sign that you held so tightly. What did you want? I wondered. Your sign seemed much like the signs I see held by kids your age advertising a car wash.
No, there was no car wash. As I approached, I could see you were alone. No friends, no support. You only had your sign. My car crept closer in the traffic as the onslaught of commuters awaited the go light that would launch us toward our homes and our dinner.
Closer I inched until the light set us upon the ramp. The letters were thin, the sign was wrinkled. I want you to know that I couldn’t read your sign in time to stop.
Couldn’t you have made bigger letters? Please, get a bigger sign next time!
But I finally read your sign.
Driving you to the San Francisco Bay area would add another four hours to my commute time. How could I possibly have helped you? The Bay Area is huge. Where in the Bay Area did you want to go?
You didn’t act like it mattered. Would anywhere do? Has your life come to such little meaning in your short time that you’d settle for going anywhere?
What if I had taken you where you wanted to go, but you ended up worse than where you are now? Would I be a conspirator in your pain? Would I want some well-meaning guy taking my daughter away from her family because she had a sign and she reminded him of his daughter? But it wasn’t even your sign that had most of my attention.
It was your stare.
You stared first into my car to measure the room I had for you. But you also noticed that I seemed to have little room in my heart and that I wasn’t slowing.
I was speeding ahead. I’d not be the one who would take you today.
But you didn’t just look into my car. Our eyes locked. You looked into me and you knew, didn’t you?
You knew I had a daughter your age and you could see the fear I had for you.
Did you see the hesitancy in my eyes? Did you notice the uncertainty with which my brake lights flashed as I scanned the freeway ramp for a way to stop? There are no U-turns on a freeway ramp, or I swear, I’d have come back for you, but with traffic at a standstill, you would have found your ride before I had a chance to return.
Still I wish I had gone back and checked. I thought about you all the way home and I wish I knew you made it safely to your destination. But it wasn’t just you that I had thought of on my drive home. I also thought of a conversation I’d had with a doctor that day.
“Chaplain, as you watch all the pain around us,” the doctor asked, “Does it ever make you want to become an atheist? I mean, what purpose does all this pain serve?”
“Hm-mmm,” I replied. But thinking back to you I wondered, “What purpose does your pain serve, my hitchhiking daughter.”
That’s a bigger question than I can answer, because I am not responsible for how your pain will shape you. But I am responsible for how your pain will shape me. And that day, your pain shaped me – and possibly it is shaping some readers right now.