A gift of time, 'paid back' in $5 tolls

The Baltimore Sun

After spending almost nine months in a hospice, my mother died in late August. And so ended my weekly commute between Baltimore and Newtown, a rustic Pennsylvania town between Philadelphia and New York City.

Since then, weekends have returned to their normal routines. They are once again defined by children's sporting events, yardwork, church and sleeping late. Yet the world only appears the same. With her departure, my mother left the world diminished, reduced and cooler by several degrees.

In early January, when she was placed in the hospice, her imminent death was expected. The tumor in her colon was baseball-sized, her age was advanced and other physical symptoms seemed dire. Each round trip that month felt as though it might be the final one.

By early February, however, her condition had stabilized. My mother was clearly in the final phase of her life. The duration of that phase, however, would not be as abbreviated as we expected. St. Patrick's Day came and went. Spring found her able to sit outside, enjoying the April breeze, embraced by the fragrance of the roses surrounding the patio in shades of crimson, burgundy and silky scarlet.

The long drive up and back on Interstate 95 never got any shorter. What changed most about the trip was my attitude toward it. The weather conditions, traffic backups and rising gas prices were unable to contain my expanding gratitude. Miles on I-95 meant one thing: another opportunity to see my mother.

It was late March the first time I paid the toll for the car behind me at the Delaware Toll Plaza. By mid-April, I was parting with an additional $5 to pay a fellow traveler's Maryland toll on northbound I-95. An expensive cup of coffee purchased at Chesapeake House could not compare with the delicious taste of brightening some stranger's day as they discovered that their toll had been paid.

The simple act of paying someone else's toll felt - at once - joyful, subversive, grateful and exhilarating. Several toll takers looked at me with bemused skepticism. One older woman toll taker exclaimed, "Isn't that beautiful?" Each time I parted with the money for the additional toll, I whispered a silent prayer of thanks that I would be seeing my mother at least one more time. Giving something back, even if it was just a few bucks on I-95, felt like the most natural thing in the world. Often, I wondered if my small, anonymous gift resulted in the rediscovery of optimism or hope in some troubled soul making a long trip like mine. The speculation gave me immense comfort.

In the eulogy I delivered for my mother at her funeral, I spoke at length about the mercy and kindness she had shown to so many over the course of her long life.

Driving back to Baltimore after the ceremony, I paid for three cars behind me at the Delaware Toll Plaza.

Stephen J. Stahley lives in southwest Baltimore County. His e-mail is stephenstahley@hotmail.com.

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