The Toll Bridge

razor wire
By Kate Ter Haar/ Flickr

By Bonnie S. Hirst

It should be simple, purchasing a toll bridge pass. I cry when I consider it. My daughter lives on the other side of that toll bridge. In prison.

Several times I have attempted to purchase a pass online. I searched the Department of Transportation website, selected the toll bridge, but I couldn’t convince myself to click the purchase button. Buying a pass for future trips across that bridge would mean I had given up hope that she might win one of her appeals and be released.

My husband and I could have depleted four toll bridge passes by now. That would equate to twenty-four visits. Instead, we pull into the toll plaza each time and idle our SUV in the long line of brake lights. Vehicles with pre-purchased passes whiz by us, their toll fare deducted from their account by remote sensors.

In our rural county, on the opposite side of the state, we have no toll bridges. No need for multi-passes.

To visit our thirty-nine-year-old daughter, we drive six hundred miles round-trip. Those kind of distance and time constraints limit our visits to every few months. In the wintertime, our visits are further apart, with two mountain passes and treacherous snowy roads at higher elevations.

She has been there four years. Even with better weather, our visits are becoming less frequent. Visits are a double-edged sword: a reminder each time we pass through the clanging of the metal gates with the razor wire curled the length of the fencing, that this is now our daughter’s life. Visiting her in prison has become a part of our life.

My silent prayers prior to her conviction were, Dear Lord, may the highest good come from this situation. Please touch her heart with your loving goodness and keep her safe.

When she was arrested, and during the eighteen months she was out on bail, my faith in God’s goodness never wavered. I believed he would watch over her. I believed he would answer my prayers.

My belief in His goodness was answered when my daughter purchased a soft-bound red leather Bible. I was overjoyed when she showed it to me. From the amount of scriptures highlighted in yellow and bookmarked with torn scraps of paper, I could see she had been on her own journey to accept Him.

When she was convicted and sent to prison, I felt God had betrayed her and me. I questioned how I could continue to believe in his goodness when he had not answered my prayers for her safety. How could this be the highest good? I wondered if our daughter would be in prison if I had shared my beliefs vocally. If she had accepted Christ earlier, as I had as a child, would we be in this predicament now?

After receiving her sentence, she worried that our visits would lapse, and our letters would dwindle. I promised her that we wouldn’t forget her. I told her we’d visit often. I told her to not give up hope. I told her God would hear my prayers. I told her He would hear her prayers. During the past four years, I have doubted if he listened.

Time has eroded my faith in His powers. Hope is all I have left.

Visiting a few days after Christmas, my husband and I and our daughter’s daughter were waiting inside the prison lobby to check in. Behind us, a buxom Italian woman in a white peasant blouse chatted and extended kind words with everyone in her vicinity. I admire women like her who aren’t afraid to reach out to other people. Her dark hair tumbled in soft, bouncy waves to her shoulders, and her perfectly applied crimson lipstick enhanced her vibrant smile.

I used to have that type of enthusiasm for life. Since our daughter’s incarceration, I have become more and more emotionally closed in. More doubtful. More protective of my space. I prefer to observe quietly and stay under the radar when in public. I smiled at something the Italian woman said, but kept my body turned away from the conversation.

Our fourteen-year-old granddaughter stepped in front of my husband, and the top of her long brown ponytail grazed his salt and pepper beard. He tugged gently on the dangling portion and was rewarded with a smirk barely wide enough to see her braces. I placed my hand on his muscled arm as we stood in line.

When it was our turn to step up to the desk and present our IDs, I felt my usual trepidation. Would something appear on my clean record that would preclude me from visiting? Or would there be a new guard who wouldn’t recognize me? The picture on my driver’s license was three years old and barely resembled the tired sixty-year-old I was that day. My gray roots showed, and my brunette hair was chin-length and wavy instead of short and neatly wedged like when I renewed my license so long ago.

It seems a lifetime has passed since my daughter was sent to prison. I yearn for the days before her arrest, when I never questioned my faith in God’s steadfast love.

The normal guard with the kind smile was behind the desk.

The Italian woman’s presence had changed the atmosphere in the lobby; even I felt a lightness. She radiated kindness and warmth and brought smiles to the large group of holiday visitors. The lobby had the feel of friends reuniting after a long absence instead of a docile line of strangers.

We were assigned a table number for our visit and a key to a locker to leave our belongings in. We proceeded to the next station to remove our shoes and pass through the metal detector. When cleared, our hands were stamped with invisible ink, and we joined other visitors waiting at the third barricade. The guards released us, and we traversed outside to the next blockade.

Between buildings, a gentle mist of rain fell on our group as we gathered at the steel gate. It buzzed open. We moved like cattle into the next enclosure. The gate we passed through must clang shut before we were allowed passage to the next station. Shiny razor wire coiled in ringlets on the ground and double coiled on top of the fence that surrounded us.

The razor wire overwhelmed me. It’s as if my mind pretended my daughter was away at college. The razor wire jolted me back to reality.

The next double set of doors brought us closer to the visiting area. It had no razor wire. We wedged into the tight enclosure, the guards in their raised station behind tinted glass waited as the exit door behind us closed. In front of us a heavy steel door slid mechanically open. We formed another line and gave the guard our inmate’s name. Our assigned table had the number carved deeply into the top of the table, similar to the old-time school desks with the deep groove for pencils.

Our daughter is in CCU (Closed Custody Unit), the politically correct term for Maximum Security. Her unit is often the last of the groups of inmates to arrive at the visiting room. We watched as other visitors reunited with their daughters, wives, mothers, and grandmothers.

The Italian woman was assigned the table next to ours. When she saw her daughter, she stood and bounced with joy on her toes anxiously awaiting her daughter to clear the guard station. She rushed towards her excitedly and enveloped her with motherly hugs and happy tears.

Our daughter appeared and gave us a slight wave of greeting before she checked in with the guards. We nodded and smiled and waited. Her five-foot-four frame appeared thinner than the last time we visited. When she joined us, our quiet hugs seemed feeble compared to the Italian woman’s. I wondered if the other visitors felt the same.

Our visits follow the same routine. My husband and I sit on the opposite side of the four person table so our daughter can sit next to her daughter or her almost-adult son when he comes with us.

We asked about her new roommate. She asked, “What’s new at home?” We tried to remember something new to tell her. Our conversation felt stilted compared to the laughter and reminiscing that transpired at the Italian woman’s table.

Some days, our scheduled three-hour visits fly by. Other days, we play Yahtzee to pass the time and keep the conversation light. This was a Yahtzee day. Visits near the holidays are emotionally difficult. At home, I have tried to keep our daughter’s traditions alive; like baking and decorating Christmas sugar cookies with her daughter or preparing her kids favorite foods for their birthdays.

Her two children live with us. We celebrate milestones in their lives without her.

The guard at the raised station announced that visiting was over. We took turns hugging our daughter and joined other visitors in the exit line. Our daughter sat with the other inmates, all matching in their gray shirts and sweatpants. They would be searched before they returned to their units.

The heavy steel door opened slowly. We crowded into the tight enclosure. The Italian woman stood next to me and shared with everyone how good it was to see her daughter; that she hadn’t seen her for seven months. She dissolved into gasping sobs and tears streaked down her face.

I uncharacteristically wrapped my arm around her shoulder and leaned my head into hers and said “It’s difficult, the leaving, isn’t it?”

She nodded. “She doesn’t get out for another two years. Does it get any easier?”

I told her, “Some days are better than others.”

She smiled and with a trembling voice said, “I miss her so much.”

I tightened my hug, then released her. I prayed our conversation was over. I didn’t want her to ask the inevitable next question. Our conversation was not over.

She asked, “How long is your daughter in for?”

The agony of the answer contorted my face, and I began to cry. “Life,” I said.

Speechless, the Italian woman, wrapped me into her full bosom. The door buzzed open. She released me. Side by side, we walked towards the enclosure with the razor wire. Our group was silent as we passed through each buzzing, clanging gate. When we arrived at the original lobby, we swept our stamped hands under the black light. The invisible stamp magically appeared. We were cleared to leave.

I entered the single restroom and locked the door behind me. I splashed water on my haggard face to clear my smudged mascara. I lingered. I prayed the Italian woman had left. During previous visits, I had observed an unspoken code of ethics; no one asked about other inmate’s convictions. I was grateful it was taboo. I certainly didn’t want to talk about that, either.

My husband, our granddaughter, and I were in the parking lot walking towards our car when the Italian woman, from several cars away, waved and called out to me, “What’s your first name?”

I was stunned by her question. I preferred anonymity, but she asked with such urgency.

“Bonnie,” I yelled back and watched as my granddaughter disappeared into our car. I wanted to do the same.

The woman bellowed back, “Bonnie, I will pray for you and your daughter. I will have my prayer chain pray for you too. Never give up hope!”

Her kindness buoyed me. “Thank you.” I managed to squeak through the emotion that constricted my throat.

Maybe I have been wrong in doubting God. Maybe He had heard my prayers. Maybe the Italian woman was a sign from Him to keep my faith strong. Maybe I won’t be needing that toll bridge pass.

•••

BONNIE S. HIRST is currently working on a book-length memoir. After a thirty-five year hiatus from writing (being a mom and grandma), she is enjoying connecting with other writers. She loves feel-good movies and stories with happy endings. When life tries to shorten her stride, she prays, cries, reads self-help books, and writes. She can often be found kayaking on a calm mountain lake. Connect with her: https://www.facebook.com/BonnieSHirst and https://www.icantquotescripture.com.

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71 thoughts on “The Toll Bridge

  1. Bonnie, I love this essay and it will stay with me for awhile. Such a strong sense of place and character, and the pacing is perfect. I look forward to more of your writing.

    1. I love your story and I think of you all the time. You are such a blessing to all who know you. My prayers are always with you and your daughter. Your grandchildren are so nice and they are just like their grandma and grandpa.

  2. Oh Bonnie, this is so beautiful and heartbreaking. Your writing leaves me nearly speechless, and wanting more. Thank you for sharing this story and some of your world with us.

  3. God cherishes our ability to choose for ourselves above all else… Waiving consequences because of faith in him would force the faithless into belief, and He is no forcer of faith. He knows your heart’s desire, and is answering your prayer to both of your best good. Hold on.

  4. What a wonderful gift you have to express such sadness. I think of you and Ron often.♥

  5. Bonnie… What a gift you have. I was moved to tears. God has given you the ability to express yourself and your life situation so clearly and in such a real way. Your story has reminded me to pray for those in prison, and also for their families outside, never before have I been impacted in such a way as this. God is using you and He loves you… and your daughter. She is forgiven, never forget that. Bless you…

  6. Beautifully done Bonnie.Great job.We pray for you often and wonder how you and Ron are handling this.We try and put ourselves in your place, and it is hard to do.I do believe in the power of prayer and sometimes wonder like you do, is God listening? I believe he always listens,but I have to realize that it is God’s timing not mine.And that is so difficult for me .For I want to control what is happening and waiting on His will is not at all easy I love you very much and have since the first time I met you.I ask that you stay strong and hold to your beliefs and faith. This world is a lot place with you in it.So you keep on keeping on and don’t ever give up!!!!! Love you Bon Bon…

    1. Mike,
      Yes, waiting on His timing is difficult. I believe our moms (Ev and Evie) are both watching over us. I love that you use the nickname your mom gave me. Hugs

  7. Bonnie, my heart hurts so bad for your family. I am so sorry that this has happened. Thank you so much for your writing. I can hear mom say: ” Bon bon everything’s going to be ok “! I’m a true believer in prayer. Sometimes I think he’s not hearing me too. But then I realize he is always present in our lives. I’m so excited that your daughter has accepted The Lord . It must be so hard for all of you. I can only imagine what you all are going through. . I will pray every day for your family. Do u have specific request u want us to pray for? Is there Anything I can do to help? Can your daughter have letters? And could u send me her address? I love you Bonnie , I really admire you in so many ways. ( Ron too )I just want to convey that this weighs heavy on my heart and that I truly care about each and everyone that this involves. Love you much

    1. Jani, Thank you for your heartfelt words. I’ll get that info to you. I love you cousin Jani.

  8. Oh Bon, I’m crying as I type this. You have shown us your heart and by doing that have shown how and what to pray. God placed that Italian woman there with you on that day for a reason. Prayer does change things. Scripture tells us that and I believe if with every fiber of my being. If prison means we get to spend eternity with our sweet girl then, “thank you, Jesus.” But now let’s continue to ask God to move on her behalf by crying out to Him to win an appeal and give her freedom, knowing she can bring even more glory to Him out of prison rather than in prison. I can only imagine the lives she could reach for Jesus by sharing her testimony everywhere with the path she has walked. We love you and will stop praying for her release. I need to make sure I have her correct address to let her know how much we love her and won’t give up pleading for Jesus to move in a huge way.

    1. Ohhh sweet Bethie, Thank you for your prayers and caring for us. I’ll get that info to you. Huge Hugs!

  9. Bonnie,
    What an incredible essay! Like others have done, I’m going to share this with all my FB friends. I look forward to reading your book!!!

    –kg

    1. Karen, thanks for sharing my essay! Looking forward to our next workshop together. Hugs!

  10. Wow, you really left me speechless, wanting more of your story — but then you also gave us just enough to feel your impossible heartbreak. Beautiful writing.

  11. I know what your daughter did, or didn’t do, and it really doesn’t matter to me anyway.

    To quote Christopher Poindexter:
    “…why the hell must we, all vessels of the human race, keep looking away when we see a face we do not understand”

    It pains me to hear a story like yours. It’s heartbreaking to know that each of you is having to go through such a horrifying, life altering experience and one that you never would have seen for yourselves. Yet life goes on. It seems as if it shouldn’t, or at least it would only be right and fair that everyone be able to visibly see the moment that your lives were altered forever. You know. Some remembrance of the heartache that you must continue to endure while the world continues to spin on its axis.

    Great essay!

    And I am deeply moved by the love that you have for your daughter. Despite it all, my god, the love is overwhelming. Your love is truly overwhelming.

  12. Oh Bonnie, had NO idea what you’ve been going through! I’m so so sorry! What a well written and moving essay . Authenticity and humbleness shine through and I’m sure this writing touches every reader. Thank you for sharing. Made me cry.
    You, Ron, and grandkids, daughter and other relatives are in my (our) prayers everyday after finding out about this today. I would also love to correspond with you daughter. Please send me info if you don’t mind. Holding you close, Bon. Love you, Di

    1. Di,
      Thank you for your beautiful words. I’ll get her info to you.That is precious of you to write to her. Love you!

  13. Always praying your daughter will come home ! Never give up your faith, hopes or dreams. Also a very touching story well done expressing the reality all have been through! You and Ron have done a wonderful job with all the kids and yourselves, god has given you the strength and perseverance to carry on! Try to keep smiling and never give up. Life ends when we do.

  14. This is a beautifully written essay. I am grateful you have the courage to share your experiences and writing. I look forward to meeting you.
    Amy

  15. Bonnie, I — like everyone else who has read this essay — was deeply moved. For six-plus years now I have been holding weekly writing circles inside Vermont’s sole women’s prison. Our writers tell of the incredible heartache and loss they experience from leaving children behind; fighting the addictions that threaten them each time they are released; trying to figure out how to reclaim themselves so that they can hold their heads up and lead their lives on their own terms. They write of many things – including, notably, their mothers and grandmothers and other strong female role models in their lives whose examples keep them strong. And of course many write of finding God as a way of making sense of their situations and seeking guidance going forward. Although we occasionally hear from a family member who reads and responds to a daughter/sister’s story on our blog, it is not common. Hearing your story completes the picture in all its hope and sorrow. Thank you so much for sharing with such poignancy and compassion for yourself, your family and all those in a similar situation.

    1. Sarah, thank you! I’d be interested in hearing more about your blog. I admire the dedication of people like yourself who volunteer time in our prisons. I was amazed at how many volunteers share their skills at my daughters’ prison. Please connect with me on my FB page, link provided above.

  16. Bonnie, this is just so beautiful and heartfelt. You have been a pillar of strength for your family. You have extended yourself so far to care for your daughter and for her children. They are all so fortunate to have you and Ron as their base. Having had the opportunity to visit with you at the prison I can see your strength in your daughter. she has grown in her faith and I can’t help but believe that she is effecting the lives of many with her own life. Your description of the place is so vivid. You know our prayers are with you all.

    1. Patty,
      I appreciate that you are sharing this journey with me. I sometimes wonder if I’m not gaining my strength from her steadfast love of God. I love you sis! Huge hugs :-}

  17. You have written this with such truth and emotion. I have great admiration for you, not only as a writer but as the woman who has lived this crushing experience and yet risen up and brought your family with you. You are strong and beautiful and they are so lucky to have you and Ron in their lives. Having visited the prison with you this has a great impact and brings the experience home again. I could see great faith and trust in your daughter and I believe that her life has great power and influence on the lives of those she meets. We continue to pray that she is able to come home to you all. You are amazing Bonnie and I love you.

    1. Patty, (dear sister)
      Thank you for your loving words and your willingness to visit the prison with me. It touches my heart and my daughter’s heart, more than you can know. I love you sis!

  18. Wow!!! What a touching piece of prose!!! Wonderfully written, Bonnie.

    When I first learned that my granddaughter had been convicted and had received a life sentence, I sobbed off and on for three days. I was upset, even angry, I felt helpless, there was nothing I could do. Then it dawned on me. I could love her, be her grandfather, pray for her and write to her. These things I have tried to be faithful about. My prayer for her each day is that God would bless her in the things she was working on, He would keep her safe, He would give her courage and faith, and even now He would be at work in the background to change her status and make her eligible for parole. We must not quit praying nor believing. We must be as steadfast as was Job. You and Ron have done a great job in keeping life at your house as normal as possible. I have told you several times in the past that I am extremely proud of you, not so much for your success but for the kind of person you are. You are honest, fair, giving, unselfish – I could go on and on. These are not assets that came upon you recently. You possessed them as a little girl growing up. The good person that you are today shines through in your writing. I do love you and have loved you with all my heart and soul since the day you were born.

    Dad

    1. Dad,
      You have been a pillar of strength for me along this shared painful journey. Your prayers, visits to prison, and dedication to faithfully write to her, have been a godsend to me and to her.
      Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your gracious words, and for being a loving example to follow. I love you Dad. Thank you!

  19. This is so powerful. My heart aches for you, but I felt the hope that came at the end of this essay. Sending all the best.

  20. Auntie Bonnie,
    This is a beautiful essay and I think I will share it with some of my students (if you don’t mind) as an example of how to look for God not in moved mountains, but in small actions. Thanks for sharing this!

    1. Kirby,
      I would be honored if you’d like to share it with your students. Witnessed nuances vs moving mountains….hmmmm…would love to see that! Hugs!

  21. Dear Bonnie, thank you for your courage and love in writing this deeply felt piece and letting others experience the keeping of a relationship with someone, in this case a family member, who’s incarcerated. You are offering many people an opportunity to see into a new landscape of the heart. This is truly a beautiful gift, and I am appreciative in receiving it. Thank you.

  22. Bonnie, This was incredible. Such heartfelt words and thoughts. You are the strongest woman I know. Having been there with you during the final trial days, my heart was broken for your family. I remember days after, crying about the whole situation and feeling guilty that there wasn’t something I could do to help. I’ve always wondered what it was like when you went to visit. Reading your words,I could feel and hear the gates opening and closing. You are truly incredible and I love you all.

    1. Sherise,
      Thank you for sharing our journey with us. It’s not one any of us wanted, but I appreciate your steadfast friendship these past years. Thank you dear friend.

  23. Bonnie, your words are very moving. You are one of the strongest women I have ever known. Thank you for sharing a part of your life with us. You and your family are always in my prayers. Hugs, Debby

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