When my parents drove me to college, they left me at Hardee’s. For three hours. And I was the only other person in the car. 

The morning I left for Baylor University, I was incredibly sad. After saying goodbye to my two younger brothers, my cat, and my best friend who’d spent the night, Mom, Dad, and I climbed into the minivan to make the 12-hour drive from Pensacola, Florida, to Waco, Texas. I was leaving everything familiar and venturing into the unknown—college, dorm life, strangers, and Texas.

We left home at 6 a.m. on a Sunday, and I was groggy. You know that kid in high school who pressed snooze 20 times? Yeah, that was me. I hated my alarm. At one point, I moved it across my room to force myself to wake up—until I realized I could get up, take my bedding with me, turn off the alarm, and fall back asleep on the floor. You could say I wasn’t a morning person.

So when we got in the car, I was sad and groggy, and in a bad mood. I didn’t want to talk with anyone. I just wanted to sleep and cry.

An hour into the drive, just west of Mobile, Alabama, we stopped at Hardee’s for breakfast. I said no to almost everything. “Do you want to go in?” “No.” “Do you need to use the restroom?” “No.” “Do you want us to get you anything?” “No . . .  well, yeah, a biscuit and orange juice.”

On second thought, I do need to use the restroom, I said to myself as I opened the door, tossed my backpack and blanket on my seat, and headed inside. I didn’t tell Mom and Dad because I didn’t see them.

When I returned to the van, it wasn’t there. I looked around and saw it up the hill, pulling out of the parking lot and heading to the interstate. Are they trying to teach me a lesson? I wondered.

Ten minutes later, I knew it wasn’t a lesson. They had forgotten me. I was alone with no money, wearing my pajamas.

No one had cell phones in 1995. My parents had a car phone, but there wasn’t good service in most places. They had also gotten a toll-free number for our house so I could call home.

“Hello?” my brother answered. “Hey, Zach, it’s me. Mom and Dad left me at Hardee’s. I need you to call them on their car phone.” He tried but couldn’t reach them. I called him back. We did this multiple times until he—my only lifeline—said, “I don’t know what you want me to do about it. I have to go to church.” My situation, which was already lonely, sad, and desperate, had just become worse.

When Zach got to church, he approached his Sunday school teacher, a close family friend. “Mary Lou, how do you call long distance from the church phone?” “Why do you need to call long distance, Zach?” “I need to call Bethany. Mom and Dad left her at Hardee’s along I-10.”

Her eyes were like saucers.

An adult finally knew. And she was going to do something about it.

My parents still had no idea. They were past New Orleans and thought I was sleeping in the seat where I’d placed my backpack and blanket. (Two decades later, I’m still unsure how a backpack and blanket is confused for a 5’10” daughter, and what happened to the biscuit and orange juice.)

Mary Lou called my parents, and they flipped. Dad immediately turned the car around and broke all sorts of speeding laws. But when he finally arrived to Hardee’s, Mom wasn’t in the car. “Where’s Mom?” I asked. Dad replied, “She had to go to the bathroom a few stops back, but the line was so long I left her. We’ll pick her up along the way.” So at one point, we were at three different spots along I-10.

Later friends sent me cards, joking, “We’re sorry your parents don’t love you. We’ll adopt you.” Since Home Alone had just come out, someone drew a cartoon of me at Hardee’s with the caption, “Hardee’s Alone starring Bethany Jenkins.” One of my mom’s friends sent her Stein Mart’s list of “100 Things to Bring to College,” adding “#101—your daughter.”

Mom and Dad felt terrible. They told me I could have whatever I wanted. “My own car,” I answered, but I settled for circus peanuts and a Coke.

What happened at Hardee’s would happen to me over and over again my first year of college—the realization Mom and Dad couldn’t be there for me at all times and in all places.

At the time, I had no understanding of God’s sovereignty or the expansiveness of his love. It wasn’t until years later, when a friend encouraged me to read Romans 9, that I came to grasp God’s providential care and electing love.

We Still Feel Lonely

Today, as a single woman in her late 30s in New York City, I often feel alone. It’s hard to be so far from my parents and with no one as invested in my life as I am, no one who is affected by my decisions as much as I am. Even with a strong church community, like I have at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, it sometimes feels like I’m sitting on the curb of that parking lot again. Alone. No cell phone. No money. In my pajamas.

All of us feel lonely at times, when we think everyone has forgotten us—even our closest friends and family. And in the end, we will be alone, for each of us dies alone.

Yet there are moments—moments more frequent than the lonely ones—when I know there is One who is with me. They often happen when I read morning prayers, like John’s Baillie’s A Diary of Private Prayer: “I thank Thee for the blessed assurance that I shall not be called upon to face [the interests of another day] alone or in my own strength, but shall at all times be accompanied by Thy presence and fortified by Thy grace.”

And they also happen when I look upon the cross, meditating on the loneliness Jesus felt when he left his Father’s side in heaven, lived on earth without a place to sleep, talked with people who misunderstood him, and walked the road to Golgotha to be killed. He was alone, penniless, naked, and dead. Everyone—even the Father—deserted him (Matt. 27:46).

And the most astounding thing is that, unlike when I was involuntarily left by my parents, Jesus chose it. For me. And for you.

Seeing the gospel doesn’t wash away our loneliness, but it does usher us into the loving arms of the One who embraced loneliness for us. In Christ, we have a Father who welcomes us into the triune love of God, a love that’s better than the love of a friend because nothing can separate us from it—not even death itself (Rom. 8:38–39). As Sam Allberry says, reflecting on Psalm 23:4, “There’s only so far even the closest earthly friend can go with us. Only Jesus can go with us beyond that point.”

It’s comforting to know, even when we feel lonely, we are not alone. We have a Father who never lets us out of his sight, never leaves us out of his care. He’s there for us at all times and in all places.