The Stolen Child

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| This is the 453rd story of Our Life Logs |


“We have to move, baby,” my mom’s voice was tense. “Get packing.” I did as I was told; it was routine. I would say it went quickly because we had done it so many times before, but the truth is you can pack quick when you don’t have anything to pack. My mother would go to the window and peak out nervous as she packed up our meager belongings. I never knew why we had to move so often, why it was always so sudden, it was just the way life was. It felt like we were always running a race. How long could we keep running? What would happen to us if we stopped?

Let me take you to the beginning of my story.

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When I was born in Galesburg, Illinois, in August 1993, my mother, Tanya Baker, was 16. My father, well, I don’t know, he was never in the picture. My mother had to struggle to care for me. She got lucky when her friend Amanda from school was able to step in and babysit me while she herself worked at Target. Then, school started again and Amanda couldn’t babysit anymore, but Amanda’s mother, Cindy, was available.

Things worked out for a while and then, one day, Cindy showed up at my mother’s job with a stack of paperwork. Cindy said it was for my mother to give her the consent to take me to hospital in case something happened. My mother read the first couple of pages and a few at the end. They all matched what Cindy was saying, so she started signing. Sadly, she didn’t know what she was signing away.

That night, my mother came to pick me up from Cindy’s. When Cindy saw her coming, she hid me in the closet and turned off the light. My mother knocked on the door, polite at first and then with increasing urgency. She began shouting. She wasn’t a fool, she had seen the lights turn off as she arrived. Finally, pushed to the brink she kicked open the door and retrieved me from the closet. As she left, the cops showed up and pried me from her. To her disbelief, she was arrested for kidnapping and breaking and entering.

It turned out that buried in all the papers Cindy had my mother sign was a paper granting Cindy temporary legal guardianship of me. My mother went to jail for several months, and by the time she got out, Cindy and I were nowhere to be found.

I was about two at the time and had no clue what was going on.

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Apparently, Cindy had been pregnant with a baby boy and miscarried. After that, she had a burning passion, bordering on mania, to raise a son. Growing up I knew she wasn’t my actual mother, but I still called her mom. I would ask her why my birth mother gave me away, and she would say that it was because Tanya didn’t want me, that Tanya hated me and she forced her to take me and then disappeared. But I wondered, why would she endure nine months of pregnancy to just give me away? She could have gotten an abortion. Why struggle to raise me for two years? She could have put me up for adoption right away. The stories Cindy told me just seemed thin like a weak coat of paint that couldn’t hide the previous color.

Despite what Cindy had done, she did show me love. It may seem odd, but I look back with a lot of fondness on growing up with Cindy. I have vivid memories of going what she called “alley shopping” on the weekends. See, we didn’t have a lot of money. That meant we couldn’t afford a lot of the fun things people did or buy. But people would toss stuff they didn’t want into the alleys, and Cindy and I would go search for the “treasures.” It always felt magical, like something amazing was just in the next alley for us to find.

We were poor indeed. We took government subsidies, and sometimes, Cindy even had me pretend that I had some sort of mental condition so that she could get extra government money based on my diagnosis. One way or another, we got by, making our deprived life still full of excitement.

There was one thing I couldn’t quite understand. We moved a lot. We would live in a city for a few years and then move. But even during those few years in the same city, we would move to a new house in a new neighborhood every few months. Each time it happened, there was no warning, just one day we were doing fine, and the next we were rushing to get our bags packed and hustling to the next place.

Section Break-Mountains

Christmas 2005. There was a knock on the door. Standing there was a blonde woman in her late 20’s with a car full of presents and family members. It was Tanya, my birth mother. Turns out, ever since we disappeared from Galesburg about a decade ago, she had been frantically searching the country to find us. She would hire private investigators, but each time they got close, they would serve Cindy with papers, and then we would move, leaving no trace and forcing the search back to square one. This was the reason for the strange rushed nomadic rhythms of my young life.

We had roommates at the last place we had been at, and when the police arrived, they explained the situation to our roommates, who then told them where Cindy and I had bolted to. At this point, Tanya decided to play it cool. Cindy had been spooked and taken off too many times before. Playing it different this time, Tanya just had the police keep an eye on us, no confrontations, no subpoenas, no warning. Standing there looking into her eyes on that cold Christmas Day was what she had been dreaming of for 10 years.

Reuniting with Tanya was exhilarating. I had imagined what birth mother was like, what meeting her would be like, but the reality was so much better than I could have imagined. It sounds strange to talk about feeling an instant connection with your mother, but that’s what it was. We just clicked and I felt a part of me being filled that I hadn’t even known was empty.

Unfortunately, my story didn’t end there. Tanya couldn’t take me with her, because of the papers she had signed all those years ago. But when she left that Christmas Day, she promised to call me every day. However, days and then weeks passed, and nothing. Maybe that connection I’d felt with Tanya wasn’t what I thought it was, maybe she’d achieved her dream of finding me only to realize I wasn’t worth finding?

While I had my doubts and fears about Tanya, I also had my suspicions about Cindy. Since Tanya’s visit, Cindy had begun to change. Gone was the fun-loving woman who had made a life of poverty full of excitement. In her place was a snarling, venom-spitting creature filled with rage and paranoia. I became pretty sure that Tanya was calling and Cindy just wasn’t telling. I began sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night and going through the call history on the phone. Tanya had been calling, nearly every day just like she had promised.

When I was allowed to talk to Tanya on the phone, Cindy sat so close to me that it was uncomfortable and my responses became wooden and detached. It was not until a year later that Tanya finally convinced Cindy to let me visit her in Atlanta for Christmas. I say “convinced,” but “bribed” would be more accurate. Cindy’s daughter Amanda (the one who was friends with Tanya in high school) lived in Nashville. Tanya had to pay for Cindy and me to fly to Nashville and then on to Atlanta. The whole time we were in Atlanta, Cindy watched me like a woman afraid someone might steal her child. Funny how projection works.

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Eventually, Tanya moved to Galesburg, and I was able to spend every other weekend with her. When I would get home from Tanya’s, Cindy would be standing right at the door, glaring as if she could obliterate Tanya and the entire situation with her gaze. Once I was inside, she would start drilling me; it was easy, normal things at first, “How was it?” But soon, she would become aggressive, “Did you talk with anyone in suits? Anyone who said they were a lawyer?” before moving onto screaming wild anger, “Do you have a phone? She gave you a phone. Open up your bag, show me the phone. Ok, empty your pockets, show me the phone.”

One day, as Cindy was going extra crazy, I fled to my bedroom, but that only seemed to intensify whatever dark emotions were controlling her. She pounded on my door, screaming, “I’m your only real mother! No one will love you as much as I do!”

“Please, just calm down,” I shouted back, tears streaking down my face. “Just leave me alone.”

Unable to get in through the door, she retreated. I thought maybe she had given up, until the brick came crashing through my window. As I stood there amongst the glistening shards of broken glass, staring at her in the yard, at her smug vindictive grin, I lost it. I began shouting and cursing, frustrated by the change that I had seen in her, at the years I now felt had been robbed from me of being with a mother who never actually wanted to let me go. Finally, I dropped the nuclear bomb, “This is why Tanya and I have been talking to a lawyer, and I’m going to live with her.”

Her face went stone as she said, “Over my dead body.”

Her tone was cold and made it feel more like a promise than a threat. She walked away. 15 minutes later, my bedroom door was broken down, not by Cindy, but by two police officers. They dragged me out of my room. I could see Cindy standing there smug, her eyes saying, “See what happens when you don’t listen to Mother?”

The police put me in the back of their car, but they didn’t take me to the station or juvie, they drove me to an adult mental asylum. I was 13.

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I spent two and a half weeks in the asylum surrounded by drooling frightening things, adults with severe problems, while I was just a teenager with a dysfunctional home life. That entire time I didn’t talk to anyone, no therapist, no doctor, no one from law enforcement. They just shoved me into this awful place and then let me rot. Once Cindy had decided I had learned my lesson, she had them let me out.

When I got home from the psyche ward, I asked if I could call Tanya, and Cindy said, “No.” I then asked if I could go over and visit Ryan, my best friend. Despite all the moving I had gone through in my life and all the difficulty I had had making friends, I had become super close to not just Ryan, but his entire family. His mother was like a second mother to me (or third I guess), and I had a bit of a crush on his sister.

Cindy agreed. When I got to Ryan’s house, his whole family, mother, father, and sister were all there. I told them everything. They already knew most of it, at least the broad strokes, but hearing it all in one go, especially what happened in the past few weeks, left their jaws on the floor. As I finished, tears streamed down my face as my body convulsed with emotion. Ryan’s mom pulled me close and just held me. She told me everything would be okay. She told me anytime I wanted to, I could come over and use one of their cell phones to call Tanya. I was shocked. That was a big deal. In those days the cheap cell phone plans were pre-paid, you had to buy minutes. And she said to never worry, I could talk until all the minutes were gone. That may seem like a small thing, an easy kindness, but it was huge to me and it was difficult on them as they had a tight budget, which was why they were on pre-paid phones in the first place.

Ryan, his family, and my therapist whom I was seeing at the time, were the only ones that were truly in my corner. Through them, I was able to keep myself sane and remain hopeful. I don’t know how I would have made it through without them.

Section Break-Mountains

I continued to live with Cindy. But as time went on, everything seemed to get worse, Cindy became more and more erratic. It was like going to sleep in a beautiful mansion only to wake up in a crumbling house, leaving you questioning whether any of it was real. As it got worse, I would run away from home. Finally, Cindy asked, “Do you really want to go live with her?” “Yes, I do,” I told her. She smirked and shook her head. “The grass is always greener,” she muttered. She convinced me to stay until the end of the school year.

The end of the school year came and Cindy kept her word. I can still remember her standing on the porch with her coffee and a cigarette watching me pack all my things into the car. We hugged, and she said, “I love you.”

I would love to tell you that I went to live with Tanya and it was happily ever after, but that would be a lie. We were two people broken by the events of their lives and there was no one to put us back together, to show us how to be whole again. We were like prisoners, dreaming of getting out, only to find themselves so institutionalized that they find it hard to function in the real world. I was a troubled kid, lashing out, running away, getting into scrapes with the law. She was a woman with a temper and a poor taste of men. We both had deep scars that no one else could understand.

Section Break-Mountains

The following years passed in a blur. I was in and out of trouble, here and there. I was angry, resentful. I could see what I had lost. I couldn’t stop my mind from asking the “what ifs,” how my life and Tanya’s life would have been, had none of this ever happened. I even imagined what might have been if Tanya had just never found me and life with Cindy continued in blissful ignorance.

It all finally came to an end in 2015 when I found myself serving a two-year jail sentence. There, I was finally forced to confront myself and my past. I began to meditate, and through it I began to find acceptance. I realized that I didn’t control what happened to me, but I controlled how what happened affected me. Cindy and even Tanya may have caused me pain and trauma in the past, but I was the only one causing me pain and trauma in the present. I was the only one who could end that pain, that healing had to come from the inside.

Written down like that, it seems quite easy, like flipping a switch, but it took a long time to reach that point and even longer to truly live that. You can’t change your mindset, the way you have thought, the way you have acted, in a moment. But you work at it, and sometimes you regress, but you don’t give up, and eventually, years later you find yourself a different person in a better place. That’s what has happened to me.

After I got out of jail in 2017, I went back to school and have recently received my Bachelor’s in Horticulture. I’ve kept a good relationship with my birth mother Tanya and am trying to work things out with Cindy.

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Today, I work at the Sour Patch Kids factory and am working on returning to school for another degree. I want to find a way to help people who were kidnapped, especially those who don’t even know it has happened to them. I am still not sure the best way to do it, whether I become an investigator and help find those who lost like I was or more of a counselor, an example, showing them that they can recover, that there is life after the trauma. I want to be there for them, the person I was missing, the person to find me, the person to show me that I can heal. Today, I stand for all those who have been ripped from their families, and I live to show them that it gets better. You can never give up hope.

 

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This is the story of Austin Baker

Austin currently resides in Illinois where he works in the nearby Sour Patch Kids factory. At 12 years old, Austin discovered that he had been taken from his mother, who he thought had abandoned him at the age of two, which opened up a can of worms of fighting, hardship, and trauma from both his birth and “adopted” mother. It wasn’t until he went to jail for a few years that he realized he could control how his trauma affected him and that mindset helped him change and work to rebuild a relationship with both women. Austin recently received his bachelor’s degree in horticulture and likes spending his free time offering emotional support to his family and friends.

 

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This story first touched our hearts on September 26, 2019.

| Writer: Adam Savage | Editor: MJ |

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To protect the privacy of the storyteller and those involved in this retelling, some of the names may have been changed. (1)

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