Sunday, September 12, 2004

The Day We Got Her Back

And speaking of anniversaries, today is another one. Technically, the happier anniversary is on June 12, but since today is also relevant, I decided to post it now.

Twenty-one years ago today, I went to pick up my two year old daughter at her father's and discovered the house was empty. Her father was facing battery charges brought by me and he also knew I was going to challenge the existing joint custody agreement so he decided to award custody to himself.

This post is not about the miserable 9 months when she was gone; the days I wondered how I'd get through one more hour without her, the day the taunting letter arrived, the days I had to force myself to go to work so I could afford the costs of searching for her, the day the ex called to tell me I'd be sorry and probably never see her again. No, this post is about the day we got her back.

Nine months to the day after I found that empty house, I got a call from a friend who had been receiving phone calls from my ex. The FBI was recording those calls and had discovered where my daughter was being kept. This particular evening, my friend had just gotten a call from the ex saying he was in jail and Debra was in foster care. I immediately called the local FBI to speak to the agent assigned to my case. The agent said he knew nothing but would check it out and call me back. I paced the floor until the phone rang. It was true; FBI agents in Maryland had arrested my ex and had picked up my daughter. I could fly to Baltimore and get her at the foster care home. Hallelujah!

My mom and I made a mad dash to the airport. Crap. We missed the flight out by 5 minutes and would have to wait for 5 more hours for the next flight. We drove over to the house of my phone tap friend and waited - and cried and laughed. We also called friends and family to tell them that the day many of them thought might never come had really arrived. And then, at last, I was able to fly through Denver to Baltimore. During the Denver layover, I called the foster home and begged them to make sure no one but me picked up my baby. The woman assured me that even if my ex got out of jail there was no way he'd know where my daughter was.

When I got to Baltimore, I grabbed a cab and gave the driver the address. He warned me it was going to be a long and pricey drive across the bridge during rush hour. I told him I didn’t care, just get me there. If I could have paced in the cab I would have. The cab driver was chatty and wanted to hear all about my daughter and my search so that helped the time pass. The ride cost about $40. I gave him $60 before I raced up the front porch steps to the foster home.

The foster mom met me at the door and told me my daughter was downstairs. As I rushed toward those stairs she stopped me and told me to calm down. "Remember, she's had a tough day and you might be a stranger to her now. Slow down. Don't scare her." So I forced myself to walk slowly down the stairs. The foster mom's words echoed my own fears. What if she doesn't know who I am? What will I do?

Debra was at a long table in the basement room. Her head was on a pillow and she was facing away from me. She had a bottle in her mouth and she was twisting her hair with her free hand. I had watched her twisting that hair almost every night of her life before she was taken away. I walked around the table and approached her slowly.

"Debra? Debra, it's Mommy."

She took the bottle out of her mouth and looked up at me. Then she sat up and lifted her arms toward me. "Mama!" I picked her up and felt her arms wrap tightly around my neck. She put her head on my shoulder and hung on.

I cried. And hugged her as tightly as I could without squishing her.

Then she looked up at me and said, "Are you my new mommy or my old mommy?" Later we discovered her dad had told her the 'old' mommy died and they would find a 'new' mommy.

I answered her, "I'm your only mommy."