Grandpa with Nathan at 24 months old
Meanwhile my grandpa got terribly ill and had to be admitted to the Cleveland clinic. My doctor found cancer cells growing on my cervix, (so surgery was in my near future), and my beloved uncle died suddenly of a heart attack.
There’s a lot of this story I have to leave out, or I’d be writing forever. Unfortunately, that means leaving out some of the good things and people, too. I did have a friend who helped me. Tried to, anyhow. He was sucker punched right in the face for it. I just wanted to memorialize him for all of his efforts. Moving on…
One day I got home from the grocery store to find the Sheriff standing in front of my apartment. I felt sick. What could it be this time, I wondered. I approached him without a word and stood there waiting for him to lower the boom. He handed me an envelope that contained some sort of legal papers. I had to go inside and get myself anchored before I would dare read them.
What I read caused me to go instantly numb, like I was drifting away from me. Blessed shock, I guess, the kind that lets you go on, put one foot in front of the other, and take care of business. Blessed shock, because there was a bizarre war raging now that would last for two years, and change the course of our entire lives. My mom had taken “temporary custody” of my children.
When I called her to say my dad was going to pick them up and bring them home, she told me that no one was going to step one foot on her land, or they’d be shot. This was a mom I didn’t recognize. We’d had our differences over the years, but it seemed now that she had been damming up her disapproval and distaste for me and my actions as far back as my teen years, and now she was determined to let me have it!
Part of me still wonders if she really thought she was doing the right thing. I don’t know. But there was no talking to her.
I went to the Children’s Services and they told me that the court who awarded my mom temporary custody didn’t have the jurisdiction to do that. They said that what they did was illegal, that they would have had to find me to be neglectful or abusive, and that they, the Children’s Services of my home county would be the agency to legally do that. They said they did NOT find any fault with me, and that they were going to help me get my kids back.
They did say, however, that losing my apartment was not going to help me keep my kids. They suggested I hurry to get another job and a solid home for my little family. I decided to get busy doing that right away.
It was October by now, bitter cold already in the flatlands. The heat had been shut off since the welfare check stopped when my mom took the kids. I hadn’t worked in a while because of this ongoing mysterious fatigue and pain that had crept into my body.
Now I was about to be evicted and couldn’t figure out how to get my stuff out of my apartment, or where to put it once it was out. I couldn’t even figure out where to put ME. Jess could always stay with his family. But where was I going to go? My grandma and grandpa would have gladly taken me in had they not been in a crisis of their own. Dad’s was out of the question. I loved my dad, but we just weren’t close. Mom’s? Yeah, right.
You’re not going to believe where I ended up staying. You’re going to ask me how I could be so stupid. Well, you weren’t there freezing your butt off, scared like I was of sleeping under a bridge, so don’t judge too harshly.
The no-contact order was finally in place. I could live my life in freedom and peace. Rico was allowed to see Jess and take him whenever he liked, he just wasn’t allowed around me. But, having no place to go, and having spent a few dark, cold nights in my apartment without electricity or heat, I caved in and moved to the country to live with Jesse’s paternal grandmother. Yeah, you’re right, that’s where Rico was living. But I knew he wouldn’t cause me any trouble with his mom around.
Not only that, but I couldn’t exactly be with Jess if I was staying in the dismal apartment and he was at his grandma’s. It was the lesser of two evils as far as I could tell. Rico got a legitimate job working in a laundry 12 hours a day, so we barely had to see each other. As soon as I could find work and get another apartment, I’d be out of there. It was working out great.
My dad with Nathan, Jesse, and Natalynna (Natali)
On sunny days, Jess and I would make the trek into the village to use a pay phone and call the kids. We really didn’t get any privacy on the phone. Mom was worried that I was scheming with the kids to come and take them by force, so she listened in.
Nathan whispered to me that Mom had told him he had been abandoned by me, that I had chosen Rico over him. I assured him that wasn’t true; the Children’s services were trying to find a way for me to get them home. Meanwhile, I still had Jess to care for; he still needed me, and it was very confusing trying to figure it all out. I told both Nathan and Natali that I would fight to get them back, and not to worry.
Jess was three by now, but very old for his age. On one our walks he suddenly plunked down on the earth beneath a tree, patted the ground next to him, and said, “Sit down, Mommy; look at pretty leaves.” But I was in a hurry to get home out of the chilly autumn air.
I woke up each day to the sounds of Jesse’s grandma wailing, praying in Spanish, and pleading with God to save her children and grandchildren. Somehow, it gave me an ounce of peace that someone in that house knew how to reach God.
Jess and I were the only ones home that morning in late October. I had taken a shower, gotten some comfortable clothes on, and wrapped a towel around my wet hair. Then I began to run a bubble bath for Jess. I opened the door and called out around it, “Jess! Come here, honey, it’s time for your bath.”
A gruff voice answered, “Cindy? Can you come out here?”
I thought it was one of Rico’s cousins having some fun with me, but I wasn’t sure. I yelled, “Who is it?” Then I thought, if that isn’t a relative, Jess could be in danger. So I went out into the living room to investigate.
When I got there, two women and the sheriff were standing there. After the shock wore off to be finding strangers in the house, I recognized the women as being social workers with the Children’s Services. I looked at them questioningly.
Then one of them spoke curtly, “Cindy, we’ve come to take Jesse.”
“What? Why?” I went to my baby and scooped him up in my arms.
“You were ordered not to have any contact with Rico. You broke that order, so we’re taking Jesse.”
“I don’t understand. Jess can be here with his dad without me, and you consider him safe enough. But since I’m here, you’re taking him?” I encircled Jess in my arms. They were not getting him if I could help it.
“He’s in danger if the two of you are fighting like cats and dogs.”
“We’re not fighting! His grandma lives here, so nothing bad will happen. I had no choice, they turned off my heat. I had no place else to go!”
“Well,” she said bluntly, “we’re taking him.” Then she asked the Sheriff to pry Jess away from me.
He came over to wrench my barefoot baby out of my arms. At the same moment, Jess and I both began to scream. I was begging them not to take my baby. Jess ways crying, “No! I don’t want to go! I don’t want to go!” But the Sheriff got him away from me and rushed him to a waiting county car. One of the social workers looked back at me pityingly on her way to the car. The other looked rather pleased with herself. I ran after the car as it turned the corner of the little dirt road and disappeared with my Jess inside.
Some of Rico’s cousins, who also lived in that cul-de-sac, had witnessed the terrible event, and ran to tell him at his work.
I dragged my jellyfish of a body back into the house and sank into a chair. Where had they taken my baby? For how long? How could I get him back? Was he scared? What was going through his mind? Now all three of my children were out of my sight, beyond my care and protection, and I felt powerless to change any of it.
Jesse’s words from the day before came back to haunt me, “Sit down, Mommy; look at pretty leaves.” I thought about how I had hurried him home. God, how could not have treasured that moment?
Rico burst through the door a few minutes later, in a panic. “What happened?” he asked me.
I told him the whole story. He asked me what we could do to get Jess back. I didn’t know. I could barely breathe after everything that had happened. I was in a daze, trying to get my bearings, and no solution came to mind.
After I regained a bit of my composure, I walked into town to use the pay phone and got in touch with one of the social workers who had been there that day, (thank God, Freda, the more compassionate one). She told me they had taken my Jess to a foster family who owned a farm. “They have horses and cows,” she said, “Jesse will love it there.” She said they had taken Jess to McDonald’s on the way to the farm and that he was, “very polite.” She was quite impressed with his vocabulary, she said.
I asked her when I could see him, better yet, when I could have him back? What did I have to do? She said it would most likely be six weeks before I could get a court date, that I couldn’t see him at all before that. I don’t know why. I asked her if I was being accused of being abusive or neglectful to Jess. She said, “No, the charges are that you allowed yourself to be abused in front of him, and that you broke the no-contact order.” She said the court would want me to get stable: a job, a home, etc. for at least a year before I could get Jesse back.
Jess on his third birthday in a lopsided world without his siblings.
I could see there was only one place to go for help, but I wondered if he would even recognize me after all that time. I found a bible and played, “Bible roulette.” (Open to some random page and pray for God to speak to me). I opened it up to a passage that told me that God would teach me which way to go, and not to be like a mule that has no understanding and must be controlled by a bit and bridle before it would come to you.
My body had already been weakened by years of stress, severe yo-yo dieting, and smoking at least a pack a day. Now I could add asthma, anemia, and “Cervical Dysplasia Class 3” to the mix. I had lost my home, my kids, and I feared, my sanity.
I started having these mysterious episodes where my heart went wild inside me and left me winded, dizzy, and weak. I could hear my heart pounding in my ears at anywhere from 110 to 130 beats per minute. It ambushed me from out of nowhere, in the shower, when I was driving, at any time for no apparent reason. I was scared. What was happening to me? Was I having a heart attack? Was I dying?
I was tempted to go to bed, pull the covers up over my head, and never get up again. But I knew my little ones needed me to get my stuff together and be the kind of mom they deserved. Somehow, I heard about panic attacks and set my mind to find out everything I could about them.
Meanwhile, Jess was in a strange place with strange people. I got updates on him over the next two weeks since they had taken him. The social worker told me he was “adjusting.”
While my mother remained stubbornly opposed to me having Nathan and Natali back in my custody, and I knew I had a fight on my hands, I decided that sending Jess to live with Mom was better than having him with people we didn’t know. At least, I thought, he would be with his brother and sister. They could help look out for him. The Children’s Services agreed, and arranged for my mom and her husband to pick Jesse up.
When I called my mom to talk to the kids, she tried to persuade me to move to McConnelsville, a one-horse town minutes from mom’s house. She said she would help me get an apartment and a job, help me get established, drive me to the store, whatever would help. I would have done anything to be close to my babies, so I decided to leave Bowling Green and head south. Time was ticking for me to get my stuff out of my apartment, anyhow. My sister and her husband offered to get a small U-haul trailer and take some of my belongings to an apartment Mom had picked out. Whatever we couldn’t fit into the trailer, I gave to folks in my neighborhood. My stuff went before me; I would wait for mom to come for Jess and ride down with them.
It was the middle of November now, two weeks since they had ripped my Jess from me. I got him a Happy Meal and had some of Jesse’s Aunts and his grandma drive me the Children’s Services building. The social workers had gone to get Jess from the foster home. In a couple hours, we would also meet my mom and her husband there. The social workers had decided not to allow Rico access to him till everything could be sorted out.
I paced the hall nervously as I waited for a sign of my baby. I imagined him running into my arms and me giving him the biggest bear hug ever. But when the door came open and he was ushered through, he stood like a little cardboard cutout of a child. The light had gone from his dark eyes. I stooped down to embrace him, and he stiffly responded with a perfunctory hug of his own. Then he looked at me and asked flatly, “Why the cops took me?” All that time he had thought I had called the cops to take him away for something he had done. I burst into tears as I explained. He took it all in blankly. Then he asked for his daddy. I told him he would see him soon, then offered the Happy Meal as the only consolation I could provide.
Mom and her husband arrived to get us. It was awkward between us, to say the least. Mom, right away, wanted me to know that she was in charge of Jesse now, and I was just along for the ride. I bit my tongue. She had my kids. She had all the power. But on the long trip I already began making plans to seek legal advice as soon as I could get to a phone or write a letter.
Now I was stuck in the boonies with no car, no job, (no jobs available), no television, no friends, no money, poor radio reception, in a tiny apartment with only a mattress, a desk, and a lawn chair for furniture. Alone, alone, alone. I put in applications everywhere, started computer classes FREE at the job services, got a library card, and signed up for food stamps and some cash assistance. $143 a month. Not having access to a phone, I sent mail to the legal services asking for help.