When she took him, he was just a very small boy — 2 years old.
As I prepared for the bus ride to take him there, I scrambled to afford both the ticket and diapers.
I just had to get him there. If I could just get him there, he could be safe.
“He doesn’t have to stay forever — it’s only temporary”, I thought to myself, over and over. But I knew that I couldn’t stay with him.
It looked like an impossible task. If I could even come up with the money to buy the tickets, we would have to travel 24 hours on multiple Greyhounds with layovers.
If you have never had to take a Greyhound bus across the US and transfer multiple times with long layovers, you can try to imagine what that would be like with a two year old, alone and penniless.
I was willing to do anything to get my son to safety.
One of the girls I worked with at the diner paid for diapers and loaned me the difference for the ticket. It would be hard, but hard never stopped me when something had to be done.
This had to be done. I had to get my baby to safety. There was no other option, as long as I lived.
The first bus wasn’t so bad and there was even an extra seat which allowed my son to have one. He was young enough to travel without a ticket, but that meant if there were no seats available, he had to sit on my lap.
When we arrived in Nashville, though, I had no idea that I was about to face 12 of the most challenging hours of my life.
Picture me, carrying two giant bags and a two year old — finding my way through the crowded lines.
I hadn’t enough hands to carry, let alone open doors. Some people held the door open in front of me while others let it go — to slam onto me and my son.
This would force me to drop my bags on the ground, shield him with my elbow, re-open the door and try to hold it open with my foot as I picked up the bags — without letting go of my son in a crowded bus station in the middle of a place I had never been.
I knew this next bus had a layover and I was prepared for me and my son to stretch our legs for two hours until it arrived. I had my 5 dollar budget set aside to find food for us and that was exciting.
The floor was hard and shiny like a hospital and there were a few benches where people slept, while others slumbered on the floor. It was cold inside the station even though it was warm outside. The air was thin, even though the giant terminal held at least 100 people. Something felt inexplicably wrong.
My son has sensory processing challenges and is on the autism spectrum, but we didn’t know that until he was eight. At two, I just thought he was experiencing what everyone calls the ‘terrible twos’ and ‘just being a boy’.
He was rough. He ran, fast, and he wouldn’t stop if I asked. When he was having a tantrum, he would hit and kick me as hard as he could. I had to hold onto him every second for fear that he would escape my grasp and bolt right into danger.
As I sat down our bags and took a deep breath, he seized the opportunity, quickly jerked his tiny hand from mine and raced away.
After chasing him in circles for a few minutes while everyone stared at me in disgust, I finally caught him and sat him beside me at a nearby table. Of course, the crying fit commenced immediately.
As he threw his body down, he slammed his head on the metal table — hard. He then initiated the blood curdling cry of extreme pain coupled with his pre-existing frustration.
I sat there holding my baby, tears welling in my eyes, and looked around. People were giving me dirty looks and no-one would hold eye-contact. Their contempt was palpable.
I suspected they thought it was my fault he was this way—if I was a better mother, they wouldn’t be inconvenienced by my child who was ‘out of control’ as many would say.
He was just a baby, though, and he didn’t understand why I was confining him to small spaces and keeping him ‘on a leash’. He wanted to explore the world, as always, and was furious that for the past however many hours, he could not.
The danger of sordid public places, especially for a young woman traveling alone with a child in unknown territory, was not yet a twinkle in his eye. He just wanted to play, to run, to eat and to do all the things that shouldn’t even be a question in his 2 year old life.
No-one asked if we were okay. No-one offered to help. I guess they assumed that if I needed help it was my fault. And, maybe they were right. Maybe it was my fault.
My arms burned from the weight of our bags and my baby. My legs hurt from standing in the long lines with so much weight on my shoulders, literally and figuratively. My mind was an overwhelmed mess from the days of road-block after road-block which made the figurative weight on my shoulders, heavier than I had ever forced myself to bare.
More than anything, my heart ached from the weight of what I had to do and the shame I felt from the world. As my baby lay in my arms wailing because of the blue knot that was forming on his soft forehead, I cried too.
“Shhhh. Shhhh. Shhhh. Mommy’s here. It’s going to be okay, baby. Mommy has you. Mommy has you.”, I cooed as I gently rocked back and forth, squeezing him tight and kissing his forehead.
In this moment, I understood why people give up. I wasn’t ready to give up yet though — especially since it was probably my fault. I had to save my baby.
With every “Mommy is here” my mind echoed, “But she won’t be for long.”
I cradled him tight, with my lips on his forehead and looked down at the Mickey Mouse patch on the front of his overalls. I stared at it as I rocked back and forth — tears streaming down my face in silence.
“Sh. Sh. Sh. Sh. Sh. I have you baby. Mommy has you.”
I decided to keep my eyes locked on that Mickey, to stop myself from meeting any of the evil stares around me. But it didn’t work. I could feel the accusatory glares piercing through to my heart like so many tiny scornful spears.
It wasn’t until he had calmed down for a few minutes that everyone began to forget about the inconvenience and move on to the important things we were disrupting, like going to the vending machine or sitting in silence and staring at the wall.
I wondered if those people would be more compassionate if they knew what I was going through and even worse — what I had been through. It didn’t matter. This wasn’t the first time my son and I had been alone on a treacherous journey, but if I could just arrive at my destination, I was sure it would be the last.
I remembered that horrible feeling that I had when I entered the station and I thought to myself,
“Well, if that was what I had a bad feeling about, that’s good. At least it was something we could get through. That’s all that matters. All we have to do is get through it. Just get to the other side, Holly. All you have to do is get there.”
I would find out very soon that my assumption about my earlier intuition was dead wrong. Things were about to get much, much worse.
Written by Holly Kellums