Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Truckstop Angel

by Shonda Ponder
Originally written August of 2003

Pat and I had been on the road all day. So, tired and hungry, at approximately 2:00 AM, we pulled into a Petro Truck Stop to rest for the night just outside of Wytheville, Virginia. Pat gave me a $20.00 bill, and I went into the restaurant to order our meals.

At a table, which seemed to be the only one occupied, a dark-haired, clean-cut man with olive-colored skin and a neatly trimmed beard and mustache sat. He was sketching a picture of a reggae artist photo, which was lying on the table before him, as he spoke to the waitress. I ordered my food, then commented on his talent.

The man smiled and asked me where I was headed to.

"California," I replied, "but we don't have much time to get there, so we may have to give up our load to a team." I explained that I was just along for the ride, thinking of trying to get hired by the company in the future, therefore Pat was a solo driver. Then he asked me where we were from.

"I'm originally from Texarkana, Texas. But, I've lived in Houston, Texas for the past four years," I answered, "That's where I met Pat. We've been together for three years now, and his company seems to think it would look better on my application if we were married -- but, I've already been married twice, and his mom had a really bad marriage before, so we're waiting."

The stranger smiled and congratulated me for the three years we had under our belts, then he asked, "Do you have children?"

"Yes," I smiled, "I have two."

"How old?"

"My oldest is seventeen, and my baby is twelve. They are with their dads."

The conversation then changed for a moment at he pointed at his sketch and said, "I travel and draw for people while they tell me their stories. I spent some time in San Antonio, Texas. Are you familiar?"

I told him I lived in Austin for four and a half years before I moved to Houston, and that I liked to write articles, poems and short stories. "I paint pictures with words, rather than brushes," I explained again commenting on his talent, and telling him I missed my computer.

"An artist uses his talents for therapeutic purposes, whether he paints with pictures or with words," he said. "Tell me about your sons."

I smiled as I thought for a moment how to begin. Then I began:

"My oldest son was born when I was seventeen. When he was about a year old, he started having seizures. The doctor didn't know why, but to be on the safe side, he ordered him to be put on Phenobarbitol. Epilepsy runs in my family, but my son had a low-grade fever for awhile, so it could have very well been caused by that.

"The doctor explained to me that if, within a year, he had no more seizures, we would take him off of it. Then he cautioned me that it had side effects. He explained that at the age of four or five, my child would be hyper, and that he may be a little slower than his classmates -- but, as he grew older, and on into adolescence, he would catch up. Bryant was normal." I stressed the word normal as I looked at the stranger.

The stranger nodded, raising his eyebrow to convey that he caught the meaning. I continued:

"As I said, I was young. Being a mother at that age was not easy. Neither was finding help. I gave him up to the only person who, I felt at the time, would help me, when he was two years old.

"When he turned four, just as the doctor warned, he bacame hyper. Without consulting me, my step-grandmother had him put on ritalin. He never should have been put on ritlin.

"When he turned eight, my step-grandmother gave him back to me. I had already had my younger son. I was married, and we were doing well. But, my older son was not right."

The stranger motioned for me to continue, noting my emphasis on the word "right".

"He had no conscience. He had no sense of right and wrong. In short, he was a monster. For two years, I tried. Finally, when it became evident that his actions were endangering the mental and physical health of my youngest son, I desperately sought anyone who would help me. I called CPS (Child Protection Services} for advice. I called my mother. I called his father's parents. Finally, after learning his dad was training in the field of child psychology, I called him. I begged him to take our son.

"Giving him up this time was like cutting off my arm to save my body. I felt I was doing the right thing. Now, after eight years of hard work and prayer, I can look at my son and see a normal teenage boy."

The stranger smiled, nodding in agreement.

"Oh, he got in trouble last year for having a pack of cigarettes, but if that is the worst he does, I'm happy."

"You did the right thing," the stranger said. "How about your younger son? Is his story as colorful?"

I smiled as I struggled to swallow the sudden lump that came into my throat. With tears in my eyes, I answered, "More so. My baby boy the brightest beacon of light I have in my dark world."

"Tell me about him," he encouraged.

So, I began again:

"As I said, I had my oldest son when I was young. I missed out on a lot of his growing up. So, when my baby boy was born, I vowed that I wouldn't makethe same mistakes. I would see his first steps, teach him his first words, celebrate his potty training, all the privileges and rights a mother is supposed to enjoy. And, I wanted to do it right.

"I gave him the middle name of Seth, because -- just as Eve in the Bible named her son Seth 'because God gave me another son in the place of...' I felt I was being given a second chance.

"I thought, as I looked on those tiny hand and feet for the first time, about how I was raised. I wanted to protect my baby from a lot of what I didn't like about it. I told him, as he lay there in my arms, that he could be anything, and one day he was going to be great, that he was going to be special, and one day he would change the world. I told him that where ever he wanted to go, I'd help him get there.

"The reasons were many more than those, but I'd have to get off the story of my son if I told you. Suffice it to say that my mother never believed in me the way I would believe in my son.

"The first time he said, 'momma', I got down on my knees and thanked God. Then I told my son how amazing he was, how special he was, and how great he would one day be. I did this again when he took his first steps, and I cried with him the first time he fell down, as I helped him up. I repeated all this when he cut his first tooth, drew his first picture, and every single other new feat he would accomplish.

"By the time he was three, I had taught him the alphabet. When he was four, he knew how to count to a hundred, and how to add and subtract. We spent hours talking about the moral lessons of old movies, books I read to him, and current news of the day. His babysitter said that he was her little helper, and that he was well behaved.

"When he started kindergarten, I begged my husband to go with me because I knew I was not strong enough to let him go alone. After, once again, telling my son how proud I was of him, I left him in the care of his new teacher, then went home and cried like a baby.

"We talked about his day at school, what he learned, how he liked his teacher, what his favorite activities were. His teacher favored him, as he became her little helper

"I still read stories to him from the Bible, and from books I was reading, and we talked at length still, when I had the time.

"My baby boy never asked for anything. He knew when I got paid. He knew we didn't have much money to throw around. When I would tell him to pick out a cereal at the store, he chose by price. He ate carrots and celery sticks, rather than candy. So, when I told him he could name whatever he wanted for his birthday, he said he wanted to go to Chuck E. Cheese. I spent a whole paycheck to give him what he wanted, and I didn't complain to him about how much it cost me. When he, as was his habit by then, found out how much it would cost, he tried to change his mind.

"I wouldn't let him.

"I told him again how special he was, and that this time, he was worth it. He reluctantly agreed.

"When a substitute teacher at his school refused, one day, to let me take him home without a pink slip because she didn't know me, I decided to home-school him. How dare her to undermine my authority over my child! His regular teacher wanted to know if she had done anything to influence my decision to home-school him. I told her, truthfully, that she was a wonderful teacher, but that I wanted more influence in my child's life.

"As I began home-schooling him, I became aware of how good of a teacher my son was. I learned that it was not only what I said, but how I said it that could kill his self-confidence. I then taught him that there was no such thing as a stupid question, and if I didn't know the answer, we would find the answer together.

"I taught him to open doors for ladies, to pull back chairs, to respect his elders, and how -- sometimes -- God's laws and man's laws differ. I taught him of George Washington, Ben Franklin, Harriett Tubman, and Rosa Parks. He learned of Joseph, Walt Disney, and Alexander Graham Bell. He sat on the edge of his seat, wide-eyed and eager as I told him these tales. He was my life, my beacon of light in a dark world.

"I realized I had to set an example for him to follow after I was arrested in 1997. I then joined a local media association, of which I later became president. I visited Citizen's Communication at Travis County Commissioner's Court regularly, which my son watched on the local cable access channel at home as part of his history and civics lessons. One day, I stood up to defend home-schoolers and demand an apology from a commissioner who had publicly remarked that 'People who home-school are nothing more than trailer trash that don't even own their own property.' I demanded that she owed my home-schooled son, who was watching her, an apology, and I informed her that we owned property.

"When I returned home that day, my baby boy met me at the door. As I opened the car door, I noted the proud look on his face that said, 'That's MY Momma!' I wouldn't have traded that moment for the whole world. I hugged him and told him, through tears, again, how special he was.

"I bought some books from a Christian Book Distributor with which to school him. Then I opened up a Bob Can Run book and asked him to read it to me.

"'I can't,' he argued.

"'You can do anything you set your mind to do,' I told him, 'Just remember, with God, all things are possible.' Then I reminded him that he already knew the letter sounds. I challenged him to sound out the letters in the first sentence, not knowing if he would.

"He did as he was asked. When he realized he had read, 'Bob can run,' his eyes lit up as he voluntarily read the rest of the book to me, speeding up progress as he read. My husband was amazed. I then told my son, again, how special he was.

"After that, I needed only to place a book in front of him and tell him to read the directions. In three months, he had exhausted all of this first grade materials.

"When I told my mother what I was doing, once again she ridiculed me. She claimed she was 'concerned about his social skills'. I assurred her that I didn't have a problem keeping him away from drugs, teenage pregnancies, bullies, school shootings, or negative people. My son was proud of me; and, when I looked at him, I was proud of myself.

"As I taught American History to him, I became more involved in the political activities of the American Media Association. My husband and I began to fight over differing political viewpoints. I found myself more and more miserable as I worried about the kind of example this was setting for my son. So, when a political acquaintence asked me to move to Houston to help build up the organization there, I filed for a divorce.

"After explaining the situation to my son, my son agreed that moving to Houston might be a good idea. Life in Houston was a bad idea, however. The man I was living with had two daughters who were not brought up as well as I would have liked. His house was unkempt, and he refused to let me clean it. Soon, he let me know I needed to leave. So, I found myself homeless, looking for a job, and with a child to care for.

"I did the only thing I could do. I apologized to my son. I told him I had made a mistake, and that I was sorry he would have to suffer the consequences with me. I took him to stay with his real father, who had not seen him since he was a year old. Justin forgave me, assuring me that there was no way I could have known what would happen when we moved. He then told me that he was thankful to finally be able to meet his real dad. When my son was safe, 300 miles away, I searched for a job and an apartment of my own.

"I called him when I finally got settled a few weeks later. His dad wanted to know how I had accomplished so much with this child genious. 'He gripes about Clinton. He nearly brakes his legs to get to the door before a lady can open it. He says yes ma'am and no sir as if it were natural. He doesn't meddle with other people's stuff. He asks questions and reads the newspaper. Can I keep him?'

"'No,' I said, 'He is my reason for living. I want him back.'

"My new boss approved of my work habits, and encouraged me to bring my son to work with me. One day, as it stormed outside, Justin found favor in my Islamic boss' eyes by declaring, 'MOM! We should pray to God so he will protect us through this storm!"

"My boss said never had he seen so great of faith as my son had. His friends, who were visiting that day, concurred. My son showed his beacon of light, and I -- once again -- told him how special he was.

"I let him stay home while I worked, after I made sure he knew how to use the phone, lock the doors, and fix his own meals. Sometimes I would come home, and he would have built great, immaculate cities out of his Lego Blocks that even Job probably wouldn't have had the patience to build. Once, he was playing a game of Hearts on the computer that I didn't even know how to play, and he was winning. When I asked how he learned that game, concerned he'd let a stranger in the house, he showed me how to find the directions on the computer. I praised him, again.

"Once, I brought home a pizza and caught him watching Jerry Springer. He commented on the weird guests of the show, who were homosexual, prompting me to explain political correctness to him, and reminding him that God's laws were not man's laws. We talked about this at length, while he ate, then he thanked me, turned off the television, and went to bed.

"He never tired of asking me questions. 'When I learn to drive, how will I find my way everywhere. I get confused when we go to the store!' I gave him exercises to do to enhance his sense of direction. I taught him to read a map. 'What about cooking?' I showed him a recipe book, and explained what diced meant. Questions never stopped, and I never tired of answering them, or telling him how special he was.

"He learned, soon, that he didn't have to ask me questions anymore. All he needed was a dictionary, encyclopedia, or the internet to find the answers he was looking for. Oh, I still qot lots of questions, but mostly just to verify what he already knew.

"One night, I took him to work with me. As he sat on the sidewalk, in front of the store, talking to a co-worker, a robber came in and forced one of my managers and me to empty our pockets and lie on the floor. At gunpoint, we did as we were told. His accompliss had a gun to my boss' head, demanding he open the safe. I noted, while lying there that they hadn't locked the doors, and I prayed to God to protect my baby boy. 'Please, O Lord, don't let him come in this store right now!'

"My son later explained that he had started to open the door to come in, saw the robber with the gun to my boss' head, thought better of it and informed the co-worker to look, who then ran to call the police. 'It was like watching a movie. I could see everything through the glass windows!'

"Luckily, no one got hurt. Later that night, I took my son home and we had a long discussion about what he was to do if anything bad ever happened to me, his mother. At seven-years-old, he took this talk very seriously, at that point. I explained long distance phone calls, explaining where I kept the numbers if he couldn't memorize them. He hung on every word, and then we prayed to God to thank Him for His protection. Then, my son hugged me and went to bed.

"Soon, my boss sold his business. I was forced to look for another job, which I found at a local chicken franchise. The management there was indifferent to the fact that I was a mother, so I began working as a co-editor of a conservative internet newspaper, while I built my own web site to help make ends meet. I resigned as president of the AMA, which fell apart after that. I barely made enough money to cover rent, phone and food. Then, at Christmas, 1999, my car was reposessed just as I was starting my own business running errands for the elderly. I had to give that up, and began learning about commission-based advertising on the internet. After all, that was how my older son's father was making a living.

"My oldest son lived about a block away from me at that time, so I was able to keep in touch with him easily, and spend time with both my sons.

"One day in April of 2000, while I was at work, the police came and kidnapped my baby boy as he was sleeping. As I entered the gates of the apartment complex, I knew my son wasn't at home. I fearfully ran up the stares to my apartment and began searching the closets looking for him; then, I went knocking on doors. Finally, I forced myself to calm down and take a deep breath. I found a small, handwritten note on a memo pad sheet on the floor, telling me who had my son, and giving me a number to call.

"I called the Houston Juvenile Delinquent Center and demanded that they tell me where my son was and what right they had to take him! I told them under no uncertain terms, 'I want him back NOW!'

"When I was finally able to catch a cab, using my last ten dollars on my card, it was 10:00 PM when I arrived at the location they held my son. The first thing the woman asked me was "How well do you get along with your mother."

"I told her my mother was a control freak, and as long as she stays in Texarkana, and lets me live my own life in Houston, we got along great. A few moments later, a juvenile counselor came to take me to a private room for questioning.

"He informed me that on the ride over, the cops kept trying to tell my baby boy that he wasn't in trouble. My son just rolled his eyes and said, 'Oh yeah? Wait until my mom finds out I didn't lock the door to keep you out!' I smiled.

"Then he told me how they put him in a room with other kids as soon as he got there. Every corner of the room had different treats for kids. One had fruits and veggies; one had crackers and bread; one had candy; and one had drinks. He said my son went straight for the veggies, noting that that was odd for a child his age. I assured him it was not odd, and that my son had not been raised on candy. Then began the questions:

"'Where does he go to school?'

"'I home-school'

"'Has he been tested?'

"'The state of Texas doesn't require me to, but he knows history, he reads at a high school level. He does simple algebra. He can recite the scientific elements. He's only seven. If you want me to, I can.

"'What do you do in your spare time?'

"'I co-edit an on-line newspaper'

"'Do you attend parties, go to bars, etc.'

"'No, I don't drink. I don't smoke pot. I do smoke cigarettes. I drink tea.'

"'There wasn't much food in the house.'

"'I bring food home from work every night. We eat chicken, corn on the cobb, beans and rice, french fries, and fried okra.'

"'We noticed chicken bones on a plate on the floor.'

"I need to clean my apartment. I do that once a week on my days off.'

"'I was just verifying what you said. Frankly, we saw no mold or bugs, so it's obvious you don't let it get to bad. You said you co-edit a newspaper. Are you media?'

"I guess you could say that. I research news for writers. I just resigned my post with the American Media Association.'

"'Excuse me.'

"He left the room, then came back and said,

"'My supervisor is pressuring me to give your son back to you.' He took me out of the room and I met my baby boy in the lobby. All I could do was stare at him. I told him I was so worried, scared he was gone for good. He apologized for not locking the door, and I let him know that was the least of my concerns at that moment.

"The counselor informed me that it was against the law, in Texas, for children to be left unattended during the day if they were under nine-years-old. If they were over seven-years-old, they could be left alone after 6:00 PM. I asked him how he could expect me to work, then, seeing I was already struggling to just pay the bills. I told him I had a neighbor who would help me.

"When we got home, I called my mother. I asked her to let me borrow money for next month's rent, while I searched for a graveyard job. My mother said no, but I could come live with her and she would send me to college. I asked her if I could have my computer, so I could continue what I was doing on the internet. She said, 'No.' I asked her about home-schooling my son. She said, 'No.' So I said,

"'In other words, I have to live under your control, like a 32-year-old child, and not be able to do anything I want to do.'

"She said, 'Yes'. I said, 'No'.

"I sat my son down and told him what had transpired between my mother and me. I told him I was stuck between a rock and a hard place and I didn't know what to do. He asked me, 'What are our options?'

"'I can do what she wants and you will be physically cared for, but I won't be able to help you become all you want to be because she won't let me; or, I can call your dad; or, the state will take you. I don't know what to do. I don't have a job, now. We're rationing food, already. I have to do something. He offered to go to his dad's. So, I called his father, and his father agreed to come get him.

"The next day, a CPS agent came to inform me that I must be lying to her. It seemed that my neighbor said she had not seen my son. I took her into his room, as he napped in his shorts, uncovered him and said, 'There he is.'

"Then she started asking me questions about work, etc. I then told her, 'It doesn't matter what I tell you at this point, because tomorrow, he will be with his father in Nocona, Texas.'

"'Can you give me some way to verify this?' she asked.

"I gave her his paternal grandmother's telephone number, and informed her that his father was already on his way.

"That night, as his dad carried all his bags out, I knelt down to look my son in the eye. I told him, again, how special he was to me. I hugged him hard, and held back the tears as I begged his forgiveness. I told him again that one day he would be great, and that he would change the world.

"'I want you to dream dreams. I want you to have opportunities that I, or your dad, never had. See things we can only imagine. Do things we can only dream of. You'll be going to public school, now, so remember what all I taught you. Don't be afraid to ask questions. And, son, never, never let anyone tell you it can never be done. You can do anything you set your mind to do. With God, all things are possible.'

"Letting him go, that day, was like cutting off my body to save my arm. It was the hardest thing I ever did in my life, and I felt as if I had failed him, somehow. I then charged his father to not let my mother have access to him. I was afraid she'd find a way to put out his light. He understood, knowing my mother, and agreed."

The artist stranger was frowning when I looked at him again. He then asked, "How is your son, now?"

I smiled through teary eyes and said, "He's doing well. He was enrolled during test weeks, the last two weeks of second grade in Nocona Elementary School. After school let out, he received a letter from the NEA (National Education Association) with a plaque for scoring in the top 5% of the nation on his test scores. Since then, he's won 3rd place in Spelling UIL State Competitions in 3rd grade, and 2nd in 4th grade. As his 5th grade school year ended, he received a President's award for scoring in Texas' top 5% in his multi-level achievement testing. His father says he scored at high school and college levels in everything.

"I called him from Michigan last month to wish him a happy birthday. He asked me, 'Mom, you said where ever I wanted to go, you'll help me get there, right?'

"'Yes!' I answered.

"'Mom, I want to be a rocket scientist. I want to go to NASA. I want to go to the moon!'

"I got on the internet and sent him as many books on NASA and space that I could afford."

The waitress brought my food. I looked up, and noticed ten other customers sitting at the bar with coffee in front of them, staring at me. I paid my ticket, then picked up my food.

The Bible says that we should always be kind to strangers, because they could be Angels in disguise. I couldn't help but think of this when the stranger handed me a pewter-cross necklace, laden with turquoise. He said, "Your children have been given a great blessing. Your children are great, regardless of what may become of them, because they have a great mother. You did well."

I fought back the tears as I clenched the cross in my hands, thanking him and excusing myself by saying I needed to get the food back to the truck while it was hot.

As I walked back to the truck, noting the moon's reflection in every truck windshield on my way, I wondered:

If I had not done what I did, and how I did it, would my older son be entertaining the idea of helping problem children and reaching for lost souls? Would my baby boy, my shining beacon of light in a dark world, be reaching for the moon?

I thanked God for giving me the greatest gift of all:


(This was originally written in 2003. My kids did not fulfill their dreams of that year. Neither of them have changed the world. However, seeing who they have become today, I am not disappointed. Most mothers would be...but my children have grown to be good men, in their own ways. I hope they know how much I still love them. They changed MY world.)