My first memory of life is being kidnapped.
It’s Aug. 5, 1971, and I am 6. I don’t remember how the day started or how I found myself in the backseat of this car, sitting next to my sister Cindy, who is almost 9. But I know I don’t want to be here.
Behind the steering wheel is my mother, Charlotte, looking like a blonde beauty queen. She had abandoned our family six months earlier to live in Tampa with her friend Mary Ellen. Beside Charlotte in the front passenger seat is her small, browbeaten mother, Gan.
“Let us go home and pack something,” I plead. “Or we can do this another time. Just take us back home and we’ll figure it out from there.”
Those may not have been my exact words, but that is the case I’m making for why Cindy and I should not be kidnapped.
“Oh no, Bill. We are going to the airport and we are going to Tampa. Today. Now,” says Charlotte.
After Charlotte left us, my dad, Cindy and I moved in with my grandparents, Nana and Pop. I would later learn that Charlotte had gotten permission to spend the day with us at Lenox Mall to buy some presents for Cindy’s upcoming birthday. But it was a ruse.
This is not an ugly custody squabble playing out. It is not a case of a good mother who would go to any extreme to be with her kids, even if it meant skirting the law. On some level I know that the backseat of this car traveling down the highway is ground zero in a battle of good versus evil. This is more akin to abduction by a stranger. I recognize this woman as my mom, but I don’t really know her or what she is capable of, and I don’t have a single memory of her ever acting motherly.
So while I probably don’t even know what kidnapping means, I know with as much certainty as a 6-year-old boy can have that I am in trouble. There is no way Nana and Pop, or especially Dad, would be OK with this. And neither am I.
With every passing mile, we’re getting so far away that I’m not sure how I’ll ever find my way back. Mommy is taking us headfirst into a lifetime of fear with the windows rolled down.
I start to cry, and Cindy tries to comfort me.
“It’s gonna be fine, Bill,” she says, talking loud enough for Charlotte to hear. “We’ll get on an airplane, go to Florida and be home before the weekend is over.”
Then, quieter, almost whispering for only me to hear, she says, “We’ll be OK. It’s our mom. We’ll be OK.”
When we arrive in Tampa, Gan calls Nana.
I didn’t hear the call, but I’ve been told it was short and to the point: Era, Charlotte has taken the kids to Tampa. They belong with their mother.
Nana holds it together and calls the hotel where Dad is staying in Greensboro, N.C., on a business trip.
Billy, Charlotte has kidnapped the kids, she says. They’re headed to Tampa.
Heartbroken and scared, Dad drives to Charlotte, N.C., and catches a flight to Tampa. Meanwhile, Nana and Pop leave their Atlanta home and make the nine-hour drive to Tampa.
Our jail cell in Tampa is a bedroom with two twin beds. Our first night there, Cindy and I are awake at midnight, watching “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson on a small black-and-white TV. Six-year-olds don’t really understand “The Tonight Show,” but it’s what’s on, and it’s providing some background noise and much-needed distraction. I’m sleepy but afraid to go to sleep.
“Isn’t it cool that we get to stay up so far past our bedtime?” Cindy asks. “We’re watching Johnny Carson. We never get to watch Johnny Carson. We’re going to be OK, you know. I promise.”
Cindy is as worried about our situation as I am, but she’s taken on the role of my protector, so she tries to put a positive spin on our captivity.
The events of the next few days have slipped from my memory. The next thing I remember, it’s Sunday morning and my mother has taken me to church, of all places. Cindy wakes up not feeling well and is left home with Mary Ellen, an older woman, disheveled in appearance who speaks with a gruff voice and smokes constantly. She terrifies us.
It has been raining this morning, as we walk into Hyde Park United Methodist Church. I don’t remember what happens inside that sanctuary, but when we leave I notice the dark clouds that escorted us in that morning have broken and the sun is now shining.
I get into the front passenger seat and roll down the window.
I never see him coming.
Just as Charlotte starts to drive away, a pair of arms reaches through the open window, grabs me and yanks me out of the car.
Bystanders react instantly, assuming they are witnessing a kidnapping, not a rescue. Women start to scream and use their umbrellas to beat my savior, Pop, upside his head.
“Someone call the police!”
“Stop that man!”
I see my grandfather’s large, green Chrysler — the first familiar sight I have seen in the last 72 hours — parked to the side, engine running and the nose pointed toward the parking lot exit.
Moments later I am shoved through the door and onto the floorboard, under Nana’s feet. Pop hits the gas hard and doesn’t look back. As harrowing as the event seems, I feel relief for the first time in three days. I am going home.
“Stay down,” Pop tells me. “Don’t let anyone see you. The police will be looking for us.”
Fearful authorities will find us at the Tampa airport, Pop drives us to Orlando where we catch a plane to Atlanta.
That night, I go to sleep on a day bed in Nana and Pop’s living room because it’s closer to their room than my bedroom was. I am home, 500 miles from Charlotte, Mary Ellen and Tampa. I am safe.
But what about Cindy?
Family made whole
If only Cindy had gone to church with us that day, things might have turned out differently. Instead, 18 months would pass before she returned to our family.
After I was recovered from Charlotte’s car that day, Dad tried to find Cindy and bring her home, too. But the private investigator he hired urged Dad to get out of Tampa before he got arrested and to let the courts handle Cindy’s recovery. Reluctantly, that’s what he did.
When we got back to Atlanta, an arrest warrant on kidnapping charges was awaiting my grandparents. Fulton County Sheriff Leroy Stynchcombe called Pop to break the news. The two were friends from church and the Masonic Lodge. Pop turned himself in and was released on his own recognizance without having to post bail. Stynchcombe advised Pop that if he kept his head down, the charges would probably go away.
Charlotte later filed a lawsuit claiming my dad and grandparents had unlawful custody of me. Dad was ordered to “produce the body of William Arthur Sander, Jr.” to court where I would be “disposed of as the law directs.”
On Feb. 2, 1973, the courts decided our fate. My father was given full custody of me and Cindy, who saw and heard things in Tampa that no child her age should have witnessed.
My first memory of Cindy being back home was eating together at The Varsity. Cindy poured some pepper into her hands and asked me to sniff it. Trustingly, I did and boy did it sting. It seemed mean to me at the moment. It doesn’t now. It seems like a typical prank between siblings, the kind of thing we’d missed out on for 18 months.
Although Cindy was back, nothing felt normal or safe for a long while.
Now that our family was back together, Dad could turn his attention back to his job as a salesman for a steel company. He began traveling again, routinely staying gone Sunday through Friday. Even though I felt at home at Nana and Pop’s house, it broke my heart every time Dad kissed me goodbye and said, “See you Friday night, Sport.”
Pretty soon I learned not to cry when he left.
By the time I was 10 or 11, I didn’t feel much anymore when Dad left for the week. Is that how time heals wounds, I wondered? By covering my heart up to keep it from being broken again?
Cindy and I occasionally talked about what happened to us, but not often. And we never discussed it with my dad or grandparents. People didn’t send their children to counselors back then, especially in the South. Cindy and I were expected to just carry on as though nothing had happened.
Eventually Dad’s job moved us to Birmingham, and then, less than a year later, to Orlando.
Isn’t that kind of close to Tampa? I thought.
Just the word “Tampa” scared me. For years, I would get chills when it came up in conversation.
Time was healing nothing.
In middle school and high school, my fears and insecurities made me easy prey for bullies. I was scared much of the time, but I rarely knew why.
One day I was shooting baskets in the driveway. It was Mother’s Day, 1980. I was 15. A car stopped in front of the house and Charlotte got out.
“I wanted you to see what your real mother looked like,” she said before getting back in and driving off.
I froze, sick to my stomach, not knowing whether to run inside or stand there like a mannequin.
I felt like it was her way of saying, I grabbed you once; I can grab you again.
By the time I thought about doing something, she was gone.
A couple of weeks later, I spotted Charlotte in the crowd outside of Cindy’s high school graduation.
It was the last time I saw her. I found out last year that she died of lung cancer in 2004.
After high school I went to the University of Georgia, graduating with a degree in journalism. I began reporting and writing for daily newspapers. I fell in love, got married and in 1993, my wife Jane and I had our first child, a little girl we named Rachel. By then, I was convinced that my childhood had no impact on the man I had become.
I could not have been more wrong.
My little Rachel
When Rachel turned 2, she began to periodically wake up shortly after midnight, screaming uncontrollably, her body rigid, her little soul inconsolable. The first time it happened, we had her in the car on the way to the emergency room when she suddenly stopped crying and seemed fine. We were not the first parents to get this kind of baptism into the world of night terrors. Still, to us, it was uncharted waters. And it was scary.
Little did we know her night terrors were just a precursor, a nasty appetizer to the grotesque main course.
Rachel had her first panic attack on the school bus one afternoon in the fall of seventh grade. She felt trapped and began hyperventilating, something she’d never heard of, much less experienced. The rapid breathing made her arms and legs begin to tingle, then they felt like they were being stuck by a million little pins. Finally they went numb altogether. Her heartbeat raced; she got dizzy. She was convinced she was about to die.
The driver stopped the bus, got Rachel out and laid her on the sidewalk while a bus full of children watched. Her friend, Caroline, comforted her and called her father to come get them. He called Jane and we both rushed home from work. Of course the panic attack had passed by then, but its memory would haunt Rachel.
Her next panic attack was only a few days later, in school. The symptoms were the same — loss of control, a feeling of constriction, out-of-control breathing, racing heartbeats — a sense that she was about to pass out or die.
By the time I got to school to pick her up, she looked gaunt, frail and vacant. Physically, she looked nothing like she had two weeks ago. I’m sure she hadn’t lost weight, and I guess she was always a little on the pale side. But what I saw that afternoon, and would see hundreds of times more over the next few years, was the lifeless, hopeless look of a dying kid, a skeleton of a life.
Rachel stopped sleeping over at friends’ houses. She became frightened at night and insisted Jane and I stay awake until she fell sleep, no matter how long that took. She wanted our bedroom door to remain open, so she could see the lights on in our room. Of course, all that made sense to me. I’d lived with those same fears as a child. As her anxiety progressed, though, she would insist I lie on the floor at the foot of her bed until she fell asleep every night. And I did.
This was her normal. If she didn’t have full-fledged panic attacks every day, she didn’t have a single day that any kid would call good.
We took her to child psychiatrists and counselors. When the counseling yielded no results, they began to introduce medicines they felt certain would do the trick.
They were wrong. But we had to do something. Parents, dads particularly, want to be able to fix things. I needed to fix Rachel.
Jane and I had to arrange our work schedules so somebody was always home. We’d drive her to school, pray with her and watch her get all the way into the school before we’d drive off.
Almost without fail, within an hour or two, she would call from the clinic’s office, needing us to come pick her up.
On my days at home, I’d try to get a little work done, but really what I was doing was waiting for the phone to ring. I’d shower with the phone on the other side of the shower glass so I could not only hear it ring, but I could see who was calling.
Every morning was the same. “Please God, let today be the day the phone doesn’t ring. Please let her be able to...”
And the phone would ring.
“Hey,” Rachel would say, in a frail voice I’ve never heard except on those calls.
“I have anxiety.”
“You know I’m only 10 minutes away. Do you think you can take your medicine and stay in the clinic for a few minutes, then go back to class?”
“Call me if you can’t. I’ll come get you.”
Twenty minutes later, maybe an hour, she’d call back, and I’d go pick her up, having shed another little piece of hope.
At night, I would lie in bed and pray for the umpteenth time for God to show up and be the God I expected him to be.
I’d spent 30 years following God and trusting my life to him. I know God isn’t a genie there to grant my wishes, and I know that suffering is part of life. But this was my little girl. She was depending on me to fix her. And I was depending on God. From the best I could tell, we were both failing.
One night I laid in bed wrestling with what my next prayer would be. I’d tried them all, over and over. I hadn’t lost faith in God, but I was bled dry of the kind of faith that once had me convinced my prayers mattered to God.
In near defeat, I said: “Heal Rachel; don’t heal Rachel, I don’t care. You decide.”
Of course I cared. But out of an exhausted frustration, those three words — “I don’t care” — were part of my short, angry prayer.
Finally one night, after I had begged, fasted, cried and enlisted the best prayer warriors I knew, God showed up. But it was in a way that made no sense to me, at least not at first. He didn’t put his hand on Rachel and take away the life-sucking anxieties that ruled her life. Instead, he showed up to give me a new name, and to take me on a 40-year journey back in time to show me why.
I was lying on Rachel’s floor at the foot of her bed. I thought she was finally asleep so I tried to tiptoe out of her room, but she woke up, startled by the sound of a creaky floor. I’m not sure she ever really slept. I think she only tinkered on the edge of consciousness, always on guard, for what I’m not sure.
“I’m here,” I told her. “I’ll stay until you are asleep.”
“And then some?”
“Yes, and then some.”
Her restless legs rattled beneath the sheets, and I did the only thing there is to do when lying silently on a little girl’s floor. I prayed.
“Please God, let this be the night. Give her rest. Give me rest.”
That’s when I heard the words in my heart: You are the Great Stayer.
The great what? What does that even mean? How’s that any help for Rachel? You show up and all we get is a new name, and kind of a lame one at that. Do you not see what is going on here, that Rachel’s legs are kicking, her mind racing and I’m laying on her floor for the millionth night in a row?
Then I pondered the words: great stayer.
One of Rachel’s therapists once told me that many fathers flee, either emotionally or physically, from children with problems like Rachel’s. She asked me why I stayed. I didn’t have an answer. Then she asked me about my childhood. I told her it was fairly average, nothing really extraordinary, except, well ... there was that time I was kidnapped.
Slowly I began to sense the meaning of God’s words.
For the first time, I saw from 10,000 feet a panoramic view of my life. I was reminded of my own tremendous hurt as a child, the times I was abandoned. And I saw myself lying on Rachel’s floor, willing beyond all reason to stay as long as she needed me there. I began to understand that what I went through as a child helped create the father Rachel would desperately need. Nothing that happened when I was 6 was wasted. God didn’t orchestrate it; I’m convinced he doesn’t work that way. But he made something good come from something very bad, just like his word promises.
Healing and hope
When Rachel was 15, she finally began to turn the corner. We found a psychiatrist in Nashville, Dr. Robert Hunt, whose methods were similar to that of the renowned California brain expert, Dr. Daniel Amen, whom we’d been reading about.
After Rachel’s first meeting with Dr. Hunt, we spent the night at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel. The hotel has a huge glass atrium filled with tropical foliage, waterfalls, trails and trees. To us, it felt like a therapeutic refuge, a sanctuary and hint of what Eden must have been like. The beauty and tranquility transfixed Rachel. And that transfixed us.
We left Nashville the next day a different family.
We made two or three trips a year to see Dr. Hunt for a few years. Each time, we stayed at the Gaylord, and each time we found peace and rest and hope to fuel us for another several months. There is no other family traveling experience that came close to the Gaylord for us. We are a bad traveling family. We all like our space, and Rachel and her little sister Laura tend to fight, as siblings do. But not at the Gaylord.
By some standards, Rachel would be a complete mess for years to come. In our eyes, she was on the way to being healed.
After high school, Rachel attended college locally for a couple years. Then two years ago, she went away for school — and not just away, but six hours away.
“Rachel went away for school.” Wow. For at least a decade, I never imagined I’d be able to write such a sentence.
For 19 years, so much of my identity and my well being had been consumed by Rachel’s well being. It was a co-dependency spawned from immense love and a desire to protect her from anything that looked at all like leaving.
Laura, my youngest daughter, is now fighting some anxiety demons of her own.
I imagine on some level she wonders why all her life I poured out so much of myself on Rachel. Laura and I didn’t share the 11 years on the softball fields like I did coaching Rachel’s team. Until recently, I don’t remember once having to lie on Laura’s floor at night so she could attempt to go to sleep. She didn’t call home from school every day with a whimper.
She demanded less of me, and thus she got less of me. Not less of my heart, but less of my attention and energy. But maybe attention and energy do equal heart, at least to a teenage daughter. So maybe she did get less of my heart. I can’t get those years back. I’ll have to rely on love to cover the multitude of my sins and ask for grace and mercy from Laura.
There is so much to love about Laura, and so much that deserves attention.
I’m not the first dad who had to spend more energy on one child than the other. Parents of addicts know what I mean. Parents of terminally ill children know, too.
How these years ultimately shape Rachel’s and Laura’s lives won’t be known in full for years, perhaps not until they are faced with being stayers in the lives of their own children. And that’s a legacy I can live with.
I know what it means to have a parent who leaves. More importantly, I know what it means to be a parent who stays. The pain of being left pales in comparison to the riches of being a stayer.
HOW WE GOT THE STORY
William Sanders is an award-winning journalist and former AJC sports writer who’s written a memoir titled “Staying,” a harrowing but hopeful story of fear, faith and perseverance that touches four generations of his family. To learn more, go to www.william-sanders.com.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys Editor
About the reporter
William Sanders spent 20 years as an award-winning writer for daily newspapers, including 12 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he covered sports and wrote feature stories. Sanders grew up in metro Atlanta and graduated from Walton High School and the University of Georgia. He’s married and has two college-age daughters. “Staying: A Multi-Generational Memoir of Rescue and Restoration” is Sanders’ first book. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the photographer
Freelance photographer Phil Skinner was a photojournalist at the AJC for 16 years, working on a variety of stories, including the Masters, Olympics, Atlanta Braves, presidential campaigns, hurricanes and all kinds of human interest stories.