On A Dime

As my husband and I sped along the interstate, trying to keep up with the police car leading the way, I thought, This is some other family’s story, not ours. How the hell did we get here? We thought home was the one place we could relax and let our guard down. We thought wrong.

Since the day he was born, I’d been on high alert around my son, Pierce. His autism made him uncomfortable in his own skin, and with the suddenness and ferocity of a summer storm, something about his circumstances or environment could set off a DEFCON 1 meltdown. We had figured out most of his triggers and learned to prevent them as much as possible. We made an effort to avoid noisy, crowded restaurants. We would skip church on the Sundays when there wouldn’t be a staffed nursery, as this would mean the higher probability of a random, screaming baby. We shopped at off-hours, or better yet, when one of us could stay home with Pierce.

Given the choice of fight or flight, Pierce opted to put as much distance between himself and a stressful situation as possible. At school, he was a known flight risk. If there was a schedule change, like an assembly or fire drill, or he was forced to leave a task uncompleted, teachers and aides tried to anticipate and prepare for Pierce’s distress. He’d been known to bolt out of classrooms and make a break for the main entrance. In public, if the environment became a sensory overload for him, he’d attempt a mad dash for the nearest exit. When we sat in a booth at a restaurant, his younger sister, Reagan, knew to sit on the outside, to help keep her brother pinned between her and the wall. Both his father and I had chased Pierce down on numerous occasions in stores, restaurants, and movie theaters. That deep-seated need to escape from danger filled Pierce with adrenaline, making him ten times stronger than normal. With his super strength and height advantage, I was no match for him. If Pierce wanted out, there was little I could do to stop him.

At home, Pierce was in a familiar environment and less likely to stress out. But even when things were calm, Pierce was prone to wander. When he was young, we took extra precautions. We had an extra lock installed on the inside of our front door at the top of the door jamb, too high for him to reach. We heard him awake at all hours of the night and worried he may decide to go on an adventure while we were asleep. When he was about four years old, we flipped his doorknob around so we could lock him in his bedroom at night. This was an act that horrified our fellow parents, but when weighing our risks of a possible missing child against the risks of a child trapped in a house fire, we felt we’d made the right decision. By the time Pierce was eight, we felt comfortable leaving his door unlocked at night, and he never gave us a reason to lock him back in again. As he approached his teens, Pierce had begun to mellow out ever so slightly. His meltdowns were less frequent, and his curiosity about the world beyond our doors had lessened. He seemed content to be a homebody. We hoped that our days of hypervigilance were coming to an end.

When he was ten and his sister was seven, I began to let them play outside unchaperoned with strict instructions not to go down the driveway or leave our yard. Reagan was my little rule-follower, so I was confident I could trust her. If Pierce had a meltdown, she knew to come and get me immediately. He didn’t spend much time outdoors, though. Pierce was an indoor-guy, content to play games or watch videos on the computer. With the exception of riding his bike around the house, Pierce didn’t know how to keep himself entertained outside.

It was a beautiful fall day. Reagan was out on a playdate, and our twelve-year-old son was making laps around the house on his bike while I did some yard work. We didn’t live in a neighborhood, and our street was too windy and dangerous for a bike ride. The kids had to be content with riding around the house or our four-acre property. That afternoon, Pierce seemed to have not a care in the world, though he had asked me a few times, “Where’s Reagan?” I told him she was at a friend’s house and would be home later. I could tell he was bothered by her absence, but he didn’t appear to be upset. It was almost time to retrieve Reagan, but I needed a shower first. I let Pierce know I would be inside for a few minutes and assumed he would be just fine. He’d never even attempted to leave our driveway on his bike. Besides, his father was in the living room watching football. Tim would be able to see Pierce every time he rode past the huge living room window.

I lose all track of time when I’m in the shower. The hot water and the solitude I crave are a cocoon from which it’s difficult to emerge. I was inside the house for about twenty minutes. When it was time for me to leave and pick up Reagan, I still expected to find Pierce in the yard right where I’d left him. He wasn’t there. He’d be riding back around the house at any second, I thought. I was impatient waiting for him to reappear, so I did a quick search of our property. There was no trace of Pierce…or his bicycle. I swallowed down a rising panic while running back to the house to tell Tim that our son wasn’t outside. Ever the calm and level-headed one, he assured me Pierce was fine. He’d keep looking while I left to pick up our daughter. I kept my cellphone close by, waiting for my husband’s call that would tell me Pierce was safe and sound.

At the home of our daughter’s playmate, I was chatting with the girl’s mother when my cellphone finally rang. I exhaled, realizing I had been holding my breath since I’d left the house. When I heard the panic in Tim’s voice, the blood in my veins turned to ice water. He’d driven around the vicinity, and Pierce was nowhere to be found. I don’t remember the drive back to our house or how I managed to obey all of the traffic laws. Tim pulled into our driveway just after I did. I still held out hope that our son would be in the back seat of his car, but my husband was alone. We both knew what we had to do next; it was time to call 911 and report our child missing. I made the call while my husband left in his car to resume the search.

I told the 911 operator Pierce was twelve and autistic. She asked what color shirt he was wearing. I could clearly see the orange shirt he’d chosen to put on that morning just a few hours earlier, at the start of another lazy Saturday. When the operator asked what color pants Pierce was wearing, my mind blanked and I croaked out, "I don't know!” I was his mom; how could I not remember what my child was wearing that day? I pictured the operator, jotting down notes about what a careless and irresponsible mother I was. I couldn’t believe this was happening, that I’d allowed it to happen. The operator stayed on the line with me until the police showed up about ten minutes after I’d placed the call. By that time, it had been one hour since I’d last seen our son.

One of the officers asked me for a description of Pierce. It was my nine-year-old daughter who had the presence of mind to run into the house and grab Pierce’s student ID that was hanging by our front door and bring it to the officer. She was the only reason I wasn’t a complete mess. The more I cried, the more worried Reagan became. No matter how distracted I was, there was another child who needed me. If I freaked out, she would crumble. Fortunately, the mom from Reagan’s earlier playdate called to check on us and offered to take Reagan back to her house. Now I could give the search for Pierce my full attention.

Another officer searched our four-acre property, much of which was wooded, providing some seclusion from I-65, the busy interstate we could see (and hear) in winter when the trees lost their leaves. This property was my husband’s dream, and I thought he was a little crazy. We lived in a perfectly nice starter home with a three-month-old baby when Tim took a different route home from work one day and stumbled on this property with a FOR SALE sign in the yard. To Tim, it looked like prime real estate in the Nashville area, with lots of land for our children to roam and play. To me, the old house and decrepit out-buildings cloaked in shadow looked like the lair of a serial killer. He was excited about the possibilities of this fifty-year-old fixer-upper, so I humored him. It took nine months of renovations after Tim’s day job and on weekends just to make the house livable for the three of us, but the house was a work in progress for another thirteen years.

The woods and storage buildings provided plenty of places for the kids to hide. But my gut told me Pierce wasn’t anywhere close to the house. I remembered my mother-in-law telling me about a couple of times Tim went missing. Once, when he was about three years old, he was found sleeping in a pile of warm laundry. Another time, a school friend convinced Tim to stop at his house on the walk home from school and hang out until it got dark so they could watch the Christmas lights come on. Tim’s mother called the cops that time. He was seven years old. These were funny family stories. Maybe Pierce would turn up squatting over a bug in one of those old storage buildings, oblivious to the world around him, and we’d all be able to laugh about this someday.

I could hear information being passed along over the police radio. Part of my brain couldn’t process what I was hearing: The police were talking about my missing son. I felt simultaneously in the moment while watching my life play out on some primetime television cop drama. I called our families, who were all too far away to do anything other than pray. My sister was frantic and put out an urgent prayer request on Facebook. It was killing my mother not to be here; I was sure she believed she could conduct this search better than we could and that she wouldn’t have left Pierce outside alone. My best friends drove over with their husbands to join in the search. More police showed up as the minutes ticked away.

Tim came back to the house to check in briefly, so we were both at home when the police sergeant called me over away from most of the activity. Was it bad news? My mind raced to conclusions while my body was filled with such dread I could barely move my feet. He locked eyes with me and said, "This is what you've got to do. We’ve found your son. He's on the interstate." Before I could react, he said, "There's no time to freak out! The police are trying to get traffic stopped, but he's scared and frantic, and we need you out there now to calm him down. Get in your car NOW and follow the officer out there." I ran inside the house and yelled for my husband, then rattled off a frantic update to our friends. I was in no shape to drive, so I threw Tim the keys. We jumped in the car and sped off. It was 6:30 p.m. Our son had been missing for almost an hour and forty-five minutes.

I often wonder why that officer couldn't just let us hitch a ride with him instead of asking us to follow him. How could they trust us to keep control of our emotions (and the car) and arrive at the scene in one piece? Maybe they were thinking ahead and knew they wouldn’t be able to get Pierce into a police car to transport us all back to the house. I could feel the bile crawling up my throat, and I dry-heaved a few times as we drove further north on the interstate. How in the world had he gotten this far away from home? He’d only learned how to ride a bike two years prior at the age of ten, while his seven-year-old sister did her best to coach him along. It was a three-speed bike, but he only rode it in first gear. We just wanted him to focus on staying upright; there was no reason to throw in the complication of how and when to change gears. His long skinny legs must be worn out, pumping so hard to make slow and steady progress with every mile.

As we topped the next hill, we saw a police barricade ahead and a TDOT truck redirecting traffic off of the interstate and down an exit ramp. I could see the bike propped up against the concrete barrier that divided the northbound and southbound lanes. The car had barely stopped moving before I jumped out and ran to the scene, terrified of what I’d find when I got there. Pierce was crying in the backseat of a police car. I squatted down beside him and tried to comfort him. Pierce was dirty and sweaty, his knees were scraped, and there were indentations around his wrists where I could tell he had been restrained.

An officer told us he was driving northbound on I-65 when he spotted our son driving his bike against traffic in the emergency lane beside the concrete barrier that separated the northbound and southbound lanes. That means Pierce had already crossed four lanes of 70 MPH traffic to ride down the middle of the thruway. The officer stopped to talk to him, and our son panicked. He drove his bike back across the road to the emergency lane on the other side of the four-lane interstate. When the officer jumped out of his car and ran towards Pierce, again, he cycled back across the interstate. The cop tackled him, bike and all. I couldn’t listen to any more; my knees buckled and I sat stunned on the smoldering asphalt.

In case you missed all of that, let me break it down for you. Pierce drove from one side of a four-lane interstate to the other side of that same four-lane interstate three different times. Pierce and the officer who found him both managed to walk away from this ordeal with only a few scratches, which is nothing short of a miracle.

After a few minutes, the police decided our son was calm enough to walk over to our car. They had a few more questions for us, then we loaded up Pierce’s bike and we were free to go. It was a quiet ride. We were all too exhausted to say anything. Our friends were waiting in the driveway. They enveloped us in a giant group hug, which would normally be unwelcome due to my personal space issues, but I was too tired and emotional to protest. They stayed for a few minutes more to get the official details of Pierce’s dramatic rescue and to say a prayer over us. Pierce devoured a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and did not protest when I pointed him to the shower and then his bed.

Our son was missing for nearly 110 minutes. He was found five miles away from our home. What we would learn a few months later from the resource officer at Pierce’s school, who heard this drama play out over his police scanner, was that drivers on I-65N saw Pierce riding his bike against traffic in the emergency lane. A few of them called 911, and it was their calls that sent officers to his location. The interstate was shut down because Pierce was so unpredictable and fighting to get away from the officer. The police thought there was real danger in Pierce breaking free and being hit by a car as he tried to run away. While Pierce’s discovery on a busy interstate was terrifying, Tim was able to find the silver lining in this ordeal. Because our son was out in the open, we were able to find him somewhat quickly. If Pierce had been lost in a residential area, no one would’ve thought twice about a twelve-year-old riding his bike through the neighborhood. There would’ve been no 911 calls from drivers leading us in the right direction. We found Pierce just as the sun was setting. Another thirty minutes later, and we would’ve have been searching in the dark.

That fall day was a watershed moment that changed our family’s trajectory. We could no longer be complacent about Pierce’s “mild” autism, the designation of his place on the autism spectrum, according to the psychologist who diagnosed him at the age of five. A few days later, we made changes to our son’s Individualized Education Plan. Along with this recent revelation of his alarming oblivion to the dangers of the world, we’d experienced a few years of declining test scores. All of this indicated it was time to switch Pierce from an academic focus to a full-time life-skills program.

I wish I could tell you that Pierce never wandered away again, but about a month after “the incident,” Pierce ran out of a church classroom without warning. He got out of the building before his teacher or classmates could figure out which way he had run. He made it across the street to a Chic-fil-A parking lot, where a church member we barely knew recognized Pierce and coaxed him into her car with toys and candy. We tried a GPS tracker, but we couldn’t keep Pierce from removing it when it annoyed him. After seven years of avoiding discussions about mood-altering medication, we were desperate for anything that would keep our son safe. We were referred to a psychiatrist and Pierce was given a prescription for anti-anxiety medication.

Five years ago, one of my son’s preschool teachers, by then an elderly woman, asked if Pierce had ever “outgrown that autism of his.” Though offended, I gave a simple reply of “no,” deciding to regard her comment as a bless-your-ignorant-old-heart moment. But hadn’t some part of me hoped all those years ago that my son would “grow out of it,” and life would get a little easier once he reached adolescence? I’d read book after book authored by parents of autistic children who had grown into self-sufficient adults with barely a trace of the autism that had made their childhoods such a struggle. I had dared to believe this could be our story as well. With that one terrifying event, our life turned on a dime, and another small piece of hope died within me. I saw a future far different from the ones I’d read about.

What prompted our son to leave that day? How did he get from our house to the interstate? Was he riding around aimlessly, or did he have a destination in mind? Only one person held the answers to these questions, and he was incapable of communicating them to us. Pierce’s response to any question about his bike odyssey was, “I don’t know.” Sometimes I wonder if he was more upset and worried about Reagan being gone that day than I realized, and this triggered him to take off on a mission to find her and bring her home. And maybe after he’d wandered too far away, he found the interstate and knew it was a way to get back home because we had driven that route so many times before. I held on to these theories because I wanted to believe that if Pierce wandered away again, he would fight like hell to make it back to us. Believing he’d been thinking just a little bit rationally that day would confirm he was so much smarter than we sometimes thought. The possibility that this could be Pierce’s actual thought process was something I could work with. New challenges lay ahead, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for them. But I would find a way around this roadblock, just as I had with all the other obstacles in our path. Because I am a mother, and that’s just what we do.

About the Author

Melissa McKay

Melissa McKay is an aspiring writer, living in the greater Nashville area. She writes about her life experiences, especially aspects of parenting an adult with autism, struggles with depression, and her personal faith journey. She hopes to publish her personal essays in a memoir. Two of her essays have been published: This Was Not In The Brochure published by both Anti Heroin Chic (November 2019) and Down in the Dirt (Spring 2020), and Rising Death Toll published by Borrowed Solace (Spring 2020).

Read more work by Melissa McKay.