DREAMS DEFERRED 2000ANGELA JO MOTZ LEFT HER BABY IN A CARDBOARD BOX TWO DAYS AFTER HE WAS BORN.AND FROM HER SAGA, THERE ARE LESSONS PARENTS AND CHILDREN CAN LEARN

Let’s start with the act that got her in trouble, then we can deal with what made her do it. It was just after 7 a.m., and she had been driving aimlessly for hours. At one point, she had parked outside her high school, where she was due to graduate in a few weeks. She sat there in the dark. She was 18. Next to her, wrapped in towels, was the newborn baby nobody knew about. He was two days old.

What am I going to do? The sun was up now, and her father was due home from his night shift at the GM plant — her father, whose disappointment she so feared, she couldn’t even tell him the worst thing that had ever happened to her.

What am I going to do? She drove through town and finally entered Holmes Car Wash. It looked deserted. She got out, took her baby and placed him gently inside a cardboard box. She left the box near a post. Then she drove across the street.

From there, she watched. She cried. She prayed. Maybe in her mind she saw a childless couple drive up, find the baby, whisk him away to a good, happy life. But no one came. Time kept moving. Her thoughts kept racing. Her body, two days post-childbirth, was a mess of hormones and fatigue, her brain was dizzy, she hadn’t seen a doctor or a nurse, she hadn’t seen anyone, she was late, confused — what am I going to do? — and in that one awful moment, she committed her crime.

She drove away.

You may find that unforgivable. But this is not about forgiveness. This is about what’s going on under our noses, in our own homes, how we lose touch with our teenagers, how they look like children, but are living — and suffering consequences — like adults.

Angela Jo Motz, you might figure, is one of those sulking teens who had nothing going for her, she’s probably poor, uneducated, no guidance, no values, she carelessly got pregnant, and just as carelessly abandoned her baby.

You would be wrong.

“I think people see me as someone who did something so terrible there’s no excusing it,” she says now. “But that’s not the whole story . . .”

Angela Motz is a stocky young woman with brown eyes and sandy, shoulder-length hair. She is smart, strong and intensely motivated, a borderline type-A achiever. She sits in the bedroom of her Lansing home, surrounded by awards for sports and academics.

This room, full of wicker furniture, is where Angela grew up, talented enough to start on the varsity volleyball team and hit .300 in softball at Everett High School.

This is where she did her homework, well enough to earn a straight-A grade-point average and a top-three rank in her class.

This is where her childhood teddy bear, Bob, still sits on her bed.

And this is where her baby was born.

The baby Angela says she didn’t know she was carrying.

Delivering the baby

“I didn’t really gain weight, I was wearing the same clothes as before. I wasn’t eating any more food. And I didn’t feel sick. I had missed my periods before, sometimes three or four in a row,” she says, “so that didn’t really concern me.

“It was my senior year. I was busy playing volleyball and softball. I was in the band, doing homework.

“Did I ever think I was pregnant? I guess sometimes. I’d had sex before. Most of the time we used protection. But maybe this one time . . .

“Anyhow, even if I was pregnant, I thought, I couldn’t be very far along, right?”

Wrong. The baby came on Saturday night of Memorial Day weekend. Not that anyone foresaw it. That morning, Angela played clarinet with her high school marching band. Later, she and a friend went to a shopping mall. When she got home, her father asked her to bake a cake for a picnic. After that, she visited her grandmother — a nurse — who hemmed her prom dress.

If this doesn’t sound like a prelude to childbirth, well, that’s the point.

“My stomach hurt that night,” Angela admits, “but I thought it was just the food we ate at the mall. I went home. My dad was out. I kept having to lie down….

“The pain got worse. After that, everything is kind of a blur. They tell me now I might never remember, that I blocked it out because of the shock. All I know is at some point I went into the bathroom and I got in the bathtub. And the baby …came out, I guess….

“My older sisters have kids, so maybe I knew enough to cut the cord . . .

“All I really remember is waking up Sunday morning, around 10 a.m., with my baby sleeping next to me …and I was in total shock…. I was so afraid…. I couldn’t tell my father. I mean, this isn’t something you just say to Dad after he comes home from church….”

So Angela, whose mother moved across the country a few years ago and whose siblings were all gone from the house, stayed hidden in her room. The baby did not cry. When her father came home, he yelled, “You up there?” and she yelled back, “Yeah!”

Maybe you’re saying, “Come on, how could he not know?” Well. How many times have you yelled up to your teenagers’ rooms and they grunted back and on you went?

Angela cleaned the infant. She breast-fed him as best she could (this, too, she based on memories of her older sisters). On Monday, Memorial Day, her father was gone to another picnic. She cried some more, prayed some more, slept some more. Then she surrounded the infant with pillows, put some soft music on her CD player, and went to softball practice. Softball practice?

“I didn’t want anyone to suspect anything,” she says.

Even Everett’s softball coach, Jeff Cheadle, admits he saw no signs that she had just given birth. “Angela fielded ground balls,” he recalls. “She did drills. I even made them take a lap and she ran it right along with the others.”

What about the baby’s father, you ask? He was a guy Angela had dated for a while. He was older. He was away. She didn’t tell him. She didn’t tell anyone. She couldn’t, she says. She was too worried about disappointing people. That’s the flip side of achievement. Sometimes kids do bad things because they can’t fathom not being good.

For two days and two nights — the length of her parenthood — it was Angela and the baby, alone.

“Did I love my child?” she says now. “I feel like I did. But you know, most parents, they have a long time to make the connection. They say, ‘I’m gonna have a baby’ and they can build up to it. With me, it just sort of happened….”

She pauses.

“There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about him . . .”

Finding the baby

One million teenagers get pregnant each year in the United States. And each year, around 100 infants are abandoned at birth. About a third of those die. In most cases, the mothers feel alone. In some cases, they truly are.

A few hours after leaving her baby, Angela drove back to the car wash during lunch. The box was gone. Her heart was pounding. The radio said nothing. At school, she listened again. Still nothing. Finally, just before her softball game, she ran to her truck, dressed in her uniform, and turned the AM dial. Then she heard it: A baby had been found at 7:20 a.m. — just minutes after she’d driven off.

Somehow, she walked back to the field and took her spot at first base. She batted. She fielded. Everett won the game. But there was a new game for Angela now: waiting to be caught.

It didn’t take long. By Wednesday, plainclothes police were at her school. Apparently, while Angela was in denial about her pregnancy, others — including some teachers — had wondered.

When the officers first questioned her, Angela feigned ignorance. But they kept saying everything would be all right. “He’s a beautiful, healthy baby,” they said. “He has 10 fingers and 10 toes….”

Something about that sentence snapped her. She began to cry. She told them everything.

And from that point, Angela Motz’s life unfolded like parallel lines from different universes: She went to her prom, she went to graduation, she got her diploma. She also went to court, surrendered to authorities, was booked, fingerprinted, and charged with child abandonment, a 10-year felony.

Many of her classmates ostracized her. Many of her neighbors couldn’t understand. Fortunately, in this case, the judge, prosecutor and attorney agreed: The infant had been taken care of, he was left where someone could find him, no malice was intended. And, given Angela’s age and clean slate, she was allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor, fourth-degree child abuse, and the Holmes Youthful Trainee Act could apply. Angela would not have to go to jail. If she followed her probation rules, eventually her record would be expunged.

As for the baby? He went through foster care and was quickly adopted. Angela, now a college freshman, is in touch with the adoptive parents through e-mail and has even seen photos of her son. The name she picked for him — which she wishes to keep private — was used as a middle name by his new parents. “He’ll always be mine,” Angela says, “but when I signed away my rights, I was doing the best thing I could for him….”

As for her father? He told Angela he loves her, and has stood by her through it all. He is still “stunned,” however, at both the pregnancy and the fact that Angela had been having sex since she was 15.

But then, that’s what this story is about, isn’t it? We think we know our children. We think good grades and varsity letters are enough information. But those are merely facts, punch holes on a data card. The heart requires deeper examination.

“What is the lesson in all this?” Angela Motz is asked.

“If you’re in trouble,” she says, “don’t be afraid to tell the people who care about you.”

She cries a little. She has finished her story. This time, two lives were salvaged. Next time, we may not be so lucky. Talk, please, talk with your children. It’s the offense of love, and the only defense we have.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch his radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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