If joy had wings, Terry and Rob Thate would fly.
She can't sit still, can't stop giggling, can't stop squirming. She's up and down, across the room and back to the couch, flicking her blond hair off her shoulders, tickling her husband's neck until he says, "Stop." But he's no less manic. He can't quit smiling, and he keeps talking like this: "It's like, it's like . . . . It's like hard to say how I feel. It's like . . . . "
Simply put, it's like the happiest day of Rob and Terry Thates' lives, because a few feet away on the floor atop a bed of blankets is their son, Jeremiah Robert, wearing red sweats and yellow socks. He is a week over five months old. There are red, yellow, green and blue balloons all around him.
He's asleep on his stomach, hiccuping occasionally, his head turned to the left, just the way he was that night more than four months ago when Rob and Terry left his Prince George's Hospital Center room for a snack. They returned 20 minutes later and found Jeremiah's neatly cut intravenous feeding tube, an empty bed and four months of roller-coaster anguish, anger and fear. There were hundreds of dead-end tips. There were crazy-people threats against the Thates' other two children. There was suspicion that Rob had kidnaped his own son.
Then, in a matter of hours from the time Rob and Terry were called by police two nights ago, Jeremiah was asleep in bed between his mom, 24, and his dad, 23. Jeremiah slept nicely -- Rob and Terry tossed and turned, afraid they'd roll over on their boy, who was home at last.
"He'll sleep in our room for at least six months," says Terry.
"In your bed?" they are asked.
"We're not that paranoid," laughs Rob. "He'll sleep in a crib."
"It's still unreal," says Terry. "It's a long dream."
The Thates (it's pronounced Tate) are in seclusion -- or more like hiding -- from the long-shot chance that some kook might try a copy-cat abduction of Jeremiah or the Thates' other children and from the reporters and camera crews that have dogged them since Prince George's police announced that two tips from the public had led them to Jeremiah, long after many of the Thates' friends and even some law enforcement officials had despaired of ever finding him. Now they are planning to buy a new outfit (size 18 months for a 5-month-old) and a playpen and a high chair.
"There's a lot of things I'm experiencing now," said Rob. "Maybe it's anger for all the unknown stuff. He was gone four, almost five months. How is that time he spent with those people going to affect his personality? It just makes me want to scream! It was five months.
"It's just bizarre. I don't want to say it's like he wasn't gone, because he was gone. And I feel that. But he was always part of my family and now he's where he's supposed to be. My whole family is together again."
Two nights ago, Rob was drawing an ink sketch of a knight in armor. He is a born-again Christian, and the sketch reminded him of a quote from Ephesians in the Bible: "Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm." Terry was doing needlepoint and the children were in bed when the police called to say they had found Jeremiah. But only the week before, police had followed up an elaborate but false tip on Jeremiah's whereabouts, and Rob refused to get excited.
"It's definitely Jeremiah," the policeman told him.
"It's a mistake," said Rob. "I've had so many letdowns."
"It's got to be Jeremiah," said Terry.
"This time," said the officer, "it's Jeremiah."
They hung up and Rob paced the living room for a few moments until the thought hit him: "It's over. It's really over. This trial is really over."
There had been some odd coincidences that day. The Thates' 3-year-old daughter Jessica had asked her mother, "Is Jeremiah coming home today?" Surprised, Terry answered, "I don't know, honey, but maybe." The same day Rob's father, a junior high school teacher, had told a class of his students that he hoped there'd be a miracle and his grandson would come home soon. The day before, Terry had been told by a reporter that police had found another recently abducted baby. "I just started crying," Terry said. "I just couldn't understand why God wasn't answering my prayers. Nobody had more prayers going up than we did. I was so mad! So I said, 'Well, God will answer my prayers.' And the next day" -- Terry snaps her fingers -- "Jeremiah came back."
They picked him up at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring after vetoing plans to take Jeremiah to Prince George's Hospital Center, where he had been stolen in the first place. When the nurse brought him in, after his identity had been confirmed by a blood test and footprints, the Thates realized how long four months is in the life of a newborn.
"It was like meeting a relative you know exists, but you've never met," Rob said.
"I thought of him as 3 weeks old," said Terry. "And here's this 5-month-old baby. I thought this wasn't my baby, but I knew it was. So I looked at him -- and he looked more and more like Jeremiah."
Jeremiah stank horribly and he was filthy. His bottom was scabbed from diaper rash and his face was covered with infant acne. But he was a husky 18-plus pounds, alert and loud. When Rob sang the ABCs song he had sung to him as a newborn, Jeremiah looked right at him. They held Jeremiah and they prayed, please, don't let him be harmed by his months away. Said Rob, "The Bible says, 'Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not yet seen.' By my faith, I have Jeremiah."
They brought him home and put him in their bed. There's plastic under the sheet, and Jeremiah was curious and confused by the crackling sound it made when he moved. So Terry picked him up and sat in the rocker.
It was 1:30 a.m. by then, and she turned on the television and the late, late local news. In the darkness, the bright screen perked up Jeremiah, who looked over at the TV. Finally, all together again, Rob and Terry and Jeremiah Robert watched the late, late news report that the Thate baby had come home.