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A Mother's Tale

"There is no guidebook for getting your son out of prison in Iran."

A Mother's Tale
Photo by David Bowman

(page 1 of 3)

Cindy Hickey leans over an ironing board in the living room of her Pine City home, gently disappearing the wrinkles from a silk scarf wrap. The October morning is cool and quiet. Her Jack Russell terrier dozes beside a wood stove alive with amber flames. Past the front windows, a horse and donkey stand in a green-fenced corral, tails flicking in slow half-circles. A longhaired border collie roams out back, free among 15 sinewy sled dogs tethered to metal stakes. Beyond the yard lies state forestland dyed in the rich hues of Minnesota autumn. Everything appears to be in its right place.

A low hiss escapes the steam iron that Hickey slides over the chocolate-brown scarf. A self-avowed country girl, she wore the wrap a few days ago on a trip to New York City. Her visit included a meeting with advisers to Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had arrived to address the United Nations General Assembly. She covered her head and shoulders in deference to their faith. She never imagined she would know so much about the culture and customs of their nation. She never wanted to find out this way.

July 31, 2009. The order of life unspooled that afternoon with a phone call. A woman’s voice spoke in accented English. Hickey heard the words “embassy in Baghdad.” The voice said Shane Bauer had been detained in Iran. More details to follow as available. Goodbye.

Her 27-year-old son. Detained? Iran?

The phone rang again 20 minutes later. It was not the U.S. Embassy but the State Department in Washington, D.C. A man’s voice confirmed Bauer’s arrest in Iran. Little else was known.

Iran. Anything might happen. Anything might have already happened. One question stabbed deepest. Is Shane dead or alive?

The story dripped out over the ensuing days. Bauer and his girlfriend, Sarah Shourd, and their friend Josh Fattal had gone hiking in a mountainous region of northern Iraq that adjoins Iran. Iranian officials claimed the Americans crossed the unmarked border and accused them of illegal entry. They were being held at Tehran’s Evin Prison, infamous as a black hole of torture and executions, as authorities investigated them for espionage.

July 31, 2009. The date is the unmarked border between before and after for Hickey. Before that day, the 50-year-old had felt in command no matter her circumstance: cutting across the frozen landscape during the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, riding a hundred miles in 24 hours in endurance horse races, or raising three young children on her own after her first marriage collapsed.

Now control belongs to a country whose diplomatic ties with the United States ceased in 1980.

Once she lived in serene anonymity with her second husband, Jim, on their 10-acre lot, a skipped stone from the Snake River. Now reporters and camera crews show up unbidden, entering the dirt driveway where a “Free the Hikers” banner stretches between two birch trees.

Once she ran an animal massage-therapy business out of her house. Now there is only the work of bringing Shane home.

He is a good son, principled and accomplished and worldly. A Minnesota native who spent much of his youth in Onamia, a hiccup of a town five miles south of Lake Mille Lacs. A scrawny kid with the backbone to remain seated when classmates walked out to protest their middle school adding courses in Native American studies. A chess player, not a hockey player. A caring older brother to two sisters who stayed close to him even after, as a teen, he moved to California to live with their father, Al Bauer. A born explorer who lit out for Turkey and Kosovo a day after turning 18. A 2007 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, with a degree in peace and conflict studies. A fluent Arabic speaker and freelance journalist based in the Middle East and Northern Africa, whose work appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, and the Los Angeles Times. A peace activist critical of the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Israel’s building of West Bank settlements.

Bauer, who turned 28 last July, and Shourd, a 32-year-old English teacher and fellow Berkeley alumnus, lived in Damascus, Syria, for almost a year before their arrest. The hiking trip in Iraq coincided with a visit by Fattal, 28, a friend from college and former roommate. (Another companion who intended to join them on the trek bowed out after falling ill a day earlier.)

More than seven months passed before Iranian authorities allowed Bauer his first call to his mother last March, one of only two calls he has been able to make to her during his imprisonment. The conversation spanned barely a minute as they traded saying “I love you.” She promised him the three families would work nonstop to gain the trio’s release. Two months later, Iran granted visas to Hickey, Nora Shourd, and Laura Fattal. The mothers were permitted to meet with their children for 10 hours over two days in a Tehran hotel, a brief reunion that drew international coverage.

The second day’s gathering ended with guards escorting the prisoners into an elevator. The mothers huddled a few feet away. Bauer and Hickey held each other’s gaze. “I’m going to be okay,” he said. She watched the doors swallow the last glimpse of her son. The remote hope of returning home with him died.

Iranian authorities freed Sarah Shourd on $500,000 bail last September in what Ahmadinejad cast as “a huge humanitarian gesture.” Soon afterward Iran’s judiciary set a November trial date for the threesome to face spying charges, only to later postpone it to February 6. Another Thanksgiving, another Christmas, another New Year’s Day would slip past with Bauer in prison. The delay conformed to the new order of Hickey’s life. Uncertainty is a constant. Control belongs to a country halfway around the world. “Seeing Shane after waiting so long was one of the best moments of my life,” she says of the Tehran visit. “Having to leave him and not knowing when I’m going to see him again….” Her voice tightens and trails off.

A golden eagle uncoils upward from the edge of the Snake River, endless brown wings unfurling in a hypnotic flutter. The bird flies downstream before curling over the trees lining the bank opposite where Cindy Hickey stands. She makes time most days for the mile-long walk from her home to the river with Piper, her shorthaired Jack Russell terrier, taking the lead. She comes to listen and watch, to exhale, to send energy to Shane.

Stay strong. This will end.

Following her divorce in 1987, Hickey worked as a nurse in the Mille Lacs Health System in Onamia while raising Shane and his two sisters, Nicole and Shannon. As part of her job she provided home health care on the area’s Ojibwe reservation, and tribe elders acquainted her with Native American healing practices. The experience sowed a lasting interest in Native spirituality, whose teachings idealize the natural world and variously depict the eagle as a messenger or incarnation of the Great Spirit, the creator of all life. In nature, she seeks perspective on an ordeal to which the term Kafkaesque applies yet somehow feels inadequate. “The stress fills every moment of every day, even in sleep,” she says. Around her neck, she wears a burnt-orange pendant made of jasper. In Native American culture, the gemstone symbolizes the October full moon. “There are nights I wake up and think, ‘Is this really my life?’”

Hickey’s faded blue eyes tend to fix on the person with whom she talks, a habit of staring that, rather than hostility, suggests a desire to absorb the moment. Her straight dark hair drops below shoulders rounded with muscle from massaging horses in her therapy practice, and she has powerful legs from years of riding on horseback and dog sleds. To the extent that physical stamina relates to emotional strength, she appears built to survive prolonged sorrow. In her mid-20s, she underwent back surgery for two herniated discs that she ruptured while endurance horse-racing. A doctor doubted her chances of competing again. She returned to the saddle within a year and later resumed racing. Last summer, less than two years after major knee surgery, she hiked to Eagle Mountain’s 2,301-foot summit, the tallest peak in Minnesota. If that is something less than climbing Everest, with a repaired knee and a mind laden with thoughts of a son imprisoned in Iran, it is not nothing.
Yes, this is really her life. No, she will not relent. “I have a choice,” she says. “I can choose not to do any of this work. Or I can continue.” She turns from the river and begins the walk back home.

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