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Finding a Miracle

A reunion with the little sister she hadn’t seen in more than 30 years shows one woman that God does indeed answer prayers.

A miracle reunion

My boyfriend Wayne and I, along with my older sisters, Sherry and Deb, were headed up I-275 from our home in St. Petersburg, Florida, to the small town of Hudson that July morning.

It was only an hour’s drive and I should’ve been counting down the minutes until we arrived. This was the moment I’d prayed for, reuniting with my little sister, Missy, after 30 years.

On my lap I held photos of us—celebrating her eighth birthday, eating pizza with everything on it, me pushing her in her wheelchair. Sherry held her old teddy bear. My stomach was in knots. I wasn’t sure Missy wanted to see me. What if all these years she’s blamed me for being taken from our family?

Missy was born when I was five. She had severe cerebral palsy and needed constant attention. Our mother spent most of her time with her boyfriend, working on cars in our front yard and drinking. Deb and Sherry had long left home. It fell to me to care for Missy the best I could, and by the time I turned 12 it was all I did outside of school.

But I cherished the responsibility. Every weekday I woke her in the tiny bedroom we shared, gave her a bath, made her eggs or cereal and pushed her wheelchair to the bus that took her to her special school near our Tampa Bay town. Afternoons we spent at the park or doing simple puzzles together.

The smallest things made her happy and when she broke out in that joyful laugh of hers, I felt like everything was right with the world. I was her best friend and her protector. Most of all I loved Missy and I couldn’t imagine life without her. Even now I remembered those days so clearly…

Two girls lying in their beds waiting for sleep to come. I looked over at Missy snuggling with her teddy bear and knew she was waiting for me to tell her our favorite story. “When we get older I’m going to buy us a farm,” I said. “It’ll be beautiful, with acres of land as far as we can see. There’ll be ponds with fish and we’ll have horses and live together in a log cabin. I’ll always take care of you.”

But it was a dream that wasn’t to be. One day when I was 14 a woman knocked on the door. “Is there a Missy Gardiner who lives here?” she asked. She said a teacher at Missy’s school had reported seeing ants in her wheelchair and that Missy needed to come with her.

“You’re not taking my kid,” Mom said. But moments later I stood sobbing by the screen door watching the woman push Missy to her car.

When they were gone, Mom turned to me. “This wouldn’t have happened if you’d taken better care of her.” Missy returned for a short visit in the weeks after that. Then I never saw her again.

I had to get out of there, away from my mom and the house that seemed so empty now. A year later I hopped a bus to New York. All I took with me were some clothes and photos. I struggled, and slowly made a life on my own. But I couldn’t escape the pain and guilt I felt over losing Missy. I begged the Lord for a sign that she was being cared for. Nothing. I wondered if God even heard me.

Twelve years ago, with Mom showing signs of dementia, I moved back to the Tampa area. I got a house in St. Petersburg near the stadium of my favorite NFL team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I made peace with Mom before she died, but she couldn’t tell me what had happened to Missy. Sherry and I found her old teddy bear when we were cleaning out Mom’s room at the nursing home, a bittersweet keepsake. Sometimes I thought about trying to find Missy on my own, but I didn’t know where to begin. So many years had gone by. It scared me to think about what I might find.

Then Saturday the most amazing thing happened. Betty, my best friend from middle school, and I had just reconnected on Facebook. We’d made plans to drive to another friend’s wedding together. Wayne and I got in Betty’s car and she handed me a laminated photo from a newspaper. “I’ve had this for ten years,” Betty said, “hoping I might see you again someday.”

I looked at the picture, a young smiling woman in a wheelchair, an athletic-looking man next to her. The caption read: Missy Gardiner, a resident of The Angelus in Hudson, was thrilled to meet former Oakland Raiders player Roman Gabriel III…

Could it be? My hand was trembling so hard I almost dropped the photo. Dear Lord, have you answered my prayer?

“I figured you’d want to have that,” Betty said. “Course you probably see Missy all the time now.”

“I…I haven’t seen her in thirty years,” I stammered. “I didn’t even know if she was alive.”

Betty looked at me stunned. “I had no idea,” she said.

How I wanted to go to Missy right then! But she was obviously at a facility. I couldn’t just drop in unannounced. I’d need to call and make an appointment. When we got home I was too nervous to pick up the phone. Wayne finally called The Angelus. We learned it was a residential care center for people with cerebral palsy. The director, Joe Neri, agreed to meet with us, but Wayne said he’d sounded leery. “I’m afraid your visit might confuse Missy,” he’d told Wayne. “I need to warn you that she won’t remember her sister.”

Now, with each passing mile on the interstate, those words were like a drumbeat in my head.

What was I trying to prove? It had been too long. Missy wouldn’t recognize me. I hadn’t recognized her from her photo until I read the caption. Wasn’t it enough just to know that she was healthy and happy? It was too late to turn back the clock or make foolish childhood dreams come true.

We turned off the interstate onto Florida Highway 589. “How much farther?” I asked Wayne.

“About a half-hour more,” he said, reaching over and taking my hand for a moment. “Don’t worry. It’s going to be okay.”

How could he be sure? What if seeing us confused Missy or, worse, upset her? What if she simply refused to see me? Other than a 10-year-old photo, I knew very little about The Angelus or Missy’s care. How long had she been there? Would it be a gloomy kind of place with dark hallways lined with sad, ignored patients?

We turned off the highway down a curvy wooded road. It seemed isolated and I could feel my stomach tightening even more. Where is this place? We took a right, another right and a left. Finally, the road opened up and we were there. The Angelus, a sign read by the entrance. We drove down a long winding lane, parked outside the main building, went inside and asked for Joe Neri. He escorted us to a large meeting room and we sat down. My heart was pounding. Joe looked across the table at us, like he was thinking about how to say something.

“Thirty years ago,” Joe said, “my mom had a dream of starting a farm for at-risk children. She took a class to prepare for that. In class she met two women who ran a home for mentally handicapped children. They’d brought a girl in a wheelchair they said the state had dumped on them. But she required more care than they could provide. They were going to put her in a state mental institution.

“My mom looked into that little girl’s eyes and something touched her soul. She made some calls and discovered there were no facilities for people with cerebral palsy. She decided to turn that farm into a home for them. That girl was Missy and today we have thirty-five residents. The Angelus wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her.”

I took Wayne’s hand and squeezed it hard, this news almost more than I could absorb. I was glad that Missy’s life had touched so many others, but it didn’t lessen my anxiety.

“You see, to Missy, we are her family,” Joe said. “I haven’t told her yet that you were coming. I didn’t think she would understand.” He stood up. “Wait here while I get her.”

The wait was agonizing and I filled it with prayer.

Finally Joe reappeared pushing a woman in a wheelchair. Her hair was cut very short and she was nicely dressed in a salmon-pink top and khakis. But she looked nothing like the girl I once knew.

“This is Tammy, your sister,” Joe told Missy. “You knew her when you were little and she’s come to see you.”

Missy’s eyes were fixed on the floor.

I didn’t know what to say. Once it had been so easy to talk to her. Now we were strangers.

“Missy’s a big football fan. Aren’t you, Missy?” Joe said. “Especially the Buccaneers.” She nodded, glancing up shyly at me.

“You’re kidding,” I said. “Me too. I live right by the stadium. Let me guess, you love pizza with everything on it.” She nodded harder. Then she laughed, that big joyful sound I’d waited so many years to hear again.

Sherry reached out and set the teddy bear on her lap. “This is yours,” I said. “We’ve been keeping him for you, but now he wants to stay here with you.” Our eyes met and for a second I thought I saw the faintest glimmer of recognition.

“Would you like to show me around?” I said. “I’d love to see where you live.” She nodded. I took the handles of her wheelchair and pushed. It felt so natural to be connected to Missy again. Wayne opened the door and we went out onto a paved walkway under a canopy of trees, past a barn with two miniature horses and a pond filled with koi. In the distance I saw the gentle rise and fall of the surrounding fields. They seemed to go on forever. I couldn’t believe it! Missy had made it to our farm!

“You know we used to share a room,” I said. “I used to tell you stories every night.” We went up a slight grade and there at the top, tucked in a small grove of trees, was a log cabin. Just like I’d promised her…

We had followed such different paths these past 30 years. Only God could have brought us back together to this spot. It was our childhood dream come to life, except the Lord had taken even better care of Missy than I could have.

I rested my hand on my sister’s shoulder. Back when we were kids, I couldn’t imagine my life without her. Now I didn’t have to. I knew we would never again be apart.

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