My visits with Rachael started about three years ago. She was “assigned” to me by my church when I volunteered to visit local nursing home residents. I was told she was all alone in the world; she needed a friend. So most Sundays after church, I’ll stop by the nursing home where she lives and give her cookies or Cheetos or shampoo or baby powder.
Over the years, I’ve learned a little about her family. She had two sisters, one older, one younger; she grew up on the Southside of Chicago; her father and mother, whom she loved, owned a bar. They were Italian. She married an Irish Catholic; he died young. She loved him very much, too, so never considered remarrying.
“Are your sisters still alive?” I asked her knowing that her parents certainly wouldn’t be. “The younger one is, I think,” Rachael answered. “Would you like to see her?” I asked. “Nah, it don’t matter.” How could that be? Had the disappointment of no visits from family for the 12 years she had been in the nursing facility hardened her heart?
After more visits, I learned the sister and her husband’s name and that they used to live nearby. I googled them and found a 2006 obituary for Rachael’s brother-in-law that listed all the family members. With that information, I looked up and found their phone numbers. It took me a couple of months, but I finally picked up the phone and dialed the number for Rachael’s niece, tentatively explaining who I was (nobody really). “Yes, my mother had a sister named Rachael,” she answered warily. After much explanation on my part, she trilled, “Oh my gosh, I’m going to have Mom call you.”
A few seconds later, my phone rang. A strong Chicago Southside voice was on the other end. It turns out Marie had been looking for Rachael for 12 years. “One day, Rachael was in the hospital; the next day, I called, and she had been released, and the hospital didn’t know where she had gone. I haven’t been able to find her since.”
Rachael had been placed in a nursing home, leaving no trace for her family. The day after talking to me, Rachael’s sister and her family visited her in the nursing facility. They stayed for hours, and when they left, they tacked their photos on her bulletin board.
Now Rachael has a family again—just in time for Christmas.
Terri Lackey is the former director for communication, Women of the ELCA.
This post first appeared on the Women of the ELCA blog in December 2012.