WASHINGTON – The woman lay in her hospital bed and tried to remember.
She didn’t know why she was there, and she didn’t recognize Sarah Sabo, the acute-care nurse practitioner who visited her daily in her room at MedStar Washington Hospital Center. Sabo, after reintroducing herself each day, would gently ask questions. Where had she been living? Did she have family anywhere?
The woman shook her head. She knew that her name was Pat Hawkins and that she was 54, but beyond that, her mind was blank.
Sometimes, Sabo walked in to find her crying, frustrated at not being able to recall the basic facts of her life. Other times, there were moments of clarity: She knew she was an only child. And she thought that she had a son of about middle-school age.
The hospital staff had taken care of her since early October, when she was brought in dehydrated with kidney failure and a possible stroke. She had recently been in a women’s shelter in the District of Columbia, but her life before that was shrouded in an impenetrable mist.
Normally, in cases in which friends and family cannot be located and a patient is unable to live independently, the hospital refers the patient to a long-term care nursing home. By November, they were ready to find one for Hawkins.
Then one day, Hawkins recalled something else.
Oh, yeah, she said. I know my mom’s address. And she recited it, down to the ZIP code.
Sabo couldn’t find a phone number associated with the address. It seemed like a dead end. But just to be sure, she wrote a letter and sent it there.
For 25 years, Martha Hawkins Poole refused to move out of her home in Richmond, Calif. If she left, how would her daughter find her way home?
Other relatives didn’t like to say what they were thinking: that Pat was no longer alive, that she was never coming back.
Growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, Pat had had a normal childhood, according to her mother’s cousin, Diane Holmes. After her parents divorced, she lived with her mother within walking distance of aunts, uncles and cousins. She attended a university and got a job.
But in 1987, three months after giving birth to a son, she was sitting in her mother’s car when she was struck in the head by a stray bullet. A couple of months later, as she was recuperating, she walked out of her mother’s home.
Nine years later, she reappeared with no explanation, settling back in with her mother and son. She seemed fine, Holmes recalled, although the smile she usually had wasn’t there as much. Then she walked out again.
Martha reached her 70s and began to be forgetful; dementia was diagnosed.
And then last month, shortly before Thanksgiving, Holmes got a call. Martha had received a letter from Washington.
I held my breath, she recalled, and she said, Pat’s alive.’
These days, Pat Hawkins often gets emotional. When Sabo would remind her that she was about to reunite with her family, she would bite on her thumb, trying to hold back tears, as if she were hearing the news for the first time.
Because of Poole’s dementia, Holmes, the city clerk for Richmond, Calif., took responsibility for bringing her second cousin home.
When Holmes walked into the hospital room, Hawkins burst into tears.
You come to get me, she wept as Holmes embraced her.
It’s all right, baby, her older cousin murmured, stroking the back of her head as Hawkins heaved with sobs. You’re going to go home, my darling. Coming to take you home. It’s so good to see you – it’s been such a long time.
Because her mother cannot take care of her, Hawkins will live in a long-term nursing facility. But in this one, she will be surrounded by family.
On Saturday at the Oakland Airport, Poole would finally embrace the daughter she had waited for all these years. She said, Well, before I leave my life, I’ll be able to see and touch my child,’ Holmes said.
Then there would be a big family New Year’s party. And hot water cornbread, and collard greens and every other thing Hawkins had missed.