Until Friday, Peter Brister had a hole in his heart where a mother's love should have been.
The hole made him ache, wore him out and drove him to drink.
Then finally, after 25 years of searching, Brister, now 40, came face to face with the mother he didn't remember but missed more than he thought possible.
"I need her. I've needed her for 40 years," said Brister, who was taken to live with his father's parents when he was 6 months old.
After an emotional reunion Friday at the Gaithersburg apartment of his mother, 62-year-old Wanda Rucker, Brister's immediate family had grown by not one, but eight. He now has two brothers and five sisters, not to mention a brood of at least 20 nieces and nephews, just in time for Christmas.
Brister drove from his home in Cortland, Ohio, to meet his mother Friday evening. After 25 years of near-constant searching for her whereabouts, he finally struck gold on a genealogy Web site. Then he had to find his way around the Washington suburbs. "I got lost for about an hour and a half," he said. But that didn't deter him.
"It took a long time, but I finally did it, and I think it's going to be worth it," Brister said.
Yesterday, he sat in Rucker's apartment with his mom and her other sons, Charles Anderson, 37, and Patrick Brister, 39, trying to get to know his new family. It will take much longer: Two sisters were adopted years ago and are believed to be living in Las Vegas, but the family has not been able to find them.
The family lost its way when Brister was an infant. All he wants to say of his father, Clarence Brister, who died in 1978 and was an occasional presence in his life, is that he was "not a nice person." When his mother and father began having problems, his father took him to live with grandparents in Ohio. A year later, the couple split, and Clarence Brister left baby Patrick with one of Rucker's sisters in Altoona, Pa.
Rucker would marry and remarry, move several times and have six more children over the years, but she says she always wondered about Peter.
"I did try to find him," she said. But when Clarence Brister's parents moved, she lost contact. "I didn't know where he was."
Brister doesn't blame her now, he said. "I hated my mother for all those years, but I'm here now, and now I love her," he said.
Today, she is fragile, her words few and her eyes watery. Her youngest son, Charles, worries about her health. "I think this might be a little bit too much. Got to keep an eye on her," he said.
But she said she's happy to have her sons together. Already they were acting like brothers yesterday, Patrick snatching the baseball cap from Peter's head and clowning around in front of a photographer.
Patrick grew up wishing for a father, while Peter never felt his mother's love. The two found each other on the Internet, after Peter's previous efforts--contacting private investigators, search companies, even the television show "Unsolved Mysteries"--proved fruitless.
Four years ago, Brister posted a message on a genealogy Web site, and it yielded nothing until a few weeks ago, when he checked and saw a message from his brother, who was hunting for his dad.
"I sat back, took a deep breath, called my wife and said, 'Look, I found my brother,' " Brister said.
The brothers grew up apart but shared much. Both were troubled children; Peter ended up in foster care, and Patrick in a county home for children. Both started having families of their own at early ages (seven children for Peter, six for Patrick), and both work in construction. And both were missing something.
"He's the lucky one. I never got to meet my father," Patrick Brister said. "If I had met my father, I didn't know what I was going to say. I didn't know whether I would love him or hate him."
Peter Brister wants to be part of his mother's life. "I told her I'm going to be a pain in the ass," he said.
Next, he'll go with Patrick to Altoona, where Patrick lives, to get to know three of his sisters, and then the family will search for its two other members. The reunion, albeit emotional, wasn't a complete resolution.
"I still have questions. We have to talk," Brister said. "But the pain is gone."
CAPTION: Peter Brister, left, and brother Patrick talk about their reunion, nearly 40 years after their parents separated.