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, 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.
But there was something about this patient that moved Sabo to dig deeper.
“She was the nicest person,” Sabo said. “She was always happy, always so thankful. . . . I was like, okay, we need to put some more work into this. If she goes to a nursing home, it would be so sad. Her family would never know.”
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 working phone number associated with the address. It seemed like a dead end. But just to be sure, hospital employees 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 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 random 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.
She called a year or so later from the East Coast, where her family knew no one. And then, nothing. After a while, even her son, Jovan Wright, stopped asking about her.
“She could have been cremated or buried somewhere, and we’d never know,” Holmes said.
But her mother always behaved as if her daughter were coming home. “She never lost the faith,” Holmes said, adding that, as one family member put it, “If Martha ever found out that Pat wasn’t alive, she would just fold up and die.”
Years passed. Wright grew up and got a job with the Transportation Security Administration at Oakland International Airport. 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, D.C.
“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. Along the way, she learned a little more about Hawkins’s recent history. In May, Hawkins had been selected to participate in a program in which 31 at-risk homeless women in the District were taken off the street and provided with apartments. In September, she apparently had a stroke and her brain functions deteriorated, leading to her hospital stay.
But on Friday, she needed no reminding about what was happening. A hairdresser had come to style her hair, and Hawkins had put on a maroon outfit. She sat in a chair by her bed, trembling with excitement.
Then Holmes walked in, and 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. . . .”
“Thank you for coming,” Hawkins said, her voice breaking.
“Oh, honey, we’re family!” Holmes replied. “This is what family does.”
The two fell into a flurry of catching up — how was Martha? Where was Paul? What about Johnny Jr.? Hawkins lit up and laughed as Holmes showed her photos of family members on her iPhone, and she wept upon hearing that a relative had died.
“What’s Jovan doing?” she asked.
“He’s anxious to see you,” Holmes said. “He’s going to be waiting at the airport when we arrive. He didn’t hesitate. He said, ‘What’s the gate?’ ”
Along with the damage from the gunshot wound, brain scans show evidence of more-recent mini-strokes. Micheal Pistole, president of the medical staff at the hospital, said that although Hawkins’s physical prognosis is good, there is little hope that her memory will return. The 25 years she was gone may always remain a mystery.
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.
An assistant came to wheel Hawkins to her final physical therapy session. Hospital staff members craned their necks from down the hall, grinning to see her all dressed up and accompanied by family.
Hawkins lightheartedly chided one physical therapist for making her wash a dish in a sink. Holmes marveled: “Her mannerisms are so much like her mom.”
On Saturday at the Oakland Airport, Poole will 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 will be a big family New Year’s party. And hot water corn bread, and collard greens and every other thing Hawkins had missed.