By Neal Pollack
On Monday, August 19, Edward Willis ushered a morning funeral at his church, Liberty Baptist, at 49th Street and King Drive. Afterward he walked two blocks to the apartment he and his 79-year-old mother, Sophie Latham, shared in a high-rise building. Edward went to his bedroom, hung up his black suit, black tie, and white shirt, and removed his ushering badge.
“I’m gonna go downtown now, mama,” he said.
“OK,” she said.
Sophie didn’t worry much when he went downtown, because Edward, who was 62, knew how to get there. He just had to get on the number-three bus. At night he could take the same bus home, and it would drop him at their front door. Latham once made him wear an identification tag around his neck, but someone robbed him and took the tag. She told Edward that if he ever couldn’t find his way home, he just had to remember her name, her address, and the fact that she was listed in the phone directory. She says that whenever he found himself in an unfamiliar situation, he immediately told someone to call his mother.
Until that day someone always did.
Sophie was born Sophie Willis and grew up in Roseland, one of 12 children. Her father worked at the Sherwin-Williams paint factory, her mother at an Italian grocery. The family lived on 115th Street near the Illinois Central viaduct, and Sophie remembers her father teaching her and her brothers and sisters to swim in the Calumet River. While she was in high school she worked three hours a day at Cook County Hospital and dreamed of becoming a nurse.
Edward was born July 9, 1935, a normal, healthy baby. Sophie was 17 years old and unmarried. “I went a little wild,” she says. “I made a mistake. I stayed home with my mom. She helped me. Until I got up some stamina.” She’d graduated from high school, and as soon as she could she went back to work at Cook County as a nurse’s aide. Eventually she would earn her nursing degree and work as a pediatric nurse at the hospital for 25 years.
Sophie married James Latham in the early 40s. She says they weren’t happy together and soon separated, but they’ve never divorced. After they split up, Sophie took in and raised Lorraine, the daughter of James’s sister.
One day in the summer of 1944, when Edward was nine years old, he and his grandfather were crossing the street, and a truck came speeding toward them. Edward’s grandfather threw him to the ground and threw himself on top. The truck ran over both of them. His grandfather was barely hurt. Edward had spine and head injuries. He spent the next three years at Cook County Hospital, completely paralyzed on his right side. He had brain damage, and for a while was blind. He forgot how to read, write, and talk. “I always remember the first word he ever said after the accident,” Sophie recalls. “The priest used to come every day and sit with him. And he learned him how to say ‘ice cream.’ One day I was coming down the hall and I heard him. I asked the girls, ‘Who is that?’ They all wouldn’t tell me–they were waiting to surprise me. I went in and said, ‘Hi, Eddie.’ They said to him, ‘Do you know who this is?’ He said ‘ice cream.’ That was the first word that the priest taught him to say. He really didn’t know who I was then. It took some time.”
Edward moved back into his grandparents’ house. Gradually he learned to speak again, and his vision returned. Occasionally he’d have to return to the hospital, but mostly he stayed home. When Edward was 12, Sophie tried to send him to a public school for handicapped children. “He couldn’t do it,” she says. “He told my mother, and he told me. We said, we can’t do it, we can’t force that on him. It might do more harm than good. So he never went to school.”
They tried to teach Edward at home, but if they pushed him too hard he would panic and start crying uncontrollably. His doctor agreed that schooling would probably do him more harm than good and that being away from home could cause him severe emotional damage. He said that Edward was thoroughly sane, that he knew his family, but his brain damage would never allow him to ever learn properly.
“He would go out and sit on the steps, watch the other kids,” says Sophie. “Sometimes they’d pick on him and he would cry. Other times he would laugh. He could talk to them pretty good. The older he got the better he could speak. That was a long time ago, and ever since then he always was the nicest. Everybody see him or meet him, they like him. He never was a child that was angry or anything. He always had a smile, and he’s always been helpful. You could drop something–he’d say, ‘I’ll get it for you.’ He liked to do things for people.”
When Edward Willis didn’t come home the night of August 19 Sophie was concerned, but not overly so. Since Edward had reached his 30s he’d been getting around the city by himself. He didn’t have any strength in his right arm–he shook hands with his left–and he walked with a serious limp. Twenty years before he’d been hit again, this time by a runaway car; he’d had to have a steel rod put in his leg.
In 1983 Sophie and Edward had moved, and because he hadn’t yet memorized the new address, she would give him little slips of paper with the address printed on them to put in his shirt pocket. But one day he went out and left the slip of paper behind, along with his blood-pressure medication, which helped prevent him from getting disoriented.
At first Sophie wasn’t worried when he didn’t come home, because he sometimes worked at a store or restaurant and then slept there overnight. When he didn’t come home for several days Sophie went looking for him. She found out that he’d been working in a shop on Maxwell Street and staying with the shop owner’s family at night. Sophie says Edward had told the shop owner, “I want to go home.”
“Where’s your mother?” the shop owner had asked. But Edward didn’t know.
“Don’t you know me?” asked the shop owner.
“Yes, I know you.”
“Did you take your medicine?”
“No sir, I didn’t have it in my pocket.”
“Where you going now?”
“Well, I wanna go home.”
“You got your paper in your pocket?”
“No, I got on my different shirt.”
“You come on home with me. I’ll find your mother.”
The shop owner took Edward down to Maxwell Street every day and took him along if he had to make a delivery. The day Sophie came by, the shop owner and Edward had gone out. The next day she found him.
“I knew that you’d come and look for him,” said the shop owner.
“Yes,” she said, “because this is where he always comes.”
Edward had disappeared only once before, in 1972. He’d been hanging around with some friends in front of the Pacific Garden Mission playing checkers, as he’s done for years. A man driving a truck came by and asked the men if they wanted to work. Edward always wanted to work, so he got in the truck, which headed for the airport. He was put on a plane to Florida, then taken to an orange grove.
Soon after he arrived Edward told the man who’d brought him to call his mother.
Sophie remembers the man calling and saying, “You wouldn’t know me, but I have an orange orchard in Florida. I picked some people in Chicago up, and I deliver oranges to Chicago. I brought him because he’ll work for me.”
“Brought who?” she said.
“Isn’t Edward Willis your son?”
“You took my child?”
“Don’t you worry. Nothing’s ever gonna happen to him with me,” said the man. “He’s doing fine. Just wait a minute, I’ll let you talk to him.”
Edward got on the phone, and Sophie said, “Edward, what are you doing?”
“A man, he gave me a job.”
“He gave you a job?”
“Yeah, I pick oranges every day. I pick a lot.”
Edward said he wanted to stay at the orchard for a while, and put his boss back on the line. Sophie told him to send Edward home as soon as the job was done. “Is he doing a good job for you?” she asked.
“You know, Ms. Latham, he works for me better than the ones who aren’t crippled. In the daytime he’s hustling more oranges than anybody else. When he gets tired he sits down. I’ve never said a word to him.”
Edward returned home a few days later with $500. It was the most money he’d ever earned.
When Edward didn’t come home in August Sophie waited 72 hours before she called the police to officially register him as a missing person. In the meantime she made other calls. She discovered that on August 20 or 21 Edward had been arrested on a panhandling charge and briefly detained at police headquarters, at 11th and State. She says a police officer told her that he’d been sent to Cook County Jail, and someone at the jail told her that Edward had been released on a personal recognizance bond at 4 AM. It later turned out that Edward had, in fact, been arrested on a panhandling charge and had been released on a personal recognizance bond. But he never spent any time at Cook County Jail and didn’t show up in their records.
Yet Sophie was sure he was still in jail, and probably in the hospital connected to the jail. She was soon on her way to 26th and California to find out. She left after dark and didn’t tell anyone she was going. She thought she had a lead and couldn’t wait around for someone to go with her. Nothing was more important to her than finding her son.
Sophie’s own health wasn’t perfect. She had arthritis in both knees and in 1990 had had back surgery. When the weather was bad she was almost immobilized. Her blood pressure was high enough that her doctor had advised her not to live alone.
Sophie wandered around outside the jail for hours, but couldn’t figure out where the hospital entrance would be. She became disoriented and grew sore and tired. She began to panic. At 11 PM she ran into a police officer and told him she was lost. He said it was too late for her to look for Edward. He put her in a cab and told the driver to take her home.
When no call came from Edward, Sophie broadened her search. She began to trace what she knew about his normal paths around the city–he had always told her everything he’d done each day. In the mornings he usually left the house to go downtown. Sometimes he hung around in front of a hotel on Jackson and Wabash where taxis parked. He washed the cars and talked to the drivers, fetched them coffee in exchange for a couple of dollars or lunch. Sophie says the drivers all told her they knew Edward but had no idea where he was.
He also hung around the McDonald’s at Jackson and Wabash, sitting at the same table every day. The McDonald’s employees and the police officers who frequented the restaurant said they too knew him but hadn’t seen him. No one at Maxwell Street had seen him. Neither had anyone at the Woolworth’s at State and Madison, where he sometimes drank a cup of coffee. A security guard who worked on Canal Street, where the city had relocated a lot of the old Maxwell Street vendors, said he knew Edward well but hadn’t seen him lately.
Once in a while Edward washed dishes in a restaurant on LaSalle and slept overnight on a cot in the back. “I went there and asked the man,” Sophie says. “He said, ‘Sure, he’s got a nice bed back there. Come in here and I’ll show you.’ Those restaurants downtown, they’ve got beds. A real twin bed in the back. Yesiree. They’ll be open until two o’clock in the morning, and then those fellows they have working for them–most of them would be from the mission or the Salvation Army. In the morning when that place would open up it would be spanking clean. Spic and span. He’d work from closing time until he was finished, and then he’d come home in the morning time. If he wasn’t tired he’d go to the other place and work.” She checked at all the restaurants where she knew Edward had worked, but there was no sign of him.
Sophie says Edward had worked all over the city. He helped out sometimes at a diner near Jackson and California. In the summers he worked at the Taste of Chicago. For three years he worked for the same vendor, mostly sweeping up at night. He’d come home and talk to his mother for hours about the work he’d done, without even taking off his uniform.
“Well, didn’t you get tired?” she’d say.
“No, I didn’t get tired. I was all right. The man gave me my lunch and everything.”
By September Sophie was still looking for Edward. She handed out her phone number to cabbies, police officers, shop owners. They began calling her, but no leads developed.
As the weeks went by Sophie stopped sleeping. She often stared out her apartment window for hours. When she couldn’t take the waiting any longer, she hopped on a bus and went looking for him.
It seemed to her that everyone she ran into had an Edward story. “This policeman was on duty nearby somewhere. He’d come out for air and talk to Edward. He said, ‘I know him real well, and I’m going to see what I can do.’ They are the ones that call me every week–every Monday they call me. And the cabdrivers have been here. They come here to talk to me and ask me if I found him yet. They said, ‘We’ve been knowing him all his life, ever since he been downtown.’ If anybody down there at any of those fast-food restaurants, you ask them about him–the men on the streets, the homeless down there at Pacific Garden–they say, ‘Oh, yeah, I know who you talkin’ about. You talkin’ about Willis.’ They all know him by Willis. And he never says, ‘My name is Edward Willis.’ He just say Willis. That’s what he could remember, see? I didn’t find a person downtown that say one word against him.”
Sophie began to feel that everything that happened to her was somehow related to Edward’s disappearance. She received a random prank call one night and was sure it contained a clue. A hotel promotional flyer was slipped under her door that contained directions for getting to the hotel from Wisconsin. Sophie had never heard of the hotel, but she was certain that Edward was staying there, working there, or being held there against his will. She went down to the hotel early in the morning and was assured by the employees that they’d never seen or heard of him. They also assured her that they’d call if there was any sign of him.
By late October Sophie had walked countless times down State, Wabash, and Michigan, from Lake to Roosevelt. She’d been in every store on Maxwell Street. She’d posted and dropped off Edward’s picture in all parts of the city. No one had called to say they’d spotted him.
She heard a rumor that the city had picked up homeless people during the Democratic National Convention and taken them out to the suburbs, and she was certain that Edward had been scooped up in front of the Pacific Garden Mission. But she was told that while the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had given the city money to put homeless people up in shelters and single-room-occupancy hotels during the convention, there’d been no organized effort to get the homeless out of the city. And that if Edward had been given housing he almost certainly would have returned home afterward.
Every day Sophie grew more distraught. She cleaned Edward’s bedroom and put away his walker and his wheelchair, which he used when his leg hurt. His bed was neatly made, as was the bed across the room that the children she calls her “god-great-children” slept in when they spent the night–she has eight great-grandchildren through her adopted daughter. There were no pictures on the walls. On a small desk were sheets of her great-grandchildren’s homework and pieces of paper on which Edward had tried to write his name.
“I do believe that he’s someplace and don’t know how to come home,” said Sophie one evening. “He can get lost and I can lose him right here on the south side. Because he can’t read or write or anything. The doctor says he gets incoherent when he gets nervous. He don’t remember. And so they gave him medication. But he didn’t have his medication with him–because the pills were on the dresser in there. When he would go downtown he’d always come home between six and seven o’clock. I said, ‘Now don’t stay long now, because you know it’s bad out there.’ I don’t know what to do. My hands are tied. It’s too long. Pretty soon it’s going to be three months. I go. I walk. I walk until my knees get big.
I don’t have this big of knees normally. I walk until my knees get so big so that I can’t walk anymore. He’s my life. He’s what I’m living for. He never gave me a minute’s trouble in his life. I’m just worried about him being hurt, that’s all. But other than that, he was a good child. He was mild. If I could just hear from him and know he’s alive and that everything’s fine. At first I didn’t pay much attention to him being missing, because I knowed he was somewhere and I was going to find him. This happened before, and it wasn’t no problem. But now it comes two months. I’ve never been so scared in all my life.”
Liberty Baptist Church is one of the south side’s major religious institutions. The church has been operating, at one location or another, for 75 years. Darrell Jackson is the current pastor. His father was pastor from 1951 to 1995, his grandfather from 1925 to 1950. Liberty Baptist was very involved with the civil rights movement and with Martin Luther King’s Chicago marches, and it was a huge backer of Harold Washington during his mayoral campaign. Darrell Jackson is often called on to preach at churches around the country, and pastors from other cities consider it an honor to preach at Liberty Baptist.
Edward Willis didn’t know any of this. He first showed up at Liberty Baptist on June 28, 1992. The church had just started a new Saturday ministry called Feed the People, through which the homeless and indigent were invited to come in the morning for 15 minutes or so of preaching, a free lunch, and, if needed, clothes and drug or alcohol counseling. Pastor Jackson remembers Edward coming in during the first few weeks of Feed the People and saying, “I’m coming back. I like this church.”
Jackson figured Edward would return for the free food, but Edward surprised him. He wasn’t homeless, and he wasn’t hungry. Two Sundays later he joined the church’s usher board. He was baptized July 7, 1992. Sophie hadn’t joined the church, though she’s religious. At the time she was recovering from back surgery and had got in the habit of watching sermons on television. Liberty Baptist, she says, was Edward’s activity.
He began volunteering at the church regularly and even helped out at Feed the People. Albert Burns, who heads the ministry, says that every Sunday Edward would come up to him and say, “When do we feed the people? When do we feed the people? I’ll be here. I’ll be here!”
Edward would ladle out soup, direct people, and do odd tasks. He wanted to volunteer for everything at the church, recalls Louise Morgan, head of the church’s missionary outreach programs. “Every Sunday he’d ask me, ‘You having a meeting today? You having a meeting tomorrow?'”
When Morgan’s volunteers would pass out pamphlets on the south side Edward often wanted to come along. “‘I’m going, I’m going!’ he’d say. Then he’d ask, ‘How far are we going?’ ‘We’re going over to 51st and Prairie.’ ‘Oh. I can’t go there, Louise. I can’t go.’ He was so cute. And I understood–because that’s too far for him to walk.”
On Sundays Edward would get to the church as early as possible, sometimes by 7:30 AM. He loved to usher. “He’s not totally OK physically, but he’s amazing because he’s so lovable,” says Lois Jackson, who heads Liberty Baptist’s usher board. “He would be in the pulpit if the pastors would allow him. He tries to help everybody at church. He’d say, ‘What you want me to do? What you want me to do?’ I’d say, ‘Just sit there and relax.’ At church we have ushers that greet the people and seat them. He stands by the door. We try not to work him too hard.”
Pastor Jackson was the last person besides Sophie to see Edward before he disappeared. Jackson says Edward had ushered one funeral service, gone downtown, and come back to the church in the evening to usher another funeral. After the second funeral service Jackson went up to his office to remove his robes, and when he came down Edward was waiting for him.
Edward was attached to Jackson and often liked to stay around after services to talk. He considered himself the pastor’s personal usher, and since Jackson didn’t have a personal usher, he didn’t mind Edward’s attentions. When Jackson conducted prayer meetings or Sunday afternoon programs Edward walked with him up to the podium and stood by his side while he talked. When Jackson finished, Edward followed him down the aisle.
Edward often sat by Jackson’s side at Wednesday Bible-study classes. When he first started coming to Liberty Baptist he’d picked up a Bible along with everybody else and pretended to follow the discussion. It took several months for Jackson to discover that Edward couldn’t read. After that Jackson started reading aloud to him. Edward would come home on Wednesday nights and tell Sophie everything he’d learned from the Bible. He also started going along on church trips to hear the pastor preach in other cities.
Jackson remembers that the Sunday before Edward disappeared he said, “That was a good sermon you preached today, pastor.” The church had brought in a guest speaker that day, and Edward said, “You gotta bring that man back.”
After the funeral service the next day Jackson told Edward, “Brother Willis, we can always count on you.” He told him he was going to Florida for a couple of weeks with his wife and son, and he’d see Edward when they returned. He says Edward told him, “Well, pastor, have a good vacation. I’ll be here to help out while you’re gone.”
On the evening of October 23 a missing-persons officer from the Police Department called Latham and asked if she wanted to go to the Cook County morgue. The officer had no idea whether Edward was there, but she wanted Sophie to look. By this point Sophie was willing to accept any news about Edward, even the worst. Two officers drove her to the morgue, but he wasn’t there.
Sophie was running out of ideas. She’d tried going to the media. A short Tribune article had brought a lot of sympathy but no clues. She called a hot line for Montel Williams, which has a missing-persons segment, but the producers never contacted her. Melody Spann and Cliff Kelley repeatedly mentioned her story on WVON, but nothing came of it.
One of Sophie’s granddaughters, Tish, works as Mayor Daley’s correspondence secretary, and she asked for help at City Hall. Tish is Sophie’s greatest pride after Edward. “I used to tell my mama,” Sophie says, “‘Mama, if you help me I’m gonna be the best nurse there ever was.’ That’s the same way Tish is. She told me, ‘Granny, if you help me I’m gonna make you so proud of me.’ And she has. Her husband died. She has three children to support. She’s 32. He had cancer of the stomach. But she never stopped going to school after he died. She had to keep right on. She hangs on to those children now. If you want to make the hair rise on her head you mess with her kids. I love the way she teaches them.” But Tish’s efforts hadn’t turned up Edward either.
On Saturday, November 9, and Sunday, November 10, Sophie and seven of her nephews got into two cars and began to drive. They got out of the cars periodically and showed Edward’s picture to strangers. They went to his usual haunts–Maxwell Street, Wabash, the Pacific Garden Mission–without any luck. They stopped in Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Uptown, and Rogers Park. Nothing. They went to Evanston, Oak Park, Calumet City, and Gary, Indiana. “I just looked at streets,” Sophie says. “We asked if there were any shelters or anything like that out there. No luck at all. We went out back there by the hotel where the flyer was from. The man there hadn’t found out anything yet. He told me, ‘Don’t worry. We’re still working on it.'”
The next Sunday morning, November 17, her nephews picked her up at 6 AM, and they went out looking again. And again they found out nothing.
Meanwhile the police had been conducting their own search. “We’ve done absolutely everything we could do,” Kenneth Brown, the police lieutenant in charge of missing persons for Area One, said in early December. “We’ve done security searches, we’ve done financial searches, we’ve done door-to-door searches–we’ve done every type of search that we’re able to do. We have talked to all the friends and neighbors, every name the mother gave us. We’ve turned up absolutely nothing. We checked all the missions in the area and haven’t turned up anything. We’ve alerted each one of them. We’ve done just about all we could possibly do.”
In early October the police had put Edward’s case in the citywide missing-persons bulletin. Nothing came of the notice. For weeks his case was on a “day-to-day basis,” which Brown said meant that someone was investigating his disappearance for at least some time every day. Brown said they would have known if Edward had turned up at the morgue or if he’d been buried in a potter’s field.
In early December the case was downgraded to a “seven-day” basis. “We’ve been following every lead,” Brown said. “We don’t believe there’s been any foul play. But right now we have no further leads to follow. We were hoping to get some phone calls after we put it in the bulletin. We didn’t get anything. We’ve made every effort that we possibly can, but this case is more difficult than the average. We are very surprised, because we have a very high success rate. It’s quite unusual for something like this to go on for this long. It’s weird that he didn’t come up any kind of way. We are completely baffled.”
Sophie’s neighbors had also been looking. Known by everyone in the building as “granny,” Sophie has always taken care of neighbor kids while their parents worked. Before she’d had back surgery she took care of as many as 18; now she won’t take more than 6 or 7. The neighbors return the favor by picking up her groceries and driving her places, because she won’t take pay; she gets by on her pension and social security.
Parishioners at Liberty Baptist had also been doing what they could to help. Spencer Leak, the head of the church’s board of trustees and a former mayoral candidate, is also a prominent south-side mortician and former director of Cook County Jail. He took charge of a fund-raising effort. By late November parishioners had donated $500 to be used as a reward in exchange for information about Edward. Leak then raised another $300 to print up flyers that parishioners could post when they were on the streets doing missionary work.
Albert Burns had stopped by the afternoon services at Pacific Garden, gone into several fast-food joints, talked to people on the street. “It worries me to know that he’s out there and we don’t know where he is,” Burns said. “I feel that he will show up somewhere. I also feel that he is somewhere. I can’t get it in my head that he’s dead or anything.”
“Everybody keeps their eyes open as they travel,” said Thomas Green, another parishioner, “because everybody knows what he is. He’s different. He’s handicapped, so everybody’s kind of got their eyes and ears open.”
Wendy Harris, who works for a south-side residence for people with AIDS, said Edward was always asking if he could sweep up or otherwise help around the home. After he disappeared Harris would often drive around the neighborhood looking for him on street corners where he sometimes used to hang out. “He is a very generous man,” she said. “I have children, and every time he sees them he gives them a dollar or something. I said, ‘You don’t have to do that.’ ‘No, leave me alone. It’s what I want to do,’ he’d say. That’s the kind of guy he was. He didn’t have a lot of money–that’s why I didn’t want him to. But he was special like that.”
Lois Jackson, the head of the usher board, looked for Edward too. She knew him better than almost anyone at Liberty Baptist. She called Sophie every day. She gave Sophie all the pictures she could find of Edward that had been taken at the church. When Sophie gave away all of the pictures, Jackson made new ones.
“I know that, as a mother, whether your kids are good, bad, fat, skinny, ugly, whatever, you love your kids because they’re yours,” Jackson said. “When Sophie was running downtown and it was late I told her, ‘Don’t go downtown unless you’ve got somebody with you.’ She went every day at like 4:30, 5:00 in the morning to see if he’d come back there. I said, ‘Don’t do it, because something could happen to you.’ She would take the bus down there by herself. She’s not really a big woman. But you know, it’s a funny thing. If you have kids, no matter what–if they say, mom or dad I need you–you know what? You’re going to go. You try to help. It’s a blood thing. It’s a funny thing, him being missing, because everybody likes Willis. He wants to be so helpful, he likes to be a doorman, he likes being an usher. He just likes to help people. Something has to happen pretty soon, because alive or dead, he’s got to turn up. This can’t go on, because it gets cold out here pretty soon. Sometimes it’s unfair so many have so much and they don’t do nothing with it, and those that wish they could have some money actually would do something with it. I guess I’ll have to pray a little harder. Maybe something good will happen.”
Everybody who was involved in church activities missed Edward. He was an accepted member of the church community, and everyone agreed that it wasn’t like him to just leave all his friends. “To his mom he’s special,” said one parishioner. “And to us he’s special too. We know him. At the altar prayer on Sunday his name is always mentioned. ‘Pray for Brother Willis and his mother.’ It’s strange. Usually it’s the loner who comes up missing, not the guy who has a lot of people in his corner.”
On Friday morning, November 22, Sophie was at Pacific Garden showing Edward’s picture to a group of men hanging around out front.
“Who is your son?” said one man.
“My son’s name is Edward Willis,” she said.
“I just got out of County,” the man said. “There’s a fella there in jail. I don’t know what his name is, but he’s real quiet, he sits around. He’s not a young kid.”
“No,” Sophie said. “No, he’s not a young kid.”
“He’s very quiet and everything else like that, but he’ll say a few words to you,” the man said. “He acts as if he’s hurting all the time. He’s got such a bad limp.”
“Yeah, he does.”
“Is that your son?”
“What else do you know?” she said.
“I really can’t tell you much else. He’s real quiet, he don’t bother nobody. He’s really to himself all the time.”
“Is there anything else that you noticed?”
“Oh, yeah. Did your son have teeth? Because he don’t have no teeth in his mouth.”
That was proof, Sophie thought, because none of the reports about Edward had mentioned that he didn’t have any teeth. Just then someone came by and picked the man up and drove away. She hadn’t asked the man his name and hadn’t got an address or telephone number, so no one could ask him more questions.
Certain that Edward was at 26th and California, she called the jail again and was told that he’d been arrested, then released on a personal recognizance bond from the police station at 11th and State. But she was still sure he was there, because someone had told her that it was common practice for arrested men to switch identification tags with men who didn’t understand what that meant. Later Spencer Leak said that when he ran the jail from 1986 to 1990 this happened fairly often, though a jail spokesman said that a new computerized identification system had made this practice much less common.
Sophie was desperate for proof one way or the other. Tish’s brother-in-law had recently been hired as a guard at the jail, and he scoured the prison for Edward.
On the Monday evening just before Thanksgiving, Sophie stood looking out her window, a neighbor’s baby in her arms. “I watch out this window every night, until sometimes seven o’clock in the morning. I don’t go to bed. Last night I saw a man coming down the street. He walked just like my son. I went out the back door, and when he got through the back gate I was downstairs. It wasn’t Edward. Everyone says the same thing to me. ‘Sophie, I’m sure that he’s there in jail.’ They say that things that go on in that jail house, it’s worse than the streets. All the fellas come out and say that you don’t know what’s going on there. I don’t know what to say or think. I never seen nothin’ like this in all the days of my life.”
Sophie didn’t think things could get any worse.
On Friday, December 13, nearly four months after Edward disappeared, Sophie went down to the mailbox and saw that she’d received an envelope postmarked Palatine. She thought it was a Christmas greeting from a relative and ignored it for an hour while she did some housework. She finally picked it up, noticed that the return address was in Waukegan, and tore it open. On the outside of the card was a picture of multicolored fish. The inside read: “May all the Joys of this Holiday Season be yours throughout the New Year.” It was signed “North Shore Terrace.”
Sophie had no idea what North Shore Terrace was or who had sent the card. She hoped it had something to do with Edward, but couldn’t imagine what. Ten minutes later the phone rang. A woman from the Social Security Administration asked if it was all right with Latham if the authority she had to sign Edward’s social security checks for him was switched over to North Shore Terrace.
“What’s North Shore Terrace?” Sophie remembers asking the woman.
“It’s the nursing home you put Edward in,” the woman said.
“What? I didn’t put Edward in no nursing home!”
“That’s where he is.”
“Edward has been missing since August 19.”
The woman said she hadn’t known that. She said North Shore Terrace had called her and asked her to turn authority for Edward’s checks over without Sophie’s permission. Following procedure, the woman had refused to do so, then called Sophie.
Edward’s check, totaling $349, came on the first of each month. He’d cashed the August check before he disappeared, and Sophie had hidden the rest. She told the agent this, and the agent said that if Sophie didn’t want to turn authority over to the nursing home she didn’t have to. The woman gave Sophie the number for North Shore Terrace.
“Where’s that at again?” Sophie asked.
“Waukegan? How in the world did Edward ever get to Waukegan?”
“I don’t know, ma’am.”
“This nursing home didn’t tell you nothing about Edward being missing?”
“No. I had no idea.”
Sophie immediately called North Shore Terrace and asked to speak to someone in charge. She was told the administrator had gone home for the weekend and would call her on Monday. She called Tish, who immediately called the home and faxed them, on City Hall stationery, a copy of the Tribune article about Latham’s search for Edward. Tish too was told that the administrator had left for the weekend.
Sophie called Pastor Jackson. She called Lieutenant Brown. She called most of her family. Jackson called Spencer Leak, who wanted to arrange to have someone drive Sophie to the home, but when he called North Shore Terrace he too was told that the administrator had left and all visits would have to wait until Monday.
But Sophie was ecstatic that Edward had been found. She figured that by Monday she would have him home. That Sunday, December 15, she relaxed for the first time in months. In his Sunday sermon Jackson announced that Brother Willis had been found and that the $500 reward would be turned over to Sophie, who had found him. The congregation cheered.
That same Sunday Lieutenant Brown sent a missing-persons officer to Waukegan. The officer spoke to Edward and to a social worker from the home. The officer said that Edward said he didn’t want to come home, that he was happy at North Shore Terrace. Edward was no longer a missing person, and the police signed off on the case. “That’s as far as we go,” said Brown. “He is no longer a missing person. As far as his desire to go home, or whatever the situation might be, that’s up to him. The man is 62 years old. He’s an adult.”
Spencer Leak called first thing Monday morning and spoke with Terry Auffox, a social worker at North Shore Terrace. She told him she couldn’t confirm that Edward was staying at the nursing home. Leak said he knew for certain that he was.
“If he is staying here we must protect his confidentiality,” Leak remembers her saying.
Sophie got up Monday morning and dressed to go to Waukegan. Then she called North Shore Terrace and asked to speak to Edward. She says she was told she couldn’t come see him. She asked to speak to him again. She was told that he couldn’t talk then, that he was down in the basement working. She asked to talk to him again and was again told she couldn’t.
She called Leak, and he called the Waukegan police. They told him they wouldn’t interfere in the situation. Leak called Lieutenant Brown, who told him Edward was no longer the business of the police. By that time it was early evening, and Leak had a lot of other things to take care of, including arranging a funeral and attending a board meeting at Liberty Baptist. The next day he and Jackson had to testify in a trial. He told Sophie that she’d have to wait until Wednesday.
That night Sophie was more confused and upset than ever. “They say now that he told everybody that he didn’t want to come home. He didn’t want to leave. If he didn’t want to come home wasn’t it in their place to notify the mother? You see what I’m talking about? They say I need to be his legal guardian. I’m not his legal guardian. I’m his mother. And where did they get his address from if he didn’t tell them? He knows how to say my name, and he knows how to say ‘in the book.’ And he knows my name and he knows my address. ‘Doesn’t want to come home.’ There’s no way Edward would say nothing like that.
“And why is he in Waukegan? What happened to him? How did he get to Waukegan? Waukegan’s a long way from here. They’re trying to say, ‘Well, he came here.’ I know that’s not so. I am so confused, so crazy I don’t know whether I’m living or dying! This morning the lady from the nursing home told me, ‘Anyway, Edward says you’re sick and you’re not able to do anything.’ He would never say nothing like that. If I was sick he would never tell anybody else about it. But I’m not sick. I have arthritis. And yes, I’ve been awfully sick in my life. I had surgery. But when he left here I wasn’t sick. I don’t understand. I don’t understand why they would ever do anything like this. This is what I can’t figure out. I never would have thought of this in my wildest dreams. You know what I was most scared of? That he was someplace and hurt. At least I know he’s safe.
“But I don’t understand a nursing home doing anything like that. I have worked at a nursing home. I have never known anybody to take an attitude like that. Take anybody in and tell them that they can stay here, and then go all the way to social security? Why would they wait from September until now to go to social security? I just can’t understand. That’s what hurt me so bad. If they could say, ‘Well, we picked him up in such and such a place on the road. He was looking for work and he had nowhere to go and we brought him here. We’ve been taking care of him.’ I could have understood that. But no, they didn’t say nothing like that. They wouldn’t tell me anything.”
Sophie began calling family members. She didn’t want to wait until Wednesday. Early in the morning on Tuesday, December 17, she and her nephew James Mitchell drove north, arriving in Waukegan at about 11 AM.
Sophie says she and Mitchell walked into the nursing home, a four-story gray brick building. Sophie said, “Good morning. My name is Sophie Latham. I’m Edward Willis’s mother.”
“You’re Edward Willis’s mother?” she remembers the receptionist saying.
She smiled at Sophie and gave her Edward’s room number on the third floor. Sophie went upstairs, but he wasn’t there. She says she turned around and saw two women standing behind her.
“Who you looking for?” they asked.
“I’m Edward Willis’s mother.”
“He’s in the basement. I don’t really know if he’s here today.”
“Who are you?” Sophie asked. She doesn’t remember the woman’s name, she only remembers that she was a social worker. “And what do you mean, you don’t know if he’s here today?”
The woman took Sophie and Mitchell downstairs, said she’d find Edward, and left. A Tribune delivery man dropped off the day’s papers.
“Do you all take the Tribune?” Sophie asked the receptionist.
“Yes, Ms. Latham,” said the receptionist. “Everybody that wants one has one.”
“Didn’t you all see Edward’s picture in the paper?”
Sophie showed her the Tribune article and other pictures of Edward.
“That’s him,” the receptionist told her. “I know he’s here, but I don’t remember seeing it in the paper.”
The social worker came back and told Sophie and Mitchell to come with her. They were taken into a little room where Edward was sitting.
“Hey!” Sophie said.
Edward jumped up, hugged her, and laughed. Sophie remembers he looked clean and well fed. She sat down beside him. The social worker sat down facing them.
“How are you?” Sophie asked.
“I’m fine,” he said. They hugged again. “I’m all right, but look at my leg.” He had a plastic cast over his right leg, the one with the steel rod.
“That will make me walk better.”
“Who said that?”
“His doctor,” said the social worker.
“What doctor?” Sophie said. “Not his doctor.”
“Who is his doctor?” asked the social worker. Sophie didn’t answer.
Edward started asking about everybody at home.
“Eddie, how in the world did you get here?” Sophie said. She says Edward looked at the social worker, who “jumped up and started looking at him wild.”
She claims the social worker said, “The Pacific Garden Mission brought him here.”
Sophie says Edward looked at the social worker, then said, “They brought me here.”
“Edward, I want to tell you something,” the social worker said. “I’m going to tell your mother all the counseling sessions that you and I had are strictly confidential and I will not tell or repeat them. I will not tell anything on you.”
“Well, I want to know why you didn’t let all of us know about him being here,” Sophie said. “He’s been here since September.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said the social worker. “I thought that you knew. We
didn’t know you didn’t know he was here.”
“What do you mean, you didn’t know?” Sophie pulled the Christmas card out of her purse. “You all mailed this.”
“What?” said the social worker.
“How could you send me a card if you didn’t know I was there? Why didn’t you call me sooner? You didn’t even sign the card.”
“I don’t know about that.” The social worker turned to Edward. “Remember, Edward, the things that you told me, I will not say.”
“What did you say?” asked Sophie.
Edward looked at the social worker and didn’t speak.
“Why are you telling him that you won’t tell?” Sophie said. “I didn’t say I didn’t believe what you were saying.”
“I was working down in the kitchen when you came,” Edward said suddenly.
“You were?” Sophie said. “Was it nice?”
“Oh, yes. Very nice.”
“Edward knows that he is being taken care of,” said the social worker.
Mitchell, who’d said little so far, asked where the bathroom was, and the social worker got up to show him. Sophie and Edward were alone.
“How do you feel?” she said. “Your face looks so clean.”
“Oh, yeah. I took a bath.”
They talked for a while. Finally Sophie asked, “Do you wanna go home?”
“Because Christmas is next week.”
“I wanna come home for Christmas.”
The social worker returned, and Edward told her, “I’m going home for Christmas.”
“May I speak to Ed alone, please?” said the social worker.
Sophie said later she should have refused. The social worker left with Edward. After a while Sophie grew impatient and left the room as well. Edward came out of another room, followed by the social worker, who was called away by someone. Edward invited Sophie upstairs to his room. “I need to get my coat,” he said.
Edward introduced Sophie to everyone on the elevator. He introduced her to everyone they saw in the hall as they walked to his room. Edward showed Sophie his Bible. He told her he was going to take it home with him. He said he was going to church every Sunday. “I miss going to my church. But we do go to church here.”
He went over to the closet and said he was going to put on his heavy shirt. He had a closet full of clothes that he said the social worker had given to him. “It was like she was his wife or something,” Sophie said later.
He put on his coat and hat, and they left. But when they walked into the hall, the social worker approached and said, “I want to talk to Edward alone for a few minutes.” She pulled him into an office and shut the door in Sophie’s face.
Mitchell returned, and Sophie went over to the door and listened. “I know I shouldn’t have, but I did.” She says she heard the social worker shout, “Do you understand what I’m telling you? You listen to me!”
Sophie knocked on the door. No one answered. She knocked again. “What are you talking about in there?”
“He is not going home,” said the social worker, opening the door.
“Yes, he is.”
“If he goes he’s got to sign out. Come on up to the desk.”
Later Sophie said Edward “was looking real funny and flushed in the face.”
The woman behind the desk pulled out a piece of paper and said, “Edward, this is where you sign out to go home.”
“Can you sign that paper?” Sophie said.
“She been showing me how to write my name,” he said.
Sophie thought this was strange, since she’d been trying to teach Edward to write his name for 50 years. “Well, if you’ve got to sign that paper I’ll sign too.”
Sophie says the social worker then walked up to Edward and whispered something in his ear. He turned to Sophie and said, “I’m not going home for Christmas.”
“What! Why are you not going home for Christmas?”
“Well, he has to sign the paper before he leaves,” said the receptionist. Sophie says the woman then put the sign-out sheet away.
Then another social worker came up and said, “Come on, Edward, we want to talk to you in the room.” The two social workers went into the office with him.
Sophie waited a while, then knocked on the door. They let her in.
“Edward is not going home for Christmas,” said one of the social workers.
“Why, Edward? Why did you change your mind?”
He started sobbing. “I don’t wanna go back there no more. I don’t wanna go to Chicago.”
Sophie hadn’t seen him cry like that for years. He’d cried hard before he’d learned to talk again, because he was so frustrated. And when he got older he’d sometimes sit up at night and cry. But not like this.
“I don’t ever have to go back to Chicago no more!” he said.
“Why, what’s the matter?”
“I don’t ever have to go back no more.”
“He’s not going back,” said one of the social workers.
“What are you talking about? He told me and you too that he was going back.”
“He’s not going today. He’s not going home for Christmas.”
“I don’t ever have to go back,” Edward said.
Sophie walked toward him, but the social worker stood between them. Edward stood up and, still crying, ran out a back door.
“What are you all doing?” Sophie said. She went after him, walking up and down the halls of North Shore Terrace, calling his name. “I’ll have to call the police,” she said when she ran into one of the social workers again.
“Maybe it’s good that you do call the police, because I’m going to call the police and have them put you out of here,” Sophie remembers her saying.
“That was it,” Sophie says. “I got James and left. I went downstairs and back out the front way. I didn’t see Edward no more.”
The next day I called North Shore Terrace and talked with Terry Auffox, the social worker.
“I talked to Ed,” Auffox told me. “Ed has given me permission to tell you that he lives here.”
“It’s up to him wherever he wants to go. I can’t give you any more information. I’m not trying to put a block or stonewall your story. We are a nursing home.”
“We strongly guard one’s confidentiality.”
“And I had to get permission before we spoke.”
“I’m telling you the truth here.”
“Because before I couldn’t do that. And now I can tell you that he’s here, but I can’t really answer your other questions.”
“You can’t even answer how he arrived at the home?”
“Well, I met with his mother earlier, and I was not able to answer that question, because I just don’t have knowledge about everything.”
“You don’t know how he got to the nursing home?”
“There’s no need to keep repeating the question to me, because I really cannot tell you. If I knew, I couldn’t tell you. But I don’t know the fine points.”
“Is there someone at the home that would know the fine points?”
“If you would like to speak to our administrator…”
I said I would. “What’s the administrator’s name?”
“I’ll have him announce himself to you. I don’t know if he’d want me to give out his name. I know that this sounds very strange to you.”
The administrator’s name was Neal Kjos. He said he could tell me nothing about what went on when Latham visited and that without consent of the resident a nursing home can’t even acknowledge that a resident is a resident. Of course that meant that only Edward could confirm whether he was a resident of North Shore Terrace, yet he could be reached only by calling the nursing home’s main switchboard.
Kjos said the North Shore Terrace staff could answer no questions without Edward’s permission (though clearly they also had the power to choose what to ask him about), including questions that he had no ability to answer, such as: Why did the nursing home take four months to notify Sophie that he was staying there? Why did they try to get Edward’s checks without Sophie’s permission? And how did Edward get to Waukegan in the first place?
Kjos said, “The facility doesn’t have a point of view. Now, wherever Sophie’s son is, he might have a point of view. In fact, he does have a point of view. He’s apparently not with his mother, right? So what makes anyone believe that he has not the ability to choose that he does not want to be with his mother and be wherever he wants to be? You have a woman saying that she lost her son and now she’s found her son. So what about that? You have her story, but you don’t have her son’s story. And her son’s story is not necessarily my story. The ideal would be for her son to talk to you. But if he chooses not to talk…”
Christmas came and went. Pastor Jackson caught laryngitis. Everybody seemed to think that if Sophie hadn’t gone to the nursing home alone, without the support of the pastor and other church officials, she would have been able to bring Edward home. Now they told her to stay put. Someone got her in touch with an attorney from the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, and she thought the man was working on her case. But he wasn’t, because he’s only allowed to handle cases in the city. The nursing home wouldn’t give out any more information to anyone who called. So Sophie waited.
Finally Leak and Jackson organized an expedition to Waukegan on Wednesday, January 15, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. It was a cold, dreary day, and three to six inches of snow were expected. But at 9 AM Sophie, Jackson, Louise Morgan, and Dovia Anderson, the outgoing president of Liberty Baptist’s usher board, met at the church. Leak said he’d try to meet them later in Waukegan. They all got into the pastor’s black sedan and headed north, arriving at North Shore Terrace a little after 11 AM. Morgan had brought along a box of candy canes for the home’s residents. “I’m a missionary,” she said.
Pastor Jackson and Sophie introduced themselves at the front desk. A few minutes later Neal Kjos came out of his office.
“One of your residents, Edward Willis, is a member of our church,” said Jackson.
“Yes,” Kjos said. “Yes.”
“This is his mother, Ms. Latham.”
“I didn’t see you when I came before,” Sophie said.
“No,” Kjos said, “not last time.”
Sophie, Jackson, Morgan, Anderson, and Kjos went into Kjos’s office and stayed there for 45 minutes. Later Jackson said that for the first half of the meeting Kjos kept insisting that Edward’s confidentiality and privacy had to be maintained and that Edward didn’t want to go home. Sophie got frustrated and yelled at Kjos repeatedly. He got more defensive. But Jackson told Kjos about Liberty Baptist and Edward’s relation to the church. He told him about Edward’s work in the community. And Morgan testified about his work with the church’s missions.
Kjos came out of his office and asked to speak with Terry Auffox, and the two of them walked off down the hallway. A few minutes later they reappeared with Edward. Morgan looked out the door of Kjos’s office. “There he is!” she shouted. “That’s Eddie!” Everyone looked out the door and waved.
Kjos and Auffox took Edward into another room, then Kjos came back to his office and said that Edward wanted to talk to Jackson in private. Jackson went next door, and Kjos and Auffox disappeared.
“Kjos know we ain’t no fool now,” Sophie said.
Morgan angrily recalled her days as a civil rights protester with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and said that if things didn’t go right today, there was going to be some serious picketing here.
“I can hear Edward laughing in there,” Sophie said.
“Oh, in the name of Mary and Jesus, Lord have mercy,” said Morgan. Anderson sat silently and prayed.
“He will provide, sister,” Morgan said.
“I know it,” said Sophie.
Jackson returned, then Edward, leaning on his cane, came into the room.
“Who is this?” Morgan said in a teasing voice.
“It’s an angel,” said Edward.
“He called me an angel,” said Sophie, laughing.
“You talkin’ to the angel here,” Edward said. “I’m the angel.”
“Hey-y-y Eddie!” said Sophie.
“Who am I?” Morgan said.
“I don’t know,” Edward said.
“You don’t know me? You ain’t never seen me before? Oh, well, ain’t that somethin’?”
Jackson said, “I told him I got your mother over here and Sister Morgan.”
Edward shook hands with Morgan and Anderson.
“You don’t shake hands with me,” Sophie said. “You give me a hug like you did before.”
Edward laughed. They hugged. Edward sat down in Kjos’s desk chair.
“I’m walkin’ better,” Edward said. “Walkin’ more better and everything.”
“He’s been going to church in North Chicago,” said Jackson.
“This church that I go to, they take me in the car, bring me back and everything,” Edward said.
“You think you’re at Liberty and you just put us all aside?” Morgan said.
“He said he got a pastor in the church,” Jackson said. “That’s right, yeah.”
“Why you didn’t come to the telephone when I called you?” Sophie said, and began to cry.
“I don’t know.”
“Your mama called you a couple times,” Jackson said.
“I called on Christmas. Eleanor called all the way from Los Angeles, California.”
“I didn’t get a call.”
“They said you didn’t come to the phone.”
“She said you said you didn’t wanna come to the phone. That’s what she was saying. I want to know one thing. Is you ready to go home?”
“Like it here.”
“Well, I-I don’t mind your business liking it here. Has somebody at home did something to you?”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure.”
“Why were you crying and saying you don’t wanna go back to Chicago no more?” She was sobbing now.
“I don’t. Don’t like Chicago no more.”
“But wait a minute,” Sophie said. “Don’t get upset now.”
“May I tell you something?” Edward said.
“What?” Sophie said.
“In Chicago there’s no air. Nothing in Chicago. But out here I get air.”
“Brother Willis, he looks good,” Jackson said. “He looks rested. I told Brother Willis we were concerned and wanted to know what he wanted to do.” He looked at Edward. “I said we were concerned about you at the church. We miss you down at the church.”
“Ain’t nobody in Chicago but me and you,” Sophie said to Edward.
“I’m-I’m-I’m gonna get you out here too,” Edward said. “I’m gonna get you out here too.”
“Well, when I get old enough I want a nursing home where I can be around the family. I want to be around the family. We ain’t got many people left. They told me to come up here and get you and bring you straight down there to see them so they could talk to you. These people up here are saying that you could come home. It’s entirely up to you. I’m your mother. And I’m the one that’s hurting. Nobody else. I want to know. Did I ever do anything to you? I ain’t never knowed you to go away from home and say you wanted to stay away from home. I know you go out and stay all night and call me up and say, ‘I won’t be there until the morning–I’m working.’ I knowed you to do that.”
“I did ask Brother Willis how’d he get out here,” Jackson said. “He said it was from Pacific Garden Mission. They asked, if he wanted to go to a nursing facility, come up front. He said he went up front, and that’s how he got out here.”
“Didn’t you see your picture up on the wall there?” Sophie asked Edward. “Down there where I was lookin’ for you? And over at the restaurant? Didn’t you see your picture over there? Didn’t those girls tell you?”
“On Wabash?” Edward said.
“No. I was selling New York Times. We sell them. We headed back to the mission.”
“Where was you selling them?”
“You just tell me why you’d tell them you wouldn’t even talk to me. That is what he said.”
“The director. He said, ‘Ms. Latham, I was gonna call you to the phone, but he said he didn’t want to talk to you.’ I want to know. Tell me! If it’s something–you don’t have to be ashamed because reverend and everybody here. Did I ever do anything to you?”
“Did anybody mistreat you in the building?”
“Uh-uh. There’s something wrong with my head, they tell me.”
“What’s wrong with your head, Eddie? You ain’t ever had nothing wrong with you!”
“I want to be by myself to get my mind back together.”
“Well, your mind…well you always was by yourself. When you was at home you’d go in that room and wouldn’t talk to me.”
“But you say you wanted to get yourself together,” Jackson said.
“Get yourself together how?” said Sophie.
“Long story. Can’t tell you.”
“But that’s how you get it together,” Morgan said. “By telling it.”
“You’re not gonna ever get it together if you don’t let us know what’s wrong,” said Sophie. “That man sat there in the chair where you sittin’ and said you said that you didn’t want to come home. Well, you’ve gotta have a reason. The whole family, everybody is wondering why. You don’t have to–if it’s something you think is gonna hurt me, I got a great big heart. I’ve been here 79 years. I can’t be hurt no more than I’m hurtin’ now. I have a son, and everybody’s wondering why he’s not at home. Everybody in the building comes to my house. They come and took up a collection. I have an envelope for you. From in the building. Hoping you would be all right and you’d be home for Christmas.”
“We even collected a reward for you at the church,” Jackson said.
Edward began to look nervous.
“If there’s something you feel that somebody did to you, we want you to tell us,” said Sophie. “If anybody in Chicago ever did anything to you.”
“Looong story,” Edward said.
“What is the story? Where does the long story start?”
“OK,” Sophie said. “Eddie, look at me. You know you can always trust me. I don’t care what you ever did or how you did it. Wasn’t I always there for you?”
“I’m here for you now. So I want you to talk to me. You want to go back in the room and just talk to me and tell me? So I can make up my mind what to tell you? I don’t know what to say to you unless you tell me. Let me talk to you, Eddie. Let’s talk. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“It’s a long story.”
“Come on, baby.”
Sophie got up, and Edward followed her out.
Jackson, Morgan, and Anderson stayed where they were. They all agreed that Edward looked good. They all said they’d never seen him walk as well as he was walking. They wondered if the open spaces in Waukegan, which he’d never experienced in his life, would keep him from coming home. They had serious doubts that he wanted to return to the city at all. Jackson pointed out that Sophie wasn’t Edward’s legal guardian; she just had the power to sign his social security checks and power of attorney. They all figured that to get Edward back she would have to go to court, which could take months.
Ten minutes later Sophie appeared at the door, her face covered in tears. “Reverend Jackson?”
“My son wants you to go with him out there in the front. Tell them he’s going home. Our conversation will not go any farther. He told me. And I know what to do.”
Edward appeared in the doorway, and she sat down.
“You ready to go home?” Jackson said.
“Yeah,” said Edward.
Jackson and Edward went to inform the staff that he was going back to Chicago.
“He is in his right mind, and he is scared to death,” Sophie said. “That’s what made him cry.”
“It don’t make no difference,” Morgan said, “’cause the Lord knows first.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I don’t do anything to hurt people,” said Morgan.
“I don’t either.”
“But I do tell the truth, because that’s all the Lord requires.”
“That’s what I told my child. I said, ‘You listen to mama. You tell me the truth.’ Tears were coming in his eyes. But he told me. He told me the truth.”
Jackson returned. “He’s going upstairs to get his stuff, and he’s calling his doctor now. Kjos said he can go home now.”
“OK,” Sophie said. “I wanted you to go with him, because that’s where that social worker starts talking to him.”
Jackson went upstairs with Edward, who packed up his things. He had a suitcase full of donated clothes, a long coat, a Bible, a box of Bible tapes, and three baseball caps. One of them bore a red pin that indicated that Edward had been elected treasurer of North Shore Terrace’s residents’ council. Edward put on a New York Times cap and left his room.
Morgan walked around the nursing home, passing out candy and blessing everyone in sight. The others sat in Kjos’s office, waiting for official permission for Edward to leave. Edward came in and sat in Kjos’s chair.
Kjos came into the office. “The only thing is checking if there’s any meds that he needs to take with him. I think they’ve already got the doctor’s order. No problem.”
“Thank you,” Sophie said. “Sorry if I raised my voice too much.”
“No problem. You didn’t. I understand perfectly clear.”
“Well, I’m glad you do. I know if you’d got a son you’d know how I feel.”
“Everybody’s happy,” Kjos said.
“Yeah. Oh yeah.”
Sophie went up to Edward. “Now you listen to me. You don’t need to ever hide nothin’ from God. Don’t ever hide nothin’ from mama. You don’t hide nothin’ from me, because I’m here for you. You remember them words. If anything go wrong now, or you think it’s wrong, or you see anything that you don’t believe is fair, and you think I’m gonna do a lot of crying–which I do–go down there and tell Reverend Jackson. If you see anything don’t look right, if you don’t want to tell me, go down there and tell the pastor.”
Edward sat listening, but said nothing.
“Brother Willis knows that he can talk with me,” Jackson said.
“The truth means a lot, Edward,” Sophie said. “Mama always told you that.”
“I believe it too,” Edward said.
On the way out the door Morgan handed Kjos a candy cane. “God bless you,” she said.
Sophie went up to Kjos. “Thank you. Thank you for everything you did for my son.”
Edward says that in August he was hanging out in front of the Pacific Garden Mission with three other men when a van pulled up and a man asked him if he wanted to go for a job. The next thing he knew he was in a nursing home. He says he never did anything in Chicago that he’s ashamed of, and he didn’t run away from home. He merely thought he was going to do some day labor, and when he looked up he was in Waukegan.
It’s still not clear who brought Edward to Waukegan. Pacific Garden Mission says it wasn’t involved. Edward says that when he got to North Shore Terrace the other men with him realized where they were and called family members to come pick them up. Edward says he might have gone with them, but he didn’t know where they were going. A Chicago nursing-home-patient advocate says that there have been cases reported of nursing homes trolling the streets looking for poor and elderly people to take to their facilities, but she knows of no such complaint about North Shore Terrace. No one at the nursing home will answer questions.
Nursing homes often get state money for residents who have no private means of support. Public aid could have picked up the cost of Edward’s care, minus his $349 social security payment. It could also have paid his monthly medicaid premium and $30 for personal expenses such as haircuts or toiletries. Public-aid and nursing-home officials estimate that the average cost of care for a low-income resident runs between $2,500 and $3,000 a month.
On the ride home Edward sat in the front seat, with Morgan sandwiched between him and Jackson, who drove. Sophie and Anderson sat in the back. They all thanked God.
“I have too many, toooo many beautiful things,” Morgan said. “So many wonderful things. He has given them to me.”
“I even called my wife when I went to get the car,” Jackson said. “I said, you know, serving the Lord pays off. This job has its good points. We’re bringing Brother Willis home. I could tell we took the nursing home by storm. They didn’t know what to do.”
“I’ll never forget Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday now,” said Sophie.
“Nope,” Jackson said. “Free at last.”
“Edward, we know you love the people here in Waukegan, and they love you too, or you wouldn’t be looking so good,” Morgan said. “But you got a home.”
“That’s right,” Sophie said. “They treated you nice.”
“If you decide to do anything like this again, you call the operator and tell them to get your pastor on the phone,” Morgan said. “You caused everybody a lot a grief, but here we go. The Lord is so good.”
“Sure is,” said Sophie. “He answered my prayers, right on time. I asked him that this be the last time I go out here in my life.”
“Christmas in January,” said Jackson.
“Yessir,” said Sophie. “Santa Claus came to me. God bless me.”
Edward turned to Jackson. “Hey, hey, hey, Reverend. You got Bible class tonight?”
“Yep,” Jackson said.
“I’ll be there.” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Lloyd DeGrane.