When Henry Williams came in from the cold after eight years living homeless on Chicago streets, he told his Salvation Army rescuers he didn’t have any family.
That was six months ago. Williams, 54, has learned a lot in six months, including what it means to be clean and sober and to let go of old hurts.
His family learned something, too; after discovering my column online, they learned Williams was still alive.
On Tuesday, Williams was reunited with the family he had once denied, thanks to the generosity of a Chicago Sun-Times reader who paid for them to travel here from Virginia for a visit.
And Williams was so very grateful for it.
“I’m pretty overwhelmed, but I’m good. This was meant to happen. This is the way life is supposed to be. I’m actually back on Earth again,” he told me.
There was a tear on Williams’ cheek late Tuesday afternoon as he expressed his thanks with family gathered round in a room at the Salvation Army’s Harbor Lights Center.
I had missed the original reunion a few hours earlier, when I’m told there were tears all around, mixed in with joyful hugs and even a family argument. Hey, what’s a family without an argument?
Williams’ sister, Mary Cosby, made the trip from Richmond along with her daughter, Dorothy, and Williams’ two brothers, Able and Ivory.
“There’s a lot of change in him,” observed his sister, noting her brother was thinner and grayer than when she last saw him, but also something more important.
“He’s different on the inside. His heart is different. He thinks different,” she said.
It was Dorothy who got up in the middle of the night in late April with a sudden urge to Google her long-missing uncle’s name and found my column about him. A follow-up column about their discovery and subsequent telephone reunion mentioned they couldn’t afford to make the trip to see him in person.
That caught the attention of their benefactor, a Chicago businessman who paid to rent them a minivan to drive here (Mary’s health prohibited her from flying) and put them up in a hotel.
The businessman asked to remain anonymous, but told me he was motivated by a sense of family.
“Family is very important,” he said.
Williams knows that now.
“Everyone needs a family,” he told me.
Williams said it was something that started to dawn on him during his recovery as he saw family members of other residents of the Salvation Army treatment center come for visits.
He wondered if there might still be somebody out there who cared about him, a thought on which he had given up long ago as he buried himself deeper and deeper in Chicago’s street life and his drug addiction.
Williams, who went 185-190 pounds back in the day, was a scrawny 115 with a Rumpelstiltskin beard when Salvation Army workers found him sleeping in an alley under a sheet on one of the coldest nights of the year.
“I didn’t really want to deal with a lot of memories, you know,” said Williams of his withdrawal from society. He says he harbored resentment over being abused as a child.
A trip down memory lane on Tuesday led to that family argument, one of those who-did-what-to-whom things. They got past it.
“We worked through some rocky memories, and it all turned out to be a beautiful moment,” said Williams.
Williams said he’s rediscovered there’s a “natural bond you get from family you really can’t get nowhere else. It’s like an empty spot that was missing has been filled.”
Just the same, Williams said he now has two families: his biological family and the Salvation Army.
His Virginia family is only too happy to share him with the Salvation Army folks that they credit with turning his life around, but his sister wanted to make sure he understood something.
“Guess what, we always loved you, and we always cared about you,” she said. “I always want you to know you are not by yourself.”
I wonder how many other people out there could benefit from hearing those words.