Earlier this week, a young woman got the shock of her life when she found her long-lost father in the place she least expected: right there in front of her.
“As far as I knew he was just another gentleman on the streets coming in to the store,” Shoshannah Hensley, 23, of Post Falls, Idaho (pictured above with her dad), told KHQ about the day, like any other, that she was working her job as a cashier at a local Exxon station. But then he handed her his food stamp card.
“He asked me what his balance was and I saw the name and my heart dropped,” she recalled. “I said, ‘What’s your middle name,’ and he said, ‘Eugene’ and I said, ‘You’re my biological father! I’ve been searching for you for over 20 years.’”
Her dad, Brian Hensley, added, “We both started shaking. When you miss a child, you feel empty for years.” He added, “I’m going to be there in every way. Whatever it takes.”
Shoshannah and her father. (Photo: Facebook)
Shoshannah said, “I never thought the day would come.” She’s started a dedicated Facebook page about the reunion, as well as a GoFundMe page to help her dad get back on his feet and stay sober. “Today is the first day of my father’s sobriety,” she wrote Wednesday on the fundraising page. “He willingly walked through a door that will walk him down a fresh new journey. He may have not been there for 20+ years but today showed me how much he wants this. I love you dad. You got this.”
And, as she told Yahoo Parenting, “I have had my fair share of struggles in my own life, but I work every day to move forward… I am excited to start a fresh journey with my father beside me.”
Amazingly, Shoshannah’s story is not the only recent story about a homeless father reuniting with a grown child. About a week before, in West Virginia, teenager Cheyenne Wilson heard her dad’s voice on a TV news broadcast as she was in the next room. The segment was about the clearing of a local homeless encampment, where John Wilson — Cheyenne’s dad, who she had not seen in three years — had been living.
Cheyenne Wilson hugging her dad, John Wilson. (Photo: WCHS-TV)
“I was in the living room working on a school project and I could just hear his voice and I was screaming that was my dad I just saw and heard him on TV,” a tearful Cheyenne told WCHS-TV. She reunited with him soon after that, when he said, “I’ve been crying all day and I’m just happy to see her, and in the situation I’ve been in, it’s rough to say hey I’ve been homeless for the last three years.”
And earlier this month in Vermont, Perry Thornley, 51, was reunited with the son he hadn’t seen in nearly 20 years. “I just want him to know there wasn’t one day in all these years that I didn’t think of him,” he had said, prior to the reunion, in a video created with the organization Miracle Messages, which helps bring homeless individuals back together with estranged family members. Thornley’s son Joseph, 23, who met with his dad after seeing the message, told WCAX he was looking forward to fostering “the communication, the connection, just having someone to talk to when nobody else seems to be able to listen.”
But what happens after the cameras turn off and the years of grief, sadness, longing, and possibly anger and resentment creep back into a parent-child relationship that’s been put on hold for so long?
“In order to understand the aftermath, it’s important to understand why there was a disconnection in the first place,” says Miracle Messages CEO Kevin Adler, who was inspired to start his company by his late uncle, who was homeless for 30 years. Logistical impediments to reconnecting, he tells Yahoo Parenting, could include “digital illiteracy” and not having access to computers and other devices, “and then there’s the more emotional and social side of things, such as possibly a feeling of shame on the homeless individual’s part, and of wanting to get themselves together before making contact.”
Perry Thornley, right, with his son Joseph. (Photo: WCAX)
The organization has so far helped initiate 11 reunifications, including Thornley and Joseph’s, and has a goal of facilitating 100 a year. “It’s the first step of rebuilding a relationship,” Adler says. Still, highlighting the complex emotions involved in such a task is this, he’s found that, “about a quarter of the time,” families are not interested in reconnecting with the homeless relative, and turn down their attempts at contact.
But oftentimes, as with Shoshannah, the reunions happen through kismet — as was the case with author Nick Flynn, whose 2004 memoir begins with Flynn working at a men’s homeless shelter and his father strolling in one night, demanding a bed. The book, Another Bulls**t Night in Suck City, became the basis of the 2012 film Being Flynn. “Some part of me knew he would show up, that if I stood in one place long enough he would find me, like you’re taught to do when you’re lost,” he wrote. “But they never taught us what to do if both of you are lost, and you both end up in the same place, waiting.”
According to California-based family therapist Dr. Paul Hokemeyer, the emotions of reconnecting for both the parent and child after such a reunion are complex, though they usually start off filled with hope and joy.
“Human beings have what’s called an ‘optimism bias.’ It’s a wonderful thing and helps them to see the positive in life. It doesn’t always, however, represent the truth,” Hokemeyer tells Yahoo Parenting. “And the truth is that, in experiencing the joy of reuniting with a formerly homeless parent, there is also profound disappointment, depression, and the prevailing sense of sadness over what could have been.”
And while there’s disappointment in all parent-child relationships, he notes, “this disappointment is magnified exponentially when a parent has been negatively impacted by addiction or mental-health issues. And the time that has been lost to these diseases can never fully be made up.” So while the children who find their troubled parents must celebrate the joy of the reconnection, Hokemeyer says, “they also must process the pain and disappointment over what they fantasize could have been.”
For now, though, Shoshannah tells Yahoo Parenting she feels nothing but joy and relief. “There is no anger or resentment,” she says. “I couldn’t be happier.”
Top photo: Facebook