Fri | Sep 21, 2018

Son reunites with father in nursing home

Published:Saturday | December 16, 2017 | 12:02 AM

CANISTOTA, South Dakota (AP):

The old man reclines in his wheelchair, thankful for a simple routine and oblivious to his past.

He watches birds frolic in a display case in the sitting room of the Good Samaritan nursing home in Canistota as a television drones nearby, setting a familiar scene.

The difference on this morning is that James O'Reilly, 84 years old and suffering from severe dementia, has a visitor, a cause for excitement among his caretakers. For years they knew little about their patient's background and viewed that uncertainty as a puzzle that needed to be solved.

His namesake, James O'Reilly Jr, enters the room and kneels next to his father, reaching for his hand. The son starts talking about youthful memories, random moments, such as the time he turned pages for a church organist while his father sang in the choir.

He lives in Seattle and is married to a woman named Dina, he tells his dad. They have a seven-year-old daughter, who was thrilled to learn that her grandfather is alive and residing in a place called South Dakota.

Her middle name, the son explains, is Maxine, the name of James Sr's deceased mother. At that moment, the old man's eyes grow moist and rise in recognition, sparked by the spirit of rediscovery.

"There's Dad," said the son with a smile. "I knew he was in there."

For more than a decade, up until just recently, it seemed perfectly reasonable for James O'Reilly Jr to believe that his father was dead.

 

THREE YEARS, NO CONTACT

 

He lost contact in 2004, when James Sr moved from a Rapid City hotel into a home for indigent adults as his mental acuity began to fade. The retired phone company employee, who installed communications lines for nearly 40 years, became harder and harder to track down.

"One day I called the home and the phone was disconnected, with no forwarding number," said James Jr, a 43-year-old systems engineer for a software company. "Shortly after that, I moved from California to Seattle, and we lost each other in the wind."

With little paper trail and no money for a private detective, James had no way to reach his father, with whom he had always kept in touch despite a sometimes rocky relationship.

As months and then years piled up, it seemed realistic to assume the worst.

"I kind of wrote him off," admits O'Reilly. "I figured he died as some John Doe somewhere in the Upper Midwest, so I told my daughter that her grandpa was gone. She knew him only as a photograph."

The bond between father and son was buoyed by their willingness to find common ground while acknowledging their own limitations.

The elder O'Reilly was born in Omaha but raised in Texas and briefly saw action as a Marine corporal in the Korean War. He later became a drill instructor but was told he didn't have the right look to serve in the colour guard.

He entered civilian life in the early 1960s and married Patricia Otis in 1971. By the time their son was born three years later, O'Reilly was working for the phone company in Oakland and facing the demands of raising a family.

He openly favoured his biological son over his wife's two daughters from a previous marriage, creating a fragile household dynamic that eventually splintered.

When James and Patricia divorced in 1980, James Jr went to live with his father and grandmother in Alameda, about a half-mile from his previous home.

"My dad had a history of not paying his bills on time, even though he had the money," recalls James. "There were a couple times that the lights went out while I was sitting there talking to him, and he'd finally have to pay. My mom called him 'Finally O'Reilly'."

In the fall of 2014, an elderly man was dropped off at the emergency room at a Sioux Falls hospital, suffering from dementia and unable to speak coherently, the Argus Leader reported.

 

SKETCHY BIO DATA

 

He had been in the custody of a couple who served as guardians for several older men in Rapid City and Sioux Falls, but they were moving out of state and wanted to abruptly end the arrangement.

The man's name, they told hospital officials, was James O'Reilly. Few other biographical details were provided.

After hospital officials tried and failed to locate family members, the case was turned over to the Department of Social Services, who transferred O'Reilly to the Good Samaritan facility in Canistota. But state workers, facing the rare circumstance of a non-verbal individual with memory loss dropped off by non-relatives, continued their quest to connect the dots.

"We collected things that we found out about James," said Kristine Chrisopulous, a long-term services and support specialist in Sioux Falls. "We saw that he had written letters that mentioned a son, but we didn't have much to go on. It became a matter of working out different possibilities with our colleagues in Pierre, hoping to solve the mystery."

After graduating from high school and attending junior college, James Jr tried on a series occupations to see how they fit - delivering pizzas, driving a forklift, painting cars.

Before long he was hired as part of computer technical support for a startup bank, helping to set up the communications network.

"I was pulling cable through a wall in a building one day and stopped and thought, 'Oh my God. I'm my Dad,'" he said.

The notion made him smile. He recalled the days living with his father in Alameda, when James Sr grumbled about his son watching too much TV while thrusting his worldview upon him.

"Back then, Japan was doing really well with cars and electronics, so my dad thought they were taking over," recalls James. "He told me, 'You're going to have to learn Japanese,' and actually put me in a Japanese language class, which is what every 11-year-old boy wants to do on a Saturday."

 

VISITS AWKWARD AT TIMES

 

James Sr sometimes referred to his son as 'Kozo', meaning disciple or novice. When he lived in Atlanta, continuing his phone company duties, his son went to visit him as a high-school kid sporting a mullet, with his grades and future in flux.

It was an awkward visit at times, but James S. had only one son, and James Jr had but one father. It was within that reality that they found their common ground, alternating Korean War stories with tales of girlfriend drama in California, with neutral silences in between.

By the time James Jr returned home, he was ready to get his act together and plot a path forward. If the uncertain steps of that journey occasionally resembled those of his wayward father, that would be all right with him.

Dina O'Reilly was on her Facebook page in late September when she saw a message that caught her eye. It was from a social services staff worker in South Dakota, and she immediately grasped its importance.

"You've got a James M. O'Reilly and we've got a James M. O'Reilly," the message read. "Are they related by any chance?"

Dina picked up the phone and called her husband, who was travelling at the time.

"James," she said to him, letting the moment sink in. "I think they found your dad."