In the early morning hours of Sept. 26, 1997, a car hit a man in Lakeland and then drove off, leaving him unconscious and near death.
The man had no identification. He was flown to Tampa General Hospital, and after surgery for internal injuries and head trauma, he spent eight months in a coma. People scanned missing persons reports and concluded he was most likely James Lee Dailey. He agreed, and insisted he had family in Pensacola and Detroit.
No one could reach his family, though. For the better part of 14 years, Dailey has sat in a wheelchair and, through slurred words, told anyone who would listen about his sister, Charlie Mae, and four other siblings, and about his son, James, and his daughters. But none of them came to see him, and no one was sure they even existed.
Until this Christmas.
Pat Erickson works for Aging Solutions Inc., a nonprofit agency that looks after people who are declared wards of the state because they have no money and no family or friends who step forward to care for them. The state has paid for Dailey's care since 1997. Aging Solutions acts as his guardian.
Erickson visits Dailey once every two months at the Rehabilitation Center of St. Pete. There have been several attempts to locate Dailey's family, and Erickson herself tried a few years ago by looking for relatives on the Internet and trying to call them, to no avail.
This fall she tried again. This time she mailed out letters. One of the letters got to someone who called someone else who called Charlie Mae Chaney in Detroit.
Chaney, 65, has been looking for her brother for 17 years. He was a drifter. He never had a job, and he did a lot of drugs, and he drank a lot, and he spent a lot of time in jail. When he disappeared, many of her relatives figured he was dead. But Chaney always held out hope her little brother was still alive.
When she heard he was in the rehab center, she called every relative she could find. She tracked down his son in Houston and bought him a bus ticket to meet her in Pensacola. She flew down from Detroit, and from there they drove across the state, collecting relatives along the way. They had more than a dozen by the time they reached a St. Petersburg hotel on Christmas Eve.
On Christmas morning they piled into two rented vans and drove to the rehab center to give James Lee Dailey the surprise of his life.
• • •
Pat Erickson was concerned that seeing the whole gang at once would shock Dailey. She wanted him to just see his sister, Chaney, first.
Erickson had her stand at the end of the hallway, by the door to the roomful of relatives, with her back to the direction Dailey would come from. Then Erickson went up to the third floor to get Dailey.
Chaney leaned against the railing. She shook with nerves, muttered, and fanned herself with a napkin before dabbing her eyes. She took two deep breaths.
Erickson came around the corner with Dailey, and Chaney could hear them talking. She turned around, and when Dailey saw her, he yelled, "Mama!" and they embraced.
Chaney told Dailey she wasn't his mother, she was his sister, and he nodded. She then told him the rest of his family was waiting behind the door.
"You want to go in there and see them?"
"I sure do."
They opened the door and wheeled Dailey in. The clapping, shouting and cheering could be heard down the hallway.
• • •
The reunion was tearful, it was loud, it was joyous. Dailey made jokes, and even though his relatives could only understand some of them, they laughed at all of them.
They ate a Christmas lunch out of plastic-foam containers, and they gave Dailey a birthday cake and some presents. He turns 60 on Wednesday.
The rehab center's staff had stocked the room with lots of Christmas decorations, lots of birthday decorations, and lots of tissues. Once Dailey was rolled in, the tissues were in high demand.
One person who did not need a tissue, except to blow his nose, was Dailey's son, James. Dailey talks of two daughters and a son, but Chaney only knows of one daughter and one son, and she couldn't find the daughter.
The son, James Lee Wright, 30, was raised by his maternal grandparents in Detroit, and hadn't seen his father since he was 5. Wright hugged his father at the urging of his aunts, and posed for pictures, but he didn't have much to say to the man.
Wright doubted he would keep in touch with his father after Sunday. Like most of the rest of the family, Wright headed home Sunday afternoon.
"The way he talks now, I can't even understand him," Wright said. "There isn't much to talk about, anyway."
Brenda Williams, 56, is another of Dailey's sisters. She lives in Quincy, near Tallahassee, where she works at a nursing home. She said she understood Wright's feelings.
"When you grow up without a father, and you don't know why, it's hard," Williams said. "But he'll get over it. … I just can't believe we finally found him. This is truly a blessing."
Chaney talked of moving Dailey out, but rehab center staff cautioned it's not simple. There have to be meetings, and a court proceeding.
"It just breaks my heart to know he was in a coma with none of us around," Chaney said. "I will never forget this day as long as I live."
Will Hobson can be reached at (727) 445-4167 or firstname.lastname@example.org.