Jimmy Nichols walked into his new downtown deli and looked through the lunchtime crowd to find his wife Sally behind the counter. She caught his look, flashed a smile, and tears welled in their eyes.
"It's been like this since December," said Nichols, dabbing with a paper towel and trying to collect himself.
December is when a lifetime of wondering came to an end for Nichols. Adopted as an infant, the 53-year-old Tampa man finally agreed to let Sally look for the birth family he had never known. Through a private investigator, they discovered his mother had died — but that he had three half-sisters and two half-brothers.
What's more, he learned that the family had been trying to find him, too. His mother, in fact, had never stopped looking. And his siblings searched 25 years for the big brother they dreamed of someday meeting.
Jimmy Nichols lived with his yearning to know but never acted on it — not while he was growing up in Tampa, not after he met Sally here and moved to her native England, not while they were raising their two boys, not even after they returned to Tampa 10 years ago.
Nichols found the idea of a search too emotionally taxing and he was unwilling to do anything that might hurt the feelings of his adoptive mother and father.
"She's my mother — it's as simple as that," Nichols said. "And my father is my father. He taught me everything, gave me my first sports car."
His adoptive mother died in 2008, his adoptive father in 2010. Back in Tampa, Jimmy and Sally opened the English-themed Cooks delis — first in South Tampa and recently downtown — and the time seemed right to go looking for his birth mother.
Sally Nichols, 52 , found an investigator in December through The Children's Home Inc. child services organization in Tampa.
Within days, they had answers.
• • •
Jimmy Nichols' birth mother, C. Jean Thompson, died of cancer in 1986 at 45, leaving behind five children and a husband who soon remarried.
News of the death was disheartening, but Nichols found the names of his siblings in his mother's obituary and looked them up on Facebook. He took a deep breath and sent a message to one — 49-year-old Faith Reel of New York.
"Hello Faith my name is James Nichols. I would really appreciate a moment of your time," he typed. "I promise this isn't a sales call in fact it's very personal on a family level. Please may I have a moment of your time. Thank you"
Looking back over the message now, he said, it sounds foolish. Reel agrees, saying it was so vague she thought she would have to block the sender.
But the message continued with a reference that stopped her short.
"I know you cannot conceive who I am but my name is James Duncan/Nichols and I'd very much like to speak to you. Regarding Clara Thompson. Please."
The sender had used her mother's first name. No one ever used that name, Reel said.
"If you are who I think you are I have been looking for you for over 25 years," Reel replied. She gave him her phone number. For Jimmy Nichols, the tears haven't stopped since.
Here's what he learned.
Clara Jean Duncan was studying in Florida to be a pastor when she became pregnant out of wedlock. She was sent to live with her parents in Scotland, then was flown back to Tampa to give birth to James Duncan, now Jimmy Nichols, in 1963.
The birth father wanted nothing to do with Jimmy, so she put him up for adoption. She later married Walter Thompson, also a pastor, and they had five children. While he didn't stop his wife from searching for her first son, Walter Thompson didn't help her, either. She thought every day about the boy she gave up.
She was diagnosed with cancer in her late 30s, but curiously, she continued taking vacations with her best friend — leaving her family behind, Reel said.
"I'd question, 'Why would she leave her children when she's dying, to take these vacations?" Reel said.
But they weren't just vacations. Thompson was following leads to find her son. She went as far as Hawaii to locate someone named James Nichols.
"She had five children, and not that she didn't love us, but we were that effort to fill a void," Reel said. "I think she had this hole in her heart and her life that I don't know if children would fill."
• • •
Reel learned about her older brother after her mother died. She had asked her father about another brother but was told he was a myth. Reel didn't give up, though, and questioned the friend who accompanied her mother on her quests. At age 18, Reel found out her brother's name and birth city.
For years, Reel visited websites and chat rooms and sent messages trying to find him. She didn't know Jimmy and Sally Nichols were living in England.
"I just wanted to say, 'Your mom loved you and never ever wanted to give you up. She wanted to find you and let you know that'," Reel said.
Jimmy and Sally Nichols flew to Brooklyn in January to meet his half-siblings.
Right away, they told him, "Let's drop the half. You're just the big brother."
They made an instant connection. In one weekend, Jimmy Nichols said, he felt he had known his brothers and sisters his whole life.
"It was healing for all of us to say to him, 'Our mom loved you and wanted a relationship with you. She just couldn't find you,'" Reel said. "I think she was smiling down and loving the moment we were just hanging there talking."
Jimmy Nichols always wished he could have siblings, but he has no regrets about how life turned out for him.
He now is advocating for legislation that would make it easier to track down birth families so others like him might never have to fear an arduous journey for answers. Florida Senate Bill 434 would make it easier for children who were adopted to gain access to their original birth certificates, opening the door to their early medical backgrounds and original identities.
Nichols has been in contact with the bill's sponsor in the state House, Rep. Richard Stark, D-Tallahassee, and is willing to tell his own story before any forum where it might help.
But now that he has the answers in his own life, he understands why things happened as they did for him.
"My birth mother did the right thing," he concluded.
He just wishes he could have let her know that while she was still alive.
Contact Hannah Farrow at [email protected]