The man across the table

Drew Wilson looked across the table at the homeless shelter and saw a familiar face. It couldn't be, could it?

By Erin Grace / World-Herald staff writer

Saturday, June 4, 2016

On his first night in the homeless shelter, Drew Wilson was eating dinner when another resident shuffled up to his table. And sat down.
Drew stared at a face at once startlingly familiar and yet almost foreign.
How long had it been? Fifteen years? Since mom’s funeral in 2001?
Drew was 17 then, and he and an older sister were virtually orphaned, left to blow in the wind when their mother died and their father fell off the map. Now Drew had landed here at the Stephen Center in South Omaha with few prospects — just a belief that this is where he needed to be for a fresh start.
Drew, 32, looked at the man at his table and started to shake. He said nothing but stood and rushed to the staff office.
Is that man, he said, pointing to his table, my father?

Drew Wilson

The Prodigal Father

In the parable of the prodigal son, the younger of two sons leaves home, squanders everything and returns to a father so overjoyed to see him, he throws a big party. When the older, dutiful son questions this, his father says: Your brother was lost. And now he’s found.
The lesson? All is forgiven.
It is a story of redemption, a reminder that no matter what, a father’s love knows no bounds.
But what if the father was the one who left? What if he couldn’t find his way out of a bottle, and lost job after job, his marriage, two children and his own home? What if that father couldn’t even pull it together when his estranged wife died suddenly, leaving two children, barely old enough to be on their own, without a parent?
What if he just drifted away until — as chance would have it — his now-adult son happened to meet him at a homeless shelter of all places?
What is that son to say?
What is that son to do?

Sanders Wilson, left, and Drew Wilson, right, eat lunch together at the Stephen Center.

Sanders Wilson

The missing years

Drew can’t remember how old he was when his father, Sanders Wilson, left them. He thought he was 4.
His older sister, Sandra — their dad’s namesake — remembers the details a little differently. Their mother, Rosa, left Sanders. Drew was maybe 8, and she was maybe 10. She remembers leaving the house early in the morning and going to Kansas City, Missouri, where they lived with a relative for a while before returning to Omaha.
They’d see Sanders now and then, and Drew remembers traveling to Mississippi once to visit him in the hospital. Sanders, an alcoholic who had gone to live with relatives down South to straighten out, had gotten so drunk one night that he burned himself badly with cooking oil.
Drew barely remembers the trip. He does remember moving a lot and changing schools.
And of course he remembers his mother’s death. She was only 46 when she died unexpectedly. Drew was only 17. Sandra was 20.
Sanders came to the funeral. And that’s the last time Drew saw his dad for years.
After their mother died, Drew moved in with Sandra. Sandra worked, and Drew finished high school at Omaha South and then worked various jobs. And as the years passed, brother and sister were their own nuclear family. Sandra had two sons.
Drew acted as the surrogate father, caring for his nephews.
For a spell he had his own lost period when he drank and smoked pot and just drifted.
In hindsight, he realized he was depressed.
He went to community college but dropped out, racking up college debt with nothing to show for it.

Drew Wilson was shocked to find he was staying at the same Omaha shelter as his dad, Sanders, whom he had last seen 15 years earlier. When the two were reunited, Drew saw a chance to forgive a man who wrestled with alcoholism and left his family for a fresh start.

Drew’s one escape was music, and he sang his way through “American Idol” auditions, landing in Hollywood in late 2006 as a hopeful to get on Season Six. He never made it on TV but carries the photograph “American Idol” took of him at the microphone, eyes squinted closed and mouth wide open, belting out his lovely tenor. He has the photo saved to a phone — a reminder of his talent and brush with fame. He said the experience was good because it taught him that he hated Hollywood. It was too big, too cutthroat and too sad. So many homeless people on the streets of L.A.
Back with his sister, Drew drifted in and out of work and occasionally had run-ins with the law. He shoplifted a couple of times and was caught. He once was in a car accident, left the scene and was fined.
Then Sandra got married in March.
Drew felt like a fifth wheel and made plans to leave. Sandra invited him to stay, but Drew phoned the Stephen Center. He’d remembered staying at the South Omaha shelter once as a child. He’d remembered how homey it was, how nice the summer camp was and how, he believed, the shelter could help him start his life.
Come on down, the Stephen Center said.
We’ve got room.

Drew Wilson watches television after work.

Do you want to see him?

Drew didn’t bring much beyond some clothes, toiletries and a gray Scriptures book.
He had a nonworking cellphone and a turquoise-and-purple backpack, which he carried on his 6-foot-2 frame. He slept on a single metal bed at the end of a row of eight metal beds in a dormitory-style room that holds 32 men.
Stephen Center has changed a lot since Drew’s last visit as a child. Gone is the homey former bar and pool hall at 27th and Q Streets. In its place is a bigger, brighter campus of brand-new buildings with apartments for long-term homeless people, a 90-day substance-abuse treatment center and a shiny cafeteria that feels more like a diner. There’s a jukebox loaded with oldies, a 1950s-style neon sign and tables with napkin holders and festive centerpieces.
It was in early April at one of these round tables where Drew saw his father.
But his father didn’t see him.
After dinner, Sanders Wilson returned to his second-floor apartment alone.
Then came a knock. When the 61-year-old opened it, he saw two apprehensive-looking shelter workers.
My God, he thought. Who died?
Your son is here, they said.
Do you want to see him?

Drew Wilson, 32, dabs the mouth of his father, Sanders Wilson, at the Stephen Center in Omaha. Sanders was largely absent during his son’s life, but Drew found that after the two met unexpectedly at the shelter in April, it was time to forgive and reconnect. “I just want to bond with him,” Drew said. “Just tell him I love him every day.”

'You growed up'

In the Bible, when the prodigal son returns, the father is so happy.
In the Stephen Center, when the prodigal father shows up, how does the son react?
You might think Drew would have choice words for his father. Words like, hey! And why? And how could you?
Over the years, there had been days when he and Sandra went hungry. There were days when he had yearned for a father to show him how to be a man. There were days when he had felt so sad and unmoored. Which is why his life was so start-and-stop. Which is probably why he was 32 and starting, as he says, from “ground zero” at a homeless shelter, with nothing.
Instead, the son grabbed his father, towering over him now. He hugged him and clung to him and they both cried.
“Drew, Drew,” was all Sanders could say at first. “You growed up.”

Drew Wilson and his father, Sanders Wilson, eat lunch together.

'I have a parent who is here and alive'

Father and son have spent the past month getting reacquainted.
Sanders can’t believe how well Drew turned out.
“Healthy,” he said. “Not an alcoholic. Not a dopehead. Not in a gang.”
Drew views his father’s foibles through a compassionate lens. He nods as Sanders tries to explain.
Sanders said he drank too much. He drank until he passed out. He drank before the accident in Mississippi that burned him, requiring skin grafts and taking years to heal. And he drank after that. He couldn’t hold or find a job. He felt no good to anyone.
And yes, he had felt like he should do something after Rosa died. But her family swooped in and Sanders thought his children were better off without him in the picture.
So he stayed away.
For a while, Sanders would dream of Drew and Sandra. In his dreams Drew was forever age 4, about to dart into traffic, and Sanders would wake up worrying. Was he OK? Were the kids OK?
Thinking about this was too painful. So he tried not to.
“I was to blame,” he said. “I stayed away.”

Drew Wilson takes a peek at his father's apartment.

His diabetes got worse, and he needed dialysis three times a week.
He went to the Stephen Center in February 2015, moving from the bunkhouse into apartments when the shelter opened those.
His unit holds a bed, a sink, a chair and a mini-fridge. He has a window and a door that locks. On his floor are bags of medication. He takes 12 different pills a day. He hasn’t had a drink in two years.
In a month’s time, Drew got a job — full time at McDonald’s. He also has an apartment at the Livestock Exchange Building, which you can see from the Stephen Center. He moved there a couple of weeks ago. It’s close enough to walk. He feels like he can keep an eye on his dad.
“When I get my apartment,” he’d promised Sanders, “you’re going to be at my home every day.”
Sandra has had a harder time with her father’s re-emergence. She has talked to him on the phone but hasn’t seen him. She struggles with painful memories and yet knows it’s not good to hang on to the negative. She is glad her brother has reconnected and is getting on his own feet.
So how is Drew doing this? How is it that the son can welcome the prodigal father back?
Drew answers with a question: How can he not?
“He has his own problems,” Drew said. “He’s being very honest. And I am just so happy he’s in my life. I have a parent who is here and alive. I just want to bond with him. Just tell him I love him every day.”
The past is done.
“Now,” Drew said, “is the most important time.”
Contact the writer: 402-444-1136,,

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