For Fannie Dillon, seeing the picture of her brother, James Howard, standing amid a sea of red, white and blue American flags was like watching Lazarus smile.
She last saw Howard 15 years ago when they stood side by side in Baltimore at the burial of their brother, Lonnie, whose life was claimed by alcohol and drug addiction.
Shortly after, Howard vanished into the city streets. Since then, Dillon of suburban Orlando, Fla., scoured neighborhoods during periodic visits to Baltimore, searching for her younger brother, even filing missing-persons claims with the military and FBI.
"I just felt that there was somebody out there that knew where he was," she said.
Then, on Aug. 29, Dillon got a call from an aunt in Baltimore who had seen a photo in the newspaper of Howard being honored in the dedication of a wing at the Maryland Homeless Veterans home in East Baltimore. He has been living and working there for two years, recovering from 25 years of addiction.
Days later, the photo's arrival in Dillon's mail ended her 15-year search.
"It was like a family reunion that night around my house," Dillon said.
For Howard, the contact with his sister signaled the next step in his resurrection. The 50-year-old former Air Force technician followed his brother Lonnie down the path of alcohol and drug addiction, eventually being swallowed by a cocaine quicksand that left him homeless and chugging alcohol at night to calm him of the drug surging through his veins.
"There is some decency in you that says you really don't want your family to see you like this," Howard said. "I stayed away from them because I was ashamed of who I was and what I had become."
After the 1983 funeral, Dillon returned to Florida with an older brother and sister. Howard remained in Baltimore working as a Veterans Administration clerk. He dabbled in cocaine, becoming small-time dealer, borrowing from loan sharks.
'Don't even see it coming'
"It never worked out," Howard said. "It starts off OK until you become your best customer, and you don't even see it coming."
By 1994, he had lost his job and spent his mortgage money on cocaine, spacing out the daily hits through 1 a.m., when he would swig alcohol to fall asleep. "Cocaine was my whole life -- it was my wife, my lover," he said.
He began doing temporary work, earning $40 to $50 a day, and spent that to get high. After losing his house, Howard stayed at missions, working during the day to feed his habit.
In 1995, he ended up in St. Anne's Shelter, where 30 years earlier he had served as the parish's Catholic Youth Organization president. As a teen-ager he had never even touched a drink. He had been too busy with swimming, track, wrestling.
"It was strange to go back there," Howard said of St. Anne's. "There were nights I laid awake and cried; I wanted to stop but didn't know how."
A sandwich and cup of coffee served as the doorway to his turnaround. He began showing up at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training at 301 High St. Four years ago, the city and state purchased the property as a shelter for the rising numbers of the city's estimated 700 homeless veterans.
Like most of the men at the homeless veterans center, Howard had appeased his loneliness and boredom during his eight years in the military with alcohol and drugs. He drank his first beer at Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas, partied until dawn during his tour in Turkey and smoked his first marijuana cigarette while stationed in the Philippines.
Ashamed to be homeless
Lying in St. Anne's, his body wrung from years of drug abuse, Howard learned of the veterans center where former servicemen could sit during the day or get a shower.
The once-proud member of the military felt ashamed to be homeless. Those running the shelter, however, had traveled the same route. A few of the workers began slipping Howard coffee and sandwiches, small kindnesses that sparked his comeback. "It gave me a feeling that somebody cared," Howard said.
In Florida, Dillon clung to hope and her faith in God. Her daughter, Camilia Stanley of Boulder, Colo., sent letters on her mother's behalf to everyone from the Salvation Army to the VA.
"She said, 'We'll just pray on it, and when God gets ready to send him back, we'll accept him,' " said Stanley, 33, an Army veteran.
During trips to Baltimore, Dillon drove through the city hoping to spot her brother.
For Dillon, a 53-year-old mother of four, the last 15 years have been hard. She put their older sister, Christine, into a nursing home because of the effects of a stroke 16 years ago. Last year, their oldest brother, John "Buddy" Howard Jr., died at 54 of respiratory illness. The family troubles increased her yearning to find her younger brother.
"She prayed me through 12 years of the military," Stanley said. "And I knew she was going to pray 'him out."
After receiving the picture of Howard, Dillon called her daughter. "She was crying," Stanley said. "She said, 'They found him.' "
Howard now works as the weekend supervisor at the homeless center, helping other veterans get off the streets. He attends Baltimore City Community College, studying to become a medical clinician.
"It had to be the hand of God," Howard said of the contact from his sister. "What are the chances of that happening? It was a one-in-a-million chance that it happened."
Days later, Howard received a card from his niece, Stanley. The last time he saw her, he nicknamed the infant "Mooch" for biting him on the nose while he slept.
"This is worth more than all the gold in the world to me," Howard said, fanning the card. "There is a lot of love that my family has for me that I didn't realize was there."
He talks with his sister once a week. He hopes to see her in Florida soon, but he wants to raise the money himself -- as part of his recovery.
The year ended miraculously for Howard, but he knows he still has much to do. He needs to mend bridges with three woman with whom he fathered four children during his addiction. He understands their distrust.
"Whatever comes, I'm standing up," said Howard. "Let it come."
On Christmas Day, Howard dined as a guest of his Baltimore aunts, meeting new children of long-lost cousins, enjoying the greatest Christmas gift he could imagine: getting his family back.
"It's an answer to my prayers, to know that I have family and to know that they love me," Howard said. "I should be dead, I really should be dead. I am a miracle of God."
Pub Date: 12/30/98