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Destination: America

Major Ed Forster shares another installment of “Others,” stories highlighting actual events that occurred during more than four decades of officership. by Major Ed Forster

Mrs. Fornichek got off the bus at the last stop. She had traveled more than 5,000 miles to the small town.

It had taken her three years to get clearance from government officials in Poland to make this trip. Her prayer was that this journey would relieve the burden she’d carried for more than 30 years.

Someone from the state hospital called me a week before her arrival. They asked if we could find a place for her to stay during her visit. The mayor, Jack Burns, who ran the bus station, called me at around 10 p.m. on the night Mrs. Fornichek arrived.

“She doesn’t speak any English,” the mayor said as I greeted her. “She only smiles.”

“She’s come to America to see her son,” I told Jack.

While the mayor and I conversed, Mrs. Fornichek continued to shake my hand. Her face was flushed with excitement. In her anxiety to communicate her feelings, she began to speak in Polish.

Jack and I extended our arms fully to the sides of our bodies, our heads shaking in confusion.  

“We don’t know,” Jack said, “We can’t understand.”

I reached for the hand Mrs. Fornicheck had finally released from mine and patted the back of it gently. Returning her smile, I said, “It’s okay.” Miraculously, she nodded in recognition of the word. 

“My mother-in-law speaks Polish,” Jack said. “I’ll call her.”

When she heard her native language being spoken on the phone, her face lit up like a candle, and she couldn’t get the words out fast enough. She was delighted to finally find someone who spoke her language. The two women were on the phone for several minutes, as we waited.

We learned through the phone conversation that she had an appointment at the state hospital to see her son. It had been more than 30 years since she had seen him. While still a teenager, he had been taken prisoner by the Germans in World War II. He was freed by the allied forces at end of the war and was sent to the United States.

Unfortunately, because of the abuse he’d suffered during imprisonment, he was mentally ill. His family couldn’t be found because of the disruption and confusion caused by the war. He had spent the last 30 years in state hospitals and institutions.

Mrs. Fornichek knew nothing of her son’s whereabouts until a letter reached her three years prior. It was from a doctor who strongly recommended she come to see her son in the hope that it would relieve some of his mental anguish.

Although it was late when he arrived, my wife and our toddler daughter, Heather, welcomed her into our home. We had tea and cookies before settling down for the night.

Our family awoke early the next morning, but not as early as Mrs. Fornichek. She was up and dressed by 6 a.m. We discovered her sitting on our couch, right next to the front door, ready to leave. She was too nervous to eat breakfast, so she spent the next two hours interacting with our daughter. They got along together in a wondrous way. Language was no barrier. Heather didn’t have to talk, but whatever she said delighted our guest. Heather shared with Mrs. Fornichek in the universal language of love.

Mrs. Fornichek and I held hands as we drove to the state hospital. I could sense a small portion of her overwhelming excitement at the prospect of seeing her son.

The expression on her face and the lasting embrace she and her son shared is an indelible memory.

A hospital official called me that afternoon to tell me to come and pick her up. He strongly suggested he hadn’t been pleased with her visit, and he called it “ill-advised.”

Confused, I asked, “When will she be able to see her son again?”

His voice was distant and officious, 

“Today’s Saturday,” he said, “She won’t be able to see him again until Monday after we’ve had a full staff review.” 

If she suspected anything was wrong, she didn’t show it. Her face was radiant with joy. All the way home, she kept putting her hands together in the motion of prayer. She wanted me to know how thankful she was to God for her reunion with her son.

The next day, my wife decided Mrs. Fornichek might like to attend a Catholic mass to thank God in a familiar worship setting. Wearing full Salvation Army uniform, my wife and Mrs. Fornichek sat in the grand cathedral in what was the seat of the diocese. They couldn’t speak each other’s language, but they understood each other’s spirit. 

On Monday, when we returned to the hospital to meet with her son’s doctor, her joy was turned to sadness. It was determined that her son was too ill to return with her to Poland, and the doctors advised against her visiting again.

This grieving mother wept, then cried aloud during the trip back to our house. She continued to cry in her room for most of the day. In the evening, she came into our kitchen with a red, tear-stained face and pointed to our telephone. She wanted to talk with the Polish-speaking lady again.

Following their conversation, the interpreter said, “Mrs. Fornichek is ready to go home now. She has known bitterness, then sweet reunion and now sadness. The Lord has given her peace about her son. She thanks you for the Christian love you have shown. She will go back to Poland to live out her days knowing her son is alive. She will see him again in Heaven.”

We went to the bus station the next day to say good-bye. Our family had been deeply touched by the hardship, and the faith, of another family very different from ours, yet so much alike.