Twenty-six years ago, Jeannie Torry lived through the worst nightmare possible for a young mother when her 13-month-old son, Donnie, vanished.
But the years of tears, pain and the desperation searching for her son came to an end with a phone call five days before Christmas.
"I was sitting out on my deck drinking coffee and he called," Jeannie said.
Donnie, now 27, was on the phone.
"I said 'this is her' and he said 'Hi, mom. Mama, this is Donnie' ... and I cried," she said, adding that she sometimes feels it's all a wonderful dream and that she doesn't want to wake up.
Finding him is a sign that miracles do happen when there is hope, Torry and her other three children said, who have prayed for this day to come.
Separated from his mother after an unfriendly divorce in Houston, baby Donnie — Jeannie's second child — was taken by his father, leaving no trace of their whereabouts.
Alone and desperate, the Alexandria native looked for leads and legal help, but with no money for a private investigator, her ordeal turned into days, days turned into weeks, weeks into months and then years.
After some time, Jeannie and her oldest daughter, Sherry, moved back to Central Louisiana, bringing home only a few personal mementos — including photos of her baby, his hospital baby bracelet, a clip of his umbilical cord, his first Christmas decoration — and a lot of pain.
"There was never a moment that I didn't think about him. He has an ornament up on the tree that I have hung since he was a baby ... I never thought this year when we put it on the tree it would be the year we found him," she said.
Her three children, two born after Donnie, always knew their mother suffered in silence.
"Especially when his birthday came around, it was always a kind of sad day for her," said Chris Torry, the first one of the family to make contact with Donnie Wilkerson.
Donnie was the older brother he always missed. "We always prayed on his birthday that one day she would be reunited with him," Chris said.
That day was meant to happen.
Chris e-mailed Donnie after his sister, Sherry, decided to do an online search and found Donnie's profile on My Space, a popular online social network.
Sherry said she was ecstatic when the online search led to the man who resembled the family's facial features, particularly of Chris, and who had the same name of her baby brother.
"I cried when I found him. I knew it was him. Without even talking to him I knew in my heart it was him," Sherry said, who still has vague childhood memories of her baby brother in Houston. "He was my baby brother, he was the only baby brother I had at that time."
Trying to keep calm, the entire family prayed that the man Sherry found online was indeed the relative they've looked for so long.
"I was so scared to get my hopes up," Jeannie said, holding Donnie's photos in her hand. Although she never lost hope that she would find him, she needed to be cautious.
Chris e-mailed Donnie with the family history and asked Donnie to call him if indeed he was his older brother; otherwise, he asked him to dismiss the message.
Chris' phone rang and the two spoke for the first time.
"He told me I've been looking for you all as well for 14 years," which was the time when he began to connect the dots about his mother's absence in his life.
Today, Donnie's father and grandfather have died and Donnie said he still has many questions with no answers, but the biggest question, that of his mother's whereabouts, has been finally put to rest.
"I looked for her and I couldn't find her. I started giving up hope and my wife (Candice) told me not to and to have faith in God," Donnie said.
Donnie said he created a My Space account only recently so that he could communicate with his friends and family when he works offshore.
"I never knew that it would lead to me finding my mother," he said. "If I would have known that, I would have opened it years ago.
Donnie's wife, Candice Almaraz, says she is grateful because her husband "has a full life now.
Jeannie, along with her two daughters, Tiffany, 20, and Sherry, 31, and their extended families traveled to Houston the day Donnie called to be reunited.
"That is the ultimate Christmas present. Everybody was basically bouncing of the walls (because) we found him," Jeannie, 47, said. The first family reunion was emotional as mother and son shared life together again.
The only one missing that day was Chris and his fiance, Kayla Lachney, who lives in California, but who couldn't be any happier for his family.
"I've never been more happy for someone ever," Lachney said.
Finding Donnie means Jeannie has two new grandchildren and one on the way. The family plans to return to Houston in February when Donnie's third child and Jeannie's fifth grandchild will be born.
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