Lee Tillman sat down to have Thanksgiving dinner. His brother, Jim Zandarski, turned to him as the turkey was being carved.
“Do you realize this is the first time we’ve had Thanksgiving together in 41 years?” Jim asked.
Lee did not have to answer.
He lost count of all the times he stared at an empty seat at the table.
“I have thought about it every Thanksgiving,” he said. “Every one of them.”
When the two brothers were reunited last week, there were so many salty tears rolling down their cheeks that they may both have to go on a low-sodium diet for the rest of the year.
Lee is 49 and owns a hair salon on Mercer University Drive in west Macon. Jim is 47 and is a manager at a truck stop in Hagerstown, Maryland.
The last time they were together at Thanksgiving, they lived in LaBelle, Florida. Jim had just started first grade. After they ate, they went outside and played kickball.
A year later, they were placed in foster care, along with their younger brother, Mike. Jim and Mike eventually were adopted by a family in Maryland and took that family’s last name.
Lee was shuffled around to different foster homes. He never saw his brothers again.
He was 9 years old when he last saw Jim, who was in the stands at a Little League baseball game, watching his big brother play left field.
For years, Lee has been a full-time hairdresser and part-time sleuth. He searched diligently for Jim and Mike, but he was at a disadvantage because he did not know their last name. He was told it was a closed adoption. His efforts kept turning up blanks.
After he turned 18 and was out on his own, he moved to Macon with a friend. He met his future wife, Linda, who was working at a kiosk at the Georgia State Fair in Central City Park. They have been married for 25 years.
Even with the tools of the most powerful search engines on the Internet, he did not have enough clues or keywords.
“I tried every combination I could think of,” he said. “And I didn’t feel like I could afford to pay somebody to find them. But I never gave up. I always said if I didn’t meet them here, at least I would get to see them in heaven.”
About 10 years ago, he stumbled on a website, www.adopteeconnect.com, which reconnects families separated by adoption. He typed in his parents’ names. His father died of lung cancer in 1977. His mother died of an alcohol-related illness a year later.
Lee received several “false hits” but never a reply. Little did he know, Jim was 690 miles away, searching just as assiduously for him.
Jim was once told by a social worker that Lee was a truck driver and had been killed in a tractor-trailer accident. Another time, he was told Lee had been in and out of prison.
He, too, would not surrender.
“Something kept telling me that can’t be true,” he said.
In the late 1980s, Jim visited the cemetery in Florida where their biological parents are buried. A six-pack of beer had been left on top of his mother’s grave. Next to his father’s headstone, a sign read: “World’s Greatest Dad.”
Jim now thinks a half-sister might have left it. But despite their sad and troubled family life, Jim wanted to believe the sign was placed there by Lee.
It gave him hope, however uncertain, that his older brother was out there somewhere.
He took it to heart that Lee might actually be a truck driver, so he studied the faces of the drivers as they came through the truck stop where he works.
He located Lee’s profile on Facebook but quickly dismissed it. Nah, that couldn’t be his brother.
“It said he was a hairdresser,” he said.
Although he did not identify Lee on Facebook, it was a Facebook pop-up advertisement last summer that led him to his door. It was for the same website Lee had used with no success 10 years ago.
He clicked on it. This time, the pieces of the puzzle came together.
He sent Lee a message. It was July.
“Oh my God, please tell me this is Lee,” he wrote. “I have been looking for you for 37 years.”
Lee was shocked and also excited beyond words. But he also wanted to be sure, so he proceeded cautiously. He asked a very specific question, one which only Jim would know.
Where were we the last time we saw each other?
“I was expecting a vague answer at the most,” Lee said.
“We were at the ball field in LaBelle,” Jim wrote back. “You were wearing a white uniform with blue lettering. You were coming up to bat. I was talking, and our dad told me, ‘Hush, your brother is at the plate.’ I remember you hit a line drive down the third-base line. I remember the dirt color was gray, not orange.”
He also remembered their father’s shirt was unbuttoned, and he noticed the scars on his chest from all the cancer treatments.
By this time, Lee was trembling.
They spent three hours texting back and forth. They wept as they talked on the phone the next day, filling the pages of their unwritten story.
Jim told him his wife had died. He has two daughters and three grandchildren. He said Mike also lives in Maryland, and they stay in touch.
Lee invited both brothers for Thanksgiving. Mike was unable to travel, but Jim was moved beyond words.
Lee bought him his plane ticket and drove to the airport in Atlanta last Wednesday to pick him up.
It just might have been the best Thanksgiving.
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