A woman recognizes the father who abandoned her as a young child in a homeless man she was photographing in the streets of New York.
Shelley Collins was 10 when the father she adored vanished without a trace. One moment he was there, always laughing, and joking, teasing Shelley, kissing her mom, then he was gone.
There was no goodbye note, no explanation. Shelley and her mother Dina had known he wasn’t the victim of some accident because his camera was gone, as was his favorite backpack, his passport, and half of the family’s savings. He had abandoned them.
While Dina wept helplessly, Shelley had been dry-eyed, suffocated by a terrible rage. She’d loved her father, worshiped him. There had been nothing that Nicholas Collins could have done that Shelley wouldn’t have forgiven, except this.
His disappearance without a trace or explanation had left his wife and daughter questioning themselves, wondering what they had done, how they had failed him, believing they somehow deserved this pain.
Because Nicholas had been a talented photographer and had taught Shelley, she refused to pick up a camera until her last year in high school. She wanted to deny the talent she had inherited from her father the way he had denied her.
But somehow she found herself seeing the world through frames. The fall of light and dark was her instinctual language, and she finally yielded to her passion. Shelley’s daring, raw photos of everyday life quickly became popular and she won a prestigious award.
Over the next 10 years, Shelley traveled the world, capturing the joy and misery of a dozen cultures, then she received a phone call from a famous magazine. They wanted her to do a ten-page photo spread on the street people in New York.
Shelley agreed and hopped on the next plane to the Big Apple, never imagining she’d be coming face to face with her past.
No matter how dark things get, there is always hope.
Shelley dived headfirst into the sad and shut-off world of the homeless, haunted the dark alleys where they slept, warmed her hands at the flickering fires they started in trash cans. Slowly she was accepted, and her camera captured the loneliness of their lives.
One night she went down into the old tunnel system with a woman named Rachel who wanted to show her where she slept. In the tunnels, dozens of the homeless sought refuge from the harsh New York winter, and one man, in particular, caught Shelley’s eye.
The man was huddled against a wall, but something about the set of his head was familiar. Shelley stepped closer and the man raised his head. His hand shot up in a warding gesture. “Don’t touch me!” he screamed. “Never touch me, I must never be touched!”
It was Nicholas Collins. His staring eyes were bloodshot and set in dark hollows, his lips were dry and cracked and trembled, mumbling senseless words. “Don’t touch!” he said again, and turned his face into the wall, hunching his shoulders.
“Daddy…” whispered Shelly. “Oh, daddy…” The pain and the anger in her heart were overwhelmed by love and pity. This scrap of a man was a shadow of the funny, energetic, loving father she had last seen twenty years ago.
Shelley called an ambulance and had her father taken to Bellevue. It was a horrific process with Nicholas screaming at the attendants to let him go, weeping each time someone touched him.
The doctors in the psychiatric ward evaluated Nicholas, and their diagnosis shocked Shelley. “Miss Collins, your father suffers from bipolar disorder, and we suspect he may also be a schizophrenic.”
Shelley stared at them. “My dad? But…he was always so sane, so happy!”
The doctor shook his head. “During the mania phase, patients are ecstatic, creative, energetic; when the downswing occurs, they plunge into depression.”
“But medication…” Shelley said. “Many people live with bipolar disorder.”
“Some patients refuse medication, they love the upside of the disorder and complain that medication makes them feel ‘dead’… ” the doctor explained. “But we are giving your father medication, so he will be able to decide what he wants.”
Days later, Shelley walked in to see a very different Nicholas. He was sitting quietly, and when she came in he smiled. “Shelley…” he whispered. “You look just like your mom…”
“You know me?” Shelley asked. “You remember me?”
“I watched you for a long time,” Nicholas confessed. “I loved you two so much, I couldn’t stay away until I got worse…”
“Why did you leave us, dad?” Shelley asked quietly.
Nicholas shook his head. “I was diagnosed, I was told I needed the medication, but that was who I was. I refused the meds,” he said. “They told me it would get worse. It was my decision but I couldn’t put you and your mom through that.”
“Daddy,” Shelley said. “Please come home. Let the doctors help you, let us help you. You don’t have to be alone anymore.”
“Your mom…” Nicholas whispered. “She must hate me.”
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Shelley got up, went to the door, and ushered in a tearful Dina. “Come home daddy, we need you,” Shelley said. Nicholas was holding Dina and Shelley in his arms and crying. He couldn’t speak but he nodded ‘Yes.’
With Shelley’s help, Nicholas started an awareness program to alert people to the fact that many of the homeless suffered from mental health issues, and that they could be helped. Thanks to Shelley and Nicholas, many more suffering people found their way home.
What can we learn from this story?
Sometimes people’s motives are not what they appear to be. Shelley thought her father had abandoned them, but he left to spare them his illness.
No matter how dark things get, there is always hope. Nicholas was lost in his illness, but fate sent his daughter to save him from despair.
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