The trembling in Leo Horlick’s hands Thursday afternoon had nothing to do with what spina bifida has done to his body.
He sat before a phone and nervously waited, pulling on strings of his hair or rubbing his long, greying beard.
The voice that sounded on the other end of the line was the sister he hasn’t seen or spoken to in nearly 20 years.
“How you doin’ Kim?” Leo said anxiously into the speaker.
“Leo, I’m good. How are you doing?”
“Great, now that I’m talking to you.”
Leo, 46, later described that moment as amazing.
Since coming to Newfoundland in the early 2000s, he has been living alone on income support and had no contact with family.
Being born with spina bifida has left Leo with stunted and weakened legs, and has led to swelling in his head.
The move to Newfoundland followed many dark years living on the streets in Ontario.
“Do you have a doctor down there?” asked Kimberly Harlick, 44, who lives in Toronto. “I’ve just been a little worried about you, you know.”
Kimberly said she had searched for Leo over the years in Toronto and other areas of Ontario, and Montreal. Recently, the Salvation Army in Toronto suggested she should look in Newfoundland.
She contacted a cousin in St. John’s and described Leo to her, and the cousin said she often sees Leo walking along the street, never realizing he was her cousin.
“She said there is an article written about him, and I went to The Telegram’s website and read the article about him climbing the hill,” Kimberly said.
“When I found out where Leo was and that he was alive, I was in tears. I saw the picture of him. He needs a hair cut and a shave!”
She also noted that Leo had changed the spelling of his last name to Horlick, rather than Harlick, which might have added to the difficulty in finding him.
When Leo was two years of age, his mother left her husband in St. John’s and took Leo and his siblings to Toronto.
“I was told my mother kicked him out,” Leo said Thursday.
He doesn't look back on his childhood favourably.
Kimberly said she was only nine months old at the time her mother uprooted the children.
“Our childhood was pretty rough. It was something no one should have to go through, but we did,” she said. “We all left as soon as we could. Leo was taken by children’s aid, which was a great thing for him at the time.
“It was very abusive — mentally and physically — and it impacted me for a long time. I still have flashbacks of certain things that happened, especially with Leo.”
Leo said Thursday the past is “water under the bridge” and now he looks forward to catching up with his siblings.
“Have you spoken to any of the others, Justin, Bob or Bill?” Leo asked.
Kimberly replied that she knew where two brothers, Justin and Bob Harlick, were, but they rarely spoke. She found the oldest brother, Bill Harlick, via Facebook after 10 years searching for him. But then she had some bad news to deliver to Leo.
“Bill passed away last year due to complications of diabetes,” Kimberly said. “I didn’t know how I was going to tell you, but I had to let you know.
“I have his ashes. When I come to Newfoundland, we’ll spread them in the ocean somewhere.”
Since the April 12 story ran in The Telegram featuring Leo, he has met local relatives he never knew he had, is greeted by strangers daily who approach him with words of encouragement, small amounts of cash, food items, and gift cards.
He also received an old photo album from an aunt he recently met on his father’s side of the family. The small album once belonged to his mother and contains a photo of her, and photos of Leo and some of his siblings when they were children.
Leo told Kimberly he got to visit their father before he died. It was the first time he had seen him since age two.
“That was great,” Kimberly said. “Though our father never contacted us or sent a letter. I think I once spoke to him briefly on the phone.”
Kimberly says her oldest son, Dyllon James Harlick, 21, was also born with spina bifida, though the impact was not as severe as it was for Leo. She said Dyllon is named after Leo in that Leo’s middle name is also James.
Leo told Kimberly he remembers holding Dyllon in his arms when he was a baby.
Kimberly’s other son is Roy Harlick, 19.
“Oh, that old? Oh my,” Leo said.
Kimberly said she and Leo were very close when they were growing up. They played together out on the back of the building in which they lived.
“I have always thought of Leo over the years and never realized how strong of a person he is,” she said. “His laughter would fill the room. It was so loud. I pictured his face younger than what I saw in the picture with the story. But that’s cause I remember him that way. I am sorry Leo’s life was hard, that it was that way for all of us. We should have stuck together instead of drifting apart.”
Thursday’s experience touched Leo greatly. He paused in thought while walking away after the phone call ended.
“You know after that, I believe more than ever there’s a reason and a purpose I’m here,” he said. “I’m going to sit down for a while and let it all sink in.”
Leo Horlick was both nervous and excited Thursday to speak to his sister Kimberly by phone. It was the first time the two had spoken in 20 years. Kimberly, who lives in Toronto, found out where Leo was living after being referred to an article about him on The Telegram’s website. — Photo by Glen Whiffen/The Telegram