By JAMI KUNZER
Danny Isaacs stepped off a plane and into the arms of a sister he hadn't seen in 57 years.
In that moment, a lifetime spent wondering, trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle started long ago, was over.
"Finally," was all the 60-year-old Isaacs could think.
Isaacs fought tears as he told the story of how this long-awaited reunion came about. His 58-year-old sister Vicky Halsall of McHenry sat nearby, holding a photograph - one of only a couple photographs of the the two of them as children.
In it, a then 2-year-old Issacs grins, his arm stretched around his younger sister. He's wearing a tiny bow tie, a clean white shirt. A toddler, she's wide-eyed in a frilly dress.
Isaacs doesn't remember the picture being taken. His memories of that time are fragmented, just like the information the two of them have been able to gather about their separation.
What they do know is Halsall - given the name Debra Ann at birth - was put in an orphanage in 1956 until the age of 18 months when she was adopted and given her new name.
She never even knew she had a biological brother until November of 2012.
Isaacs, on the other hand, always knew he had a sister. He had the picture, a receipt of a child support payment his mother made in 1957. And he always wanted to find her.
Halsall grew up knowing she was adopted, but it was a subject that wasn't really talked about. In 2009, after the death of her adoptive mother, she set out to get some answers, to find her birth mother.
A tattered baby book found at the bottom of an old box in her adoptive mother's attic inspired her. Labeled by the Department of Children and Family Services, the book contained Halsall's birthdate. Inside were pictures of a baby girl.
Until then, Halsall had never seen any pictures of herself as a newborn or baby.
"I started shaking and trembling," she remembered, her eyes tearing along with her brother's as the two of them shared a box of tissues at Halsall's apartment. Issacs recently made the trip from Arizona to see his sister for the first time.
"I always wondered what happened. Did she love me?" she said of her birth mother. "Did she want me? Was I an accident?"
She went online, found an agency willing to look for her. Every so often, she'd get bits and pieces of information.
"We believe she may have already passed," they told her.
Indeed, her birth mother Mary died on Dec. 30, 2002 at the age of 72.
"I was devastated," Halsall remembered.
Before her death and on numerous occasions, she'd told her son to find his sister.
"She just wanted us to be together, at least once, before she passed," Isaacs said. "I think that was her real goal."
His mother never really shared all the details of how she gave up Halsall. Family members have recounted some of the story. His mother Mary was deaf and living with extended family when Halsall was born. At the time, there were numerous young children in the home.
Times were different back then, and because of her lack of hearing and no support from the father, unknown to Isaacs and Halsall, it is believed Mary was forced to give up Halsall.
"I was told it tore her apart she had to give me up," Halsall said.
Isaacs vaguely remembers visiting his sister in the orphanage - where the photo is believed to have been taken. He thinks his mother dressed him so properly to prove to authorities she could take care of her children.
Through her searching, Halsall had tracked down a cousin who knew of Isaacs, but didn't know a phone number or address.
She had a new goal.
"Yeah, I really wanted to meet her," she said of her birth mother. "But it was, 'OK, I have to accept the fact she's gone. There's nothing I can do about it.'
"Then it was about finding him," she said, smiling at Isaacs. "Then this miracle happened."
It just so happened that last December, Isaacs and his wife, had decided to send out Christmas cards for the first time in a long time. A card went to the cousin Halsall had contacted.
As soon as she received it, she called Halsall to tell her that she'd found her brother. She also sent a note back to Isaacs, along with a couple of pictures of Halsall and her two grown children.
Inside the card, she wrote, "Please call."
He did so the next day, told the cousin to pass along his phone number to Halsall and the two finally connected on New Year's Day. They talked for over an hour on the phone, and have talked, emailed and texted daily since.
The visit was decided upon three days after they first spoke.
Arriving this past week, Isaacs didn't know Halsall would be waiting for him at the airport. She wanted to surprise him. Her boyfriend held a sign with Isaacs name on it while her children waited nearby, videotaping the reunion.
Isaacs came out from behind a pole.
"I think what flashed through my mind was, '57 years is finally over,'" he said. "I think I pulled you to me."
"It's still . . ." Halsall started, then chocked up a bit.
"It's bordering on surreal," her brother continued. "We know it happened. We're here, yet it doesn't seem real."
The two already were planning Halsall's trip to Arizona to meet the rest of Isaacs family, including five grown girls.
And both hope to attend an annual family reunion held in Ohio, where the cousin lives, to find more answers about the story behind their separation.
"There is a big piece of the puzzle already together, but we don't have the border yet," Isaacs said.
Having grown up in a somewhat small adoptive family, Halsall now has numerous family members she's never met. She and her brother looked at a picture of one side of Isaacs' family, which has at least 30 family members. And that's just one side, Issacs pointed out.
As emotional as the journey's been, Halsall feels thankful.
"I'm sad I wasn't able to stay [with her birth mother]," she said. "I have to put it into perspective. It's awful what I did go through, but that's the past. We have the future from now on and going forward. If could go back and change it, I'd do it. But if I did that I wouldn't have my children. I feel with what we go through, we get stronger. It builds character in us. You grin and bear and hope the next day's better.
"There are people out there who never got this chance to connect," Halsall said. "My thoughts are, 'Don't give up.'"