Finding Her Son
Back at the mission, Berger immediately told Hodes about the homeless boy with the ill-formed back, which prompted a search. Thanks to word of mouth the boy, Danny, was located and agreed to be examined at the clinic. He told them that he had fled his abusive stepfather and impoverished mother for the streets.
Danny was named a legal ward of Mother Teresa's Mission. Hodes, a single man who has adopted five Ethiopian children, eventually took Danny into his home and made arrangements for him to have spinal surgery in Ghana. "Marilyn saved Danny's life," Hodes says. "Without surgery he'd have died."
Berger, en route to Ethiopia on a reporting trip, stopped over in Ghana to visit Danny after the operation. "I saw him for a few hours and he was very thin," she says. "He had malaria. He was lying there like a sick puppy."
By then she was emotionally hooked. Several months later, when she heard that Hodes was coming to New York City on a fund-raising trip, she asked him to bring Danny for an extended visit with her and Hewitt. Fate then dealt another odd twist: A week after Danny's arrival, Hewitt, who had not been well, went to see a doctor and received a terrible diagnosis: pancreatic cancer.
The summer of 2009 was a trying time for the threesome. Hewitt was dying but opted for upbeat denial, refusing to acknowledge his illness. The couple's friends looked on in wonderment at this strange confluence of events. "We were back and forth to their house as Don got sicker," recalls Joan Ganz Cooney, a friend of Berger's for 30 years. "Marilyn was so happy as a mother. Don was proud of them, looking at the two of them and smiling as they played together. He liked Danny and he'd say, 'What a boy!'"
Hewitt died in August 2009. A grieving Berger buried him, then set about finding a local school that would take Danny. "It was such an incredible blessing to have Danny at a time when there was an enormous hole," says her friend Arlene Alda. Still, Berger agonized over whether she was doing the right thing for Danny, given her age. "I began to think, what would it mean to take in a child? My friends said, 'You're too old!' But my mother lived until she was 101. I feel good. If I can give him 10 years, he'll be 18. I hope I'll live longer than that."
These days Berger has a full household. Robert Fishman, her 24-year-old nephew and a Columbia Journalism School graduate, now lives with them. She has also hired a male student as a "manny" to come in at least twice a week so Danny has men in his daily life.