By winter of that year, he was gone. As the years piled up, it looked like he was gone for good.
"I think I grew up kind of mad. At people. At life. I was mad that he left," said Lisa. "Growing up there was always this void and emptiness."
Then, the day came more than a quarter century later that she saw her brother again in the community room of Covenant House. Or she saw who George had become.
In November 2009, Lisa, her two sisters, Leigh Ann and Sharon, and their mother, Fern Rigdon Bartlett, drove as soon as they could from Arkansas to Charleston. They had been prepped by Covenant House's Weintraub and Martin the night before the reunion.
Elizabeth was scared and full of anxiety, Martin recalled. "She was very standoffish. I was very fearful she would run."
The middle sister, Leigh Ann, recalled the moment Elizabeth entered the room.
"We put Mom in front and then we put Sharon behind Mom, because Sharon is the oldest. Me in the middle, Lisa being the baby at the end. We just all went in single file and embraced Elizabeth."
Weintraub watched a scene she described as "one of the most positive and significant events of my life and certainly my time at Covenant House."
Elizabeth didn't show a lot of emotion those first hours, Weintraub said. "I'm sure she was in some state of shock. But the sisters were amazing. They were just so loving and warm. And they called her 'Elizabeth' from the beginning."
'We just melted'
Even so, in interviews the sisters constantly catch themselves, shifting between "he" and "she" and "George" and "Elizabeth."
Yet the emotion of the reunion was uncomplicated. "When we saw him it was, like, we just melted," Lisa said. "We just melted."
The only time Elizabeth cried, said sister Sharon, was on learning that her father had died. "She said she cried for the first time in years."
Next morning, Elizabeth had breakfast with her family at Bob Evans. She introduced them proudly to staff who called out "There's Elizabeth!" She walked them around town, arm-in-arm, showing off her hangouts and people who knew her.
It was not all rosy. The sisters saw that they could not bring Elizabeth back to Arkansas just yet, that her needs were many, and they had preparations to make back home. Just as important, Elizabeth needed to be willing and ready to leave Charleston.
And there was another thing the family realized about Elizabeth and where she had landed after so many years of wandering.
"I think she found respite in Charleston. She found a place to call home. She found people that embraced her and cared. I think that's why she stayed as long as she did," said Lisa.
"I just want to tell Charleston how much our family appreciates that community for taking her on and maybe even tolerating her at times. There are good people in this world."
As the sisters and their mother drove south out of the city back to Arkansas, a brilliant sunset lit up the sky. Crying, they sang "Amazing Grace" and "I Can See Clearly Now," one of their mother's favorite songs.
Lisa rolled back the sunroof and popped up out of the car to photograph the sunset. The photograph would later appear in a YouTube video the sisters made about finding their brother again. Leigh Ann held tight to her sister's legs as the car plunged homeward.
"I stand up and we're going 70 miles per hour!" said Lisa. "I can't tell you the healing that we felt driving home from Charleston. It's like, I wasn't mad anymore!"
Bound for home
In early spring 2010, without a word to Covenant House, Elizabeth disappeared from Charleston.
She made her way south to Arkansas via Greyhound and hitchhiker's thumb -- she was a road warrior, after all. She was in search of a school where her youngest sister taught in Cabot, Ark. She plopped down in the middle of the night outside the first school she found and went to sleep. Bearing no ID, she was promptly arrested by police.
Elizabeth was released from jail the next morning and Lisa arrived and took her to her house.
Lisa slipped back into the male pronoun to talk about her brother's return to the family fold, at long last. "It was an amazing time. I was just ready to fight anybody that hurt him or made fun of him or bullied him."
Much could be said of the three years Elizabeth spent back home. She would sometimes ask her sisters to pull the car over to give a few dollars to some homeless person. She could be sweet and funny and -- much as the sisters loved George growing up -- "Elizabeth was so much sweeter and kinder and so compassionate and loving," said Lisa.
The happiness and joy was tempered by difficult times. There were rants and raves "and talking to people who were not there," as one sister put it. There were adjustments. Medication ordered. New family arrangements.
Their mother -- now in assisted living -- had the hardest time of all viewing her son as a daughter instead, the sisters say.
The sisters had their own final transitions to make.
Elizabeth eventually settled into Leigh Ann's home in Tulsa, a city she liked.
"Sometimes, people would accidentally call her George, and she would have no reaction," said Leigh Ann. "We would take long drives in Tulsa. I talked to her one day: 'I want George back, can I have George back?'"
"I can't," Elizabeth told her. "I changed 20 years ago. This is who I am now. And I can't change."
So, they put that question to rest, said Leigh Ann. "That made life so much easier for me and my entire family."
Telling the tale
The three sisters said they wished to be forthright in telling their family's tale for several reasons.
One, that homeless people have families and life stories, too, yet are often ignored, dismissed and even harassed. Second, that a huge dose of patience and love is needed when transgender identity issues and mental illness tear at a family.
And third, said Sharon, they hope their family's tale might inspire other families. "I just want people to know out there that if there's any dissension or disagreements in their family maybe you can heal that. And reunite. And accept each other no matter what your differences are."
Last November, Elizabeth's family gathered around the Thanksgiving table. About that time, she began to grow sick and was put in the hospital. Doctors learned Elizabeth had a cancer mass on her left lung and blood clots all over her right lung.
Elizabeth was cared for her in an apartment by Grace Hospice, then was moved to Clarehouse hospice in Tulsa. Family gathered at her bedside in the middle of the night Feb. 7. As her breathing grew labored, Leigh Ann held Elizabeth in her arms and recited the 23rd Psalm, ending with:
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
"And she took her last breath," said Leigh Ann. "I just thank God that I got to be there and that she didn't die alone. She was holding my hand and she was looking in my eyes."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at doug...@cnpapers.com or 304-348-3017.
Part 3 of 3 Parts
Part 1: Elizabeth in Charleston
Part 2: A musician on the go -- then gone
Part 3: A long-sought reunion