Thursday, February 19, 2015

It Takes Two

Brighton Daugherty, 2005, Denver, Colorado
© Jeff Ball Photography, used with permission

At 87 years old, Harold James "Brighton" Daugherty had lived a life only few people could dream of living. 

I had never expected to find a living grandfather. That alone was a shocking surprise I was still trying to fully process and wrap my head around. It was actually possible that I could meet the man who had been the focus of my intense search for all these past months. Hours and hours of sifting through DNA results and begging for genetic material from strangers had paid off. Big time. This kind of story-book ending was nearly incomprehensible.

To understand the significance of these results, let me put a few things in perspective.

I am the genealogist who started researching as a pre-teen, and whose father was unable to spell his own mother's maiden name, and who further told me she was born on September 31st. Think about it.

I am the genealogist whose family discards photos, documents, memorabilia, and heirlooms because they are old and useless. Even decades into my research when my mother and her second husband managed a booth at an antique store, I had to rescue photos of the Dobyns and Hanks family that my mother tried to sell to the public as "Instant Ancestors"!

I am the genealogist who finally finds the document I have desperately needed for decades in Court Order Book 46, page 432 -- only to find that it is the only page that has been mysteriously torn from its bindings and has been missing for decades.

I am the genealogist that descends from impoverished ancestors whom nobody else is seeking. I have mastered the art of research because I have not had the luxury of "hooking up" to somebody else's family tree. Incidentally, I do consider this a good thing, but a factor nonetheless that has resulted in a lot of stubborn, dedicated, time-consuming, minutiae-sifting work.

Luck is rarely on my side.

So the grandfather I expected to find was dead. He was a native of Elkhart, Indiana, or vicinity. He had never moved away and had married as a young man. If he had ever left the confines of Indiana, it was for an exotic vacation to Disney World in Florida. He had worked doggedly at a local factory for over forty years, and he had two or three children who were now doing the same. Any local newspaper reporting of his lifetime accomplishments might be a mention at the birth or marriage of one of his children, perhaps a speeding ticket mentioned in the police blotter column, or an announcement of some time-related mile marker he had achieved in his marriage. He would have retired with little fanfare from a job he had learned to loathe years before, to then enjoy some mind-numbing pastime, like lawn care or watching NASCAR, until his horrible eating habits and lack of activity killed him. The number of cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon he had consumed over a lifetime might easily be well into five digits. His death warranted the obligatory public mention of his devotion to his job and family, and touted his allegiance to the Masons or to the Elks or to the Eagle or to the Kiwanis, even though he had not attended a meeting in over two decades. His online condolences from past neighbors and coworkers all indicated he was "nice."

This is what I had anticipated. And if I were lucky, I would be able to procure some photographs from living family members to see if I had any resemblance to my grandfather, as I have no striking resemblance to either of my parents. I would have a starting point to resume work on the quarter of my ancestry that had recently been nullified. My DNA matches would make sense once I had a correct name and a new paper trail for which to attach to them.

The grandfather I found was none of the things I anticipated. And through Donna, who had been the impetus for him to be tested through AncestryDNA and who was my intermediate connection to Brighton Daugherty, I was beginning to learn about his incredible life.

The identity of the man I had been seeking came to me on 22 October 2014. I knew. My mother knew. Donna knew.

Harold James "Brighton" Daugherty did not.

Donna had met Brighton in Hawaii in 1985 when she and her husband had moved there from their home in Denver, Colorado. Brighton's wife, Gay, had been their realtor when they bought their home in Kona, and they liked her immediately. Although energetic and welcoming in her personal presentation, and enthusiastic in pursuing a friendship with this newly-arrived couple to their tropical paradise home, Gay was conspicuously hesitant about revealing many details about her husband.

"My husband Bright is different."

Never ones to follow the rigidly prescribed paths of the social norm, Donna and her husband found this initial assessment to be far more tempting and interesting of an invitation than a warning of any kind. Days later, both couples met, and the evening was spent discovering similar interests, such as Asian aesthetics, shared favorite authors, and compatible philosophical mindsets.

The complete lack of discussion regarding football teams, sports scores, and feigned masculine bravado suited both men just fine. The couple became great friends.

Upon the death of Donna's husband in 1993, and Brighton's divorce in 1994, the two had become intimate confidants, living together in Hawaii for nine years thereafter. Donna returned to her home in Denver, Colorado. Brighton followed a short while later and they resumed a close friendship, which they have maintained for nearly three decades. Donna seemed to be a good sparring partner for a man with stubborn convictions, and the mutual respect between two strong-willed persons was apparently a good part of the glue that cemented the friendship together.

Donna was significantly younger than Brighton, and when his age brought with it the myriad health issues expected of it, she stepped in to help where she could. Brighton passed his seventies in rather vigorous good health, but he entered into his eighties as a broken aged man. As he said to me later, "one day I just woke up old." His care was becoming a full-time job, and Donna was the only one who had applied for the position.

Spinal stenosis diagnosed decades before resulted in a series of surgeries to stabilize Brighton's vertebrae and save the use of his hands, which were becoming progressively numb from years of dealing with his ailment. His third surgery in 2011 ended in unexpected post-operative seizures and complete respiratory failure.

He remained on life support for nearly two weeks, and it was generally thought that he would not recover.

I am learning that you never tell Harold James "Brighton" Daugherty what to do. It is very likely that he heard the news of his impending death in his unconscious state and decided to prove everyone wrong.

Brighton recovered, but he also had experienced a traumatic brain injury from his near death experience. His ability to process information, especially in the short term, was deeply affected. And despite the tragic consequences of his 2011 ordeal, a fourth surgery for spinal stenosis was again performed in March 2014 to preserve nerve function and decrease pain. His post-surgical delirium was profound, and he remained in a rehab facility for an additional two months. After finally returning to his own home, he was immediately bounced back to the hospital a week later with a mysterious respiratory ailment and other complications. The doctors were quick to assume a cardiac-related problem, but the culprit was found in his home during his hospitalization. A long-standing water leak from a drainage pipe under his apartment had resulted in the growth of black mold in the flooring, the walls, and on several belongings that had been subjected to the moist environment.

So while I was chasing down my mystery grandfather during the bulk of 2014, Brighton Daugherty was struggling to regain a semblance of a normal life. And as I looked for the whereabouts of this mystery man, Brighton Daugherty had no home to call his own. He was sent back to a rehabilitation facility in early summer, 2014, after his hospitalization.

After hours upon hours, and days upon days of struggling against bureaucratic red tape, Donna was finally able to arrange living quarters in an assisted living center in Lakewood, a community contiguous with Denver, Colorado, on its west side. Although not at all what Brighton considered an ideal situation, it allowed him certain amounts of freedom, but consistent health care he was now unable to provide for himself.

My initial contact with Donna via AncestryDNA coincided with his move into his new home.

The corporate owner of Brighton's previous apartment had deemed his living space uninhabitable due to the mold, but they were still in possession of almost all of his personal belongings. Bright had nothing resembling the comforts of home for the majority of 2014. He was often agitated and confused about his new move, and he was verbally unhappy with his prospective new life, marginalized from society and devoid of the adventures he craved. He abhorred the presence of rules he was expected to follow.

This was not a good time to spring upon him the news of a previously-unknown sixty-seven-year-old daughter living in Indiana.

Frustratingly, that would just have to wait.


  1. I'm glad you are back--hopefully none the worse for your own health adventures. I'm looking forward to more of this very engrossing tale.

  2. I am so glad you are back, and your story continues.

  3. Glad that you are back also. Can't wait to read more.

  4. We are all anxiously awaiting the next instalments!

  5. Well, about time! I was expecting this installment in the saga on Sunday! And the story is still not complete!

  6. Welcome back! Like everyone else, I am anxious to have the story continue - but have to commend your ability to weave an intriguing and compelling story!

  7. Hanging on every word. BTW, you are probably wondering what to write about next. I don't have any ideas, bu you should definitely be a writer.

  8. Hope you are feeling much better! This blog has inspired many to start or continue researching their families, myself included! Thank you!

  9. Michael, the photo of Brighton next to your photo shows an uncanny resemblance! There can be no doubt that you got your genes from him.

  10. What a fascinating (and very well told) story.

  11. What a fascinating (and very well told) story.

  12. Michael- I started following your blog after hearing you speak at FGS 2014 San Antonio on German research. Someone else used the weave metaphor. You are weaving a web of intrigue. I am trapped in your sticky web. Welcome back!

  13. You are a master story teller! Can't wait to find out what happens next.

  14. I've been reading your whole story for months now & I have to admit my first mental comment at the end of reading this one was the same as the first commenter. You are an excellent storyteller! I've reco your story to a number of people over the year, and earlier today decided to list it as a Great Story in my NoteWorthy Reads post for this week (, but I've linked them to the first post so they can get the full effect by reading all of it too!

    1. Thanks very much! I appreciate the kind words and the recommendations. I do wish I had the time to devote to this every day, but now that I am back home, I hope to pick up the pace. Stay tuned!

  15. Staying tuned! Can't wait to

  16. Michael,
    Thank you for your courage in writing about your response to your father's death. Your experience is very powerful. May you have self compassion.

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