Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Brighton's New Family Revealed

Introduction are made...

On the 28th of October, 2014, Harold James "Brighton" Daugherty learned about a family he never knew existed. His family.

When is the "right time" to tell an 87-year-old man with health problems that he has a daughter he never knew existed? Waiting for it when nobody knew what it was supposed to look like was pointless. Even a man in the best condition might be a bit shocked with having a cigar thrust into his mouth as he approaches his ninth decade on this planet with the exclamation, "Congratulations! It's a girl!" 

Oh, and she's 67 years old.

Although Brighton had settled into his new life at the assisted living center on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado, he had moments where he bemoaned the end of his adventures and his avenues of new discovery. There is very little to stimulate one's sense of wonder when surrounded by a sea of walkers and regularly scheduled cafeteria food. Brighton was still quite mobile, but he relied on the support of his wheeled walker to maintain his balance. Even though this facility that was mow his new home was modern and well-maintained and decorated, the surrounding neighborhood had little to offer within walking distance. Adventure was in short supply.

So when handed a mysterious card and asked, "Would you like to go on a voyage of discovery?" he responded with excited wide-eyes and eager anticipation.

Within the card were four photos: Helen (Timmons) Miller when she was 29-years-old, the age at which their paths crossed; a high school graduation photo of his as-yet-unknown daughter Carol; a picture of me, his grandson; and finally a recent photo of my mother and me together. In addition to the photos was a printed biography of me from my genealogy website and a copy of his AncestryDNA connections page.

I have mentioned Brighton's dementia in previous blogs, especially as it became more problematic following his near-death experience from a previous surgery and the more recent prolonged recovery from his last surgery and hospitalizations. Dementia comes in many shapes, sizes, colors, and costumes. So it is necessary to illustrate Brighton's state of mind when receiving this news. When a layperson hears "dementia," it can easily conjure up the image of a man in a persistent state of confusion, displaying erratic behavior, unable to function in society. This was far from Brighton's reality. Simply, Brighton's problems were primarily focused on the present-day: the here and the now. He was always quite cognizant of who he was and the identities of the people in his life. He was quite aware of the stories of his past and recognized them as the past. He had no delusions of people present who had long since died. He was capable of being incredibly charming, as well as being surly and unmanageable, in other words, he was his normal self. His present mental problems were primarily associated with grasping complex issues in the present and holding on to them within his short-term memory. He could remember a face or a person once he met them. That was not a problem. But if they were new, recalling immediately how they fit into the picture of his life was. Shaking up Brighton's world with a barrage of newness was like an electrical storm within his brain, and thus the worry of thrusting a complex relationship issue upon him while he was just growing accustomed to his new place of residence.

But as mentioned before, when is the "right time"?

Brighton was mentally walked step-by-step through the events that led up to this sunny autumn afternoon's adventure. He was reminded of the test he had taken through AncestryDNA the previous year (a test that comically miffed him when it showed he was a Daugherty with minimal Irish ethnicity). He was told that people with matching segments of DNA would contact his account occasionally to see if they were related, but recently there was a surprising contact from a "very close relative."

His eyes widened further.

With that, he was handed the photograph of eighteen-year-old Carol DePrato.

"This is your daughter."

Brighton's wide-eyed expression of surprise softened, and a smile appeared. He looked hard and long at the photo. His first response, "how pretty she is!" He continue to examine the photograph closely with his fingers, outlining the cheeks, the eyes, the chin line. He commented on the uncanny family resemblance, and marveled at her resemblance to his sister, Lillian, who was known as a beauty in her day.

He was shown a picture of me and introduced to the grandson that doggedly brought this all together. He bolted upright at the mention of my name. "Michael! I've always loved that name!" Brighton - the adventurer, the writer, the thinker, the artist, the philosopher - was intrigued with my travel, my profession, and my writing.

The topic was discussed giddily over a celebratory lunch. He was fascinated by the whole tale. He was, of course, intermittently confused. Digesting the fact that he had a baby born in 1946 while being shown photos of long-aged adults had to be sorted in his mind repeatedly. And the discussion of DNA was rehashed several times when he wondered aloud how any of this could be true. Brighton laughs at the modern-day vernacular of "OMG!" In his words, he was "over the moon!"

He returned to his room after lunch, mentally exhausted. As he reclined on his bed for a nap, he gazed at the new photos, all labeled with names and relationships: "Carol - Daughter," "Michael - Grandson."

But quickly on the heels of the joy and excitement of this new discovery came doubts and uncertainty.

"Why would they be interested in such an ordinary person?"

When reminded of how his life had followed a trajectory decidedly unordinary and how his joy for life made him remarkably special, he smiled in agreement. Still, he responded with a touch of melancholy, "they aren't going to find that person." Additionally, the man who seldom reflected upon his past with wistful nostalgia, matter-of-factly stated, "Why would I want to know them after nearly sixty-eight years of not knowing them? There is no value in it. And certainly no inheritance!"

In the emails and phone calls that preceded this day of revelation, I had begun to learn of the man who was my biological grandfather. A journey that began as a research challenge and a deep desire to resolve the academic dilemma of my unaccountable and useless DNA matches had rapidly become far more personal for me. The man I had found contributed nearly 30% of his DNA to my genetic being - more so than any other of my grandparents. I carry an exact copy of his genome on the entirety of my maternally-derived Chromosome 11 and Chromosome 19, both passed unchanged and uncombined from him, to my mother, and to me. My X-Chromosome given to me by my mother, and therefore a blend of the two X-Chromosomes given to her by Brighton and Helen, is nearly 80% Brighton.

More so than just the mathematic computations of my DNA profile, the man I had located finally gave ME a sense of belonging. For nearly five decades I have been surrounded by a family significantly flawed, but loved nonetheless. When asked about my brothers, my response typically is, "find the three most dissimilar people on this planet, and put them in the same room. That would be my two brothers and me." I had spent the better part of thirty-five years questioning relatives and researching my ancestry. And while I have extolled the importance of telling our family stories, I have always felt somewhat wedged into the wrong one; the singular puzzle piece that needs to be forced into place or that is off-colored and somehow not cut from the same die compared to its adjacent companions. I look little like my parents, and I have often been referred to as the "milkman's child." My behaviors, my thought patterns, my drive, my personality, my inquisitiveness, my sense of adventure have never jibed with my immediate family. I have listened and learned and empathized with the generations that preceded me, but I never saw myself in those that I tortured with my incessant queries. Perhaps my endless desire for anecdotes of past events and stories of those who came long before my living relatives reflected the search for my my own antecedents on a more personal level.

With the discovery of Harold James "Brighton" Daugherty, I found the puzzle piece that I connected to seamlessly. I could see myself in this man. Descriptions of his behaviors, his attitudes, and his exploits read via email to my mother would evoke gasps of surprise from her, "that sounds like you, Michael!" Or "can't you see yourself in that description, Michael?"

So when Brighton expressed doubts toward the value of pursuing a relationship with his new family, he was reminded that we were not looking for anything tangibly extraordinary. We were looking for pieces of ourselves within him; and perhaps he might make a similar discovery.

Brighton seemed appeased by that answer... or at least it gave him fodder for contemplation. He awoke from his nap later that afternoon still laughing and disbelieving of the day's events, and he called friends to share the information.

But Brighton had spent his lifetime distancing himself from a family he deemed wholly dysfunctional, and had been forever running from the responsibilities of starting his own. There were still doubts he would presently embrace the concept of "family," as it was a concept decidedly foreign to him.

The next move was still undecided. For good or for bad, the flood gates had been opened. And much like an unrestrained flooding, the sudden rush of waters would unearth many secrets long buried. Like water rushing into places long drought-stricken, it would serve as cooling, massaging, nourishing sustenance, while simultaneously creating dangerous eddies and deceptively strong currents.