To Harley Brooke, I am an accident.
He was a small-town charmer: good-looking, athletic, funny. Known as a sharp dresser—he only wore Girbaud jeans, and his honey-brown hair was always clipped into a perfect mullet—his style was a rugged hippie/prep blend. He spent his money on the things he loved. He owned a $3,000 pair of speakers, a testament to his fondness for music, and he rode a flashy mountain bike—not because he didn’t have a nice car; he did. He biked for the exercise.
They say he was a heavy drinker with an affinity for smoking pot—“they” being his friends and acquaintances willing to talk about him—and under the influence, he’d get into occasional scrapes. He had problems getting to work on time, but his female coworkers would sometimes clock him in just to cover for him. He was arrested once, when he was 24, for driving with a suspended license, but his then- roommate paid $345 out of his own pocket to bail him out. It was months before Brooke paid him back.
Two more things you need to know—things that you may have already figured out: First, Harley Brooke is not his real name. And second, the choice he and my mother made one night 24 years ago was not supposed to have lasting consequences. He was drunk and so was she; these things happen. And I am the result of that.
I was a grown-up problem for a boy of only 19—a guy whose mother still scraped his car windows for him on icy mornings, a young man who moved into his first apartment without knowing how to make a bed. People say I look like my mother, but I know that is a lie. I am a Brooke, with the unmistakable brown eyes, button nose, and bad teenage acne to prove it.
As far as I know, Brooke never denied I was his but never claimed me, either. His parents babysat me every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday morning, though they never had any pictures of me in their house and didn’t tell anyone I was his child. But in the small town of Rochester, Minnesota, I was an impossible secret to keep. People knew about me.
The ironic thing is I’ve never known much about him—the man out there to whom I owe half my DNA. Brooke has never been a part of my life, and apparently that is the way he wants it. But two years ago, at 22, I decided I had a right to know who he was, even if he didn’t seem to care much about who I was. And so I began my journey to discover my father.
To Ronnie Grandison, I am not a mistake.
My mother was 25 when she got pregnant—a small business owner, and in spite of what her careless hook-up suggests, a responsible adult. Still, she decided to have an abortion. And she would have done so, if it hadn’t been for Ronnie Grandison, her good friend. He talked her out of it. Ronnie is, quite literally, the reason I am alive.
My mother married Ronnie when I was 10 months old, and when I was 2, Brooke signed the papers that made it possible for Ronnie to adopt me. I don’t have any memory of it, but it’s part of family lore: After signing away custody, Brooke walked up to Ronnie and with a simple “Take care of Baihley,” relinquished his fatherhood.
In 1992, our family moved to Landen, just north of Cincinnati. When I had gymnastics practice or dance lessons, Ronnie was there to watch. Every summer he’d take me to The Beach Waterpark and Kings Island, though the rides made him dizzy. My first job was helping him coach summer basketball camps in Fairfield and Mason, and we shared a car for two years while I attended community college in Blue Ash. No one who saw us together would assume we are related. He’s African-American—a six-foot-eight former NBA player—and I’m a white girl who’s barely five-foot-six. But in every way that matters to me, we are family.
In 2012 I was taking a senior-level college journalism course when I got an unusual assignment: write a profile of a stranger. The assignment was calculated to force student reporters to dig deep into an unknown personality. I decided to write about the man who made up the biggest mystery in my life: my biological father. Brooke’s role in my existence had been a whispered tale. I knew his name; beyond that, he was shrouded in mist. Now I had an actual assignment emboldening me to learn all I could.
Since Ronnie has always been—and will always be—my dad, I wanted him to be the first to know what I was doing. “Be careful,” he warned me when I explained my plan to him on a November day two years ago. I was perched on the edge of our black leather couch and he sat on the floor, his tall frame propped back against the couch.
“I am all for you getting to know [Brooke], but you might find out things that are better not to know,” he said gently. “I just don’t want you to get hurt.”
I listened. And I knew where his warning was coming from. As an 8-year-old, Ronnie had watched his own father walk away. He understood rejection—he’d never really had a relationship with his father, either. But he didn’t try to talk me out of it.
My mother was similarly concerned with my well-being. Did I want to dig up painful truths? Everything I knew about Brooke she had told me, though she didn’t have much to go on, either. But she knew and understood my curiosity about Brooke perhaps better than anyone. She encouraged me to forge ahead in my quest—even though she had to know I’d be finding out things that wouldn’t necessarily reflect well on her, either.
Brooke’s mother, Gertie, is the only one of the Brooke family I remember. She was my special “third grandma,” and spoiled me like no other. Even after my mother had married Ronnie, and he had adopted me, she and I kept in touch. I have many fond memories of time spent at her home in Minnesota: teasing her three over-fed cats, playing hide-and-seek, eating Easy Cheese on Keebler crackers and maraschino cherries by the jarful. After we moved away from Minnesota, she would send me birthday cards and Christmas money. But Grandma Gertie died of uterine cancer when I was 14, and with her death the one thin thread tying me to the Brookes frayed away to nothing. Yet as much time as I spent as a child at the elder Brookes’ home, I have no memories of Brooke himself, no recollection of ever encountering him there.
Brooke has an older sister, now in her late 40s, married with a family and living in the West. Every few years she e-mails my mom to say hello, so it was easy enough for me to reach out to her. It took weeks for her to reply, and when she did she wished me the best, but expressed skepticism. Did I truly want to know more about my biological father, or was I just trying to write a good story?
Her suggestion to me was that I simply contact Brooke myself. The fact that she failed to give me any means by which to do that spoke volumes.
As it turned out, it was easy to locate people who had known Brooke back in the day. That’s in part thanks to Facebook—and to the fact that Minnesotans tend to stay put.
In short order I found my way to a group of friendly, helpful women—now all in their 40s and 50s—who were glad to tell me what they remembered about working with him: his sense of humor and the practical jokes he’d play; the way he dressed; his softball skills; his love of music (blues rockers Big Head Todd and the Monsters was a favorite, I learned). One remembered going out to movies with him and other friends from work; another recalled getting together to eat at Bilotti’s, Rochester’s popular pizzeria. Energetic, outgoing—“he had this positivity,” one woman gushed. “You’d always want to talk to Brooke.”
They also told me—with gentle hesitation—about his flaws: the drinking, the pot-smoking, the perpetual tardiness at work. When I was born, he had an entry-level position at the Mayo Clinic; several people indicated that a positive drug test led to his eventual firing. “He was probably his own worst enemy, as far as getting himself in trouble,” one woman said. And each woman was quick to amend every negative remark: “He might have been late to work, but he would stay late, too,” said one. “You never saw him get mad, he was always a good worker,” insisted another. It became clear to me that Brooke was, if nothing else, exceptionally charming.
If there was a detractor, it was a former roommate and friend—let’s call him Peter—who was completely disenchanted with Brooke. Even in his early 40s, Peter bitterly recalled the time 20 or so years ago when he bailed Brooke out of jail.
“It was always a one-way relationship, always what he could get from me,” Peter griped. “I think he was able to skate by on his good luck and his charm…everybody forgave his every transgression. I still to this day don’t understand why people would accept all the shortcomings.”
One of the women was eager to send me the few pictures she had of him from his days at Mayo. Looking at those white-rimmed Polaroids was both unsettling and riveting. I can’t explain the confusion I felt in finally seeing his face for, essentially, the first time in my life. Suddenly, the fuzzy picture I always had in my mind of this man I didn’t know snapped into focus: Here he was, in my hands.
As I learned about him, I was constructing him in my mind; when the pictures arrived, his realness started to sink in. And the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew. I was asking complete strangers questions about the fabric of his life—ordinary questions that ordinary daughters could answer without a second thought.
I should know what his favorite food was.
I should know what kind of music he liked.
I should know how he sounded when he laughed, what he looked like when he smiled.
Physically, our likeness was undeniable, but all that told me was that we shared the same genes. And I already knew that.
The headquarters of the Mayo Clinic is like a small town in itself, and word spread quickly about what I was doing. Eventually I heard through one of his ex-girlfriends that Brooke knew I was asking questions. She had given him my phone number—without my knowledge—and told me he was very nervous about me talking to all these people.
Somehow, I had not anticipated the rather obvious question of whether he’d find out what I was doing or how he’d feel about it. I was told he admitted to periodically doing Google searches of me throughout the years. So why had he never reached out to me before? Would he try to contact me now? Did I want him to? I couldn’t answer those questions.
That’s about the time my attempts at dispassionate reporting broke down. I was out running errands and I had to pull over because suddenly I couldn’t stop my tears. I sat in the parking lot at Walmart for more than half an hour, my shoulders heaving, mascara running in inky pools down my cheeks. This was rapidly changing from a story about a stranger to a very real chapter in my own life.
Before, he might as well have been the stork who dropped me off on the doorstep; he was that mythical. But now, seeing pictures and hearing people’s memories of him, he was harder to dismiss as a character in a childhood story. I felt both closer to him and much, much further away.
The ex-girlfriend questioned my motives. Like Brooke’s sister, she wondered why I didn’t just call him, instead of going around asking questions. I explained that I was open to speaking with him—always had been—but that, in writing this story, contacting him had never been my intent. Was I curious about him? Yes. Do I have the right, as his daughter, to ask these questions? Yes, I think I do. But at the same time, it felt wrong to just call him out of the blue and say, Hey, I’ve always wondered about you. After all, not once in 22 years had he contacted me. And I was frustrated that this person, who knew Brooke better than most, would ask me why I hadn’t contacted him. When did it become solely the child’s responsibility to have a relationship with the absentee parent?
“Knowing [Brooke], he probably thought that you were going to have a better life with Ronnie and your mom,” one of the other women said, offering a sweet, motherly explanation of his absence from my life. “He was young. I just think it was a lot of pressure.
“I can’t imagine he didn’t love you,” she added.
Peter, the former roommate, tells me the same thing, although with an altogether different tone. “[He] didn’t know what to fucking do,” he said. “He just wasn’t mature enough to make that decision.
“The biological part of it is so small,” he added, more diplomatically. “The real important part is someone stepped up and said ‘I’ll give a damn.’ You are a very lucky girl.”
I realized he was right. This messy, tangled, emotional foray into the past was something I had to do, and I don’t regret it. But ultimately I decided not to call Brooke. Sometimes I get hopeful: Maybe he’ll contact me. Maybe, one day, we will meet. Maybe when I get married I’ll be able to invite him to my wedding. But I don’t have any expectations of that happening. I know enough now to realize those are, more than likely, merely fantasies. I realize that as each year passes, our chances of developing a relationship dwindle.
In looking for Harley Brooke, I was looking for the rest of myself, for the pieces of me no one other than he could account for. I had thought his absence from my life was a gap that I could fill with meaning. I came to realize that it wasn’t a gap at all; it was just a mark, a tattoo, a birthright of who I am. And that won’t go away, whether he’s in my life or out of it.