Hal Saunders was sipping his coffee and getting ready for his routine Saturday morning run when he opened a Facebook message from a stranger named Brandy Vernon who was wondering if he was her father.
“I know it’s not me, but maybe I could help,” Hal thought.
After all, Brandy mentioned his high school, and Hal still had his yearbook. If her father had been one of his classmates, maybe he could help connect them.
Hal didn’t have any biological children despite his best attempts in his first marriage, and had long ago made a reluctant peace with not being able to pass along his genes to the next generation.
“Down the road, do you live on?” he asked. “Not having biological kids … I knew that I was the end of the line. My DNA, my genetics, my bloodline ends with me.”
Over the years even his mother gave up on her dream of a biological red-haired grandchild and presented Hal with an unsigned congratulations-on-your-bundle-of-joy card she’d been waiting to give him on a happy occasion.
Hal already had five stepdaughters and a dozen grandchildren he loves to the max. So, before Brandy reached out, Hal’s family already filled his heart, if not his longing for a baby he had helped create.
Hal had dated a little before getting married, but hadn’t had a what-do-we-do-now conversation with a girlfriend or an ex, hadn’t seen a positive pregnancy test or gotten the slightest hint that he might have sired a child.
“It was inconceivable that I had a daughter,” he said.
But a few messages into their conversation – which Hal peppered with encouraging smiley emojis – Brandy sent him a picture of the birth-information card her mother had filled out when Brandy was adopted at birth.
Many of the fields were left blank, but Hal’s name was inked onto the card along with his age, 22, and a brief description of him that said he liked sports.
From that instant three weeks ago, Hal knew he was Brandy’s father and immediately welcomed her into his life.
“Obviously I didn’t go running that morning. I got a little distracted,” he said with a laugh. “Brandy was quite a surprise. It’s not every day at 61 that you find out you have a daughter that you never knew about.”
Hal had dated Brandy’s mother so briefly that at first he couldn’t recall who she was. He doesn’t have any memory of how or why their relationship ended. Retrieving a Halloween photo of himself with Brandy’s mother where the pair were dressed as clowns, Hal calculated back from Brandy’s birthdate to guess that her mother was already three months pregnant in the photo.
“You think if you had a child with someone, they would tell you,” he said.
Even so, he’s grateful that she chose to put his name on Brandy’s form.
“I’ve never had any anger. I’ve never had any resentment to the mother,” he said. “I’m very thankful that she did put my name on the papers … If it wasn’t for that, I would have been untraceable.”
Initially Hal felt consumed by guilt for missing out on the first 39 years of Brandy’s life, but that was soon replaced with love and a gratitude so big it keeps spilling out of his eyes.
Describing their first phone call, he said: “she’s crying on one end and I’m crying on the other end and I’m not that emotional of a guy.”
Earlier this month, Hal and his wife Jeannine went to Edmonton to meet Brandy and her daughters, Mya, age 6, and Aubrey, age 4.
But first Hal and Brandy spent a few hours alone together catching up on all their lost years.
“I really felt a lot of love for her initially, and when I opened the door and saw her I just fell more in love with her,” Hal said. “She’s a part of my life and she always will be now.”
As the father/daughter pair got acquainted, they learned that they share some personality traits, have the same nose and both love lemon meringue pie and peanut butter.
Brandy said they even share a similar sense of humour.
The next day, Hal and Jeannine met Brandy’s family and took presents for their new grandchildren.
Aubrey snuggled right up to Hal, while Mya demonstrated her cartwheel expertise for Jeannine.
“The kids took to us quite quickly,” he said. “Everything went really, really well.”
So well, in fact, that he and Jeannine are already planning their next visit.
“I could just be sitting here doing nothing and my eyes well up,” he said. “It makes me really happy that they’re all in my life.”
Brandy is enthusiastic too but more reserved.
“It’s a really overwhelming and exciting feeling,” she said. “I look forward to getting to know him and his family and spending time together. Our families will get along really well.”
Their joy is, of course, bittersweet. For as much as Hal and Brandy have gained, they now also carry the knowledge of what they lost, the love that was always there waiting for them.
Although Brandy’s adoptive parents passed away before she reached out to him, Hal wishes he could thank them for raising her so well and loving her so thoroughly.
“My heart opened up right away to her. Honestly I can’t get enough of her and the kids,” he said. “It’s a very sad happy story.”