Adoption search takes birth parents to the altar

After missing all of his school plays, ballgames and birthdays, Doris Brooks and Willie Cheatem were finally able to give their grown son something they couldn't give him before:

A real family.

When Brooks, 60, and Cheatem, 66, married last month, they brought an end - and a new beginning - to a story that started in 1954. That's when they met, had a baby, lost him to adoption and parted ways.

Forty-three years later, the story resumed when Brooks sought and found her firstborn son.

Their joyful reunion in Rainier Valley last year led to two other reunions - her son with the biological father he'd never known, and Brooks with her first love - and then to a marriage that has given their son the history and roots he'd longed for.

"I always hoped I would meet them, but I never thought that I would one day be here watching my children sit on my father's lap, that I would watch them play with their grandmother," said Marvin Charles of Seattle, who is 45, married with seven children of his own, and working as an office-cubicle installer.

"I know to some people it's just a regular thing, but it's not to me. I want to tell the whole world: I've got a mother! I've got a father! I've got a family!"

A teenager in love

Brooks was 14 when she met Cheatem at a street fair in Seattle's Central District. He was 20 and handsome and drove a car.

"I couldn't believe how sharp he was, and I couldn't believe that he was talking to me," said Brooks, a nurse's aide. "He asked me to dance, and I saw stars."

He was her first love, and she trusted him. They dated all summer and by fall she was pregnant. Their baby was born four days before she turned 15, on April 25, 1955.

For six months, Brooks nursed, rocked and cuddled her laughing boy. But one day she came home from junior high school and he was gone.

Her mother told her the state had decided that she was too young and too poor to raise a child and that another family was adopting him. She was told it was for the best and forbidden to ask questions.

When Cheatem came around again, as he did from time to time, she told him to go away.

"I told him the baby was gone, and I wasn't the same innocent little girl that had fallen in love with him. I told him I wasn't going to let the same dog bite me twice."

Brooks moved on. She finished school, married another man and had four more children - two boys and two girls - before her husband left her for another woman. She found work as a supply clerk for Boeing and as a home-health nurse.

But she never forgot her firstborn son. She carried a picture of him in her wallet and displayed one on her living room wall with those of her other children.

"There was never a single day when I didn't think about him, when I didn't pray for him or wonder where he was," she said.

Last year, after watching a program on adoption reunions, Brooks called search consultant Karen King of Renton, and within 10 days her long-lost baby boy - all 6 feet 4 inches of him - was at her curb, grinning and literally jumping for joy.

"I tried to pull away to see his face, but he wouldn't let go. He said he'd waited his whole life for that hug," she said.

All those years she was praying for him, Charles was growing up just blocks from where she was then living in the Central District.

He was raised in a stable but cold family. He didn't know until he was 9 years old that he had been adopted and found out only when his adoptive mother died and he was sent to live with relatives.

That home was full of punishment, neglect and misery, and he tried to run away many times. After their reunion, when he told Brooks, "They were mean to me, Mom," she wept.

"My heart was broken, because I knew that I had loved him, and I knew that even as a 15-year-old girl I could have done a better job," she said.

Love at second sight

Brooks hadn't seen or spoken to Cheatem in 43 years, but she knew her son would eventually ask about his biological father. When he did ask, she was ready.

Through mutual acquaintances, Brooks tracked Cheatem to California. He had joined the Army after they parted in 1955 and was stationed first in Virginia, then Oakland, working as an aviation mechanic.

He remained in Oakland when he got out. He married, had a child, divorced, married and divorced again.

Last fall, when Brooks called him in Oakland to tell him their son was looking for him, he was delighted and eager to meet Charles and to renew a friendship with the woman he'd once loved.

"The first thing he said to me was, `You married?' " Brooks said. "I said, `Nope.' He said, `Me neither.' "

Over the next couple of months, Brooks and Charles both spoke many times on the telephone with Cheatem. He invited both Charles and Brooks to visit him in Oakland.

Charles and his father bonded over food - both love Chinese dishes. Both love to cook. Both love to sneak into bed with sugary drinks and vinegary chips.

When Brooks arrived, she was dressed in a slinky black pantsuit and she had her hair freshly braided. "I was sharp as a tack," she said. When he saw her, Cheatem proclaimed it love at second sight.

Cheatem wasn't exactly the same man Brooks remembered. He'd had a stroke two years earlier that left his speech slurred, his motor skills impaired and his memory faded.

Yet he was charming and still darn cute. He waited on her, opened doors and pulled out chairs. She saw nobility in his struggle to speak and move as he once did, and she admired his warmth with Charles, how they communicated with little pats and smiles and whispers.

When she chastised Charles for the poor quality of his midnight snacks, Cheatem came to his defense. "Leave the boy alone, Doris. He's hungry!"

By the end of the week, when Cheatem proposed, Brooks accepted.

"It wasn't the same puppy love we'd once had, but we're good together," she said. "We take care of each other and watch out for each other."

A very doting son

Charles was overjoyed at the news and immediately started planning a lavish affair: There'd be bridesmaids in purple gowns, groomsmen in tuxes and dozens of flower girls. There would be roses, swans and a gospel choir.

"I was trying to figure out a way we could have the whole family walk down the aisle together," he said, envisioning a huge procession - Brooks and Cheatem in the lead, followed by their children, grandchildren and in-laws.

"I was getting carried away," he later admitted.

His parents - much as they wanted to indulge him - found the thought embarrassing.

"We're too old for that," Brooks said. "I called Marvin and I said, `Honey, don't be mad at me. Your dad and I just eloped.' "

They married in a civil ceremony in Tacoma and last week moved into their first home together, an apartment in Lake City, just blocks from her job as a nurse's aide.

While Brooks is away at work, Cheatem gets dinner ready - standing rib roast one night, turkey with gravy another. He vacuums, dusts and folds the laundry. In the fall, he'll start taking physical and speech therapy.

Charles is over there all the time, helping with this, moving that. So much so, that sometimes, his own wife feels left out.

"I have to remind myself that he hasn't had mother love, and right now he's just making up for lost time, trying to get every drop he can get," said Jeanett Charles, a substance-abuse counselor.

She believes, as do Brooks and Cheatem, that Charles will settle down in time. But he's not so sure. "I keep telling myself to calm down, but I can't," he said.

He's already got big plans for the next family milestone - his 50th birthday - when he wants his parents to renew their wedding vows. He still wants the chance to walk down the aisle with them.

He doesn't think he's overdoing it. There is reason to rejoice.

"I tell people, it's never too late. Miracles do happen, and they happen to ordinary people."

Christine Clarridge's phone message number is 206-464-8983. Her e-mail address is