On April 12 in her Colorado Springs home, Natasha Guajardo paused at the subject line. She had never been so nervous to type an email — or so excited or terrified.
She recalls thinking: "This is possibly the moment that will change my life."
She had waited most of her 38 years for this moment. Long days and nights of her youth and adulthood were spent searching.
Now here she was, the closest she had ever come, she was certain.
She was certain she was about to email the father she never knew.
But what words to choose? What if this was a message the man didn't want? What if she scared him away? Guajardo stared at that subject line for at least 15 minutes.
"Good evening," she finally decided.
She continued: "I am Natasha Guajardo (maiden name Payne), and I had the joy of finding some of my relatives today, and I think we are related as well!"
She found matches from a DNA test, she explained. She made contact with one, who shared the email address for Loncel Cline.
Guajardo thought to keep the message simple, warm.
"I wanted to reach out to you and say hello and nice to meet you!" she wrote.
At his home in Memphis, the same emotions consumed Cline — nervous, excited, terrified — and maybe some guilt.
In 1982, he was 21 and "immature in a lot of areas," he says. That's when he met the woman who would be Natasha's mother. Jacqueline was her name. She worked in the cafeteria of the naval base where Cline was posted. By the time the girl was born, he was stationed in Hawaii.
Maybe he knew. Maybe he didn't. Maybe memories get repressed, like those of a childhood in a tough, gang-ridden neighborhood of California. Cline left home at 17. His father was never around.
"I never wanted to repeat what happened in my family," Cline says.
Now here he was, contemplating this email.
"I have this mindset: Just make the next right move," Cline says. "So that's what I did here. That was to embrace Natasha."
His response was warm. Guajardo cried. That's when the words poured out.
There were so much she wanted to say. Mostly, she wanted her father to know she was fine. Everything was fine. She was married with two happy, healthy kids: 9-year-old Zoei and 3-year-old Dominic.
"I just want you know that through God, we have done well and we have everything we need, my family and I," she wrote. "So I just want to have some great conversations with you, and you to get to learn about me."
Cline read her words and felt the worry fade away. And what was this other feeling?
"It was like the fatherly love thing started to pop up in me," he says.
In the email, Guajardo mentioned she had always prayed to see his face one day. So he sent her a selfie. She saw herself in that big smile. And in those big glasses and that big bowtie, she saw the bubbly, life-loving person she always hoped to find.
"I looked at that picture, and I cried," Guajardo says. "This is the man behind my dreams!"
There were more tears when she finally heard his voice on the other line.
"That first call, the 38 years were just wiped away," Guajardo says. "It didn't matter anymore."
Always a daddy's girl
It didn't matter anymore, that long walk home from the basketball game in eighth grade.
Guajardo had been named the tournament MVP. As she took the award and looked around at the stands in applause, a sharp pain hit her. It stayed with her on her lonely walk.
"I always told myself I was a daddy's girl," Guajardo says. "My mom was there, and I loved my mom. But I was always a daddy's girl. I just longed for that."
Playing basketball, she says, "was my way of being a daddy's girl." She committed to getting better, knowing she'd make the invisible man proud. Maybe he'd see her in the newspaper, she thought. There she was on the sports page her senior year; she had dazzled with nine 3-pointers in a victory.
She'd shine more on scholarship at Bethel University. And she'd continue glancing at the stands, wishing.
Young Natasha tried other ways to get to her dad. She tried getting on a nationally televised talk show. Later, with the understanding he was from Compton, Calif., she walked the streets asking about the name she had: Lonnie Lazell Cline.
That was the name her mom had. As a teen, Guajardo would crack the phone book and call every Cline or Klein or any other spelling variation listed. She tried the Navy only to run into regulatory walls; she didn't have the required information to track him down.
Out of college in 2005, she enlisted in the Marine Corps.
"The mission was to get closer to my dad, as usual," she says.
But even with greater access to databases, Guajardo could find no record of Lonnie Lazell Cline. The social network of Facebook was growing, but Lonnie Lazell Cline was nowhere to be found there, either.
"I always thought he was dead," Jacqueline Payne says. "And she'd always say, 'Nah, momma, I'm never gonna stop looking.'"
In 2009, Natasha settled down. She married a man she'd grown close with, Juan. They bonded over their lost fathers; his suffered from alcoholism. Together, they pledged to create the family they never had. They would not be broken.
All the while, she remained set on recovering a piece.
"I would wake up in the middle of the night," Juan says. "I'm like, 'What are you doing?' And she says, 'I'm just searching to see if he's out there.'"
She hired a private investigator. No luck. Then she came by 23andMe, the company connecting people through DNA tests.
She matched with a man named Stanford. He, too, had consulted 23andMe to find his father.
Did he know a Lonnie?
Stanford wrote back: "My oldest brother's name is Loncel Cline."
"My heart dropped," Guajardo recalls.
Today, her heart flutters, as does Cline's. The two have texted or called each other most every day since uniting in April.
There are no hard feelings. No thoughts of what could have been.
"I remember one day laying in bed," Payne says. "I said, 'Lord, I hope one day before I leave this earth, Natasha can find her dad.' I wanted to hear her say she found her dad. And that's the news I got."
Next month, father and daughter are scheduled to meet for the first time.
"The life I'm living right now, it was in a dream," Cline says. "It was a dream I had when I was at the lowest point in my life."
The dream was of a strong, whole family. He felt closest to that over the past 20 years. He was married to the love of his life. She died in 2019.
Cline was left alone in the house with her cats. There was a brief thought to take them to the shelter.
"But I didn't feel comfortable splitting them up," Cline says. "I felt it was like a human family getting split. I didn't want to experience that anymore."
Cline was grieving when Guajardo's email came. He felt an emptiness filled. This was a gift from God, he told her.
"God's way of telling you to not give up in life," she told him. "There's still time to live and make more memories and find joy."
That's what she wants from him, joyous times. Nothing more, she told him.
Cline sent her a gift anyway. A teddy bear came in the mail.
"I was a happy little girl," Guajardo says.