A Father's Grief — And Forgiveness — In Orlando

Jun 19, 2016
Originally published on June 24, 2016 2:06 pm

This weekend in Orlando, Fla., families are burying their loved ones — the people gunned down at Pulse nightclub. There are many different ways to grieve death. Sadness, remorse, rage. And then there's pure love.

If such a thing is possible, Daniel Alvear embodies it — in his feelings for his daughter, who died that night in Orlando, and for her killer.

Alvear and his daughter Amanda lived together — with her mom, too — in Davenport, a suburb just outside Orlando. They were tight, so tight as to be buddy-buddy. For a while, they worked at the exact same restaurant; he was her boss. When he started working less, he would make her favorite meals at home — things like white rice and black beans with palomilla steak.

She used to call him and say, "Daddy, you cooked today?"

Amanda recently took on a second job, at a hospital, to try her hand at the health care field. She had already been taking nursing classes, and she wasn't sure she could handle the two jobs, plus school. It was going to take 35 days of nonstop work, and she needed to know her dad had her back.

"She sat down with me and said, 'Daddy, we have to talk about the schedule,' " her father recalls.

Loyalty was also important to Amanda.

At age 25, she and her close friend, Mercedes Flores, 26, went to Pulse together — and died together. But it didn't have to happen that way.

"It didn't surprise me when they [told] me that she made it out — and she went back to her friend," Alvear says.

Even facing the prospect of death, Amanda couldn't leave her friend behind. And her father is proud of that decision.

As he mourns her on the first Father's Day they are not together, he's clearly channeling the way she would take care of others. At a vigil for the young women, people would come to hug him and burst into tears. He reassured them: Everything's going to be OK.

He tried to comfort President Obama, too. When Obama came to meet with victims' families, Alvear noticed the president's hand was ice-cold. Obama looked shaken, perhaps because he's also a father. So, Alvear pulled him in and whispered in the president's ear, "Who is winning tonight?"

Alvear was referring to the NBA finals, in which the Golden State Warriors were playing the Cleveland Cavaliers that night. He knows Obama likes basketball.

"So he smiles, like you just did," Alvear tells me. "And he told me Golden State."

Amanda isn't here today — her body, that is — but she is giving her dad a present for Father's Day. Weeks ago she bought him a hat: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his favorite team. Her mom found it in a closet, shortly after she died.

Sitting with him, I find it a little hard to believe the Alvear spirit. I ask Alvear how he can be so positive right now. His family even started the hashtag #HugsNotHate. The answer is simple: "Love. Love, mami. Love."

That love extends remarkably far.

It might feel too soon to share this fact, but Alvear forgives Omar Mateen, the gunman who killed his daughter and others in the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history.

"They talk about love, hate, this and that. But the bottom line is, you gotta learn how to forgive. We fight, we love each other. You gotta learn how to forgive," he says.

But it's not forgive and forget. Alvear wants to know: how many bullets hit his daughter? Did she die instantly? From his experience with the death of his son, who died of cancer a few years back, he knows answers can help when you start losing hope.

He also wants to meet Mateen's father. Alvear says he would invite the man into his home — and observe him, look for clues about his son in his face.

"When you look at a man, you know right away if he's lying or he really feels what he's saying," he explains. "So I would open my door and look at his eyes — does he feel sorrow or shame or embarrassment?"

That's not to say he wouldn't hit the guy. "Maybe I would," he laughs. "But not hate."

We in the media have reported that 49 people were killed at Pulse. Alvear corrects us: Actually it's 50, he says. He counts the gunman, too.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

As you've already heard this weekend, families are beginning to bury their loved ones in Orlando, people gunned down at the Pulse nightclub last week. There are many different ways to grieve death - sadness, guilt, rage. NPR's Aarti Shahani ran into something she didn't expect, something transcendent, in the person of one father who lost his daughter.

AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Daniel Alvear and his daughter, Amanda, were tight, buddy-buddy.

DANIEL ALVEAR: She used to call me and say, daddy, you cook today?

SHAHANI: They lived together with her mom, too. For a while, they even worked in the same restaurant. He was her boss. And when he started working less, he'd make her favorite meals at home.

ALVEAR: White rice and black beans with rare palomilla steak.

SHAHANI: We're in Davenport, a suburb just outside Orlando, in the family's house. The walls are mostly bare except for a few collages they put together.

ALVEAR: Her picture - her favorite was this one right here.

SHAHANI: Of Amanda and her middle brother, who died a few years back of cancer. Amanda recently took a second job at a hospital to try out the health care field. She wasn't sure she could handle it, two jobs plus school.

ALVEAR: She sit down with me and she said, daddy, we have to talk about the schedule.

SHAHANI: It was going to take 35 days of non-stop work, and she needed to know her dad had her back. Loyalty was important to her. Amanda Alvear, age 25, and her close friend, Mercedes Flores, age 26, both died at Pulse together. It didn't have to happen that way. But, Mr. Alvear explains, it makes sense.

ALVEAR: It didn't surprise me when they tell me that she make it out and she went back to her friend.

SHAHANI: In the face of death, Amanda couldn't leave her friend behind. And her father is proud of that decision. As he mourns her the first Father's Day they are not together, he's clearly channeling that way she would take care of other people. At a vigil for the young women, people would come up to him and hug him and burst into tears. He reassured them - everything's going to be OK.

He tried to comfort President Obama, too. When Obama came to meet with victims' families, Alvear noticed the president's hand was ice-cold. And he looked shaken, maybe because he's also a father. So Alvear pulled him in.

ALVEAR: And I whispered in his ear, who is winning tonight?

SHAHANI: He was referring to the NBA finals, Golden State Warriors versus Cleveland Cavaliers. He knows Obama likes basketball.

ALVEAR: So he smiled like you just did, and he told me Golden State.

SHAHANI: Amanda isn't here today - her body, that is - but she is giving her dad a present for Father's Day. Weeks ago, she bought him a hat - Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his favorite team. Her mom found it in a closet shortly after she died. Sitting together, it's a little hard to believe the Alvear spirit. I ask him -

I don't understand how you cannot just seem, but actually be so positive right now.

ALVEAR: Love. Love, mami. Love.

SHAHANI: That love extends remarkably far. It might feel too soon to share this fact, but Alvear forgives Omar Mateen, the gunman who killed his daughter and others in the deadliest mass shooting in recent U.S. history.

ALVEAR: They talk about love, hate, this and that. But the bottom line is you've got to learn how to forgive. We fight, we love each other. You've got to learn how to forgive.

SHAHANI: And you forgive him already?

ALVEAR: Oh, yes, most definitely.

SHAHANI: But it's not forgive and forget. Alvear wants to know how many bullets hit his daughter. Did she die instantly? From past experience, he knows answers help somehow.

ALVEAR: If you start losing hope - we've been there. Sorry.

SHAHANI: He also wants to meet the father of Mateen. Alvear says he would invite the man into his home and observe him, look for clues about his son in his face.

ALVEAR: When you look at a man, you know right away if he's lying or if he really feels what he's saying, you know? So I will open my door and look in his eyes and see - does he sorrow or shame or embarrassment?

SHAHANI: We in the media have reported 49 people killed at Pulse. Alvear corrects us - actually, it's 50, he says. He counts the gunman, too. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, Orlando. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.