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A father's pain

By Benita Alexander-Noel, Dateline producer

Even if you know nothing about his story, you sense it the minute you meet David Goldman.  There is a deep sadness in his eyes, a sense of suppressed torment that he wants to cover up, but just can't hide.

Then, when you begin talking to people who know him, you hear the same characterization over and over again.  "He's a shell of himself," or "he's a walking ghost," or "he never laughs anymore, he's been destroyed by this."

As the mother of a daughter who is only a year older than David's son Sean was when he was abducted, I knew from the moment I met this father that his story was going to keep me up at night.  As a parent, it's just impossible to imagine what it's like to have your only child suddenly wrenched from your life, much less to spend four and a half years desperately battling to see him.

The first and only time I even got a glimpse of the man David Goldman was before he lost Sean, we were taking the red-eye to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  It was Oct. 16, 2008 and Dateline NBC was traveling to Rio with David as he prepared for a visit with the beloved little boy he hadn't set eyes on since his wife Bruna abducted him on June 16, 2004. Although David was guarded, and obviously nervous, it's the only time I've ever really heard him laugh.  During the course of the long 10-hour flight, he cracked silly jokes, and playfully gave me, and my field producer, Lauren Andrulewich, a hard time about pretty much everything.  He was too afraid to ever say it out loud, but I knew that for the first time, he was allowing himself to feel optimistic. I could actually see his eyes brightening with hope.

But David's hope, and his laughter, was fleeting.  The four days we spent in Rio with David were an all-too palpable insight into the turmoil and agony he has lived with every single day since June 16, 2004.   He spent the entire time trying not to become emotionally paralyzed by constant disappointment and intense fear.

Within hours of arriving, there were frantic phone calls and endless ups and downs as the visit was on, then off, then on again.  Then there was the crushing disappointment of learning that in spite of a court order, Joao Paulo Lins e Silva, the man David's wife Bruna had married in Brazil, had disappeared with Sean, making it highly unlikely that David would be able to see his son.  And in the midst of it all, David anxiously agonized about his own safety, genuinely fearing someone might try to either hurt him, or arrest him – anything to make him just go away.

Witnessing a father's suffering
 As I watched David take in one piece of bad news after another, fielding phone calls from his attorneys and officials from the U.S. Embassy, typing out angry e-mails to friends back in New Jersey, barely eating or sleeping, my heart kept breaking for him.  I found myself refraining from talking about my own daughter, not wanting to add to his pain.

Still, what probably struck me most about David Goldman was his constant – and calm – concern for his son's safety and emotional well-being. Desperate as he was to see Sean, he was fiercely insistent that nobody, whether it was our Dateline crew, his attorneys , or the court officers, ever do anything that would make Sean uncomfortable.  If he had been allowed to pick Sean up as the court had ordered at 8 a.m. Saturday morning, he would have had 36 hours with his son, until 8 p.m. Sunday night. He'd made arrangements to have a representative from the U.S . Embassy at his side the entire time, someone who could bridge the language barrier with a little boy who he knew would now be far more fluent in Portugese than English, and someone who could take them to safe, neutral locations that Sean might enjoy: a zoo, or a park perhaps.  Although no parameters had been established by the court for the visit, David was sensitive to how jarring it might be for his son to see him for the first time in four years, so he planned to ease into this first reunion, taking Sean back to his Brazilian house on Saturday night , and picking him up again on Sunday morning.  And, although Dateline had made it very clear to David that we would do absolutely no videotaping of Sean, and would disappear for the rest of the weekend to leave him with his son, he repeatedly went over it with me, wanting to be certain that Sean never so much as set eyes on our camera crew.

 In the Brazilian courts, allegations were made that David doesn't really care about his son, and may even have ulterior motives for trying to be reunited with him.  The charges rile David and his supporters, and it's easy to see why.  The man I saw is every bit the loving, dedicated father. He is the same doting, compassionate father you see in the home videos from the four years he had with his son in New Jersey. He is a man who aches with every fiber of his being to hold his little boy in his arms again, to tell him how much he loves him, to play ball with him, to teach him about life, to do anything and everything a father and son are meant to do together.  However assimilated Sean has become to his Brazilian life after four and a half years away from his father, which is something David completely understands, it is difficult to understand why anyone would deny a doting, affectionate father like David Goldman the right to love his own child.

Click here read the transcript of "Fighting for Sean," which aired on Dateline NBC on Friday, Jan. 30, 2009.

Click here to find web-exclusive videos of an extended interview with David Goldman, home videos of Sean, and a video diary from David.