By Benita Alexander-Noel, Dateline producer
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - It was day 1,694. When he boarded a plane heading for Brazil on Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009, that's how many days it had been since David Goldman last saw his son, Sean.
David was heading for Brasilia, the country's capital city, for what was being billed as a mediation hearing, and Dateline was documenting the trip. He had no idea what to expect. Would he come face-to-face with Joao Paulo Lins e Silva, the man who is battling him for custody of his now 8-year-old boy? Would he come any closer to actually being able to see his son, or to finally being able to bring him home?
He sighed out loud and as he did, I watched a flight attendant gently touch him on the shoulder. "I just want to tell you I saw your story on Dateline the other night and I've been praying for you ever since," she said. "And we all want to be working the flight when you actually bring your son home."
David looked up at her, tears brimming in his eyes. "Well, it's not over yet, but thank you, thank you. That means a lot."
The next day as he was disembarking the plane in Brasilia, a young couple timidly approached him. "Are you David?" they asked. David nodded. "We just want to say we are so embarrassed for our country. We're Brazilian and we saw your story while we were in Washington. We think it's so wrong what is happening to you, and you need to know that there are lots of Brazilians like us."
These unexpected, heartfelt expressions of support seemed to buoy David. Just a few hours earlier as we were changing flights in Sao Paulo, he'd been in a complete panic when his name was announced over the loud speaker and he was told an unidentified person was waiting for him. Convinced he was about to be arrested on some bogus charge filed by the Lins e Silva family, he was literally shaking. We rolled our camera and watched as he nervously approached the man. "Are you David Goldman?" the strange man asked. David hesitated before defensively answering "That all depends on who you are."
The smiling man looked utterly confused. It turned out he was a representative from the U.S. Embassy, and contrary to what David feared, he'd been sent to help in any way he possibly could. David laughed heartily as he apologized for being so abrasive.
A roller coaster of emotions
It was just a glimpse into the roller coaster of emotions David would experience over the course of the next week. In many of Dateline's interviews with David, he has repeated a common refrain about how he's managed to, as he puts it, "stay off the roller coaster." At times it has made him seem almost flat, devoid of the anger you'd expect him to express, yet it was the only way he could cope with the anguish of not seeing his son for four and a half years. But this trip has been different, this time the roller coaster David has worked so hard to stay off has taken him on a jerky ride of emotional lows and highs, with all his suppressed grief and anger tossed to the surface.
On Friday morning before the court hearing, David attended several meetings with key Brazilian officials. Accompanying him were officials from the U.S. Embassy, and Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey, who had flown to Brasilia with David, promising to do anything he could to help him. As our camera crew was videotaping the group walking into one meeting, David pulled out some cards that Sean had given him to show Representative Smith. Overwhelmed by memories, he suddenly had to step away from everyone else. Our photographer, Bob Abrahamsen, and sound engineer, Randy Foster, got some beautiful, but painfully sad, silhouetted shots of a lonely David, wiping tears from his face.
Later that same day, after an often tense four and a half hour court hearing in which he had to sit across a table from Joao Paulo Lins e Silva, an agreement was made that David would finally be able to visit Sean. Everyone was thrilled for David, but his own excitement was still cautiously guarded – he was just too afraid it wouldn't really happen. And, as he kept reminding everyone, it was just a visit; he still wasn't bringing his son home.
The next day, David attended a service at Dom Bosco Sanctuary with Congressman Smith. David prayed quietly, and then, very suddenly, he just began sobbing, his body heaving as he could no longer hold back the flood of pent-up emotion.
Two days later, exactly 1,698 days since he'd hugged and kissed his 4-year-old son Sean goodbye at Newark Airport, David was finally able to embrace his cherished little boy again. Dateline did not witness or record the reunion but when we interviewed David back at his hotel afterwards, he described it in vivid detail, calling it the most beautiful thing he's seen since Sean was born. Again, he was overpowered with emotion, barely able to finish a sentence without crying. But he was also smiling in a way I have never seen David Goldman smile since I first met him in October. He was beaming with fatherly pride as he talked about playing basketball with his son, spending hours with him in the pool, and simply telling him, over and over and over again, how much he loved him. He seemed almost dazed, as if he had been dreaming, but as he talked, his eyes were literally sparkling with joy.
Now, on Wednesday, Feb. 11, the friends who run the Web site dedicated to helping David are calling this day 1700, not a number representing the days since he last saw his son, but instead, the number of days that have elapsed since Sean's kidnapping. After spending two days bonding with his son, David is in a very different place than he was when he boarded that plane one week earlier, but he is still riding a very tumultuous roller coaster. Just minutes ago, I watched him burst into tears again as his attorney called with the news that a panel of nine judges has just ruled unanimously that the case will be heard in a federal court in Brazil, not a state court. This is exactly what David's attorneys, his many supporters, and all the politicans who have now stepped in to help him wanted. This is where they believe they are most likely to get the favorable outcome that David has waited so very, very long for: to finally sit on a plane heading for New Jersey with his little boy Sean sitting in the seat right beside him.