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A Father's Grief — And Forgiveness — In Orlando

Daniel Alvear and his wife, Mayra, in their home --€” hours before the funeral for Flores.
Aarti Shahani
Daniel Alvear and his wife, Mayra, in their home --€” hours before the funeral for Flores.

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.

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Aarti Shahani is a correspondent for NPR. Based in Silicon Valley, she covers the biggest companies on earth. She is also an author. Her first book, Here We Are: American Dreams, American Nightmares (out Oct. 1, 2019), is about the extreme ups and downs her family encountered as immigrants in the U.S. Before journalism, Shahani was a community organizer in her native New York City, helping prisoners and families facing deportation. Even if it looks like she keeps changing careers, she's always doing the same thing: telling stories that matter.