Once in a while, a story made for a movie plays out in the real world.
Euclides Vargas, 55, is a former disco dance instructor and speakeasy owner living in Brooklyn. He has HIV, lymphatic cancer and heart problems. He hadn't seen his only daughter in 12 years and thought he would likely pass away without doing so.
Loretta Cabral, 36, is a waitress living in Hollywood, Florida, nearly 1,300 miles south. She hadn't seen her father in 12 years and suspected she never would again. But earlier this summer, she sat down, punched his name into Google, and did yet another search for her dad.
This time a Housing Works URL popped up.
Vargas is a client at our dental clinic. Earlier this year, a Housing Works photographer snapped his picture for an advertisement for our dental services and posted it on housingworks.org.
"I thought, 'That face staring back at me, those eyes are mine.'" Cabral recalled. "And I said, 'If anybody could be sick like that and be smiling like that, it's got to be my dad." For 24 hours, she was in shock. Then, she took action.
She sent an email to Housing Works, and a staffer phoned Vargas. Within days, her dad's voice was on her answering machine.
When Vargas made that first call, "I was scared," he said. "Very scared." Diagnosed with HIV in 2008, he didn't know if Loretta knew or how she might react. He thought the Housing Works site, which explains that we serve people with HIV, gave him away.
"A couple of days after we first spoke, he called me and told me," said Cabral. "And I said, 'Dad, I just want you to know it doesn't even matter.' ... Actually, it makes me so proud of him. Nobody wants their parent to be sick, but this just makes me so proud. I said, 'You're not dying of something, you're living with an illness.'"
What followed was the reunion of two rolling stones who matured and have begun to roll together.
Vargas met Cabral's mother while he was in the Navy in the 1970s. The relationship was short-lived, and years passed before Cabral's mom revealed that Vargas had a daughter. Since, Vargas and Cabral have had contact only a few times. Cabral sought him out first by telephone, when she was around 12 years old. Later, in her 20s, she showed up on his doorstep in Williamsburg. The last time the two met, Vargas left her at a hotel in Manhattan where she was staying for a work trip.
"I hopped on the train, and I could only think, 'I don't know her, I don't know how to talk to her," he said. "Because I'm a very friendly person, and I know how to talk to people, but yet I couldn't talk to my own daughter."
Both changed addresses and phone numbers several times. Cabral's estrangement from other family members only increased her distance from her dad. "I was all over the place," she said. "I didn't care. And the way I dealt with those problems, I just cut people off."
This time, life is different for both. Cabral kicked a substance use habit, entered a long-term relationship, and left a career as a stripper. Vargas, meanwhile, has survived -- barely -- a number of sobering experience that have left him seeking a family, including terrifying AIDS-related illnesses, several rounds of chemotherapy, and humbling encounters with poverty.
In the past month, the two have spent hours speaking on the phone, usually late at night after Cabral leaves her shift at the restaurant. Vargas made the first payment on a plane ticket to visit his daughter later this year. And Cabral created a Facebook account for her Dad so that he can follow her virtually.
His password? "Survival."