TRABUCO CANYON -- "Eighteen years is a long time ..."
David Garcia is saying this as a young woman tentatively steps into the terminal at Los Angeles International Airport last month. She looks unsure who to greet. Just as Garcia looks unsure if he should greet her.
Then their eyes meet.
Is she the one?
One day earlier, Garcia is talking by phone about itty-bitty baby shoes.
"I keep them by my bed," he says. "They're the shoes she was wearing the same week she was taken."
He's talking about 1994, when his daughter Amanda Garcia was 2 years old.
Back then Garcia was a tough guy. He'd served 11 years in the U.S. Army, including two years as a medic in Vietnam, where he saved men's lives. And watched others die.
Garcia, 67, of Merced has diabetes and a bad back. He suffers nightmares, post-traumatic stress disorder and, you could say, a broken heart.
"I don't have any friends," he admits.
Life slipped away -- like the hope of ever finding his daughter.
Until recently, anyway, when hope flickered again in his heart.
Back in the 1980s, David Garcia, the divorced truck driver, met Gitte Ogendahl, the young redhead from Denmark, at Imperial Burgers in La Habra.
They fell in love, married and had a little girl, Amanda.
"His world revolved around her," says Anthony, Garcia's son from his first marriage. Anthony was 18 when Amanda was born. "I'm not jealous now but I probably was at the time. We all knew that she was his baby."
Maybe it was the couple's big difference in age. Or culture. Or temperament. But by the time Amanda was 2, her parents already were divorced.
Garcia wanted Amanda but the judge said no. Gitte wanted to take Amanda to Denmark but the judge said no.
In the end, Gitte got custody and dropped Amanda off for visitation each week.
"One day, she picked up our daughter and said, 'I'll see you next week,' " Garcia recalls.
He never saw them again.
Garcia filed a missing person report. Talked to police investigators. Hired lawyers.
But all anyone could tell him was that Gitte had fled to Denmark with Amanda and there was nothing they could do.
"I cried, you know, to myself," he says. "You know, not in front of people."
The police sent him to the district attorney, who sent him to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, who sent him to International Centre for Missing & Exploited Children. But no one could help.
Garcia grew isolated.
"He went to Vietnam and served his country to come home and be spit on," says Anthony's wife, Melissa Garcia of Trabuco Canyon. "Then his daughter was taken, and he gets no assistance to bring her home."
Garcia saved Amanda's toys, her games, her shoes. He used variations of her name for his computer passwords. And he filled his home with images of her.
"It was almost a shrine," Melissa says. "I would see him sitting there and staring at her pictures."
In 2006, Garcia moved in with Anthony, Melissa and four of their children. Melissa reopened the search. She got police records, court documents and even staked out a home in Orange where she heard Gitte may have been living.
"I was taught in the Army to suck it up," says Garcia, who began seeing a Department of Veterans Affairs psychologist. "But this was completely different. This was nothing like facing the enemy. If not for group therapy, I probably would've become a drunk."
He had no way of knowing this, but far away, in Copenhagen, a teenage girl was searching for him. She looked online and dreamed of her real dad. By age 14, she'd run away from home and was living on the streets.
That year, she got a tattoo for the father she barely knew. "I love you," it read, "and I'll never forget you."
Back in Trabuco Canyon, the subject of Amanda was dropped.
Garcia moved to Merced, near other relatives. He quit working. Gained weight. Needed pills to sleep and TV to pass the time.
Eighteen years of heartache can do that to a man.
"It made me bitter," he admits.
Right up until his son Anthony got a text from halfway around the world: "Hi Anthony. I don't know if it's the right thing to write you, but I'll try. My name is Amanda Garcia, and I'm your sister."
Anthony had tears streaming down face. He called his dad and soon they were all crying as they discussed Amanda's return.
No one could afford it, so Melissa raised about $2,000 online to arrange the reunion.
It is now about to unfold at Los Angeles International Airport.
"Eighteen years is a long time," Garcia is saying as a young woman tentatively steps into the terminal.
She looks unsure who to greet. Just as Garcia looks unsure if he should greet her. Then their eyes meet.
And they run ...
The words are few:
"I love you," he says.
"I love you," she says.
"I'm glad you're home," he says.
The man without purpose suddenly has one. He talks about losing weight. About taking his daughter to Disneyland and getting her an iPhone. He talks about helping her get an education if she wants to move here.
"It's up to her what she wants to do," he says. "It's not my choice. It's her choice."
Back at home, they scour old photos and share family stories. Then Garcia pulls something out of his luggage -- Amanda's itty-bitty shoes that he kept by his bed for 18 years. He no longer needs them.
"Oh my God," she says, laughing -- she no longer needs them either.
"I have a family now," Amanda says. "That means everything to me."
Just as it does to her father, who may well have found himself as well as his daughter.
"She's my baby girl," the tough guy says, wiping back tears.
"I can now die a happy man."