Present Day, Veteran's Hospital, Los Angeles
JACK SANTOS HAD LONGED FOR THIS DAY HIS ENTIRE LIFE. He had always carried with him the childhood fantasy of having a dad. He had been told his father was dead. Killed in Vietnam. But here he was, standing at the hospital room door of a man in his fifties, a man in a catatonic stupor, dead to the world but alive somewhere deep inside.
He had been informed only recently of his relationship by an attorney for the sleeping man's estate. The story was as long as the time the man had been away from the world of the living. It was a thirty-year-old tale of his father's loss of consciousness during a battle in Vietnam, then an amazing awakening that lasted over four years.
The wounded man, Levi Harper, awoke as innocent as a child. Full of wonder, and the expectation that he had only been outfor months at best, he found his musical talent exceeded what it had been when he left civilian life behind for the Marines in 1966.
He gradually regained his memory, and the childhood love of his life. Forty-eight months after his amazing awakening in 1998, tragedy knocked once more. The music man from a small coastal fishing town in California was losing his reason to live. The gravity of his wife's failing health due to a potentially deadly disease created more stress than he could physically handle.
Just weeks before this day, he fell to a stroke. But not before he hired an investigator to search for the son lost to him so many years before.
Jack wanted to believe. He wanted to embrace what the attorney in Los Angeles and his new uncle, Jeffrey Harper, had said.
He took a deep breath and summoned the strength to confront the sleeping man, look at his face, see if he could find himself in the slumbering countenance. Releasing the air from his lungs, he allowed the stressfulness of the moment to remain outside the room. He was determined to be open to whatever this visit would hold for him and his future.
He quietly stepped inside. A nurse busily attended Levi Harper. Her back to him, she hadn't noticed him entering the room. Silky but pitch-black, her hair was pulled into a loose braid and reached below the middle of a slender waist. She stood over Levi, stethoscope placed upon his chest. Checking his pulse, she shook her head. She continued her checklist of procedures, oblivious to Jack's presence. She poked and prodded, tapping on his hand, seeking a response.
"How long has he been like this?" Jack Santos interrupted. He almost felt guilty disturbing her deep focus.
"Oh." She jumped. "I didn't hear you enter." She turned togreet the visitor. The motionless man stared blindly at the ceiling, then closed his eyes. "Almost three weeks now. So sad."
Jack Santos thought he would immediately find himself in the presence of the man in the bed. He was caught off guard, transfixed by the striking features of the petite and quiet-speaking Asian-American woman.
"Can he come out of it?" he ventured.
"There's always hope. He came out of it for almost four years in 1998. But the emotional trauma triggered some deeply rooted physiological mechanism that returned him to this state, as if to protect him. Maybe ..." She paused.
"Maybe what?" Jack asked, stepping closer to her and the bedridden man.
"A miracle. Perhaps he has the ability to reverse this himself somehow. Medicine doesn't have all the answers, and his case is certainly unique."
Her response surprised him. "Pretty open-minded for a nurse."
"Doctor," she stated sharply.
"Sorry." Jack examined the stance of the pretty woman. Lively, sure of herself. He admired that.
She glared up at him and shook her head. "You think doctors can't believe in a power outside of science?" she asked, a confrontational edge to her voice.
"Well, something like that. It's just unusual, that's all."
"Humph." She snorted. "Well, this man has made me a believer."
The woman had stirred an immediate interest inside Jack that he hadn't been looking for. She wasn't very old. Couldn't be. Her features were early twenties at best. Very attractive, strong character, he judged. No ring on her finger, he noted. She had returned to her clipboard.
"You seem to have a personal connection with him. Did youtreat him when he was here during his thirty-year stay?" he asked, breaking the silence.
He hoped she could tell him something more. He wanted all the information he could possibly get on the man whose journals and papers he now possessed.
"Yes, I did. And I've known him all my life. I used to come here with my father when I was young. He visited twice monthly and later worked here as an attendant. My father had always been very grateful to Mr. Harper. And I was so happy about his amazing awakening."
"Your father is also Vietnamese?" he probed. "I'm sorry, I ..." His face flushed now. Stupid, he chided himself.
"Yes," she replied simply. "He is deceased, but very Vietnamese. I guess if my features didn't give it away, my name tag did. I'm Lin An."
"I apologize. I don't mean to sound so forward. I have several Vietnamese friends in San Francisco. I recognized the name as being ..."He held out his hand, seeking to rescue himself from his continuing verbal blunders. "My name is Jack Santos. I've been given the honor of finally meeting the man who was absent from my life for thirty-four years--my father." He nodded to the sleeping man.
"Mr. Harper is your father?" Lin was taken aback. "I didn't know he had any other children, except for--"
"The miracle child?" He looked directly into dark, probing eyes. There was honesty there, but vulnerability, as well. This woman was more than what she appeared on the surface--the clinical practitioner.
"Yes. Do you know how the baby is?" She studied his face, his features, questioning if this Jack Santos could indeed be Levi Harper's son.
"It was touch-and-go at first, so they tell me. Making a resounding comeback, though, from the complications with the mother's condition. Delivered two months early because of Mrs. Harper's failing health. They named her Angel. Appropriate, I guess," he smiled.
"Yes," she acknowledged. "A wonderfully fitting name for a heaven-sent child," she agreed.
"You think so?"
"Heaven-sent, you mean?"
"Of course. Yes, I think she was sent from God. Why would you question it?" Lin asked.
"Just curious." He pursed his lips, a signal he often unconsciously gave that he was ready to change the subject.
"And what of Mrs. Harper?" Lin was a student of human behavior. Something had bothered him about the last exchange.
"Levi's brother, Jeffrey, explained Jenna's illness to me, but I'm still a bit confused. All I know is that her growing weakness from the cancer and her desire to deliver this child put so much stress on Levi that he gave out, too."
She sighed. "It's as if her pain were his, her struggle his struggle, as though they were bound by some strange lovers' contract that stated they would never live without each other again. And now you're here," she added. "A gift from God too late."
"A philosopher once said, 'Irony is where reality becomes even more whimsical than it appeared when we first noticed it.'"
"Which philosopher said that?" Lin questioned.
Jack gestured toward the man in the bed. "I have the first of several journals he wrote."
She paused, then nodded. "When did you find out he was your father?"
"Two weeks ago. Seems he'd been searching for me. His brother, Jeffrey Harper, finally stepped in and located me when he realized Levi was consumed with his search, was not going to give up. He directed me to an attorney for the estate of Levi Harper in Los Angeles, and here I am."
Lin studied Jack's face for a moment, then smiled. "I see the resemblance now. You have Mr. Harper's compassionate eyes, and his smile. His case is astounding. You do understand what happened, don't you?"
"I know he had an adjustment to confront, a new world to get to know when he came out of the thirty-year coma several years ago."
"Four years ago," she interjected.
"Yes, four years ago. Since then, I understand his childhood sweetheart came back into his life unexpectedly, and that he wrote fabulous music and sold hundreds of thousands of CDs. Funny ... I was a huge fan."
"He was trying to make up for a lot of things," she offered. "His awakening is one for the medical journals; there really isn't a concrete explanation for it. His case gave hope to thousands of families who'd lost loved ones to brain injuries and comas. And his musical accomplishments in so short a time were truly remarkable."
"Indeed," Jack agreed. "But you could argue he earned his musical success the hard way, over thirty years, if you consider all that he stated about the melodies that would come to him in his sleeping state."
"I hadn't looked at it that way," Lin considered. "So what will you be doing now?" she asked.
"The first assignment Levi's attorney gave me was to read his journals. I just received the first one yesterday. The others arestill at his house in Paradise Bay. Levi makes a remarkable case for awareness of song and beauty, even when not physically in a conscious state."
Lin considered the surprising depth of knowledge this man possessed. She wondered if he cared as deeply as his appearance indicated, or if this was simply pretense. "So you're going there?"
"You know, he woke up speaking in a childlike voice with a stutter," she said, looking to test him. "But then there were times when his words flowed easily, and it soon became evident that music soothed his mind. Whenever it was playing, he'd be fine."
"Hard to imagine. There was certainly no stutter in his singing voice. I've never seen anything quite like it. You know, it's weird. To go through your whole life wondering who you are, where you belong ... then bam. It's laid out before you in an eye-blink." He diverted his gaze from Lin An to the sleeping man.
"Mr. Harper once took my father and me to visit his home, just before my father passed away," Lin went on. "Paradise Bay is a magical place. So soothing. So lovely. The sea, the quiet. Someone chose a very appropriate name for the town."
"So, you really were pretty close to Levi?" Jack asked, returning his attention to Lin.
"He and my father were. It was a strange brotherhood. A bond that conflict sometimes produces. I'm sure you'll find out how they met as you read those journals. My father loved the sea. He was a fisherman before the war."
"Here in California?"
"No, in Vietnam," she replied, a reverence in her voice.
"You lived there?"
"Yes, until the late seventies. We were among the hundreds of thousands of 'boat people' who set out to sea with dreams of freedom in America. Many died. The U.S. Navy found us two weeks after we left Vietnam. We were very lucky, I'm told, but I was too young to remember clear details of the escape."
Lin did remember, but the trauma was buried in the South China Sea now, and she intended to keep it that way. Her mother and two brothers had been killed by the sea-roaming murderers who looked for and took advantage of the boat people. Lin had been violated repeatedly, and her father had been tied up, beaten, and left for dead. Looking back only reminded her that she was different, that she had been used, and was unworthy of real love.
"So, they met in Vietnam, and your father looked up Levi after he arrived here?"
"That about sums it up. But the story becomes more strange still. I don't have the time to tell you myself, but perhaps the journals will explain."
"I hope so." Jack's interest in this pretty caregiver was piqued. Her slender frame, light Asian skin, mysterious eyes, and the hint of a smile--courteous and proper as she finished her last statement--made her look younger than she evidently was. But she had to be at least past her mid-twenties, possibly even thirty. "I'd like to get to know you," he went on. "That is, I'd like to get to know more about the connection between your family and mine. Maybe I could see you after work?"
She glanced at her watch, careful not to give any indication of interest. "I'll be here until midnight, I'm afraid. Then I'm spending the weekend with my elderly godmother in Orange County. Many Vietnamese settled there after fleeing our country. You'll be going north to Paradise Bay today, right?"
"Yes. But I plan on returning in a week or two."
"That would be fine. If you're Mr. Harper's son, then your mother must be--"
He spoke up before she could finish. "She's been gone for several years now," he lied. No need to bring her into this. It would only make her angry. "I've been on the move ever since." Jack pulled a pen from his pocket, quickly changing the subject. "I look forward to giving you a call, perhaps to check in on Levi's progress."
Lin An handed him a business card. "You can reach me here. If I'm not in, just leave a voice message."
"I'll do that." He smiled.
"Mr. Harper is a dear man, and I'm hoping for a second miracle," she went on.
"Me, too. Miracles do happen, I suppose."
"They do, Mr. Santos. I'd be crazy not to believe in them, after all I've seen with Levi Harper. Well, I'd better get back to my rounds. You should sit with him a while. I think he knows you're here."
"Thank you, Doctor ..."
"Just call me Lin." She extended her hand. "Mr. Santos, what is it you do?"
"Please call me Jack," he answered, reaching for her delicate hand. "I play the piano, do arrangements, record for studios. Nothing original."
"A musician, like your father? Amazing!"
"Fitting, I guess. I've always been drawn to music, especially composing. I make a decent living. Just hoping for some breakout tunes one of these days."
In reality, Jack Santos was one of the finest solo pianists in the business. His talent was always in demand with the creators of many film and television show tunes.
"That's what I call a miracle, Jack. Mr. Harper would be veryproud to know you're also a man of the piano." Lin smiled and held out a delicate hand.
Jack took her hand once again--she let hers linger in his a fraction of a second longer than she normally would have--then releasing the touch, he watched as she walked out of the room. She was dignified but carrying secrets. He could tell when a woman was hiding something, had developed the instinct after growing up as an only child under a single mother's care. He turned back to the man in the bed, the man he had grown up believing was killed in the Vietnam War. Hope had been the constant theme running through this man's story, and Jack could do no less now.
He was determined to understand how all this could really be true--that he had a father, that his father had experienced a strange awakening four years ago, then fallen back into a coma. The shared paths of music they had traveled brought him to the essence of a statement he had read in Levi's first journal. Unaware, he began reciting out loud, carefully enunciating each word.
"Reality is the perceived notion of the mind, like the elusive island of sanity we all believe we have planted our flag upon. What is reality anyway? Perception is king."
Jack followed the lines and creases of the sleeping man's face, looking for himself. For an instant he thought he detected a faint smile cross Levi Harper's lips, then realized it was his imagination after all. The man couldn't possibly have heard him, much less understood.
He drew the curtain around Levi Harper's bed and closed himself in, feeling ashamed and timid as he looked around once more. He was too old, too worldly for what he was about to do, but nostalgia and the child still inside him lowered him to his knees.
He wouldn't let emotions get the better of him; men didn't do that sort of thing. But he bowed his head and whispered the prayer he'd repeated a thousand times as a young boy, night after night.
"Please, God, give me a dad someday." He prayed as if the recitation was plausible, as if God really listened and answered the prayers of insignificant boys. The same prayer he had given thousands of times was simply a fitting way to say hello and goodbye to the sleeping man. He had given up on God and answers to prayers long ago.
He directed his next words to Levi Harper, tenderly touching the hand hooked to the IV solution. "Dad," he began, clearing his throat. "I've never been able to call someone 'Dad' before, and this is real hard. My name is Jack, and I understand that I'm your son. I'm a piano man, too."
"Strangers in Paradise." Words and Music by Klaus Meine, Herman Rarebell, Jim Vallance. © Copyright UNIVERSAL--POLYGRAM INT. PUBL., INC. on behalf of POLYGRAM INT. PUBL., INC. (ASCAP). International copyright secured. All rights reserved.