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After 41 years, nurse meets dying father she never knew

Wanda Rodriguez never knew her father growing up. Victor Peraza split from her mother just months after she was born and was never a part of their lives. By chance, the New York nurse was reunited with her dad some 41 years after she last laid eyes on him as an infant.

But sadly, just as Rodriguez is getting to know her father and catch up on lost years, cancer threatens to take Peraza away from her again.

Rodriguez, assistant head nurse at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, N.Y., was discussing new admissions with a doctor Aug. 25 when she heard her long-lost father's name. And even though she had not seen so much as a photo of her dad growing up, she knew the name.

She made a bee-line for the patient’s bed.

“I walked into the room and he looked at me and I saw his light eyes and I kind of knew at that moment,” Rodriguez told TODAY's Lester Holt on Monday. “I just wanted to make sure, so I asked him if he had any children, and he said, ‘I have a daughter named Gina and a daughter named Wanda.’

“The minute I heard I just burst into tears and ran out of the room,” Rodriguez said, choked up with emotion as she related the story.

Through her tears, Rodriguez confided to a doctor in the hospital hallway she believed she had just met her dad after 41 years apart. The doctor teared up, too, but also informed her that Peraza needed to be moved to another unit because hospital staff aren’t allowed to care for family members.

Still, Rodriguez wasn’t going to let a long waited-for opportunity go to waste. “I came back in [to his room] after I was a little calmer, looked at him and said, ‘Hi, I’m Wanda, I’m your daughter.’ He looked right at me and said, ‘I know, I know you’re my daughter. I knew that when you walked into the room – I said, ‘That’s my daughter Wanda!’ "

Within minutes, all the pain and heartache Rodriguez had felt about having an absentee father growing up was quickly washed away by the magic of the moment.

“It was [initially] an awkward moment,” she told Holt. “[But] I held his hand, and within five minutes I just embraced him and gave him the biggest kiss because I was so happy.”

Rodriguez learned that father Victor had been living in the same borough of New York City she was raised in for most of his life. A teen dad, Peraza divorced Wanda’s mother, leaving her to raise Wanda and her older sister Gina as a single mom. He never remarried, had recently relocated to Astoria, Queens, and had been in and out of hospitals since he was diagnosed with terminal cancer a year ago.

It was an amazing stroke of luck that father and daughter were reunited. That he ended up at Calvary Hospital was coincidence enough, but out of seven units he could have been assigned to at Calvary, he ended up in his daughter’s.

Rodriguez broke into tears when Holt asked her whether it is bittersweet to finally meet her father at a time when he is dying of cancer.

“I’m just cherishing every moment with him, because I know that I don’t have much time left,” she said. “It’s very said we’re meeting under these circumstances, he said that to someone the other day.

"What a moment to have met my daughter in this way, but how sad it is that I’m meeting her now that I’m dying," Rodriguez quoted Peraza as saying.

Rodriguez is making the most of the time she has left with her dad. She typically arrives at the hospital several hours before her work shift starts to spend time with him, and often spends several hours after work at his beside.

She resists the notion to browbeat Peraza for leaving the family and staying out of their lives for more than 40 years. “Of course I’m curious, but I try not to ask him questions that I really don’t care to know the answers about,” she said.

But guilt still weighs heavy on Peraza, Rodriguez told the New York Post. “He keeps begging me for forgiveness and says, ‘I wasn’t a good father,’ “ she said. “And I tell him, ‘The past is the past. You can’t change the past. I love you.’ “

Rodriguez told Holt she prefers to question him on other matters, to find out how far the apple falls from the tree. Turns out, it doesn’t fall far at all.

“I found out that he has a love for pets, he loves dogs,” she said. “I happen to love dogs. He loves classical music, which I do as well. I’m very much like him, I think I’ve realized in the past few days. I’m very much like my dad, and I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to find that out.”

Rodriguez’s own three children have quickly bonded with their grandfather as well, enjoying combing their grandfather’s hair and posing for cherished family photos. Sister Gina has also visited Peraza and brought along her children. Even their mother has visited his bedside.

Peraza turns 61 in a week, and Wanda is hoping he survives so they can celebrate. But whatever his fate, Rodriguez says she and her father as well are happy they’ve gotten the chance to share a little time together.

“He’s at peace,” Rodriguez told the New York Post. “He’s had closure. He said, ‘Wanda, I’ve met you. I’m OK. I’m ready to die.”