LILLI PIERCE, our beloved only child, was killed instantly on November 12, 1999, while crossing a street in Cape Coral, Florida. She was 14 years old. Since that moment, Judy and I have hardly wanted to live. Lilli was our best friend, our closest companion, our ally, the love of our lives. We existed so that this beautiful, intelligent, and friendly girl could grow and continue. Without her, keeping on with living has been almost inconceivable. Yet, as we've been told over and over again, and as our physical bodies incessantly remind us, we must live on.
After Lilli's funeral in Dillon, Colorado, Judy and I rented a car and took back roads on our return to Florida. We knew we couldn't work: we were ruined mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and didn't give a damn about jobs or anything anymore. Somewhere in an Illinois winterscape, as the sun set into clouds of orange, lavender, vermilion, I realized that no matter where we were and where we would go, I would always be looking for Lilli. Looking for meaning after the death of our beloved daughter. Looking for reasons to keep going. When I told this to Judy, she said that finding Lilli was our destiny. We would travel around and write a book. Thus, the idea for The Looking for Lilli Tour was born.
For a few months we hung around the house we were renting in Cape Coral. We tried to work: impossible. I was working as the assistant for a high-powered real estate broker on Sanibel Island. Judy was a bank teller. The people at ous jobs seemed to have no idea that the world had come to an end, and in fact, their conversations around us about detesting their children and spouses affected us negatively. Having undergone the worst tragedy of our lives, we refused to return to senseless servitude, to mindless social games, and told our wretched bosses to shove it.
Meanwhile, the investigation about Lilli's death proceeded, and we engaged a lawyer to deal with the nightmare of insurance companies for us. Very close to death ourselves, we nevertheless knew that no matter what, before we died we'd do the Tour and write a book in honor of Lilli. There was no money, but this didn't matter; we simply KNEW the trip would happen. When news came of unexpected payments from insurance companies, we realized that God - and perhaps Lilli - was pulling strings for us. We bought the condo in Fort Myers and moved into this base of operations on March 1, 2000.
Then, after several weeks of looking into RVs, we decided on suitable vehicles for our journey: This 2000 Ford F-150 and a 27-1/2 ft. long 2000 Trail-Lite fifth wheel trailer. Ordering the truck took some time, and when it came in we had the hitch installed. Finally, after days of practicing with the rig, we provisioned it lightly and set off for our trial run to Universal Studios in Orlando. Our emotions were haywire and sometimes we would cry for hours, stop, and then cry again. The idea of having fun in the wake of Lilli's death seemed impossible, horrible. However, movement provided some distraction from our mental hell, and as for the thought of facing danger on thrilling amusement park rides, I didn't care much anyway whether I lived or died...except of course I knew I did need to keep living for dear Judy's sake, to be her companion in grief and to help her to live. So we left for Orlando. Judy had often said that her idea of Heaven was an amusement park, and we decided to try one of the best.
The initial drive proved complex. Maneuvering the rig was not easy at first, and I received more than a few honks as I learned to change lanes despite the blind spots in either rear-view mirror. It was inconceivable that we were supposed to live without Lilli; we cried at anything and everything. Spring break for the Florida schools was happening, and each time we saw the teenagers walking along the streets, or hanging out in parks, or in cars, we experienced terrible pain. Not one of them was Lilli.
Nevertheless, we had experiences somewhat resembling fun at Universal Studios. The new Spider-Man ride was fabulous, combining a live-action roller coaster ride with high-tech virtual reality that resulted in high adventure. It was good for us to walk around in the sun and I even convinced Judy to ride the Double Dragon roller coaster. Judy has a fear of heights and doesn't like roller coasters, and yet her fear of riding the Double Dragon seemed insignificant compared to the pain of Lilli's death.
"Do it for Lilli!" I said, and that was all it took.
This picture was taken in the Marvel Comics portion of the park. I always wanted to be a superhero...this was my chance. Here I am popping out of the scene as the FIFTH member of The Fantastic Four, much as legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby might have drawn me.
The month of April went by: we were still alive. When we were not busy outfitting our new home, or provisioning the trailer, or working on the Lilli Pierce Memorial Website, we went for long hikes at many of the beautiful state and local parks in our area, such as Lakes Regional Park, or went to the beach. We found a renter, Donna, to take care of our home and our cat Fuzzy while we were away. During the first week in May Donna lived there with us, which was difficult for me because I had no desire to be around other people, and Donna had emotional problems of her own to deal with. We managed to co-exist.
On May 10, 2000, after saying goodbye to Donna, Fuzzy, and our neighbors in the condo complex, who were quite interested in our project, we embarked on the Looking for Lilli Tour. It wasn't until we'd escaped the tangle of Fort Myers traffic and were north of the city, out in the country, that I sensed the trip had begun. I felt little elation. The rig was still uneasy to handle, and the deep anguish and tearfulness we experienced almost constantly did not make things any easier. Also, I became distressed at the poor fuel economy we were getting. The needle on the fuel gauge seemed to drop before my eyes. Still, it was nice being on the open road with precious Judy at my side in the co-captain's seat. And Lilli. Lilli's spirit was guiding. It had to be.
By late afternoon we found Rainbow Springs State Park Campground near Dunnellon, FL, and I managed to park the trailer facing the wrong way -- opposite the side the hookups were on. My backing up skills were primitive. Several sailor-curses later, though, I got the trailer adequately parked. After the trailer was hooked up to electricity and water, Judy and I took nice stroll to the Rainbow River where Judy befriended a panhandling heron who wanted to devour the trail mix Judy was carrying. That night we had a quiet dinner. We were both exhausted. But we slept terribly: Judy's hip was in pain; the next day would be Lilli's 15th birthday and yet she seemed very, very, very far away.
Rainbow Springs State Park, located at the headwaters of Rainbow Springs at the site of a once-famous resort, was the most beautiful place we'd ever seen. Anywhere. The view from the hill as we topped it the next morning revealed, through tall magnolias and broad-leafed pines strung with spanish moss, the glistening turquoise waters that are the inception of the rivers. Had some Johnny Weismuller "Tarzan" movies been made here in this brilliant, liana-canopied tropical paradise? I seemed to have heard something to that effect. I could well imagine him plying the water with strong strokes.
Several bathers lolled on a flagstone platform; a few snorkelers floated on the water like alligators. The water, perfectly clear and a constant 68°-72°, was bracing, but soon came to seem pleasant. I could just stand up here, and the sand was warm to my feet. Varieties of small fish darted all around. Attaching my snorkel and mask, I swam out slowly toward the group at the far edge of the platform, gazing down at the deepening water. Several times I dove down, amazed by the clarity. I spied a small cave with a few fish hanging about the mouth, and knew this was the source of the spring.
Back at the top, some distant swimmers were waving their arms.
"The gator came under the rope...and went that-away!" A couple of bathers turned their heads. No one else seemed concerned.
A teenaged girl said to her friend, "I been bit by a gator. They don't scare me none." I believed her. Folks who grow up in Florida know that alligators live in most every body of fresh water. They are aware of them, never take them for granted, and yet fear them almost not at all.
An elderly man heard me telling Judy about the inadequacy of our 35mm camera for the task of documenting the Looking for Lilli Tour, and told me about the newest Nikon digital. "Been in photography for 40 years. Done it all. The Nikon digital is what you want for your book. Doesn't use pixels."
Back at the campground, Judy and I lit the candles on a small birthday cake we had bought, and wished Lilli a happy 15th birthday. As we ate, we listened to the new No Doubt cd, "Return of Jupiter," which sounded pretty good. No Doubt had been Lilli's favorite band and we felt that she would have liked this, their newest offering. We felt Lilli's presence and begin to sob with happiness at the love we'd known with her, and anguish at her death. For a while we were emotionally overwhelmed and could not move or talk or think.
Later, I went down to the Rainbow River and snorkeled amid the water grasses. Other snorkelers came by, some floating on rafts and inner tubes.
"The gators are mating right now, so the males are protective," a woman told her boyfriend as they moved along the water. "Watch out for the bulls." They paddled out into the current and disappeared among the grass.
In the evening I cooked us some burgers, then tried to access the Internet using the cell phone, but had no luck.
"Hm," I thought. "The plan hinges on us being able to connect."
Missing Lilli, I sat in the dark, comforted somewhat by the delicate breaths of Judy's deep sleep. When Judy is alseep she reminds me of a little girl. Suddenly, I felt very protective of her.
We finally slept better, though Judy had to get up again in the middle of the night to lie on the foldout couch. The air-mattress of our bed was, she said, not firm enough to support her hip. Still, we awoke more refreshed. By the time we finished breakfast and got to the task of draining the tanks and hitching up, a family in a large Winnebago was hovering around us, waiting for us to depart so they could have our space. We really hated to leave this wonderful place. Already I was distressed at how our days were filling in with appoinments and reservations, and falling short on time for spontaneity. If we'd known how awesome the Rainbow River was we would have stayed an extra day to raft and snorkle it thoroughly; however, reservations beckoned....
On May 12, the drive up the Florida Panhandle was filled with lush meadows, and the sands at my favorite beach, Grayton Beach State Park, were as white and fine as ever.
Grayton Beach is simply beach, natual and pristine, no highrises or beach shops to mar the view, just sand dunes, sea oats, and lovely, lovely water. Lilli had adored this beach when we'd before. We had body-surfed, sunbathed, and read all about sea turtles, which came to these protected sands every year to lay their eggs. It was at Grayton Beach, I believe, that Lilli decided she would like to someday become a marine biologist.
It was early evening when we arrived at Grayton Beach, and we were tired, but by the time the trailer was unhitched and we'd unloaded, I was ready for a swim. I dove into the waves and instantly felt refreshed. Back at the trailer I whipped up some supper, then tried again to connected with the Net. No luck. I missed Lilli terribly.
Next morning, slathered in sun block, Judy and I staked out a place on the beach. The sky was cloud-free and slate-blue, verging almost on haze, and the water a deep lime. As soon as the chairs were unfolded I couldn't wait, and splashed into the water with mask and snorkel in hand. Upon donning the gear, I found the waves obstructive. Snorkeling today would not be possible. I stalked back up to the chairs, nodded at Judy, and grabbed the boogie board. Back in the waves, the board wanted to leap away from me. Mounting it again and again, I suddenly found a wave's point of capture and managed to get a small ride. This was encouraging! If only the waves were bigger! Suddenly I was attacked by a giant crab. No, it was Judy. I followed her back to the chairs and we sat watching the families playing in the sand. Later, we drove into Destin to shop and tried to get the cell-phone working. Argh!!! The coverage was still terrible. How would would get our e-mail?
At the state park, we surreptitiously filled some large plastic pickle-buckets with the perfect white sand of Grayton Beach, for later distribution on Lilli's grave in Colorado. Taking this sand was considered stealing. Wind whipped the yellow warning flag at the beach's gate as blue-gray clouds gathered above us; the surf was getting dangerous. A few swimmers straggled up the planks to the showers, then scuttled for their cars. Judy and I stashed the buckets of sand in the pickup truck, then returned to our campsite before we could be caught.
On Sunday we hitched the fifth wheel and headed north through quiet friendly towns that took us out of the panhandle and into Alabama. We decided that, before stopping in Prattville to see my relatives as originally planned, we needed to zoom up to Tennessee in order to see our friend Andy before he left on vacation. On either side of us the scenery was lush with meadows, cows, and Baptist churches. I turned to Judy.
"Do you think these Baptist churches support one another in the Word, even though they are in competition for parishioners?"
"I haven't seen anything other than a Baptist church for a few hours."
"Oh, I saw a Church of God awhile back, and a Church of Christ; what are those all about? Are they very different from Baptist?"
Before we could put our minds to the question we arrived in Troy, Alabama, and were guided through various turns into narrow streets.
"Look at that old building: there's a CPA like that in every town.""Yeah," said Judy, "check out these antique bricks."
"No kidding. They look hand-made. I feel like we've stepped back in time."Driving past the giant Trojan helmet symbol of the town high school football team, we creaked around a tight curve and followed more signs. Could the trailer have brushed a tree?
It was at this time that I began teasing Judy about barbecue: whenever I'd spot a real southern barbecue joint (some of the best are dilapidated shacks that teeter from the edges of cliffs), I'd make this very annoying, loud sucking-in of my breath, to indicate we must stop.
That evening, after I couldn't find the Good Sam's campground, we stayed at a beautiful state park in Auburn.
"Judy, we're going in that swimming-hole tomorrow."
"I don't know, Dave, the muddy water gives me the creeps."
"Huh? What do you mean? This is an excellent lake; did you see the kids jumping off the platform?"
"Yeah, but I worry about water moccasins."
"Oh. Well, they're there, I've seen 'em in lakes as a kid, but they mostly don't bother people."
"I don't know about that, Dave."
"Nonsense. We're going swimming."
We took the pickup out on a wild chase: I had to find some real barbecue. All the serious traditional barbecue places were closed, it turned out, because it was Sunday, so I grumpily settled for the provenance of a chain barbecue restaurant, which proved to be inauthentic and lacking understanding of regional sauce-bases. Back at the trailer we consumed our barbecue and tried to ignore my disappointment. The night the air became chilly and we awoke just after dawn with cold toes.
"Too cold to go swimming," I told Judy.
"Of course." I could hear the relief in her voice.
That day brought us a challenging (frightening) drive up the western part of Georgia through hills of switchbacks on no-shoulder roads. We came into misty, pine-covered mountains. Our cell-phone still didn't work. At a gas station a very large man came over, called me "sir" with genuine respect, and said that he admired our truck and had just wanted to tell me. I thanked him and he left. We took on an assortment of flies as passengers and continued on into mountains that rose in ranks of blue silhouetts.
In Blue Ridge, Georgia, we found our campground in a piney forest on the banks of a rushing creek. As well as RV spaces with picnic tables and fire rings, the facility offered an assortment of both rustic and luxury log cabins and a clean swimming pool. A brochure in the office told of area rafting, hiking, boating, biking, and trout fishing, and of many fairs and festivals. An interesting place! I made an "X" on my mental map to return here someday and investigate further.
The campground owner took an interest in us and walked over to our campsite with me. We chatted about the area and he told me how he was from a big city in the northeast, but had fallen in love with the Blue Ridge mountains while visiting and never looked back. When he asked about our trip, I told him a little of the story behind the Looking for Lilli Tour, and tears began to stream from his eyes:
"My daughter was paralyzed in an auto accident several years ago." Comforting this kind man, we listened to his sad story; it had a happy ending, because now his daughter is married and is the parent of some beautiful children.
He looked at our mountain bikes and pointed out a good riding trail, which we took to a scenic overlook. When we returned to the campground we discovered that there was no pay phone. How would we get our cell-phone voice-mail messages? That night it got down into low forties.
The byways of North Carolina made us whimper and sweat, native Coloradoans though we were, because the roads redefined "narrow" and "winding" and because I was still insecure about pulling the trailer. Wildflowers painted the slopes in riotous colors. Quaint towns perched atop hills like mushroom clusters. Rickety shacks tilted over cliff edges, as in the comic strip, "Snuffy Smith." I could well imagine Elviney and Tater pushing a mule up the road! The procession of Baptist churches continued. Then we crawled through an area that could be right out of the Colorado high country: whitewater rafting outfits clung to the banks of a river filled with kayakers, canoeists, and tourists on bobbing rafts. Except it had an Appalachian flavor. We decided to return here someday.
At Bryson City the signs to Great Smoky Mountains National Park misdirected us so that we ended up driving through the Cherokee Reservation, round through a business district, and to the door of a doughnut place, where a young carpenter fixing the ceiling kindly pointed us in the correct direction. In the park, we stopped at the visitor's center and walked through a demonstration farmstead of old Appalachia. Exhibits there show how meat was smoked, apples were stored, etc.
Back in the truck, we headed into the park. The road, though much better than those we were on before, wound precipitously. Judy was amazed by the lushness of the East; so many species of plants and animals! I pulled over a few times to let the caravan of cars and trucks behind me go by.
At the top we were met with a stunning vista: the Smoky Mountains! Near our parking space at the overlook, Judy spied the southern entry to Appalachian Trail.
"Can't we, Dave?" said Judy, skipping ahead. "Let's hike it a ways."
"Hm, ah well, okay," I grunted. "We'll go along it a few feet so we can tell people we've done the thing."
Five minutes later, having "done" the trail, we returned to the truck, headed down the other side of the pass, and near the bottom caught the smell of burning brakes...ours. I pulled over and jumped out.
"Just the front ones," I assessed, thinking grimly that this was a foretaste of what the driving would be like in Colorado. I turned up the trailer brakes and put the truck in low.
Gatlinburg met us with tourist-trap schmaltz. We somehow negotiated the crowds of tourists stalking from gift shop to museum to fudgery. Pigeon Forge was much the same, though Dollywood looked interesting, but Judy insisted we press on. A good idea, as it turned out, because the traffic in Pigeon Forge was exasperating, with me giving as good as I got on the car horn, and if I'd been any more tired I would probably have gotten us in a wreck. At the KOA near Knoxville, Tennessee, we ate, then called Andy's and left a message with his answering machine. Sometime before midnight I was able for the first time to connect to the net using the cell phone, only to find, strangely, no e-mails.
For a day we lounged by the KOA pool, did laundry, and lazed. I finally had some success getting our e-mail, but via the laundry-room modem hookup and not our cell phone, which still didn't seem to be connecting properly to the net.
On May 18 we finally heard from Andy, and so that evening drove into Knoxville for a get-together. Andy's house is somewhat southeast of Knoxville proper, but we didn't find it immediately because, despite Andy's careful directions, I turned wrong and drove us into a neighborhood of historic brick houses and crumbling tottering hovels. Finally, after negotiating a narrow bridge and arguing with Judy over directions, I spotted the telltale mailbox sporting a Colorado license plate -- a souvenir of Andy's life in Silverthorne, Colorado, where we'd become acquainted -- and there was the house surrounded by huge old elms.
It was good to see Andy, tall and cheerful, and to meet Becky, his then-fiancé, and now wife. Several cats wandered in and out of the house, and Bud, Andy's venerable Labrador, came out. After chatting, we all decided on The Cracker Barrel for dinner and I drove us there in the pickup. It was great fun catching up on things, meeting Becky, and having good food. I asked Andy and Becky how they dealt with all the jokes about inbreeding among folks from Tennessee.
"Well," said Andy, "it would probably bother me if there weren't some truth in it. There's some inbreeding in my family, but not from the Tennessee side; my dad is from Norway, and it gets pretty isolated there, if you know what I mean."
"Yeah," said Becky. "And my grandparents were cousins who were married at 13. That's just the way it was back in those days."
Back at the house, we talked until late as the music of The Grateful Dead and Widespread Panic massaged the vibes around us; then Judy and I reluctantly headed back (they had to go to work next morning).
That night, Judy and I held each other close. Then I lay awake. Dawn found me in that condition.
I tried to convince Judy to let us stay one more day in the campground.
"I don't feel like driving."
But Judy was insistent, and with good reason: we needed to get to Colorado by the end of the month, and there were still the relatives to see in Alabama. Grumbling, I knew she was right, and the fact that she'd made our sandwiches and cleaned trailer and truck spurred me grudgingly to hitch up the trailer. We headed out of Knoxville. The gloom outside compounded the no-sleep grouch I was in, but before we left Knoxville I discovered a genuine old-fashioned REAL country & western radio station (not the slick over-rehearsed nose-yodeling up-tempo dance tunes they pass off as C&W nowadays) -- 89.9 on the FM dial, and was soothed by the bluegrass of Bill Monroe. When the station became crackly I still felt in the country mood, so Judy inserted a CD. Jim Reeves' deep bass voice moaned,
"Put your ear a little closer to the phone..."
...and I began to sob tremendously, thinking of Lilli.
Later, slouched in the driver's seat, I told Judy how every day I beg God to let Lilli visit us. We got into a metaphysical discussion and Judy told me of something she'd just read in a book called "Other Kingdoms."
"Apparently," she said, "humans used to be close to their guardian angels, and could actually speak with them. People would hear voices in their heads warning of danger. The author says that angels are humorous, and thrive when we laugh -- because they laugh too."
Reflecting on what Judy had just said, I suddenly felt immensely better with the realization that I, too, could become friends with angels. They must, I thought, be wonderful, beautiful beings who've been through all this horror and sadness with us, and know exactly how much we miss Lilli. Perhaps they could give Lilli messages! I relayed this idea to Judy, and we both wept; then, as we cruised up a hill into Chattanooga, the cell phone beeped.
"Voice-mail at last!" I cried.
Quickly, though, we passed out of range and the messages were irretrievable (and I was reluctant to drive back through the horrible traffic to find the cell phone tower). I became vastly irritated. What if a family member had died? What if my favorite author, Jack Vance, had just responded to my letter asking if we could get together on The Looking For Lilli Tour?
Crossing into Alabama I argued with Judy about the way to the state park and so we took several wrong turns along the narrowest, scariest mountain roads thus far. Eventually we found Lake Guntersville State Park, and got set up for the night. My back felt like hell. As a restorative, I made enough frozen margaritas for five; Judy and I downed the entire batch.
|nonjudgmental support||sanctuaries||journeys of discovery|