by David Pierce
- Chapter One -
The End of the World
A howl of madness tore through the hospital walls: it was my soul, raging at the universe. Judy, beside me, gave a great wail of woe and burst into heaving, quaking sobs. As we looked at Lilli's lifeless body on the bed, the world died. All that remained was hell.
Judy and I held Lilli's body in tender desperation, kissing it and splashing it with tears. Nearby, the emergency room physicians stood forlornly, heartbroken at their inability to bring Lilli back. Through the blur of anguish I noticed Lilli's intense physical beauty. She looked serene.
I held her close and cried out, "Lilli I love you I love you I love you.... Oh God! Lilli Lilli Lilli!"
My mind cracked. I felt disconnected, not quite inside my body.
Maybe I am dead, I thought.
I looked around the room to see if Lilli's spirit was near, watching us.
Was Lilli alive? This could not be real, and yet I knew it was. Lilli's precious body lay before me, never again to breath or walk or think or do anything. Yet life did not, could not, end. Especially Lilli's. I was deeply confused. Life meant living, and Lilli was life itself. We had named her for the lily flower, which symbolizes life and resurrection -- continuing to be. And Lilli expressed this vitality with all her being. She filled every room she entered with her shining personality. Each time we heard her laugh or saw the special look in her eyes, Judy and I would think:
Hey, this is our wonderful daughter. We are her parents. Life is great!
Yet Lilli was not alive. She was silent and still.
Judy leaned close to her face. Crying softly now, she stroked Lilli's cheek and spoke sweet words of love. I petted Lilli's arm gingerly, as if she were asleep, and moved my hand affectionately to her side. It was still warm. I became suddenly shy when I realized that underneath the sheet, she was unclothed. Oh, I thought, my poor darling! I moved my hand to her forehead. Again, I felt terribly confused, and wept hard. I understood that Lilli was gone from her body, and yet I could only conceive of her as alive.
We stood outside of time, crying, and calling over and over again for Lilli to come back. Eventually, one of the physicians spoke up.
"I want you to know," she said, "that we fought hard to save your daughter. We tried everything. We are so, so sorry."
Judy managed to thank the doctors. Shock descended on me with full force and I was unable to make words.
How did I know to give Lilli a hug? And why did she hug me back? On some deep level, we both must have known what was coming.
The night before Lilli died, as I sat at home in my recliner, I found myself staring at the door to Lilli's room. Posted there were the usual messages warning that no one could enter without knocking. "Especially you, Mom and Dad!!!" Wide yellow strips of police crime-scene tape crisscrossed the door frame, making an ominous barrier. And yet I did the unthinkable: on impulse, I approached the door, turned the knob, ducked under the tape, and walked inside. Judy, watching from the living room couch, looked at me with surprise. Lilli was stunned. Lying half-awake on a low couch by her TV, she stared at me with mouth wide open, scandalized.
"Lilli," I said quickly, "forgive me for coming in without knocking. But something made me do it. I can't explain it. Just please...give your dear old dad a hug!" I held out my arms.
Something magical happened. Instead of yelling at me to get out, Lilli was quiet. Her expression softened. She looked at me with wonder in her eyes, and a sparkle. Suddenly she got up, came into my arms, and we gave each other the hug of a lifetime -- the hug of all hugs.
"My darling Lilli, I love you so much," I said, squeezing her. "So very much!"
"Oh Dad...I love you too!"
We smiled into each others eyes for a long moment, and our relationship was instantly as it had been when Lilli was younger, when she was her father's daughter and adored me. All the teenage anger and depression were momentarily absent.
After that, Lilli came out of her room and spent part of the evening with us, telling stories about school, stealing and hiding my teddy bear so she could laugh as I tried to find it, and watching some televsion. I realized that Lilli and I hadn't hugged for at least six months. Somehow, Lilli and I must have known.
The police officers who had brought us to the hospital gently guided us outside, to their car. During the dreadful ride home -- through the tunnel of night and away from our Lilli -- Judy and I cried in each other's arms. The pain was too great. How would we bear it? How could we?
The officers helped us inside the house and stayed with us for a while, watching carefully to make sure we weren't suicidal. One of them explained that she was our advocate from the City of Cape Coral, and would be available if we needed help or had questions. We were extremely disoriented and could not process much of what she said.
People wandered in to express their sorrow. Several of Lilli's friends came by as well as some of their parents, and neighbors we had never met before stopped in to see what was wrong. Judy and I could hardly focus on them.
As the visitors milled around our living room I called my parents in Colorado. My mother answered.
"Lilli is dead!" I cried.
"What? Davie? What are you talking about?" The news didn't make any sense to her. I tried to explain, crying hard, and choked on my words. Mom was terribly upset. Dad got on the phone. He told me he was on his way to Florida.
Judy called her mom. Nancy said she would fly down right away.
We continued sobbing and crying out for Lilli, and eventually each of the visitors said goodnight, offering to be on call should we need anything or just wish to talk.
Then we were alone. All existence was pain. Judy and I were the living dead.
Lillian Marie Pierce, our beloved only child, was killed instantly on the night of November 12, 1999, while crossing the street in Cape Coral, Florida. She was 14 years old. With one step to go before reaching the curb, she was struck by a car.
Since that moment, Judy and I have struggled to get through each day. 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, life goes on.
We had come to Florida just four months earlier, hoping to start a new life. I was going to write novels. Judy wanted to study alternative healing. Lilli would enter high school, make new friends, and explore areas of interest such as marine biology. Together, we would find land in the country and try to become self-sufficient. This was our dream. Nightmare came instead.
When I opened the door that Friday night to find two policemen standing there, a bolt of fear shot up my spine.
"Are you Mr. and Mrs. Pierce?" they asked us. We said yes. "Do you have a daughter named Lillian Pierce?" Again we said yes, and something inside me crumpled.
"Sir, Ma'am, we need you to come with us."
"What's going on?" I cried out. "Is it Lilli? Is she okay?"
"I'm sorry, Mr. Pierce, we are unable to tell you anything. It's important that you come with us right away."
I realized I was in my pajamas. Stumbling with fright, I hurried to put my pants on, and didn't care that I was doing so in front of strangers.
"Tell us what's happening!" Judy said. "What is wrong with Lilli? Is she okay?"
"All we can tell you is that there has been an acccident."
The officers became silent and loaded us into their vehicle. We rode in terror through the night, hating these policemen for their silence, and knowing in our hearts that Lilli was not alright.
Oh God let her be alive let her be alive I can handle it if she has to have surgery even if she is paralyzed just don't let her die don't let her die DON'T LET HER DIE OH DEAR GOD SAVE OUR LILLI!
At the hospital the police told us to wait but I ignored them and charged inside with Judy. I shouted to the person at the front desk, "Where's my daughter? I need her now!"
"Sir, if you'll please wait a moment --"
"No!" I ran down the hallway. There, in a small room, were three doctors. Before them lay Lilli.
"Lilli!" I shouted as I ran inside. "I love you Lilli...oh God!"
Lilli was dead. Judy and I were broken beyond repair.
At our home in Cape Coral, days and nights passed but we were unaware. We hovered on the edge. During a timeless torment of sobbing, of moaning, and of silent, utter exhaustion, Judy and I did not eat or sleep. Bouquets and fruit baskets arrived at the door. Family and friends left loving condolences on our answering machine. Concerned people came and went, getting us dressed, trying to feed us, helping us go to the bathroom. Women we had never seen before brought casseroles, baked chickens, and pies.
Lilli's friend Eric and his family spent an evening cleaning and organizing Lilli's room. Some of Lilli's other friends helped. This was an emotionally difficult task and they were all very somber as they worked.
Judy and I were grateful for the outpouring of kindness from our new community. We could not have survived this time without the caring support of these wonderful people. Yet it was hard having others in our house when each moment brought us the memory: Lilli is dead. Lilli is dead. Lilli is dead.
For Judy's sake I did not kill myself.
Our family members arrived from out of town: my father and sister as well as Judy's mother. It was comforting having them there. They understood that Judy and I were incapable of being hospitable, and fended for themselves, cooking, cleaning, and finding places to sleep. When Judy and I felt able to speak, we sat with our family and talked about Lilli. We cried and held one another.
The police officer investigating the case came by and told us what little she knew: Lilli had been crossing Del Prado Boulevard with three young men. They made it safely to the median, then ran across the other lanes, with Lilli following last. Just as Lilli had arrived at the curb she was struck by a small car and suffered a head injury. She had died immediately. The officer assured us that Lilli had not suffered.
Another policeman, who was off duty, visited to tell us how sorry he was about what happened. He had heard the story of Lilli's death and was deeply saddened. He talked a bit about what was written in the Bible concerning afterlife and said a prayer with me. Then, standing, he clutched me to him and began crying, telling me to hold on. I cried with him, moved that this big, strong man would share such intense emotions with a stranger. He invited us to his church.
On Monday, Judy and I went to the funeral home to make arrangements. The place seemed horrible because we knew that beyond the elegant floral arrangements and stately curtains, death and corruption were the reality. Lilli's body was in that building somewhere. We explained to the mortician that we wanted Lilli to look as much like herself as possible, and asked him not to use too much makeup. He promised to do his best.
Then we were taken into a show room to look at caskets. It was awful being there, having to consider things such as the price and quality of caskets when our darling Lilli was dead, and we did not care to be alive.
On Wednesday morning, a viewing was held at the funeral home. I did not attend. I had seen Lilli in perfect beauty the night she was killed, and could not bear to see a prepared, painted version of her -- no matter how much effort the mortician had made so that her body would look nice. Judy, however, went with her mother, and met with many of Lilli's friends.
In the afternoon, we attended a memorial service at Christian Life Fellowship in Cape Coral. We had been introduced to this church just weeks before by Eric and his parents. Pastor David Wright had agreed to officiate. We were grateful for his kindness, as we were new to the area and had not yet established a relationship with a church.
Other relatives of mine, who had flown in from Alabama, sat with us: Uncle Tommy, Aunt Kathleen, and my cousin Louise. It was good to see them. I was unable to say much, because of my distress, but I knew they understood.
Students from Cape Coral High School filled almost every seat in the church. Some were wearing gothic clothing. Lilli's friend Lee was wearing a T-shirt with Lilli's face on it, and the dates of her birth and death.
After Pastor Wright opened the service, he and his wife sang a hymn together. They harmonized beautifully. Then the pastor talked about Lilli's life and how she had made a difference in the lives of others. Judy's mother got up, stood at the alter, and shared some lovely memories of Lilli. Next, my father came forward and gave a moving tribute. Several students from the high school then stood and spoke fondly of her, some reading poems they had written. After the students had finished, and everyone was thinking about what they had said, Pastor Wright led us in prayer and made some closing remarks. At the end of the service the high school JROTC performed a drill in Lilli's honor, marching down the aisle.
Afterward, the guests formed a line before us, and one by one, expressed their sympathy. Judy and I remember no other details because we cried through the entire service.
At the end of the week we flew Lilli's body to Colorado. It just didn't seem right for Lilli to be buried in Florida, as we had no family there and didn't know if we would be staying. But Colorado had been our home for many years and most of our family lived there. So did Lilli's long-time friends. Judy and I purchased three adjoining burial plots in Dillon Cemetery: one for Lilli and the others for ourselves.
The casket, with Lilli's body inside, rode in the jet's cargo hold. Judy and I sat quietly. The horror of our situation left us without words. I felt insane, because moment after moment, Lilli continued to be dead. Nothing would ever bring her back and yet I had to live with this reality. So did my beloved Judy. Death seemed preferable to living because in death, I could at least be with Lilli, and if not -- if death brought oblivion rather than eternity -- I would be free of my pain.
I remember looking down through the airplane window thinking, "I dare this plane to crash! Take me, God, slam this plane into the ground. Take me now!"
A monstrously selfish thought. But it didn't even occur to me that if the plane crashed, others would die as well, and Lilli's casket would be destroyed. All I could think of was that I wanted to die.
In Colorado we attended a memorial service at Dillon Community Church, where I had been baptized many years before. My father taught Sunday school there. Before we moved to Florida, Lilli had been a member of the church's Tuff-J youth group, where she spent many happy afternoons with her friends. Hundreds of guests filled the church and streamed out the door, down the street. In a small room, Lilli's body was displayed in an open casket. Again I chose not to look, and I am glad for this decision. As Lilli's Colorado friends emerged from the room, they looked quite upset, and later, we heard from a few of them that the body in the casket had looked nothing like Lilli.
Pastor Brian Post gave a sermon and read some Bible verses. Then famous pianist Barry Nease performed a solo. Nancy, and Judy's brother Lyle, stood and gave tributes to Lilli. Then my father read the 21st Psalm, his voice breaking with emotion. Lilli's friend Mark stood at the pulpit and brought laughter to the gathering as he explained Lilli's grand scheme to turn the sun into a gigantic lightbulb. I cried when Verne, my uncle, sang a song he wrote called, Gone To Be With Jesus.
Gone To Be With Jesus*
by Verne Bullock
(Sung at Lilli's Memorial Service, 11/19/1999)
Walkin' cross a highway, in the summer of her 14th year,
Little did she know my friend, her time was almost here.
To meet her God in Glory, to see the Promised Land,
To hear the age old Story, being sung by the Heavenly band,
The Heavenly Band.
And we are left to wonder, in the mystery of it all.
Seldom do we understand, why one, so young, must fall.
But we will not be broken, by our thoughts of yesterday,
We'll put our faith and hope in God, and keep livin; for Him, day by day,
Day by Day.
Cause, walkin' cross a highway, in the summer of her 14th year,
We all know the story now, our friend is no longer here.
She's Gone To Be With Jesus, in the place where the children play,
And she'll be there to greet us, when we finally meet our day,
When we meet our day, oh, I'm on my way!
rest now weary mamma, and papa, you stand so tall.
For you have raised a child to God, a blessing to us all.
And we, we will all be sorry, to see her face no more,
But now we've got a good reason, it makes Heaven worth livin' for,
Worth livin' for...She'll be there at the door, whoa,
It' s worth livin' for.
(whisper) He's worth livin' for....
*Copyright 1977 by Verne Bullock, Uriah Music Company
At the end of the service, people formed a line and came toward us to express sympathy. I felt stiff and artificial in my responses. I hugged them, shook their hands, and thanked them, but felt dead inside.
Judy was able to function more normally and interact with people. However, I grieved for her because I knew that she hurt just as badly as I.
Then I caught sight of Chris, our auto mechanic of many years, standing just inside the door. I felt a strange surge of emotion that this man who had known us only through fixing our cars would feel moved to attend Lilli's memorial service. I walked quickly over to him, threw my arms around him, and sobbed into his shirt.
The interment was held afterward, at Dillon Cemetery. At our request, only our immediate family and a few close friends were present. We stood in cold wind under dark purple clouds as the pastor intoned the burial rite:
"In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our sister Lillian Marie Pierce; and we commit her body to the ground; earth to earth; ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless her and keep her, the Lord make her face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him and give him peace. Amen."
As Lilli's casket was lowered into the ground I rent the air with a tremendous cry. The finality of her disappearing forever into that deep dark hole was more than I could bear. For a moment I lost consciousness, and swayed at the edge of the grave. It was the worst moment of my life.
Then we were in my father's car, being driven away from the cemetery. Judy and I saw, out the window, a large cloud in the precise shape of an angel. It appeared to be flying toward heaven. We showed my father. Later, when we parked, Judy's brother Lyle got out of his car and came over to us.
"Did you see the angel in the sky?" he said, waving his arms.
An associate of my father's had kindly arranged a gathering for us that afternoon. Judy and I called and thanked him, explaining that we would not be coming. It may have seemed terribly rude, but after watching our only child's body be put in the ground, we simply could not bear to be around any more people. We felt in another universe from everyone else. A place where we, the dead, looked through the eyes of living corpses.
Judy and I spent a few days resting in the guest house of a friend. My dad sat with us by the fireplace and suggested that instead of flying right back to Florida and our jobs, maybe Judy and I should rent a car and take our time driving back. After all, what was the rush? We knew we shouldn't go back to work right away: we were ruined mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and didn't give a damn about jobs.
Dad's suggestion turned out to be a good one.
We took back roads most of the way and had plenty of time for reflection, and comforting one another. Often, we cried. Sometimes we just stared silently out the window.
I was extremely glad that Judy was with me. Though our grief seemed overwhelming, the presence of my life companion, Lilli's mom, somehow made it possible for me to continue. I held her hand for hours at a time. Occasionally I pulled the car over and gave her a hug.
After a few days we found that we were able to talk again, and streams of words poured from each of us. We did a lot of speculating about metaphysics and wondered how Lilli was doing. I told Judy I was sure that Lilli, being non-physical now, could be anywhere she wished...even, perhaps, in the car with us!
"We love you, Lilli!" we both cried out at the top of our lungs.
We drove slowly, taking in the scenery, stopping sometimes to explore areas of interest or to have a meal in restaurants that caught our attention. Kansas fell behind us, and part of Missouri. In Columbia, Missouri, we visited the campus of Stephens College, a private women's college that my mother had attended in the 1950s. The cold gray sky, the leafless trees, and the solemn old buildings appealed to the sadness in my soul.
As we drove I found myself always looking to see if Lilli might be standing on a corner, or watching from a building, or sitting in another car. Sometimes when I looked from behind at young women of about Lilli's age and size, my heart would leap and my mind would have the crazy thought, It's her!Then I would see it was not.
What was our purpose? What possibly could be our reasons for continuing with life when Lilli was gone? We wondered about this as we rolled along the road. Then, somewhere in the Illinois countryside, as the autumn 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.
I told this to Judy.
"Dave," she said, "finding Lilli is our destiny. We are going to travel around and write a book. It will be called, 'Looking for Lilli.'"
Thus, the Looking for Lilli Tour was born.
For a few months after returning to Florida, Judy and I stayed in the house we were renting in Cape Coral. The house was terribly lonely and Judy and I felt like ghosts, barely eating, barely sleeping, and wandering the halls in the middle of the night. We were always aware of Lilli's empty room.
When New Year's Eve arrived, heralding the year 2000, only six weeks had gone by since Lilli's death. My life-energy was very low. I had decided to keep living, though the idea of living without Lilli was inconceivable. Judy hurt just as badly.
I was getting in the habit of drinking strong alcohol because it seemed the only thing that could dull the pain enough to allow me to make it to the next day. As midnight approached I had finished three or four glasses of whiskey.
That particular New Year's Eve was being touted as the party of all time, the beginning of a new millenium (even though 2001 was the official beginning), and it came with all sorts of expectations (as well as apocalyptic worries such as Y2K). Judy fell asleep early. I was in a state beyond sleeping and waking. The revelry going on all through Cape Coral seemed louder than any Independence Day celebration I had ever heard. Fireworks were going off in most every yard. My emotions were crazy, off the charts, and I did not know how I felt nor could I examine my feelings...I was too destroyed to think about such things.
At the stroke of midnight I took my recorder, a small wind instrument similar to a flute, then walked out on our screened back porch, and let loose with a wild, impromptu dirge, all my feelings blasted into a few minutes' worth of notes. I wandered back inside, crying, laughing frantically like a madman, reeling at the nightmare of it all.
In January, Judy and I tried returning to our jobs. Neither of us was emotionally ready for this, but there were bills to pay and we seemed to have no other choice. Our experiences were awful.
I was working as the personal assistant for the high-powered broker-owner of a real estate firm headquartered in Sanibel Island. Judy was a bank teller. The people at our jobs seemed to have no idea that the world had come to an end, and in fact, their conversations around the copy machine about detesting their children and spouses affected us negatively.
My boss was impossible to assist; she had never had an assistant before, and resisted every effort to be organized. She consistently refused to do the necessary follow-throughs of the files I put out for her, to return important phone calls from the messages I took, and managed to miss many of the appointments I set. Her grouchy, suspicious husband worked in the office in an unspecified category, as sort of an ever-present watchful eye, and seemed to be jealous of me, taking every opportunity to undermine my efforts. He was also in the habit of bullying the secretary, whom he would yell at if, for example, she had replaced the paper coffee filter with a new one instead of using the same one for five days in a row.
The atmosphere in that office was bad.
I came in to work one morning to find that the office secretary had been fired. My boss asked me to help out, so I sat at the front desk and did all the secretarial work as well as my own, for no extra pay, thinking that this would be a temporary arrangement. But after weeks passed and no effort was made to find a new secretary, I began to see how the wind was blowing: my boss had no intention of hiring a replacement. By default, I was the secretary.
I became testy at my job and found myself speaking my mind to people who annoyed me. A sales associate in the office, a fellow who was a bit of a dandy with his sword cane and Panama hat, gave me a hard time one day and so I told him where he could put his nasty opinions. This so enraged him that he made references to pistols and dueling, and said, very archly, that I would live to regret my statement.
"Oh yes," he repeated with venom. "You shall live to regret it."
During my lunch breaks I would tear off in my car and scream like a madman, spewing all my anger and hurt into the air until I was spent inside. I came home each night trembling with exhaustion, anxiety, and grief.
At Judy's bank teller job in Cape Coral, things were rough. The manager cited Judy for appearing depressed and said she was not allowed to display any negative feelings relating to her grief, and must at all times appear to be upbeat, cheerful -- in other words, Judy would have to pretend that she wasn't suffering from the worst event of her life, the loss of her child. This was a dreadful imposition on her.
Judy had always been a positive person, and was a highly regarded head teller in a Colorado bank for several years, where she was a favorite with customers. After Lilli died, Judy did her best to seem positive at this Florida bank but knew her boss' demands were absurd. Judy was indignant. She came home most nights in a frazzled, distraught frame of mind.
Though our feelings of grief were compounded by the pressure-cooker stress of our jobs, we managed to get out of bed each day and go to work. We 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.
One moment stands alone out of time and space as an emotional rallying point. Late one night, as I stood by myself in the kitchen, a series of thoughts penetrated the black whirlwind of my grief. Where was Lilli's soul? Was she happy? Was Lilli in a safe place?
Because of a spiritual experience I'd had as a young man, I felt that Lilli's soul had continued on and was alive. However, I wasn't sure if she was safe.
Memories of Lilli's favorite television cartoon show, Beetlejuice, had disturbed me as I wondered if Lilli's spirit was in a good place, or in some sort of hell. The cartoon was based on a popular movie of the same name about a manic ghostly con-man who lived in an afterlife called the Neitherworld -- a surreal parody of the living world that featured wisecracking, grotesque creatures, and the giant purple and green sandworms always seeking to devour them. Beetlejuice's best friend Lydia was a living human girl and social misfit. By chanting Beetlejuice's name three times, Lydia was able to summon him. Together they had adventures in the Neitherworld and managed to avoid being eaten by sandworms.
The more I thought about Lilli's eternal soul, the more I, as her dad, began worrying about where she might have gone. It distressed me to think that she might have ended up in some twisted afterlife at the mercy of malicious spirits. I had to know if she was safe. I decided that somehow I would gain first-hand knowledge of the afterlife and find out.
As we struggled with our jobs, and our sanity, the investigation into Lilli's death proceeded, and we engaged an attorney to deal with the insurance company bureaucracies for us.
Our attorney had come to us fortuitously: he had been sitting in the jet next to Nancy, Judy's mom, the day she flew to Florida to be with us after Lilli died. He and Nancy had struck up a conversation during the flight, and he was sad to hear of Lilli's death. He had recently lost a close relative of his own and was himself in grief. Nancy had been impressed by this sharp, clean-cut young man. She'd taken his business card and passed it on to us. Months later, when Judy and I realized we needed legal help, we found the card lying on a table and called him. It was a good thing we did.
The attorney and his staff got immediately to work on our behalf, communicating with the insurance companies involved in Lilli's accident, and this helped ease our worries.
Within a month he informed us that a settlement had been reached. We would be receiving payments from two insurance companies: ours, and the company that insured the driver whose car had struck Lilli. We realized that God --- and perhaps Lilli -- was pulling strings for us. Years later we discovered that a rather miraculous element had been involved. Indirectly.
Our attorney's assistant called us out of the blue one day in 2002 or 2003 to relieve herself of a secret she'd kept all this time: she had seen Lilli die. What's more, her husband had tried to save her.
On Friday, November 12, at approximately 7:30 pm, she and her husband were driving home from work and were in the car directly behind the one that had struck Lilli. They had seen everything. Her husband, who knew CPR, rushed over to Lilli and tried to revive her. They'd both been tremendously affected by witnessing her death, and when the woman had realized who we were the day we walked into her boss' law office for the first time, she made a pledge to herself that she would do everything in her power to help us, in whatever way she could. Even if that meant putting in extra hours at home, working on our case.
In a metroplitan area of 624,000 people, this link between our attorney's assistant and Lilli seemed beyond coincidence.
Other extraordinary things happened.
One day, I was staffing an open house in Fort Myers for my boss. A woman walked in to look at the property, and as I took her on a tour she apologized for seeming depressed and explained she was grieving the recent loss of her husband. I tried to console her, and after some conversation, the topic of Lilli's death came up.
"My goodness!" she said. "I know about your daughter's accident! My son was there. He was one of the EMT technicians who was on the scene that night and tried to save your daughter. Afterward, he was very upset -- it was one of the worst things he ever witnessed. He told me all about it."
While getting a haircut in Cape Coral I learned of another strange link with Lilli's death. When I happened to mention to the hair stylist that I was feeling sad about the loss of my daughter, she asked me to tell her more. I explained about Lilli's death on Del Prado Boulevard. Suddenly, the woman stopped cutting my hair, walked around the barber chair to face me, and gave me a curious look.
"My husband," she said, "works for the funeral home where your daughter was taken. He is the mortician who worked on her. In all the years I've known him, I've never seen him get so upset about his work, but he told me he just couldn't get over this beautiful young woman's death. He decided to make an extra effort so she would look good."
In a city of 165,000 people, what are the odds of randomly finding myself getting a haircut by the woman who was married to Lilli's mortician?
As the stylist finished cutting my hair, I remembered my decision not to view Lilli's body.
When the settlement check arrived from the insurance companies, Judy and I decided to purchase a home in Fort Myers. The decision to do this came about in an unusual way.
It was my boss' listing, the last unit available in a small, quiet patio home village in a part of Fort Myers that Judy and I liked, not far from the Sanibel Island Causeway and Fort Myers Beach. It was a pleasant place and the price was right: the developer wanted to get rid of it so he could finally be through with the project.
Judy came to me one day and said, "Dave...Oma told me that we should buy the condo! I had a dream last night in which Oma appeared, and told me that this condo would be a great investment. You know that she was always sensible about monetary things. I take it as a sign that we should make an offer."
I thought about this for a few days and decided that the dream was, indeed, a recommendation from the other side. In life, Oma, Judy's grandmother had been a fountain of clear thinking and common sense. I decided to trust Judy's dream -- even if buying a place to live in Florida meant a commitment to live there for a while. We made an offer. It was accepted. The condo was ours.
We moved into our new home on March 1, 2000.
Then we quit our jobs. Having undergone the worst tragedy of our lives, we refused to continue with senseless servitude, with mindless social games, and told our wretched bosses to shove it. The home was a sanctuary for us. Judy and I found it comfortable and soothing, with the lanai looking into a quiet tropical forest, and we enjoyed listening to the birds singing among the branches. On some days we rested and began to recover our strength. On other days we went shopping for art and decorations for our home. It was relaxing to walk through antique shops, picture shops, and places that sold knick-knacks.
On days when we felt good enough we went for hikes through the jungle or along the beach. When the surf was up Judy and I went swimming in the Gulf, and I discovered that body-surfing at our favorite beach, Lover's Key, was a balm to my spirit.
We thought of Lilli almost every moment of each day. On waking, the first thought that penetrated was that our Lilli was dead. Sometimes the weight of this realization was so heavy that I stayed in bed most of the day. No matter where we were or what we did, Lilli filled our minds and hearts.
I relived every moment I could remember of her life. Her sweet laugh seemed to have a life of its own in my mind. I could hear her voice, calling, "Dad, come look at the new trick I can do on the trampoline...." And I would see her face, the light in her eyes, the smile that had always filled me with gladness.
She was a baby and I was giving her a bath in the sink. She was a three-year-old playing peek-a-boo with me, or sitting in my lap as I read her the story of Harry the Dirty Dog, of which she knew every word. She was seven, and called herself Country Gal. Country Gal wore a cowboy hat and boots was determined to be a country singing star and paleontologist when she grew up.
Together, Country Gal and I took long walks through the wilds of Central Texas, where we lived at the time, and we made discoveries such as whole petrified trees that we dug up or cougar footprints that we followed...for as far as we dared. We were best buddies.
As restful as Judy and I found life in our new home, it was hard for us to remain in one place when our souls were tossed this way and that on waves of despair. On days when we were able to talk and think and make decisions, we began to plan a big trip. The condo became our base of operations and the place from which we started our long, long journey.
After visiting some RV shows and looking inside and out at all manner of trailers, campers, tent-campers, recreational vehicles, and converted vans, Judy and I decided it would be wise for us to get some sort of rolling home. We spent several weeks driving around to RV sales lots and talking with salesmen. Our research finally paid off and we realized that a fifth wheel trailer was the thing we needed. This is a kind of travel trailer that overhangs the bed of a pickup truck.
"They're more stable than ordinary trailers and are easier to maneuver," a salesman told us. Since we wanted to be prudent with our funds, we chose a modestly priced starter model, a 27-1/2 foot long 2000 Trail-Lite from R-Vision. This extra-light fifth wheel could be pulled with no problem by the 2000 Ford F-150 truck we were buying.
Delivery of the special-ordered pickup truck with its tow-package and larger engine took several weeks, and when it came in we had the fifth wheel hitch installed, then got the trailer and brought it home.
After days of practicing with the rig, driving it around Lee County, we provisioned it lightly and set off for our trial run to Universal Studios, a giant amusement park near Orlando. Judy had often said that her idea of Heaven was an amusement park, and so we decided to try one of the best.
Our emotions were haywire as we drove 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, and disrespectful of our grief. However, movement provided some distraction from our mental hell, and as for the thought of facing danger on thrilling amusement park rides, well, since Lilli's death I no longer had a fear of dying...except of course I knew I must keep living for dear Judy's sake, to be her companion in grief and help her to live.
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.
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.
After we registered at the RV park in Kissimee, on the outskirts of Orlando, I got the trailer parked in our camping space. It took several tries. Together, Judy and I unhitched the trailer from the truck, leveled it, and connected it to water, sewer, and electricity. We stood back and admired our work, feeling a sense of pride at our trailer and our ability to use it.
The next day we visited Universal Studios Islands of Adventure theme park. Despite our feelings of intense grief, we had experiences somewhat resembling fun. The new Spider-Man ride was fabulous, combining a live-action roller coaster ride with 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.