A Sanctuary for the Soul: Honoring a Cancer Victim
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A Sanctuary for the Soul: Honoring a Cancer Victim

When Jeff Lamont died at 21 of a rare form of cancer, his grief-stricken family came together to find the perfect way to honor his memory.

Fighting to Live

In one of Bridget Lamont's favorite photos, her son Jeff -- sporting a crown that sits low over his ears and wearing a tuxedo that doesn't quite fit -- presides over the 2005 homecoming festivities at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School, in Springfield, Illinois. The 19-year-old and his queen, radiant in white satin, look like the quintessential high school homecoming couple.

But maternal pride isn't the only reason Bridget cherishes this photo. For her it's an emblem of her son's courage and stoicism. Beneath the tuxedo Jeff weighs just 90 pounds, and under the crown all that's left is just a wisp or two of his flaming red hair. Three years earlier doctors had diagnosed alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare and aggressive cancer that almost exclusively strikes children and adolescents. They gave Jeff only months to live. Yet after his initial treatment he was in remission for more than two years. Then in late 2004 the cancer came back. Still, Jeff is smiling.

"If I had to describe him in one word, it would be fearless," says Bridget. Wiry and athletic, Jeff loved the outdoors -- nowhere more than in the unspoiled wilderness of Christmas Cove, on the northern tip of Michigan's Leelanau Peninsula. From the time he was a child, Jeff's family -- which also includes his father, Tom, and his older brother Mike, now 28 -- vacationed there, often joined by Jeff's uncle, Jeff Later, who co-owned their beach cottage.

As Jeff's illness progressed, Christmas Cove provided a tranquil place to recuperate from the ravages of aggressive radiation and chemotherapy as well as a much-needed sanctuary from the constant focus on his illness. Here, where few people knew about his condition, Jeff was able to forget about doctors and needles and blood counts. Hiding his thin frame and hair loss with loose clothes and a hat, he could simply be himself.

By the summer of 2007 Jeff was down to 76 pounds. Between ever more frequent hospitalizations, he insisted on staying active, sometimes using a walker when he went out with friends. His doctors had exhausted their treatment options, and the family recognized that Jeff was dying. "It was always in the back of my mind that when the time came we needed to do something to remember him by," says Later.

Keeping Jeff's Spirit Alive

That August, on vacation with his wife and son, Later was biking near the cottage when he noticed a spray-painted sign reading "40 ACRES FOR SALE." Something clicked. "The sign had been there forever but not until that moment did I connect it with Jeff," says Later. "My next thought was a big 'what if' -- what if we could buy that property and deed it to the Leelanau Conservancy as the Jeff Lamont Preserve?" The Lamonts had been involved with the nonprofit conservancy since Mike and Jeff were children; every year they bought small plots of land -- sometimes just 2 square feet -- to be preserved in the boys' names. Jeff had proudly hung the certificates in his room.

Later mentioned his brainstorm to his wife, Betsy, who called the conservancy about the idea. The next morning, after walking the property, the conservancy team was cautiously encouraging.

"They said they'd have to run it by their board, but their attitude was, 'Great idea, go raise the money and make it happen,'" says Later. He located the property's owners to check the asking price: $140,000. "We can raise that," Later remembers thinking confidently. But a bigger obstacle loomed: talking to his sister. "I was afraid Bridget would be upset that we were talking about this before Jeff had even died."

He needn't have worried: Bridget was blown away by the idea. "It was more than I dreamed of," she says. In fact, she was eager to share the plan with her son, who by this time was so weak he could barely talk. "It was tricky to bring up," says Bridget. "We just said, 'Uncle Jeff had a wonderful idea. What do you think about buying that land along our lane? We'll make it a preserve and it will always, always stay the way it is. And we'll name it after you so you will always be with us.'" Too weak to speak, Jeff's gaunt face nevertheless lit up and he beamed his old megawatt smile. "He understood," says Bridget.

Later composed a contribution request letter to send out to friends and family members. He had just finished it when Jeff died, on September 21, a month after his 21st birthday.

As the funeral was being planned, Later called the property owners to let them know they were ready to proceed. Their response flattened him: They were having second thoughts. In a panic he phoned Tom Nelson, a land protection specialist at the conservancy. Nelson was unruffled. Be patient, he advised -- conservation projects take time. But Later was worried: Could he ask people to contribute not knowing whether the land was available?

Unsure of how to break this news to his sister, he decided simply to forge ahead. He turned his Wilmette, Illinois, home into "campaign headquarters" and put his own family and the Lamonts to work -- folding, stuffing, sealing, addressing, and stamping hundreds of envelopes. Later and Bridget have five other siblings and everyone pitched in. "We had about 200 names ourselves and a ton of friends, so we ended up with a database of about 500," Later says. "No matter how crazy it got, we were doing something, we were making something, and it was always a high."

Bridget and Tom agree. "Writing letters and talking to people about the preserve kept us going for all those months after Jeff died," she says.

Jeff's Sanctuary

Later kept up the fund-raising momentum, and Tom Nelson continued to pursue the land purchase. The property had been in Sam and Debbie Middleton's family for more than 70 years and they feared it might be overrun with development. "I explained the legal safeguards the conservancy could put in place to ensure that the property remain just as it was," says Nelson. And he called in a respected local real-estate broker, who reassured the Middletons that the conservancy had a great track record. The couple signed the contract shortly thereafter.

"Once we knew that the land wouldn't be developed, it seemed like the right thing to do," says Debbie Middleton.

The memorial fund now totaled $90,000 -- an amazing sum for a family campaign based purely on word of mouth but still far from the amount they needed. At this point, impressed by the family's determination, the conservancy offered to provide a loan for the balance if the family would commit to raising the remaining funds.

Later and the Lamonts toasted this news with champagne and redoubled their efforts; support for the project began to snowball. Tom, a lawyer, had a friend on the local bar association who sent out 500 letters to fellow members; neighbors both in Springfield and in Christmas Cove offered their own lists; a colleague of Bridget's from the library association where she worked sent an e-mail blast to its 2,500 members, and a local TV station ran a feature. "There are many worthy causes, but Jeff's life seemed to touch a lot of hearts," says Later.

The family reached their goal in May 2008, less than a year after Jeff's death, but the fund-raising continues. "We want the land to be used," explains Bridget, "so we're trying to raise enough to put in hiking and biking trails and to maintain the property."

A few days after the June 28, 2008, dedication of the site, attended by about 70 people, the immediate family held its own private rite -- an early-morning walk through the preserve and surrounding area to consecrate the ground with Jeff's ashes. "So we know that's where he is," says Tom softly, "and so we can feel his presence in the wind and the sound of the water."

For Bridget, too, the place that holds her son's ashes speaks more of life than death. "There couldn't be a finer memorial to Jeff than this land," says Bridget. "It keeps us profoundly connected to him."

And for Later the Jeff Lamont Preserve carries a special satisfaction. "It's the best thing I've ever done," he says, without a hint of boastfulness. "Now every time we drive by that sign on the road, there's a little nod of recognition. Jeff's spirit is here, where it belongs."

Preserving a Memory

Would you like to dedicate a piece of land to the memory of a loved one? The process varies widely from state to state and there are many approaches besides outright donation. A conservation easement can protect land from development or unwanted use, for example, while allowing an owner to retain many property rights and even to continue to live on and use the land. Rob Aldrich, director of information services for the national Land Trust Alliance, suggests following these steps.

1. Call a local conservancy and explain your idea to a land-protection specialist. To find a conservancy in your area, go to landtrustalliance.org and click on "Find a Land Trust."

2. After deciding the best way to conserve the land, discuss fund-raising options, including the possibility of matching funds from the conservancy or other donors. Ask about naming rights.

3. Team up with the conservancy to promote the campaign, obtain the funding, and acquire the property.


Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, September 2009.