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