Publish date: February 12, 2013
Author’s note: This essay was originally written in January 2010 about events that happened in February 2008.
Tears rolled down my cheeks after passing through the main entrance gate and spotting the Serengeti-like landscape with tall, brown grasses topped with greenish hues and islands of pine and cypress trees. I have never been to Africa but have seen plenty of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins shows to know what the Serengeti looks like. Instead of fearless lions, rhinos, and giraffes, I saw lazy alligators, great white egrets, and black vultures at the side of the road pecking at some sort of road kill. I had just completed a nine-hour journey by car and had less than an hour left to reach my destination for the weekend, Flaming Lodge, Marina & Outpost in Everglades National Park.
The National Park Lifestyle
It had been nearly eight years since I left Flamingo to return to civilization after 10 years living and working within the national park fishbowl environment. Working for a park-management company provided amazing opportunities such as skiing Yellowstone’s Mammoth Terraces by moonlight, enjoying countless sunrises at Death Valley’s Zabriskie Point, and watching roseate spoonbills gracefully fly past my office window in the Everglades.
I still hold tight to friendships made during my national park journey and am thankful working in the parks introduced me to the man I married. It must have been love, albeit for a short while, because I followed him from Yellowstone to the Everglades to Death Valley and back to the Everglades. He was the general manager and I the sales and marketing manager of the Flamingo Lodge operation and we finally married during our time in the Everglades.
Civilization was about an hour away from Flamingo in the city of Homestead so living on property made practical sense but led me to borderline insanity. Since he was the general manager, it seemed as though he was always working. We lived within steps of our offices and above the lodge registration desk. Whenever there was a problem, whether being an alligator lounging on the patio of a motel room or a boater stuck on a sandbar, Peter was on call. During days off, which were rare occurrences, we either needed to stay holed up in our apartment or leave town in order to find peace.
Being the wife of the general manager seemed to carry unspoken responsibilities and expectations. I likened this to a presidential first lady having to support my husband’s management decisions whether I agreed or not. As a rule, general managers always made unpopular decisions. There was always the feeling every move and decision I made as a manager were judged, too.
Surrounded by People Yet Lonely
The three years in Flamingo was a somewhat lonely time. We isolated ourselves from the rest of the staff and National Park Service community, which Flamingo’s year-round population was about 35. Peter began falling into depression and became engrossed in work. There were days when he wouldn’t want to leave the security of our bed and other times he worked sunrise to sunset. He indulged in electronic gadgets, the latest technology and soon a fishing boat yet none of these seemed to make him truly happy.
Finally came a point when I failed as a wife. Peter’s depression was frightening and I didn’t know what to do other than leave. Let me clarify. My plan was not to leave him; it was to leave the situation. Leave an environment where everyone was watching and judging what we were doing. Leave an ecosystem boasting 43 species of mosquitoes yet home to incredible wildlife such as American crocodiles and alligators, world-class fishing, spectacular birdwatching, and dolphins which played with our boat during backcountry excursions.
With all these incredible things about the Everglades, I couldn’t find happiness and found it necessary to jump back into civilization. Peter was to leave eventually, that was part of the plan. Whenever I asked him when he would join me, his replies were, “I don’t want to leave them hanging, I’ll leave after seasons [winter/spring] over.”
Peter put work before me and made that clear during a marriage counsel session. After nearly three years waiting for end of season to happen, which it never did, and comprehending his job was more important, I filed for divorce. Nearly three years later it was finalized in 2005.
The Phone Call of Disbelief
More than two years later I was returning to Flamingo to attend Peter’s memorial service. Three days prior my friend Barbara who was living and working in Petrified Forest National Park called telling me Peter was dead.
“What?” I asked her to repeat because I couldn’t comprehend what she just said.
“Peter’s dead,” she repeated and I could hear the disbelief and sadness in her voice.
“His alarm was going off…Michelle tried to wake him…Park Service tried to revive him…he was airlifted but died,” she said, or something to that effect. It was really all a blur.
I never knew what the phrase “my heart sank” meant until Barb told me Peter had died. He was 43-years-old, how do 43-year-olds just not wake up and die? Yes, we had been divorced but this was someone who was part of my family, someone whom I was married and had planned a future.
I began sobbing and there was a lot I didn’t understand, especially the part of, “Michelle tried to wake him,” so I asked, “Who’s Michelle?”
There was a silence followed by, “Peter’s girlfriend.”
In a strange way, there was comfort in knowing Peter was not alone when he died. I didn’t know about Michelle, he had never mentioned her but I shrugged it off as being insignificant.
And then came guilt as I remembered my last correspondence with Peter: an email accusing him of having financial problems. We had financed a fishing boat together and during the divorce he agreed to make payments. A month before he passed I checked and saw he had missed a boat payment. When confronted, he denied having any financial issues but when I finally arrived in Flamingo, I learned Peter did have financial issues as well as a somewhat secret life.
38 Miles Through Memory Lane
The 38 miles to Flamingo was a drive through memory lane. Passing Pa-hay-okee Overlook reminded me of the full moon nights Peter and I stopped to walk the boardwalk trail leading to the observation deck looking over the grasses and cypress trees. We’d listen to frogs bellow and insects sing.
Paurotis Pond reminded me of tragedy. An employee committed suicide while sitting in his car in the parking lot. I was there the day he pulled the trigger but thankfully, did not find him. I was escorting a group of travel writers through the park and stopped to photograph an American crocodile which frequented the area. I had noticed the car and something told me not to go near it. Later that night during dinner I learned what happened and how this employee left a tape recording blaming the park management company for his death.
Of all the trail names in the park, without a doubt, Snake Bight has the best. In addition to leisurely bike rides through the lush, tree-canopied tunnel, it also has memories of the sightseeing tram breaking down and dealing with angry tourists who were left in the wilds of the Everglades until a van could rescue them. It’s also where I sent a major insect repellent manufacturer to test their product one October although I couldn’t convince them to test the product in August when mosquitoes were at their peak.
Reaching Flamingo was like visiting an old friend on her deathbed. It was the first time I’d seen the devastation caused by 2005’s hurricanes Katrina and Wilma. The 1950s style lodge constructed with cinder blocks covered with white, fossilized coral and accented with dark wood trim was now crawling with overgrown vines and condemned. Mother Nature was slowly reclaiming the buildings.
Dumpsters sat outside the crumbling lodge buildings, piled high with debris. Some windows and doors were smashed in and graffiti was painted on the walls. The autograph tree (also called pitch apple) in front of the registration desk was overgrown and straggly looking. It grew on a small island of overgrown grass which hadn’t seen a mower in four years. The “Flamingo Lodge” wood sign had lost its vibrancy and looked tired with a tinge of gray. Police tape roped off the area and a sign prohibited visitors beyond that point.
Twenty-four cottages were associated with the lodge but were also destroyed by 2005’s hurricane punches and were demolished and removed by the National Park Service. Entrance to the loop of cottages was closed but I could see looters with metal detectors scavenging for whatever treasures they could find.
The restaurant, gift shop, and lounge were all condemned but the National Park Service offices and visitor’s center located in the same building were still operational. The only sign of tourist life was at the marina. The Bald Eagle tour boat, which led trips into Florida Bay, had been damaged by the hurricanes, was refurbished and sold to a company near Amelia Island, Fla. Skiffs, houseboats, and I imagine some canoes were lost in 2005. Luckily, the backcountry tour boat, The Pelican, had survived. The marina store buzzed with activity and I was pleasantly surprised to see familiar faces working behind the counter.
What was even more of a relief was being welcomed with hugs and sympathy by my former colleagues. Each smile and kind word seemed to melt away the lonely, dark feelings I had when living in Flamingo.
I met a couple whom Peter befriended and they had to tell me a few things before the memorial service. Hesitant to do so, I forced myself to meet up with them and was greeted with more genuine hugs and love. It was difficult for me to hear what they had to say.
“Peter loved Michelle but he was in love with you. You were the love of his life.”
Learning About His Secret Life
As told to me, Michelle and Peter began dating during the 2005 hurricane season. She, at the age of 21 or 22 (I’m not clear on her exact age) was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and due to a rift with her divorced parents, there was no one to take care of her. Peter couldn’t understand how parents could not take care of their own children and feeling the need to make up for what he felt was poor care giving to his mother who suffered a stroke while he was in school, he took it upon himself to care for Michelle.
From initial diagnosis she was given 6 months to live but she was a fighter. Unable to work, she was collecting disability and lived with Peter in National Park Service housing which he received following the 2005 hurricanes. He made sure she made her doctor’s appointments, had food to eat, and a place to sleep.
It was time for the memorial service and I felt under-dressed in my black top, black jeans, and black flip-flops but after seeing what most others wore – t-shirts, shorts, or sweat pants – I felt overdressed. Right before reaching the boat dock and seeing Peter’s parents and brother, I was told one other thing.
“Oh, he never told his parents you were divorced.”
Needless to say, seeing Peter’s family after three years of being divorced and three years of separation, with their assumption we were still married was a bit awkward. I later learned they sent me Christmas cards but Peter kept them hidden. His family often asked for me but he told them although we were living in separate communities, we were still married. He even told them he spent his last Christmas with me and my family in New York when the truth was he spent it with Michelle and her family in New York.
It was a sad day so we hugged and agreed to talk after the service into the Everglades backcountry.
The Ball Continued to Unravel
Before stepping on the boat, I was greeted by another surprise. Peter left me the beneficiary of his 401(k) but there wasn’t much in it since he borrowed against it. Perhaps it was paranoia but after learning this, I had the distinct feeling some of the park personnel were giving me dirty glares as they gathered around Michelle. Later I learned some thought the only reason I drove 10 hours from Tallahassee to Flamingo was because I knew money was involved. The only money I knew of had to do with the more than $6,500 still owed on the fishing boat and since I was a co-signer, was now responsible for making payments.
Yes, I made the trip to protect my financial interests but my primary purpose was to say goodbye. It was the right thing to do. I was also there to pick up the two cats and a dog we shared.
The memorial service was held on Valentine’s Day and since Peter had passed away two days prior, his ashes were not available to sprinkle in Whitewater Bay, not that it’s legal in the park. Some people shared memories of Peter and although I had prepared something, thought it best not to steal the thunder from Michelle or Peter’s family.
Back at the dock, I spoke with Peter’s family who were shocked over so many things with the loss of their son and brother. Our divorce and him living and supporting Michelle were additional shocks to his death. His family had spent the past two days sifting through his files and learned he was having financial issues. Peter left many unanswered questions and I suspect no one will ever resolve them.
Peter’s father sat me down and proceeded to tell me since Michelle had nothing and she had been signing her disability checks to Peter, he was planning on giving her what was left in his checking account, all of his belongings and the boat so she can sell them.
“Not unless you give me the $6,500 still owed on the boat,” I replied. I realize it was a cold response but I was in “protecting my interests” mode.
His father assumed the boat was paid off and when I told him Peter’s estate was responsible for half the payments, he told me he couldn’t make them and allowed me to take care of the boat. I briefly saw Michelle and agreed to meet her the next day back at the marina.
I Can’t Believe I Did It, But Something Told Me To
The next day came and Michelle did not show up at the agreed upon time. I needed to return to Miami that afternoon before heading home the next day and proceeded to inventory the boat. I found the depth finder, a sweatshirt, personal floatation devices, fishing net, and some trash but didn’t find the boat key or registration. Peter always kept those things on the boat and when I inquired to the acting general manager, he told me he last saw them on the boat.
I assumed Michelle took them thinking she was the new owner and envisioned her and her family hauling out the boat and selling it. I couldn’t let this happen, I was financially responsible for it, so I did what any responsible person would do. Trespass.
I proceeded to Peter’s apartment and walked up the steps to the front door. The patio was shared with the law enforcement ranger who responded to Peter medical emergency. I knocked on the apartment door but no one answered. Looking through the window I saw Truman, our beagle, sitting on the couch, ears perked, and wagging his tail. Slowly I turned the knob and let myself in through the unlocked door.
Part of me felt like a criminal while another part felt adrenaline rushing and a little voice, sounding much like Peter’s, encouraging me to find what I was looking for. As I leaned in to pet his head, Truman whined but didn’t bark, a definite sign he recognized me.
“OK, where is it?” I thought then put myself in Peter’s mind. I returned back to the entrance and spied a little basket sitting on the counter.
There was a sense of urgency, I had no idea when Michelle would be back and the last thing I needed was her to see me in his apartment. Peter’s sunglasses, pack of Swisher Sweets Little Cigars, and a ball cap sat there, just as he always placed his things. It looked as though he’d be home any minute. Looking closer I saw the boat key and registration.
“Take it!” The little voice whispered in my ear, so I did.
Looking out the door window, I wanted to make sure no one saw me leaving and when all was clear, I slowly opened the door hoping the neighbors didn’t hear. Playing innocent, I paid them a visit to thank them for trying to help Peter.
I headed out of the park to meet a friend for dinner in Homestead and received an urgent call from the acting general manager.
Facing the Consequences
“Michelle just called Park Service…she said someone broke into the apartment and stole the boat registration and key,” he said to me.
Confessing my sins I then left a message for Michelle who had Peter’s cell phone.
“Hi Michelle. Sorry you weren’t able to make it today. Just want to let you know I went into Peter’s apartment and took the boat registration and key,” I confessed to the voice mail box, “It was nothing personal and I didn’t look around the apartment I’m just protecting financial interest by taking them.”
There was still a matter of picking up the pets and figuring out what I was going to do with the boat but decided to deal with that the next day. Everything was fine until a ranger called me.
“We understand you went into Michelle’s apartment and took the boat registration and key and we understand you are returning to the park tomorrow,” the female officer said.
“Not if you’re going to arrest me,” I replied. Seeing where this call was heading, my stomach turned and I felt ill, “Plus, that wasn’t Michelle’s apartment, it was Peter’s!”
“We realize this is an emotional issue…although what you did is technically wrong…Michelle is immature but…Park Headquarters will have to handle this issue next week,” the law enforcement ranger told me then added, “We can arrange a liaison tomorrow for you to pick up your cat.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, I’m not a criminal and here I was on the verge of being arrested for a federal crime (because the incident took place in a national park.) But, I was going to play the favoritism card if I was going to be arrested. I was told Michelle did not have a driver’s license yet Peter let her drive his SUV. She had an accident in the park and Peter had convinced a ranger not to ticket her. What would park headquarters think of that?
The next day I waited at the agreed upon meeting site to pick up my cat. Michelle, although having six months to live, decided to keep the other pets since when alive, Peter had always made it clear Mickey, my cat, would be returned to me. He never mentioned the dog and other cat were both of ours and while I feel bad not fighting for the other pets, I had to choose my battles.
Michelle and her family showed up a few minutes late and she slowly exited the car holding my scared, black cat which had latched her claws into Michelle’s t-shirt. She wore a ball cap to hide her thinning hair, her cheeks were drawn, eyes saggy and was skinny as a twig. Her t-shirt and sweat pants were 10 times too big for her.
It took all I had to control my emotions and this was my one and only chance to say something to her. Although I was angry with Peter for dying and angry over the mess of the boat and angry at Michelle for getting the National Park Service involved, my only words to her were, “I wish you happiness for every day of your life.”
She was crying a bit, gave Mickey a kiss on the head, and asked that I take care of her as she handed the frightened cat over. I left the park, not turning back. Mickey meowed and curled up purring in my lap as I drove back to Tallahassee.
Yes, There’s More…
Three hours after leaving the park, Flamingo’s head law enforcement ranger called. Apparently, he didn’t believe I was now the owner of the boat and instructed me to fax a copy of the registration by the next day’s afternoon, which I did. He also asked when I would be removing the boat and told him I would have it gone by Easter, a month later.
As I returned to my office in Tallahassee, anxiety took control as I waited all morning to hear from my fate from the National Park Service. A call came in with a “202” area code and I felt ill. “They got National Park headquarters in Washington, D.C., involved?”” I thought.
Turned out to be an unrelated call but soon after the ranger from Everglades National Park called stating no charges would be pressed.
Exhaling a sigh of relief, I needed to figure out how to sell the boat. Peter’s 401(k) would pay it off but I had no need for a boat, especially one 10 hours away. Thankfully to some old fashion networking around Flamingo, an offer was made right before Easter and that weekend I made my next and final trip back to the Everglades.
Michelle had no right to Peter’s apartment, since she was not an employee or the significant other of anyone in the park, she was to vacate it by the end of February. This eased my anxiety of a possible confrontation with her in March.
When I returned to Flamingo, I inventoried the boat and everything but the depth finder was on it. Knowing full well what happened to it, I called the law enforcement ranger to report a theft.
“Michelle said it belonged to her,” the ranger said.
“No, Peter bought that from so-and-so,” I replied, “Plus, if it was hers, she would have taken the sensor off the bottom of the boat and it’s still there.”
Brief silence was followed with, “Would you like to press charges?”
Yes, the little voice in me wanted to press charges but I knew her time on this earth was brief.
“No, I’m not going to get in a pissing match with her but want you to know, she took it and it didn’t belong to her.”
Two Happiest Days in a Boater’s Life
When a friend trailered the boat to launch it for the prospective buyer, I was surprised to see Michelle and her family. Since she did not have an immediate place to go, management sympathized with her and allowed her to extend her stay. I wasn’t sure how she was getting by financially.
Based on Michelle’s reaction, she wasn’t happy seeing me. She raced over to the general manager’s office and as told to me, was upset I was selling the boat, saying I had no right to do so. The general manager informed her I was indeed the rightful owner and had every right to sell it.
Selling the boat was bittersweet and I finally understood the phrase, “Two happiest days of a boater’s life are the day he buys it and the day he sells it.” From day one it was a money pit yet when in the water it was a vehicle of escapism.
On those few cherished full days off, we zipped it into Whitewater Bay on our way to Florida Bay and eventually to Cape Sable to collect seashells. Boat was the only way to reach the isolated and pristine beach. If there was daylight after working a full day, we’d coast up the Buttonwood Canal from Flamingo Marina for a little bit of fishing.
Saying goodbye to the boat closed the book on this month-long wild ride. I cried many tears over the loss of Peter, the disregard I had for love, my selfishness, the frustration of selling a boat, and saying farewell to a place I once called home. Flamingo’s facilities were in disrepair and the park-management company was not renewing its contract with the National Park Service. The lodge, including our apartment, was later demolished.
Just when I was accepting Peter’s death, a month later my credit monitoring company alerted me to strange activity on a credit card I was an authorized user. Apparently in the month following Peter’s death, someone had maxed it out. Since I was an authorized user, I was not responsible for the charges and his family opted not to investigate who had used it but I have my suspicions.
Live Every Day with Happiness
Michelle lived out her final days out west and passed away later that summer. I wonder if she lived everyday with happiness. A scoop of Peter’s ashes were mixed with Michelle’s and I don’t know where they were scattered.
I sometimes suspected part of the reason Peter, who spent 11 years as general manager and started with the company in 1989, never left Flamingo because of his insecurities. In a way he had become the patriarch of a family-type society. Most life decisions were already made. He had a place to sleep, meals provided, and people who did what he said. He didn’t have to worry about rent, a mortgage, utility bills, or even grocery shopping. He had power and respect. If he returned to civilization, I suspect he feared he would have lost most of that.
It was a strange irony the park-management company he worked for most of his adult life was vacating the Everglades. Peter’s passing meant he didn’t have to deal with figuring out what he was going to do after Flamingo.
I wonder what would have happened if Peter chose love rather than dying from a perforated intestine at the age of 43. I wonder what would have happened if I stayed in the Everglades. The reality of life being short whacked me in the face that day and because of it, I aim to live every day finding happiness.