In 2010, A few months after the release of Dear Lilly
I was super excited to share what I had been painstakingly crafting for the last three years with the world. Yet as I gazed upon the endless boxes of books stacked around the house I hadn’t a clue on where to begin. Since bookstores wouldn’t return my calls and Literary Fairs shunned self-published writers, I now found myself a man with a story to tell but no one to listen. I decided to go to where people gathered and there I would share my creation with one person at a time, the epitome of grassroots. Florida is ripe with street festivals all year round and on this particular night in June I had set up my little sheet covered card table, folding chair, and some books at Friday Fest in the heart of downtown Melbourne.
To the aroma of bratwurst and funnel cake, I sat and stared hopefully into the crowd wondering what I would even say if someone approached me. After an hour or so of smiling at uninterested browsers I was greeted by a blonde haired woman and her young daughter. She introduced herself as Rhonda and her daughter as Allyson, Ally for short. She asked me what my book was about and I explained as best I could. It was then that Rhonda’s eyes filled with tears, she gripped the book with two hands and stared lovingly at the cover. “Wow, that sounds exactly like what we need! Thank you for writing this.” Ally offered a sheepish grin and shook my hand with an innocent giggle. She didn’t say much but I could see in her kind eyes that she was an old soul who had experienced way beyond her years. I inscribed the book to her, we shared a group hug, a cellphone pic and they walked away into the distance. I sold 15 books that first night to many friendly and supportive people, but none left an impact on me like that nice woman and her awesome daughter. Little did I know that chance meeting would change my life forever.
About a week later I received an email through my website from a young reader thanking me for my book and explaining how deeply it touched her heart. It was Ally from Melbourne and I was ecstatic to hear from her. Until then most of the feedback I had gotten was from friends, family, and people my age, but not much at all from the intended audience; teenage girls. She explained a bit about the troubles she had in school and life in general and said how my words gave her hope and understanding of the world around her. I was overjoyed! I couldn’t believe that my simple advice could actually impact a young life in such a positive way. I wrote back thanking and encouraging her to never give up and explained that her story could help young people as well someday. She promised to stay strong and to keep me posted.
We saw each other at two more festivals and both times Rhonda greeted me with a tear-filled embrace thanking me again for my book and for what it had done for her daughter. Each time Ally seemed more comfortable and open than before. She even wrote me a poem about how Dear Lilly had opened her eyes. It was reminiscent of my own teenage thoughts of yesteryear when friends and popularity were all that mattered. We became friends on Facebook and stayed in touch more often. She always commented on my teen related posts and would write to me for advice or to vent and I would do my best to help. Then came the video… Ally posted one of those videos where someone silently holds up cards explaining their problems with sad music playing in the background. She described her plight in great detail and all that was troubling her; the bullying, the pressures to be liked, to be pretty, and to be loved. It left me with a pit in my stomach and terrified for her wellbeing. I wrote to her immediately expressing my concern, but she said that she was fine and just needed to purge the emotion and share her feelings with the world. She said she felt better, was now beginning new medication, and had high hopes for the future. That was the last I would ever hear from my special friend.
About three months later I received an email from one of Ally’s friends saying that she had taken her own life. She had intentionally overdosed on her medication in an attempt to end her emotional turmoil. She was only 13 years old. The news decimated me. I couldn’t believe it happened, that she could do that, that someone so young could be in that much pain. Why? How? I was still watching cartoons and playing with Transformers at that age, for Pete’s sake! My thoughts turned to Rhonda and the unimaginable agony thrust upon her. I looked on Ally’s Facebook page to see if this nightmare could possibly be true. And it most certainly was. Ally was gone… forever.
The page was filled with crestfallen comments from people of all ages saying that they missed her, loved her, and couldn’t believe she was gone. But there was one in particular that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was from a schoolmate who had posted the exact text conversation he had with Ally the night she ended her life. One of her replies said that the bullying was too much and she couldn’t handle life anymore and wanted to end it. My heart sank as I stared at her beautiful profile picture with eyes that sparkled when she smiled. What is happening to our children? I reached for my dog and wept silently into his fur.
Now as I prepare to embark on my cross-country book/speaking tour I am filled with every emotion imaginable. Each morning I wake up and look around my empty house and wonder if I am making the right choice. I mean… leaving my home and all my possessions, lugging my wife, four kids and two dogs across America and having them live in a camper, destination unknown. Am I nuts? But then I remember Ally and all the other millions of troubled teens out there struggling to get by and make sense of this crazy world and I know I’m doing the right thing. That if I can just help one kid in each town that I stop and give them a reason to push on, then it will all be worth it. I could continue my normal life routine day in and day out, yearning to take a stand or I could get my lazy ass out there on the road and do something to help. I choose the latter!
It took me 41 years to discover my calling, to find something I believe in with every cell in my body. And now I’m going to personally hand-deliver the message to all the kids out there that will listen. I do this for Chloe, and Mazzie, Rebecca, Brittany, Lauren, Julie, Kayla, Krystal, all the teens I have yet to meet, and especially for my sweet friend from Melbourne, Florida. They believe in me, Gina and the kids believe in me, and all my wonderful friends and family do as well. I will not let them down out of fear over money and lack of luxury. We will get by. We will survive.
So Ally if you’re out there somewhere looking down from the heavens. I can promise you this… I will NEVER give up the fight against bullying. For as long as I live I will continue to carry on in your name. Rest in peace… and thank you for the poem. I will treasure it always <3