Crystal River

Photo provided by Sylvia Johnson

Photo provided by Sylvia Johnson


On the one-year anniversary of my only daughter Jillian’s death, I awoke to a tapping sensation on my shoulder and an urgency to take a pregnancy test. It was positive.  

My husband Tom and I named our second daughter Cadence, to remind ourselves to return to the rhythm of living. Cadence is an apt name, because she’s had to remind me her whole life.


In a different lifetime it seems, I drove to Crystal River on a muggy Saturday morning, my three-year-old daughter Jillian moaned in the backseat. Pulling over at the nearest drugstore, I left her with my two sisters and my cousin and ran inside for some Extra Strength Tylenol.

We were en route to my sister’s vacation home, about an hour north of our place in Tampa, without needles, tubes or prodding.

Just weeks earlier, Dr. Grana had said, “She’ll start experiencing headaches with increasing severity. Jillian has weeks maybe months to live.”  Cancer had spread to her brain like granules of sugar, impossible to remove. Half her life spent on chemotherapy, radiation, two stem cell transplants and surgeries. 

Jillian didn’t have much time left on earth, but hope is the last thing to go.

I darted out of the drugstore, feeling like an idiot for leaving the Tylenol at home, my brain like sugar, too. But then I saw Jillian pop out of my Honda’s sunroof, holding her green froggie umbrella.  Wide eyes and broad grins, the frog and my girl. 

Her intense headache was gone.  She didn’t wallow.

Once in Crystal River—the town and the river sharing the same name—three more cousins joined us at Cracker’s for lunch.  Huge puddles surrounded the patio tiki bar.  Jillian, in her purplish-pink vinyl raincoat, the one with the flower and butterfly pockets, and her pink kitty rain boots, jumped up and down in the largest puddle with her Auntie and called to each relative to join in.  So we did.

Cracker’s is on Kings Bay, the headsprings of Crystal River, a national wildlife refuge, where freshwater converges with the Gulf of Mexico. Pete’s Pier Marina sits in the middle of the bay; houseboats, pontoons, sailboats, and fishing boats are embraced by ancient oaks, pine and palm trees, a faint scent of blue crab in the air. A “No Wake” zone prevents boaters from harming the manatees who winter there.

I sat on the end of the dock, a moment with myself, while Jillian basked in adoration. Though it was early summer in Florida, I wore a thin lavender sweater—protection from the constant chill of Jillian’s diagnosis.

Mullet jumped in the distance, a flock of seagulls circled then flew off, the clouds reflected on infinite glassy ripples. 

The dock wobbled, announcing Jillian, who had stripped herself of her raincoat and cover-up, wearing only her blue and green striped Tinkerbell bathing suit, vibrant blonde wisps outlined her face.  With a crepe myrtle branch in her hand, she offered me the purple flowers, like a blessing, a torch.  I inhaled a fresh scent of lavender.

Jillian died a week later, in her bed, Tom and I on either side.

Grief engulfed me, sadness so deep; sometimes I thought I’d never come out alive.

When Cadence was born, hope, once again perched in my soul.


Unlike Jillian, who loved Crystal River, especially riding in Uncle Pat’s fishing boat at full throttle, directing him to go faster, Cadence didn’t enjoy our weekend excursions. She’d lie on the floor of the outboard or canoe, a beach towel over her face and torso, and complain of the heat until lunch, then beg to watch the Disney channel. “I’m allergic to nature,” she’d say. “I’m going to scream and cry if I see an alligator.” Otters, blue heron, even manatees, didn’t impress her much.  She irritated me.

I tried to recreate the fairy dust that was Jillian, forcing Cadence to appreciate nature, to play silly games.  “Let’s see who can spot the most wildlife.”  “I have a headache,” she said.  I didn’t believe her.  Exasperated, I said. “How can you not feel God’s presence? Your sister’s?” A pang of guilt shot through me. I wanted her to be more like her sister.

We swam in Three Sister’s Springs, my favorite spot in Crystal River, where the water is so clear, you can drink it, but its 72 degrees made her shiver and her teeth chatter.   She always headed back to the kayak after just a few minutes.

“It’s not that bad,” I lied.

A corn snake greeted us once, while swimming in the murkier waters.  She sped off shrieking, “Snake! Snake!” leaving the snake and me at a standoff.  No sudden movements. Slowly, slowly, I floated to safety.

That snake made my misdirection clear.  There would be no more dragging Cadence into the murky waters.

“Why can’t you be more fun, like Auntie?” she said to me once.  “She lets me have all the root beer I want.”

Sadly, I had been “trying” to be fun; and that was the problem.

My grief, my longing, was interfering with my connection with Cadence, with myself.

Taking the kayak out alone, early Sunday morning, became my ritual: Three Sisters Springs, the crystal blue water, a canopy of trees, turtles, red woodpeckers, and fish nibbling at my fingertips.  

I stared at a fiddler crab snapping its larger claw, as if preaching to the smaller crabs from its hilltop; soon to shed its shell. 

Just outside of the springs, I noticed a lone manatee as she floated to the surface, took a breath and dove down below, then disappeared.

Cadence preferred to spend Sunday mornings in bed, only her porcelain face and long brown hair, peaking from beneath the fluffy comforter, watching television.  She’s progressed from the Disney channel when she was younger to HDTV and the Food channel.

Eleven-years-old, Cadence is catching up with me height-wise, a year or two and she’ll be taller.   She reads books like The Hunger Games and the Divergent Trilogy, over and over, as if uncovering some hidden artifacts.  She plans on becoming an actor, and playing the heroine in a blockbuster dystopian movie.

Now we swim in the springs wearing wetsuits to keep the chill out.  She dives down to the deepest spring and touches a fallen branch while I watch from the surface.

We’re alone at the condo’s swimming pool wearing blue masks, racing from end to end, giggling and laughing.  

“Let’s swim like frogs,” Cadence says.  She is quicker than me. Pulling myself out of the shallow end, I spot a beetle upside-down in the water.  “I’ve never seen anything like this,” I say, using my mask as a lifeboat to rescue him.  Cadence and I stand side by side, staring at this green, black, red creature with gold sparkles. 

“It looks like an alien,” I say.

“I think it’s a magical creature,” she says, a brilliance in her eyes.  “Maybe it will give us magical powers for rescuing it.”  

I set it free and somehow I believe her. 


Sylvia Johnson is a clinical psychologist who lives with her husband and daughter in Tampa, Florida. She's searching for a good home for her memoir, "Why Jillian?"