Keeping Those We Lost – and Ones We Still Have – in Our Hearts

The Movie

Keeping Those WeLost 1Jim Lott, left, and the blog post writer (who claims no responsibility for his outfit).

“We lost dad.”

My mom told me this, strong and direct, over my TECO desk phone. It was the morning of June 21, 2005. I was in my cubicle writing stories for a customer newsletter at the time. I’d known this moment was coming for the seven or eight years my dad had battled heart disease. At that moment, though – a bright and pleasant morning, strangely not too hot for summer – I didn’t know how to feel.

My boss wasn’t in her office, so I emailed her to say I had to leave for the day. I was glad she wasn’t there because how do you talk about this reality the instant it happens? I went to my apartment to get my bearings and paced. Wow, wow, wow, I thought. I kept thinking it.

This is what it’s like when a parent dies.

My dad and I had been seeing movies on weekends for a while at that point, especially after he got sick, and it’s fitting that the last movie we saw was Star Wars Episode III since Episode IV (back when it was just Star Wars) was the first movie we saw together. My awe at the blast of music and words scrolling away onscreen! The biggest spaceship I could imagine screaming overhead and then a bigger one chasing it down! My dad must’ve been extra-amazed because it was all new to him too – plus now he had a kid to see movies with.

Twenty-eight years later, we could agree the new episode was kind of a letdown. That wasn’t the point, of course – being together was the feature presentation. We’d done a good job getting closer as he underwent repeated surgeries. On my lunch break I’d go visit him at St. Joseph’s or Tampa General Hospital, wherever he was recovering from heart bypass procedure. We talked about family history; he alluded to a few cryptic things. We said we loved each other.

The biggest surprise at my dad’s funeral was seeing a bunch of my TECO team members show up when I hadn’t told anyone about it. “The TECO Family” went from believable, oft-said phrase to heartfelt reality and a beautiful tribute to my dad, whose own father died in a plane crash when he was 12. Who had me when he worked as PR person for the city of Houston, hanging out with astronauts and aristocrats (it was the ’70s). Jim Lott was a poor kid who went on to have a child of relative privilege, me, able to go to FSU and find my way to TECO, to this blog post right here.

The Song

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Shawn Copeland

Shawn Copeland

Fifteen years later, during the pandemic, my friend and former desk-neighbor Sylvia Vega, Manager of Strategic Communications & Media Relations with Peoples Gas, texted me: Shawn Copeland, Vice President of Safety, had died overnight.

Shawn’s death was the last thing in the world I expected – that someone so focused on safety could be gone with no warning. He was vibrant, funny, amazing to work with, an executive who just poked around, stopped in, wandered by. Wanted to see what you thought. Like no one I’ve worked with before or since. Many afternoons you could find him in my office or Sylvia’s, brainstorming ideas for safety. As the pandemic started and I was in a new role, he called my cell when I was on a walk in my neighborhood, checking to make sure I was OK. Safety advanced at TECO because of Shawn, who was always attuned to finding new and better ways to reach his team members to make sure they ended each day without injury. Like my dad, his loss was devastating, but in a different way.

It might sound weird, but just go with me when I say my car radio, when I got in it the day I learned of Shawn’s death, was playing “I Knew You Were Waiting” by Aretha Franklin and George Michael. A song I’d liked well enough as a kid now sounded almost religious, as if the universe was trying to reassure me it had plans for Shawn after snatching him away so suddenly. I could believe it. I wanted to. I still feel sentimental when I hear it. It doesn’t have to mean anything else to anybody.

But Shawn, like my dad, meant so much to me – and so many others.

The Walk

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Someone I walk for: Jacqueline Lott (don’t tell her I used her photo!).

Someone I walk for: Jacqueline Lott (don’t tell her I used her photo!).

These days I walk a lot, typically wearing a Hawaiian shirt in Seminole Heights. I was thinking more about my health since my dad’s death, and this went into overdrive with Shawn’s passing. The Nov. 4 Heart Walk is another opportunity to walk for a cause that matters more than many can imagine.

Having gone through scenes of heartbreak, one looks for signs of hope. I walk because I have a daughter who never got to meet her grandfather; they would’ve made great friends. I walk for Shawn. I walk for my wife Laura. I walk for the future, when Jacqueline Lott and I can go see the latest Star Wars movie; even if it’s lousy, there’s bound to be some magic to behold. And we’ll listen to radio’s pop songs on the way, a melodic tapestry of human connection in a world we’re just passing through. Walking won’t make it go faster, but it might help keep us together a little longer.