In a tiny Florida park, a ‘wind phone’ connects callers to lost loved ones


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May 06, 2023

In a tiny Florida park, a ‘wind phone’ connects callers to lost loved ones

SAFETY HARBOR — As she walks across the park, a breeze tangles the birthday

SAFETY HARBOR — As she walks across the park, a breeze tangles the birthday balloons.

Her husband ties them down by the gazebo while, from her tote, she sets up a shrine:

Her son's high school diploma, with the valedictorian seal.

The rosary he brought her from Hawaii.

The scrapbook someone made after his funeral.

While her husband gives her space on this gray Sunday at Folly Farm Nature Preserve, Laura McCullough pages through memories: Devon scuba diving. Devon skydiving. Devon at the beach, bathed in sunset.

He should have turned 35 today.

Laura lifts her sunglasses to wipe her eyes. Her left wrist bears a bracelet. Live Like Devon, in her son's favorite color, emerald.

After a few minutes, she checks her cellphone. It's almost 1:39, Feb. 12. The time Devon was born.

So she heads through the grove of live oaks to call her son on the wind phone.

• • •

Devon Grimme was Laura's first child, born in 1988, with topaz eyes and a cleft chin like his dad. Laura was 32, an emergency room nurse in Hawaii. She chose Devon because it means "poet" or "savant."

He was an easy child, confident and curious. He talked early, walked early, read early, made friends fast. He loved turtles, sunshine, swimming.

Devon was 3 when his mom had twins, a baby brother and sister.

Their family moved to Florida when he was 8: Fort Lauderdale, then Safety Harbor. While he was a senior at East Lake High School, his parents got divorced. He scrapped Boston College plans to enroll in Gainesville, to be close enough to help with his siblings.

After earning his degree, after a year of living on boats, leading scuba dives, cleaning oil spills, skipping through Spain, China, Dubai, Belize — Devon returned to the University of Florida for a master's degree in business.

He was 27 when he met a young woman online. She was going to be in a wedding in Kauai, the island he grew up on. He offered to show her around.

The wedding was on a Saturday in September 2015. Devon danced with the groom's mom. The next day, everyone went to the beach, where Devon told them to choose a rock, then toss it into the ocean, leaving their troubles behind.

That afternoon at the rental house, Devon and a dozen others dove into the pool for one last swim. A game was floated: Who can hold their breath longest? As a scuba instructor, Devon had an advantage.

"OK, we get it, you win!" someone shouted, when he didn't surface.

"Stop it!" called someone else. "It isn't funny anymore!"

There wasn't a splash, kicking or even bubbles, witnesses later told Laura. He just stopped moving.

• • •

Laura's first thought, when she got the call, was to kill herself. "So I could be with him, to hold his hand and help him," she says.

Her next thought was of Devon. "He would want me here, with his brother and sister."

She thought of seat belts and bike helmets, classes in lifeguarding and CPR — everything she’d done to keep him safe. But there was nothing she could have done to save him.

"After the autopsy, we learned that he had horrible heart disease," Laura says. "His arteries were clogged, and holding his breath underwater caused an embolism."

At the funeral, she wore emerald. For a while, she tried to go it alone.

Then she joined a support group, Helping Parents Heal. She made a web page, Live like Devon!

Nothing helped.

"It was like all the color went out of the world," she says.

Six weeks after her son's funeral, Laura married Kevin — a man Devon had only met once. At 59, she had fallen in love, the only bright spot in her dark days.

As years passed, she longed to tell Devon about his sister becoming an ultrasound tech. His brother getting married, without his best man. The niece and nephew Devon would never know.

"I had all these things in my head, and nowhere to put them," Laura says. "I was carrying the grief around and it was so heavy I ached."

• • •

Five years after Devon died, Laura was flying to California when she saw an article in the in-flight magazine. A man in Japan had built a phone booth on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, unwired, unconnected — so he could call his dead cousin.

The wind, he said, would carry his words.

He opened the booth in 2010, for himself and his family. The next year, a nearby tsunami killed 15,000 people. Survivors started making pilgrimages to the phone to talk to lost relatives, to plead with them to come home, or to say goodbye.

Filmmakers made a documentary. NPR recorded a podcast. More than 30,000 people have visited, and most leave in tears.

When Laura got back to Florida, she messaged the garden club president at the park near her Safety Harbor home. Folly Farm already had a community garden, butterfly garden, playground and gazebo. Could she put a wind phone there?

Gary Sawtelle loved the idea. He contacted his friend, artist Chris Dotson, who had a vision: a white lattice structure with a wooden bench and open front, so callers can feel the wind.

Over two months, the artist collected the materials, built the booth and got city workers to install it. He hung a chalkboard for messages. Someone donated a brown rotary phone with a long, curly cord.

Laura was the first one to use it, in 2021. "Having a physical place to go, to talk to him out loud, to get it out of my head was cathartic beyond anything I had imagined," she says. "Being able to be there, just me and him …"

She never hears Devon's voice. "But I always get an answer," she says. "He always finds a way."

He sends signs, Laura believes: Dolphins splashing at sunset. A turtle waddling across the grass. His favorite bluesman, Buddy Guy, playing at his favorite fast-food joint, Chick-fil-A. On her birthday one year, in a photo her husband took, a glowing green orb appeared on her cheek "like a kiss."

She goes to the wind phone on the day of Devon's death. And his birth.

She's never sure what she’ll say.

• • •

In Canada and Ireland, Oregon and Tennessee, wind phones connect callers to lost loved ones. A "Telephone of the Wind" flanks the Appalachian Trail. On the other edge of Florida, a mother erected one in Merritt Island for her 18-year-old son.

About a dozen people pick up the phone here at Folly Farm every week, says Sawtelle — who first called his mom, then his nephew. "I heard his voice very clearly, saying he forgave me," Sawtelle says. "I don't know what for, but I’m glad he did."

One man held his cellphone to the receiver so his sister in South America could talk to their mom. A young woman wished into the wind for a husband — and got married the next year. A grief group meets on Mother's Day, taking turns talking to their children.

Monica Breden called her daughter Erin, who had a brain tumor and died at 36. "It felt a little weird," she says. "At first, I just told her that I missed her. But being able to pick up that phone and say it out loud, it was the beginning of me being able to feel comfortable talking to her again, a way for me to learn to continue my conversation with her.

"Death ends a life. But it doesn't end the relationship."

• • •

As Laura walks across the park, a breeze ruffles the trees, setting wind chimes singing.

Her husband hangs behind while she approaches the phone.

She wonders what Devon would be doing now. Would he own a home? Have a wife? Be a dad?

It's hard for Laura to picture her son at 35. To her, he will always be 27, throwing his cares into the ocean. Holding his breath.

She steps over the brick threshold, then stops and gasps. Bending into the booth, she cries, "Look! It's green!"

She came to wish Devon a happy birthday. But he had gotten there first.

"How does that happen?" she asks, clasping her hand across her face.

On the blackboard, in large emerald letters, are two words: "Hi Mom."

Folly Farm Nature Preserve at 1562 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street N, Safety Harbor, is free and open every day from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m.