It was still dark when Robin Goddard pulled into the Lowe's parking lot. Still raining. ¶ She cut the engine in front of the garden center. Squinted through her windshield at the sooty sky. ¶ It hadn't rained in weeks. Why did the downpour have to come today, of all days? ¶ But by the time Goddard got her videocamera ready, by the time her mom, daughter, granddaughter and the rest of the entourage showed up, the first rays of dawn streamed through the dark clouds. ¶ The rain stopped. ¶ "What did I tell you?" asked Goddard's boyfriend, beaming. He lugged his demolition saw past her, set it on the curb. A worker from Lowe's walked out and shook his hand. ¶ "You ready to do this?" asked Carl Sass, who oversees the store's maintenance. "You sure this will work?" ¶ Goddard's boyfriend nodded. She turned on her camera. ¶ Everyone crowded around the curb. ¶ In the curved corner of the far end, in faded paint, was the perfect print of a tiny hand.
• • •
About 10 years ago, Robin Goddard and her husband and younger daughter, Ashley, moved into a new house in Largo.
When a Lowe's opened down the street, they went to the grand opening and bought a gallon of Valspar latex paint to redo their living room.
The lid hadn't been hammered on all the way. In the parking lot outside the garden center, the can tipped. Khaki-colored paint poured onto the fresh asphalt.
Ashley looked at her mom. She was almost 8 — a straight-A student, a Girl Scout, a member of her church youth group. She almost never got in trouble. She would never have played in that paint without permission. But her mom nodded. It's okay, go ahead.
So Ashley pressed her right palm into the sticky paint, then reached out and thwacked it against the curb.
"She was so proud of herself," said Goddard, 51, who teaches kindergarten at Mount Vernon Elementary in St. Petersburg. "She felt sort of sneaky, like she'd been allowed to break some rule."
From that day on, every time they went to Lowe's, or to the nearby Publix or Sam's Club — and sometimes even when they weren't shopping — they would pull up to that curb so Ashley could see the mark she left.
• • •
One day when Ashley was 12 she started feeling sick. And never got better.
Brain cancer. Doctors suggested she see specialists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. She lived at the Ronald McDonald House with her mom for months while undergoing treatment, then returned home, only to be rushed again to Maryland.
Her parents had split up and money was tight, so an organization called Make a Difference paid for the emergency flight. A stranger had heard about Ashley and donated $1,000 to help a girl he didn't even know.
Ashley died at home in June 2008, two months before her 16th birthday.
• • •
For a year after she buried her daughter, Goddard was numb. She couldn't clean out Ashley's room, couldn't bear to give away her clothes. Kept replaying her voice messages: "Good night, Mom. I love you!"
Some days, after work, she would go by the graveyard and talk to her daughter. Some nights, she would bury her face in Ashley's stuffed turtle, where she could still smell her little girl.
And at least once a week she would steer into the parking lot at Lowe's, stop by the garden center, and crouch down to press her palm against that tiny handprint.
She never told anyone. Not her mom, her friends. Even her older daughter didn't know.
"It was my secret touchstone," she said.
• • •
In August 2009, Make a Difference hosted a fundraising auction to help other sick children. The group had made it possible for Ashley to get her final treatments, so Goddard felt she should go.
Near the end of the evening, someone introduced her to a man named Glenn Christiansen. Tall and lean, with a salt-and-pepper goatee and ice blue eyes, he told her he was part owner of HCS Plumbing.
She needed a plumber.
The next week, Christiansen, 56, fixed the leak in her water heater.
Then he invited her out for steaks and a boat ride.
During dinner, they began to talk about the fundraiser. She told him she had been there because of Ashley, and because of the stranger who had helped her.
"Ashley?" he asked. "The one who needed to get to Baltimore?"
He had donated the $1,000.
• • •
They have been together for more than a year. Goddard showed him Ashley's room, took him to visit her grave.
Six months ago, on a Saturday, they were out running errands when Goddard suddenly told her boyfriend to turn into Lowe's. Drive through the parking lot, she said, all the way down by the garden center. There, park by that curb.
"I have something special to show you," she said, crouching on the asphalt, pointing. "That's Ashley's hand."
Christiansen stared at the concrete. Took in the tiny fingers. He couldn't believe the paint had lasted through 10 years of sun and rain.
Goddard got a little worried when she thought about that. What if, one day, that little hand washed away?
Last Saturday, while they were walking through the aisles at Lowe's, Christiansen peeled off, saying he needed some plumbing tool. Instead, he went to customer service.
The manager, Larry Hulsey, had never noticed the handprint. The parking lot had been repaved years ago, he said, erasing the paint spill. Workers were always hosing down that concrete.
"It's amazing that's still here," Hulsey told Christiansen. "I guess it's a testament to the quality of the paint."
Christiansen smiled. "Or to Ashley."
• • •
As Christiansen revved his round saw Thursday morning, Goddard and her family stepped back. They watched as he shoved the blade into the curb, dust whirling, sparks flying, digging in deeper and deeper. All, of course, with the manager's blessing.
"I just can't believe it," Goddard kept saying from behind the videocamera. "I had no hope I could ever bring that piece of her home." She planned to put the block in her living room, where the handprint would match the walls.
An hour after Christiansen started, he finally shut off the deafening saw and dropped to his knees. He hammered a long nail into the curb and leaned on it. Then he pulled out the handprint and hoisted it in his arms.
Goddard's family cheered. She zoomed in on the handprint, then shut off her the camera so she could hug him as he cradled the heavy block.
Finally, she pulled back. Then she paused, closed her eyes and laid her right hand over her daughter's print.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.