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Daughter delivers her tribute to dad

NEW PORT RICHEY

She painted her toenails black for the funeral. Her mom said she could wear make-up, just a little, so her big sister helped her line her blue eyes. ¶ Jillian Landes, 11, is finishing sixth grade at Hudson Middle School. On this day she "wanted to look good, you know, grown up." For her dad. ¶ In the pocket of her shorts she had a note for him. She took it out now, to show her sister. She had torn a page from a spiral notebook, folded it into a small square. Large, loopy letters in blue ballpoint crawled across the page. ¶ "I wrote it the night after he died," she said. "I didn't get a chance to say goodbye. They wouldn't let kids into that part of the prison." ¶ Her sister, Jenna Knight, 22, curled onto the couch next to Jillian. Jenna has the same mom as Jillian but a different dad. She smoothed her sister's letter in her lap. ¶ "I want to read it at the church tonight," Jillian said softly. ¶ "I want him to hear it. But I'm sorta, kinda ... not really worried," she sniffled. "I just don't want to start crying and mess up all the words. Or my make-up."

• • •

Jillian has only one photo of herself with her dad. She's 2 days old, wrapped in a striped hospital blanket. He's sitting in a blue chair, cradling her in his thick, tattooed arms.

She's lucky, she says, to have it. Her younger brother Jordon, 10, doesn't have any pictures with their dad. Mark Landes was in jail when his son was born.

When Landes went to prison, Jillian was 14 months old.

She remembers the long Saturday drives to Sumter, the tall fences topped with razor wire, those metal detectors the guards make you walk through. One time, when she was in kinder­garten, her belt buckle set off the alarm. "That was so scary."

She got to know her dad sitting beside him on cold concrete benches beside a patch of yellowed grass, or in the hot cafeteria where flies kept landing on the sticky table between them. He told her he used to be an ironworker. He taught her to root for the Red Sox, to play checkers and blackjack and dominos "the right way." She poured her mom's quarters into the prison vending machine and bought orange Nehis and Snickers bars and Doritos for them to share.

He asked her about school, about her teachers and grades. She asked, "Do they let you watch TV in here?"

In all those years she visited him, Jillian said her dad never yelled at her, made her do her homework or clean her room. He told her she was beautiful. He hugged her and said he loved her.

When visiting hours were over, Jillian would cry, "I don't want to leave Daddy!" Her mom would have to drag her out through the prison gate.

• • •

She missed him most on holidays. When Jillian was in first grade, she pasted her school picture onto a Christmas ornament for her dad. But the guards wouldn't let her give it to him.

When people asked about her dad, she usually lied and said, "He lives out of state." Only a couple of her friends knew the truth.

Sometimes, when she was really happy or really sad, Jillian said, she talked to her dad, even though he wasn't there. She'd sit on the edge of her bed, in her pink room pasted with princess crowns, and pretend her dad was beside her. Then she'd spill all her secrets. "I knew he'd never tell."

She swears she has never been mad at him. Everyone makes mistakes. She never asked him what he did to get arrested, why he was behind bars. Her mom, Susan Landes, stayed married to him all those years and never talked about what he had done.

Maybe someday Jillian will look up the records, and learn about the stolen front-end loader and the damaged ATM machine, about the stun gun and the Kmart and the Shell station. She will learn that her father went to prison because of things he did between June and September 1998, the year she turned 1.

"He was supposed to go on parole this summer. He was coming home next year," Jillian said. "He was going to get a job doing construction. And we were going to be a family. Finally."

She was already planning their date to Red Lobster. He would have shrimp scampi; she'd order popcorn shrimp. She couldn't wait to go to Busch Gardens with him, to have him there every morning when she woke up, to have him say "good night," instead of "goodbye."

• • •

A couple of weeks ago, Jillian's mom called the prison. He was scheduled to go on work release in June and she wanted to bring him some clothes. But a guard told her: "He's been moved to the prison infirmary. He has pneumonia."

She called again a few days later, and Jillian heard her scream. Cancer? When did he get lung cancer?

The state had moved him to a hospital in Orlando. Jillian's mom brought the children to see him.

"He was really pale and skinny and his face was all sunk in. Tons of tubes were coming out of him — but that wasn't the worst part," Jillian said. "His feet were chained together, even though he was too weak to walk. Isn't that mean?"

Her mom left the room to talk to the guard, and Jillian sat beside her dad. He told her never to smoke. Look what it had done to him. He told her to wait a few years before getting a boyfriend, and to keep doing well in school. "He said he would get me into Harvard. He said he loved me very much. He told me I can do anything."

She told him not to worry about her. "Take care of yourself," the little girl told her dad. "I need you."

She thought she'd get to see him again. But the next day, he was moved back to the prison infirmary, where kids aren't allowed.

He died Wednesday, May 20 — two weeks before his parole hearing.

• • •

A half-hour before the funeral, Jillian pulled on a new pink and black skirt, brushed her hair for the hundredth time and slipped on her jeweled flip-flops, which showed off her black toenails.

"You want me to put your letter in my purse?" asked her big sister.

"Yeah," Jillian said. "I hope I can do this."

The minister had set up the service in a classroom at First United Methodist Church in Hudson. Someone had sent white lilies and a spray of pink daisies, which brightened the old upright piano.

Jillian slid into the second row of vinyl chairs, behind her mom and brother. Her big sister sat beside her. She reached into her sister's purse and pulled out the letter.

Then the minister pushed a button on the boom box and the small room got quiet and a country singer crooned, "You are my strength ..." Jillian's shoulders started to shake. She felt her eyes welling. She didn't know mascara stung your eyes! She tapped her mom on the shoulder and passed her the folded note.

Her mom spun around. "You can't do it?" she whispered.

Sniffling, Jillian shook her head.

"We gather this evening to celebrate the life of Mark Landes," the minister began. Jillian's head dropped into her lap. She laced her hands behind her head, folded her elbows across her ears. Her long, honey hair fell across her face like a veil.

She stayed that way, curled into herself like a potato bug, until she heard the minister say, "I understand that some of the children have some things to read to their dad."

Jordon had decided he didn't want to say anything. It was up to Jillian. But when her mom looked back at her, Jillian glared and shook her head. She hoped her dad couldn't see her.

• • •

After the funeral, she tucked the letter into her dresser drawer. She promised her dad she would read it to him. She hasn't been able to. Yet.

But she said she doesn't mind if you know what it says.

"He was my dad and still is," Jillian began. "My best friend. Well, behind bars.

"Now that he's gone I feel so ... nothing. But we all know he's in a better place where he's free and no longer in pain.

"He was always in my heart and I was in his. Yeah, he made mistakes. But we all learn from our mistakes. And he was by far the most amazing daddy ever. Even if he wasn't always there ...

"Dad, I hope you're listening to this because it's not to anyone else but you. Remember you'll never be forgotten. I love you, Daddy."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

Daughter delivers her tribute to dad 05/29/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 30, 2009 3:06pm]
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