BROOKSVILLE — Patty Allison stepped onto the wooden bench, took a deep breath and looked down at the faces of her family and closest friends.
Four months earlier to the day, Patty and her husband, Ed, had been rolling on their mountain bikes in the Croom Tract of the Withlacoochee State Forest. Patty rounded a bend and saw Ed on the ground, his face blue.
Ten days later, he was gone.
On Saturday, friends and family members gathered at the Tucker Hill trailhead on Croom Road to unveil a memorial stone of limestone and granite.
"That is almost 2 tons of love there," Patty said as she fought back tears. "If I could have made it bigger, I would've."
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Patty and Ed met in their 30s at Brooksville Regional Hospital. He was a former auto mechanic starting a second career as a registered nurse. She was a charge nurse.
They married in 1996 and settled into a ranch home on 5 acres at the edge of the Withlacoochee forest along with Patty's two young children, Jennie and Danny. Ed later became night supervisor at Brooksville Regional, and Patty worked the same shift.
They rode horses, mountain biked, hiked and ran together in the forest. They called the place "our woods."
On the afternoon of June 28, Ed and Patty went for a mountain bike ride before working the night shift. Patty came around the corner and found Ed just past a rise in the trail that he often used to launch himself and his bike into the air.
The force of the crash severed the 56-year-old's spinal cord just below the base of the skull. Ten days later, as he lay in a bed at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point, Ed told Patty he didn't want to live paralyzed from the waist down and dependent on a ventilator.
"No fun," he said.
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Ed didn't want a funeral. He'd rather people celebrate his life at a party.
But Patty wanted to do something to memorialize him, so she contacted the Florida Forest Service. She asked: Could she place a monument near the trail?
It was an unusual request that officials decided to honor, given the circumstances, said forest service recreation administrator Lita Hart. Ed was a frequent visitor who promoted positive use of the Withlacoochee wilderness and spent his last active moments there.
"Ed's enthusiasm for mountain biking and appreciation and respect for the forest was immeasurable," Hart said.
Cemex's St. Catherine Mine in Bushnell donated the 1.8-ton, arrowhead-shaped rock. Central Florida Monuments in Inverness gave Patty a deep discount to engrave a piece of granite placed in the center of the stone. Friends contributed $1,700 for the monument and a party in Ed's honor.
Patty and daughter Jennie borrowed bits and piece of phrases found on the Internet for the wording:
I ride because I enjoy the freedom I feel, the exposure to the elements on my skin, the movement of the ground beneath me, the vulnerability to the danger that is intrinsic to mountain biking. Because it makes me feel alive!
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About 70 people gathered at the trailhead under threatening gray clouds ringed in sunlight. They snapped photos of the monument with their phones.
Patty and several others wore T-shirts for the occasion. On the front: "Keep Calm And Bike On." On the back, Ed's catchphrase: "It's All About The Fun."
Patty expressed gratitude for the support since Ed's death. She thanked those who helped with the stone. She called Ed the love of her life and her soulmate, a kind man and devoted father who put the needs of others before himself and almost always wore a wide smile.
"You don't judge the wealth of a man by his bank account but by the number of friends that he has, and obviously Ed was a very wealthy man," she said. "Ed lived life to the fullest, even in the last 9.14 miles of his life."
Patty stepped down from the bench and got some tearful hugs. Then the crowd headed back to her house to share memories of Ed over Miller Lites and pulled pork, just like he wanted.
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. Follow @tmarrerotimes on Twitter.