LUTZ — Kristin DeBoer was getting ready to have friends over for a bonfire, the last days of 2012 flickering before her.
And she kept thinking to herself: I can't believe we made it through 2012.
She pictured her youngest daughter, Connor DeBoer, whose hair was finally growing back, whose health was finally returning. She couldn't stop grinning.
We really did it. We really survived 2012.
Days later, she couldn't kick the notion from her head. She had to document the family's victory. DeBoer ducked into the family laundry room, grabbed a can of spray paint and ran outdoors to the fence.
Connor found her mom later that afternoon, her hands coated in royal blue.
If you've ever driven along the many bends on Lutz-Lake Fern Road, you've probably passed the DeBoer residence.
It's a modest two-story house with a spacious lawn and a wraparound fence. It's at the corner of Holly Lane.
And unlike other homes in the area, it's in constant celebration.
On the fence, facing the jungle of tall grass and droopy ferns and schefflera trees across the street, is Kristin DeBoer's message:
"In 2012 my daughter survived cancer. Thank you, God!"
Whenever she is asked about the fence, DeBoer, 50, smiles. The mother of four said the act of jubilation is a constant reminder that great endings can stem from awful beginnings.
"A reminder," she said, "that lifts people up, even if they lost someone to the disease."
• • •
The plan was to shop for dresses, mother and daughter.
It was summer 2011, and DeBoer and Connor were planning a road trip to a friend's wedding. But Connor's leg started hurting days before they planned to leave.
DeBoer drove her to the pediatrician. When the doctor touched Connor's stomach, the girl winced. He lifted Connor's shirt, revealing a lump the size of a large grapefruit, stretching from the pelvis to the belly button.
It was a tumor, months before her 14th birthday.
"The physician started crying," DeBoer recalled, "because he knew it was cancer. It was the biggest tumor he said he'd seen in 10 years."
They were taken to Tampa General Hospital, where an emergency MRI was waiting. Connor spent the next 14 months fighting the disease, a skeleton buried beneath bed sheets.
She lost her hair. She lost her boyfriend. She lost 30 pounds. She sucked in chemicals, enduring rounds and rounds and rounds of chemotherapy. Doctors couldn't operate, DeBoer said, because the cancer had grown near Connor's sciatic nerve. If they cut her open and made one incorrect nick, Connor could lose the use of her leg, DeBoer said.
So she suffered. But she never really believed she would die. Connor started to view the disease as a gift from God, a chance to redeem herself.
She beat the disease, DeBoer said, joking, "because she was too angry to die."
Connor agrees. "It was either rebellion or cancer."
• • •
A pastor drove past the fence, read the message, and cried.
Someone else took a picture of the message and posted it on Instagram, garnering hundreds of likes. A friend told Connor.
"I became insta-famous overnight," she said.
Others have knocked on the door and shared their own cancer stories. Others have passed by, wondering.
Now 16, Connor has a wide smile and strings of long blond hair. She loves goats and wants to become a midwife and a farmer. In the fall she's traveling to Ireland, a country she considers mystical.
Although the family would like to move soon, DeBoer said she hopes the sign isn't removed.
It carries memories, happy and sad, that will travel with her every day for the rest of days.
"We should petition to keep it up," she said recently.
"Or," Connor finished, "frame it."
Contact Zack Peterson at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @zpeterson918.