ZEPHYRHILLS — When the preacher leading the memorial service asked the audience whether anyone wanted to say a few words about the deceased, the crowd chanted, "Rabbit! Rabbit!" and a man named Rabbit got up, gave a polite smile to the preacher and told his story of Debbie Laws and the time she and another friend stole his vodka.
Rabbit thought he had misplaced it. But then, just as he was on his last nerve, his vodka showed up — in Debbie's hand as she walked past.
The crowd yelled and clapped and the preacher, a Baptist in shiny shoes and a tie who didn't know Debbie, said, "I feel a little bit out of the loop," which made everyone roar all the harder.
The mourners were trying to keep their spirits up because that's what Debbie would have wanted. She was 48 when she died at the place where they remembered her Saturday, Skydive City in Zephyrhills. On the day after Christmas, Debbie collided in the air with another skydiver, who was hurt but survived.
Everyone said it was the way she would have wanted to go out. She was close to 1,000 jumps but was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis a few months back and feeling scared. Her doctor said she would soon have to quit jumping. Debbie didn't want to be in a wheelchair. She didn't want to be a burden to her parents, children or grandchildren.
"If I had to choose my mother's death, it would be skydiving," said her daughter, Racheal Laws, 24. She's jumped four times, but stopped after the birth of her son, Tyler, two years ago.
As the preacher prayed, Debbie's parakeet — named Bird — sat on a woman's shoulder and kept saying, "Pretty bird, pretty bird," and making wolf whistles. A three-legged dog barked. A man nicknamed Boxcar sat on the ground with his bottle of lager and his pygmy goat — named Monkey — curled in his lap.
A good friend of Debbie's named Scarlett got up to speak. She wore one of Debbie's shirts — a snug blue T-shirt that said "I wish you were beer" — and sobbed.
Scarlett Schneppat, who has a bachelor's degree in psychology, came to Skydive City five years ago to do a tandem jump, her first one, when she met Debbie and fell in love with the community and lifestyle and ended up buying a trailer a few doors down.
"We may be poor," Scarlett said the two of them used to say to each other all of the time, "but we sure know how to live."
Debbie grew up as an Army brat, born at Fort Campbell, Ky., and living in bases around the world before settling in Indiana. Her dad retired as a command sergeant major with the Army. He flew and jumped out of many planes. He got Debbie in her first plane when she was 6.
When she was 18, she decided she had to live in Florida. Her mom worked at a gasket factory and took two weeks off work to help her find a place to live. After two days of driving, Debbie still didn't know what she was looking for. They found a room for her in Leesburg and a job at Wendy's, and her mom went back to work, hating to leave her there.
Debbie wanted what she wanted, and she never had a desire for a typical life. She worked small jobs — waitressing, bartending, selling roses to diners, making jewelry — so she could skydive.
She eventually found Skydive City, which is like a carefree alternate universe. Bonfires at night, bongo drums, jugs of wine. Her trailer is next to a mobile home painted bright purple with peace signs. Next to that is a school bus converted into a home, painted like a zebra, with a skull attached to the front grill. Beyond the homes are tents. And at any time during the day, you can look up and see dozens of people jumping out of planes, circling overhead like colorful buzzards.
Debbie told her parents that if she died, she wanted to be cremated and her ashes scattered during a jump. So many people wanted to be a part of it that they had two jumps Saturday.
Her son, Randy, did the first jump, her ashes in a Ziploc bag tucked into his pocket. This was his second jump ever. His first was a decade ago. He is the opposite of her in many ways — frugal, career-oriented with a job in architecture. She always told him to live for today. He reminded her to also save for tomorrow.
As his parachute opened, he held the bag and told his mom that he loved her. And then he let her go.
Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4609.