His faded blue eyes widened with pride and wonder as Billy Pease looked at the daughter he had not seen in three years. "I look at her, and I know I did a good job of bringing her up," Pease said Friday. "She doesn't have a foul mouth, she doesn't smoke, doesn't drink booze. She's still got a temper when she knows she's right. But she's got a level head."
Friday's reunion of father and daughter did not occur under the best of circumstances. Lori Pease, 21, brought her 2-year-old son to Tampa from Texas because her father is dying of cancer.
Pease said he thinks this is the last time he will see the daughter he raised by himself and the last time he will see the grandson he met this week for the first time.
But that's the only thought that can shake his euphoria this weekend. As he spends time with his family visiting Busch Gardens and other local tourist attractions, Pease said he is reassured by the thought that his 52 years of life were filled with no regrets.
"Ever since she was born, she has been my world," he said. "If it weren't for her, I would be a failure. But having her has made me a success. I am happy, and I am content. My only regret is that I couldn't be here to help raise my grandson."
Pease's last wish of seeing his family became a local crusade several weeks ago. Pease has been a commercial fisherman, has owned his own bait business and has run a mobile home service. He has virtually no money. His daughter works as a receptionist in Lubbock, Texas, and she said it would have taken her months to save enough money to fly to Tampa.
But after some attention in the local media, more than $1,500 has been donated by individuals and companies.
"Some of them were individuals whose lives had been touched by cancer. Some were people on fixed incomes who were only sorry they couldn't give more," said Betty Smith, activities director at Wellington Manor Nursing Home, 10049 N Florida Ave., where Pease now lives.
Pease said his close relationship with his daughter began as soon as she was born, when his wife did not know how to change diapers, sterilize bottles or treat a young baby. Shortly after, Lori's mother left.
"I had the job of raising her all to myself," he said. "But it was a labor of love. We were very close."
Lori left her father in Florida three years ago to see the mother she barely knew. Pease said that it was painful when she left but that he understood her need to see her mother.
Lori said she is grateful for the chance to return to Tampa and see her father for perhaps the last time. But it is difficult to watch how cancer has made her middle-age father look like an old man.
"He tried to warn me, but I still can't get over how small and fragile he looks," she said.
Although the cancer in his digestive tract makes it hard for him to eat and tumors on his back and sides make it impossible to sleep for more than an hour at a time, Pease is filled with energy this weekend.
"I was so excited to see them when they arrived at the airport that I started running down the ramp and almost took a header," he said.
"Seeing Lori again was the best feeling. Raising her is one of the few things in my life that I've done really well."