ORIENT, NY – “No one’s laughing at God,” once sang Regina Spektor in her 2009 exploration-of-faith “Laughing With,” the verses of which describe war, poverty and the loss of a loved one — all moments when mockery of a divine power would seem absurd. Though when the chorus hit, Spektor changed gear, saying, “but God can be funny.”
There are moments and stories of wonder that penetrate notions of practicality and defy the rationale of a scientific, post-modern age. Contemporary miracles, as some would call these occurrences, do not simply make firm believers of those who witness them. Instead, for the viewer, they bring to the forefront the realization of choice in the matter, the simple decision to — despite its veracity being unknowable — believe in the thing, and the power behind it. Shiela Priore recently experienced one such event.
In 2012, Priore’s daughter, Erica Knowles, was killed in a drunk driving crash on Torrey Road in South Kingstown. A junior at the University of Rhode Island (URI) at the time of her death, Knowles was majoring in journalism and women’s studies. The driver of the car Knowles was in was sentenced to jail time and a local memorial was built in Knowles’ name, bearing the word “Alou,” and stood at Black Point in Narragansett.
Though the first structure was vandalized and torn down, a second was erected by Knowles’ family. In October of last year, this cross, too, went missing.
In December, a New York State Parks aid, Jorge Eusebio, noticed something strange washing upon the shore of Orient Beach State Park on the eastern coast of Long Island. Curious, Eusebio salvaged the item from the water — a cross with a name and “Alou” inscribed below it. After some social media digging, the parks employee was able to make contact with Priore and sent her an image of the intact memorial that had traveled west about 45 miles through the Block Island Sound to Long Island. Priore took the phone call from Eusebio in an airport near where she lived in Georgia, on her way with her family to New York for the holidays.
“[Erica] just wanted to show up in New York,” said Priore. “Sometimes it sounds silly, but I couldn’t really speak.”
“When you lose somebody, you’re always looking,” she continued. “You’re always looking for signs or you’re hoping for some way of being connected to them.”
Eusebio initially offered to drive the recovered memorial to Priore once she landed and got settled in Katonah, but Priore refused, noting that Eusebio should be with family during the holidays. The two agreed to mail the cross. Sometime later, a large package arrived where Priore was staying. It took her a few days to open the box.
“I knew what it was,” she said, fighting tears. “It just felt like she was home. Not her, but you know, maybe in spirit, I don’t know.”
Priore, prior to moving to Georgia, worked as an emergency room nurse at Westerly Hospital and South County Hospital. In this role, she said she saw many things that were “not explainable.” The miraculous return of her daughter’s memorial struck a similar chord, this time with resounding faith and the substance of choosing what to believe when it comes to sorting out the unbelievable.
“I found that there was this spiritual-ness, if you want to call it that,” she said. “It’s not verified. But you know it’s there and it makes your heart and your soul feel better. It’s a way of saying, ‘yes, Erica’s still here.’ The grief will never go away. This journey is for life. It’s just that I’m taking that road. I’m just going to take that road because it keeps me closer to her.”
Knowles, who returned to Rhode Island from Georgia to attend URI, was an artist, photographer, musician and a published writer and poet. At the time of her death, she was a mentor to a young girl through a local program and wrote poetry and essays frequently along the Narragansett shoreline. Priore recounts that her daughter often struggled with life’s larger questions, though this quest for understanding lead to deep introspection and emotion that produced a positivity rather than cynicism.
“Erica was unique,” said Priore. “Everyone thinks that, right? Their kids are the best. But she was the most loving, caring individual. The most colorful personality. You definitely knew when she was in a room, she was loud as could be. Very caring, she soul searched for herself.”
“I think she just had this way,” Priore continued. “She was an artist; she was a photographer. And she just had this way. There was a power in her pen and her words.”
The memorial now sits in Priore’s home in Georgia, in her daughter’s old room, where Priore often goes to think and write. She plans to eventually bring the cross to Martha’s Vineyard, where Knowles’ ashes were spread, to be placed permanently. A new memorial at Black Point has also been constructed and stands overlooking the Atlantic.
The memorial’s message, “Alou,” has now perhaps more meaning than ever for Knowles’ family.
“That is what the kids always said,” said Priore. “As kids, they couldn’t say ‘I love you.’ So that’s how it came out.”
As for Eusebio’s efforts, Priore believes his persistence to reunite the missing memorial with her was indicative of a universal desire to do good, especially during a stressful point in history.
“This past year has been very difficult for everybody,” she said. “There’s been anger and everyone’s been kept separate. It was just a showing of human kindness. This man and his compassion knew that she belonged to somebody. That was powerful for me.”
In an essay penned during her first year at college titled “Life is Here and it Is Now,” Knowles detailed her literal enlightenment, telling the story of hiking to the top of a mountain after learning about the death of one of her high school classmates. At the mountain’s peak, Knowles was greeted with astonishing sunlight, prompting an understanding of existence that rings true as a memorial for her miraculously floated from Rhode Island to New York just in time to greet her mother.
“Death is a terrible and beautiful thing,” Knowles wrote. “It is so shape-shifting, from awful loss to divine deliverance in the blink of an eye and a change of perspective.”
“I wasn’t stupid; I knew people died on mountains skiing or hiking or any number of things all the time, maybe even right now,” she continued. “I knew for certain that somewhere someone was dying at this very moment. But I wouldn’t cry for them; I had something better to give than tears and grief. I had a life to fill with whatever I pleased. And to cry for death was losing a battle, was wasting what precious time I had to live. I wanted to conquer death with life.”