Dec. 6, 2015 - If you find this note you have found a piece of my heart. You have also found part of my life story. It’s a sad story, but also a story of hope and courage.
The small glass bottle was perched atop a sand dune 15-20 feet from the waves on a stretch of beach not far from the Jupiter Reef Club.
The bottle was dry, as were its contents, which included charms that had once hung from necklaces — the word hope, a glittery pink heart, a tiny silver plate stamped with a pair of baby feet. There were tags with the words ‘dream,’ ‘imagine,’ ‘faith’ and ‘love,’ and glitter in the shape of stars. Rolled up among those items was a letter.
Dated Dec. 6, 2015, the letter was addressed to no one.
But Denise Nieman, out for her daily sunrise stroll Wednesday, was glad the letter made its way to her.
She saw in its small, neat script horror and heartache — and hope.
She connected with the writer’s determination to persevere through a painful time and understood the need for unburdening, for letting go.
She’s needed to do plenty of that in her own life.
It didn’t matter that the authenticity of the letter couldn’t be confirmed. It contained only one name — Joshua David — and the letter made clear that that name was never bestowed.
There was mention of a place — Copper Hill, Tennessee. There is a Copperhill, Tenn., a town of 350 people at the southeastern tip of the state. Is that the place?
The letter could be a teenage girl’s imaginings. Or a drunk frat boy prank. There’s no way to know.
But Nieman and the others who were with her when the bottle was found believe the letter. It would be just as accurate to say they believe in it.
Rain or shine, Denise Nieman greets each day the same way: a pre-dawn rise from her bed, followed by a walk over to the beach near the Jupiter Reef Club.
A busy day likely awaits. The job of Palm Beach County attorney is a high-profile one. There’s a large staff to manage and legal advice to give to a County Commission that governs 1.4 million people.
But that’s all a couple hours away.
The soft sound of surf, the kaleidoscope sky, suffused at dawn with purple and orange and blue, awaits.
Nieman has been trooping to the beach each morning since 2013, nine years after she and her husband, Joe Nieman, moved to the area.
“I went to the beach and was journaling on Mother’s Day,” Nieman said. “I said, ‘You know what? This is in my backyard. Why don’t I come here every day?’”
Now, she does.
“It’s my meditation,” she said. “It’s my peace.”
Even at 54, it can be hard to process the winding path of life that has brought her to this point.
Nieman’s childhood was full of Everest highs and Death Valley lows. There were afternoons with her parents and brothers on the shore of Lake Michigan, the first beach Nieman grew to love. There were moves to Dallas and Lubbock, Texas, where her father owned a restaurant across from Texas Tech University.
There were also dark and awful marital secrets, ones Nieman, the oldest of her siblings, said she was obliged to keep.
Eventually, her parents divorced. But not before the marriage got Jerry Springer-bad, not before violence and criminal charges and foreclosure proceedings on the family home. Not before her father pulled from her the secret — another man’s name and telephone number — she said her mother had demanded she not divulge.
The weight of it all shattered Nieman’s relationship with her mother. It did not stop her path to career success. She went to law school. Got a job in the county attorney’s office in Palm Beach County. Rose to the top job there.
There were hammer blows along the way — the suicide of one of her younger brothers in 1990; her father’s Alzheimer’s Disease diagnosis and his decline and death in January of 2014.
Nieman said all of it has trained her to look hard for beauty and joy. She started a blog, Glitter the Globe, where she shares pictures and videos and messages she hopes will inspire others.
On her trips to the beach, she arranges litter and sea refuse into unlikely images of beauty.
“There is always glitter among the litter,” she likes to say.
At the age of 15 I conceived a baby, but not willingly! My parents kept me surrounded by evil. One of those evil actions created this pregnancy. I’m not saying I was evil nor was this baby evil. I never got to hold this precious little boy. I did hear him cry and I saw his sweet face. My parents took him away and I never saw him again. They left me with a very empty heart and empty arms.
Nieman’s bag, the one she uses to pick up trash she encounters on the beach, was nearly full when she saw a clear glass bottle with a silver cap.
Her time on the beach was nearly done. She was returning to her home when she ran into two other members of the sunrise set, retirees Sandy Hirsch and Jack Yuken.
Like Nieman, they also pick up trash found on the beach.
After exchanging pleasantries, Hirsch saw the bottle.
“She said, ‘I’m going to pick up that bottle,’” Nieman remembered. “I was like, ‘That’s the bottle I meant to pick up.’ We go over and we say, ‘There’s a note in it!’”
The only words visible through the glass were these: “But I’m tired of…I want to have…not sad and broke.”
Nieman’s mind flashed to her brother’s suicide.
“I’m thinking, ‘God, I hope someone didn’t kill themselves,’” Nieman said. “I didn’t say it.”
Nieman took pictures of the bottle, screwed off the cap and examined and photographed the contents. They all read the letter.
A neighbor, Kenny Morse, an amateur photographer and friend accustomed to seeing Nieman on the beach, came over. He had seen the bottle earlier but decided to leave it.
“When I saw the bottle, I thought, ‘This is the perfect Denise shot,’” Morse said. “When I saw the glitter, I thought, ‘This is all about Denise.’”
I said this was a sad story but it took courage and hope to live through this story. I survived my life story but I’m tired of just surviving. I want to have a heart that is not sad and broke. I want a heart that is healed and filled with joy and love. Your heart can only hold so much and I want to let go of the negative and make room for the positive. I deserve that!
Is any of it real? Is it a creative, elaborate hoax?
Nieman doesn’t think so. Nor does Hirsch or Yuken or Morse.
“I kind of have a belief in people,” Hirsch said. “I believe it was written by someone in pain. It didn’t seem like a hoax.”
Nieman said she was struck by the writer’s determination to get to joy. Over and over, she read the passages that underscored that determination, including the letter’s final lines.
If I had gotten to choose the name of that baby boy it would have been Joshua David. Joshua means strong warrior. David means of God’s heart. If by some miracle the person who finds this note knows a young man who was born on Jan. 21, 1972 in Copper Hill, TN let him know he is loved!
Two days after finding the bottle, Nieman, Hirsch, Yuken and Morse all met again on the beach. The sunrise didn’t disappoint. Purple gave way to gold and orange. The friends and neighbors talked about the letter, took pictures, basked in the new day’s beauty.
Nieman and Hirsch had split among them the tags that read ‘faith’ and ‘love.’ Hirsch kept the ‘faith’ tag; Nieman took the ‘love’ tag and has placed it in an area of her home adorned with pictures of her brother and father.
“People need to open their heart,” Nieman said, looking at the letter. “I think it’s a universal desire — hope and courage. You have to be brave to live in this world. I’m very proud of whoever wrote this.”