Teal blue balloons soaring high against a sky blue backdrop were a fitting tribute as family and friends gathered for a celebration of life for Caroline Ruby Vetter, daughter of Tyler and Abigail Vetter, April 1, at Blessed Sacrament Church. The little five-year-old West Fargo kindergarten student received her angel wings March 26, surrounded by the love of family and friends, following a courageous three-year battle against Leukodystrophy and Epilepsy.
The balloon launch came at the conclusion of a special funeral mass, after which Caroline was laid to rest in Riverside Cemetery, appropriately, next to her dear little friend Jess Beecher who succumbed last year to a similar malady.
The blue was symbolic, as the favorite color of the little girl more commonly known as "Super C," dubbed such because of her tenacious spirit, determination, can-do spirit, beautiful smile, and infectious love of fun and her passion for little duckies.
Given her loveable demeanor and her enthusiasm for living each moment to the fullest, it came as no surprise that Caroline was able to dramatically touch more people in her short little life that most people are able to achieve in decades, capturing the hearts and smiles of everyone she came in contact with and serving as a true inspiration to parents and other children with disabilities.
For this, Tyler and Abigail will be forever grateful as they attempt to grieve, recover and regroup in the aftermath of their oldest daughter's loss, in doing so, focusing their time on Caroline's two big brothers, Andrew and Ben, and her younger sister and best friend, Danielle.
"We miss Caroline dearly." Abigail said. "There is a huge hole in our lives right now, but there's also a fair bit of peace. For three years she struggled, and the last few months were extremely hard for her. It makes us all feel better that she's at peace and not struggling and fighting so hard."
"Through it all, everyone has been overwhelmingly kind and we would just like to say thank you to all our friends and family and to the compassionate members of the community for always supporting us," Abigail added. "We've always had wonderful caring people around us and there has always been so much generosity extended to us. Whether it was a benefit, birthday, or anything we needed, it was always uplifting to know that we had that support and caring."
Abigail also offered up special thanks to all the nurses from Universal Pediatrics, specifically mentioning 'nurse Mindy' (Donovan), who spent a year in the Vetter household in a duo role as caregiver and friend. "All the nurses we had were just wonderful. They bent over backwards to do everything they could for Caroline and us. Hospice was also amazing. They allowed Caroline to be at home and for us to keep her comfortable until the end."
She also praised Caroline's outstanding therapists, who did everything in their power to help her maintain skills as long as possible, including her ability to communicate; her Southeast Human Services case manager for making them aware of all the much needed services available that benefited Caroline; and the variety of school personnel who constantly rallied around the family.
Abigail said she also found great strength and comfort in the numbers who shared in both the memorial service and Caroline's celebration of life.
"What a tribute. There were so many people at the Memorial Service wishing to speak out that we had to cut it off because it got too long," Abigail said with a big smile. "All of her nurses and caregivers got up front and danced and sang her favorite song "Be Like a Duck." It was not your typical memorial service, it was so beautiful, just like her, with all the music, stories, laughter and tears, and it really helped us and other people grieving to know that Caroline's fun-loving spirit was still there with us. I know that Caroline was looking down on us and laughing that wonderful full-body belly laugh of hers."
Abigail said the service at the cemetery following the mass proved to be the best part of the day for her. "It was April Fool's Day and I think C played a bit of a joke on all of us. As we arrived at the grave, there was a huge flock of wild turkeys walking around her site. They moved off once the kids started to run after them but they hung around for a while. I wonder if C decided to send us turkeys instead of ducks (still a little cold for ducks around here) as a bit of a joke. Caroline was always a bit of a turkey herself. And then as a way of saying "April Fool's!" and letting us know that she was there - we looked up and there was a beautiful bald eagle flying just above us. It was so close we could see so much of the details of it. It circled around and around us for quite a while. I have only seen a wild bald eagle a few times in my life and it has always been out in the wilderness, not in the center of a city. It was just so amazing, so touching, and definitely a wonderful tribute and farewell to C."
"Afterwards we came back home with our family and friends and we celebrated C for the rest of the day in a way that Caroline would have loved. We sang and danced, talked and ate, and had far more laughter than tears. That's exactly what C would have wanted and she enjoyed so much."
Abigail vows that the caring and compassion of those who shared in Caroline's journey will not go unnoticed. "As we move forward we intend to return some of that generosity and provide our help to other families, whether they are in similar situations or facing something entirely different. We have been given so much and we just want to pay it forward and help others as well, no matter what the need. Caroline was such a caring child and she loved people so much and this will be part of our legacy for her."
Here Abigail drives her little girls caring nature home even further, mentioning a kindergarten classmate who had injured a finger. "Caroline felt just as badly as her little friend, and when her classmate returned with a Band-Aid and said everything was okay, Caroline gave her a big smile and a hug. She was always so concerned about everyone else, so we know that she would want us to help others," Abigail stated proudly.
This helping may be in the form of establishing a foundation or on an individual basis with details yet to be worked out, but for certain focusing on families struggling with illness and disabilities. The Vetters will continue to be involved with a few select charities near and dear to their hearts, Make-A-Wish, which provided a Disney World vacation for the entire family, the Epilepsy Foundation, that has provided ongoing support, and Hope Inc., a special refuge for Caroline who so enjoyed their full gamut of services and activities. Abigail also hopes to be actively involved with Journey for Jess, a program implemented by their good friends Jason and Amy Beecher on behalf of their little girl Jess, who is resting next to Caroline.
Abigail said adjusting to life without their precious little 'C' is difficult, but the entire family is coping the best way they can in their own little ways. "For three years we were living on the edge of our seats waiting for the next big crisis, so going from being on such a high alert to 'bang' nothing, has been quite a change and we've had to almost rethink everything. We had so much help here the last six months and now the house is quiet. Before our lives were run by the clock because of Caroline's complex medication and care regime, but that's not the case anymore and I find myself losing track of time. I haven't been home alone with just one child in ten years, and now that that's the case, I'm not sure what to do with myself."
"Yes, we have moments of tears and crying and we are upset about our loss, but C would want us to be happy and have as much fun as we can, so that is one of the things we are trying to do. We now have more time for our other children so we can really concentrate on them and that's definitely what we want to do, to move forward and get into doing things that normal families do," Abigail added.
Toward that end, they have a special family outing planned for this weekend for some much deserved fun, rest and relaxation.
Taking normal a step further, Andrew and Ben returned to school late last week, Tyler resumed his duties at Pracs Institute Monday, and Abigail intends to rejoin her position at Innovis Health within the next week or two.
Abigail beamed when she talked about co-workers at both Pracs and Innovis. "They have been so supportive, accommodating and understanding throughout C's illness and have been just so great about allowing us to spend as much time as we needed to be with our little girl."
A special fundraiser breakfast was held at Pracs last Thursday as another show of support. "There was really an excellent turnout and a lot of very generous donations," Abigail said. "We are very thankful to everyone who took time out of their day to be a part of it."
As another way of keeping Caroline's memory burning strong and bright, two special butterfly gardens will be planted in her honor as soon as the weather cooperates and the snow melts - one in the front yard at the Vetter home and the other next to Caroline's resting place at Riverside Cemetery.
What a perfect testimony to a little girl who loved the sunshine and the great outdoors and is now basking in the bright light of heaven.
More information about Caroline's story as it has unfolded is available on her CaringBridge Web site at www.caringbridge.org/visit/carolineruby. Messages for the Vetter family can also be left in the guestbook at the same location. The site has experienced well over a million hits since the time of its inception.
Journey for Jess
North Dakota Chapter of Make A Wish
Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota