In a beautiful, sun-filled tribute to Kaylen Birk, her extended family – all of Lincoln Elementary School – on Thursday said "Happy Birthday," and "Farewell."
Kaylen passed away Saturday after a short but courageous struggle against a rare type of brain tumor. The party plans she had made for herself were carried out for her.
Four large tables covered with cake waited on the playground. Next, there was a table displaying Kaylen’s kindergarten photo, a picture she drew in art class on her last Tuesday at school, framed by her art teacher, Sherrill Knezel, and a blooming bouquet of paper flowers made with the traced hands of each of the first graders.
At 11 a.m., Lincoln's kids filed out onto the playground under a perfect sky. Kindergarteners sat in front in butterfly hats they had made, the first graders – Kaylen's class – rankedbehind them, and so on. Teachers, staff, parents, neighbors, family and friends gathered around the children.
Principal Dean Nemoir welcomed everyone and said it was an honor for the school to hold this special event.
“You all know why we’re here,” he told the students. “Today would have been Kaylen Birk’s seventh birthday, and we are here to celebrate her birthday and to celebrate her life. It’s a very, very special day.”
She'll still be with you
Kathy Birk, Kaylen's mother, thanked all the parents who came and who had supported her family, and she thanked the Wauwatosa School District for being “willing to do anything to get Kaylen to school and help her be the happiest first grader she could be.”
To Kaylen's schoolmates, she said, “This is a defining moment, and you will remember this day for the rest of your life."
“We just couldn’t let this birthday go by without celebrating," she said, "because Kaylen loved birthdays, and she loved celebrations, and she loved balloons, and she loved cake."
Then she talked about the butterflies they would soon release, and told the kids they would fly up into the sky, and even when you coudn't see them anymore, they would still be there – just as Kaylen would always be with each of them.
A poetic tribute, a rush of wings, and cake
Tami Nelsen, Kaylen’s first-grade teacher, told the crowd that the first-graders wanted to share a poem. She played a sound recording of the class reading it:
Butterfly Memorial Poem
A rush of wings
they flutter high
to touch the sun
and kiss the sky
is with us now
No more a caterpillar
upon a leaf
Kaylen with angel wings
A soaring butterfly
with us they sing
Nelsen then led the singing of “Happy Birthday,” and as they sang, the first-graders, along with Kaylen's family, Kathy, Jon and her brother, Thomas, released the three dozen butterflies they held – although some of the creatures were happy to sit awhile and be admired before winging off.
Cake was served and kids dropped off cards for Kaylen in a big basket as they picked up their servings. The cake was exactly as Kaylen had told her mom she wanted it: chocolate ice cream cake with chocolate frosting, with "Happy Birthday Kaylen" written in gummy bears – and with a pink heart.
Then it became a surprise party after all.
For a little girl who loved balloons
Kathy Birk had wanted to have a big balloon release, but found out that couldn't be allowed on school properties because of concerns about latex allergies.
But as the cake was being served, the PA system played the bell sound used between school periods, and Principal Nemoir directed the kids to look out past the fence behind the playground.
There, parents standing just outside the school boundaries let go more than 200 blue and white balloons, filling the sky. In the wake of the butterflies, and accompanied by the oohs and ahhs of hundreds of young voices, they soared up, over the school, and away on the breeze.