One little girl's big legacy

It started last week. People began climbing into attics and digging into closets for Christmas decorations that don't usually see the light of day for another month.

First, a couple of houses. And then some more. Until there were enough lights, red ribbons, angels, snowmen and manger scenes in Oviedo's Live Oak Reserve subdivision to make early November look like Christmas Eve.

This wasn't a side effect of the over-commercialization of Christmas that brings Santa to the malls well before Thanksgiving.

Instead, it was an outpouring of support for a family that needed a little Christmas right away — with no time to spare.

Last week, Jeff and Denise Downing learned that the brain tumor that was slowly robbing their 5-year-old daughter Caitlin of her sweet smile was growing so aggressively she had just a short time left.

In August, I told you about Denise Downing's blog (CheeringforCaitlin.com). By sharing Caitlin's story, Denise helped turn Oviedo into a place that felt more like a small town — where people know each other and lend each other a hand — than a sprawling suburb.

There was a pancake breakfast, golf tournament, barbecue and 5K to raise money for the family. Strangers dropped off meals. One group who had never met the family made a quilt.

Last week, as she began to grapple with the reality that her little girl was dying, Denise thought about just ignoring Christmas this year.

It was just last January, as the family was finishing packing up their Christmas lights and wreaths, that Caitlin ended up in the doctor's office and received the worst possible diagnosis.

"So, initially I thought, we just won't get them out; Christmas decorations will stay away this year ... Instead, I've decided to decorate early," Denise wrote last week.

And, boy, did neighbors respond. People began posting photos of their Christmas trees and lights on Facebook. The "Cheering for Caitlin" refrain became "Christmas for Caitlin." Rainbows, adopted by Caitlin's cheerleaders as a symbol of hope, started appearing in North Pole motifs.

Ashley Pleasants said it was so important to decorate for Caitlin — and quickly— that her husband took time off work on Friday to start hanging lights.

Down the street, Brittany Rogers and her family spent the weekend decorating too.

"Nobody wants to take away any of that personal time with their family, but we want to be that support for them," she said.

It was an amazing display of love in an age where many neighbors don't even know each other's names.

Denise was beyond touched.

"Every time I fall to my knees in anguish, with an unbelievable ache in my heart, and I silently say, 'How will I survive this pain?' I hear the thud from behind me, and feel the ground shake, as a community, both physical and virtual fall to their knees as well," she wrote on Saturday. "And my gratitude for that support and love will never be expressed fully, because there simply aren't any big enough words or actions to convey it."

On Saturday, Caitlin rode around the neighborhood in her wagon to gaze at the lights on a balmy November evening.

Caitlin passed away Sunday afternoon.

And when Denise posted on Facebook that Caitlin was gone, the response was again overwhelming. By Monday evening, there were more than 400 comments in the thread.

From people who don't know the Downings, but said their hearts were breaking just the same. From men who said they would hug their families tighter. From women who said they would be better mothers.

And that is Caitlin's legacy. A little girl who bravely battled an unbeatable illness and taught a community about love, compassion and reaching out to neighbors in need.

bkassab@tribune.com or 407-420-5448.

CHICAGO

More