Thousands of blue balloons angled into a soft blue sky Saturday as friends and neighbors showed their support for an Elkhorn-area family in grief.
Melissa and Matt Graves’ young son, Lane, died June 14 in an alligator attack on the beach of a Disney World resort in Florida.
Neighbors Brandi and Mike Miller organized the event at the Elkhorn South High School football field, where hundreds of friends, relatives and supporters stood in a huge heart shape Saturday, which would have been Lane’s third birthday.
Melissa and Matt Graves spoke to the crowd before an aerial photograph was taken as the group released close to 5,000 balloons into the breeze.
The mother said she doesn’t care for public speaking but felt obligated to her boy to express her feelings. “My baby — I owe it to honor him,” she said into a microphone as the crowd stood arrayed in the heart pattern. “You’ll always be Mommy’s loving, sweet, baby boy. ... We miss you, buddy, and we miss those hugs and kisses.”
Some who attended were small children, whose balloons were tied around their wrists and fingers. “Our kids all played together,” said neighbor Jennie Gollehon, who has three children. The Graveses have a 4-year-old girl, Ella, who also attended the event.
“My kids talk about Lane, and they know he died, and they ask questions about ‘When are we going to die?’ ‘How long are we going to live?’ ” Gollehon said as the group gathered outside the football field.
Brandi Miller said she wanted to pay tribute to Lane and his family. “I really saw an opportunity for the community to come together and wrap their arms around the family on this day,” Miller said. “Blue is just the color that we chose to signify a little boy.”
Molly and Brian Anderson, who don’t know the Graves family, came from Bennington with their five children. They said they wanted to show their children what it means to be there for other people.
Susan Bender, a 65-year-old neighbor of the Graves family, said she’s been astonished at how nobly the family has endured the unfathomable tragedy. The Graveses have said they won’t sue Disney World. They have started a foundation in their boy’s name to make donations to various charities.
Music played over a public address system Saturday. A ukulele version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” drifted over the field. “This was their wedding song,” said family friend Tom Ross.
Two priests from St. Patrick Catholic Church arrived. Melissa Graves wept and laughed with them.
“They’ve become like family to us,” said the Rev. Tom Fangman. The family attends Mass there and Ella goes to school there.
During the ceremony, Fangman told the crowd that it was a day of sorrow, gratitude, awe and hope. Lane was full of life and an inspiration to live to the fullest, Fangman said. He called Saturday Lane’s “first heavenly birthday.”
Fangman and the Rev. John Norman hugged the Graveses, who took turns carrying Ella for a while.
Matt Graves also used the microphone to say that they appreciated the support. Lane’s life brought them so much joy, he said. “My wife will tell you those are the happiest days of her life, and I couldn’t agree with her more,” he said. “Happy birthday, buddy.”
A reporter-estimated 600 attended, releasing their balloons, posing for the photo taken from the sky by a drone. “Yeah!” a child said as the balloons took off.
Melissa and Matt Graves held hands as they walked off the field. Then they stood behind a table just outside the field as people lined up.
The couple offered M&M’s cookies — Lane’s favorite treat — and handed out little silver crosses with blue ribbons on them. A basket contained a prayer card with a photo of Lane on it and a decal of a blue “Lane” ribbon.
They stayed to the end. They shed tears, offered smiles and hugged hundreds of people.