NOBLESVILLE, Ind. — Dozens of Hannah Wilson’s friends sit in a circle on the black mats. Some scribble last messages to their friend on red balloons. Some do their best to smile, to laugh through the tears. Some do ?nothing at all.
In the center, a single red balloon floats on a string.
Indiana Elite Cheer & Tumbling is where they grew up together. It’s where they watched Hannah turn into a star cheerleader, where they became the type of friends that lasted after college pulled them apart, where “everybody wanted to be Hannah Wilson,” one friend said.
So it’s here they gathered, less than 36 hours after her death, to celebrate her life.
At 5 p.m., a hangar door opens to the parking lot, and they come pouring out to join the others. All together, 150 people, maybe more, have gathered.
They cluster around a black bench. Haley Wilson, Hannah’s younger sister and a future IU student, stands on the bench and stares at her feet. A single tear rolls down her cheek as she collects herself.
A woman stands behind her, squeezing her shoulders. Somebody in the crowd yells, “We love you, Haley.” She doesn’t respond.
Thirty seconds pass. Now 45. Now a minute, and ?Haley’s ready.
“This is so awesome,” Haley says. “She’s so happy right now. She’s laughing at me right now. She’s like, ‘Idiots.’”
Haley talks about Hannah’s positivity and her own plans to study psychology at IU next year, just like her ?sister.
“That’s all I can say,” she says. “I just love her.” She hops off the bench and walks over to her friends, who wrap her up in a group hug. Now she lets tears flow.
One of Hannah’s friends — also named Hannah — steps up. She and Wilson had been friends for 12 years, she says. In that time, she’d seen her friend become “the light of everyone’s eyes.”
She thanks the crowd for the support in Noblesville, but she knows it’s only a portion of those celebrating her life. Back in Bloomington, she says, Hannah had made her home.
“If you saw her Snap story, you knew she was just having the best time of her life,” she says.
She just wanted to tell the crowd how much she loved her friend. She waits a beat and steps off the bench, rejoining the crowd.
Everyone waits, holding the red balloons.
Then Emily, one of Hannah’s former cheer coaches, takes to the bench to close out the memorial.
“Let’s send up our prayers,” she says. “Let’s send up our memories. Let’s send everything up, our smiles. Let’s send them up. Lift your balloons.”
So as one, they raise their balloons, and — on the count of three — let them go. A wave of red, dotted with specks of purple and green.
A brisk wind blows them to the north, through a patch of trees. Most make it through, but a few red balloons are left behind, caught in the bare branches.
“She’ll always be here,” a woman whispers to nobody in particular. “She’s not going anywhere.”
After a few minutes, a balloon works itself free and floats up toward the sky, to join the others.
Alison Graham ?contributed reporting ?to this story.