by Brianna Harmon |

The sky lantern set adrift in Sean Dixon’s name was caught in a tree by the time his girlfriend had finished explaining to the crowd why she got a sunflower tattoo in his honor.

“I call him my sunflower because even in the hardest, darkest days, he stands tall to see the light,” Emilee Kiechlin said at Tuesday night’s candlelight vigil for Sean, 16, of Medford, who for two years has fought a courageous battle against a rare form of bone cancer and is now under hospice care.

As Emilee spoke, my thoughts volleyed between her inspiring yet heartbreaking words and a feeling that the trapped lantern was a metaphor for Sean’s heroic fight against a strangling disease that may have taken his leg and prevented him from playing the sport he loved, but never diminished his spirit.

He has refused to float away.

I don’t personally know Sean, but the people I surround myself with do, and they speak so highly about him. 

From the moment I stepped outside of my friend Teresa Morabito’s car and began walking toward the hundreds of people gathered at Medford Veteran Memorial Park, I felt increasingly anxious. I could not walk fast enough to reach the park. It was as if each second that passed was a giant moment lost.

In the park, I wanted to fully embrace my surroundings — to truly appreciate the love of the friends, family, classmates and community members who came together to pray for and speak of Sean, a junior at Patchogue-Medford High School.

Emilee spoke more about Sean’s optimism and joy for life, how he never wanted to see her cry. And how she tries to honor his wish by going about her days dressed in smiles.

Sean’s lacrosse coaches spoke of his perseverance. One told a story about his generosity, recalling how Sean gave his cleats and lacrosse sticks to the coach’s son rather than sell them.

Teresa’s brother Nico, 19, has been a mentor to Sean. But Nico says Sean has taught him a lot more than he’ll ever be able to teach Sean.

“When I heard Sean was diagnosed with cancer, I felt like I got punched in the chest. And I didn’t still understand at the time how serious it was – until his leg was amputated,” Nico told me. “I will never forget the first time I saw him after his leg was amputated. The first thing I saw was … his smile.

Nico said all Sean wanted to do after losing his leg was to be able to again ride a snowboard.

“Sean refused to sink, and continues to refuse. He fights for his life, day in and day out. It amazed me to see how many people showed up for the vigil with such short notice. It amazes me to see of how many lives he touched and affected,” Nico said.

On Tuesday night, friends and family members left hugging and holding hands. With tears still welled in their eyes, many undoubtedly told one another how lucky they were to be together.

Some likely went out for a late dinner or ice cream, to talk about the goodness of Sean, and, hopefully, reflect on the good in their own lives. Some parents probably let their kids stay out later than usual on a school night, because they need to be near their friends during this time.

It was a night where people at the vigil were compelled to be kinder to one another, and maybe ponder how they can or “need to change” when it comes to how they “love.”

My hope is that the story of Sean and his family will strengthen all who are touched by it, that their ordeal teaches us that no thing and no one should be taken for granted. And that Sean’s determination can inspire us to be our best selves.

Nico left the park halfway through the ceremony.

“I had to walk away and leave because all my emotions were building up inside, and I couldn’t stop crying. My entire body felt numb,” he told me. “After I settled down, I got in my car and I drove right to St. Charles Hospital [in Port Jefferson], just to be with Sean.

“When I got to the hospital, he opened up his eyes and saw it was me and said ‘What’s up man?… Love you.’ In that moment, a smile was put on my face and warmed my heart. Sean Patrick Dixon is not giving up. He refuses to sink.”

Just like that lantern that refused to float away.

Brianna Harmon is a Medford resident and a 2014 graduate of Patchogue-Medford High School.

Sean Dixon at the Stick it to Cancer Hockey Tournament earlier this year at Patchogue-Medford High School.

Top: A scene from Tuesday night’s vigil at Medford Veteran Memorial Park. (Facebook)