By HOLLY KOZELSKY
Lily Belle Patterson’s favorite horse walked down the aisle at her funeral.
She had become mysteriously ill after a family trip to the mountains in October. She died suddenly and unexpectedly on Oct. 18 at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. She was 10 years old.
She left behind her parents, Amber Hanson Patterson and Clayton Saul Patterson of Bassett, brothers Jaxon, 12, and Baylor, 3, and grandparents Pamela and Cristofer Hanson of Bassett and Saul and Vickie Patterson of Asheboro, North Carolina.
And a horse coincidentally named Lily, the horse that walked down the aisle on Oct. 23 at Stone Memorial Christian Church.
Lily started taking horseback riding lessons at Sandy River Equestrian in Axton when she was 7 or 8 years old, her mother said. She got thrown twice “but got right back on.” She later took private lessons from Avory Gerlach in Rocky Mount.
Gerlach said Lily was “amazing with animals.”
“She was an inspiration to me,” Gerlach said. “She showed me how talking to the horses and touching them really goes a long way.”
It was while working with Gerlach that the young girl met met the equine Lily.
Sunday in Rocky Mount, Gerlach mounted Lily and rode her in the Franklin County Christmas Parade, in honor of Lily Patterson, alongside Lily’s 9-year-old friend, Kamryn Altice of Rocky Mount. The Patterson family and friends walked with them.
On Saturday, a fundraising event at Tackfully Teamed, a place where disabled people go to ride, aims to raise money to pay for someone else to learn the horseback riding that gave the late 10-year-old such pleasure.
That’s the sort of kid Lily Patterson was.
‘She was super sweet’
“Lily was a very kind, compassionate child,” her mother said. “She loved all animals.”
She also took measures to help them, such as dedicating her eighth birthday to the Martinsville-Henry County SPCA: Gifts were food and other items for the cats and dogs, and Lily even went shopping after the party to get more supplies to donate to the animal shelter, which recently received $620 in her memory.
“She was excited to go to school. She was excited to be around people,” her mother said.
Lily used to talk nonstop, and “the silence now is deafening,” her mother said.
Lily liked action and stimulation and socializing.
“She had a really close group of friends,” including neighborhood girls, as well as classmates, with Kamryn Altice, Camryn Gilbert, Maddie Bennett and Makenna Reynolds topping the list, Patterson said.
“They were all close, very good little girls,” all of whom have been deeply impacted by the loss, she added.
“She was super sweet,” said Kamryn’s mother, Layne Altice, of Rocky Mount.
At a sleepover the Altices hosted this past summer, Lily “was very kindhearted and got along with everybody.”
Altice chuckled that she used to tell Patterson to “leave her here any time you want to.”
“She loved to dance. She loved gymnastics. Most of all, she loved horses,” Patterson said.
Lily’s goal for her adult life was to study veterinary medicine at Virginia Tech and then have a big house with plenty of animals, Patterson said.
Lily was in fifth grade at Stephanie Whitten’s class at Meadow View Elementary School.
“She had her very close ‘best’ friends, but was also friends with those that had no others,” Whitten wrote by email. “And when I say she was friends with them, I mean she was FRIENDS with them. She wasn’t just nice in passing. She took the time to talk with them, get to know them and even make plans with them. She was always talking about her horse and love for animals.”
Dealing with the loss
Lily died on her brother’s third birthday.
No one saw it coming.
In mid-October, the family went on a vacation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. After they were back home, Lily was sick for about a week with pneumonia. That Friday, they took her to the emergency room.
“Three hours later, she was gone,” her mother said.
It happened “out of the blue: She was fine playing on her phone, then started to worsen. They started to intubate her. That was the end.”
Patterson said she is handling her grief “one step at a time.” A great source of finding healing is sharing her testimony at local churches, she said.
“My grief is a huge platform to glorify God,” she said.
The next time she will address a congregation will be Dec. 15 at The Community Fellowship, during the 10:10 a.m. service.
By giving her testimony through her grief, she wants to “reach people to show what it’s like to praise God, even though it feels awful,” she said.
It has been difficult for her and her husband to go back to work. Amber Patterson is a nurse practitioner at Martinsville Urgent Care, and her husband is a firefighter. Those connections to the medical field have made this difficult.
“Everything is a constant reminder,” she said. “It keeps it in your mind even more so. He goes on emergency calls for kids with shortness of breath,” and children with breathing problems come into the urgent care center.
Their best friend
It’s hard to say how Lily’s older brother is taking her death, she said, because it’s difficult to read teenagers. The little one is distraught at the loss of his constant playmate.
Lily’s family began putting together ways to create a memorial scholarship in her honor. First, they had T-shirts and bracelets made with the phrase “Love Like Lily.”
That means “be kind and compassionate to everyone, all creatures great and small,” Patterson said. “Make other people feel like they are the special ones.”
Kamryn is taking the loss of her friend hard, but in a quiet way, Altice said. However, she was insistent upon riding in the parade in Lily’s honor, so if that’s her way of working through her feelings, “I’m going to make it happen.”
Everyone at Stone Memorial has been tremendously supportive on a variety of levels, Patterson said, both emotionally and with donations. They got counseling for the family and kept them supplied in meals.
The level of support from their neighbors also has been touching, she said.
On the day of the funeral, neighbors had put luminaries all along Pioneer Road, Beaver Ridge and Homestead. Each had “Lily Belle” written on it. “It was really amazing,” Patterson said.
“Her absence has created a void in our classroom that nothing could fill,” Whitten wrote. “However, we take the time to remember her and speak of her daily. We share memories and stories. When we get off track, I remind them that Lily would always want us to be kind to each other, and she taught us how.”
Almost all the cards and notes the family has received from children said that Lily was their best friend, Patterson said. Many commented on her smile, and some recalled instances when Lily had picked up or helped out children who had fallen down.
‘Passionate about horses’
“Lily was passionate about horses,” her mother said. “We are trying to set up a scholarship for people that wanted to take lessons at Tackfully Teamed.”
Tackfully Teamed provides therapeutic riding to children and adults with disabilities at $25 an hour. Owner Susan Warren said there are 52 regular riders, plus groups come to the stables at times, and there is a long waiting list.
What originally was going to be Tackfully Teamed’s annual Christmas show has been upgraded to a fundraising event for the scholarship. Both Warren and the Pattersons attend Stone Memorial; Warren said fellow churchgoer Paula Woods was the one who suggested dedicating next Sunday’s event to Lily’s scholarship.
Even that will feel like Lily: The teams will have their horses dancing patterns to Christmas music.