Those teal-colored balloons soared toward heaven, and Dawn Dixon never for a moment took her eyes off them.

Up, up and away.

“Happy birthday, Emma!” VanStory Hills Elementary School students would shout on this Oct. 5 afternoon with blue skies and the sun shining bright. “Happy birthday!”

Dawn Dixon stood in the background, with a wish of her own.

“I just told her I hoped she knew just how much we loved her,” this heartbroken mother would say on what would have been a daughter's birthday.

Emma Claire Dixon died Sept. 11.

She was 12.

Emma Claire Dixon was full of life, and just a ball of energy, despite her struggles with polycystic kidney disease from birth to being diagnosed with Type 1 juvenile diabetes when she was only 3 ½ years old.

 “But nothing stopped her or slowed her down,” Dawn Dixon says. “Everything she did, she made the most of it.”

Emma Claire Dixon was your typical little girl, and her bright smile could light up the lives of all who were in her presence. She was curious about all of life's trappings –-  from discovering new adventures, being with her friends, testing her tennis skills with her Fayetteville Academy teammates, enjoying a cookies and cream milkshake at Chick-fil-A, shopping with her mother, watching movies with the father she adored and being with the Haymount neighborhood kids to include Sophie Blankenship, Hannah Johnson, Grayson Breece, Olivia Stiles, Sarah Bryan and Emma Claire Garlington among them.

“She wanted everybody to be kind to one another,” her mother says, “and laugh with one another.”

 And how she just treasured her family.

“If Emma wasn’t spending time with her friends, she looked forward to spending time with her family,” Kelly Reames, a longtime friend and a teacher at VanStory Elementary along with Dawn Dixon, would remind all who gathered Sept. 20 at Snyder Memorial Baptist Church to celebrate and remember this child who never met a stranger. “Brooks and Timothy have always been amazing big brothers, as well as protective of their little sister. They allowed Miss Emma to boss them around and she enjoyed getting up into their business. She definitely ruled the roost, and I don’t think they’d have had it any other way. The one love that remained consistent her entire life, was her love for her parents. Emma was a daddy’s girl. She would tell anybody her daddy was her one and only boyfriend. She had him wrapped from day one. She was definitely her mom’s mini-me. She was with Dawn everywhere she went. She looked like Dawn, loved everybody like Dawn, and never met a stranger.”

 Yes, Dawn Dixon, will tell you, Emma Claire was her little girl for sure.

 “She always had a plan," this mother says. "She was always wanting to go and do and be active.”

And when it came to her father, Emma Claire Dixon was his little princess upon a throne all her own.

“She was definitely a daddy's girl,” Dawn Dixon, 48, says.

Chris Dixon closes his eyes and he can see a father and daughter on the back porch grilling hot dogs and hamburgers and steaks, and both listening to '80s music.

"Emma was honestly an amazingly optimistic, open-minded, glass is half full and overall absolute happy person," he says. "Consequently, Emma helped make my days brighter and always had a way of making me smile. I think in our relationship sometimes it was reversed. She was the one looking after me and spending time with me. Labor Day weekend, I had an appointment in Raleigh to get fitted for a new golf driver early on Saturday morning. She got up at 6:30 and went with me and watched me beat balls for two hours. Nothing in it for her. Just time with me. This was the last thing the two of us did together. Now I don’t know what to do with my time.”

Kelly Reames would remind those who filled Snyder Memorial Baptist Church from the lower level pews to the balcony and all along the aisles of what everyone wondered.

“Many of us can’t understand,” she would say, “the depth of pain from the loss of a child.”

Emma Claire Dixon was such a joy; such a vibrant little girl.

“We are just really sad,” Dawn Dixon says. “We never imagined such a sadness. It just came out of nowhere.”

Emma Claire Dixon was suppose to leave milk and cookies for Santa Claus in December, and have her mother up at 3 a.m. to tear into all of the gifts under the family tree. She was supposed to turn her graduation tassel with her classmates, plan for college, meet the boy of her dreams, hug bridesmaids like Sophie Blankenship and Hannah Johnson and Grayson Breece and Olivia Stiles and Sarah Bryan and Emma Claire Garlington before dropping her veil and walking down the sanctuary aisle on her daddy's arm, and one day have children of her own to love.

“We are still trying to figure out our new life,” Chris Dixon, 46, says. “We are truly devastated, but our friends and this community have been truly wonderful. I don’t know that I can say each day is better, but we are trying. One of the messages of Emma’s funeral was to 'Live. Laugh. Love.' It was the epitome of her life. I think one of my biggest fears is that people will forget about her and who she was.”

Kelly Reames already had offered  assurances.

“I know we can all agree, as we remember that precious, vibrant laugh and smile,” Reames would remind, “that Emma was a true gift from God, and she will never be forgotten.”

 Quietly, Dawn Dixon watched the teal-colored balloons soar toward the heavens on an October afternoon and what would have been Emma Claire Dixon's 13th birthday.

“I hope you know,” a mother would whisper, “just how much we loved you.”

Contributions in memory of Emma Claire Dixon may be be made to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, 26 Broadway, 14th Floor, New York, NY 10004 or online at jdrf.org. Memorial contributions also may be made to the Polycystic Kidney Disease Foundation, 1001 E. 101st Terrace, Suite 220, Kansas City, MO, 64131 or online at pkdcure.org.

Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at bkirby@fayobserver.com or 910-486-3571.