Flanked by the glow from the western setting sun and the shine of a full moon rising over the eastern bluffs, a beach gathering brought out smiles and sweet memories Thursday night in Corona del Mar.
Close to 150 family members and friends huddled on the sand at Big Corona beach to reflect on another year without Madison "Maddy" Boutelle.
The popular eighth-grader at Ensign Intermediate School in Newport Beach died June 14, 2012, five days after suffering a brain aneurysm. It was the week before graduation, a month before her 14th birthday.
Two years beyond, the shock and deep sadness is softening through the ongoing process of grief. Still, how do you define an anniversary of an event that's the tragic reality of a parent's worst nightmare?
"A celebration," states Maddy's father, Matt Boutelle. "We came to celebrate her life, and it's good to get all her friends and family together. It's a sad event that we went through, but at the same time it's good to get everybody together to catch up with each other and move forward."
"A get-together," says Carrie Boutelle with a wince of melancholy. The girl's mother wouldn't call it a celebration or a memorial, "just remembering Maddy and sharing our love."
The couple's son, Jack, 15, still can't express any feelings over the loss of his twin sister.
"He's had a tough time," Matt Boutelle said of Jack. "A lot of family and friends have circled the wagons to help support him. We still, two years later, don't know how it's affected him."
Several extended family members traveled to Corona del Mar for the gathering, which included a catered rib feast and a memorial slide show. Maddy's uncle Buzzy James and his friend Trisha Burke strummed acoustic guitars while serenading the large crowd. The vast majority were friends and childhood classmates, most of whom will soon be upperclassmen at Newport Harbor High School.
"They originally had a really, really hard time with it," Matt Boutelle said, reflecting on Madd's peers. "It's such a shock, and not understanding loss. They were all so young. I don't think any of them experienced loss in their lives."
Boutelle said watching his daughter's childhood friends mature into young adults has been both rewarding and a relief.
"We had a great support group with St. Andrew's church," he said. "The pastor, Dave Ludwig, sat down with them through youth services and really helped get the kids to understand what they went through."
Kira Ellis-Josch was Maddy's best friend at Ensign. One of her biggest laments is that the two never went to high school together, as they'd talked about so often. Now her thoughts of Maddy are more about how she lived, rather than her death.
"She was one of those people that knew how precious life was," Kira said. "That's something everyone else learned after she passed, but it was something she already knew. She just lived her life to the fullest."