Hillary – “Always Cheerful”

Hillary with her siblings Haley, Dana, and Davis

Hillary with her siblings Davis, Haley, and Dana

– As told by Hillary’s mom, Trudy Dilling –

From the very beginning, Hillary belonged to God. She had been born with Down syndrome but unlike many other children with this condition, Hillary was a healthy baby. She was loving, cheerful and a joy to have as a daughter. Her love was unconditional. Even after having been disciplined, she would give me a hug, stroke my face and in her somewhat unclear speech, say, “Love you, Mommy.” And if she ever caught me crying, she would softly wipe the tears from my cheek, saying, “Don’t cry, Mommy.” Then instantly, “That’s better.”

As Hillary grew, so did her love for people and Jesus. Even without prompting, she would often stop in the midst of her activities, point to her chest and proclaim, “Jesus in my heart.” As parents, we tried to teach her socially acceptable behaviors; she learned most of them quite well. Hillary’s greetings, however, were entirely her own. At church, she would welcome others with a kiss, a hug, then a handshake. When exiting a restaurant, she would wind her way through the tables, hoping to catch someone’s eye. If she was successful, God must have given her some special sense to know if that person needed a hug. They would definitely receive the hug and sometimes even a kiss on top of the head.

Hillary’s departure from this earth came as quickly as her arrival. She was the victim of a truck-pedestrian accident as she crossed the street to Sunday school on August 30, 1998. But yet, given the events that transpired before the accident, I truly believe that God had prepared Hillary for what was going to happen. Our family had just returned from a family vacation in Florida. Actually, the trip had started out as a business trip for my husband, but when we arrived in Florida, most of his pre-scheduled meetings were cancelled by the other parties involved. He was naturally upset, but the trip now became a very relaxing family vacation. Hurricane Bonnie was to have come ashore two days after we arrived, but it, too, was cancelled. It stayed out to sea and hit land farther up the East Coast. Through the entire week, the weather was clear and sunny with a fantastic breeze – perfect for spending time at the beach and making memories as a family. It was one of the best vacations that we had ever had.

The following Sunday morning, as Hillary prepared for Sunday school, she had a sense of urgency about her, as if something special was about to happen. Unlike many other Sunday mornings, she awakened, finished her morning toiletries, ate breakfast and got dressed in record time. Then, as she and her sisters started the two-block walk to church from our home, Hillary stopped. She stood at the end of our driveway and gazed up at the sky as her sisters continued walking. She refused to go on. I had to remind her that if she wanted to go to Sunday school, she needed to stay with her sisters and to continue walking. She assured me that she wanted to go, giving me a hug. She hurried to catch up with her sisters and the three of them continued down the street. I hurried into the house, heading for the shower as I told my husband, “Something’s up with Hillary. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t want to be late for church.” (With a new baby in the house, arriving late was a common occurrence.) As I tried to explain to him what I was sensing, the doorbell rang. Immediately, my words were, “It’s Hillary – something’s wrong.”

As my second daughter continues the story, Hillary started to lag behind again as they were walking. It was almost as if she wanted her sisters to get inside the church before the accident, which they did. As Hillary started to cross the road to the church, one of the other members of the congregation observed that she was gazing upward with a look of utter peace on her face. For Hillary, this gazing upward as she walked was very unusual; she normally looked down, watching her feet.

When my husband, who is a physician, arrived on the scene, Hillary was lying in the middle of the road. Her eyes were gazing upward, roving all around as if she were searching for something. He recognized this as a sign of a severe head injury. Later, at the hospital, tests revealed no such injury.

I truly believe that God had sent His angels to minister to Hillary on that Sunday morning. She saw the angels as she stood at the end of our driveway, as she crossed the street and as she lay there on the road. Her very special eyes were opened to all of heaven’s glory. Soon after Hillary’s departure to be with Jesus, I realized that Hillary’s extra 21st chromosome affected every cell of her physical body and mind, but it did not affect her spirit. I often wonder if Hillary’s spirit habitually cried out to God to be released from that body and mind which put limits on her. I am sure she was frustrated that she could not do more to spread her mission of love. Little did she know that she abundantly succeeded in spreading that love – a fact that we discovered after the accident, as cards and letters poured in telling us of how Hillary had affected other people’s lives.

After Hillary’s promotion to God’s corporate headquarters, we established The Hillary Grace Dilling Memorial Fund in honor of her mission. The Hillary Fund, as it is more commonly known, provides the opportunity for other challenged individuals and their families to benefit from Hillary’s love. Originally, the fund created “dolphin experience trips” – expenses-paid family vacations for individuals with physical, emotional, psychological, social, and/or economic limitations to relax, have fun together, and interact with Hillary’s favorite creature: dolphins. Hillary had a special affinity for these creatures of the sea. As we would plan our frequent trips to Florida from Pennsylvania, Hillary would repeatedly proclaim, “Dolphins, ocean, beach”. One of her favorite things to do was to pet the dolphins at Sea World. She so loved this activity, that during one trip to the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, she managed to find her way behind the scenes at the dolphin show so she could pet the dolphins. It took a bribe of pizza and Pepsi to get her to move from this restricted area.

Since 2012, the mission of The Hillary Fund has broadened to provide opportunities for families to engage in activities that bring them closer to each other and to God’s creation, with or without dolphins specifically. The Hillary Fund now partners with White Sulphur Springs, a Christian retreat center in Manns Choice, Pennsylvania, to provide retreats for military families who have children with special needs.

As a parent, the hardest thing I have had to do is bury the body of my daughter, Hillary Grace. But, as a parent, the best thing I can do is to continue the mission that God gave one little girl with Down syndrome: spread His love to others. Give someone a hug even when it does not seem appropriate. And most importantly, I must remember that Hillary is not lost – she is in heaven with Her Father, where “Jesus in my heart” has become “Jesus in my arms”.

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