CINCINNATI -- Michelle Chalk's parents thought she would be dancing in "The Nutcracker" this year. Instead, her friends and fellow dancers performed to honor her memory.
Chalk, a "vibrant and beloved" 15-year-old whose bright smile still shines in photos, died Aug. 1 after a tree collapsed on top of her. She had been looking forward to her first day at Highlands High School and to dancing with her friends in the Cincinnati Ballet Company's annual "Nutcracker" production as she had since 2013.
"She loved to be onstage, and I would say, 'The more people looking at you, the better," her mother, Patty Chalk, said. "She just adored it and she shined. … She did it all, and she did it with every bit of enthusiasm in her body."
The performance had always been as much of a treat for Patty Chalk and her husband, Keith, as it had been for Michelle. After her death, they weren't sure they could make it through another Christmas or another "Nutcracker" without her.
"We weren't sure we were going to come at first," Keith said. "It wasn't until the ballet let us know that they were going to honor Michelle that we knew we had to."
Michelle's grave is decorated with nutcrackers, angel wings and a small Christmas tree. The ballet company deliberately incorporated identical decorations in the set dressing for this year's "Nutcracker" to make sure Michelle could still, in some way, be present in the show.
"We know we are going to cry when we hear the opening score, but we hope at the end of the performance, we are smiling, we are happy that our memories of Michelle and how much she loved it lift us up," Keith said. "When I think of Michelle, I think of the talent she had, singing, dancing, acting. I think of how hard she worked. She excelled academically.
"But above all, I want to remember her for her kindness."
The Chalk family created a scholarship fund for Highland High School students in Michelle's honor. Anyone wishing to make a contribution can do so online .