‘Tess lit up the room wherever she went’

Sycamore 6-year-old’s short life celebrated at community birthday party

SYCAMORE – On March 13, the Sycamore community came together to celebrate Tess Marie Franklin-Nagle’s seventh birthday at South Prairie Elementary School.

The birthday party featured pink sprinkled doughnuts, a toy basket raffle and a gathering of family and friends. In addition to celebrating Tess’ birthday, the event also celebrated her life.

Nagle died Feb. 2 from a diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, a type of brain tumor found in an area of the brainstem known as the pons. She was only 6 years old.

She was diagnosed with the inoperable tumor on May 16, 2020.

Debbie Carver, outreach coordinator for All in To Win, a pediatric cancer foundation that assists children and their families during life-threatening illnesses, describes DIPG as “the cruelest of cruel, a cancer with no cure and zero survival rate.”

“It was my honor to have met Tess and her family because Tess was one remarkable little girl,” Carver said. “She had so much wisdom, so much love and spunk and personality. God gave her to this world for a reason.”

Honoring Tess

Tess’ mom Marilee Nagle said that having the community celebrate Tess’ seventh birthday “really means the world to me because I want the world to know who she was and what she suffered from.”

“I never want her forgotten,” she said. “I hope and pray that she is here celebrating with us so she can see for herself how many people care about her because her biggest mental struggle was, ‘Why did this happen to me and how did it happen?’”

Nagle describes Tess as “her dream come true” and “a mini me.” Tess loved swimming, singing and dancing. Some of her favorite things included anything rainbow, sparkly, pink donuts, dresses, high heels, red lipstick and her special “fairy dust.” She dreamed of being a fashion designer and a police officer when she grew up.

To honor Tess, many birthday party celebrants wore brightly colored lipstick.

“She loved and had a sense for style that I’ve never had,” Nagle said. “She could put together an outfit that I would say, ‘That doesn’t match,’ and it would look amazing. She was a total fashionista and had to dress to a ‘T’ no matter if we were just going grocery shopping. She had shoes to match every outfit.”

During Tess’ birthday party, 17 baskets full of toys were raffled off, with the proceeds helping the fight against DIPG. Many of the toys were unopened presents Tess received that she didn’t have the opportunity to play with.

The Jannuzio family of Sycamore won a raffle basket during the event. Dominic Jannuzio was Tess’ classmate and neighbor.

“They played together in the park almost every day after school,” Dominic’s mother, Kerry Jannuzio, said. “They rode bikes together and played hide and seek. We loved Tess very much and miss her every day.”

Everyone at the birthday party described Tess’ upbeat, larger-than-life personality.

“She always loved dressing up, lipstick and JoJo bows,” godmother Aleesha Nagle said.

Tess’ Sunday school teacher Margit Willis said, “Tess lit up the room wherever she went.”

“I remember she always loved making slime,” she said. “Once, during a parents’ night out event with all the kids playing in the gym, Tess came over to me. She said, ‘Let’s watch all these kids together, OK?’ She was so responsible and had such a strong personality even at such a young age.”

Thanking the community

Marilee Nagle said that “it’d be impossible to list everyone” in the community who donated and helped since Tess was diagnosed with DIPG.

A short list of Nagle’s thank-yous include: Tess’ best friends Daria and Aaliyah; the Halley family, who organized a parade for Tess with the fire and police department, a pink fire truck that played one of Tess’ favorite songs and a helicopter; Foxpointe Behavioral Health staff who started a meal train when Tess was first diagnosed and raised money for Christmas; Debbie Carver and All in to Win foundation; South Prairie Elementary School; other DIPG parents who offered support; and the “cancer foundations who just kept granting wish after wish for Tess to really be able to enjoy her last nine months here on Earth.”

“I never would have been able to lay Tess to rest in such a beautiful way without the help of the community, and for that I am and will be forever grateful,” she said.

Tess’ grandmother, Barb Nagle, said that Tess’ effect can be felt on the entire community.

“It’s amazing that one little 6-year-old can bring together so many people,” she said. “They care. They genuinely care, and that means so much. It’s so heartwarming and it helps with the grieving process. … Tess is so missed, but her power to connect others is still here.”

Katrina J.E. Milton

Award-winning reporter and photographer for Shaw Media publications, including The Daily Chronicle and The MidWeek newspapers in DeKalb County, Illinois, since 2012.