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'There's just a deep ache for our friend': Fellow students remember West Fargo student with brain aneurism

Eleni Wilson

After a two-year break, Eleni Wilson couldn't resist the stage any longer.

The 17-year-old West Fargo High School senior eagerly auditioned for this fall's production of "Cinderella" - and ironic to her sweet nature, she was cast as the evil stepmother.

Eleni had read her script dozens of times, rehearsed her lines and movements countless more.

She had planned to make her theatrical comeback when the show opens in two weeks.

But Tuesday night was the last time Eleni would take the stage.

As she suffered a severe brain aneurysm that would ultimately claim her life, Eleni had one item in her hand: her script.

After ambulance crews rushed Eleni to the hospital, members of West Fargo's Drama Club found the script in the school bathroom where she collapsed.

Through the grief the West Fargo community feels this week, finding Eleni's script gave some relief to those close to her.

"It's giving us a little healing knowing this is something she loved so much that she was literally doing it until the last moment of her life," high school theater director Adam Pankow said Thursday.

Doctors determined Eleni had no brain activity after her sudden collapse during an evening of double practices for the school's show.

She was kept alive until Thursday so that doctors could retrieve her organs to be used for donation.

The shock of Eleni's death has hit the community in the hours since Tuesday's incident.

Her close friend Lacey Stearns said she has been thinking of the last time she saw her "gym buddy" as both quietly but separately did homework Tuesday at school.

"I thought about going to talk to her, and we both were just doing our work," Stearns said Thursday night. "I regret it a lot. I wish I would have talked to her one last time."

Friends and classmates remembered Eleni's vibrancy, compassion and friendship.

Words of remembrance have poured out across social media sites, many noting Eleni's bright smile.

Friend and fellow senior Jordan Braaten had known Eleni since they were both in the sixth grade.

Braaten said she was going to miss Eleni's positive attitude and her wish to attend Harvard University.

Many gathered at impromptu prayer services at Essentia Hospital and Fargo's Bethel Evangelical Free Church.

The Rev. Neal Kloster said about 50 of Eleni's peers gathered at the church Wednesday in an "outpouring of love and support."

"It was a lot of people in despair and looking for answers, trying to give them peace in this difficult time," Kloster said.

A memorial service will take place at 7 p.m. tonight at the Speedway Event Center in West Fargo so that the community can grieve together.

A funeral will take place next week in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where Eleni's family is from.

Adam Pankow, the theater director, said Eleni joined Drama Club her freshman year but then took the next two years off to help with her family's business.

Eleni is the daughter of Maria and Geoff Wilson, owners of the Santa Lucia restaurants in Fargo-Moorhead.

Pankow recalled Eleni's excitement when she told him this fall she wanted to audition for "Cinderella."

"She was the sweetest girl you could ever, ever know," he said. "It was great to have her back with us."

Tuesday's double practice began as normal, and Pankow said "there was nothing noticeably wrong" with Eleni, who rehearsed on stage throughout the afternoon.

Unknown to Pankow, Eleni had complained to a couple of friends of "a little headache," but Eleni continued to practice.

Her last time on stage, the cast was rehearsing a major scene. Eleni was "hilarious and wonderful," Pankow recalled.

During a half-hour break between the two practices, Eleni went to the bathroom to rest, and someone found her a few minutes later.

Principal Cory Steiner said hospital officials told him Wednesday night Eleni displayed "no brain activity" and her prognosis was "extremely poor."

Eleni's family was in the process of arranging organ retrieval Thursday, Steiner said.

With the family's blessing, school officials have arranged tonight's memorial service as a way to "celebrate her life."

Pankow said he and the Drama Club students grieved together Wednesday, with the sense of finality setting in Thursday.

"We shared a lot of tears, a lot of stories, a lot of laughter," Pankow said. "We're grieving and processing this."

"There's just a deep ache for our friend," he added. "I sense there's a deeper grief and anguish, too, as some of these kids lose their innocence. For some of them, this is their first touch of mortality."

The high school brought in extra counselors this week to help students and faculty, as needed.

Pankow said the 70-member cast and crew of "Cinderella" unanimously agreed to continue as planned with the show's three performances, starting Nov. 11.

"It's tragic, and it's unexplainable, but for the brief time she was here, she touched a lot of lives," he said. "It's not in remembrance of her. It's because of her that we're doing this."

For Eleni, the show will go on.