When 16-year-old Ashlynn Marracino released a balloon in memory of her late father, she asked him to send her a sign. What happened next made her believe she got one.
Hundreds of miles away, kind strangers are answering what she and her mom call her letter to heaven.
Ashlynn, a high school junior who lives in Whittier, California, releases a balloon every Jan. 6 — her dad’s birthday —after he died suddenly of a brain aneurysm in 2008. She writes a long message to him with a marker and watches it go up to the clouds.
“I can write out stuff that I want to tell him,” Ashlynn told TODAY Parents. “It makes me feel like he would receive it — seeing it go up into the sky and disappear… it feels like a weight has been lifted off your chest.”
Her mother, who also lost her dad at a young age, had done something similar to help her grieve.
“It was very private and personal. We wrote exactly what we wanted to say,” Robin Godfrey said. So when Ashlynn struggled with her father’s death, Godfrey encouraged her to let him know what she was feeling in a "letter to heaven."
This year, Ashlynn wrote about how much she loved and missed him, and listed some of the things he’s missed, like her moving to a new school and making varsity there. She told him how she’d love to attend Humboldt State University in Northern California and how sorry she was she missed his last phone call.
Then, she asked her late dad for a sign.
“I don’t think he’s watching. I just want to know if he is,” Ashlynn told her mom.
On Jan. 6, she watched the balloon float away.
The next day, a star-shaped silvery scrap showed up in the parking lot of a restaurant in Auburn, California — more than 400 miles away from Ashlynn’s hometown.
A customer showed it to the restaurant owner. The mystery object, covered with writing and addressed to “Dear Dad,” was signed “I love you.”
“We started reading it, my coworker and I, realized what it was and we got kind of teary,” said Lisa Swisley, the restaurant owner. “It was very sad to us that she was missing her dad so much. I just thought I wanted to reach out to her.”
Ashlynn signed her full name on the balloon, so Swisley looked her up online. She then posted the story on the “Pay It Forward in Auburn” Facebook page and got a big response, with the members offering to send Ashlynn cards and gifts.
Swisley, who just finished listening to the audio version of the book “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” believes it was meant to happen.
“The message to me was you can make an impact on people’s lives by doing small things,” she said. “I felt like the balloon came to me for some reason.”
Swisley plans to send the gifts she’s collected for Ashlynn this weekend. Humboldt State University, Ashlynn’s “dream school,” is also sending a package, she said.
Meanwhile, the teen was floored to hear someone found one of her balloons. She “most definitely” believes it’s the sign she was asking for.
“It’s a huge one,” Ashlynn said.
“All this support she’s getting is just amazing,” her mom added. “Maybe we can give hope to some other people, too… they’ll know that our loved ones are watching us.”