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Sibling bond survives despite tragedy: A family grieving the death of a son and brother finds solace in words of his sister

Casey and Matt Heisler at Casey's junior prom. The siblings grew up in Lakeville, Minn.

GRAND FORKS — Matt Heisler was a jokester, a cut-up, a tease. No one, especially those he cared about most, were spared.

Faking an empty gas tank, he made little sister Casey push his car up the driveway. Not even his grandmother was immune, as he heckled her about not putting enough miles on her treadmill.

But, behind that wisecracking exterior was a softy, a sentimentalist. Evidence of both sides of his personality was documented in a framed essay written five years ago by Casey, when she was 12 and he was 16. Titled “My Big Brother Matt,” the paper addressed the mixed, yet loving, relationship of the two siblings.

She said in her essay that Matt “isn’t always the nicest to me, but I still love him and he loves me.”

The essay warmed his heart, as he took to college, placing it prominently on his nightstand in the rental house shared with several fellow University of North Dakota students. It was one of only a few of the 21-year-old’s possessions that were salvageable from the fire that took his life on March 18.

Family members found it comforting that their daughter’s essay praising her big brother was among the few possessions that survived.

“In Casey’s words, I saw Matt’s love and devotion to family even though he wasn’t always nice to her,” said his grandmother, Margie Wells of Grand Forks.

Jared Heisler, Matt’s father, said the essay encased in glass will remain with Grandma for a while before Casey reclaims it.

“(Margie) wants to clean it as much as she can,” Jared said. “She also wants to show it to people in her church group. And, I think, she just wants to hold it.”

Leaving a legacy

Grandma Wells is wearing two rubber wristbands. The blue-and-white one, given to her by a group of Matt’s friends, carries his first name. The green one is an indication of Matt signing up as an organ donor when he last renewed his driver’s license.

“A 70-year-old man has his heart, a 61-year-old man has his liver, a 56-year-old woman and a 46-year-old woman each have a kidney and someone has his eyes,” his father said.

“We’re really looking forward to meeting the folks that Matt was able to help.”

The family also is planning a fundraiser to award an annual college scholarship at Lakeville (Minn.) North High School, Matt’s alma mater. A business major, Matt had two years of school remaining to get his UND degree.

Staying in GF

The English assignment for the seventh-graders in Lakeville, Minn., five years ago was to write about their hero. Casey didn’t hesitate on picking her subject.

“I never thought he’d keep it or re-read it, so I couldn’t believe he brought it with him (to UND),” she said. “When I first visited him at UND and saw it in his room, it meant a lot to me.

“So, I’m really glad this can be salvaged.”

The essay “My Big Brother Matt” won’t be gone long from Grand Forks. Casey will be here in August as a UND freshman, with the essay destined for her nightstand.

“But, I’ll make Grandma a copy, too,” she said.