OAKLAND -- About 200 people gathered at a sunset ceremony Tuesday to say goodbye to Michelle Le, the nursing student who captured hearts and stirred hopes since her disappearance just before Memorial Day until her body was found during the fading days of summer.
The vigil at Samuel Merritt University marked four months to the moment she was last seen, and served as an epilogue to a season of searching for her, an affirmation to keep her memory and spirit alive, and a chance to hear more about a 26-year-old woman who was as loyal to her loved ones in life as they were to her after she vanished.
"She lived her life as if she knew it were short," said her cousin Krystine Dinh.
Le would downplay problems, laugh and make jokes about them, Dinh said. She was always telling her cousin to "chill out" and not take things so seriously.
"She made all of life's worries so light, I wish she was here now to help me through this," Dinh said.
But Le was also a fighter, passionate about helping people, both those she held close and those she barely knew.
It was that compassion that led her to follow in her late mother's footsteps, enrolling in nursing school at Samuel Merritt. It was something she pursued with a zeal that was impossible for colleagues and teachers not to notice.
"She was like a sponge, soaking things up," said Laurie Rosa, an instructor who was overseeing Le's clinical rotation at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center
in Hayward the night she disappeared. "She couldn't get enough of learning to be a nurse. I'd have to drag her out of her patient's room to do the documentation for the night."
Le grew up in San Diego and moved to the Bay Area to study. She lived in San Mateo with her terrier, Rocket -- that's short for Rocket Scientist, she once said, because there are not enough female rocket scientists in the world -- and her favorite color was purple, as were the candles at Tuesday's vigil. She had a precise handwriting style, but her signature was "chicken-scratch" because she scribbled it so rapidly.
"She'd say 'I'm saving a minute of my life every time I sign my name,'" Rosa said.
After she vanished, it did not take long for people who had never met Le to empathize with her friends and relatives. Tearful but hopeful, shell-shocked by the disappearance but determined to do whatever it might take to bring her back, those who loved Le began galvanizing others behind their cause through rallies and media appearances, led by Dinh and 24-year-old Michael Le, Le's younger brother.
Such attention soon turned into action, and Le's loved ones found themselves joined by throngs of strangers in a family-organized search party that found Le on Sept. 17.
Former friend Giselle Esteban, 27, remains without bail at Santa Rita Jail. She is due to make a court appearance Wednesday morning. Le's relatives and supporters have consistently shown up at the proceedings.
"I can't tell you we've found closure or peace with what happened," Michael Le said.