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You might say that Natalie McDonald's success lies in the fact that she made a cameo appearance in one of the famous Harry Potter novels, living out the dream of the boy wizard's legion of fans worldwide.

You might say she is successful because her uncle, director Bruce McDonald, has set up a scholarship in her name at Ryerson Polytechnic University, to encourage women immersed in the magical art of filmmaking.

You could cite her precocious gifts as a visual artist, or call her bravery an exemplary, Potterish sort of success. Or say that her life has helped grownups figure out how to take better care of sick children.

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It would all be true.

What makes her story the more extraordinary is that Natalie's successes were squeezed into the nine years she got before she died of leukemia in 1999.

Even after her death, her neighbourhood and family find themselves changed.

Her parents are Valerie McDonald, 42, and Bruce Stratton, 41.

They live just off Bloor Street in downtown Toronto with their other two daughters and would probably even question whether that was Natalie's role.

To them, sitting on the hot veranda outside their bedroom, above their tree-lined street, she was just Natalie, no saint, for sure.

"She had a wicked stubborn streak," Ms. McDonald said.

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She point-blank refused to speak to the doctors at the hospital and defiantly hung a sword on her intravenous rack, Mr. Stratton said, leafing through a collection of Natalie's intricate drawings.

In the two years since their daughter died, they have come to recognize that her life, her living and her death have left traces on people she never met.

J.K. Rowling is one. Ms. Rowling is the author of the four wildly successful Harry Potter novels, which tell the story of how a scrawny, mistreated orphan with a lightning-shaped scar learns magic, embraces life and conquers evil at Hogwarts, a boarding school for wizards.

Natalie, whose acute lymphoblastic leukemia was diagnosed the day before her seventh birthday, was a huge Harry fan. During the frightening treatments that followed, and their manifold complications, she had plenty of time to listen to the tales of the fearless wizard.

In fact, the stoic Natalie was such a Potter fan that her parents had the third book brought over by courier from England, because they did not know whether she would live until its release later in North America.

A friend of the family wrote to Ms. Rowling to explain Natalie's obsession and her approaching death. Ms. Rowling wrote back a lengthy letter telling the secrets of the Potter novels to come. It arrived two days after Natalie died.

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Ms. Rowling didn't give up. She and Natalie's mother began to exchange letters. They became fast friends. And last summer while Ms. McDonald was in London riding the tube and voraciously consuming the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, there was Natalie on page 159. Ms. Rowling inserted her as a new student arriving at Hogwarts and being sorted into one of the school's four houses.

Natalie drew Gryffindor, the same house as Harry. That's the ultimate accolade for a Potter fan.

"It was kind of a magical thing that happened in the year after Natalie died," Ms. McDonald said.

And then there was Natalie's effect on the Toronto neighbourhood where she and her family lived. This downtown neighbourhood has already come through in spades for the McDonald-Stratton family. Several years ago, cancer was diagnosed in Natalie's older sister, Madeleine Stratton, and she survived. She's now 13. A short while later, Ms. McDonald's mother was told she had lung cancer and died. Then Natalie got her own grim diagnosis.

"When Madeleine was sick, people were very wonderful about babysitting and cooking. And when my mother was sick. When Natalie was diagnosed, I thought, 'I can't tell anybody she's sick!' " Ms. McDonald said. "But then I did and people said: 'You are living everybody's nightmare. You have to let us help.' "

The mother of one of Natalie's best friends worked out a schedule for who should deliver meals when. After Natalie's death, the group put together a 40-page cookbook of the recipes that came to the rescue.

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At one point during Natalie's sickness, when every hour was crammed with medical care, a bathroom tap broke. A handy friend showed up with his tool kit and put it to rights.

Now, it's become a tradition in this downtown chunk of Canada's biggest city to show up at the door with a meal when someone's big family event, such as a birth or death, is unfolding.

"I think that's been one of the amazing blessings from Natalie being sick," Ms. McDonald said.

The award in Natalie's name at Ryerson is a blessing, too. It will go to a fourth-year female film student whose work is, well, Natalie-like: It must show bravery, sparkle and storytelling skills. The first award of $3,000 was given in November for a work Ms. McDonald believes Natalie would have liked.

The McDonald-Stratton family itself is trying to learn about using death to celebrate life. Each year on the anniversary of Natalie's death, they gather to talk about how the year has gone and discuss what they have missed doing. Last year, they ended up dancing.

None of it is easy, though. Mr. Stratton, who keeps jumping up from his chair to check on Madeleine and Anna, 8, who are playing hide-and-seek with a neighbourhood friend, said it's impossible to explain a parent's sense of failure when a child dies. It's hard to discern success when someone dies at 9.

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"All these things had an impact. And perhaps they had meaning," Ms. McDonald said. "But none of it is worth it to me. I'd rather have her back and fight with her as a teenager."

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