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For Her
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A dying mother leaves “goodbye” cards for her daughter

McManamy Family

Hillary Schave | Azena Photography

Heather and Brianna McManamy share a hug.

Heather MacManamy - published on 05/22/17

Heather McManamy didn't have time to tell her daughter everything she wanted to, so she came up with a bigger plan.

I loved my life. It was perfect. I was a 33-year-old wife to a wonderful husband and the mother of the most beautiful little girl in the world. I had a job that I absolutely loved. We had a modest, comfortable home. Seriously, for a girl from the old working-class Milwaukee suburb of West Allis, Wisconsin — “Stallis,” as we called it — I was living a dream.

But then, one evening, a bomb went off: I was lying in bed and felt a lump on my chest.

“What is that?” I exclaimed to Jeff as I popped my head up. Neither of us had ever noticed it. How long had it been there? I spent the rest of the night googling “lump on chest,” trying to find any link that didn’t have the word “cancer” in it.

I went to the doctor the next day; that’s when the wheels started to come off. I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. Less than four weeks later, I had a double mastectomy. I followed that with chemo for more than a year, but it didn’t work. The cancer had spread to my bones and liver. I was diagnosed as stage IV terminal, given two years at most to live.

When my oncologist told me that I was terminal, he bluntly warned me what I was in for. “It’ll be one heck of a roller coaster ride,” he said. “You’ll receive bad news after bad news after bad news. You just need to hang on tight for as long as you can.”

… And so, being the stubborn person I am, I decided if I ever had the chance to gain control over anything, I was going to seize it.

Creating memories

Long before I ever thought about buying greeting cards for Brianna, I put together some other mementos to help her remember me. It began with basic Shutterfly and Snapfish picture books loaded with photos of us together. When I first started chemo, before I was certain where this cancer was going to take me, I rearranged my hours at work so I could have every Monday off to spend with Bri. Those days became known as “Mommy Mondays,” and they lasted for more than a year, until she started preschool.

We filled every Monday with dance classes, gymnastics, a trip to the zoo, play dates, girl trips to water parks, movies, and salon days. We crammed in a ton of fun and captured a lot of it in photos.

Then I started producing videos. I sat on the couch by myself with microphone in hand, rambling into the camera about who I was and what I loved about Bri and how much I would miss her and yada yada yada. I finally had to shout “Cut!” when even the camera looked bored. I worried about how Bri would hear all kinds of wonderful and fantastic things from other people about her mom (I hope) but wouldn’t see that same vibrant woman on camera.

McManamy Family
Photo Courtesy of Sourcebook
Jeff, Brianna and Heather McManamy in their Wisconsin backyard with one of the cards Heather wrote for her young daughter.

So I refocused and decided to do more of a reality show. With my friend’s sister and brother-in-law running camera and directing the production, we recorded Bri and me doing everyday things around the house: playing dolls, watching football, making dinner, reading, or just talking about funny or interesting things that happened during our days together. Nothing super exciting, but real-life videos that show the interaction and love between the two of us …

I soon moved on to voice recordings, all very random ones. I recorded myself reading some of her favorite books, and I sang songs to her, including one I sang when she was a baby called “Good Night to You” that I made up to the tune of “Happy Birthday.” I can’t sing well—I’m awful, in fact—but I could create spur-of-the-moment lullabies with the best of them when my crying baby wouldn’t sleep. Of course, I recorded the period talk and the sex talk for later in life. I also did some mini interviews with her. We talked about her first day of preschool and the trip we took to Disney World when she was three …

Of course, I’ve [also] earmarked some of my personal possessions for Bri, such as jewelry, a journal I kept when I was pregnant, and piles of notebooks we both scribbled in over the past couple years. Everything I’ve left for her, from these possessions to the videos to the audio recordings, is in Jeff’s care. It’s completely his call as to if or when she will see any of it.

That also includes the famous greeting cards.

Words from the heart

I started by buying roughly 40 of them. It’s now up to about 70. I got some for Jeff for future special occasions in his life. I also got a few for friends that Jeff will give out when I die, pretty much thanking them for being such great friends and maybe getting in a final zinger (that’s how you get the last word). But the vast majority of the cards are for Bri.

My experience writing messages to her in the cards was like most everything else in life that’s difficult to do: the anticipation of doing it was far worse than actually doing it. I didn’t buy the cards, come home, and joyfully fill them out. I bought them, came home, stared at them for a long time wondering why I had bought them and how in the world I thought I was going to emotionally get through them, and then I put them away for weeks. I couldn’t get myself to write in a single one. Part of it was the finality of each one. How do I wish my daughter a happy birthday when I know I won’t be here for it? Part of it too was worrying about how she would react when she got a card. What do I say in a wedding card when I have no idea who she will be two or three or however many decades from now, or if I will even matter to her?

I tried to push myself past that obstacle by shifting my mind-set from fear and doubt to Bri’s potential perspective of wonderment and excitement when she receives one of the cards. I envisioned her on her wedding day, sitting alone in her beautiful gown in a quiet room, reflecting on life and the ceremony about to take place. Her father walks in with a big, warm smile. He gives her a giant hug and tells her how proud he is of her and how extremely proud her mother would be. It’s a warm, touching moment between father and daughter. Jeff then reaches into the breast of his tux and pulls out my card. It says “Brianna” on it in my handwriting. He hands it to Bri … and she explodes at him! Just seeing the card makes her bawl uncontrollably minutes before she’s supposed to walk down the aisle. The tears cause her once-perfect makeup to stream down her face and drip onto her dress. She screams at Jeff, “How can you do this to me?” as she slams the unopened card to the floor, stomps on it, breaks a heel, and storms out …

Stop! Just stop!

That’s what I had to keep telling myself throughout this process as my mind wandered to fictional worst-case scenarios. I wrestled with so many emotions as I wrote these cards, especially fear and doubt. Would each card add joy to Bri’s life or interrupt it? Would the cards make her happy, sad, angry? With Jeff as the keeper of the cards and knowing he would use his best judgment as to whether he should give her a particular one, I continually convinced myself the potential good far outweighed any potential bad. Imagine receiving a card from the person who loved you more than life itself, years after that person was gone. Could there be a better gift? I knew I needed to do this.

I pulled the huge stack of cards from a drawer and got comfortable on Bri’s bed one day when she was at school, and I started writing. My notes weren’t long, except for the wedding day one, which required extra paper for me to say how much I hoped it was the most glorious day of her life. I didn’t worry about my words sounding poetic or profound. I just spoke from the heart and said what I would say if I were handing them to her myself. Hours went by as I completely immersed myself in the moment. Most of the doubts I had about what I was doing gradually faded with each one. It was some of the best therapy I’d ever put myself through. I felt a sense of freedom and comfort knowing that even though I was dying, I would be able to speak to my daughter long after I was gone. And, more important, Bri would be able to hear her mother’s voice.

Signing off

The only doubt that really stuck with each card was “Who will I be to her when she reads this?” I didn’t know how to sign some of them. Would I still be “Mom” to her? If Jeff remarries, will his new wife be “Mom,” demoting me to “Heather” or “That Woman Who Gave Birth to Me?” If she has a new mom, would I be overstepping my bounds by signing “Mom” or by giving her a card at all? Thoughts like that prompted several spontaneous sobfests. Understand that the thought of wondering if I’d still be “Mom” or not wasn’t a negative thing, just a complicated one. To me, for Bri to have a new mom to take care of her would be the best-case scenario. I would honestly be thrilled if that happens! I want to be demoted! But still being here now, trying to figure out how to refer to myself years into the future when I’ve been gone for a long while and Bri has a new mom, was what I would call “bittersweet joy.” A very complicated bittersweet joy.

But, like all the other wild emotions I’ve experienced through this disease, I just sat with them. I held the card in my lap and the pen in my hand, cried it out until the emotions passed, and then started writing again.

As difficult as each card was to write, the experience was absolutely worth it. I hope she enjoys the videos and audio recordings and items I made or left for her, but I can’t imagine anything will have a stronger impact than a handwritten personal message from me on her special day or in a moment when she could use her mother’s love. It won’t be a hug or a kiss or a face-to-face talk, but it’s the best I can do. And if she doesn’t want a particular card, or any of them, that’s perfectly fine. They are there for her if she wants or needs them. Just knowing they exist may be therapeutic enough for her.

Cards for Brianna is available on Amazon.

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