Twelve years ago today, a gift was born into this world. Her name was Gabriella Victoria Miller, and she lived every single day to the fullest. Her vivaciousness didn’t come to an end when she was diagnosed with an inoperable brain stem tumor that was the size of a walnut; if anything, her light just got stronger and brighter. I remember coming across Gabriella’s Facebook page early on in her battle, though what day or even month it was I can’t say. I remember thinking she was adorable. It didn’t take long for me to fall in love with this child. She was diagnosed in mid-November 2012, and shortly after that, her family took to smashing walnuts with frying pans to symbolically smash out the tumor. She began treatment to try to shrink the tumor, to buy her a little time. But that isn’t all she did.
Every December, Macys department stores across the country host “Dear Santa” letter writing campaigns to raise money for Make-A-Wish, a foundation that grants wishes of sick children. Gabriella took this idea and ran with it, originally wanting to collect 10,000 letters. She ended up collecting 240,983 letters, raising $1 for every letter, funding Wishes for 36 more kids. But she didn’t stop there. With her parents firmly behind her, she started a non-profit called Smashing Walnuts Foundation, The mission statement is to increase awareness about childhood cancer (it is not as rare as everybody would like to think, and it is seriously underfunded despite being the number one cause of death by disease in children) and to raise funds for childhood brain cancer research.
Everything Gabriella did, she put her whole heart and soul into it. She co-authored a children’s book about childhood cancer, earned an honorary college degree and also received the President’s Medal for Outstanding Service in Cancer Awareness from Shenandoah University. She went with her family on her Make-A-Wish trip to Paris in May 2013. She was awarded “Outstanding Volunteer of the Year” and was a sought after motivational speaker. From time to time, I get on Youtube and find her clips for TheTruth365. Hearing her contagious giggling makes me smile and tear up at the same time. Eleven and a half months after her brain cancer diagnosis, Gabriella passed away surrounded by family and close friends, who promised her they will continue her work.
And they are. Gabriella’s family made the decision to donate her tumor-riddled brain to research in hopes of one day curing DIPG, which is what she had, Seven months later, her parents and little brother stood beside President Obama as he signed the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act. The funds from this Act go to the Common Fund at the National Institutes of Health. Gabriella’s parents and the Smashing Walnuts Foundation are now working to have the funds allocated. I have heard it said that fighting against the injustices of childhood cancer is a way for bereaved parents to continue taking care of their children after they are gone, and I understand this completely.
Thinking about Gabriella has long since soaked into who I am at my core. She was born on this day twelve years ago, and it’s also my mom’s birthday, and the 32nd anniversary of the day I was diagnosed with stage 4 neuroblastoma. One night, late last summer, I had a dream about Gabriella. She was happy, and what’s more, she was healthy and perfect. We both were untouched by cancer. In the dream, I took Gabriella to get pedicures, and then we went to a drive-in movie. We sat in the back of a truck in a lawn chair, her in my lap with my arms around her and so many blankets piled on top of us. She kept poking one of her bare feet out from under the blankets and giggling. How I reveled in the sound! I saw Gabriella’s mother, Ellyn, in the crowd a few yards away and tried desperately to get her attention, to let her know that Gabriella was with me and was okay. But then the dream changed, and I was suddenly chasing Gabriella through a tunnel of light. That is when the dream ended, and I woke up. I was frozen in bed for the longest time, thinking, “Wow.” I believe that Gabriella paid me a visit that night. She was reminding me that even though she’s gone, she is still here in every single way that matters. She was a shining star to everyone who knew her and of her, and she remains so to this day.