A review of Cards for Brianna: A Mom’s Messages of Living, Laughing, and Loving as Time is Running Out by Heather McManamy, with William Croyle (Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, 2016. 224 pp. $15.99, hardcover.)
In July 2015, Heather McManamy became briefly famous as the terminal cancer patient who wrote letters to her daughter, Brianna, for all the important moments that her mother would not be around to share.
For example, she wrote letters for Brianna’s first day of elementary school, for when she’s sick or having a rough day, for her wedding, even for her retirement. The letters offered words of encouragement, of comfort, and of hope, which McManamy knew she would not be around to give in person.
In December 2015, McManamy gained massive public attention a second time, when the goodbye letter she wrote to friends—and which her husband posted on Facebook following her death—went viral.1 In that letter, McManamy thanked her friends for the amazing experiences they had together, and she asked them to tell Brianna stories about her, to dance at her funeral, and to not say that she lost to cancer—because it never took her love or hope or joy.
This April, McManamy deserves the spotlight once again, and a place in all of our hearts forever, for a book she authored in her last days: Cards for Brianna: A Mom’s Messages of Living, Laughing, and Loving as Time is Running Out.
McManamy wrote the book in forty-nine days, sending in the manuscript just one day before she died. The title of the book, Cards for Brianna, refers to the cards McManamy wrote to her daughter, and from which she quotes liberally in the book. But the book is mostly about her own experience with cancer, of trying her best to live and love her life with it, and what all of us can do to make our lives more beautiful and more rewarding, and to make this world a more enjoyable, empathetic, life-loving place.
For example, McManamy highlights the importance of “impeccable self-care,” which she says includes feeling all of one’s emotions, whether pleasant or unpleasant.
As a youth and into adulthood, I never, ever cried. Not for any deep psychoanalytical reasons that I know of. I just didn’t. I crammed any bad feelings down where I felt they belonged, and everything seemed good. So when I started regularly meeting with my shrink and learning how to live in the moment, it took a lot of effort to let myself fall apart. The first couple times I did, I was a blubbering mess and seriously wondered why this was a good thing. How would I ever be able to piece myself back together? But I did, and I still do. Yes, it’s scary to relinquish control of your feelings to the unknown, and it can take a while to recover. But I always manage to navigate my way to the light on the other side, because releasing those emotions helps me to see and feel all the joy in my life. (p. 90)
McManamy also observes the importance of accepting reality—again, whether pleasant or unpleasant.
I think the phrase “it is what it is” is often overused, but it’s an accurate way to describe stage IV cancer. The cancer in my body is what it is and does what it wants to do. I can’t stop it. I can’t change it. I can’t control it. But one thing it can’t stop me from doing is laughing and loving and being loved and celebrating life. (p. 123)
Such a reality-oriented, emotionally mature approach to life is admirable in all times. That McManamy was able to hold on to it, and more, to let it flourish, throughout each stage of the cancer that ultimately killed her, is immensely inspiring. That she also wrote about it so eloquently for us to learn and profit from is a posthumous gift to the world for which we all can be deeply thankful.
McManamy, of course, knew that she was in this position—that how she acted and what she wrote would inspire others. So it is fitting that Cards for Brianna includes pointers on everything from how to help someone with cancer to why telling a child that her mother “went to heaven” can be perplexing and psychologically harmful.
It also makes sense that the book includes so many calls for readers to live life to the fullest each day. At the book’s end, for example, McManamy asks readers to do her one favor: “to acknowledge this fragile roller coaster of an adventure called life.”
How? Do something that makes you truly happy. Do something you’ve always wanted to do but never have. Give someone an unexpected hug. Go check out the sunset. Call or text someone you haven’t spoken to in a while. Make peace with people. Live. Laugh. Love. A lot. And then, after you do whatever it is you decide to do, make it a habit each day to continue that acknowledgment in some way. Just a few minutes a day. Believe me, you will see and feel the difference in your life.
Whether you are about to die at the age of thirty-six or sixty-six or ninety-six, life will always feel like it’s been too short if you don’t experience it. Find your hope. And don’t ever forget that every day matters. (p. 196)
Thank you, Heather McManamy. Thank you.
1. To see her Facebook post, visit https://www.facebook.com/heather.mcmanamy/posts/10153176115305951.