There is a saying, “It’s not the years in your life, but the life in your years.” It’s a cliché, yes, but that doesn’t make it false.
Gabriella Miller’s family had a better idea than most of how and when their gregarious young daughter might die, but as Tracy Bonsch put it Wednesday night at Gabriella’s memorial service, “That little girl did more in her 10 years, than many people do in a much longer lifetime.”
If you haven’t heard, Gabriella is a local girl who was diagnosed last year with a walnut-sized tumor on her brain. She lost her battle on Oct. 26.
In just the last year of her life Gabriella had raised more than $270,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, visited Paris, went to Disney World, spoke on the National Mall and, most importantly, brought a great deal of awareness to the issue of pediatric cancer.
And so it was that an entire gymnasium full of people came to Leesburg’s Heritage High School to celebrate her life, many carrying vases full of colorful paper flowers and walnuts. Every night, Gabriella would take a frying pan and crush a walnut to help her visually defeat the disease.
Proceedings began with Rabbi Michael Ragozin welcoming everyone. He read from the book of Leviticus Chapter 10, led a prayer, and then handed off the microphone to Dr. Randall Hollister, the headmaster at the Loudoun Country Day School.
Hollister read from a list of anecdotes that teachers had sent him via email explaining their most indelible moments with the young girl.
Gabriella’s fourth grade technology teacher Ms. Knickerbocker recalled that when the question of who would present a group project to the class came up Gabriella said simply, “I’m sure I’m going to be the one doing the talking, because that’s what I do. I talk in front of lots of people.”
It was this confidence and charm, paired with a quick wit that allowed Gabriella to be such a strong spokesperson for an illness that desperately needs all the talented and intelligent young voices it can get.
Family friend David Shapiro followed Hollister, speaking from a more personal point of view. He wanted to talk about Gabriella’s giggle.
“At first it starts slowly, and then she giggles at her giggle. And then the mature lady comes out and she tries to stop giggling, but that only makes her giggle harder,” Shapiro said.
As if to bolster Shapiro’s point, her face was projected onto a wall in the gym. The video was from an outtake filmed two weeks ago for a documentary that is currently being produced.
In a manner that belied her years, she looked straight into the camera when asked the question, “What message do you have to our political leaders, about kids with cancer?”
She answered, “Do what whatever you want with this. I just have to say it. Talk is bull****. We need action.”
Simple. Direct. But afterward she couldn’t stop giggling. Neither could the crowd.
Then there was “Tattoo” Tom Mitchell, the founder of the Stillbrave Childhood Cancer Foundation. He gets the nickname for obvious reasons: His body is inked all over.
Mitchell explained the relationship he had with Gabriella by using the Buddhist greeting and salutation Namaste, which he says loosely translated means “my soul recognizes your soul.”
He later said, “If I never do anything great in the rest of my life than to have been loved by that little girl, I will consider this life a very, very successful one.”
The service ended with the song “Lean on Me” performed by Gabriella’s music teacher Amie Jo Roos.
Every person in the crowd rose and clapped their hands as the song played. It ended, Rabbi Ragozin said a last word and the crowd parted.
Most people exited with the program they received when they walked in which read “You may have had a bad day today, but there’s always a bright shining star to look forward to tomorrow.” It was a quote from Gabriella.
The message, both obvious and implied, according to Dr. Tracy Fitzsimmons, president of Shenandoah University where Gabriella received an honorary diploma, is a call to action, to “leap out of bed every morning and work, work, work.”
The National Cancer Act was signed by President Richard Nixon in 1971. While it has been successful in helping to bring about awareness and great changes in the research and treatment of cancer, one of the overwhelming messages of the service was that pediatric cancer research and testing still needs more. To learn more about Gabriella and her foundation Smashing Walnuts visit her website at smashingwalnuts.org
|A memorial service for Gabriella Miller was held Oct. 30 at Heritage High School for the 10-year-old victim of cancer. The auditorium was filled with family, friends and well-wishers, many who brought paper bouquets as requested by the family. The tissue paper flowers will be sent to families and medical professionals affected by childhood cancer.|
|Gabriella Miller's preschool teacher and occasional babysitter Sheryl Blackington of Ashburn sheds tears during the memorial service for the 10-year-old victim of cancer at Heritage High School Oct. 30.|
|Ellyn Miller kisses her mother Marlene Herschander and holds hands with husband Mark at her daughter Gabriella's memorial service at Heritage High School Oct. 30.|
|Gabriella Miller's music teacher Amie Jo Roos, right, laughs at a funny part of a video played during a memorial service for the 10-year-old victim of cancer at Heritage High School Oct. 30. Roos led the packed auditorium in singing "Lean on Me" to end the program.|
|Carly Schrager of Leesburg helps her daughter Diana, 6, write a memory card for Gabriella Miller before the memorial service for the 10-year-old victim of cancer at Heritage High School Oct. 30. Diana went to school last year with Gabriella's brother Jake. She wrote, "I will miss you."|
|Children join in singing "Lean on Me" at the end of a memorial service Oct. 30 for 10-year-old Gabriella Miller, who lost her year-long battle with cancer Oct. 26. |