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Remembering Gabriella, carrying on with her mission

Mark and Ellyn Miller, parents of the late 10-year-old Gabriella Miller, speak out about losing their daughter and her legacy. Times-Mirror Photo/Rick Wasser
Mark and Ellyn Miller said they always knew their daughter would lead them to the Oval Office. The parents of the late Gabriella Miller just never thought it would be so soon, or under such devastating circumstances.

It's been six months since the Millers, of Leesburg, lost their daughter to Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, the “most insidious brain cancer known to man,” in the words of Mark Miller.

“There is no survival rate, at all, anywhere. Zero,” he said.

Mark and Ellyn opened up about Gabriella, her heroic advocacy and what the future holds during an hour-long conversation with the Times-Mirror on April 24, three weeks after President Barack Obama signed into law the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act.

The act helps preserves just one facet of the late Gabriella's legacy by redirecting $126 million over the next 10 years to pediatric cancer research.

“We always knew that Gabriella was going to be remembered. We just assumed it would be for something she did 30 or 40 years from now,” Mark Miller said, sitting with his wife in their living room. “We always assumed that she would have us in the Oval Office because it was her office.”

“Surreal” was the word Ellyn Miller chose to describe her experience standing beside the president as he signed into law a bill with her daughter's name on it.

“We've said it was a little bit of a different scenario than I think most people have in meeting the president – we didn't want to have this happen,” Mark Miller said.

Since Gabriella's death, Mark and Ellyn have focused their energy on making sure the legislation passed and building the Smashing Walnuts foundation, which aims to raise awareness and funding for pediatric brain cancer research. The Millers aren't willing yet to disclose how much money the foundation has raised in its short lifespan, but if social media momentum is any indication, Smashing Walnuts is progressing as hoped. The foundation has collected nearly 30,000 likes on Facebook.

“One comment I made to Sen. Kaine was, 'you get us $126 million in next 10 years and we'll try to get you the same from Smashing Walnuts,'” Mr. Miller said.

House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Virginia Republican, was the lawmaker responsible for naming the legislation in Gabriella's honor. Cantor learned of the local 10-year-old's story after a member of his security staff showed him a YouTube video of Gabriella.

“The bill, H.R. 2019, which is what the Gabriella Miller Kids First Research Act is, started about a year ago, where they were formulating it and so forth. And they have flat out said to us that it was attaching Gabriella and making it personal that brought it through,” Ellyn Miller said.

The Millers assert it was primarily Gabriella, with her strength and charisma, who made the new law a reality.

“It was not us getting the bill named after Gabriella. It was Gabriella who got the bill named after Gabriella,” Mark said.

The Millers said the Loudoun community has served as a bastion of support and compassion during their painful past year. More than 2,000 people turned out for Gabriella's memorial at a Leesburg high school. Gabriella was named the county's Volunteer of the Year in 2012, and she earned an honorary college degree from nearby Shenandoah University.

“Loudoun is a special county,” Ellyn Miller said. “This county has really been amazing with childhood cancer awareness. It truly is unbelievable how this county stands with the families and the children that are going through this.”

“We're very fortunate,” said Mark Miller, pausing as he realized the irony of using the term fortunate, “that what happened to Gabriella and our family happened here … You'd ask for a chicken soup delivery and you get five chicken soup deliveries a night. You really can't ask for more.”

A key change in the Millers' lives has been how often they're out in the community and strangers recognize them, sharing kind words, compliments and condolences.

“We really like that, and people ask us all the time if it bothers us,” Ellyn said. “And, no – the reason being is that it honors Gabriella. She had such an impact that people want to say something. That's the ultimate honor.”

Gabriella taught her parents more than a little about life in her 10 years. Her dad said he's more cognizant of a “no regrets” lifestyle and will make sure if there's ever an activity he wants to do with his son, 7-year-old Jake, the father won't for a second hesitate to do it.

Ellyn, who will give the commencement speech at Shenandoah this year, wishes she had Gabriella's penchant for public speaking.

The parents also reflected on the more-normal side of life with “Sweet G,” as Ellyn called Gabriella.

“She was this little powerhouse, but she was just a 10-year-old girl,” Ellyn said. “Yes, she could get up in front of a crowd and speak and, yes, she was this huge cancer awareness advocate. But, you know, she was a 10-year-old girl. She picked on her brother. She sassed her mom and dad. She was horrible in the mornings.”

Mark Miller reflected, “When I'd come home from work, I'd walk in that door with all my stuff and they would just run up, 'Daddy, daddy, daddy.' And I sometimes would get frustrated because I had all my stuff. It never occurred to me leave all my stuff in the car. Go back and get it later … I miss that.”

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