JEFF MCMANAMY shares a moment with his 4-year-old daughter, Brianna, as he talks about his wife, Heather, who passed away last December after a long battle with breast cancer.

JEFF MCMANAMY shares a moment with his 4-year-old daughter, Brianna, as he talks about his wife, Heather, who passed away last December after a long battle with breast cancer.


O n Feb. 14, Brianna McManamy opened the first of her mother’s cards. It was a simple Valentine, decorated with red hearts. The only words inside were those written by her mom.

They wished the 4-year-old a happy Valentine’s Day. They reminded Brianna her mother loved her.

BRIANNA MCMANAMY, 4, plays with her doll, Sweetie, in the living room where photos of her, with her mother Heather and father hang on the wall in the background at their home in McFarland, Wisconsin.

BRIANNA MCMANAMY, 4, plays with her doll, Sweetie, in the living room where photos of her, with her mother Heather and father hang on the wall in the background at their home in McFarland, Wisconsin.

They were penned by Heather McManamy, of McFarland, just weeks before she died of cancer at the age of 36. The Valentine was one of some 70 cards that Heather addressed to her husband, to friends, but most of all to her vivacious, curly-haired, preschool daughter, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

Those sealed cards, stowed carefully in a safe by Brianna’s father, Jeff, are meant for Brianna at each milestone of her life: First day of school. Passing her driver’s test. Her wedding day.

“Whether you broke a bone or had your wisdom teeth pulled or have the flu,” reads a get-well card Heather wrote to her daughter, “there is no place I’d rather be right now than eating chicken noodle soup and snuggling with you.”

“One of Heather’s biggest fears was that, after years and years, (Brianna) wouldn’t remember her,” Jeff said of his late wife.

But after Heather shared her idea about writing the cards last July with family and friends on Facebook, her words went viral. The story ricocheted from the Internet to TV news and national magazines. Emails came in from around the world.

CNN called her for a phone interview, her husband said, while Heather was receiving chemotherapy.

There was so much interest — worldwide interest — that she was invited to write a book. The process began in late October 2015, and a final draft was sent to the publisher on Dec. 14.

Heather died early the next morning.

“Cards for Brianna: A Mom’s Messages of Living, Laughing, and Loving as Time Is Running Out” is available for pre-order and will arrive in stores on April 12. A portion of the proceeds from April print book sales will benefit METAvivor, a nonprofit that helps fund research for metastatic cancer.

“It will be very surreal to see it in a bookstore,” said Jeff McManamy, who with his daughter Brianna, Heather’s co-author William Croyle, and the book’s editor, Anna Michels of Sourcebooks Inc., will be at a bookstore on April 10 to launch the book.

Both funny and tragic, “Cards for Brianna” is a shotgun seat on the emotional roller-coaster next to someone who is terminally ill. A constant theme, however, is the importance of living each day to the fullest.

“The thing that really struck me about Heather’s voice was the optimism and the joy that came through her writing, even as she was facing the end of her life,” said book editor Michels. “Even though, in the end, this story doesn’t end up with Heather beating her disease and moving on from it, I think it is ultimately a story of triumph and how she was able to live the very best life that she could in the time she was allowed.”

After her Stage 2 breast cancer found in April 2013 had progressed to Stage 4 a year later, Heather began making videos and audio tapes for Brianna to remember her by. Croyle, a former newspaper reporter who now co-authors inspirational biographies, heard about her plans to write cards for Brianna. Croyle emailed Jeff and proposed co-writing a book. That project, Heather would later write in its pages, became a “beautiful and meaningful experience.”

The self-described “compulsively organized control freak” would also compose her own obituary. She left behind a “dying spreadsheet” with instructions for Jeff to follow when she died. And she wrote her final Facebook post for Jeff to put online when she’d said her last goodbye.

“Don’t say I lost to cancer. Because cancer may have taken almost everything from me, but it never took my love or my hope or my joy,” she wrote in that posthumous post.

“It wasn’t a ‘battle’ — it was just life, which is often brutally random and unfair, and that’s simply how it goes sometimes. I didn’t lose, dammit. The way I lived for years with cancer is something I consider a pretty big victory. Please remember that.”

“Cards for Brianna” follows the journey of Heather’s illness with that same trademark spunk. She describes how she threw herself a hair-cutting party at a salon before losing her hair to chemotherapy. She talks matter-of-factly about the selection of a place for her ashes.

“My final resting spot is a bit unorthodox. It’s a clear glass box built into a wall inside a mausoleum,” she wrote. “The box is kind of like a trophy case (insert your own ‘trophy wife’ joke here before Jeff does). My ashes will be placed in an urn, which will be displayed in the box. I made sure to get a spot close to Bri’s current height so she can see it.”

There is room in the box for someone else’s ashes, she wrote, although she assumed Bri would want to be next to her future partner “and Jeff knows I don’t want him in there — I want him to find happiness with someone else when I’m gone.”

“So I’m thinking a nice shiny Chicago Bears helmet would look nice.”

Along with the West Allis native’s sense of humor (and odd partiality to the Bears), Heather was blunt about how — in a nation festooned with pink ribbons each year during Breast Cancer Awareness Month — people with terminal cancer are mostly left out of the conversation.

That was a key point she wanted her book to address, Croyle said.

“She was so enthusiastic about this,” said Croyle, who wrote “Cards for Brianna” with Heather via email and phone calls. Often, he would show up at his computer in the morning to find pages upon pages of new text that Heather had written until 3 a.m. Her witty, upbeat voice always came through.

“I would say what you read in the book — the majority of it is her words. And that’s unusual,” Croyle said. “Usually I’m there because people need help writing or organizing things. She could write. She was very good at it.”

One of the most moving accounts in the book centers on the actual cards Heather wrote for her daughter. It was not easy.

“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,” she wrote.

“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. 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? 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?”

Today, photos of Heather fill the McManamys’ McFarland home. Brianna talks freely about her mom, something her dad consciously encourages. The 4-year-old names all of her dolls “Sweetie,” the same name that Heather always called her.

Jeff, who would have celebrated his 10th wedding anniversary with Heather in May, took over much of Brianna’s care during his wife’s long illness.

As for life since she’s been gone, “We’re still figuring it out,” said Jeff, who is assistant vice president for learning and organizational development at Summit Credit Union. “We have school and work. I’m not much of a cook, so we eat out a lot.”

Brianna attends preschool and 4-year-old kindergarten. She loves her best friend and her dance class, she explained as she performed a ballet leap across the kitchen floor.

“Brianna definitely has a zest for life, and I think that’s Heather showing through,” Jeff said.

For him, the most poignant part of “Cards for Brianna” was Heather’s description of their first meeting and five-year courtship.

“Thinking about those days, when our life together was just starting, and not a care in the world — it makes me miss that,” he said. “We were planning Bri’s second birthday when we first found out Heather had cancer. And really, from that point on, there really was never a point where she didn’t have treatment, and surgeries, and hospital stays.

“There are days when I am frustrated or angry that this (illness) happened, but I look back — and Heather and I got 15 years together,” he said. “That’s a lot better than nothing. And I get to wake up every day and play with Bri.”

Each Saturday after swim class, he and Brianna go to the mausoleum — “to visit mommy,” Brianna explained.

Sometimes Brianna puts a drawing she made for her mom in the glass case next to the urn.

A card for Heather.

“The only place that Mommy wanted to be,” she explained, “was with me.”

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