Two Hundred and Fifty-Six Days

Elena Desserich was six-years old when she died from cancer.

Such a short life might fit into the palm of your hand: warm and weighted like a small animal, or, like a sea-shell examined at the edge of the ocean, glistening and clean in the bright sunlight. In its compactness, such a life is almost comprehensible. Almost.

Her parents were told that she had 135 days to live. They endeavored to survive the ordeal by recording it, day-by-day, into a journal ostensibly intended for future reading by Elena’s younger sister Grace. The Desserich’s extended family wanted/needed to know about Elena, about these final days, so the daily passages were upload to a website. Thousands of people drew inspiration from these posts. And way-led-onto-way until yesterday’s re-publishing of Notes Left Behind:

“In Notes Left Behind, Elena’s parents struggle to resolve their contradictory impulses to both fight Elena’s cancer at all costs, and to realize the inevitable outcome that awaits their daughter. Through it all, they rediscover what it means to be a family and what it means to live. The journal is candid and sincere in its treatment of deeply personal and tragic events and is a reminder to parents everywhere to appreciate and savor every precious moment they have with their own children.” –

At some point Elena’s cancer prevented her from being able to speak. She wrote notes about what she wanted to say. She wrote notes and left them for her little sister to find. After Elena was gone, her parents discovered that Elena had left notes for them too, hidden between books and cds, in backpacks and briefcases.

This book is about the words the Desserich’s left behind and the notes Elena herself left behind.

Words sent out into the world like little paper boats bobbing along in rain-filled gutters.

History is full of these types of words, floating down through time. I come across them all the time as a historian. They are translated across language and across media. From Latin into English. From Stone into Binary. There are mistranslations too – this always happens. And there are things left unsaid, emptiness surrounds the symbols carved into stone.

What is unknowable about death and what is inexpressible about life haunts all of these words – especially the words: “I love you.”

In the end, Elena out-lived her prognosis by a hundred and twenty-one days. She died in August 2007.

Today, Notes Left Behind has gone viral. There are persistent problems with the webpage – due to high traffic. Like The Last Lecture, a lot of people will read this book. They will warm their hands in the glow if its pages.

Also this day: Lt. Boyes – We will pass words of you down through the years.

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