Six-year-old Elena Desserich is shown in February 2007 in an unfinished playhouse built by her father, Keith. Elena died of brain cancer later that year but left notes and pictures for her family all over their Cincinnati home, hiding them in bookshelves and drawers. “That’s my favourite picture of her,” her father told the Star.
November 05, 2009
FAMILY ISSUES REPORTER
From the moment she first picked up a crayon, Elena Desserich loved to draw. Even as a preschooler, her favourite gifts were pastels, markers and blank notebooks.
So it wasn’t unusual for Keith and Brooke Desserich to find their little girl’s trademark purple hearts and “I love you” notes on scraps of paper and stray envelopes all over their suburban Cincinnati home.
But it wasn’t until weeks after their 6-year-old died of cancer that they realized she had left hundreds of messages planted in nooks and crannies for her parents and little sister, Grace, to stumble upon after she was gone.
Each one they find – tucked into bookshelves, dishes in the china cabinet, corners of dresser drawers, bags of stored clothing – is like she’s sending “a little hug,” say her mom and dad.
“She’s giving us a little message saying that everything’s going to be all right,” Keith said in a phone interview Wednesday.
Elena was only 5 years old when doctors diagnosed pediatric brain cancer. They said she had 4 1/2 months to live. But she made it to almost nine months.
Her parents didn’t tell her the prognosis; in retrospect they say she must have somehow known as her small body started to fail her.
Since her death more than two years ago, the discoveries of what she left behind have grown fewer and further between. There was nothing for six months. And then last week, there she was again, inside a Strawberry Shortcake notebook in the back of the cupboard tucked behind the game of Candyland.
“I love you Mom, Dad and Grace,” she had written inside a heart with arrows.
Keith doesn’t remember the first one she left because for awhile, he and Brooke thought her notes were part of the daily household clutter that had accumulated over the years.
“But after you get to 20 or 30 you realize this isn’t just scraps,” he says. “We don’t even know when her notes started. We have three Rubbermaid boxes full.” There could be 300, they haven’t counted.
Elena left them for her grandmother too, and even a great-aunt’s Chihuahua she adored, who stood guard at her bedside until the end.
While they offer a powerful source of comfort to those who adored her, Elena’s family believes they contain a universal message too: cherish the small moments in life; be present for those you love.
The girl with a ladylike fondness for headbands, tights with polka dots and anything lacy or pink was also “a wise soul,” says her dad.
“She found grace even in the smallest details.”
Her parents hope to carry her message and her example in their newly-published book Notes Left Behind, a series of their journal entries during Elena’s last months, written for her sister, along with samples of her messages and artwork.
Proceeds go to the research foundation the Desserichs created called The Cure Starts Now Foundation (www.thecurestartsnow.org).
Keith doesn’t know how many bits of paper are still waiting to be found. Each new one is wrenching, but at the same time he never wants them to end.
That’s why one letter he found in an envelope inside his briefcase still remains sealed. So too does another that had been slipped into Brooke’s backpack.
Keith doesn’t believe he’ll ever open it, even though to him, this letter is the most important one.
“There’s something wonderful about knowing there’s always one more message from Elena.”