Messages of Love

In cards designed by teenage girls, women with advanced breast cancer compose messages for important moments in the lives of their children.

Published in Dome - June 2015

In the cozy library of the Bryn Mawr School in Baltimore, freshman Alice Ball fashions a birthday card. “It’s your 18th birthday,” she prints in purple marker. She adds smiling green suns and heart-shaped red balloons. The 15-year-old is thinking of the future. “When I turn 18, it’s going to be a milestone,” she says.

Two months later, at a three-day Johns Hopkins Breast Center retreat for women with metastasized breast cancer, Dominique Thayil, 39, picks up the same card. Thayil’s daughter is 13, but Thayil, wearing a blue hat and bright pink sweatshirt, is thinking of the future too. She writes the words she won’t be able to deliver in person, puts the card in its envelope and labels it: “Emma. 18th birthday.”

“I told her to be brave enough to walk away from situations where she is in danger of not being true to herself,” says Thayil, who also has a 10-year-old son. “It felt good to write that down. Eighteen is a significant age.” 

It’s a breezy spring day, trees beginning to bloom, buds unfurling to greet the afternoon sun. Inside the Retreat and Conference Center at Bon Secours in Marriottsville, Thayil and 11 other women with advanced cancer have finished a yoga session and are relaxing on couches and chairs arranged in a large circle. Guided by Lillie Shockney, administrative director of the Breast Center and cancer survivorship programs at Johns Hopkins, they voice frustrations, fears and sadness. 

“The top issue that mothers talk about is wanting to be there for their children, instilling their values, giving their advice, sharing their moments,” says Shockney, who has been leading twice-a-year retreats since 2007 for women with metastasized breast cancer and their spouses, friends, or family. By writing cards for their children, the women can “still be here,” says Shockney. “It’s powerful to see a mother’s handwriting and read her words.” 

Along one wall of the sunny room, a table holds hundreds of cards — some donated, some made by Bryn Mawr students — divided into categories, including “thank you,” “celebrate,” “school,” “birthday” and “baby.”

Shockney has been collecting these cards for years. In February, she tried something new, asking students at the all-female Bryn Mawr School to design cards inspired by their own experiences as daughters. In an event organized by senior Julia Cardwell, 30 students crafted 165 cards, celebrating weddings, graduations, birthdays, the first day of school. They drew delicate flowers, yellow school buses, caps and gowns.

Bryn Mawr senior Evan de Lara’s card commemorates a first heartbreak because, she says, “I think that’s a job that’s very central to a mother, talking about heartbreak, especially with a daughter.” Inside, she wrote in red marker: “I know it’s hard to get over the one you thought was perfect, but you are loved and you will love again.”

At Bon Secours, Gerry Wallace, 52, picks up Evan’s heartbreak card and adds it to the collection in her hand. She plans to set it aside, like the other cards, for her daughter to read after she is gone.

But plans change, as Wallace knows all too well. Within days, her teenager is sobbing over a first love gone sour. Wallace sees no reason to save the card. The message is needed now. “They’re created by kids, so they’re what a child would want to hear,” she says.

Together, the student and the mother deliver a message of love, comfort and hope.