On a busy December weekend when many mothers were scurrying to finish their holiday shopping, Wendy Miller of Osterburg, along with a few close friends, was opening boxes, reviewing spreadsheets and stuffing mailing envelopes.
This Santa's Workshop-like process was not for holiday gifts or cards, however; the little band of committed workers was processing hundreds of book orders, the next step in a labor of love to share Wendy's daughter, Heather, with the world.
"Heaven Sent: The Heather Miller Story,'' by Scott Brown with Wendy Wissinger Miller, weaves the tender story of the Chestnut Ridge tomboy who waged a courageous 16-month battle against cancer and her family's journey of faith and friendship that touched people throughout their community and the country, and even infiltrated the Pittsburgh Steelers organization.
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back Troy Polamalu poses with Heather Miller, who was battling a rare form of cancer.
At first, I admit I was reluctant to read the book, much as I was reluctant to see the movie "Titanic,'' because, unfortunately, I thought I knew how it was going to end. Heather "earned her angel wings," as Wendy gently describes, on Jan. 29, 2010. But Heather's intoxicating and indelible spirit lives on, not only in the hearts of her family and friends, but now also through this very special book.
The quick read shares heartbreaking moments but also lots of laughter and many, many precious memories, as well as the far-reaching impact that Heather Miller's life had on so many. It contains a message that lingers with readers long after they've finished the book, just as her legacy endures nearly three years after her passing.
Diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare childhood cancer, in 2008, Heather Miller and her family began what they had hoped would be a road to recovery, which included surgery, chemotherapy and radiation. The book takes readers on an emotional journey, including many trips to and from Children's Hospital in Pittsburgh, inside family birthday and Christmas celebrations, a sentimental beach vacation, thrilling hunting trips, community events and much more.
Along the way, Heather Miller became a public figure (more than 19,000 likes on her Facebook page) as her small Bedford County community seemed to grow exponentially when exposed to the plight of the smiling 11-year-old in pigtails who loved sports and who adopted the mantra FROG (Fully Rely on God) to help her through the challenges of cancer.
That outlook, personified by her infectious smile and sometimes-shy-but-quirky personality, was just one of the qualities that drew Pittsburgh Steelers Troy Polamalu, Casey Hampton and Heath Miller, among others in the organization, into a unique friendship with Heather.
The book recounts her first meeting with Polamalu and describes her fast and deep friendship with the all-pro safety. Readers share in her experience through the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and spending a day with "Big Snack" Hampton, including Heather teasing the huge defensive lineman for not taking part in team stretching; and the book chronicles Heather's special bond with the family of tight end Heath Miller ("I'm just an ER away from him," Heather would say.)
It was Heather's connection to the Steelers that first introduced Brown, a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review sports writer, to the Miller family. After penning a feature story about Heather's unique impact on the team in June of 2010, the author of four other books, including "Miracle in the Making: The Adam Taliaferro Story,'' zeroed in on what he wanted his next project to be.
"I knew there was a larger story to be told," said Brown from his Murrysville home. "The thing that struck me about Heather was how she connected with people."
But Wendy needed some time to decide whether a book was the right thing for her family. After thinking and praying about it for many months, she decided to begin the process with Brown, with "no promises" of publishing. And there began another journey, as Wendy and her husband, Meach, and teenage daughter Hannah navigated the grieving process by bravely sharing their experiences and perspectives with Brown. Ultimately, they decided to seek publication of the book as a way to continue to honor Heather's memory and her legacy.
An elementary school teacher, Wendy loves to teach children to write, so it's not surprising that writing offers a welcome release during stressful times. When her family began making frequent trips to Pittsburgh for Heather's cancer treatments, a friend discovered CarePages, an online journal provided by UPMC that allowed Wendy to keep friends and family updated on Heather's progress. Wendy not only provided medical reports to those who subscribed but also shared her personal feelings, describing the rising and retreating tides of hope and frustration, of laughter and tears.
"Writing was my way to deal when Heather was sick," said Wendy.
Brown beautifully intertwines his narrative with a mother's blog posts, which she describes as Wendy: Raw, revealing in-the-moment emotions of sadness and fear, gratitude and awe, and even prayers, while living through some of the most difficult experiences a parent can face.
As Heather's treatments continued and her pigtails gave way to colorful bandanas, the community and indeed the nation rallied around her in many ways, also described in "Heaven Sent.'' The love and support for the Millers was and continues to be a blessing for the sports-minded family. Wendy, a volleyball coach, and Meach, a softball coach, were touched by fundraisers and tributes that popped up at sporting events throughout the region, from elementary and high school football games, to volleyball and softball contests to a golf tournament, and even a local race track. All of these efforts and more personal displays of support are remembered and celebrated as part of Heather's story.
"I would rather be holding my daughter's hand instead of a book, but I wanted a way to give back to all of the people who were so amazing to us when Heather was sick," Wendy said.
Proceeds from the book benefit several causes, including the Brian Morden Foundation, an Altoona-based non-profit dedicated to battling cancer.
Another prevailing theme of the book is "no regrets," from exploring a long-shot clinical trial, to creating once-in-a-lifetime family memories. Yet, Brown himself is left with one pang of remorse, that he never had the chance to meet Heather in person.
"I feel like I know her," Scott said, "but I wish I had the chance to meet her. I'm a bit of a prankster, and I think we would have had some prank wars, but she'd be tough to beat."
"I love the way he captured Heather's spirit and her quirkiness," said Wendy. "He's family now."
Brown also feels the book has a message for professional athletes.
"I would love for people like pro athletes who are looked up to and who are in a position to help people to see the impact that they can have on a child or a family, people in need," said Brown. "The Steelers did a lot for Heather's family. They light up when they talk about Heather. If you ask them, they'd tell you that she gave them even more."
"I'm still so in awe of her, and her impact on my life," said Wendy. "Any mother loves to talk about her children, and she loved her sports, but in her short life, she gave people faith and brought them closer to God."
"It's a roller coaster of emotions," said Brown, "but the enduring legacy of Heather is to live each day to the fullest. By remembering her, we're keeping Heather alive."
Kellie Goodman Shaffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears on Tuesdays.