Through parents' grief, a window on gratitude

Brian and Katie Mandell with their daughter, Emily, who died last year.
Brian and Katie Mandell with their daughter, Emily, who died last year. (Courtesy Of Katie And Brian Mandell)
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By Petula Dvorak
Friday, May 7, 2010

It's Mother's Day weekend, so people are going to be busy.

Brunches, family visits, boys throwing tantrums in tiny seersucker suits. So the National Walk to End Brain Tumors isn't on everyone's to-do list. But Katie and Brian Mandell will be there Saturday, shoes laced up for the Ashburn event, one of about 40 to be held across the country this weekend.

Then, instead of brunch Sunday, they'll visit their daughter's grave.

This could be a difficult story to read. And parts of it are heartbreaking. But it's so much more than that.

I heard about the Mandells from one of their friends. And really, for days, I didn't want to call them. How on Earth can you talk to two young people -- public school teachers, newlyweds with a big golden retriever and a sweet little townhouse in Reston -- who are coping with the death of their little girl?

The news is full of these sad stories.

Hours before visiting the Mandells, I heard the family of Brishell Jones, a 16-year-old girl who was killed in a drive-by shooting on South Capitol Street in the District in March, speak from the steps of the city's Wilson Building. Brishell's mother and grandmother are a force, showing up at court, council hearings and rallies, passionately decrying the suspects in Brishell's death, rallying for tougher penalties and more stringent gun laws.

For the Mandells, it was illness, not violence, that took their only child.

Their daughter, Emily, was born Dec. 8, 2006, just a few weeks before my younger son.

When my boy was 15 months old, I was freaking out that he wouldn't get a spot in preschool.

When Emily was 15 months old, her parents were watching in horror as she suffered a massive seizure during an Easter visit to Savannah to see an uncle.

They rushed her to a hospital, where they would live for weeks after learning she had a tumor the size of a baseball pushing on her brain stem. One of the doctors urged them to call their extended family to come say goodbye to the smiley little girl. They didn't think she would make it out of the building.

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