When she was five years old, Elena Desserich was just like many other little girls. For instance, she loved the color pink, and she always wore dresses. And when she wasn’t drawing, she loved going to the local library. It seemed to make this remarkable little girl wise beyond her years. So when she tragically passed away, her parents would learn a big lesson in love and life through her secret notes that she had hidden around the house.
Growing up in Ohio, Elena was a very creative and intelligent little girl. She loved reading, and when she played school she always had to be the teacher. She would even write her name backwards, simply because she liked the way that it looked.
Shortly before Elena turned six, however, her mom and dad – Brooke and Keith – received some devastating news. Elena was diagnosed with an incurable brain cancer. What’s more, doctors said she would only survive for a few months.
Naturally, Elena’s parents went to great lengths to protect her from the reality of how sick she was. But Elena was smarter than the average kid. As her treatments went on, she seemed to figure out for herself what was happening. Indeed, it was like she fully understood that she wasn’t going to be around for long.
Treatment would gradually restrict Elena’s physical capabilities. As a result of her radiation therapy, she was left unable to speak, and she realized that she needed an alternative way of communicating with her family. So Elena picked up her favorite tools: a piece of paper and a felt-tip pen.
Though she perhaps didn’t know exactly what fate lay ahead of her, Elena somehow knew that her parents would need cheering up after she was gone. She started to draw little pictures, addressing them to her mom, her dad and her sister Gracie. But she didn’t directly give many of them to whom they were intended.
Instead, Elena would hide the notes around the family’s home. The messages were drawn on whatever paper the little girl could find: scraps, colored paper, Post-its, printer paper. They were all turned into a secret message for her family.
Most of the messages contained drawings of hearts, her favorite symbol, in the distinctive way that Elena drew them. On many, she simply wrote, “I love you.” Others contained messages that would prepare her sister, Gracie, for the life that lay ahead for her.
Throughout her illness, nobody knew of the notes Elena was writing. She even wrote an apology to her dad for being sick. But the messages remained carefully hidden away to be discovered after her passing. On August 11, 2007, Elena sadly succumbed to her illness.
Within a few days of her passing, Keith and Brooke started to find the notes Elena had left for them. When Keith pulled a book from a bookshelf, a note fell out. At first, he thought nothing of it. Perhaps it was something left behind or something Elena had brought home from school that they’d forgotten about.
But the notes kept coming. Another appeared when a CD was pulled from a shelf, only for Keith to realize that there was a note between all of the stacked CDs. And the more notes Keith and Brooke found, the less it seemed like it was an accident. Indeed, there seemed to be something more deliberate at play.
Speaking to Today in October 2009, Keith said, “We were finding them in our books. We were finding them in our dresser drawers. We started finding them in Christmas ornament bags.”
When the notes first started to appear, Keith and Brooke set about finding all of them. They searched bedrooms, desks and everywhere else they could possibly think of. But then they decided to stop their rigorous hunt. Referring to the notes as “hugs” from Elena, the bereaved parents decided to prolong the messages that their daughter was sending.
In fact, both Keith and Brooke ended up deliberately avoiding reading a couple of Elena’s notes. For instance, the little girl would sometimes place notes inside envelopes. So upon finding one in his briefcase, Keith wanted to save it, knowing there would always be an unopened message from his daughter. Unknown to him, his wife had done the same thing with a note that she had found.
As the notes gradually built up, Keith and Brooke realized their daughter hadn’t hidden them on a whim. “It wasn’t just a random collection of notes,” Keith told Today. “She was actually hiding these notes for us. It was her way of letting us know that everything would be okay.”
During Elena’s treatment, her parents kept a journal. Their motivation was to build up a profile of this incredible little girl that could be passed on to her little sister, Gracie, who at the time wasn’t old enough to remember her. But as much as it was about Elena’s life, the project began to take on a life of its own.
“We wrote the journal with the entire idea of it just being for Gracie,” Keith told Today. “[It became] so much more. It’s not a story about cancer. We’re also trying to pass on a story about love, about compassion, about really capturing the minutes of life rather than necessarily the milestones.”
Keith and Brooke began to post their journal as a blog. They then produced a book containing Elena’s hidden notes. With thousands of book sales generated within a matter of weeks, Notes Left Behind was then published more widely by HarperCollins. Profits were used to found the cancer charity The Cure Starts Now, which they set up to honor their daughter.
“Elena was, frankly, a very wise soul. She was old for her years… she really taught us a lot,” said Keith, describing his daughter to Today. He added, “She loved reading, she loved artwork. She frankly was a teacher not only to us, but hopefully to many more beyond that.”
The parents long for notes to continue materializing. But even so, they have their sealed envelopes to cherish. Brooke told Today, “That’s our one insurance policy, that we’ll have that one note from her. I know there’s something very special in that note — but there’s some sort of comfort that it will never come to an end.”