Door to healing: 3 years after death, Maddie’s family gets a sign
East Lyme — Five days before her 9-year-old daughter Madeline died of cancer, Amie Guarraia thought back to a nursery closet door she and her husband, Matt, had painted before Madeline was born.
The door, its trim traced with flowers to match the baby’s bedspread, was painted with a poem passed through generations of Amie’s family. At the end of the poem, the couple wrote, “We love you so much, Mommy and Daddy.”
The idea was for Madeline to open her closet while growing up, and, even as a teenager, know how much her parents loved her.
But, in the days before Madeline’s death, the door — left behind when the family moved out of their first home in Niantic in 2014 — suddenly took on a new meaning. Not only did it welcome Madeline to the world as a baby, it would bid her goodbye when Amie placed a picture of it on the back of her funeral program.
“As she was now about to go through another door, another door was closing,” Amie said.
Amie and Matt, both teachers in Waterford, never expected to see the door again — “I mean, it had Madeline’s name on it,” Amie said.
But late last month, Amie received an unbelievable text message from a mutual friend: the new owners of their old home wanted to return the door. Untouched and never painted over, it arrived almost exactly three years after Madeline’s death on April 6, 2016 — a message right when the family needed it most, and a sign, they believe, that Madeline’s spirit still persists.
Madeline was first diagnosed in 2011 with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at the age of 4. She touched the hearts of thousands nationwide through a Facebook page, Mad about Madeline, when she was re-diagnosed in 2015, also becoming an inspiration throughout the region for her tenacity and giving spirit.
In the years before and after her death, Madeline spurred thousands to “pay it forward,” sparking an outpouring of generosity and support throughout the community for her family.
Her parents carried that momentum forward, launching into ongoing fundraising efforts and collecting nearly a quarter of a million dollars through various galas and golf tournaments for leukemia research and to help families facing the same struggle.
The efforts have been therapeutic — “It’s awesome to save the world, and as soon as Madeline passed we were like, ‘Now it’s our turn to help other people,’” Amie said.
But “constantly being on the go” exhausted the family as time went by, she added.
“We were afraid to be bored for a long time, because when you’re bored, you will go to a dark place,” Amie said. “But I don’t think I realized how important it was to sometimes be bored, to not always be rushing off to meetings, and to be able to just sit home with the kids.”
Still living in the same Flanders home where Madeline died, Amie said the family is taking that time now. Despite staying busy with two children — Julianne, who goes by Juju and is 10, plays basketball and soccer, while Anthony, 5, takes art classes — the last year has been very quiet.
“We are still processing our loss every day,” Amie said. “We let ourselves cry a lot.”
Living with and without Madeline
Memories of Madeline are still scattered around the house — belongings that the family can’t part with, such as a pair of blue sneakers, which still sit by the back sliding door, or juice boxes she would drink during chemotherapy, which still sit in the kitchen cabinet.
Juju, who now sleeps in Madeline’s bedroom, has kept the room the way Madeline left it, while photographs of Madeline, smiling with the family, line the walls of the house. One photo shows the family in a pumpkin patch, Anthony sitting on his father’s shoulders. Another shows the three siblings lying in a hospital bed, Madeline without her hair, laughing together.
“She was funny,” Amie said. “Ever since the moment she was born, she would beat to her own drum. She once wore a prom dress with a leather jacket to school. Just ridiculous.”
“For Halloween, she was a husky and a doctor combined,” Matt added, smiling. “She didn’t care what was in or what was cool. She didn’t have to wear the Lebron Sevens. She would just wear her little Skechers.”
Juju explained the two used to play outside all the time and would cross the street to catch creatures in the stream, much to their dad’s objections.
“But Madeline always loved nature and animals,” Juju said. “One time we caught a wild toad and we kept it for years.”
Amie noted that even when she and Matt were forced to tell Madeline there was almost no chance the cancer would go away, Madeline, after crying for a minute and saying she wasn’t ready to die, said, “At least it’s not Juju or Anthony.”
“She always thought of her siblings first,” Amie said.
‘Don’t forget about me’
The decision to leave the door at their first home in Niantic was one of the hardest parts of moving, Amie said. But with Madeline now better after her first two-and-a-half-year battle with cancer and the arrival of their third child, Anthony, it was time for a new beginning.
“I just couldn’t ever bring myself to paint over it,” she said. “I just remembered sitting there, very pregnant, painting the door and thinking about how much I loved her already. But I had to let it go.”
“Madeline was happy and healthy at that point,” Matt added. “We were told there was almost no chance she would get cancer again.”
Not long after the move, though, Madeline’s cancer returned.
Now sitting in the kitchen window, Madeline’s urn overlooks the kids’ play scape and backyard alongside cards and a portrait of her as a cop commissioned by Waterford police.
“That’s what she wanted to be when she grew up,” Matt said. “She wanted to catch the bad guys.”
Guarding the urn is Madeline’s stuffed animal tiger, Sun Butter, who kept her company in bed as she underwent rounds of chemotherapy starting at the age of 4, and who also helped inspire the “Roar on Maddie” slogan adopted by the community through Madeline’s battle with the disease.
Beside the kitchen window also now rests Madeline’s door, which Amie and Matt received just a few weeks ago.
“She would have loved this,” Amie said. “She was very spiritual even though we weren’t religious. And if we didn’t believe (the door) was from her, she would be mad at us.”
Amie describes the door as a sign comforting the family during a time of coping while reminding the community who Madeline was and what she stood for.
“What she really taught was to pay it forward, to be kind and to not give up, even when you have all the odds stacked against you,” Amie said. “In the last year, since we stopped all those activities, it’s been kind of quiet. And Madeline, she would never want anyone to forget her. I swear, she is just like, ‘I am here. Don’t forget about me.’”