MANCHESTER, NH – Moira Philbrook has been busier than usual these past few weeks. It’s SMFD – her Seasonal Music Fest Disorder – which happens to coincide with crunch time for the annual Mag-a-palooza concert, a major musical fundraiser launched in 2014 by Moira and her husband Stefan, set for June 4 in Veterans Park.
Truth be told, organizing the event and keeping it going has been a labor of love for the Philbrooks. The music fest was born of the painful loss of their oldest child, Maggie, who died at the age 13 from an aggressive form of childhood cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma.
Through the magic of nature and nurture, Maggie inherited her parents love of music – all three of the Philbrook kids were immersed in the music their parents loved, including live concerts at Veterans Park, from an early age, says Moira. Although she and her husband don’t play instruments, their nurturing manifested in the children, who became musicians.
Maggie was a percussionist in the Hillside Middle School band, and liked to “play loud things.”
“We keep her beat going. That’s what I always say,” says Moira. “She had finished her chemo in March and we were already planning a celebration and a thank-you to people. And then, she died.”
Moira explains that although it appeared Maggie was cancer-free and about to finish her treatment protocol at Dartmouth-Hitchcock, things took a jarring turn for the worse.
“She was home and couldn’t sleep. It was a Saturday night,” says Moira, describing a sort of mania that took hold of her daughter. “It was really bizarre. We called the doctor who thought maybe the steroids induced a psychosis, so we stopped the steroids but it didn’t get any better.”
By Monday they took Maggie to the Elliot Hospital, and from there she was rushed back to Dartmouth by ambulance. More testing showed the cancer had spread to Maggie’s spine, and had infiltrated the protective layer of her brain.
“It had been in hiding, even though she was in treatment, there was nothing at that point we could do. Anything more would have been like torture,” Moira says. “Once they said ‘This is it,’ we knew that she was going to die.”
By Wednesday Maggie finally got some drug-induced sleep, and awoke her old self. She didn’t remember what had happened over the past five days. She didn’t remember that her parents had told her that the cancer was back, and that there was nothing anyone could do to stop it this time.
“To have to tell your 13-year-old that she is going to die – after having already told her once,” says Moira. The rest of her words trail off and are left unspoken yet understood, through the sudden rush of maternal emotion. “She was amazing. During the time she was in the hospital, she would see the chaplain at Dartmouth, who Maggie has spoken with other times, and she would come in and ask Maggie if she wanted to pray. Maggie said yes – she wanted to pray for other people. Just remarkable, to me.”
Maggie lived for only one more week after that – a week her family and friends will never forget. Someone suggested to Moira that there was still time to pull together a “Make-A-Wish” – something they were planning to do with Maggie, once her treatment was completed.
“Against my better judgement she’d read ‘The Fault in Our Stars,‘ that year. They were making a movie of it, and it wasn’t out yet, but we found out the final cut was done and I thought, what if we could see that? So it was arranged,” says Moira of the movie, which depicts a love story between two teenagers who fall in love after meeting at a cancer support group. Someone associated with the movie flew in from California to make the exclusive premiere happen. Friends and family assembled in a room that was transformed into a red-carpet event at Dartmouth-Hitchcock.
“About an hour later, as she was eating pizza and talking with one of her friends, she started having a seizure. That lasted about five hours, and she never came back to us. She died just before five the next morning,” says Moira. “It was the most amazing last day.”
In the aftermath, the Philbrooks have slowly adjusted to their new normal. Maggie was the oldest of three children, leaving her younger siblings to find a way forward without their leader. Holidays, birthdays – every day – the absence of Maggie is felt, says Moira. Establishing a non-profit fundraising organization, Maggie’s Beat, and sustaining the annual signature concert in the park, is one of the ways Moira knows her daughter will never be forgotten.
“That’s something we talk a lot about at Compassionate Friends, a group for bereaved parents and siblings. And what we say is please don’t be afraid to talk about our children. You’re not going to make us sad; we are sad. That’s the way it is, for the rest of our lives. Even if we start to cry when we talk about our kids, it’s generally tears of happiness, because we get to share them – especially with someone who didn’t know them,” Moira says.
The underlying mission of Mag-a-Palooza then, aside from celebrating Maggie, is to give the Philbrooks a chance to raise awareness about the lack of resources designated for childhood cancer research and, one day, save another family from the devastation they’ve endured.
“Unlike adult cancers, there’s no known cause and effect. It’s not like you can say oh, you smoked, now you have lung cancer. But in the past couple of years they’ve approved one or two new drugs to treat childhood cancer – for the first time in 30 years. It’s frustrating to me that less than 4 percent of the National Cancer Institute budget goes toward childhood cancer research,” Moira says.
“I’ve had to step back from a lot of cancer stories, because it’s too much for my heart, but I’ve read multiple stories since Maggie died of rhabdomyosarcoma doing the same thing in others, a kid just finishing treatment relapses. You think you’re all set then – bing-bam-boom, you’re not. It’s a sneaky beast,” Moira says.
Although leukemia has a high survival rate in children, there are 11 or 12 other types of childhood cancer where the outcomes are grim.
“The thing is, cancer changes all the time. It can move. It can hide. It can mutate; it’s smart. There are organizations, like St. Jude’s, and St. Baldrick’s, that are doing amazing work, so people interested in having their money go right to research, those are the places to do it,” Moira says.
Moira wears a pendant around her neck, it came in the mail shortly after Maggie died.
“We’ve gotten a few of them from Laura Jacoby who runs Flashes of Hope for Northern New England. Her mom makes them. I wear it every day,” she says.
She’s learned that everyone grieves differently, and moving forward requires patience, understanding and love. It’s different for each person, even though they share a common loss, which is the hardest part of the journey for families who’ve experienced such loss.
“I call it the dance of grief. I think you just have to give everyone room to grieve the way they need to,” says Moira. “We talk about her all the time. On the anniversary of her death, we all get together – her friends and our family. We went out to Shorty’s this year, and one of the waitresses said, ‘It seems like you’re having a real celebration.’ That’s when you stop yourself, because you don’t want to make other people sad, so you say, ‘Yeah, we are celebrating the life of our daughter, who we lost to cancer three years ago,” Moira says.
Mag-a-Palooza is a day of music, food, face painting, puppy-kissing booth, beer garden, and celebration, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on June 4 at Veterans Park in Manchester. Tickets are $10. Click here to purchase in advance. Also available at the gate.
Set Times for Mag-A-Palooza 2017 bands:
11:08 a.m. Senie Hunt
11:30 a.m. The Fighting Fifth
11:52 a.m. Rippin’ E Brakes
12:18 p.m. The Opined Few
12:40 p.m. Yankee Cockfight
1:10 p.m. Kali & Ancestors In Training
2:20 p.m. Pat & The Hats
3:30 p.m. Miketon and The Night Blinders
3:52 p.m. Woodsmith & Hersch
4:14 p.m. David Shore’s Trunk of Funk
4:46 p.m. Gretchen & The Pickpockets