When Marisa Bardach Ramel was a senior at Oceanside High School in January 2000, her mother, Sally Bardach, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was told she had two months to live.
“I was 17 at the time and totally shell shocked,” Ramel said. “I didn’t know how to merge that news with the important life milestones [at that age].”
As her mother uttered those words to her and her brother Jordan – “two months to live” – Ramel imagined prom, graduation and the first day of college without her. She was always close with her mom, but instead of this drawing her closer, it caused her to distance herself.
Bardach outlived her diagnosis by two and a half years, enough time for the two to rekindle their relationship before she died in August 2002. As planned, Ramel attended college at Syracuse University for those two years, not knowing if she’d see her mother again when she returned on breaks.
During one of their late night phone calls, Bardach said, “Let’s write a book.” And thus they began writing chapters of what is now their joint memoir, “The Goodbye Diaries,” to be released on May 7.
“She had to retire when she was diagnosed, so all of a sudden she had a lot of time on her hands, but also didn’t have a lot of time left,” Ramel explained. “Meanwhile, I was trying to fit in writing it between going to classes and writing for school paper.”
Ramel is now 36 and lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Mark, and two children, 3-year-old Emmet and 1-year-old Willoughby. After graduating Syracuse University in 2004, she worked for many magazines, including Hearst’s Seventeen and Prevention, spent six years working for an author and eventually landed at her current job as a program advisor for students at Syracuse University’s Fisher Center in Manhattan.
All the while, she’s spent nearly two decades after her mother died piecing together chapters, journal entries and letters her mother had written, as well as medical records and her own writings. She found a literary agent in 2015 and her publisher, Wyatt-MacKenzie, last year and will finally share her story with the world this month.
“I’m definitely very vulnerable in the book,” she said. “There’s a lot of real honesty, which is the only way to be truthful about the things you do when something scary happens. I had to come to terms that a memoir is only really good if you’re honest. If you’re not mostly embarrassed about it, it’s probably not a good book.”
The memoir alternates between Bardach and Ramel in every chapter and chronicles their relationship from Bardach’s diagnosis to her death, including a huge fight they had not long after the diagnosis.
In the book, Ramel recalls hopping in the car with her best friend, Laura Hammond, and driving down Long Beach Road and into Long Beach to get away from what was going on at home. “I’m really acting in a way I should’ve been ashamed of back then, but now I have an understanding that I was a teenager and it was natural,” Ramel explained.
At the time, Hammond was the only person Ramel confided in about her mother’s illness. She didn’t want anyone else in town knowing for fear of gossip spreading.
“Marisa and I went through so much together,” said Hammond, who now lives in Bellmore and remained Ramel’s best friend since they met at Oceanside Middle School. “I remember showing up at her house and waiting for her to come home. Or I’d call her house, and her mom would always talk to me for a few minutes and ask ‘How’s Missy?’”
Ramel also mentions her AP English teacher Stephen Minor, who still teaches at Oceanside High School, in the book. The two recently reconnected after Ramel sent him an excerpt of the book that was published in “Chicken Soup for the Soul,” which Minor appears in.
“The Goodbye Diaries” was listed in Seventeen’s “17 Books Every Girl Should Read Before She’s 17.” Ramel said she and Minor are planning for her to speak at the high school in the fall about dealing with hardships as a teenager.
“If you are going through something difficult, reach out to a teacher you’re close to or try to share it with friends, even if it’s scary,” she offered as advice to high school students.
The book also strongly speaks to mother-daughter relationships and allows the reader to see both sides – “If a teenager reads it, they relate to it, but they can also read the chapters from my mother and try to see their mother as someone who’s going through her own life story.
“We wrote it hoping other mothers and daughters would read the book and pass it to each other,” Ramel continued, noting how special it is to now have a daughter of her own. “I’m hoping it’s a way that mothers and daughters can connect.”