In her mid-30s Erin Kramp thought long and carefully about what she wanted to leave her daughter, Peyton. Comfort, advice and humor were among the assets Erin wanted to bestow, all adding up to a portrait of who she was. And so she began to make tapes, creating messages that her daughter could count on receiving years into the future.
"When you're picking your career," Erin advised in one message, "don't pick what you think I would want you to do. Don't pick what you know would make Dad happy for you to pick. I want you to pick something, whether you're schooled in it or not, that you have passion for."
At the time, in 1997, Erin required a steady oxygen supply because she was dying of cancer that had spread to her lungs. Her focus on creating a legacy as a mother was unshakable, from the first message she recorded.
Living With the End in Mind
"I had to get up, and I had to cut three times," she told me then, "because I kept crying, thinking I can't believe I'm talking to her as if I wasn't here. Then, I started really getting into it, and started, you know, thinking ... this is my only chance to really communicate with her some of the things I think are important."
Erin was raised in Dallas and married entrepreneur Doug Kramp in 1987. They were a vivacious, charismatic, adventurous couple. She was a fast-thinking venture capitalist who advised Doug on business deals. Their daughter, Peyton, was born five years into the marriage, on March 5, 1992. Two years later, Erin discovered a lump in her breast -- a malignant cancer diagnosed as fatal. She immediately went to work to try to prepare herself, her husband and her daughter for what was to come.
"There's two nurses and a doctor," Doug Kramp remembered, "and Erin has already got a pad of paper and a pen, and she's grilling them on questions. 'OK now, who do I need to talk to?' And I just remember thinking, 'Oh my gosh, she's already attacking this thing.'"
Erin and Doug wrote a book called "Living With the End in Mind" -- a checklist for preparing for death and embracing mortality.
Doug assumed a lot of the tasks that were part of Peyton's daily routines.
"Doug started taking over the role of putting Peyton to bed, so that if I wasn't around, she would have the same routine," Erin said. "When she falls asleep, I come and pray over her at night, at the foot of her bed."
In one of her tapes, Erin promised Peyton, "Love will sustain you more than anything, and you are the most privileged person I know because of all the love that comes your way."
Erin began thinking of her daughter in two ways: as the carefree preschool child she was and as the young woman she would be when she viewed her mother's tapes in the future.
Erin acknowledged that going over all the details related to dying may sound unsettling to people who fear that anticipating death will hasten it, but, she said, doing so eliminated stress that could have plagued her.
"What would happen if I passed away? Who would take care of my child? There's a huge sense of panic. But once I finished [preparing], the panic was all gone. Everything was in place."
Erin died at 4 a.m. on Oct. 31, 1998. "I went over to pick up Peyton from her friend's house," said Doug. "And I remember driving back to the house, and there were tears ... and before I could get the car stopped, Peyton jumped out of the door and ran into the house. She kept on running from room to room, just making sure that it was true that Erin was gone."
Then, Peyton was 6 years old. In March 2006, she will turn 14, having grown into a young woman with blossoming talents in both art and writing. "I remember the first room I went to was her bedroom," Peyton said. "It's where we had conversations after school ... and when she wasn't there and the sheets were off the bed, I just knew that she wasn't going to be there again."
Preparing Her Daughter for Boys -- and New 'Mom'
Both Peyton and her father went through a long period of grief.
"At times, I would go up and she would be in her closet, in her bedroom, and she was crying," Doug said. "And sometimes I wasn't prepared to know what to say, how to comfort her and have the right things to say. That was hard."
But Peyton had her mother's tapes. They were full of a lifetime of advice and messages tailored to when Peyton was ready to hear them as she grew older.
They include virtually every type of motherly counsel -- from makeup hints to tips on establishing good credit to how to deal with boys. ("Do not ever let a boy pressure you into sex or anything else you do not wish to do.")
"I just like having her input on what's OK and what's not OK as the years progress," Peyton said.
There was something else in the tapes, beyond what Erin Kramp wanted to say to her daughter. It was a sense of who Erin was -- her expressions, her laugh, her drive, her personality.
"She talks a lot about herself, and I get a sense of her personality and how funny she was ... And I just know who she is. And that's a great feeling."
"I just love to see the passion," said Doug. "I love to see the love that she had for Peyton. It's just awesome."
Among the issues that came up after Erin's death was Peyton's request that Doug not marry again. "I made it very clear," Peyton said. "I didn't want someone to come and replace her. I just didn't want anyone else."
Erin had anticipated that too.
In a tape to be played when the question arose, she said, "I want you to know that I would very much bless Daddy remarrying if he is given that opportunity. Because I know at that time you would be hesitant and would say, 'Well, what does Mom think?' Or, 'Would this be my second Mom? Should I call her Mom? How would Mom feel if I called her Mom?' I feel fine about it, because I'll always be your real Mom."
'I Just Know That She Loved Me'
In 2003, four-and-a-half years after Erin's death, Doug did remarry. Cheryl Kramp is a former pharmaceutical representative who gave up her career to care for Peyton and the two boys she and Doug have had since their marriage. Cheryl is keenly aware of how much that message from Erin has meant.
"It was really good for Peyton," she said. "And it was good for Doug, especially in that Peyton then felt the freedom to be able to accept and embrace me without the guilt, because Erin did give her blessing ... to call me Mom. And I think it gave [Peyton] the freedom to do that. I think that's enhanced our relationship."
Peyton took to heart the extraordinary example that Erin had set. On the day that Cheryl and Doug were engaged, Peyton wrote a message to Cheryl.
"She gave me this beautiful, beautiful letter," Cheryl said, " just telling me how much I was the perfect fit for their family and she loved me and respected me."
For the first time, Peyton called Cheryl Mom. She signed the letter, "With love, your daughter, Peyton."
There are many messages from Erin that still await Peyton in her future. Peyton says the most powerful message is the one that is both spoken and unspoken, coming from the past and existing in the present.
"I love you."
"It's just so strong," Peyton said. "And every time I see the tapes, I just know that she loved me. And that's such a great feeling, to know that she really cared for me and she wanted me to be happy. It's so dear to me to have everything about her, and I don't know what I'd do without it."