Dawn’s Story

Site created on February 12, 2019

On February 12, 2019, Dawn was diagnosed with Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer. She died on April 21, 2019 (Easter Sunday). Her passion and beauty, amazing strength, her deep faith in Jesus and deep love for her dear daughter, her husband (me), her friends and her family sustained her and kept her grounded in each day she lived as given by God. Her prayer was for a full life and for her many people to be for this world a real community of hope. Thank you for your love, your prayers, your compassion and presence whether near or far.

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Journal entry by Daniel Harrell

As Dawn was dying, she and I discussed where she wanted to be buried. Where was less important to her than how. Though cremated, she did not want to be scattered to the wind, but returned to the dirt from whence she came—ashes to ashes, dust to dust. A year prior we’d planted a new apple tree in our Minneapolis yard to replace a crabapple that had died. Violet likes apples and living in Minnesota you learn about the varieties developed here: Sweet Tango, Honey Crisp and the most recent, First Kiss. We selected a Zestar dwarf. It sounded exotic. Violet named it Martin.

Dawn decided agreed to half her ashes buried under that new tree (how does one ever discuss such things?), the other half at the home of dear friends off Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. Here in Minneapolis, we held a small burial service before her funeral surrounded by family and friends. Then later this past spring, to our delight, Martin the Dwarf burst forth with blossoms and a few apples, a whole year ahead of schedule. We chose, amidst the sentimentality and grief, to attribute the fruitfulness to Dawn being down in the dirt.

In a day when it seems everything gets reduced down into binary simplicity for the sake of a fight-- left/right, rich/poor, urban/rural, Prius/pickup--Jesus’ solution is to reduce down even further. “I tell you the truth,” he said to the adults in the room, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of God.” And then further down still, “sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven, then come follow me.” And then all the way to the bottom, “Whoever loses their life for my sake will save it.” Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Such is the way of the cross.

It can be extremely hard to be a Christian.

A few years ago I cooked down a pot of bolognese sauce during worship to illustrate how the best sauce only happens by way of reduction. With heat and time, with Christ as the cook and the Spirit his spoon, we reduce down for the sake of flavor, intensifying into aromatic disciples, fragrant with the savor of love. Granted, just because something is flavorful doesn’t mean you’ll like how it tastes. My congregation liked the sauce, not so much the sermon. Who would? What kind of twisted religion boasts of humility and loss? Indignity and defeat? Who’s ever heard of a Savior who saves by getting killed on a cross? To early church detractors, the whole thing smelled fishy. And yet the apostle Paul called it the fragrance of life, “the aroma of Christ to God,” the scent of sacrifice, the essence of love.

With Violet and I moving to Chicagoland, somebody else will live in our house, or even tear it down. A member of Colonial planted a seed about moving Dawn's ashes to the church's Scatter Garden (but without the scattering). Then I got to thinking about what it might take to transplant the whole tree. I checked with the arborist who first planted Martin. A transplant, while possible, proved a bit prohibitive due to time, cost and encroaching frost. Knowing Dawn isn't literally in the ground, and because she loved our house here, Violet and I settled with the idea of leaving her where she was, her work of fertilization complete. You can tell a tree by its fruit.

But the then the fabulous Colonial Church staff, to our complete surprise, offered as a going-away gift to arrange for the tree transplant. So this past weekend, we got everything scheduled, and then up and out and over and in went Martin with Dawn in its roots. After worship this past Sunday, the Colonial congregation filed out to bless Dawn and her tree with their love and a sure commitment to care for her remains and her legacy tenderly after we’ve moved. It gives us another happy reason to visit.

A couple of my neighbors—a blue state artist from California and a retired red-state Navy lieutenant—gathered to watch the tree guys dig up Dawn for the move. I explained how she’d died of cancer and wanted to be buried in the dirt and we picked this tree but are moving and our church lovingly offered to have her exhumed with the tree and transplanted at the church because Dawn loved going to church and now her remains wouldn’t have to remain among strangers. The artist said that had to be the most bizarre and beautiful thing she had ever heard. The Navy man agreed and said he thought it was wonderful.

Violet, on the other hand, thought the dedication service and the whole praying for a tree a bit too bizarre. I explained how we we weren't necessarily praying for the tree, but dedicating the ground as a special place and committing her mom to her rest. Of course that made no sense to her 12-year-old mind, or maybe it did, since her response was a bit of umbrage that nobody else was extended such favoritism when they died.

"Is it just because you're the pastor?"

"Well, partly, but everybody loved your Mom too."

"Don't they love the other people who die enough to plant them a tree?"

"Yes, of course."

"Then how come we don't plant a tree for everybody?"

"How would you like a chocolate truffle?"

"Sure, thanks Dad."

Today is World Pancreatic Cancer Day. I forgot to wear purple. Pancreas cancer almost always shows symptoms too late to treat--for Dawn is was as if hers came out of nowhere though she was likely sick for many years. It's important to know risk factors and telltale symptoms. There are no early detection tests, so pay attention to your body.

Thanks to Sue and the Search Committee who brought me to Colonial for the sweet time this morning, to Karlynn for the cookies, to the Colonial Staff for the kindness in transplanting Dawn and her tree, to Victoria and Peter for the lovely evening together in Altadena, to Pam for the conversation and coffee in Pasadena, for the kindness from the Christianity Today Board and staff at the Board of Directors Meeting in Pasadena, to Melissa and Steve and Mirabelle for hosting Violet while I was gone, to Craig for shuttling Violet to her orthodontist and school, to Deb and George for helping me rake, to Marie and Rhoda for taking Violet out for her birthday, to my Walter Hines Page High School Class of 1979 (Greensboro, NC) for the wonderful blanket symbolic of all their love and support during this season, and to everyone else who's checked in and prayed for and come alongside in this ongoing odyssey.

From the Puritans: “O my Savior, May thy cross be to me as the tree that sweetens my bitterness, as the rod that blossoms with life and beauty, as the brazen serpent that calls forth the look of faith. By thy cross crucify my every sin; Use it to increase my intimacy with thyself; Make it the ground of all my comfort, the liveliness of all my duties, the sum of all thy gospel promises, the comfort of all my afflictions, the vigor of my love, thankfulness, graces, the very essence of my religion; And by it give me that rest without rest, the rest of ceaseless praise.” Amen.

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