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

The grief books say to make plans for holidays and birthdays and other important dates. Be ready to be overwhelmed by emotion and memories and the throbbing pain of loss. Our sixteenth anniversary was last Friday (May 31), so I did as instructed and made a plan. Dawn would have been proud. She was the planner. I was "Options Man," who routinely ruined her plans with my preference for the spontaneous and new. I like to leave every door open just in case. Dawn liked her limits. Decide and execute.

When it came to our wedding anniversary, I liked to mark the actual date while Dawn was more of a proximity celebrator: wait for the weekend and the babysitter to do it right. At the same time, right did not necessarily mean extravagant. Dawn was both Scottish and the daughter of missionaries. Doing it right usually included doing it cheap. Not me. I liked to splurge. Fancy dinner out. A show, a trip, something new, flowers and earrings, rent a convertible, dress up, be sexy, make it memorable.

Dawn was usually game and always a good sport--but deep down she longed for more than any singular moment would provide. She craved continuity, integration, connection, emotion and internality. Reading through her journals (I'm up to 2014--less than five years to live), Dawn wrote and wrote about her passions and core loves, her spiritual crests and crashes--but not one single sentence about our "memorable moments," no mention of an anniversary, birthday or holiday. Granted, Dawn's journal writing was her self-therapy--her disappointments, anger, frustration and lament regarding God and me and the world and herself. I never read her journals when she was alive--they were her private domain--but these days I wish I had. I'm understanding things about her I failed to grasp. But then again, her death has made me want to know her in all the ways I took for granted while she was alive.

Dawn and I were married fifteen years and eleven months. My first marriage lasted fifteen years too.  People who knew me then will remember how troubled most of those first fifteen years were. Still, whenever Dawn and I attended a wedding reception and the DJ invited couples to remain on the dance floor dancing as he counted up the matrimonial years, I'd stay on the floor by myself for fifteen counts longer than Dawn and I had been wed. I wanted credit for time served.

My life and love with Dawn was pure redemption. The fact that we ended so soon after our own fifteen years is devastating. Total. Complete. I dreamed of our finally getting to vanquish earlier shadows and stepping out into brighter light together, at long last having exorcised any ghostly remnants of my first marital failure. But this will not happen for us.

I appreciated Sara's sermon on Sunday about crossing the Jordan which she described as a transformative moment in life, whether by way of opportunity or tragedy. Bewildering is how much the Promised Land on the other side of the river can look just like the Desert side left behind. (This is true, we saw it while in Israel. It's desert on both sides of the Jordan.) Sara went on to preach about our need to move further in (further up and in as they would say in Narnia), despite the lure to turn and go back. With death and loss there is no going back, no matter how much you'd give for just one minute more of the way life was. 

Physicists did manage last week to reverse the aging of a single, simulated particle of elementary matter. One-millionth of a second's worth. On paper, the basic laws of physics are reversible; they work mathematically even if time went backwards. But the reversal of one particle required manipulations so unlikely to occur in nature that it only reinforced the notion that we are helplessly trapped in time's one way flow.

Søren Kierkegaard 
wrote, “Our life can only be understood backwards, but it has to be lived forwards.” In contrast to dreams and ideals, Kierkegaard (as an existentialist) emphasized existence: what is real and painful is more important than any ideal. “Listen to the cry of a woman in labor at the hour of giving birth,” he wrote, “look at the dying man’s struggle at his last extremity, and then tell me whether something that begins and ends thus could be intended” as ideal. Though disposed toward despair, Kierkegaard nevertheless saw life's hard reality as an invitation to faith. Not faith in the positive thinking or even the doctrinally coherent, but faith as that passionate commitment to Christ in the face of uncertainty; a risk of belief that demands loss of self for love's sake. True love aims at the actual people in your life, not imaginary conceptualizations of how you believe or might wish these people should be. True love earnestly absorbs disappointments and overcomes faults as Christ has done in his love for us. For Dawn, this meant the constant discipline of forgiveness. She wrote, “Forgiveness is agreeing to live with the consequences of another person’s sin. You are going to live with those consequences anyway whether you like it or not, so the only choice you have is whether you will do so in the bondage of bitterness or in the freedom of forgiveness. No one truly forgives without accepting and suffering the pain of another person’s sin. That can seem unfair and you may wonder where the justice is in it, but justice is found at the foot of the cross, which makes forgiveness legally and morally right.”

On what would have been our sixteenth anniversary, I kept it cheap and quiet and as reflective as I can manage being me. I mounted my bike and pedaled to Riley Lake where Dawn and I often rode and sat together, drinking in the sunlight and silence and feeling the physical activity on our bodies. On Friday, I replicated our rides and remembered my wife. I sat on the shore and drank in photos and wrote her a letter and hoped against hope that I could know for sure whether she could hear all I was learning about her--the things I would have done differently had I known she would be alive only five more years. The different person I'll now have to be without her here. I know she forgave me and loved me and there is strength in that knowledge. Courage to step further in.

Happy Anniversary, my love.

From the Puritans: "Break the Dagon of pride in pieces before the ark of thy presence; Demolish the Babel of self-opinion, and scatter it to the wind; Level to the ground my Jericho walls of a rebel heart; Then grace, grace, will be my experience and cry."

Happy 60th Anniversary to my parents on June 6. Thanks to Aunt Polly for the kind cards and her gift, to Karen and Greg for the delectables from Boston--I'll need someone here in Minneapolis to help me eat them all--to Marie and Paul for purchasing the Subaru, to Ann for the letters and to Terri and Frank for the books, and to all who stay in touch and say a prayer and mourn their own losses. 

  • Bandalier National Park, New Mexico 2003
    Bandalier National Park, New Mexico 2003
  • Santa Monica (Dick & Judy Peace's place), 2003
    Santa Monica (Dick & Judy Peace's place), 2003
  • Atop Mt. Monadnock, New Hampshire, 2003
    Atop Mt. Monadnock, New Hampshire, 2003
  • Boston Harbor Hotel after our wedding, 2003
    Boston Harbor Hotel after our wedding, 2003
  • Dawn and her book and the light.
    Dawn and her book and the light.
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