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

I’m one of those people who know’s he’s going to forget something, so he writes himself a note.

But then forgets to read the note.

Early last Saturday morning I was due to bike thirty miles in support of the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network on my trusty 1993 steel framed Bianchi Eros ("steel is real"). For cycling geeks, 1993 was the last year Bianchi bikes were manufactured in Italy. Fantastico! I raised close to $4500 for the ride (thanks to you who supported the cause). More than 200 cyclists rode a glorious loop at Elm Creek Regional Park in Maple Grove, Minnesota. I was almost there for an on time start when I realized I hadn't read my note and thus left my bicycle helmet in the garage. Helmets are must-wear for every cyclist; it's the single most valuable component for riding a bike, kids. Just the other day I watched a cyclist slip on a wet spot and go down on his head. His helmet saved him. Still, I was going to be pedaling a park trail. I'd be careful. Couldn’t I go without my helmet just this once? 

The park in view, a good half hour north of my house at 6:30 in the morning, I thought about it for a second. But then I remembered a recent conversation with a friend about my being a single parent.

“You’re not a single parent,” she told me. “You’re an only parent.”

I turned around and drove back for my helmet.

Though I got a late start, the morning was stunning and the ride invigorating. I finished the thirty miles in decent time, thought about Dawn the whole ride and missed her immensely as I meandered the mist-laden meadows and remembered how she and I would often pedal together. I biked alongside another widower who’d lost his wife four years ago and, like me, had been sustained by a vibrant and compassionate community (both physical and virtual) who carried him through it (though he said you never get over it). We commiserated over our losses, shared our griefs and our hopes, cried some tears and hugged one another. I recalled the late Catholic writer Henri Nouwen who remarked: “In every arrival there is a leave-taking, in each one’s growing up there is a growing old; in every smile there is a tear; and in every success there is a loss. All living is dying, but when we can see life constantly relativized by death, we can enjoy it for what it is: a free gift.” And we can give thanks for it.

As followers of Christ in the way of the cross we do mean to rise. We believe in the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. So sure in this Biblical hope that we can live as if it’s already happened. Life does go on powerfully and gorgeously and insistently, but for me, also differently now. It is customary when one receives a terminal diagnosis or suffers the loss of a loved one to experience a shift in perspective and a crystallization of priorities. What’s most important surges to the surface when you know you’re going to die. But did you not already know you are going to die one day, and all too soon? Jesus saves us from our sins, but not from our suffering and death. He doesn’t even save himself. This is the way of the cross. How else would we ever see the true and the beautiful and the good with such clarity?

Our hope, this faith, Christ’s love compels us to praise even amidst sorrow. Blessed be those who mourn. Suffering and loss scours us bare to expose the core wounds and core loves that define us, the true belief and true grace that’s not the fruit of our our effort, but the yield of our yielding to Jesus. Such too is the strange way of the cross. God is love and love suffers. Love refines us amidst loss and reconnects us and intensifies our longing for that day when there are no more tears and no more death. The hungers of our hearts hunger because a banquet awaits. Our sorrow sets the table for our own everlasting delight.

Violet is back in school rediscovering a new rhythm. We're learning what it means to be a twosome in space always meant for three. She sets her alarm, gets up to make her breakfast, packs her own lunch for school and feeds Briscoe the cat. I try to remember to write a note for her lunch (and a note to remind myself to write her a note). I hug her goodbye and tell her how awesome she is (and she is) and then go to work myself, and then home in time to welcome Violet. We talk about our days as I cook dinner. She does her homework and I do the dishes, we read or watch some TV and then try to sleep. You wake up and look at the calendar and another month has passed. Five months since she died.

We held our Israel Pilgrimage reunion last night, its poignancy enhanced by trip organizer's absence. Dawn would have loved to have been there. About being a pilgrim in Jerusalem, Dawn wrote, "Actively look for God throughout. Notice his presence. Talk to him about everything, no matter how trivial. Expect a response. Write it down or make a point of addressing your thoughts to him instead of 'keeping them to yourself.' Or choose a prompt and every time you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch that prompt, pause to return your actions, thoughts and feelings to God. Some prompt suggestions include: opening your backpack, taking a swallow from the water bottle, climbing stairs, or eating figs or olives." I think we all tried to do this. It was a wonderful reunion, though the memories were bittersweet and the photos hard to view. Christians and Jews both believe heaven will be something like a new Jerusalem. That wouldn't be bad.

Thanks to Deborah and Jeff for hosting and organizing our Reunion, to John and Sunyoung for our own little reunion and the art supplies for Violet (!), to Tim for tripping north over Labor Day, to cycling John for the hope and the hug, to Jeanne for the coffee and kind commiseration, to Joe for the wise counsel, to Karin for agreeing to help me with Violet's birthday party next month, to the Biblical Seminary in Medellín for making a buen hogar for Dawn's theological library, and for the continued notes and prayers and kindness.

From the Puritans: "Eternal and Glorious God, give me to distinguish between the mere form of godliness and its power, between life and a name to live, between guile and truth, between hypocrisy and a religion that will bear thy eye. If I am not right, set me right, keep me right; And may I at last come to thy house in peace."


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