At 4:28 AM, I awoke to the sound of my cellphone in the other room. It sounded, “Message from Dawn…” I was sick and not sleeping well, so I got up to check the text message and learned that Dawn died at 3:22 that morning.
I’ve known older relatives who died. As a kid, I attended the funeral of a friend’s mom. I’ve attended the funerals of three grandparents, including one just last fall. But this is the first time a friend died.
I first met Dawn during 6 AM fitness classes at the gym. We were both there practically every morning, along with the rest of the dedicated morning crew. We took a variety of classes depending on the day — BODYPUMP, BODYFLOW, RPM, and BODYSTEP.
I saw Dawn almost every morning, but it takes time to move beyond the pleasantries and small talk (especially for a half empty introvert). I got to know her better when she planned a surprise bridal shower for our RPM instructor in 2009. Dawn organized all the contributions and showed up early to decorate the studio. That was the first time I thought, “Wow, Dawn is a really awesome, thoughtful, selfless person.”
We were unlikely friends. She’s 20 years older than me. She has a son, while I don’t have kids. She’s very religious, and I’m not at all. But she just had a way of bringing people together.
I got married the month after the bridal shower at the gym. Dawn was in the midst of cancer treatment and her white blood cell count was too low for her to be in public, so she was unable to attend my post-party. She was also unable to go to the gym, a place she loved, but one that is also a cesspool of germs.
Despite her illness, Dawn still wanted to celebrate my big day. Even though her hair had fallen out, and she felt less than stellar, she organized a lunch in my honor to show off wedding photos.
In 2010, Dawn encouraged a bunch of gym friends to sign up for the Race for Hope in DC. The race is specifically to fight brain tumors, which wasn’t Dawn’s type of cancer. But our gym family included a woman whose sister died of a brain tumor and an instructor whose adult son was currently suffering from a brain tumor.
Dawn inspired so many people to join our team that I suggested our team name should be Dawn’s Divas. Keep in mind that most of these women were pretty far from divas. We were more of the workout-at-6 AM-with-no-makeup type. But the name had good alliteration and was amusing.
The men in our lives were not so keen on being called divas, so we expanded to Dawn’s Divas & Dudes. The name stuck and became the title of many future outings.
That year the Divas also celebrated Dawn’s 50th birthday with a night of swing dancing. After toying around with a few ideas for live music, Dawn picked Glen Echo:
I LOVE big band music. I have always wanted to go to the night music/dancing activities hosted there. And, I have always wanted to learn swing dancing!
-Dawn, April 2010
I was supposed to be out of town, but plans changed at the last minute, and I was able to join the festivities. I was an avid Lindy Hopper in high school and taught Lindy Hop in college, so I was in my element. It was awesome to be able to share in Dawn’s milestone birthday.
Dawn’s Divas came together again to celebrate the end of Dawn’s chemotherapy treatment. It was a joyous occasion, but the cancer was far from finished with Dawn at that point.
Dawn and I shared many lunches and coffees together; we had lots of deep conversations. She also loved Mr. HalfFull. After hearing about the dates and trips he planned for us, she coined him Mr. Romance.
After years of calling him Mr. Romance, her husband found an actual Mr. Romance doll that speaks six “romantic phrases.” These “romantic phrases” are rather creepy, but hilarious. The doll still sits on our bedroom dresser, and Mr. HalfFull often presses the button for the doll to speak to me.
During one of Dawn’s surgeries and subsequent hospital stays, I brought Mr. Romance to keep her company. I put the Hope, Love, Faith necklace for Leiomyosarcoma (LMS) that Dawn gave me around Mr. Romance’s neck, so she knew he was a warrior in her court.
While I was working for myself and had a more flexible schedule, Dawn started to rely on me to keep her organized and communicate updates to her friends. She wasn’t a very trusting person in general, but for some reason she put a lot of faith in me. I helped her get ready for her final surgery when she wasn’t feeling well, but didn’t want to leave things undone. She was a loving mother and wanted to write a card to her son for each day she would be in the hospital, so that he knew she was thinking about him. Her tumor had also grown so big that her clothes no longer fit, so Mr. HalfFull picked out some new clothes for her. She was so grateful, and it was wonderful that we were able to bring her a little comfort before her surgery.
After her surgery, I was able to visit her in the hospital during the day. During one of those visits, she dictated a letter to an old Sunday School teacher from her childhood. It had been weighing on her that she hadn’t responded to a letter, so I was happy to help remove that to-do item.
Once she recovered from her final surgery, she was ready to get back to fitness. But she had lost so much muscle tone and strength that she wanted to look into classes at a local cancer center. She asked me to accompany her to a fitness assessment, which turned into an actual class that we did together in chairs. I work out daily, but one exercise we did on foot sliders made my legs burn!
Over the summer, Dawn wanted to thank all the local ladies in her life who helped with meals and support. So I helped organize a ladies lunch. As you can see from the photo, lots of people loved Dawn and came to be with her. I think Dawn knew that her time was short during the lunch, but she still looked great on the outside even though her insides were falling apart.
In September, we traveled to Ashland, VA for the Slay the Dragon 5K. This is one of only two races in the country specifically for LMS research. Even though Dawn didn’t walk or run the course, she looked amazing and gave an inspiring speech that left everyone in tears.
Dawn was so caring and thoughtful that in the midst of her illness, she still wanted to individually and personally thank each person who supported her. To help her fulfill this mission, I collected mailing addresses and printed labels for her handwritten thank you cards.
On Veteran’s Day last year, Dawn asked me for a ride to Lombardi Cancer Center in Georgetown. I thought perhaps that she was on medication that prevented her from driving, but I had no idea she was so weak. She had to stop three times en route from her house to the car. It was really surprising to me since I had only seen her at home. She moved slowly, but there wasn’t that much ground to cover, so I hadn’t noticed the decline.
The last time I saw Dawn was the weekend before Christmas, just a few days before she started hospice. She was in her fluffy, pink bathrobe and looked normal, but when I put my arm around her, she was so frail and bony. She was just a shell of the strong person I met at the gym years ago. The only large, solid part of her body was the tumors.
Dawn was in hospice care at home for two and half weeks before she died on January 8 at the age of 53. She suffered a great deal and had no quality of life in the end. Her death was a merciful end to a long battle.
I wasn’t sure how I would react to her death in the months leading up to it. I thought I would be deeply sad and tearful, but that didn’t happen. Perhaps I was able to avoid sadness since Dawn’s brother asked me to compile photos and create a video of Dawn’s life. It had to come together in a short period of time before the funeral, so it kept me busy and focused on the task at hand.
But perhaps I avoided much of the shock and finality of death because I witnessed her decline firsthand. I knew my friend could not live in that failing body any longer.
Or perhaps I have yet to grieve. Maybe when I think about calling or visiting her in the future, a wave of sadness will wash over me as I think of her young son and widower husband.
- Have you experienced the death of a friend?
- Are you likely to cry at funerals?
- How do you cope with grief?
- How do you remember those who have passed?