Dawn

Dawn

From Chicken Soup for the Soul Celebrating People Who Make a Difference

Dawn

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.

Gandhi

We originally met as nurse and patient years ago. Then we started seeing each other at our kids' sporting events. As multiple sclerosis took its toll on my body, I had to put my RN career on hold. With the nurse/patient relationship no longer an awkward barrier, we started hanging out. Soon, we were undoubtedly the oddest looking pair in town. For two years, three days a week, we’d get our children off to school, then meet, and have breakfast at a local coffee shop. There, we would solve world problems, discuss local politics, giggle, and gossip. Our presence was always met with stares, often with shock, and occasionally pity. Dawn, just thirty years old, was losing her long battle with breast cancer. She was bloated by steroids, pale and pasty from radiation, and bald from chemo. I was also young, pale, gaunt, and weak, riding an electric wheelchair, or dragging my body around with Lofstrand crutches. Yet, we found each other hilarious and a welcome break from all the emotional, mental, and physical stress that illness can bring.

New Hampshire’s cold wintry holidays had just passed and we were in the midst of a winter thaw. My buddy and I were leaving the restaurant after a heady discussion on the trip we were about to take, when suddenly Dawn ducked behind me.

“Quick, hide me. There’s my mother.”

I giggled and shielded her from view. It wasn’t that Dawn disliked her mother. She just didn’t want to divulge where we were headed lest the woman dissolve into tears. Moms are like that when their daughters are dying.

For the past few months, I had been driving us around town, since Dawn reluctantly agreed that her driving days were past. The cancer that began in her breast six years ago and seemingly had been in remission had accelerated rapidly to include bone, lung, and brain. Some days she didn’t even know me. Within three months she had declined from doing town errands and driving to being cared for. I had noticed her shortened attention span, brief episodes of cognitive impairment, and confusion even before she had been informed of brain metastasis. With that new diagnosis came a grave prognosis. It wasn’t until today and our previous conversation in the restaurant that Dawn was prepared to deal with end-of-life issues.

“Thank you for helping me with this,” Dawn said as I pulled the van into the church’s parking lot.

“That’s what friends are for,” I said hoarsely.

We met the assistant pastor. He knew us well, both being active members in his congregation, but he was clearly surprised at my friend’s rapid physical decline. “What do you need help with, Dawn?” he asked.

“My funeral,” she said, bluntly. There was an awkward silence.

Slowly, painstakingly, we worked out the details. Dawn seemed even more confused and detached than she had been an hour before. I reminded her of the Bible readings she selected and songs that she desired to be sung at the service. The reverend’s eyes were glistening when he said, “I have seen many things, have heard many stories in this office, but never have I seen the bravery and support of two greater friends. You both are vessels filled with the Holy Spirit.”

The following day after the children left for school, I met with Dawn, her husband, Doug, and the home hospice nurse. When the time came, Dawn would live out her final days at home surrounded by friends and family. After the nurse and Doug left, I tried to tidy up the kitchen table, but my body was weak and the dishes slipped from my grasp. As I bent to pick up the broken shards of glass, an even greater crash came from the other room. Dawn had fallen.

We worked together, me leaning back on my crutches for leverage, Dawn grasping the heavy couch. It took a good fifteen minutes to raise Dawn from the floor and ease her onto the couch. Then I called her husband and said she could no longer be alone.

With my nursing background, pastoral care visits to the homebound, hospital visitations, and grief counseling experience, you would think that the parting with my friend would have been smooth and graceful. It wasn’t. I was subject to sudden bursts of anger at God, feelings of inadequacy for not being able to help with her physical care, deep depression, and an impending sense of doom and gloom. I was losing a beautiful, wonderful friend in the worst way possible.

When I told her that in spirit she would always be around to watch her kids grow up . . . and that love is eternal and never dies . . . it sounded rehearsed and hollow. When she would whisper, “I love you so very much,” my tears would start. She would be visibly pained at my struggle, and then she’d try to reassure me with, “I will miss you.”

During a particularly intense exchange, I asked Dawn if just once in a while she would look down on me from heaven and help me on this life journey. With this request, my now-blind Dawn turned her head toward my voice and with perfectly focused eyes looked straight at me and replied, “No!”

Then we both started laughing. Soon, we both began to sob. After a while I tried again. “Please?”

“No,” she teased. And so we went off again. Laughter was our signature through sickness, funeral arrangements, and end-stage blindness.

Just a few days prior to her death, Dawn whispered that she had just seen a friend from her cancer support group (who had died months before). Then she said that Jesus was in the room. I told her that both her friend and Jesus would help her pass when she was ready. I asked her if she understood me. She said yes. This was the last conversation we had. She slipped into a coma.

Home alone with my thoughts, I cried and sobbed, wailed and shouted. I thought of distancing myself to save my own health, but I could not. The winter thaw was over, and cold air returned. I tossed and turned in bed, unable to turn off morose thoughts. And then, finally, sleep came. And with sleep came a dream so vivid it seemed real.

In my dream, I was at home serving tea to four women about my age and their many children. It must have been about time for the school bus to arrive, because three of the women left to help their kids into their winter coats. One woman, however, stayed to help me clean up the table. While we picked up dishes, she gave me a litany of her problems. She went on and on, until I felt ready to burst. I wanted to shout that she truly didn’t know what real problems were. But she rattled on and on and on. The other women and all the children were gone . . . I was left alone with this annoying woman.

Then I heard a familiar laugh. I looked up, and on my couch sat Dawn. She was young, slim, healthy, and radiant. Her hair was thick and full with golden ringlets tight around her face. She was wearing a sparkling white gown that flowed over her perfect, trim body. She had an amazing big smile and confident twinkling eyes.

“Friends,” she said with a pure chuckle, “you sure know how to pick ’em.”

I awoke to an early morning phone call. Doug wanted me to come to their home as soon as possible. He sounded lost and sad. I heard sobbing in the background. “Is she gone?” I asked softly.

“Yes,” he mumbled. “Just a few moments ago.”

As I trudged up toward Dawn’s house one last time, snow began to fall. Noises became muffled; the surrounding air silent. And as I held Dawn’s still warm hand, I sensed love and new beginnings. For the first time, in a long time, I felt peace.

Diana M. Amadeo

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