Last night, I saw one of my best friends and his teenage daughter bestow scholarships on graduating seniors at my high school alma mater. The scholarships were for students who had overcome a personal hardship, but are determined to pursue careers in the health profession. The awards are in memory of my friend’s fiancée who passed away in 2014 after a lifetime of illness that ended in pervasive cancer.
This isn’t all that positive a start to something meant to be motivating and uplifting, I know. But my friend Dawn was extraordinary—and this is her story. Sadly, it has sorrow in it.
I met Dawn in sixth grade—Mrs. Hintz’s class—when she moved back to Danville after living with her dad in Montoursville. I can see her sliding into her desk to the left of the table where I sat. Her glasses’ frames were as large and owly as mine. I knew we were going to be fast friends.
And we were –through middle school and beyond. From the start, I admired her. She was forthright, tenacious, bubbly and –most wondrously—she was EVERYONE’S friend Dawn. That boggled my mind, particularly in middle school when friends I’d thought were true turned tail on me, leaving me floundering in tween terror awaiting others to come along.
Dawn was there. Not just for me, but for all of us. She made friends with people who sat by themselves in the cafeteria. She invited the loners to come to socials with the rest of us. She gave succor to those who most needed it without fail.
Her compassion kept on through high school and nothing stopped her from reaching out to our classmates. She was in multiple, varied afterschool activities. She strove for a high GPA. She had a baby brother to help her single mom care for at home. She had part-time jobs. Still, she was undeterred.
That was her best trait and the lesson she was here to teach of all of us—determination. But we didn’t realize it until she went off to Penn State in the fall of 1995. She was preparing to study theatre and make the sax line of the famous Blue Band.
It wasn’t meant to be. Dawn began having serious kidney issues, restricting her vivacious, lively activities considerably. Her health was chancy from there out, but her resilience never wavered. Goals changed for her, but didn’t diminish despite two kidney transplants, autoimmune difficulties, and the cancer that finally beat her. She still had the determination to master nursing classes, healthy eating kicks, three adorable cats, a fiancé, a stint in cosmetology, and to still be one of the most fashionable friends I’ve had throughout.
What was the lesson that she gave us? I remember discussing it in the bar after her memorial service with our friends and classmates. It was simple. Don’t ever give up. While Dawn never denied the troubles she had to face, she never let them get her down. She joked. She wrote pen pal letters. She ate her favorite circus peanuts and Whoppers with extra pickles. She wore a toy eye patch to make people smile. She drank. She danced. She found the silver linings hidden in tiny apartments, traffic jams, and Mets baseball tragedies. She loved. She lived.
She showed us what to do to make it through before she left. Watch that reality TV show if it makes you happy. Keep others on their toes trying to guess what you’re going to do next. Help anyone who needs it. And don’t give in to adversity.