Pick the day as you would a poppy. — Cicero
In 2006, Jennifer Dawson, a 35-year-old wife and mother, died without warning from an undiagnosed heart condition. She was living in Brooklyn, New York at the time with her husband and children, a son, 2 and a daughter, 8.
Dawson attended high school in Oklahoma City, but I never knew her. I read about her death in the obits section of The Oklahoman. It was May 1, 2006, and I was sitting at my desk just trying to swim through the brutality of another monotonous day away from my kids. So goes many a life making a living.
Her obituary made me sad and curious. Why did a healthy young mother of two die so suddenly? I needed to cure my fear and rule out that such a sudden death could happen to me. I went online to find out more information. I discovered a link to Matt Zoller Seitz‘s blog. Seitz is Jennifer’s widower. He’d shared a few scant details about her death. Literally, she was alive one second and gone the next. She’d had a heart attack triggered by a heart defect that had gone undetected.
Jennifer Dawson’s story has stayed with me every day over the past several years. A week does not go by that I don’t think of her. We shared the same name and the same generation. When she died, my son was not even a year old. My oldest daughter was only eight. Since May 1, 2006, Jennifer Dawson’s death has informed my living, and although I never mentioned it (it seemed like an invasion), she was a big inspiration for the Jennifer Chronicles.
Sometimes, while boiling macaroni for chili or scooping out coffee or paying bills I imagine I am alive at the moment, but dead in the next. For this is how it went for Jennifer. The next day, I organize the filing cabinet. I make sure the birth certificates, Social Security cards, and savings bonds are in plain sight. I take out more life insurance. I search Craigslist for an antique hope chest for Juliette. I write in Bridgette’s baby book, which I didn’t write in when she was a baby. I hate myself for this. I hate myself for it a thousand times.
Have you ever noticed how men never hate themselves for not keeping up the baby books?
(Just a thought.)
For too long my life spilled over with obnoxious, self-centered, belligerent, and arrogant people. In little ways and sometimes big, they stole a hundred days or even years I can’t get back. Although I didn’t know her, Jennifer Dawson’s death challenged me to grab hold of the finer points in my life and preserve myself for the people who really matter.
So, I think of her when I push cold cereal on my kids instead of making them homemade waffles. I think of her in the drive-thru lane when I’m too tired or lazy to cook a big Sunday dinner. I think of her when I buy $20 boots instead of $200 boots so my daughter can have a Fjällräven Kånken backpack. I think of her all the time, and I always feel her pushing me toward sacrifice and celebration.
Jennifer, thank you, for that.
In 2010, Seitz wrote a piece for Salon in honor of what would have been Jennifer’s 40th birthday. Here is an excerpt from All The Things That Remind Me Of Her.
A song, a poem, a scene from a film triggers memories. You’re startled, moved, shaken. And you’re faced with two options: 1) engage with the work and the memories it calls up, or 2) retreat, postpone, avoid.
Option 2 is very attractive. You’re buying Tums and hand soap at the drugstore and a song comes on, a song you associate with somebody you loved — a shared reference point, an in-joke, an anthem, a confession — and suddenly you’re a mess, a wreck, useless, so you leave the store without buying anything. You’re watching a movie in a multiplex or in somebody’s living room and here comes a character that reminds you of somebody you miss — a parent, a sibling, a lover, a friend — and you excuse yourself for a while and go into another room or take a walk around the block, and when you’ve regained control, you go back. (‘Hey, where were you?’ ‘Nowhere. Just taking a break.’…”