WATERLOO, Iowa --- Even before Kay Recker gave birth to her daughter, she had a sense about the child and who she would become.
Recker believed the baby would be a girl who would be a source of much delight. She also told her doctor the baby would face health problems.
Dawn Michelle Recker was born on Sept. 11, 1974. Her first name translates a few different ways: to grow light, to give promise, the break of the day.
Dawn, now 37, has lived up to her name in every way, according to her parents, Bob and Kay Recker of Waterloo. She continues to shine despite a nearly three-year battle with terminal lung cancer.
"She is the light of my life," Kay Recker said.
Recker's other instinct proved true.
Shortly after Dawn's birth, doctors diagnosed Dawn with Down syndrome. The genetic disorder causes moderate-to-severe developmental delays, learning disabilities and cognitive impairments.
The Reckers remember the marching orders issued at the hospital: Just take her home and love her. The advice also came with a litany of limitations.
"I was a very passive person when I married but I think God had other plans for me," Kay Recker said. "I changed that day."
Kay Recker planned to love her daughter. She also became a vocal and passionate advocate for Dawn and a tireless caregiver.
"My line was always 'time was of the essence,'" Kay Recker added.
The family has spent almost four decades making sure Dawn had every opportunity to maximize her full potential, said Bob Recker. who retired several years ago as an engineer for John Deere.
Dawn earned a high school diploma at West High School, where she made the honor roll and managed the spirit team. Almost two decades later, special education teacher Tami Sommerfeldt can still recall the polite girl with a friendly disposition who made an effort in the classroom. Dawn was one of Sommerfeldt's first students.
"She was always with a smile on her face and a 'thank you,'" Sommerfeldt said.
Dawn went on to attend classes at the University of Northern Iowa and held several jobs.
Family photos also capture a full social life: Dawn clowning around with her brother. Dawn dancing the night away at prom. Dawn cheering at a football game. Dawn on the ski slopes of Colorado.
"Our whole thing was to experience and grow every little bit," Kay Recker said.
Over the last month, maximizing life has meant making the most of the Christmas season. From brightly strung lights to beautifully adorned evergreens to hot chili and cheesecake, the holiday has a lot to offer, according to Dawn.
"It's my favorite holiday," Dawn said.
Earlier this week, she eagerly anticipated the arrival of her older brother and daily Skype partner, Chris, 39, in town to celebrate Christmas. Dawn had their itinerary down pat: Culver's, hot chocolate, Christmas Eve Mass, and SKIP-BO.
"I'm so excited," she said.
Christmas and cancer
Christmas is a big deal at the Recker household and decorations play pretty significant role in preparing for the holiday, thanks in large part to Kay Recker. Dawn does her part, too.
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This year, Kay Recker donated and put up trees, ornaments, wreaths, garland, snow people and other festive bits at the Covenant Cancer Treatment Center on Ridgeway Avenue in Waterloo.
Dawn has been making trips to the cancer treatment center for two years. Kay Recker wanted to give other patients something to take their mind off their troubles.
"I just thought it would be something to brighten their holidays up," Kay Recker said.
A miniature pink tree touts the cause of breast cancer awareness. A snowman and sleigh display is meant to conjure up feelings of Christmas long ago.
"I thought that was kind of fun and whimsical," Kay Recker said.
She has apparently succeeded on all fronts, according to Cindy Staley, a receptionist at the cancer center.
But the best medicine may come from an interaction with Dawn: She regularly exudes charm, compassion and honesty.
"You don't meet Dawn without falling in love with her," Staley said. "She is such an upbeat --- precious is what I'd call her."
Dawn has a way of keeping things simple. A true "clothes horse," according to her family, she readily admits an interest in fashion and accessories. Kay Recker takes some responsibility for the hobby, having taught her daughter to take care in her appearance.
"You can say to her, 'Oh, honey, you look darling today.' 'Oh, I know it,'" is a typical Dawn response, Staley said. " ... She's not inhibited at all. So many of the honest things that a lot of people hold back, they just totally come out of her."
Even as cancer has spread throughout her slight body, complaints from Dawn are unheard of and tears are reserved for moments of great pain, Kay Recker said. A former hospice volunteer, Kay Recker is surprised they don't happen more frequently.
"It's not too bad now," Dawn said earlier this week. "It comes and goes."
Earlier this week, the Reckers enrolled Dawn in a hospice program. Kay Recker leans on her faith for solace.
"Prayers have been my biggest thing," Kay Recker said.
Although she is prone to worry, Dawn is quick to offer comfort. If she thinks her mom is in need of assurance, she is quick to offer a hug or a hand pat.
"And Dawn puts her arm on her shoulder and says, 'I'll be fine, mom. Chin up ... ,'" Staley said.
Dawn's body has grown weaker but the strength of her spirit hasn't waned, said Rev. Jerry Kopacek at St. Edward Catholic Church in Waterloo. The Recker family attends St. Ed's.
"She is one of the strongest, most resilient people it's ever been my privilege to know," Kopacek said. "She has a very deep faith and a very deep love for God and a very strong love for her family."
Since the cancer diagnosis, the Recker family has endured more than one health scare. More than once, Dawn has rallied.
The gift of time allowed Dawn to travel to Colorado and walk down the aisle as a bridesmaid in her brother's wedding. The Reckers have visited Disney World and New York City.
And they have gathered to celebrate another Christmas together.
"We've been blessed," Chris said.