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Duchnowski: ‘Cartwheels in the Rain’ teaches empathy

I’ve started thinking of Gayle Dubowski when I do laundry.

She was one of the five Northern Illinois University students killed in the 2008 campus shootings. But she also was a girl with mixed emotions about Valentine’s Day, a strong faith she feared wasn’t enough and a lighthearted side that compelled her to turn cartwheels in the rain when friends complained about walking home in a downpour.

One Friday, she went to an acquaintance’s apartment after a church devotional to help her clean. She cheerfully shouted “Dishes!” upon seeing the work piled up in the sink and dove into them. She shouted “Socks!” upon seeing a basket of unfolded laundry and started tossing socks around the living room.

When the acquaintance inquired what the heck was she doing, Gayle explained she liked to turn folding socks into a matching game. Hilarious. Sometimes, now, I toss my socks around my bed to play a matching game with myself. (I skip it if BlackJack is nearby. My little dog confuses the matching game for fetch. And chew.)

I never knew Gayle, but I started reading her dad’s book, “Cartwheels in the Rain: Finding Faith in the Wake of the Unthinkable,” after the fifth anniversary of the campus shooting. Joe Dubowski takes the reader through his family’s experiences on that horrible day and in the months afterward, and gives us a glimpse at his relationship with his daughter and God.

His words are simple, but the emotions are complex. He describes selecting the music for her funeral service (“The Dance,” popularized by Garth Brooks) much the way I imagine my father thoughtfully selected the music for our dance at my wedding (“Someone to Watch Over Me,” Linda Ronstadt’s version).

As Joe Dubowski grieved and struggled with his faith, he came to a revolutionary realization: Perhaps God wants us to remember Jesus the same way he wants us to remember Gayle. He thought about how someone mentioning Gayle could brighten his and his wife’s day, and pondered how the Gospels devote much more time to the last week of Jesus’ life than they do to his birth.

“I realize to this day that I may never fully comprehend why God allowed Gayle’s life to end in the body at the age of 20 years, four-and-a-half months, and that we would remain in this world longer,” Joe Dubowski wrote. “But, as Stephen Saint shared ways that God used Stephanie’s death to change him for good, I began to see how God was moving through Gayle’s death – not to mention her life – in my heart for good.”

I’ve never experienced a loss as profound as losing a child; much of what I know about grief is through writing about others’ tragedies. But I do know grief is a journey that, once started, must be finished. I’m glad Joe Dubowski decided to share his memories of his daughter, so that I may think of her lighthearted, funny side as well as the way she died.

It’s also a reminder that everyone – from felons to university officials to school teachers to your local reporters – are complex individuals with hopes and fears and insecurities and mistakes.

Some of us dance in the rain, some of us curse it, but we all get wet.

• Jillian Duchnowski is the Daily Chronicle’s news editor. Reach her at 815-756-4841, ext. 2221, or email

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