Daria Donnelly, R.I.P.

1959 - 2004

Daria Donnelly, Commonweal’s associate editor (at large), died September 21 at the age of forty-five. She was the mother of Leo and Josephine, two beautiful dark-eyed children, and married to the singularly devoted Steven Weissburg. Daria had multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood and bone marrow. For three years she contested its claims on her bones, her stem cells, her energy, and her life. In her illness and in her dying, she manifested the same lively intelligence, curiosity, wit, and hospitality that were among her signal qualities in health and in life. Two stem-cell transplants, dozens of daily pills, treatments and transfusions, gloves and masks never closed her off from friends, conversations, e-mails, or even -- last spring -- from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to which she came to see the Byzantium exhibit and to stand in front of a miracle-working icon of Mary and pray to be healed.

Daria was educated by Mercy nuns in her home town of Pittsburgh. After majoring in religion at Wesleyan University, she taught in an inner-city high school, cooked for a Catholic Worker house in Rochester, New York, and spent a year living in Jerusalem. She got a PhD from Brandeis, where she studied nineteenth-century American poetry and theodicy. Her reviews and essays appeared in scholarly journals, critical anthologies, the New York Times, and Commonweal. Daria appeared on Commonweal’s radar screen in 1993. Her first article, “Into the City of Faithfulness” (June 18, 1993), explored the spiritual riches of an interfaith marriage, her own to Steve. She later served as a consulting editor. In 1999, I was looking for an associate editor. Listening to her one afternoon, I realized what a good prospect she was. She loved poetry, her teaching at Boston University gave her insights into a younger generation, and her command of literature filled a gap in our collective knowledge. But alas, she lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “No problem,” she said. She commuted each week for two days, sometimes accompanied by then five-year-old Leo, who bombarded the office with squadrons of paper airplanes and left-behind pictographs of train travel, space travel, and a running commentary on his New York adventure.

Daria regularly stayed with the Steinfelses. To our dinner table conversations that all too often were focused on politics -- ecclesiastical and civil -- she brought another perspective: recent poetry, necessary novelists (she had me reading Hilary Mantel), new music, and art, ancient and modern. An ardent museum-goer -- the Rothko Chapel and the Menil Collection in Houston were among her favorites -- she planned one day to write about the experience of sacred art in such secular settings.

Josephine’s birth in July 2001 halted Daria’s commuting life, but technology, faxes, FedEx, phones, and the Internet, kept her engaged in the work of the magazine. Her twice-a-year Children’s Books column resumed a feature started by Claire Huchet Bishop in the 1940s. Daria read children’s books with the eyes and ears of a child and wrote about them for adults with the critical tools of a scholar. Leo and Josephine were often her first sources in identifying the books she wrote about. Steve wrote recently, “Daria was very proud of her New York Times book review article this last year about Galileo and Darwin. An essential fact about Daria is that she devoted an inordinate amount of time, energy, and attention to whatever was of interest to her: present article, school project, reading to Leo, preparing for death, etc., to the extent that she just let other things fall away (such as cleaning her room, paying bills, etc.)....Thus, everyone loved her, because she gave them her all.”

Her friendships were lasting and wide-ranging. A large correspondence attests to her seldom losing track of anyone she befriended. Her circle included the nuns who sent medals and relics, which she pinned to the sling protecting her broken right arm over the last several months, to author Gregory Maguire whom she interviewed on the complexities of parenting as a gay man and a Catholic (Commonweal, October 24, 2003).

At the turn of 2002, she was diagnosed with multiple myeloma when fractures in her vertebrae were found. Myeloma is a rare and almost always fatal cancer, but a few people survive. That was Daria’s plan. With Steve, her companion in battle as in life, she began the arduous struggle to treat her disease, to live a normal life, to love her children, to continue writing, and to cheerfully confront the anxious faces of her friends. She was never so sick or so weak that she did not welcome a phone call, a visitor, or, in sometimes loopy fashion, reply to a lamenting e-mail.

The course of life since her diagnosis was recounted on a Web site that Steve faithfully maintained. He posted not only treatment details (usually an array of numbers by which doctors and nurses gauged the to and fro of battle), but the course of life with Leo and Josie. Sickness can be isolating, but not for Steve and Daria. Family, neighbors, friends were welcomed ever more deeply into their lives. A visit to 51 Frost Street was to encounter an outpouring of affection and food (a feast of perfectly roasted chicken prepared by Daria’s friend Jana Kiely graced the table during one of my visits).

Steve’s Web diary continued for two and a half years. For long periods after her first transplant, there were no postings. “No news is good news.” But a second transplant became necessary. More frequent postings and new numbers came along. Initially there was good news, then good news and bad news. During this past summer, Daria intermittently returned to the hospital. On one visit, she handed me a yellow pad with her funeral service written out. She wanted me to type it up. I demurred. “Just in case,” she said. I reluctantly agreed, but in an unprecedented fit of superstition, I reversed the beginning and the end of the liturgy so no evil fairy could espy its content and take her from us (Daria, the children’s book lover, understood completely).

Steve’s final post came Tuesday, September 21: “It is with utter sadness that I tell you all that our dear Daria, mother of Leo and Josie, my wife of fifteen years, died today at 1:30 p.m. at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, three years after her first symptoms of multiple myeloma, cancer of the bone marrow....Her summer was difficult, and the last few weeks seemed impossible, but Daria carried herself forward with dignity and strength and love. Even last week we thought that she might be able to turn the corner. But, she could not. The immediate cause of death was pneumonia, but much else was failing or had failed. Her friend Mary spent all of last night with her until 6 a.m. Leo and I and two of her siblings were with her this morning, and until she died.”

Daria included in her funeral liturgy this prayer:

May Josie, Leo, and Steven be well.
May they be free from suffering.
May Josie, Leo, and Steven be filled with loving kindness.
May they be happy.

And may Daria Donnelly rest in peace as well. 

Published in the 2004-10-08 issue: 

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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