Today we said farewell to the woman I married 19 years and three months ago, the mother of my children and my first love, Wendy Robin Lachs Ennis. Many times here on facebook I have referred to Wendy as my ex, but in truth, we only separated, and because of a variety of reasons our divorce was postponed again and again and ultimately never legally finalized. And it’s fair to say that for most of that time, Wendy didn’t waffle nearly as much as I had in wanting to move on.
Her battle to beat a rare form of cancer ended Wednesday, just shy of 30 weeks. She survived extensive surgery by one of the top cancer doctors in the United States, seven excruciating rounds of chemo, disabling vertigo, nearly constant nausea and had lost a tremendous amount of weight and energy. Last Sunday at a doctor’s urging, her mother rushed her to the emergency room at Hartford Hospital. She wanted to avoid that, despite having always been well treated at hospitals but she was always resistant to going and preferred a bowl of chicken soup and her own bed to being hooked up to an IV and having beeping monitors by her bedside.
On Wednesday morning, I woke up in Los Angeles to a text response to a question I had asked her, about when she might be well enough to be discharged. She told me she was hoping today was the day.
But by noon she had taken a very sudden and terrible turn for the worse. A doctor from the ICU called me and said I need to come right away.
I was 3,000 miles away. Being still married meant all decisions regarding her care now fell to me, as she had fallen into unconsciousness and was not responding to anyone. That means I had to answer “the big question:” should the doctors and nurses try to keep her alive, or let her slip away? Factors ran through my head: is she suffering, what can be done to diminish her pain, what are they doing to treat her symptoms and will keeping her alive until the children can see her, and perhaps me, too — will that hurt her?
I also spoke to her mother, who has been living with Wendy and the kids about ten days, and we agreed on a course of action. The kids had been left in the dark as to the seriousness of Wendy’s diagnosis. They didn’t know that she had learned just before Christmas that some of the cancer the surgeon had said he removed had spread, first to two lymph nodes and then to her liver.
New scans showed it was now running rampant in her stomach lining and that the end was certainly near. She had skipped her last chemo session last week, on account of being too weak to handle the horrendous ordeal that is chemotherapy. And these killer cells took full advantage of that window of opportunity, and deprive her of the rest of her life. Once diagnosed with duodenal cancer, she never ever wavered in her fight to beat the disease, to see her children marry and hold her grandchildren, perhaps to even dance at their weddings someday.
The children were stunned to find their mother in her final hours, and we spoke by phone several times. They decided they would not leave her side, as the rabbi, cousins, friends all rushed to the hospital and I raced to the airport. Arcane rules about needing to purchase a ticket 45 minutes before departure prevented me from boarding the last afternoon flight, but that turned out to be for the best.
In addition to getting a $100 airline credit from American Airlines because of how a rude woman at LAX turned me away when I pleaded for help, I was able to make and take those calls that kept me in constant contact with the children.
Sean at one point offered to hold the phone up to his mom’s ear, so that if she could hear the sound of my voice from within her unconscious mind, I would have the opportunity to say goodbye. Such a blessing he is, our first-born.
My burden for the remainder of my days will be the shame I feel for not being by their side as they watched their mother die. I know it’s irrational but it’s real. And I am more proud of my children for how they navigated this crisis than for any of the other dozen obstacles thrown in their path over the last three years: transition, separation, distance, cancer… and now the death of their mom. I am very close to my kids but they connected with their mom on a level that only a mother can, and I have always envied her for that. But the fact is, I have loved being their dad. As I have said over and over again: the kids have a mother, and I’ve never intended or desired to replace Wendy as the kids’ mom. I can, however, see that as a single dad who’s trans there are aspects of motherhood I am eager to embrace, a delicate dance that I’m beginning cautiously as we try to recover from what the rabbi correctly described as the earthquake that is Wendy’s death.
At this hour, I am supposed to be in Chicago participating in a panel discussion about LGBT journalism at Creating Change 2016. To say I had been looking forward to it would be a gross understatement. But instead of speaking there, I stood on the bimah, the Hebrew word for altar, and delivered what follows, the eulogy to my spouse, before hundreds of our friends, relatives, coworkers and neighbors. My children each delivered one as well, and I could not be more proud of them.
When Wendy’s father, Joel, passed away 9 years ago, I sat in awe of her mother as she delivered his eulogy. Later, I told Wendy I was amazed at her mother’s strength in summoning the courage to stand before everyone and share her grief for the man she loved.
“I’ll never be that strong,” I told her.
I’m not. But like her mother, Wendy was the kind of woman who made you feel you could do anything, even the impossible.
Most of you know that Wendy and I had a storybook romance that started in college, with a less than perfect ending. I’m here to tell you that although neither of us were perfect, she was a lot closer to perfect than I can ever hope to be.
She was the love of my life.
Wendy gave up a lot in the name of love, and I do feel tremendous guilt and sorrow that I was not worthy, that I could not be the person she deserved, the person who made all her dreams come true.
Was it enough that she made mine come true? She brought these beautiful children of ours into the world, her greatest gift to me, to whom I will dedicate myself the rest of my life.
She made my dreams come true by encouraging me to live my truth, knowing that anything less would bring us both misery.
Wendy made our family’s dreams come true by being flexible, thrifty, creative and steadfast in the face of poverty, desperation and despair.
This woman who we mourn put her needs and wants after everyone else’s, and now I pray to G-d that He or She rewards her eternally.
I’ve told my children their mother always found the silver lining in everything — and here it is. Wendy is right here with us, right now, in our hearts and minds, never to be parted.
She is my beloved, and once upon a time, I was hers. I wish only that I will someday be as good a parent, a person, a woman as wonderful as Wendy. Not likely, but I will try to be more like her, and I encourage everyone who mourns with us to find it in yourself to be more like Wendy: forgiving, loving, selfless and strong against impossible odds.
Farewell, my beloved. I love you always and everywhere. I conclude with the three songs that meant the most to us: “Have I told you lately that I love you,” my “brown eyed girl?” You were “the wind beneath our wings.” To her family, I say: thank you for sharing her with me, and honoring her memory today, and always.
A trust has been established by Wendy’s brother, Robert Lachs, to assist with furthering the education of the Ennis children. Anyone wishing to donate to the fund may send a check, payable to “Ennis Family Scholarship Fund Trust” to Robert Lachs, 1729 E Prairie Ave., Wheaton, IL 60137, or click here to donate via GoFundMe.