“There’s something different about her”

 

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As big, burly, ex-marine Max took me in his tattooed arms and pulled me close, nearly off my barstool and toward his liquored lips, I felt… something.

Not his hand, moving slowly, up my skirt, although that did distract me for a moment.

It was time. It didn’t slow down, as time does in the movies and the romance novels. Instead, it rewound, pulling my concentration away from my corner barstool in the little Irish pub where we nine widows met regularly for wine, cocktails, and conversation.

And more wine.

I could sense the presence of Jackie, the only one left after many, many rounds, turning her eyes, her whole body, away from Max and me, this hunk of a man who sidled up to two moms at the bar, to chat us up and maybe have a little fun. And as my mind rode a tilt-a-whirl of memories, I accepted that’s why I was after, too: an escape, a thrill ride, a temporary diversion from grief.

My thoughts got lost in the spinning sensation sparked by my lips making contact with other lips, the process of thinking slowing to a stop until I was living in the moment. Excitement got my juices flowing and ignited a warm fire that started down below, the flames reaching up and rekindling my heart, gone cold.

Ten months. It’s been that long since my life changed, losing the love of my life, my spouse of almost 20 years, to cancer. And not long after that loss, I found something I’d never had in all my years: genuine, goodhearted, girlfriends.

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Jackie, Sam, Karen, Cait, Erynn, Michele, Debbie, Laura, Dani and me: the ten of us had met every other week at a local grief support group, some of us for months, some had been going for years. But it wasn’t long after I joined that we soon branched out, having emptied the tank of all our stories of struggle, crying through the many milestones together and lamenting why this was our cross to bear.

We felt as if we had graduated, and needed to find a venue that better fit our needs. Most but not all of us were weary of having to repeatedly reintroduce ourselves and retrigger our grief as new widows joined the group. Don’t get me wrong; I do think it is helpful to have those who’ve been around the block, so to speak, share their experience and guide those — like me — as they take their first steps into our horrible world.

Horrible because sooner or later, friends and family step back, unsure what to say or how to help, uncomfortable when we tell them, “yes, it’s still hard.” Hard because we are so used to having our other half to share the load, to make the memories and to hug away the hurt. And hurt, because there are holes in our hearts that will never, ever, be filled. Our job as single moms is to be everything to our kids, and show them how to learn to live with a hole in their hearts.

Not one widow’s story is like another’s, especially mine, I guess. We are each survivors of deadly accidents, fatal illnesses, suicides, overdoses and hearts that fail. But as much as wish to give back, there comes a time each of us has decided we need to practice self-care, and that includes going out.

It was in June at a noisy restaurant in Manchester, Connecticut, at my first-ever GNO — girls night out — that my cisgender (non-transgender) widow sisters finally felt comfortable to ask me about being transgender. And it was fine, we laughed, and they didn’t once make me uncomfortable. I hadn’t mentioned being trans that very first time I attended the widows group, for fear of being rejected.

“Sam had said to me, ‘there’s something different about her,’” Karen confessed. We laughed, but I made a confession, too: I had worried about how they might react.

Before I joined, one of the grief counseling leaders warned me that there might be resistance to me joining the group. And when I asked why, I was sure to look this woman in the eyes, so there’d be no mistaking how blown away I was, to suggest my grief might not hold the same value as other widows. “It’s just that, well, you said you two were separated, and that may not go over so well.”

Whew. Well at least it wasn’t “the trans thing.”

I paused, continuing to lock eyes with this usually kind, smiling soul who was going to stand between this group and I. Feeling determined, I decided a softer, quieter tone was what was required, even if I did want to scream.

“I am grieving. I loved as much as any one person can, and now I’m alone. No matter what else we are to one another, won’t that be something we can all relate to?”

My words resonated in just the way I had hoped, and so I began attending the group. We took turns telling our stories and truth be told we laughed more than we cried, but there were still plenty of tears. We bared our souls and found in our shared experience new friendships that evolved into GNO trips to comedy clubs, concerts, psychics and energy healers and drinking and dancing (and drinking) at our Irish pub in Plainville, Connecticut.

“Wowww,” said Max, pulling his face from mine, his stubble rubbing my smooth cheek in a way I’ve rarely felt before. The sensation knocked me back into reality. Meeting his eyes with mine, I whispered back. “Wow? Is that all you have to say?”

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“Well, yeahhh,” said Max, quietly, looking at me with his beer goggles firmly affixed. “I guess it’s just that I’ve never kissed someone transgender before.”

“Oh? Really?” I said, straightening my back in my seat, using my body language to speak volumes that I dared not utter with my mouth. I restrained myself from making a scene but glared at Jackie to my left.

“So, uhhh,” Max leans back in from the right, to deliver his second stupid statement of the evening, er, morning. “You’ve had the surgery?”

And just like on that old episode of Grey’s Anatomy, when McDreamy died? I’m done.

“Baby,” I cooed, as I put both my hands on his unshaven cheeks. “Your hands already know the answer to that question. Besides, you didn’t hear me ask about your prostate exam, hmmm?”

Jackie laughed, and it slowly dawned on Max he should join in the laughter.

That’s when I stepped gently but deliberately from my stool, and I extricated my body from his hands and made some excuse about needing to use the ladies room.

In the film version, I imagine Jackie jumping off her seat, too, and huffing off as we make our way to the bathroom, our heads held high, widow sisters forever! Woot!

But this is reality, and Jackie was glued to her seat. Before I left for the ladies room I whispered in her ear, out of Max’s earshot, that I wanted to leave, and why. That question, oof! Couldn’t he have pretended a little longer that he hadn’t clocked me?

Whatever. I just wanted to pee and go, and to my surprise, Jackie wasn’t budging. We are widows after all, and my disentanglement presented an opportunity. “It’ll be fine,” she told me. “I could use a good fuck! I can handle him.”

“Okaaaay.” I had never had a wing woman before — nor lost one. So, I broke formation, took care of my business and made my exit, but not before asking the bartender to keep an eye on Mr. Grabby Hands as he made the moves on my friend.

As I sat in my car, I reflected on the night: I’d kissed a boy, made-out in public and in front of a friend, and had one too many drinks, but not too many that I couldn’t drive. I’d laughed, a lot. And I’d been clocked, in the worst way possible. I was about to drive off when I decided instead to wait for Jackie, just in case.

After all, that’s what a widow sister does.

This is a different version of an essay that first appeared in NewNowNext.  Some names have been changed to protect privacy.

This side of heaven, where tears fall like rain


I thought about it all day… today was ten months.

I tried to avoid thinking about it. I wanted to not make a big deal of it. I pretended you weren’t in my mind at every minute of every hour.

Instead…I focused on our children. I focused on their grief. I focused on our home, cleaning it and stocking its cabinets. I put my time and energy into our kids’ needs, wants, desires.

They in turn helped me mark the Transgender Day of Remembrance and honored me by participating.

I spent time with each of them today, by their side, showing them my pride, my love, my devotion. Honoring my promise, fulfilling their dreams, putting wind in their sails. They are so like you, so strong, so beautiful and so very wise. And loving.
 
And after making their dessert, as I turned to close the door of the fridge, my eyes caught a glimpse of one of your pictures that I placed there, and everywhere, in your kitchen.
 
And… I lost it. I miss you so!
 
“Always and everywhere,” we always wrote on every card for twenty years, and even ten months later I am no less heartbroken, no less despondent and still grieving, as we prepare to mark Thanksgiving, one more holiday with an empty chair at our table.

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That was supposed to be mine; it’s so wrong. That should be my empty chair. You should be here, having cast me out of our home and your heart. But like so many things, including a cure, long life, secure finances and a man for a spouse, you didn’t get what you wished for, counted on nor deserved.
 
The thing is, even after our rough times, in the end there was forgiveness, friendship, and we forged a strong connection bound by our children. Yes, even though we parted “before death do us part,” I didn’t let you return that part of my heart that I gave to you.
 
And so today, I lived another day with that hole in my heart. Tears are the accessory I’ve worn most often this year, accompanied by a fresh packet of tissues wherever I go. But whenever the healthy release of bottled-up emotions ends, I try to focus on this quote from ever optimist Zig Ziglar:
“We hear tears loudly on this side of Heaven. What we don’t take time to contemplate are the even louder cheers on the other side of death’s valley.”
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The Damsel Writer in Distress, and the Two Men Who Rescued Me Today

PicMonkey Collage.jpgThere was a lot of freelance writing drama today as I juggled four of my six part-time jobs all at once. And as I prepare for bed, I have two short stories (for which I shall not be paid) that I will share with you.

 

all-i-really-have-going-for-me-is-sarcasm-resting-bitch-face-a-huge-rack-and-really-good-eyebrows-3d268At one point earlier today I was fit to be tied, in an unshakably gloomy, angry and mostly just sad, sad mood. I was able to shield my daughter and others from incurring my wrath… but I am sure that, had I looked in a mirror, I might have seen that “OMG what is THAT about” resting bitch face I involuntarily show whenever trouble strikes. It’s at these times I remember never, ever to play poker.

 

weird-alBut despite the feeling the world was at an end, something happened that turned my frown upside down: a song by “Weird Al” Yankovic played on the SiriusXM Radio. “Smells Like Nirvana.”

 

As I listened, the parody taking me back decades, I felt the stress fade away. I could not resist smiling and just enjoyed the silliness. “Weird Al” made me feel 1,000 times lighter. It was a welcome break for my troubled mind and soul.

 

Thank you, “Weird Al,” or being my first savior of the day.

 

As for the second one, Tilesha Brown knows all too well my obsession with saving my copy, and often, to avoid what we each have experienced in losing EVERYTHING. This is the story of why I was in that foul, foul mood.

 

Well, after dutifully and repeatedly saving a 1,000+word piece I had been writing this week for NBC News, I closed the tab, and then could not for the life of me find the article on my Mac. It was gone, poof, as if I had never written a single character. I was simultaneously writing another story for another outlet and also on the phone conducting an interview with a highly-placed transgender advocate, all at the same time, so I had to stifle my scream and just let it go for awhile.

 

14-2.jpgAfter the interview (IT WAS STILL MISSING, WHERE DID IT GO?!?!?) I ran to fetch my daughter from her school on a snowy day — “oh, hey, can you please give my friend a ride home too?” — then, I drove her to get her flu shot, which was, thankfully, the fastest appointment in the history of pediatric medicine. Somewhere in between I emailed the editor with my sob story. Tears streaming down my face, I wrote that I was determined to find the missing article, and if not, type it all over again from memory.

 

At first, I tried using AppleCare’s chat function. Chandra was the very kind, patient woman on the other side of the screen, as I typed in panic mode and explained my desperate situation. I told her I hadn’t trashed anything but checked it anyway, and had already tried the usual search tools.

 

Me: “I’ve used Spotlight and searched the ‘My Mac’ box and the ‘All My Files’ box.”

Chandra: “Ok, that is what I would suggest. You could not find the document through those means?”

Me: “I’m sorry, do you think I’d be in this chat if I could?”

 

I thanked her and disconnected. With my MacBookPro in hand (or, well, in tote bag), I dashed to the mall where I met with Chris at the Microsoft store. This was, after all, a Microsoft Word issue.

 

d5fd16ce33cfac682eda90c51e0f6e3c.jpgTall, stocky, friendly Chris clapped his hands loudly like he was about to head center court. “Okay! Let’s do this!” he said, apparently to me. “Okay!” I said in response, cheered by his enthusiasm.
Sadly, Chris is from BillGatesGeektown, where the only computers in the world are Windows PCs. He cleaned my screen, gave me a free Pepsi, and then told me he had no clue where to begin. It was as if I had brought a 12th century monk a cellphone and asked him to show me how to place a call. The good news: the Pepsi was cold. And my screen was clean, yay! But still no article. So off to the Apple Store I went.

 

iphones_and_crowds_in_the_apple_storeWhile the Microsoft store was virtually empty, there were dozens and dozens of people ahead of me waiting to see a genius at the Apple Store. A very friendly young woman informed me my walk-in appointment would occur sometime “between 47 minutes and 57 minutes.”

 

I just stared at her for a moment, not sure what to say next.
“So… like, 45 minutes to an hour?” I asked.

 

“Close enough,” she said. Okaaaay. I dashed back to the car, fetched the youngest from chess club and dropped him off at home to do his homework and navigated the slushy, slippery streets… just a little better than the pilot of Mike Pence’s plane.
AP_16302063971741.jpgI made it back to the Apple Store with 5.214 minutes to spare (according to the blue-shirted employee who directed me to a stool). So, I got back to work, writing other stories for my other employers, answering emails from still others and trading instant messages with even more. Simultaneously, my cellphone dinged me with messages from my widow sisters — a group of nine who I adore who are my number one support system and friends and allies and great ladies who spend a lot of time texting one another in the group chat — and my eldest son who was on a field trip to the United Nations.

 

I read the texts from the widows but texted only a few messages, focusing mostly on sending my son short bursts of parental love.

 

“K.”
“Nice pic!”
“Cool.”
“Safe travels.”
“Yes, snow.”
“Does your car have snowbrush?”
“Drive carefully!”
“Steak. TTYL.”

 

And as I put the finishing touches on another article for another outlet and hit “publish,” into my life walked Rud.

 

Yes, his name is Rud. Standing six-two, sporting a thick red beard, with a lovely smile and calm voice, cool green eyes and those earrings that make your earlobes really huge. Rud is an Apple Genius.

 

He had read the notes, understood not only the workings of my MacBookPro but also knew a thing or two about Microsoft Word.

 

I showed him how my computer had saved a test document and together we traced where it had hidden my article: in a file that does not show up in “Search My Mac” or “Search All Files” or even in Spotlight.

 

It’s called Office 2011 AutoRecovery. There, with other documents that automatically are saved by Word every ten minutes, was (angels sing, trumpets sound) my missing article. Along with a LOT of other crap. It looked similar to this:

 

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I literally burst into happy tears and said something I’ve never said to any man, ever.

 

“Oh my God, I love you!”

 

Where on earth that came from, I have no idea. His response: “Cool. Any other issues I can help you with?”

 

“No, no, thank you! Thank you!”

 

In hindsight, my Mac superuser friend Maia probably could have solved this in half the time it took me waiting on Rud the Apple Genius. But I was determined to resolve this without having to bother my friends.

 

When you’re a widow working six part-time jobs to earn enough money to feed three growing kids and pay bills and keep the lights and heat on, you put your head down and plow ahead full-speed. It’s hard to comprehend how a simple thing like losing a Word document has taken on so much greater significance.

 

Thankfully, all is well tonight, and off I go, to bed, where I shall sleep with a smile as I dream of Rud and Al, knowing that I shall have more stories to tell tomorrow.

The Coping Cabana

Exactly three years ago today, my children met the real me, and as I’ve mentioned, it’s about six months since we lost their mother. Some might say my kids lost both their mom and their dad. And I say, no: that’s not the case.

That’s because they have what I call the DadMom: a woman called “dad” who does the job of “mom” and brings the best of both worlds to bear to raise my strong, smart children.

The focus of my “Life After Dawn” now more than ever is to meet their needs, lift them up, and dry their tears.

Grief is not our state of being but it is something we are dealing with, every day, each in our own way. And not one of us is handling it in the exact same way or on the same timeline.

Here’s a video about how I help my children cope with their grief. I welcome your comments and questions, here, on my YouTube channel or via email at dawnennis@gmail.com

Thanks for watching!

A trust has been established by Wendy’s brother, Robert Lachs. 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.

Thank you.

Six months


Six months ago today our world changed. I woke up to a text from Wendy in the hospital:
“I think I’m going home today.” 
It’s also my late father in law’s birthday. My hope is they are together in paradise. 
Above, a photo from the last time she did come home from the hospital. Miss her today and everyday.
Part of my “to do” list today is to order her headstone. The inscription is something we worked together to compose; her mother, brother, and of course our children wrote the words, and I am as always the copy editor. I’ll share those words when the time comes for the unveiling this fall.
PS our struggle continues… and I’m not ashamed to ask for help for our kids to reach our goal of funding their education. As for day in, day out, we get by on my meager salary and federal and state benefits, which is enough to buy groceries and kids clothing and pay bills. I’m a regular at Goodwill and our town and temple’s food pantries, and I firmly believe there’s no shame in accepting help when it’s offered. To those who’ve already given so much, thank you. 
A trust has been established by Wendy’s brother, Robert Lachs. 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: https://www.gofundme.com/zc4q96x4

Thank you.

I’ll be their grandma

Hockey-Stick-and-Puck-Photographic-Print-C11950881You’d think today would be a day in which my youngest son would be riding a cloud after a successful first session of hockey camp. Instead, he just crawled into my bed (currently doubling as my “home office”), looking for hugs because, in his words, fighting back tears: “my children will grow up without a grandma.”

He’s nine, and he’s thinking about his future offspring. This is the child who feels with his heart, not his fingers or toes. Everything he does, he does with all of his heart.

Embracing him, holding him tight, we lay in the bed Wendy and I once shared, arm in arm, holding on tight.

“I’ll be their grandma,” I told him, trying to be reassuring, “although I recognize it won’t be the same. But I promise, I’m going to be the best grandma I can be. And I’m sure Grandma Debbie will stick around a long time so she can be a great grandmother to your kids, just like Grandma Sophie was. Don’t worry, buddy, it’s going to be okay.”

In two days it will be six months since he lost his mom.

This is what it is to teach a 9-year-old to live with the hole in his heart. We are all learning.