Room 16

HH_FB_COVER_2016Today, I traveled back in time.

No, this is not a lost “Twilight Zone” episode. Instead of crossing a hypothetical barrier of space and dimension, I took a step on an unexpected journey across a well-worn barrier I call “The No Zone.”

The focal point of my adventure of heart, mind and soul is Hartford Hospital, where my youngest child was born more than a decade ago, where one year ago his mother died, and where I spent time this week recovering from a nasty viral infection that knocked me harder than any blow I’ve ever suffered.

That was Sunday night.

Short of breath, having chest pains, I saw the fire engine lights flashing and heard the police car sirens blasting even before I hung up with the 911 dispatcher. Truth be told, I was more upset that they’d wake the neighborhood and upset my children than I was about not being able to inhale. I knew it wasn’t a heart attack, or so I told myself, because my heart was beating a million miles a second and I wasn’t in pain, just feeling uncomfortable with two elephants sitting on my chest.

Having just had surgery on my breasts three weeks prior, I think I qualify as an expert on the subject of what it feels like to have something heavy resting on my chest.

As the youngest slept, I had already reassured my oldest two children that, as far as I knew, I was going to be okay, and I had talked them through what was about to happen, before I even picked up the phone to call for help. Within minutes, the paramedics whisked me away in an ambulance, an inauspicious means of beginning a travel across time.

Nurses poked, pricked and pumped to perform the tests that would explain the beeps, boops and ding-ding-dings coming from machines all around, patients screamed for nurses, the air hung thick like a South Florida August afternoon and I lost my lunch more times than I can count. If I had been given the opportunity to time travel a second time, I’d have lept forward, right past this part, in a heartbeat.

And my heart, as I had myself concluded even without the benefit of either WebMD or Google, was fine; racing like Secretariat, but healthy.

21686210_10214264090976337_4910136497092883376_nTalk of white blood cells (no, “all blood cells” do not matter in this case), more unpleasantness in the lavatory and finally the eventual admitting, and move up to a room followed, with an eventual diagnosis of a viral infection.

Eureka! I needed fluids. I needed to rest. I needed to heal.

And so I did. But as it happens, I did more than just watch the TV and chat up my roomie Rita, who is the most wonderful mom of two boys and loving wife to a charming, joyful electrician named Bob. When we weren’t laughing, swapping stories and keeping each other company through the long lonely slumber party in Room 625, I hatched my secret plan.

It was not even something I had thought about, until quite by accident, I stumbled upon an old email to a former TV news colleague, now the head of marketing at the hospital. My mind raced as I reread my last communication with her, about the darkest day of my life. And in the darkness of our room one night, I shared my sad story with Rita.

Rewind to January 20th, 2016. Same hospital. Different floor, different building, and much more drastic circumstances. An indeterminate room in intensive care, where a family stood huddled with friends and the rabbi around a single individual. No machines beeping. No nurses poking. No doctors with answers, or questions, or anything. Just bad news.

This was Room 16. What I know of these events I have culled from the memories of my children and the rabbi at our synagogue.

My wife, my beloved, my best friend and the mother of my children lay dying in the center of that gathering. And I wasn’t there. She was dying from cancer. I had offered to fly home days earlier, when she took a sudden turn for the worse; her answer was, “no.”

Earlier that morning she sent me a text from her hospital bed:

“Think I’m going home today”

And that was the last.

We had separated, our marriage was ending, but we had made peace as coparents and even rekindled our friendship. Just days earlier, we had found it within ourselves to forgive each other… as impossible as that is for some people to believe, even to this day. But it is true.

I was at LAX, trying through sheer force of will to convince a deadset, lock-jawed immutable force known as a Delta Airlines ticket agent to let me board a plane that would get me to Hartford, hopefully in time to say goodbye. It was not to be. The agent’s answer was, “no.”

That turned out to be a blessing.

By not making that flight home, our oldest child was able to hold a phone to his mother’s ear, and let me say goodbye along with everyone else in Room 16, who had had their chance in person.

By missing that plane, I was able to take the call from my children after their mom had passed, and offer them what little comfort I could from 3,000 miles’ away. It was better, I thought, to be a disconnected voice, than to have been totally absent from their earth-shattering grief.

It should have comforted me to know I had helped them in some small way, but instead my disconnectedness haunted me for days, then months. My “not being there” was a cross I insisted I carry. I knew I needed closure.

And as my thoughts returned to Room 625, I realized in telling Rita that my path to closure was a trip across time to Room 16, directly through “The No Zone.”

I emailed my friend in marketing; she couldn’t help me. I phoned the chaplain, who came right up to my room to talk and started by asking if I were “Mister Ennis.”

I also spoke to a nurse making rounds who had the misfortune of asking me if there was anything I needed.

Yes: I needed to see Room 16.

“Why?”

“What will you do there?”

“What are your intentions?”

Those were logical questions.

“Because I need to,” was the lamest, most honest thing I could say.

“Just look,” I told them. “I just need to see what that place looks like,” trying to explain with words what my heart was saying inadequately through tears. “I don’t want to invade anyone’s privacy,” I said. “I’m not looking for special treatment or displace anyone or to ask anyone any questions or anything other than just take a moment — ten seconds, tops — to see what is there.”

My mentor, Bill Carey, once told me, “never accept the first ‘no.'”

I typically don’t even begin considering surrender until I’ve heard it three times. And this time, I did not hear, “no.”

I told the friend, the chaplain, the nurse, and my doctor, who must have been wondering if the virus had impacted my brain function: “I’ve actually asked for this before, twice now, and never received any answer. Even if you will just please tell me ‘no,’ I can then go home knowing I tried.”

But I did not hear, “no.”

Instead, the chaplain and nurse made a plan. I was discharged this morning, hours in advance of when I expected I’d be released, and waited in the room with Rita and Bob for the chaplain to come get me.

“It’s time,” she said, appearing in our room and beckoning me to follow her; I hadn’t counted on the chaplain being this dramatic, as we set off on our mission. After she escorted me through the hospital’s labyrinth to the ICU wing where Wendy died, we walked down the corridor where my children were led, not knowing what they were about to witness, expecting to see their mom ready to go home, and finding instead only her unconscious body.

I stood frozen directly outside Room 16, where a privacy curtain shielded someone else who desperately needed the excellent care of this amazing team of healthcare professionals.

For a few seconds… I stood there and just took in what it must have been like to be there. Where the kids sat. Where my mother in law and her sister and Wendy’s cousins stood. Where the rabbi led them in song.

Where she took her last breath.

Feeling whole, I took in my own, long, deep breath. I thanked the chaplain and we quietly made our exit.

A few steps later I encountered an unanticipated side effect of this form of time travel: I broke down in tears. At least I was able to hold it in until we were far from the wing where such important work is still being done to save the living.

And upon my return to present day, I realized that this is where my focus must remain. On a new day. A New Year.

Coming as this does on Rosh Hashanah, the day Jews mark the beginning of their new year, I feel blessed to have taken this journey to another time and place and no longer feel it is alien to me, and unknown. I have in my mind’s eye what I have longed for: a place where I, too, belonged.

Instead of the blank canvas I’ve carried around inside my mind, now I can celebrate the life and death of this incredible woman with a concrete memory, and the thought that if she could send me a message from beyond time, it would likely be:

“Okay, you got your wish! Move on, already. There’s work to be done. And don’t tell me ‘no!'”

That thought came to me as the Uber driver taking me home from the hospital stunned me by driving directly to the cemetery where her remains now rest, on our way to my home. So ends my journey across time, across the uncharted wilderness of…

“The No Zone.”

l’Shana Tovah to my Jewish family and friends.

Dear Universe: It’s me, Dawn

IMG_6439The other widow sat across from me as our kids played in another room, sharing stories of coping everyday with loss, and life as it is.

“Life is what happens when you make other plans,” we said in unison, laughing at our shared experience of grief mixed with good times.

Her life, at least, has more hills than valleys now: she’s remarried, and working full-time. My own remains a struggle, ever since coming out, but it’s one I make a constant effort to turn around.

She told me that when times got tough after losing the love of her life, she wrote a letter to the Universe, spelling out what she wished for, hoped for, and what she needed.

Then she said, “And it worked.”

I was trying to understand what she meant by “it worked,” when she added: “What I asked for came true. All of it.” And she urged me to give it a try. “What have you got to lose?” she said.

Not a thing, I thought. Right now? Absolutely nothing.

Now, I have spent many a Sunday on bended knee in prayer, and admit to asking God for more than I’ve spent time thanking. I’m working on that, because I do have a lot to be thankful for. Still, there are things I need right now, and believe me, yes, I have prayed on this, too.

However, I haven’t written a letter like she’s described since my mom tore apart some brown paper bags from the supermarket and handed one to me with a crayon, to use to write my annual letter to Santa Claus.

But as I recall, that also “worked,” so here goes.

Dear Universe.

Hi. It’s me, Dawn.

No. The other one (I know a LOT of women named Dawn, and I want to make sure there’s no confusion. And to its credit, the universe has been calling me “Dawn” consistently without stumbling, not even once).

So… I am writing to you today to spell out my wishes, hopes, dreams and needs. Not in that particular order, mind you; but my life would be a lot better if you, the universe, could find a way to fulfill these, even one at a time is fine.

First off, I need a new job to support my children. As you know, I have six part-time jobs writing the news. But my main gig, where I worked full-time hours for part-time pay, let me go on Friday because of budget cuts. They “loved” me, they said; I was doing a great job, they said, and still somebody had to get the axe. And I wasn’t the only one. At least they’ve agreed to pay me what they owe me.

But this job is what I’ve been doing to support my three children since their mom died, and without something in its place, we are really in trouble. We are getting by, barely, but not for much longer if I don’t find another job soon.

And as for what job you find me, I’m not picky; I’ll do anything that earns enough to make it worthwhile and will make me feel fulfilled by my efforts. Just a few years after coming out and losing my six-figure job in network TV news, I’ve struggled to stay in journalism, and I realize it’s probably time to move on and stop depending on a fast-shrinking industry to support us. Already I’ve applied for 50 positions, received my first two rejections and a lot of dead silence from the rest.

Also: is there any chance you can get the bill collectors off my back while I job-hunt? I will pay them but right now I have to save every penny in case the worst happens. Maybe just ask them to call back in a few weeks. Hopefully, your help with my number one problem will help me with this one.

Once the job is sorted out, I am eager to have some surgery that is right now in the planning stage, and all I’m asking is for it to be covered by my insurance and to be completed without major complications. It’s hard enough being a sole caregiver for three kids, but I need to recover as swiftly as possible so their lives aren’t negatively impacted, nor is mine. So universe, peek over the shoulder of the surgeon and make sure all goes well, and maybe give a little push to the backlogged paperwork at the insurance office. That would be appreciated, too.

So what else? I might as well ask for your help in maintaining my health. I’m exercising, eating better, and feeling better about myself. I just need encouragement to not slack off and feed my emotions, which is how I got to be so fat in the first place. I know you know, but it bears repeating. And hey — stop looking at me that way. It’s creepy.

Since I’m healthy and happy (and once I am employed), the very next thing I need from you, universe, is to keep my kids on track. They, too, are healthy, and for the most part, really happy. We all have learned to live with a hole in our hearts ever since the death of their mom, but we go on, together. My primary task on this earth, as I see it, is to provide for them and their well-being. Help me help them, please? I love them more than life itself.

Finally, if I could have one more wish, universe, it would be to find love again: a man to love me for who I am, and not in spite of it. I am looking for a person who will be my world, and I will be his. I want to find someone to help me solve these problems as a full partner, to make me feel loved and give me an opportunity to show my love; a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on, and the other body parts that are standard equipment would be much appreciated by this particular lonely woman.

But let me set you straight: this is not something I’m pining for right away. In fact, I cannot even begin to think about dating right now, given all I have to deal with! So do not mess with me, universe, by sending Mr. Right to my door when I’m still not showered and dressed. Go away, you! That would be just my luck, too.

Of course, if you chose to send along a brand new car, a million bucks, maybe even a puppy, I wouldn’t complain. That’s up to you. Not asking, just sayin’. I wouldn’t say no.

Thank you, universe.

-Dawn Ennis

Done!

Now: does anyone know what the universe’s email address is?

“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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Get Out When You Can!

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14055013_10210281391411337_1557086871318331737_n.jpgMy latest YouTube video is dedicated to the wonderful women of my widows group, who have helped me to feel human again by getting me out of the house and connecting with them outside our biweekly sessions to explore our grief.

We all went out recently, had a few drinks, had a lot of laughs at a local comedy club, and bonded. I’m so grateful to them for including me and making me feel welcome and a part of their sisterhood.

Not one of us would give up a chance to have those we lost back in our lives, but since that’s not possible, we have each other. And my video this week is really for every person who feels cut off, and alone. It’s important to get out, make new friends and find connections. To find time for ourselves to grow and be with other grownups once in awhile.

I’m very glad my friends found me!

 

Meet the “Dad/Mom”

Screen Shot 2016-06-16 at 3.14.09 AMStarting tonight I am a video blogger as well as the lady wordsmith here at lifeafterdawn.com. The term a decade ago was vlogger but I doubt that it is still in use today. Whatever you call it, I’m doing it.

So here is episode one, Meet the “Dad/Mom” in which I explain why I am such a thing and how I came to be me. Welcome new friends and old to this brave new world, with such transgender people in it. Please send me your questions, answers, ideas, random th0ughts, to my email dawnennis@gmail.com or you can comment here, too, or on YouTube. 

Thanks!

Also: 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. 

 

 

Rejection Dejection

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I found this online and found it to be helpful in processing my thoughts about a recent rejection:

“Viewing rejection as “you’re not good enough” will cause you to try to change in order to become “good enough” for that person or circumstance.

Seeing rejection as “it’s not right for you, but another person happened to recognize it first,” frees you to find something or someone who is right for you instead.

At the heart of this shift in thinking are four very important things:

1. LOVE yourself.

2. ACCEPT yourself.

3. DO YOUR BEST!

4. Have CONFIDENCE in the first three!

– Doe Zantamata

Click HERE for more insight and information.