Be Kind

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My daughter is home from a lovely two nights with her cousins, and their moms. They visited a lake, went hiking, did girl stuff and visited a local art studio where they volunteered their time to craft beautiful handmade clay pendants, like the one above.

Each one says, “Be Kind.” That is the motto of Ben’s Bells, whose mission as stated on its website is “to inspire, educate, and motivate people to realize the impact of intentional kindness, and to empower individuals to act according to that awareness, thereby strengthening ourselves, our relationships and our communities.”

“Recent research demonstrates that kindness benefits our physical and mental health, and that recognizing kindness in others increases a person’s happiness and satisfaction. But just as solving a calculus problem requires advanced math skills, the challenges of daily life require advanced kindness skills. By focusing on kindness and being intentional in our personal interactions, we can improve our ability to connect. The mission of Ben’s Bells is to inspire individuals and communities to engage in kindness education and practice.”  — from the Ben’s Bells website.

We have a windchime from Ben’s Bells on our front door, which was a Hanukkah gift from one of my late wife’s cousins, to my children. I’m grateful for this gift, and for how much my wife’s family loves my children.

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These chimes and jewelry and other items are a great idea, and you can find out more about Ben’s Bells by clicking here. 

I’ve decided I’m going to order one of the “Be Kind” pendants for myself, since the cousins didn’t invite me to take part in their girls-only adventure, something they surely would have done for my beloved.

I won’t lay guilt on my daughter for not thinking to get me one, as this was a gift from her mom’s cousins, and it would have been inappropriate for her to ask. Instead, she did bring home a second one to give to anyone she comes across who acts with kindness. I love this idea!

We discussed who might be worthy candidates, and although I was flattered that she asked me if I’d like this one, I insisted that she give her spare pendant to someone else, perhaps her girlfriend.

To me, the message here is ultimately ironic. “Be kind.” Wow.

I was told earlier this year by my former in laws that they now consider me “divorced” from them, given that one year had passed since the death of my wife, and thus they were done pretending to be kind to me. They did so with the explanation that, since she had planned to divorce me, but her lawyer postponed the proceeding, and so it was not finalized before her death, that they considered us “divorced in every way — except for legally.” Um, yeah, that’s sorta the most important part of that sentence.

Soon after, I learned from my mother-in-law that she and “Wendy’s family” had taken steps to take custody of my children away from me in those early days following her passing (but they stopped, because — in her words — “it’s really hard to take children away from a custodial parent, and it’s very expensive.” Also, I said, it was against what Wendy herself wanted and had put in writing to avoid exactly that from happening).

“Be kind” indeed. They say “of course this is not about you being transgender.” They defend their rejection of me as being about how I “treated Wendy.”

  1. Do they mean how I treated her when she called me “the bitch who killed her husband,” and told me the very sight of my feminized body filled her with disgust?
  2. I moved out at her demand, rather than put out the mother of my children. I guess that’s how I mistreated her?
  3. Maybe when I took a job across the country to help support her and our kids? Or when I quit that job and moved back the day she died, instead of uprooting them to Los Angeles?
  4. Or when I badgered her to see a doctor about her stomach pains in November 2014, and for long after, until eight months later, she finally did and was diagnosed with stage four cancer?
  5. Or when, upon learning that diagnosis and repeatedly after, I offered to quit my job in L.A. and move home?
  6. Do they mean when I called her doctor behind her back on a Friday night so he would urge her to go to the ER? She had refused and she said she’d call him after the three-day weekend, then, a few days later, wound up in shock and died in intensive care? Had I treated her the way she wanted to be treated, she’d no doubt have died at home before the weekend ended.
  7. How about when she screamed “There’s a man in the ladies room!” at our town pool because I was passing through, fully-clothed?
  8. When she tore my wig from my head in anger one night before I left for work, and left a permanent scar down the side of my face that I still see every single day?
  9. When she unexpectedly withdrew all the money from our joint bank account, leaving me with nothing, and “took over responsibility” for the utilities and mortgage — and then for the first time in the dozen years we lived in our house, the lights went out, the cable got turned off and the mortgage company filed for foreclosure?
  10. Maybe it was when I paid-up all those utility bills and reached an agreement with the mortgage company to save our home?
  11. It must be my fault that the house was infested with mice and sorely lacking in everyday maintenance, while I was 3,000 miles away. Was that my fault, too?
  12. And when she borrowed money from family, it’s of course my fault that I did not repay those loans (which were at the time considered gifts, but magically turned into loans after her passing).
  13. Lastly, was it the day I agreed to bind my breasts and present as “Don” one more day for our daughter’s bat mitzvah, so she could have the illusion of me as her husband once more? It broke my heart to keep my word, but it made her happy, and so I did. Two days later, the police were at my house because I went back to living authentically and she was furious.

I mean, I get it: she needed someone to hate for wrecking our marriage, for dashing our dreams of growing old together and for the cancer that ravaged her body. And no, I wasn’t perfect or blameless. I wish I had done more to help her, if she’d have let me. Instead, she put all that anger on me, and told her family everything was my fault.

So, I’m the villain. But of course, it’s not because I’m trans.

My children’s response to me being excluded from the family Passover Seder, and disinvited from a cousin’s daughter’s Bat Mitzvah, was to send a message, one that their mother had said to her cousins, after I transitioned: “We are a family and wherever one of us is not welcome, none of us will attend.” I love my kids. They are the very best of their mother and father, and I am doing my damndest to be a loving, supportive although single parent. I am a dad who does the job of mom. It’s not easy. It’s without doubt the toughest job I’ve ever loved.

Despite this standoff between us and “Wendy’s family”  — I’ve told them, we are the ones who really are Wendy’s family — I firmly believe it’s important for the children to keep in touch with their cousins and their mom’s relatives. Although I set all their cell phone numbers in my contacts to “Do Not Disturb,” I encouraged the kids to call their grandmother often and to text with the cousins. I’m not the one trying to keep them from seeing their relatives; that’s on them, for not respecting their mother’s wishes, and mine.

I encourage them daily to “be kind.”

So after I suggested this sleepover, and they accepted, imagine my discouragement when one of the cousins asked if instead of having me drive my daughter down to meet them, that I would instead send my oldest, who is 18 and a licensed driver. He also works two jobs and doesn’t really need to add a road trip of at least one hour each way to his day. In addition, he’s still very angry over my exclusion and decided on his own to stop communicating with them. I told him I understood his reasoning but strongly urged him to reach out to them when he feels comfortable doing so. Thus far, he hasn’t. So I’m not going to give them the excuse not to face me and in doing so impose an extra burden on my firstborn.

We agreed on a date and time to meet, which was not only generous of them but allowed them to keep me from entering their house. But then, the cousin tried once more to do an end run around my kids’ firm insistence that where I was not welcome, we would not go. It’s all of us or none of us, with the exception being a sleepover. I felt that was different from a family gathering.

I was stunned when the cousin emailed again, asking once again to turn the sleepover into a family gathering after all, ignoring what I had already made clear, that my oldest had to work and had no desire to see them or even text with them.

“I will text and see if he would like to (if he is not working) come with his little brother on Friday to pick up his sister and hang by the pool for a little.”

Really? What part of “my children don’t want me excluded” is hard to comprehend?

When does the urge to “be kind” kick in?

The cousin concluded her email with a response to my plea, promising to not bring up the issue of my exclusion with my daughter, given this is a matter for adults.  I asked that we at least be civil to one another if they cannot see fit to treat me as a member of the family. She agreed and then added one, clear-cut, unkind comment:

“That said, our position has not changed.”

The “position” she speaks of is one in which they treat me, not as the widow of their cousin, or the single parent of our children, but as a divorcée to be kept at a distance; a facilitator to provide them with access to “Wendy’s children.”

What surprises me about that is that even if they want to label me as such, that does not remove me from my role as the kids’ parent! I’m still their dad, even as a woman, and because of the gender roles our society places on us, I have learned to embrace being a mom. I don’t dare claim to be their “mom,” a title we hold dear out of respect for their mother. But my kids have seen how I have grown into this role and how much I enjoy it. And, probably to the in laws’ chagrin, I am good at it, too.

I am proud to boast that my children are resilient, strong, score at the top of their class, have friendships with good, upstanding children and are loving to just about everyone. Even people who are mean to me. And most of all, these kids have learned from the example their parents have set: my children are kind.

I think the same of my in laws’ children. But I wonder what lesson my wife’s cousins are teaching them when they treat me this way? Someday, my children will tell their children about these times, and I am certain that the shame their parents should feel will instead be inherited by these innocent kids.

All I can do is continue to do as I say and as I do, to be kind, even to those who are not. And I pray for their hearts to be turned. Which reminds me of the Irish proverb:

Irish Proverb

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.