Wanda Dench and Jamal Hinton celebrated their fifth Thanksgiving in Mesa, Arizona on Friday, but there was an empty seat at the dinner table. Dench’s husband Lonnie Dench passed away from complications caused by Covid-19 in April after 43 years of marriage.
Four years ago, a grandmother accidentally invited a stranger to Thanksgiving dinner via text message. Since then they have celebrated the holiday together, and despite the epidemic, this year was no exception.
“At first, I was not looking forward to Lonnie not being there. The last seven months have been very difficult, but that was really important to me,” Dench, 63, told CNN.
“I can’t even explain how happy I was with my favorite company, that I had good food. We laughed, had a great time, remembered the past. It was great for all of us.”
The two shared a Thanksgiving dinner with Hinton’s girlfriend and Dench’s daughter and grandson. The small group decided to celebrate Thanksgiving on Friday so that they can be tested for coronavirus before celebrating with their families so they don’t risk spreading the virus.
From left Wanda Dench, husband Lonnie Dench, Jamal Hinton and girlfriend Mikaela Autumn.
“It was sad at first. There was a picture of Lonnie lighting a candle on the table and we were all shaking at first, but it took five minutes before we got back to ourselves,” Hinton, 21, told CNN. “We just told jokes and stories and shared our memories of Lonnie, so it was great.”
Strangers To Friends To Family
Dench and Hinton are an unexpected pair of friends. All it took to put them together was a few messages with the wrong number.
Dench, a six-year-old grandmother, wanted to text her grandson to invite her to the 2016 Thanksgiving dinner, but accidentally texted 17-year-old Hinton while in class.
She was confused when someone claiming to be her grandmother texted her. She posted a smiling selfie at work. It wasn’t her grandmother, but she asked if she could still get a plate.
“Of course you can,” he replied. “Grandmothers do that … feed everyone!”
So he came to his house to share the meal, and the two quickly became friends. Eventually, he and his girlfriend began dating Dench and Lonnie on regular couple dates.
“Everything has to do with this feeling. It’s just that connection. It feels like we knew each other in past lives,” Dench said. “There is absolutely no generational gap between us. The conversation just flows and the things to talk never end.”
When Hinton first appeared on Dench’s thresholds, he was worried that there would be awkward silences or moments that he didn’t know what to say. What he didn’t expect was that he would very quickly become one of his closest friends.
“Whenever we met, we spent four or five hours, just talking and talking. It was never weird, Wanda and Lonnie became two close best friends for me,” he said.
“There’s nothing rude or reckless about him. It feels like I’ve told him my whole life story and he’s always listening and sharing his own story. He’s just the most loving person. He’s pretty perfect.”
For Dench and Hinton, spending Thanksgiving together is an invaluable tradition that they both hope will never stop. But things sound a little different without Lonnie.
“Lonnie was missing this year and was a big part of the Thanksgiving story and a big part of our lives, but that’s something Wanda and I know. Lonnie would be very angry if it wasn’t for Thanksgiving together,” Hinton said.
According to Dench, Lonnie passed away on April 5 after fighting the coronavirus and contracting double pneumonia caused by the virus.
“I didn’t believe I had to go home without him,” he said. “Even when I was in the hospital, I thought he would recover and come back to me. He was my soul mate. He was my oldest cheerleader.”
The thing everyone remembers most about Lonnie was her kindness. It was known that he made random donations to hospice centers, unknowingly paid for the food of people and helped everyone he saw in need.
Hinton’s memories of him are no different.
“Lonnie has never been the silent man. When I first met him, when I entered the door, he didn’t even reach for a handshake. He immediately pulled me in to hug me,” Hinton said. “He was the kind of person who always raised his hopes when he upset himself. Losing him was losing his best friend.”
Hinton and Dench are still recovering from their losses and say Lonnie’s memory will live with them forever. For now, they hope that his story will encourage people to be more careful during the pandemic.
“Just be patient,” Dench said. “I know it’s not easy and everyone is frustrated and just wants to return to normal. But we must have hope and always care about other people.”