“Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” -Mother Teresa
When I stood up in front of approximately 30 of my closest friends and family members on a stormy evening in July of 1998, vowing to spend the rest of my life, I imagined I would grow old with my first husband. What begins as a commitment between two people to love one another, becomes a life shared between two families who learn to respect one another enough to meet somewhere in the middle. The cliché, it takes a village is something in which I truly believe, and no one was a better role model than my father-in-law, Dennis J (Denny) Heng.
Thinking back to the first time I met Denny and Lyn, I tripped over my words, tapping my foot beneath the table, but by the end of the dinner, Denny had eased my nerves. In a way only he could, he found a way to relate to me on my level, which was one of the reasons everyone who met him found him so endearing. He genuinely cared about every single person he came into contact with on some level because they were a child of God. While in his presence he did his absolute best to make you feel valued, heard, and appreciated. No matter who you were; a gardener, a child, or a doctor, there was a story relating to his life, tying you together making you feel at ease.
Denny and Trish’s dad from her first wedding-1998
The one thing you never anticipate after divorce is no longer being around your ex’s family. When we initially separated, one of the worst cluster of days for me were the first holidays without his family. I am a Nebraska transplant; my mom followed me from New Mexico eventually after missing time with her grandchildren. After his stroke, I brought my father here as well, so they were the only family I had in town. Jeff’s parents were divorced like mine, though his father remarried, but they always had celebrated most holidays together. Once we were married, all of us had holidays together, and his family included mine. I shared twelve Thanksgivings, Christmases, Easters, two kid’s baptisms, birthdays, school concerts; countless joys, sorrows, and triumphs. Suddenly, we were splitting up, and it was me, and my two divorced parents alone for the holidays (when the kids were with their dad). My parents did not always get along, especially when alone. His family was the first blended family I was exposed to, and I wanted that for my girls -and I missed them dearly.
During our process of separation, all of his family kept in touch with me, especially my in-laws. Denny and his sweet wife, Lyn even gave me a plaque that I still read daily; If God leads you to it, He’ll bring you through it. They called me regularly, reassuring me that no matter what, I would always be family. As seasons changed, I met my husband Bob; Jeff and Molly became serious about one another. Our weddings were within a month of one another. Jeff’s parents asked if they could come to my wedding, and I was thrilled. During our dance, Denny told me how thrilled he and his wife were that love had reentered my life, and how much he already liked Bob. After my second marriage began, it could have been the end of our story. Denny had a new daughter-in-law he was getting to know, so I tried to respect Molly and give their family space. My friendship grew with Molly, and we started co-parenting.
More time passed, and we shared more events. Molly invited me to her children’s birthday parties, we gathered for pre-homecoming/prom, co-birthday parties for the girls, and then my father passed away. The entire family helped during the process, especially Molly. Denny read scriptures at his memorial service, and was one of the last people to leave, ensuring all of the work was completed. Only seven months later, one of Jeff’s brothers (Denny’s youngest son) lost his longtime battle with depression, and took his own life. At Molly’s urging, I was included in the obituary. My husband, mom, and I were seated right behind Jeff, Molly, and the kids at the funeral. When Brian died, something changed for all of us. Molly and I both held our children tighter. We said, I love you to everyone more often, forgave easier, and laughed louder when able. For my daughters, one of life’s hardest lessons unraveled like a long thread much sooner than I would have wanted, leaving a pile of unanswered questions in a tangled wad.
Top Row: Denny & Trish looking at photos; His wife, Lyn, granddaughter, Ali, Denny at her confirmation; Denny in the garden; Middle Row: Denny & Trish’s dad at Christmas one year; Denny, son, Jeff, with the grandchildren, Peyton, Ali, Ayden, & Cami; Bottom Row: Denny, reading scriptures at Trish’s father’s memorial; Denny, & the blanket Trish designed & gave before he passed, Denny, Lyn, all of the grandchildren (Peyton is on the floor), & dog, Scruffy
Last April, Denny’s long battle of cancer came careening toward us like a freight train, suddenly more aggressive than it had been in years. At a joint birthday party for Jeff and Molly’s youngest kids, he spilled a glass of tea, and something was not right. Molly and I exchanged glances.
That night as I stared up at the ceiling from my bed, unable to fall asleep with the anchor in my stomach, I thanked God for making me go to that party. I had not been feeling well, and had considered staying home. I sat at a table with my in-laws, and my girls. Denny snuck cupcakes before anyone else finished eating lunch, before we sang the happy song birthday to the kids. His ex-wife, Elaine followed suit, making a game of it. You guys can’t do that! Skulked one of my girls. We’re old, we can do whatever we want! Denny laughed, wiping the chocolate from the corner of his mouth. Where did you find a chocolate one? I’m going back up there! Elaine jumped up. You guys are going to eat all of the cupcakes! The girls stared in horror as her grandparents ate cupcakes before they were allowed to touch any. By the time we sang to the kids of honor, I laughed so hard tears streaked my cheeks.
Just before we left, Denny embraced me in one of his bear-hugs. We heard you haven’t been feeling well, and I wanted you to know I’m praying for you. If you need anything -anything at all, don’t hesitate to call anytime. We love you, Trish. Shortly before he said all of that to me, I found out something was wrong, and they were looking at the cancer again. They were looking at his cancer, but he was concerned about me. This is the best way I can illustrate the kind of person my father-in-law was. As I stared into the dark, trying to fall asleep that night, I cried softly to myself so my husband would not hear me. I was truly terrified one of the most special men I had ever known in my life could have be taken from us. After already losing my father, I suddenly felt foolish for wasting time. I decided in that moment to spend as much time possible with him. All of us wanted to make sure he felt loved and cherished.
Top: Denny & Peyton, Denny & Ayden; Bottom: Denny & Ali; Trish, Cami, & Denny as he baptized her.
As things progressed, we found out his cancer would no longer take its time with him, although we all still clung to every last shred of hope, especially Denny. Always the fighter, he was more than willing to try anything and everything to give just as much time as possible, regardless of the repercussions on his energy, his immune system, and his overall health. No matter what happened, Denny did not want to give up, even when the doctors were on the last trial with nowhere else to go. One of the most important things to him had always been his faith, right up until the end. An elder in the church, he was able to write sermons, and conduct baptisms (he baptized my youngest daughter and one of her cousins). Denny traveled on two mission trips, one to Texas and one to Alaska, and he served as a brother in the Gideons International for six years. Until the last two weeks of his life, the paperwork for the Gideons, his bibles, and other work for the church rested in stacks on the table next to his favorite spot. Denny found something positive to do, say or give on behalf of himself, his family or the church every single day. One day in particular, after being up most of the night in pain, his wife urged him to go to the hospital. He agreed to go, but first he insisted upon driving an hour out of the way to deliver a box of bibles to a church in need on behalf of Gideons International. The lives Denny touched knew no bounds. Like waves in the ocean, prayers rippled out across the world from various people.
I sent him a weekly card, with the occasional uplifting book or comforting heating pad, and created a special blanket for Denny and his wife. On Father’s Day this year, I sent a special card, and he loved it. You’ve been like a father to me. I wanted him to know how very much he meant to me, and how thankful I was for his wisdom, his patience, his strength, and his love. Especially after my father passed away. At one point when the chemo ruined his appetite, my husband made him two different types of soup, and I made pudding. We sealed them in mason jars, and I delivered them to Nebraska City. Molly Called to check in on them almost daily. Molly and Denny had their own idiosyncrasies; the little things between family members weaving the fabric of a relationship into a beautiful tapestry.
Molly has been unable to drive for almost a year and a half from Lyme’s disease, so while our father-in-law was going through everything she had her own health issues. She baked, and sent other packages for me to take down to him, and there were times I drove all of us (me, Molly, and all of our children) to see him. On more than one occasion he was admitted into the hospital, if Molly was unable to drive to Lincoln I would discuss it with her first, and once the girls and I arrived we video-chatted with Molly so she could see Denny’s face. I never wanted her to feel as if I tried to cut her out in any way or intended to undermine her relationship with her father-in-law, because their relationship wasn’t any less important than mine just because I knew him first. Every time I spoke to him he asked how Molly was feeling, and when he talked to her he inquired about me and my husband.
We all helped take care of him, of one another, and the children because we are a family.
Molly, Denny, & Trish
In his final months, especially in the last few weeks, there were a few days when all of us ended up spending part of the day at their house visiting him at the same time. The photo above is one of my favorite memories because all of us shared the day together; Denny, Lyn, Bob, my girls, Jeff, Molly, and their two little ones. It was not awkward or uncomfortable, and there were no fits of jealousy, with the exception of maybe one of the children. We were simply a family enjoying time with one another. For Christmas this year I gave Molly a framed copy of the picture above, and she wrote the following:
“One of my favorite gifts this year! This is a picture of my father-in-law (who passed in Sept), Trish (my step daughters mom), and myself. Trish gave this to me framed. This man knew and celebrated the true meaning of Christmas (Jesus birth) better than anyone I know. He was the most loving, kind hearted, and caring man you’d ever meet. We sat down to take this picture and I remember him saying “…a picture with my girls”. He treated us both so equally. With Trish still being an equal part of his life as I, the new wife. He danced with a smile on his face at both our weddings. (Mine to Jeff and Trish’s to Bob). So much so he even wore the same outfit. 🙂 He allowed me to build a relationship with him throughout the last 7 years while still keeping a close relationship with Trish. He loved us both. And I love(d) him for that. Merry Christmas in Heaven Denny. We love and miss you so much today and everyday. I’m sure your first Christmas in Heaven is beautiful.
Love, Your Girls”-Molly
I could not have said it any better myself. The picture below is Molly and Denny with matching picc lines. Molly eased his mind before his was placed, joking they were twinkies.
The picture above: Denny & Molly posing with their matching picc lines
No matter where we were, who we were with or what the situation entailed, Denny made it very clear he loved Molly and I both equally, yet as individuals. We both felt completely secure in our relationship with our father-in-law, so much so that we were able to share some of his very last days on this earth together; comforting all of our children as two moms losing a father, leaning on one another, and witnessing the horror and thief that is cancer.
The last words I spoke to Denny the night before he passed away: I love you so much, Denny. Thank you for being the best father-in-law, and the best grandpa. Don’t worry about the kids. Molly and I will take good care of them, and will make sure they will be okay. We will make sure they know The Lord. We will take them home tonight so you can rest. It’s safe for you to go home now, whenever you are ready.
Several months later, I found out when Molly went back into his room alone to say goodbye, she said the same thing almost word for word.
The photograph below is one I gave him a couple of months before he passed away. He gazed at the grinning faces in the picture for a moment, the skin crinkling around his mouth as it curled up into a proud smile. My girls.
If we were a normal divorced family who cut one another out completely, my relationship with Denny might have ended with the divorce, and I might have never been able to say goodbye. They could have kept me from the funeral. I think Denny, Lyn, and Elaine (Denny’s ex-wife) are terrific role models for blended families. There for Lyn and her sons, Elaine has never been the typical absent ex-wife.
On the day of his funeral, one of the members of Gideons International approached Molly. You must be Molly. Denny has told us so much about you. Throughout his final months, Denny continuously put in prayer requests regarding her disease, despite his own rapidly declining health.
Denny taught all of us the importance of living your faith. We no longer waste any opportunity to show one another how we feel, and all of us try to spread kindness.
“At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by “I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.” -Mother Teresa
Trish Eklund is raising her two daughters of thirteen and sixteen with her husband, ex-husband, and his wife. Trish is the owner and creator of Family Fusion Community, and Abandoned, Forgotten, and Decayed, a photographic adventure in the abandoned and the forgotten. Trish is also regularly featured on Huffington Post Divorce, Her View From Home, The Mighty, and Making Midlife Matter. Trish also has an essay in the anthology, Hey, Who’s In My House? Stepkids Speak Out by Erin Mantz. The first book telling the story of blended family life from the perspective of the stepkids. Trish’s photography has been featured on Only in Nebraska. Follow on Instagram, Facebook, Facebook-Family Fusion Community, and Pinterest.