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Bitter sweet Thanksgiving for friends who met by chance five years ago

Wanda Dench and Jamal Hinton celebrated their fifth Thanksgiving Friday in Mesa, Arizona, but there was a space at the dinner table. After 43 years of marriage, Dench’s husband, Lonnie Dench, died in April of complications caused by Covid-19.

“At first I wasn’t looking forward to it because Lonnie wasn’t going to be there. The last seven months have been so difficult, but it was really important to me,” Dench, 63, told CNN.

“I can’t even explain how much joy I felt eating with my favorite company. We laughed, had a great time, remembered the past. It was so good for all of us.”

They shared a Thanksgiving dinner with Hinton̵

7;s girlfriend and Dench’s daughter and grandson. The small group decided to celebrate Thanksgiving on Friday so they could be tested for coronavirus before celebrating with their own families so as not to risk the spread of the virus.

Left Wanda Dench, her husband Lonnie Dench, Jamal Hinton and his girlfriend Mikaela Essen.

“It was sad at first. We had a picture of Lonnie on the table with a lighted candle and we were all shaken at first, but that lasted five minutes before we came back to ourselves,” Hinton, 21, told CNN. “We just told jokes and stories and shared our memories of Lonnie, so it was amazing.”

From strangers to friends to family

Dench and Hinton are a couple of amazing friends. It took only a few texts of the wrong number to put them together.

Dench, a grandmother of six, intended to send a message to her grandson to invite him to her Thanksgiving dinner in 2016, but accidentally sent a message to then-17-year-old Hinton while he was in class.

He was confused that someone who claimed to be his grandmother had sent him a message. She sent a selfie to work with a smile. She was not his grandmother, but he asked if he could still have a plate.

“Of course you can,” she replied. “That’s what grandmothers do … feed everyone!”

Wanda Dench and Jamal Hinton celebrated their fifth Thanksgiving together.

So he showed up at her house to share the meal, and the two immediately became friends. Eventually, he and his girlfriend began going on regular double dates with Dench and Lonnie.

“It’s all about that feeling. There’s just this connection. It looks like we’ve known each other in past lives,” Dench said. “There is absolutely no difference between the generations between us. The conversation just goes on, we never run out of things to talk about.”

When Hinton first appeared on Dench’s doorstep, he worried there would be awkward silences or moments when he wouldn’t know what to say. What he didn’t expect was how she would soon become one of his closest friends.

“Whenever we met, we spent four or five hours just talking and talking. It was never awkward, Wanda and Lonnie became my two closest friends,” Hinton said.

“There’s nothing mean or indifferent about her. I seem to have told her my whole life story, and she always listens and shares her own story. She’s just the most loving person. She’s almost perfect.”

Remembering Lonnie

For Dench and Hinton, Thanksgiving is a valuable tradition that they both hope will never stop. But without Lonnie, things feel a little different.

“Lonnie was missing this year and he was a big part of Thanksgiving history and a big part of our lives, but that’s one thing Wanda and I know for sure. Lonnie would be very angry if we didn’t have Thanksgiving together. Said Hinton.

Lonnie died on April 5 after battling a coronavirus and suffering from double pneumonia caused by the virus, according to Dench.

“I didn’t believe I would have to go home without him,” she said. “Even when he was in the hospital, I thought he would be fine and come back to me. He was my soulmate. He was my biggest cheerleader.”

A picture of Lonnie and a candle stood in front of his empty chair during their Thanksgiving dinner this year.

What everyone remembers most about Lonnie, she added, was his kindness. He was known for offering random donations to hospice centers, paying for food without people knowing it, and helping anyone he saw in need.

Hinton’s memories of him are no different.

“Lonnie was never a quiet person. Just when I walked in the door the first time I met him, he didn’t even reach out to shake hands. He just immediately pulled me into a hug,” Hinton said. “He was the man who always raised your hopes when you felt depressed. His loss was the loss of your best friend.”

Hinton and Dench are still recovering from their loss and say Lonnie’s memory will live with them forever. For now, they just hope his story will encourage people to be more careful during a pandemic.

“Just be patient,” Dench said. “I know it’s not easy and everyone is disappointed and just wants to get back to normal. But we have to have hope and always take care of other people.”

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