My first memory of Denise was on the day after prom 1996. I had taken her daughter, my friend, Rachel with me and a few other girls up to Toledo for a day of after prom fun with our dates. By the time we were getting ready for the hour or so drive back to Clyde we were all exhausted. All the girls fell asleep and I promptly got on the turnpike going the wrong way. About the time we should have been hitting the Clyde city limits we were seeing signs welcoming us to Indiana. We turned around and headed home, stopping to call our parents and to search desperately for toll money since it was now much much more expensive than anticipated. Two hours later I rolled into Rachel's drive on little more than gas fumes and feeling very stupid.
I walked Rachel into the house and her mom was in the kitchen. We told her what happened and she giggled then said she was happy we made it home ok. She gave me some gas money so I could make it to my house without running out of gas.
A little over six months later I would begin dating her son John.
My last memory of Denise was on Saturday April 22nd 2000. I was working at the carryout that she owned with her husband. My shift was over and she came in to relieve me. Her son and I had broken up a few months previous to this, and she was always so kind to me even then. After talking for a few moments, during which she lamented that John and I were no longer together, I got up to leave. She came and gave me a hug and told me she loved me. For the first and the last time I told her I loved her too.
As I was walking out, the shape of the building tunneled warm spring air to lift my hair from my neck. I still think of her and feel that hug whenever I feel warm spring air on my neck. I turned around to wave good bye and she waved back.
Around 11pm Monday April 24th 2000 the phone rang at my parents house. When I answered it a woman I worked with at Whirlpool was on the phone. "I wanted to make sure you were alright, I heard someone was shot"
Just like that, my life was divided into before and after.
Denise was killed in a robbery at her carryout.
I am who I am now because of both Denise's life and her death.
Denise loved. She was not a perfect woman, and I don't want you to believe that I am sanctifying her and turning a blind eye to her faults. But love covers a multitudes of sins and I loved her deeply, I still do. (What do you do with that love when the person is gone, passed on to another place you cannot follow them to?)
Denise loved. She accepted people as they were, had a wicked sense of humor and didn't really take a lot of guff from people. She was fun, sensitive, compassionate, generous and hard working.
When I lived in Youngstown and wanted to come home one weekend she came and got me. Because no one else could.
She and I dreamt for the future when I would marry her son and we would really be family. We talked about how proud she was of both of her kids, and about how much she loved them. She and I would work together and laugh and howl while drinking Red Dog. We raced each other to the beer cooler when certain customers came in that we wanted to hide from.
We had fun, we laughed. Her life taught me to not take myself so seriously, to make room for the unexpected and the fun.
The night Denise was murdered I sat up on Alaina's balcony trying to stop the vibrations in my head. That was the first night that I heard the whisper of God to me. That was the beginning of my after.
There was much drama that unfolded after her death. I was on the receiving end of multiple revelations and information that was much to complicated and entwined for my naive 20 year old mind to comprehend. I went into survival mode and it took almost 9 years to fully comprehend how far the ripples of Denise's death and the ensuing explosion of so many lives stretched.
But mostly, her death taught me to love more fiercely. It showed me that friendships so long in the making should not be so easily cast aside; that family relationships, all relationships, may have a breaking point, but they don't come as soon as some of us think. Her death taught me to apologize sooner; being right became so much less important than being loving, forgiving. It taught me to not get angry as much; because when I'm angry I say the cruelest things I can think of to cause the most damage as quickly as possible. I learned what real damage was in the wake of her death, and that most of what I classified as damage was really a child's melodrama.
A funeral director once told me that grief is not something to move past, get over, or forget about. Grief is a new addition to your life that you learn to live with and walk beside. There is not a day that I don't miss her, don't wonder what life would be like (what I would be like) if I had not had her friendship, if I had not lost that friendship. There is not a day that I don't clearly understand that who I am today is owed to Denise, because of her death; but mostly because of her life.