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Four years ago, the story of Wanda Dench and Jamal Hinton’s strange-but-sweet friendship went viral. It all started when the

Four years ago, the story of Wanda Dench and Jamal Hinton’s strange-but-sweet friendship went viral.

It all started when the well-intentioned grandma accidentally texted the wrong number and invited a stranger to Thanksgiving dinner.

The cheeky and heartwarming encounter that ensued turned into a long-lasting tradition. Dench ended up inviting Hinton back for Thanksgiving year after year, and the teen became part of the family.

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The pair continued to celebrate the holidays together each year, but, of course, in 2020, everything is a little bit different.

Widowed by COVID-19

Dench and Hinton did reunite for Thanksgiving dinner this year, but things looked very different — and it was a bittersweet event.

For starters, a very important member of the family was missing. Dench’s husband of 43 years, Lonnie Dench, passed away in April from complications caused by COVID-19.

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

Hinton’s support and presence helped Dench find strength and joy through her grief.

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

A bittersweet tribute and celebration

Of course, due to social distancing and restrictions against gatherings, this year’s celebration was a more intimate one. The two friends were joined by Hinton’s girlfriend Mikaela and Dench’s daughter and grandson.

They also moved their dinner plans to Friday so that they could get tested for coronavirus before having Thanksgiving with their own families later.

 “At first it was sad. We had a photo of Lonnie at the table with a candle lit, and we were all shaky in the beginning but it lasted five minutes before we were back to ourselves,” said 21-year-old Hinton.

“We just told jokes and stories and shared our memories of Lonnie, so it was amazing.”

The unlikely friendship has grown over the years and remains strong.

“Whenever we met, we would spend four or five hours, just talking and talking. It was never awkward, Wanda and Lonnie became two close best friends to me,” Hinton said.

“There’s nothing about her that is mean, or uncaring. It feels like I 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 pretty much perfect.”

A message of hope to end a difficult year

While things felt different without Lonnie this year, Dench and Hinton knew he would have wanted them to go ahead and celebrate despite the circumstances.

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

“Lonnie was never the quiet guy. Right when I walked in the door the first time I met him, he didn’t even reach out for a handshake. He just immediately pulled me in for a hug.”

“He was the kind of guy to always bring your hopes up whenever you felt down. Losing him was losing a best friend.”

Dench says she hopes her husband’s story will help make other people be more careful. “Just have patience,” she said. “I know it isn’t easy, and everyone is frustrated and just wants to get back to normal. But we need to have hope and always care about other people.”

2020 has been a year unlike any other, and it’s one that will never be forgotten. But holding onto good traditions and feelings and finding hope is the best possible way to get through it and keep moving forward. Let Dench and Hinton’s story inspire you to focus on the power of human connection.

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