Gary Hensley was just starting to get the kids ready for bed one night in January 2014 when a Facebook message showed up on his phone: “Is it true? Oh my god, I’m shaking — is it true?”
It was from an acquaintance he didn’t know well, and he had no idea what she was talking about. But Gary’s wife, Cassandra, was traveling in California, and he hadn’t heard from her since she’d landed. He immediately began searching the Internet for news. Perhaps there’d been an earthquake or some other natural disaster.
Then the doorbell rang.
It was two Fairfax County police officers. His heart sank. Please, God, let it be that she’s hurt, he thought. Anything but dead.
It was Cassandra’s daughter, Alexis, who drew the two together in 2007. Gary was living in Newport Beach, Calif., trying to get a technology company off the ground. Alexis was a 5-year-old girl living in the same apartment complex who always asked to help walk his dog.
When a group of neighbors went out to dinner together, the young girl took the opportunity to question him further: What kind of woman would he like to date? Maybe someone with blond hair? How about blue eyes? What if she lived close by?
Gary hadn’t failed to notice Alexis’s mom. Cassandra was breathtakingly beautiful — a model, in fact. But she was “so nice and so welcoming, and you just felt totally at home with her,” he says. “And she was silly — it was like being around your best friend when you were 6 years old. Like a tomboy, but she was super pretty.”
And she was honest. She told him about being sexually abused by a relative when she was young, and the divorce she was going through even though she was pregnant with a second child.
She told him about the exotic, sometimes lurid, world of modeling, and how she’d been named a Playboy Playmate of the Month in 2006.
Gary’s world as a former teacher and son of Army veterans-turned-missionaries was dramatically different, but their connection developed quickly. He adored Alexis, and once Cassandra’s new baby, Devin, was born, he fell in love all over again.
“Maybe being an entrepreneur, you’re eternally optimistic,” he says. “But I’d never felt that before in my life, where I was just blindly in love with her. I didn’t care what came along. I was just optimistic about, you know, we’ll make it work. I don’t know what the future holds, but we’ll figure it out together.”
They struggled at first. Gary’s company, which aimed to crunch student data for strategies to lower the high school dropout rate, didn’t yet provide a steady salary, so the family moved into Cassandra’s sister’s basement in Utah. But Cassandra believed in Gary’s vision, and they wed in Las Vegas in February 2009.
A few months later, the start-up was acquired by Pearson Education, so they climbed out of the basement and into the land of regular income.
They relocated to Texas, then Fairfax, where Gary worked on educational policy issues with Pearson. But Washington was tough on Cassandra. She didn’t have a typical D.C. career, and her work with Playboy was more stigma than credential in the nation’s capital.
“She could literally make friends everywhere, but she had trouble here,” recalls Gary, a tanned and boyish-looking 37-year-old. “As soon as you told someone that she was a Playboy model, it just changed the nature of the conversation.”
In 2013, Gary left Pearson to start a new firm. The move made Cassandra anxious, prompting flashbacks to their previous hard times. Her own career was suffering with the distance from Los Angeles. She’d struggled with drugs and alcohol in the past, and it seemed to be becoming a problem again.
The night before Cassandra was to fly to California for an event celebrating Playboy’s 60th anniversary, Gary came home from work to find that she’d already been drinking.
Both upset, they went to bed separately without saying good night. But the next morning, Cassandra packed a blanket sprayed with Gary’s cologne, and after he and Devin dropped her off at the airport, she texted, “I love my boys.”
“And that was the last time I heard from her,” he says.
The Fairfax County police would only tell Gary that she had died. He had to call the California coroner for details.
“I just had this overwhelming sense of wanting to be next to her,” he remembers.
Once the children were safely delivered to his mother’s nearby home, he placed the call.
He learned that Cassandra, 34, had been with another man the previous night. She’d consumed cocaine and alcohol and had been found dead in a bathtub.
Because of the Playboy connection, news of her death was quickly picked up by celebrity gossip sites.
Gary was on a 6 a.m. flight to Los Angeles the next day, crying from takeoff to landing, and went to see his wife’s body.
“I was so angry at her,” he recalls. “Because I was like, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to raise the kids? How do I get Alexis through prom and her wedding and all those things you’re not going to be there for?’
“And then I kissed her cheek,” he says, choking back tears. “And she was so cold, you know?”
Cassandra had always said that she wanted her ashes to be spread on a beach. Alexis, who was 12, and Devin, 6, flew to California with Gary’s mother.
Alexis already knew what had happened. But Gary still had to tell the little boy.
“There’s no manual for this stuff,” he says. “What do you do? I asked him if he knew what it meant to die. And he just instantly broke into tears. It’s heartbreaking as a dad to watch him go through that.”
Cassandra’s friends and family gathered on the beach to scatter her remains. There were songs and stories, and butterflies were set free.
Gary could barely get any words out, but Alexis, he recalls, was astonishingly poised.
“I wish Mom could have been here,” she said, “to see how many people loved her.”
SOURCE: Ellen McCarthy
The Washington Post