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Life without Katie: Enloe's trials as a single father, a coach and a widower

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DALLAS – It’s 5:45 p.m., and the hardest part of Jason Enloe’s day is about to begin. He’s already hurried the kids through breakfast, dropped them off at school, run errands, fired off emails, sat in meetings, guided a team practice and fought rush-hour traffic. And now he’s walking back through the front door of his gorgeous, 4,500-square-foot custom home in this leafy suburb, the house he can’t wait to sell this summer, now that Katie’s gone.

Inside, there’s a whirl of activity. Emma and Maddie are twirling around the kitchen, blasting Barbie’s “Strength in Numbers” on their Amazon Alexa. Emma, 6, grabs a jump rope and shows off her skills; Maddie, 4, starts cruising around on a hoverboard, past portraits of the family that line the walls.

Over the next few hours, Enloe will order $70 worth of Domino’s pizza and cinnamon sticks, and the girls will pick over the cut-up slices while sitting cross-legged on the bedroom floor. Enloe will put away toys. He’ll clean up dog poop on the couch. He’ll combine four different soaps and shampoos to make slime during bath time. He’ll brush the girls’ hair and negotiate just five extra minutes of iPad time and get them both ready for bed, even if Emma always sneaks into the master bedroom, for nighttime snuggles they both desperately need.

Every day now is a test of survival, and so when it’s finally time to sit down and discuss the personal hell of the past 16 months, to describe all of the times he felt helpless and overwhelmed and scared, it’s no surprise that Enloe, 45, briefly has to excuse himself.

“Oh, s---,” he says, dropping his head to listen for a faint cry coming from an upstairs bedroom. Maddie hadn’t yet fallen asleep. She needed comforting.

Enloe bounds up the stairs to see what’s wrong.

After a few moments, a soft voice on a nearby baby monitor cuts through the silent house.

“Dear God ... thank you for this day. ...

“Thank you for the time we got to spend with Mommy. ...

“God, please take care of Mommy while she’s in heaven. ...

“We love her and hope that she is happy and safe. ...

“Please, God, will you look down on me and Emma and Maddie, and keep us happy and safe. ...

“Amen.”

He kisses Maddie on the forehead, quietly closes the door and returns to the living room. He grabs a few tissues and settles into the same position on the couch, wearing a sheepish grin.

“I’d say sorry about the chaos,” he says later, “but this is a pretty normal night.”

* * *

Jason and Katie Enloe and family

IT FELT LIKE A golf ball, in both shape and firmness. Katie Enloe discovered that lump in her left breast during a routine self-exam in December 2017. She initially thought it was breast cancer – her mother had been diagnosed a decade earlier – but the doctors were stumped. They ordered blood tests, and the grim diagnosis came back: leukemia.

“You’re always a little bit removed from it, like you don’t think it’s going to happen to someone close to you,” Enloe says. “I think we were all just in shock.”

They’d met through mutual friends in 2007, when Enloe was still trying to make it on the Web.com Tour. Shortly after the wedding, they went on a double date with Katie’s sister, Kandi, and one of Enloe’s pro golf buddies in town, Hunter Mahan. Hunter and Kandi hit it off immediately. For years, the two couples were inseparable.

With his life flipped upside down last spring, Enloe – in his fifth season as the SMU men’s coach – needed that tight-knit family to get through the college golf season. Katie was admitted to MD Anderson in Houston, the nation’s top-ranked cancer hospital, where she was supposed to receive treatment for seven to nine months. Doctors were optimistic. So were the Enloes. But by the end of April, as she prepared for the all-important bone-marrow transplant, Katie began complaining of headaches and blurred vision. More tests showed that the cancer had spread – into her brain and spinal fluids.

“It just sounded like she wasn’t going to make it,” Enloe says. “It just sounded really bad. I remember hugging and crying with Hunter, and him telling me that we’re going to get through this and it’s going to be OK. That I’m not alone. That we’re going to figure it out. It was one of the worst days of my life.”

For spring break, Enloe and the kids stayed in Katie’s apartment near the hospital. By then she was wearing a short, blonde wig, but the chemo hadn’t yet ravaged her body. They took the kids to the American Girl doll store and ate lunch together and took dozens of family photos. It was the last time Enloe remembers his wife being healthy enough to spend quality time together. 

“The girls did really good through all of it, but the end ... the end was awful,” he says, “having to tell Emma that her mom was going to die.”

Friends flew in from all over the country to say goodbye. The family slept together in the living room and watched movies and tried to laugh through the tears, all the way until the end. Katie passed away at home on July 3, just six months after the initial diagnosis. She was 35.

The funeral was a blur; Enloe only remembers crying hysterically while clinging to Emma. Many of his SMU players sat nearby, having returned to Dallas during the summer break to support him. The night before the service, Kandi threw on Katie’s favorite orange robe and wrote her eulogy deep into the night. At the funeral, she spoke directly to the girls: “Your mommy loved you. More than anything. And I’m always going to be here for you, and your dad is always going to be there for you, and we love you.”

At the end of the service, the family walked outside the church for a special sendoff. Amid the devastation the girls smiled and laughed as they released a box of monarchs, the orange butterflies fluttering their wings and sailing high into the sky. They planted a few more in the lilies on top of Katie’s headstone.

“They’re a symbol they’ll see throughout their life,” Kandi says, “that they can think, Hey, maybe that’s Mommy sending me a kiss.”

* * *

THE NEXT FEW WEEKS were full of sadness and despair and confusion. Paying bills, running the household, cleaning, coordinating – it now was all Jason’s responsibility. He hired a nanny, and his extended family pitched in to help, but it still was a lot to handle: the coaching, parenting, recruiting, grieving.

“Because it was so fresh, I just wanted to crawl into a hole and cry and just be by myself,” he says. “But I know that wasn’t going to be healthy. I knew that I probably couldn’t come out of that one.”

Enloe was still reeling last fall, when it came time for the first team meeting of the new season. He thanked his players for being his support system, and he reminded them that they have an opportunity to play with a greater purpose this season, but he also wanted to impart an important message: That they should never take for granted the difficulty of a mother’s job. He knew that now firsthand.

“It was emotional, and at the end we all just hugged him,” says SMU sophomore Noah Goodwin. “We had to let him know that we were there for him, no matter what.”

The Mustangs played their first event of the season in early September, less than two months after Katie’s death. Before the practice round, one of the opposing coaches approached Enloe as he was stepping out of the team van. He cluelessly asked how Katie was doing. “Coach started bawling,” says junior Jackson Markham. “That breakfast was miserable.”

Wearing Katie’s initials on the back of their team uniforms, the Mustangs played inspired golf in their season-opening tournament, earning their first team title since February 2016. They added two more victories and a pair of top-3 finishes throughout the fall, spending much of the season ranked inside the top 20. They will compete in the upcoming men's regionals for a shot at the national title.

“We always have that reminder when we’re putting on our shirt that we’re so lucky to be able to do this,” says sophomore Mac Meissner. “It puts an amazing perspective into each of our days, and I think has contributed to a lot of our success this year.”

They’ve all healed together, as a family. The players hosted a Christmas party and bought the girls presents. The women’s team danced with them in the dorms and painted their nails. They’ve played soccer with them, and they’ve had dinner-and-movie nights with them, and they’ve FaceTimed with them on the road.

“They don’t stop caring,” Hunter Mahan says, “and it’s very impressive to see kids at this age understanding what he’s going through. It’s hard to fathom.”

“I’ve got the best team in America, no doubt,” says Enloe, tears streaming down his face. “They’re really going through this with me right now.”

Even in mourning, Enloe has compartmentalized his grief and remained accountable, never skipping a tournament and hardly ever missing an important function or one of the girls’ dance recitals. For his players he’s a shining example of how to handle adversity, but in truth, he’s a broken man just trying to get by. Some days are better than others, and his players sense when to give him space and when to give him a bear hug.

This spring, the team took a weekend trip to Houston, where they played Bluejack National and had spirited kickball, Wiffle ball and basketball games until 3 a.m. Enloe’s team says it’s the happiest he’s appeared all season.

“I’m sure Coach felt like a kid again,” Markham says. “That was one of the moments where he just had so much joy, and there wasn’t a thought going through his mind but having fun.”

Those moments of freedom are fleeting, because whenever Enloe returns home to Dallas, whenever he steps through the front door, whenever he sees an orange butterfly, he’s reminded that he’s not just a college golf coach. He’s also a heartbroken widower and the single parent of two young daughters.

“The distraction of the team helps get past some of the grieving period,” says SMU assistant coach Chris Parra, “but when you go home at night, your brain just wanders: How am I going to do this? How am I going to get through it? I think only time is going to heal that.”

* * *

THE WOUNDS ARE REOPENED each night, in their family home, with the chaos and the laughter and the silence all serving as a crushing reminder of what’s been lost.

Emma and Maddie asked questions last year, but they were still too young to put the pieces together. All they knew for sure was that Mommy was sick, and that her medicine was in Houston, and that she had to be away from them to get better. The anger and sadness would follow.

For the past nine months, the girls have attended 45-minute therapy sessions every Thursday, talking about emotions and experiences they can’t fully comprehend, not at this age. They’ll occasionally get upset at school, when they’re the only ones there without a mother, but every week they gain a better understanding and acceptance of what happened, of how life can be so cruel and unfair.

It’s Enloe who has a harder time sorting through the painful past, each conversation or reference triggering another memory.

“Every day something comes up where we talk about Mommy,” he says, “and that’s tough on me. We get through it, but it’s all part of the process. I’ve come to know there are no stages of grief.”

At some point every day Emma will swipe through iPhone photos or flip through a family album filled with pictures of Mommy. She’ll reminisce about the little time they shared together.

That’s what she’s doing tonight.

“I remember a lot of things,” Emma says quietly, running her finger over a picture of them together. “She told me to remember that I’m always with you in your heart.”

Then she points at a photo of her parents kissing. She giggles and blows a few air kisses.

“I wish I could kiss Mama right now,” she says.

Late fall will always be the hardest – the birthdays, the anniversaries, the holidays. But that overlooks the daily struggle, how each night can test Enloe’s patience in ways big and small. That’s why he can’t single out the lowest moment of the past 16 months. There have been too many to count.

“A lot of it’s been pretty low here lately,” he says, his voice trailing off. “It’s just simple things, like putting Maddie to bed, but you’re out of energy and you’re out of mental capacity. You just feel like you want to pull your hair out and you’re going to lose your mind. Those are my lowest points. The feeling of not having control of the situation is just helpless sometimes.”   

It’s after 10 p.m. now, and Enloe looks whipped after another typically hectic day. Soon he’ll climb into bed, next to Emma, and hope that he dozes off quickly. Some nights he’s lucky. Other times, especially early on, his mind drifts: to his girls, his team, his family, his counseling sessions, his finances.

The worries never end, not when it’s just him, alone.

“I wish it was easier,” he says. “I wish I had Katie to be my partner, to see how awesome these two girls are now and when they grow up. But I’m just going to have to do my best.” 

Tonight, at least, everyone is safe and seemingly content, but there’s no time to celebrate his successes or dwell on what he could have done better. He ruffles his hair and glances at his watch. In eight hours, he’ll do it all over again.