Just over a year ago, Gary Hensley was happily married to a former Playboy Playmate and stepdad to two kids. Then his doorbell rang and Hensley suddenly became a widower and single dad. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

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.

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“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.”

Gary Hensley with his wife, Cassandra, and their daughter, Alexis. (Courtesy of the Hensley family)

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.

Cassandra Lynn Hensley died in January 2014, leaving behind two children and her husband, Gary Hensley. (Courtesy of the Hensley family)

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.”

Gary Hensley and his two children, Alexis, 13, and Devin, 7, at their home in Fairfax, Va. Hensley, 37, lost his wife a year ago and went from stepdad to single dad in an instant. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Then the family came home to a house with pink appliances that Cassandra had picked out and a tiny dog named Ashley that she adored.

“It was a very quiet, very lonely, very clean house,” Gary says. “Nights were particularly hard.”

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He took a break from his start-up and drew down his retirement savings while trying to rebuild their life. There was no custody battle for the kids — the children’s father had had his own troubles and had long ago consented to the notion that Gary would be the dad who would raise them. But now he had to learn how to be their mother, too.

For a while it was chicken and rice every night for dinner. They muddled through birthdays and holidays and homework without Mom.

But slowly, with the help of family, friends, neighbors and a meal-prep service, the trio established a new routine. His company, EdBacker, regained its momentum.

“I feel like from an operations point of view. we’ve got it down,” Gary says.

The emotional aspects have proved more difficult. The children grieved differently. It took a while for Alexis to let down her guard, and she faced the cruelty of anonymous middle-school gossip on social media networks.

But today they’re both thriving at school, exuberant young people who are fiercely protective of each other and the man who has become their single dad.

Devin has always called Gary “Dad.” But it wasn’t until recently that Alexis started doing the same.

“It always makes me smile,” he says. “But you know how it is with teenagers — you can’t say anything.”

For Gary, who eventually learned that his wife’s affair had been going on for a while, much of what remains are questions. Including: “Did she really love me?”

“A year past all that, I just have come to the resolve that for the five years we were together, she did — to the degree that she could,” he says. “And nobody’s perfect. Neither am I.”

Cassandra was always open about the challenges she’d faced in life, he says, “and her aspiration was to be able to overcome those things. I think she wanted her story to be a little different, and she never got the chance to get to that. But what I would love people to remember her for is not what’s on TMZ — just that she was a person. She was struggling. She made some choices, and she paid the ultimate price for those choices. And in the wake of that, her children are without a mom. And she was a good one.”

In life, Gary could never stay mad at Cassandra for long. “She could always make me smile,” he says. “She was just so fun and silly.”

In death, too, his anger has given way to a softer sadness. It seems to him that when you lose a parent or a sibling or a child, “you’re allowed to grieve them forever,” he says.

“But when you lose your wife, I feel like there’s this expectation, especially at 37, that you’re going to, at some point, not miss her any more. And I don’t think that’s the case. I’ll always miss her.”

This Life is an ongoing series about the extraordinary lives of ordinary people. If you know someone you think should be featured, e-mail
Ellen McCarthy at ellen.mccarthy@washpost.com.