Valentine poet and his muse talk tips for everlasting love

Denise and Robbie on their wedding day in 2014.

ASSIGINACK – Loyal readers of this newspaper will know that during this week each year, The Expositor hosts a Valentine poetry contest where local scribes can put their heart to paper (or keyboard) and share their love with the Manitoulin community. Those same readers will likely be familiar with Robbie Shawana’s name among those poets.

Robbie is probably most familiar to Manitoulin audiences through his music and his love of motorcycles (he’s the Spirit Island chapter president of the Redrum motorcycle club). He’s a staple of the country music scene, playing gigs far and wide and is a Great Northern Opry inductee too so it should come as no great surprise that Robbie can spirit his deep love for wife Denise McKenzie-Shawana into poems each and every year.

The couple admit that they first encountered one another on the popular dating website Lavalife back in 2002 and while they struck up a conversation, communicating back and forth through the then-popular MSN Messenger chat application, they didn’t actually go on any dates.

Over the years, the two remained friends, chatting periodically, first through MSN Messenger then later Facebook, but circumstances changed. Robbie got married and Denise began a relationship.

By the fall of 2009, both Robbie and Denise found themselves single once again and a happenstance meeting saw their lives collide. Denise oversaw hall rentals for the Assiginack Curling Club. Robbie just happened to be at the curling club one day, helping his cousin set up for a wedding reception while Denise was there overseeing the job. While Denise bartended the event that night, she and Robbie struck up their conversation once again.

A couple of weeks following the wedding, Denise and Robbie were chatting online. She had been hard at work finishing her back deck and decided she was in need of a hot tub.

“You have a hot tub?” Robbie asked excitedly, Denise recalls. When she answered ‘yes’ Robbie told her he would be right over.

On November 1, 2009, Robbie attended the Great Northern Opry’s annual dedication event in Sault Ste. Marie and invited Denise to come with him. The couple say they had a wonderful time together, and haven’t parted since.

“From 2002 to 2009, Denise and I grew a friendship,” Robbie shares.

In 2010 Denise had rotator cuff surgery and Robbie was very concerned about how she would look after herself. 

“Who’s going to look after you?” he remembers asking. “I better just move in.” And so he did.

On Christmas Day in 2012, Robbie proposed with Denise’s son Jamie present for the ultimate act of love. Denise said yes.

Just months after the proposal, in 2013, while the couple’s relationship was growing stronger and stronger, Denise suffered a fall and a major head injury—one that continues to haunt her to this day. Denise has suffered from serious headaches ever since the accident.

“People would ask me, ‘how are you feeling?’” Denise recalls. “I would say ‘I go to bed with a headache and I wake up with a headache.’ ‘Don’t talk about Robbie that way!’ was the usual response,” she laughs.

Denise and Robbie share a loving look in the leadup to Valentine’s Day.
photo by Alicia McCutcheon

“Laughter is so important in a relationship,” Robbie adds, noting that he made sure people knew that she had said ‘yes’ before the head injury, the couple laughs.

Robbie and Denise were married in July of 2014, a backyard service at their Holiday Haven Road home, near Manitowaning, with over 180 people present.

“It was pretty elaborate for a second wedding for the both of us,” Denise admits, “but we made it all about us and had our friends and family here.”

Following the ceremony, the heavens opened and it poured, but the couple believes it was a good sign, as wedding superstitions go.

“We got really lucky,” Robbie says.

Of course, Robbie sang at the wedding, and with Karaoke Konnie as the DJ, he had many chances to show off his singing talents that night.

Robbie says one of the keys to a successful marriage is making time for one another and the parents (Robbie has four boys from a previous relationship and Denise has a daughter and a son) have frequent date nights that usually involve eating out at local restaurants. “You’ve got to make time for each other,” he says.

“When you’re in a relationship, you rub off on one another—doing things you might not normally do,” Robbie adds.

“I never thought I’d see myself on a motorcycle!” Denise exclaims. “I’m terrified of ice too, but I went in the old Wiky ice fishing derby one year because Robbie encouraged me too.”

Chivalry is important to Robbie and he enjoys opening doors or seating his wife by helping her with her chair when dining out.

He also claims to be the king of one-liners. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a day without one,” Denise rolls her eyes with a smile.

As a paramedic (Denise) and a child welfare worker for Kina Gbezhgomi (Robbie), the couple both hold high stress jobs.

“She kind of knows a bit of what I go through, and me with her,” Robbie says.

“That’s all you can do is support one another,” Denise adds. “I know that when he walks in, if he’s not his usual bubbly self, it’s been a bad day.”

Denise says that communication is key and this also means talking even when you don’t want to, listening and maybe most importantly, hearing.

“And laughing together,” Robbie says of tips to a successful relationship. “Humour, but most importantly respect, trust and making time for each other. Even though we are here and living together, we still need alone time out of the house too, and knowing that you need time apart too.”

Denise says they always say good morning and always say goodnight and never leave the house without a hug, kiss and an ‘I love you.’

The couple says that volunteer work is an important part of their lives. Robbie is studying to become a deacon so that he might continue to serve his Holy Cross Church family in Wiikwemkoong while Denise is a member of Knox United Church in Manitowaning. The two also work with Special Olympics Manitoulin, Bluegrass in the Country and so much more.

“Martin Garniss (Knox Church’s minister) married us, and I’ll be forever grateful for that so I help out whenever I can,” Robbie says. “We support both of the churches as much as we can, as often as we can.” The couple said they were looking forward to attending the Knox United Church Valentine dinner hosted on Saturday night, in fact.

“I think we’re a perfect fit,” Denise says. “We complement each other. We just take every day, love every day, the way it is. Most people are so focused on the future they forget about what’s right in front of them.”

Robbie advises husbands and boyfriends to keep things fresh and interesting, like writing poetry.

When this time of year rolls around and The Expositor’s annual poetry contest is announced, Robbie says he will sit down with a blank piece of paper “and it just comes out. Maybe it’s because I’m a musician, but not all musicians are songwriters, and not all songwriters are musicians, so I don’t really know.”

The poem is then kept a secret until Denise reads it in the newspaper.

“I come to expect it now,” she admits.

To read Robbie’s latest poem to Denise and other heartfelt poetry, see page 20.