This story begins with memories of two spring Saturdays, separated by seven years.
The first dates from 2008. It was one of those beautiful mornings that confirmed that winter had gone into hibernation. With skies bathed in sunshine, I accompanied my wife, Karen, to one of her favorite activities: garage sales. She called him late morning, and because our last stop was near a chain pet store, I said we should buy some kitty litter before we got home. Karen frowned.
Her face quickly changed when I mentioned it was adoption day at the store, so there would be shelter dogs to visit. Within minutes she was so eager to see the puppies, so I dropped her off at the curb. In the time it took me to park the car and walk to the back of the store, Karen had found a puppy and was quietly cooing over it.
“Well,” I said under my breath, “I guess we’re having a dog today.”
Looking back, that was a dumb thing to think about. Getting a new phone, a new car, or a new TV is one thing. But bring home a dog and you welcome a friend for life. Sadly, it’s for their lives, and it’s the sad book of that Saturday so many years ago.
Henry died earlier this month after being burdened with far too many health issues: a kidney problem, protein-losing enteropathy, severe arthritis and possibly bladder cancer. It was too much, and despite a fierce struggle, his body gave up.
The second Saturday came in May 2015. I have no recollection of the weather that day. That’s not the only thing that escapes me on the day of Karen’s funeral.
However, some memories remain, including the small gathering at my house after the service. The last guests to leave were my siblings, who were returning to suburban Chicago. Accompanying them was my mother, who had spent the previous month caring for Karen while she was in the hospice.
After seeing their cars disappear in the street, I entered my house, which was no longer “our house”, but just mine. It was empty for the first time since Karen had entered the workhouse. I managed to take a few steps before falling on the sofa, overwhelmed by a wave of emotion. The terrible years after the cancer diagnosis, the somewhat worse last weeks of her life and the realization of being alone, fueled the tears.
When it calmed down, my eyes met Henry’s across the room. He was lying on his dog bed but got up and walked over to me. I squeezed his furry neck and he licked the tears from my face. Suddenly I felt better.
The tears would come countless times in the months to come as hidden triggers such as a scene from a TV show, a song, or an old letter from Karen would trigger more tears. Henry was there to help every time and eventually these episodes became infrequent until one day they stopped. I got through the hardest time of my life leaning on Henry, who became my unexpected therapy dog.
The Alliance of Therapy Dogs notes that the ancient Greeks “were the first to use animals, especially horses, to lift the spirits of seriously ill people. … Companion animals were first used for therapeutic purposes in medieval Belgium.This website notes that therapy dogs can help with “feelings of depression and loneliness”.
There were quite a few dreadful tasks to do in the days following Karen’s death, including visits to the funeral home and the Social Security office. I took Henry with me every time. It was important to have him around when dealing with Karen, and I often made time to stop at a park or trail, which was beneficial to my state of mind. It also gave Henry a chance to explore somewhere new.
Coming back to work could have been a real punch, but rather than coming back to an empty house every day, Henry was still there waiting for me. He took me out of the house twice a day for walks. During those first months, we had a simple routine. We walked after work, he had dinner, then I ate while watching TV on the sofa with Henry still lying quietly next to me. If I burst into tears, he often licked them.
I also took him on trips, young and old. Need a loaf of bread? Henry was going to ride to the store with me. Friends allowed it in their house when I visited. He came to church and was a magnet for the kids before patiently waiting/dozing in the car until the service was over. It always depended on the weather, of course. And there were several times when he was able to visit the office and spend the day at the Star.
Eventually, we branched out into road trips: back to Illinois to visit family, my niece’s graduation, hiking 2,000 miles to Virginia. Henry was a kind of security blanket. I can’t imagine going through this horrible time without him by my side, comforting, silly, running like the wind and right there.
The first big celebrations after Karen’s death were just terrible, the pain too fresh to celebrate. But in 2016, I decided to see my mom and siblings for Thanksgiving. No way am I leaving Henry with friends or at a boarding house. So we did the seven hour drive and to my relief it was an enjoyable visit.
On the way back, we stopped at Nine Eagles Park in Iowa, not far from the Missouri border. I had never been there, but it was a beautiful place and best of all, it was a pleasant late fall afternoon with no one around. We had the place to ourselves.
Delighted to be out of the car, Henry hit the trails with his typical abandon and later splashed in the lake. Watching him come and go made me smile, as always. But this time, I realized that the weight I was carrying was gone. There was joy again, and things were going to be fine.
I’m not sure I would have gotten there so quickly without Henry, who had taken on some of my burden, even though he never knew it. When we adopted him that spring day, I could not have imagined the road ahead or that he would become a therapy dog for me.
Our paths crossed so randomly – we needed kitty litter that day and we were near this particular pet store – but Henry had such a profound impact on my life that it couldn’t have been a coincidence. I believe that dogs are a gift from God and that Henry absolutely had to be part of my life.
A few years ago at Royals spring training, my friend Vahe and I were driving to a game and we were talking about one of our favorite topics, dogs. I paraphrase Vahe, who is more eloquent than me, but he said, “We can’t imagine a world without dogs, but we couldn’t know what we would be missing if there had never been dogs in the world. first place.”
Truer words have never been spoken.
I have special memories of all the dogs that have been in my life, but Henry and I bonded in ways I couldn’t have imagined. He helped heal my broken heart.
Unfortunately it is broken again. This time he’s not here to wipe away his tears, but I’m aware that the pain will end one day. My gratitude to Henry will never be.
This story was originally published July 24, 2022 8:35 a.m.