This story begins with memories of two spring Saturdays, separated by seven years.
The first is from 2008. It was one of those stunning mornings that confirmed winter had gone into hibernation. With a sky awash in sunshine, I accompanied my wife, Karen, on one of her favorite pursuits: yard sales. She called it quits in late morning, and because our final stop was near a chain pet store, I said we should get cat litter before heading home. Karen frowned.
Her countenance soon changed when I mentioned it was an adoption day at the store, so there would be shelter dogs to visit. In a matter of minutes, she was so eager to view the pups, 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 getting a dog today.”
Looking back, that was a silly thing to think. Getting a new phone, car or television is one thing. But bring home a dog and you’re welcoming a friend for life. Unfortunately, it’s for their life, and that’s the sad bookend to that Saturday so many years ago.
Henry died earlier this month after being burdened with far too many health problems: a kidney issue, protein losing enteropathy, severe arthritis and possibly bladder cancer. It was all too much, and despite battling hard, his body gave up.
The second Saturday came in May 2015. I have no recollection of the weather that day. That’s hardly the only thing that escapes me about 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 heading back to the Chicago suburbs. Going with them was my mother, who had spent the previous month helping care for Karen while she was in hospice.
After watching their cars disappear down the street, I walked into my house, which was no longer “our home” but just mine. It was empty for the first time since Karen entered hospice. I managed a few steps before falling on the couch, overcome by a wave of emotion. The terrible years after the cancer diagnosis, the somehow worse final weeks of her life and the realization of being alone, fueled the tears.
When it subsided, my eyes caught Henry’s across the room. He had been lying on his dog bed but arose and walked to me. I hugged his furry neck and he licked the tears from my face. All at once, I felt better.
The tears would come innumerable times in the coming months, as hidden triggers such as a scene from a TV show, a song or an old letter from Karen would trigger more weeping. Henry was there to help every single time and eventually those episodes became infrequent until one day they just stopped. I made it through the most difficult period of my life by being able to lean on Henry, who became my unexpected therapy dog.
The Alliance of Therapy Dogs notes that ancient Greeks “were the first to use animals, specifically horses, to lift the spirits of the severely ill. … Pet animals were first used for therapeutic purposes in medieval Belgium.” That website notes therapy dogs can help with “feelings of depression and loneliness.”
There were quite a few dreadful tasks to take care of in the days following Karen’s passing, including visits to the funeral home and social security office. I took Henry with me each time. It was important to have him nearby when I was dealing with anything to do with Karen, and I’d often make time for a stop at a park or trail, which proved beneficial to my state of mind. It also gave Henry a chance to explore someplace new.
Returning to work could have been a real gut-punch, but rather than coming back to an empty home each day, Henry was always there waiting for me. He got me out of the house twice a day on walks. In those first months, we had a simple routine. We’d walk after work, he’d have dinner, then I’d eat while watching TV on the couch with Henry always lying quietly next to me. If I broke down in tears, he’d often lick them away.
I also took him on trips, big and small. Need a loaf of bread? Henry was gonna make that drive to the store with me. Friends allowed him in their house when I visited. He came to church and was a magnet for kids before waiting patiently/snoozing in the car until service was over. This always depends on the weather, of course. And there were a few times he got to visit the office and spend the day at The Star.
Eventually we branched out to road trips: back to Illinois to visit family, my niece’s graduation, a 2,000-mile trek to Virginia. Henry was a security blanket of sorts. I can’t imagine making it through that awful time without him at my side, providing comfort, being silly, running like the wind and just being there.
The first major holidays after Karen’s death were simply terrible, the pain too fresh to celebrate. But in 2016, I decided to see my mother and siblings for Thanksgiving. No way I was going to leave Henry with friends or in a boarding kennel. So we made the seven-hour drive, and to my relief, it was an enjoyable visit.
On the way home, we stopped at Nine Eagles Park in Iowa, not far from the Missouri border. I’d never been, but it was a beautiful spot and best of all, it was a pleasant late fall afternoon with no one around. We had the place to ourselves.
Thrilled to be out of the car, Henry Ran trails with his typical abandon and later splashed into the lake. Watching him dash to and fro brought a smile to my face, as it always did. But this time, it dawned on me that the weight I’d been carrying around was gone. There was joy again, and things were going to be OK.
I’m not so sure I’d have made it to that point as quickly without Henry, who had taken some of my burden, even if he never knew it. When we adopted him that spring day, I couldn’t have pictured the road ahead or that he’d become a therapy dog for me.
Our paths crossed so randomly — we needed cat litter that particular day and happened to be near that particular pet store — but Henry had such a deep impact on my life that it couldn’t possibly have been a happeningtance. I believe dogs are a gift from God and Henry was absolutely meant to be in my life.
A few years back at Royals spring training, my friend Vahe and I were driving to a game and we were on the topic of one of our favorite subjects, dogs. I’m paraphrasing Vahe, who is more eloquent than me, but he said: “We can’t imagine a world without dogs, but we couldn’t possibly know what we’d be missing if there had never been dogs in the first place.”
True words have never been spoken.
I hold special memories of all the dogs that have ever been in my life, but Henry and I bonded in a way I couldn’t have imagined. He helped heal my broken heart.
Unfortunately, it’s broken again. This time he’s not here to lick away the tears, but I’m aware the hurt will one day end. My gratitude to Henry never will.
This story was originally published July 24, 2022 8:35 AM.