Children's Book Brings Love Of Girl And Her Service Dog To Life
BY AMANDA ROBERGE, ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF SCOTT MAGOON
Here's how the lyrics go: A dog's best friend is a man who appreciates a dog who appreciates a man.
If we change the "man" to "woman," and you can imagine me in my black hatchback barreling up Route 190 toward home, you'd also have to imagine me hearing the song on the oldies station of my car and immediately thinking of Rescue. Maybe forever, as someone who loves old tunes, cute dogs and great children's books, songs like that will always make me think of Rescue.
Rescue is a black lab who appreciates Jessica Kensky. He appreciates her primarily because she -- along with her husband Patrick Downes, of course -- is the mainline to the two things dogs love most: treats and affection.
But the truth is that he has been bred to love her with treats and cuddles notwithstanding, and that was the thing that someone like Jessica needed most when she found him. Their story is now the backdrop for a beautiful children's book entitled Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship, penned by the couple, which is being released this month through Candlewick Press.
Both Jessica and Patrick are amputees who survived the Boston Marathon bombings -- having swung by the race that day in 2013 on a whim to check out the runners and lend some cheers.
That violent misfortune led to Jessica losing one leg, and then the other, after what seemed like endless complications from her initial injury. Patrick also lost one of his legs in the tragic event. The two were newlyweds, having been married only a year before the bombings.
While Patrick recovered relatively quickly, Jessica spent nearly four years at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and only returned to their Cambridge home last summer with a new best friend in tow. That new best friend, incidentally, was named Dog of the Year by the ASPCA.
Rescue, named for Worcester Firefighter John Davies, who passed away in 2011 in the line of duty and commandeered the truck known as "Rescue 1," is a service dog trained through the NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dogs Services) program based in Princeton, Mass.
His purpose was -- and is -- to support Jessica emotionally and physically, as she navigates a new life with a whole new idea of what she is capable of. And if Rescue was able to help her recover some small pieces of her former self, writing this children's book has gone some way toward recovering the rest.
The journey to writing a children's book came through the couple's good friend, Clelia Gore, who works as a book agent and encouraged Jessica and Patrick to get started on sharing their story. Sharing their story, it turns out, has been a cathartic and healing experience and one that plays right into their strengths as humans.
Patrick, a clinical psychologist with a background of working with children, understood the nuanced ways in which we often fail to communicate effectively with children. His role in creating an authentic voice, especially in the context of a story of a tragedy that cannot be sugar coated and its connection with finding strength and peace, is one that he is passionate about.
"As adults we often fail to trust that kids have the capacity to sit with and process truth," he explained. "When we fail to be honest with children, they fill in the blanks with their own versions of a story -- which can be much scarier than the actual truth."
For Jessica, an oncology nurse just starting to test the waters of returning to her workplace, having a friend like Rescue distracted her from a debilitating melancholy and mourning for the life she left behind on the streets of Boston. The story she wants to share is one of hope and perseverance.
"One of our first steps in figuring out how to approach telling our story was to look and see what is missing from children's' literature," she said. "And what we found was a dire shortage of fun, fictional books -- not only about service dogs -- but also about people with disabilities and how they can thrive."
The book begins with Rescue as a puppy; he comes from a family of seeing eye dogs, but once his NEADS trainers noticed that he made a better companion than leader (seeing eye dogs walk in front of their partners, who are often completely blind, while service dogs walk next to their partners), he began his training for his future roll. Simultaneously, Jessica is saddened and frustrated after an accident (which goes unnamed in the picture book) because the doctors must remove one of her legs. As she recovers from surgery, a friend in the hospital introduces her to a service dog and Jessica knows right away that she must apply to have one of her own. Rescue and Jessica are instant best friends; Rescue is able help Jessica with things that are difficult as a disabled individual, and he is also there to comfort her in moments of pain and disappointment.
With unique and wonderful illustrations provided by Scott Magoon of Reading, Mass., the story comes to life in a beautiful way. Coincidentally, Scott was in between the bombs when they went off that day, but was not injured. His understanding of the message that Jessica and Patrick have set out to tell is evident in his thoughtful art, and there is the hope that it will build empathy in young readers and demystify what it means to live with a physical disability.
Rescue & Jessica will appeal to all readers, but is targeted for the 5 - 9 age range.
As Jessica and Patrick -- and of course, Rescue -- set off for a media tour this month that will take them across the country and back, the occasion marks not only an exciting time in their lives, but also a time of reverence, with everything falling around the fifth anniversary of the bombings.
Kensky, who grew up on the West Coast, is very much looking forward to reuniting with family and friends during the trip.
"It's an exciting time," she said.