Sacramento native Jessica Kensky and her husband, Patrick Downes, injured in the Boston Marathon bombing five years ago, released a children’s book Tuesday that celebrates the black Labrador retriever who has helped them learn to navigate the world as amputees.
As part of a national tour, they will come to Sacramento on April 23, just after this year's April 16 race, for a series of public and private book events that promote “Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship” (Candlewick Press, $16.99, 32 pages).
Five years ago, Downes and Kensky were newlyweds thrown into the national spotlight because of injuries they suffered in the bombing near the finish line of the marathon. In the grim aftermath, the couple said, they struggled emotionally and physically with surgeries, the loss of so much mobility and the many other uncertainties in their lives.
“I remember our family visiting and just staring down at the floor,” Kensky said. “What do you say to this newlywed couple who just were blown up, can’t work … . We were still clueless about the future. We had all these surgeries hanging over our head. There were not many safe topics at that time. It was really challenging. I’m sure it was a hard visit for a lot of people to make, and once we got Rescue, he just provided this relief.”
Kensky, 37, met her service dog for the first time in August 2013, and he would help her begin to envision a way forward with her life. He does the same for a young girl named Jessica in the book.
Downes recalled the first time the couple met Rescue: “I can still go back to that moment and remember the feeling throughout my body as I laughed and saw my wife laugh. I just could not have imagined that sort of day would be possible again after the stretch that we had been through. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was the first of many times that Rescue would bring that kind of lightness to our family.”
Kensky and Downes said that they and many of their relatives and friends had not truly felt laughter in months, and to feel it again and again with Rescue was healing.
That’s a feeling you get from the first meeting that the fictional Jessica has with her service dog Rescue, and it continues throughout the book. The one thing that doesn’t reflect the real-life Jessica’s story is how the character in the book lost her lower legs.
In the book, no reason is given for why Jessica’s legs have been badly hurt, Kensky said, and that’s intentional.
“From the very beginning, we knew we didn’t want it to be about the bombing,” she said. “One, we are just sick of talking about it … the actual bombing, that is, and we wanted the story to be really relatable to a wider audience.”
Kensky said she doesn’t feel the reason why the fictional Jessica is in this situation matters. What matters, Kensky said, is that life isn’t turning out how she expected and that she is struggling to find a way to deal with her disability.
The first time that Kensky and Downes read the book to a classroom of kids, one student asked them why they hadn’t included the bombing. Downes, 34, worked with children, adolescents and families as a clinical psychologist before the bombing, and he said he learned that kids will ask very direct questions and the best policy is never to lie.
“I think … they’re going to want to know: Where did our legs go? How were we hurt? What are our legs like now? Are we still in pain?” Downes said. “That’s going to be a real challenge for us, and for me it goes back to my clinical training and the belief that you can be honest with kids.”
The nice thing about having Rescue, now 5 years old, with them is that children feel like they can approach them and ask questions, Kensky said.
“Wherever we would go, especially in the early days before we could even wear prosthetics … when children saw us with all this adaptive equipment and missing limbs and a service dog in a vest in a store, where they didn’t normally see a dog, their eyeballs are popping out of their heads,” Kensky said. “We’ve had kids walking into walls because they’re staring at us.”
The couple found that last part hysterically funny, Kensky said, and as they answered questions from children, they began to feel that this was a story that kids needed to hear. The book has become a way to talk about differences and to talk about the love and support people need to overcome challenges.
“We all get thrown curveballs, and we believe what determines your health coming out of that is whether or not you have a strong support system around you,” Downes said. “For us, Rescue is an embodiment of all the love and support that we’ve received. I hope it gives kids the opportunity to talk about the important people in their lives and who they can count on when they’re faced with difficult situations. We feel as though it’s chock full of really important scenes for kids.”
The couple's book tour brings them back for a visit in a region they know well. Kensky grew up in Gold River, and the couple met and fell in love when they were both working on Capitol Hill. At the time, Downes was a staff assistant for U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui. He recalled polling his office mates for advice on what to do on their first date.
"I feel very proud to have represented and worked for the people of Sacramento, even though I’m a kid from Cambridge, Mass.," Downes said. "I was a lowly staff assistant, but it meant something. We have a dear friend in Doris and her staff member in Sacramento, Sam Stefanki."
Meet “Rescue & Jessica”
What: Sacramento-area native Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes will talk about their children’s book, “Rescue & Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship” (Candlewick Press, $16.99, 32 pages) and their life since their injuries, and Rescue, the 2017 ASPCA Dog of the Year, will be at the ready. The couple will also field questions and sign books.
When: 6 p.m. Monday April 23
Where: Barnes & Noble, 1725 Arden Way, in Sacramento