Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes lost more than just their left legs that fateful day in April 2013 as they stood near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
The newlyweds had made a spontaneous trip to the prestigious road race to soak in the energy of it one last time before they moved to San Francisco. But two bomb blasts changed everything, and they experienced what Kensky described as a “profound loss.”
They were given prosthetic legs, and Kensky eventually had to have her right leg amputated, too, after spending a period of time in a motorized wheelchair.
Their medical careers were suddenly put on hold. Downes lost his psychology fellowship, so the move out West was called off. Their apartment building didn’t have elevators so they couldn’t reach their fourth-floor home. Driving anywhere was a major undertaking.
Trips to the store were suddenly filled with complicated emotions when Kensky said she would overhear kids, unaware of how loudly they were talking ask, “Mom, what happened to that lady’s legs?”
It was the response from parents, minimizing the attack by calling it an accident before rushing them away, that paved a new path for the couple. They used their experience as survivors to start an unfiltered conversation with kids about loss and anguish, and how to come back from it.
That journey brought them to Petaluma on Tuesday to promote their new children’s book, “Rescue and Jessica: A Life-Changing Friendship,” with stops at Sonoma Mountain Charter School and Copperfield’s Books as part of their West Coast tour.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into with the book tour, but the kids are our favorite part,” Kensky said after signing copies of their New York Times bestseller in the school library. “It was such a great audience; they were really captivated. I don’t usually read the book — Patrick does — because I can’t compete with that Rescue voice, but I love watching their faces during the reading. It’s amazing how much I think they’re picking up on.
“These different emotions that we don’t always expose children to — I think we tend to try to shield them from feelings of sadness and hopelessness. But they experience it in different ways and levels in their life. I think it’s important to show it and talk about it and normalize it then talk about what’s next.”
The book chronicles the parallel paths of a young Jessica and a dog named Rescue, who is eager to have a purpose. Jessica learns of an opportunity to have a service dog and, over time, their relationship pulls her out of her despair as she leans on him and he, in turn, leans on her.
In front of hundreds of students at Sonoma Mountain’s multi-purpose room, Kensky and Downes showed off their prosthetic limbs and let their 5-year-old black lab, also named Rescue, steal the show with his impressive array of tasks.
After the reading, they wanted to hear about everyone’s favorite pages and began fielding questions from a curious student body. Some were about Rescue, some were about their limbs and, once Downes shared that they had been attacked, many questions were about the bombing.
They don’t mind those questions, either. In fact, they encourage them because figuring out how to explain the attack to kids helped shape how they wrote the book.