Last updated: Sun. Aug. 03, 2014 - 01:36 am EDT
The woman sitting on the park bench in Grabill, she made Terry Furnish do a double take.
It couldn’t be her. The very idea was beyond the realm of possibility. He knew that – knew it – but sometimes the heart hopes against hope.
The heart, there are times it wants the impossible to become possible.
So it was with the woman.
She had the same profile, the same hairdo. Terry Furnish thought: Karen?
When the woman turned her head, reality flooded back.
No. Not Karen.
Not my wife.
“I’ve done that several times,” Furnish says.
Two years ago, Furnish was facing a bright future.
He was an Allen County Sheriff’s officer with a K-9 partner. He and his wife traveled, were planning for retirement and had even bought a lake cottage – something that had always been a dream of hers.
Then, doctors found tumors on his wife’s brain.
This is a story of a man who’s been through an abyss few can comprehend. It’s a story of a man who, after having lost so much, now must live in a world he never anticipated.
Within months, Furnish had to put down his police partner of 12 years, watch the love of his life – the woman he married while still a teenager 43 years ago – wither and die before his eyes, and then leave the job he loved for more than 25 years.
This is the story of a man trying to find direction after the abyss.
“I still question why God would do that to such a wonderful woman,” he says.
The young man couldn’t look at Furnish.
Eighteen and shy, he kept his eyes down and away from the officer, barely answering any of Furnish’s questions. An introvert, Furnish thought to himself.
He also wondered what the kid was thinking.
Moments before, the young man was on the roof of his parents’ home, threatening to kill himself. It was unclear as to why. His reasons didn’t make sense, at least to Furnish, one of the officers on the scene.
“You’re 18,” Furnish said to him. “My wife is dead.”
He told the kid: “I’d give my life to have her back.”
The young man, he said in a very soft voice: “I’m sorry, sir.”
Karen Furnish was diagnosed in April 2013 with brain cancer. Golf-ball sized tumors on her brain made it impossible to operate. The doctors told Terry and Karen to get her affairs in order.
The goal was to make it to as many holidays, birthdays and anniversaries as possible.
After Karen got sick, members of the sheriff’s department – as well as civilian workers for Allen County government – donated vacation time to Furnish so he could stay with her as much as possible.
They gave him 194 days in all, and Furnish took care of his ailing wife 24/7.
He watched as she went through chemotherapy, watched as her hair fell out and her strength gave way. He watched and comforted her as her body began to lose its weight. He pushed her in the wheelchair she used to get around in toward the end.
Furnish took pictures of everyone who visited her. There are pictures of his fellow officers at her bedside. His adult children, neighbors and friends couldn’t escape without a photo.
He has binders of photos.
All of them show a woman in what should be the worst of conditions – sick, weak, dying.
But in all of them, she’s doing the same thing.
“She never complained,” Furnish said. “No matter what, she never showed a grimace, never cried.”
In the middle of Karen’s sickness, Furnish’s K-9 unit, the once-spry Ralph, began to slow down. His hips weren’t working well and the dog, a Belgian Malinois, could no longer handle steps.
A tough decision had to be made.
For a dozen years, Furnish and Ralph chased bad guys through the streets, played a part in confiscated drugs and were an invaluable public relations team for the department.
Furnish loved taking Ralph to schools or places where he could interact with kids.
“He was my partner,” Furnish always says, talking about Ralph, whose ashes now sit in his living room.
Still caring for his wife, Furnish took her and the family to the lake cottage they barely got the chance to use. He was there to watch her blow out the candles on her 58th birthday cake.
He was there to see his son Gabe, also a sheriff’s officer, dress up as Santa during Christmas and hold Karen on his lap.
Three or four times, the doctors told Furnish it was time to gather the family. Things did not look good. Karen had hours to live. Almost every single time they were wrong.
“I always said, ‘What are you talking about?’ ” Furnish says. “I’ve been here the whole time. There’s been no change.”
Then came May 4.
Karen was no longer conscious. The family came. They knew the end was in sight. The Furnishes’ months-old granddaughter was also there. Terry and Karen had never met baby Hayden.
So Terry held him close to Karen.
“They say sometimes they can comprehend the conversations around them, that they know what’s going on,” Terry says.
“I just hope she did,” he says.
Karen stopped breathing.
Shortly after Furnish returned to work and to a world he was unfamiliar with.
Maybe it hadn’t changed, but he certainly had.
The suicide threats are what got to him the most. Every day seemed to bring a call involving someone saying he wanted to kill himself. And every time it seemed to be a kid, Furnish says.
“They’ve lived this much of their life,” Furnish says, holding his thumb and finger inches from each other.
Then he spreads his hands far apart.
“They have this much to go,” he says.
Then he says:
“I couldn’t do it anymore.”
‘Almost gets worse’
Not long after the young man on the roof out by Coldwater Road, Terry Furnish woke up one morning and did not put on his uniform.
He did not strap the 10-pound gun belt around his waist, the one that had become heavier and heavier as the years went by.
He did not don the bullet-proof vest, which restricted movement and became at times unbearably hot in the summer, and he did not hop into a county-issued car.
Furnish did not drive to work.
He retired. He knew he could no longer function as a cop – not after everything that happened.
“It was a stress of me,” he says now.
But what happens to you when you lose someone who’s been by your side for so long? What happens when plans get thrown out the window? What happens to you when the other half of you, the half who devoted herself to you for more than 40 years, is suddenly gone?
What happens to someone who’s been through that?
What happens to the person who’s left in the aftermath?
“It almost gets worse,” Furnish says.
Karen is still in his home. Not physically, obviously, but her presence can still be felt. The scarves and blankets she knitted will always be there, and so will all her clothes, her personal items and her pictures.
“This is a bass she caught once,” says Furnish, showing a photo of Karen holding a large fish and smiling to the camera. “She was my fishing buddy. She was good at it, too.”
Cleaning out some of her things, Furnish discovered a diary Karen kept while a teenager, beginning before the pair met in high school. She couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15.
He never knew it existed, and he sobbed when he opened its pages.
“Having progress with Terry Furnish,” reads one entry from May 6, 1970. “He broke up with Pat I think! At least he’s got his class ring back.”
Later, she describes their first kiss as lasting 10 minutes.
“I like Terry Furnish,” Karen wrote. “I hope he likes me.”
Within a few years, they were married.
It was because she got pregnant, and to this day Terry says that’s not how things should be done, but still, the relationship led to kids, grandkids and great-grandkids.
“I wouldn’t change anything,” he says.
From the abyss
The nights are particularly bad.
With Karen’s things all through the house and no one to talk to, Terry busies himself with friends. Sometimes he goes to dinner with them; sometimes he plays cards with them.
Afterward, not wanting to be in the house, goes driving.
He was never a fan of music – “He hated music,” says his daughter, Brandy Bailey – but now, he roams the streets in his Dodge Durango, blaring Elvis Presley country tunes.
Sometimes he sings along to songs like “For the Good Times,” “Take Care of Her,” “She Wears My Ring” and “Always On My Mind.”
Most of the time he cries.
“I probably spend $20 a day on gas,” he says.
Some of his friends and cousins who’ve lost spouses tell him that it’s OK, that they’ve done the same things.
“They tell me it’s normal,” he says.
Furnish has a picture of Karen hung up in his living room. Every morning he walks out and tells her: “I love you.” He has a small dog, Daisy, who was the “alpha” between her and Ralph and who used to be spry and excited when visitors came to the house.
Now, Daisy is more lethargic. She used to sleep at Karen’s feet in bed; now she sleeps on Karen’s old pillow.
And still, there are the times Furnish still sees Karen.
She’s always there when he takes his bicycle out or goes walking over the paths the two used for exercise. He sees her – and himself – when he passes couples outside enjoying all the things they enjoyed.
Sometimes he sees her on a park bench – a random woman who can’t be her, but looks like her – and for a moment he loses himself to the possibility that everything was a bad dream.
He knows, though, it wasn’t.
Then he sees her at the grocery store. He loved grocery shopping with Karen, and when he watches couples putting their hands on each others’ backs or helping each other put food in their carts, he sees himself and the love of his life.
And it’s these times he wants to go up to those couples and hug them. He wants to tell them to live their lives to the fullest, just as he and Karen did.
“If you can afford it, travel,” he says.
He wants to say to them: “Live your dreams now if you can do it.”
He wants to tell them: “Tell each other how much you love each other.”
He says: “Not only in words, but actions.”
“Don’t just say it,” he says.
Furnish hasn’t done this in real life.
The urge is always there, though. It’s something that comes with being through what he’s been through. It’s something that’s come with him from the abyss.