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Archie Ingersoll, Published December 28 2013

‘Another chapter’: After losing wife and dog, Moorhead man rebuilds

Year of Firsts

Our lives are filled with firsts: some blissful, some tragic, some miraculous. The Forum recently put out a call to readers to share their firsts. Today and in the coming days, we’ll be telling a handful of these stories. If you have a noteworthy first – your first love, first North Dakota winter, first hole-in-one – there’s still time to send it to news@forumcomm.com.

MOORHEAD - Parker the miniature pinscher moved in with Clifford and Roxanne Tengesdal when he was a year old.

His stay was only supposed to last a week or two while a local rescue organization found a permanent home for him. But Roxanne and this foster dog quickly became inseparable.

“He would sit in Rox’s lap and cuddle up with her,” Clifford said. “We had another dog and a cat, and they wouldn’t even come close to her.”

Bouncy and happy, Parker earned his name after being told for the hundredth time to “park it.” The pup, mistreated by his previous owner, found joy living with the Tengesdals.

The couple, originally from Bottineau County, adopted Parker in 1998, a few years after marrying and coming to Moorhead. The financial uncertainty of farming had brought them to the city.

“We gotta do something else,” Roxanne had told Clifford. “I can’t live in the red all the time.”

They found work here, and as their lives rolled through the years, Parker stayed closed with Roxanne. But as expected, he aged at the speed of dog years. He developed a bad hip and was diagnosed with a liver problem. His eyesight and hearing deteriorated, too.

In February 2012, Roxanne, a lifelong smoker, received a diagnosis of her own. Doctors told her she had an aggressive form of lung cancer that gave her, at most, two years to live. Clifford filled the role of caregiver, taking her to appointments and making sure she received her medication.

Roxanne tried to extend her time with chemotherapy, but on Oct. 25, 2012, she died during a visit to her daughter’s home near Fort Drum, N.Y. She was 57.

“She wanted to do a lot more things, but it didn’t work out that way,” said Clifford, 62.

The blur

The weeks and months after Roxanne’s death were a landslide of first-time experiences for Clifford: Waking up and realizing she was gone. Celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas without her. Not having her at family reunions.

Those days are a blur of grief that he hardly remembers. To remind himself where he was and who was with him, he refers to a photo album. The shots show relatives in a country cemetery with lush grass, and there’s Clifford, his arm around a carved stone marking Roxanne’s grave.

One memory that does stick with him is of a moment during a family visit when his young niece asked if he missed “Auntie Rox,” a question that nearly brought him to his knees.

“I’m mainly the one that everybody comes to when there’s tragedies because I can just take over and get ’er done and still move on with life. But this one, no – can’t find those bootstraps no more,” he said.

Without his wife of almost 18 years, Clifford sunk into a depression so deep that he sought the help of a psychiatrist.

“I was pretty much just sitting in this recliner chair,” he said. “I didn’t want to move or do anything.”

Clifford kept working, maintaining buildings for a hotel chain. He kept caring for Parker, whose sight and hearing continued to fade. And he kept feeding himself.

He gained about 15 pounds after his wife died. When his clothes began getting tight, he found the resolve to join a weight-loss program.

Starting in September, he changed his diet and began exercising with the help of a trainer. Determined to slim down, he lost more than 40 pounds, dipping to 183 pounds, 13 shy of his goal.

Letting go

Shedding weight boosted Clifford’s self-esteem and gave him more energy. At the same time, however, Parker’s health was headed sharply downhill.

Since Roxanne’s death, the slender, brown dog had become completely deaf and blind. He would feel his way around the house, bumping and sometimes banging his head into walls and furniture. Because he couldn’t find his way, Parker started going to the bathroom wherever he wanted.

Clifford ultimately decided it was time to put down the 16-year-old dog, one of his few remaining day-to-day connections to Roxanne. He made an appointment at the West Fargo Animal Hospital for 5:15 p.m. Dec. 19.

“It’s another part of the wife’s life,” he said. “It’s gonna be another hard thing to let him go.”

When the day arrived, he gave Parker extra food at lunch, but otherwise his final hours passed without fanfare. The little dog spent the afternoon resting under the TV as “Family Feud” and “The People’s Court” flashed on the screen.

Clifford’s friend from church came to drive them to the hospital, and Parker’s stubby tail started wagging when he learned he was leaving the house. With sure hands, Clifford slipped Parker into his harness, clipped on his leash and carried him outside to a waiting SUV.

In the hospital’s parking lot, Clifford gave Parker a chance to sniff and scratch the snow. For the last time, the dog relieved himself on the pavement.

In the lobby, Tengesdal and his stepson took turns gently holding Parker, and eventually they were called into a room. After several long minutes, Tengesdal walked out crying, his face pained.

“Another chapter,” he said softly before wiping his eyes and nose with a handkerchief.

He fastened his coat and battened himself against the cold. Outside, the gray sky was glowing as a light snow fell.

It would be the first night since Clifford’s wife died that Parker wouldn’t be sleeping soundly in his bedroom.

The cusp

A stoic Norwegian, Clifford is slowly learning to express his feelings as a widower. One thing that helps him is attending monthly meetings of a grief-support group where he’s now able to talk about losing Roxanne.

“Before I could hardly speak, you know, without tears flying,” he said.

Clifford is socializing more, regularly visiting with friends at rock and country music shows. He’s even signed up for Christian Mingle, an online dating service, but so far he hasn’t clicked with anyone.

Lately, he’s been looking for a new place to live, possibly an apartment complex for seniors. And with no children of his own, he’s become a surrogate grandpa who regularly baby-sits Ashton, the 5-week-old son of his stepson’s girlfriend.

“I’ve always loved kids,” he said one afternoon as he rocked the baby in a recliner. “Everybody says I should have been a mother.”

Clifford is on the cusp of a new life, and more firsts await him in the coming year. Still, he can’t avoid the notion that he’s leaving Roxanne behind.

Putting down Parker, his wife’s sidekick, left him feeling that way. But in the end, it was the most humane course for the dog, and for him.

As he said, “It’s time to take care of myself more now.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Archie Ingersoll at (701) 451-5734