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Kent’s Agenda

Kent and Henry talk it over, May 2014. Photo courtesy of Cathy Haruf.
Kent and Henry talk it over, May 2014. Photo courtesy of Cathy Haruf.

By Jennifer Dempsey

When Kent Haruf married my mother, I don’t think he had plans to attend any more Lamaze classes. He was 52, my mother was 52, and each had already raised children of their own. When they married in 1995, Kent was on his way to becoming a bestselling author, and I’m pretty sure childbirth was not on his agenda.

But 16 years later he made it part of his agenda, because when I found out at age 42 that I was pregnant for the first time, I was more than a little freaked out. And even though Kent had three daughters of his own that he loved dearly, Kent loved me too and wanted to make sure I was okay.

It was September 2010 and I was in the bathroom at Walmart, trying to decipher the Spanish language label on the half-price pregnancy test I’d just bought. I didn’t know what “embarazada” meant, but I knew what the pink lines meant, and they were quickly coming into focus. So I did what I always did when I had a crisis: I headed straight to my mom’s house.

She and Kent were living in Maysville at the time. My sister Amy was visiting from London with her husband Justin and their 3-year-old son Charlie. I walked into the noisy, jolly household where Kent and Justin were cooking dinner and Amy and my mom were playing with Charlie. Over the hubbub, I told Mom and Amy I needed to see them upstairs.

“Are we in trouble?” Amy joked.

“No, I am!” I said, then burst into tears.

Maybe if Amy had lived closer she would have accompanied me to doctor’s appointments and birthing classes, but she didn’t. So Kent and my mom stepped in and for the next 40 weeks were my pregnancy partners.

Each month the three of us filed into Dr. Schaler’s office for my routine checkups. There we listened to the baby’s heartbeat, saw the baby develop at each ultrasound, and found out he was a boy.

Due to my “mature maternal age,” I had to go to Colorado Springs for extra tests to make sure the baby was all right. At the appointment, the nurse rattled off statistics for pregnant women over 40. The information was so awful and frightening to me that I became unglued. That evening, Kent sat with me while I cried about my fears. He had just had heart surgery, couldn’t swallow and was on a feeding tube. He held my hand and didn’t say anything for a while. Then in his quiet, understated way, Kent told me he could envision me walking around town holding the hand of a little boy. His calm presence created so much safety for me that I decided to believe everything was going to be all right with my baby; and perhaps more importantly, that everything would be okay even if it wasn’t.

Each week during my last trimester, Kent, Mom and I would go to the Salida Pregnancy Center, where we’d watch videos of “Laugh and Learn About Childbirth.” We’d sit side-by-side on the small couch in the back room, eating pretzels and laughing at the humorous way the Lamaze instructor discussed the different stages of pregnancy. Sometime during my last month, when I was feeling claustrophobic and exhausted from hoisting around my beach ball-sized belly, we watched the episode that described the six signs of labor. I was highly hormonal, the reality of childbirth was hitting me, and I wasn’t laughing. I waddled over to the TV, turned off the video, then faced my mom and Kent. Pointing to my belly, I demanded they explain to me how something this big was supposed to get through something this big. (I made a little circle with my thumb and first finger.) Mom didn’t say anything and neither did Kent. We were all quiet for a few moments until I finally sat down. Then Kent started giggling, and so did I.


Henry was born April 21, 2011 at Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center with Kent and Mom at my side. For the next six weeks, Henry and I stayed at their house in Maysville, where the two of them looked after us like doting new parents. Each evening like clockwork, I got the baby blues. Mom sat with me as I wept, while Kent took Henry and walked around the family room chanting “It’s all right, it’s okay, it’s all right and it’s okay.”

In the final four years of his life, Kent finished two novels, consulted on two stage productions of his books, and had meetings with film producers about a movie of “Plainsong.” He also had stomach surgery and anemia and was finally put on hospice, diagnosed with untreatable lung disease. During these last years, Kent also came to Henry’s birthday parties, his preschool events and to many circus shows to watch us perform. Kent told me he wanted to see me and Henry every day, if only for a few minutes, and we all did our best to stick to that agenda.

Last week, I found the piece Kent wrote in June 2011 for Henry’s baby welcoming ceremony. In it he says, “This little boy makes a new beginning for us all. It’s one more chance for us to get it right, to find ways to fill up our days and years and lives with hope and cheer and with loving-kindness.”

When Kent died on Nov. 30, 2014, Henry said he was “only a little sad that Poppy went back to the spirit world, because Poppy won’t need his walker anymore.” I feel very sad that Poppy went back to the spirit world, but I am glad he is out of the suffering he endured for so long. But more than anything, I am grateful, and frankly a little stunned, at how fortunate my son and I have been to be part of this extraordinary man’s agenda.


  1. Jane Gilden Jane Gilden January 14, 2015

    Dear Jennifer,
    Your Henry Story is beautiful. I sat right in my kitchen and sobbed. I loved Kent too. What a gift he was and how blessed you were to have him in your lives. Your writing creates beautiful pictures!

  2. Katie Davis Katie Davis January 15, 2015

    Jen: I walked along with you in this story. I could hear, see and feel everything that Kent did. I remember the baby naming ceremony too – his words ringing true in my ear after my own experience. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Kathi Wardlow Kathi Wardlow January 15, 2015

    Oh Jennifer, what a beautiful remembrance! Henry will always have him close to his heart, as will you.
    Blessings to you both,

  4. Debra Juchem Debra Juchem January 20, 2015


    I still remember strolling around the shore of Lake Atitlan in Guatemala…kinda bragging to you that I sorta knew this famous author back in Salida, turns out you did too.

    Seth and I just returned from an amazing week long book retreat with Clay Jenkinson and his circle…first day Clay gave a moving tribute to Kent and his work and how it had impacted him.

    Hugs to you, your Mum and baby Hen.


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