Mike Henley's family uses one word to describe him: warrior. An unrelenting fighter with a golden smile and a love for his family that knew no bounds even as disease ravaged his young body, Henley was their hero.
"He didn't slay dragons or wear a suit of armor; he fought a different battle," said daughter Courtney, 20. "He fought Alzheimer's, with every ounce of strength he had, for nearly 11 years."
Henley died Tuesday at his Westbury home from complications related to Alzheimer's disease. He was 47.
The Henley family's struggles to take care of him at home were depicted in Newsday's 2009 series "Alzheimer's: The Love and the Heartbreak."
Henley met Karen Endres in the summer of 1985 when both worked at the now-defunct Channel home improvement store in New Hyde Park. Henley was playful but mature for his age, Karen said, with a strong faith in his Roman Catholic religion. He had a great sense of humor, she said, and he was cute. Henley began working as a salesman for Strober Building Supply in Farmingdale, and the couple married in 1988. In 1991 they had daughter Courtney and, in 1993, son Brandon.
The couple lived an idyllic life in Westbury until the late 1990s, when Henley's behavior began to change. He was having severe memory problems and became depressed. In April 2001, Henley was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. He was 36.
Henley was given a life expectancy of five to seven years. His behavior worsened with outbursts and agitation, and his physical health deteriorated. After several years, he became nonverbal and immobile. Over the last 11 years, the family faced physical, emotional and financial struggles but remained resolute in their desire to care for Henley at home.
Henley's children have limited memories of their father when he was well. Brandon, 18, remembers watching Yankee games together and playing in the backyard. He said he hopes people will remember not only his father's fight with the disease but also the positive impact he had on others before he was diagnosed. "People tell me numerous stories of how great of a man my father was and how much of a joy he was to know growing up with as a friend," he said.
Courtney recalled her father teaching her how to shoot pencils out of her belly button, their shared love of Harry Potter and how he helped her learn the Lord's Prayer.
"There were three things that Alzheimer's couldn't take from him: his family, his faith and his smile," she said.
Karen said her husband had "the kindest, most generous heart of anyone I have ever known." Every day, she said, without telling anyone, he would pick up an elderly neighbor's newspaper from the sidewalk and place it by the door.
"I see Mike's kind heart and soul in Courtney and Brandon and cannot be more honored that God gave me the opportunity to care for Mike," she said.
In addition to his wife and children, Henley is survived by a brother, Robert, of Monroe Township, N.J. A wake will be held Friday from 2 to 4:30 p.m. and from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at New Hyde Park Funeral Home. A funeral Mass will take place Saturday at 11:45 a.m. at Saint Brigid Church in Westbury, followed by burial in St. Charles Cemetery in East Farmingdale.