Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Of Rocks and Leaves and Bears

On Thursday, on our way back from a quick four hours spent in Newburyport, we stopped at Chocorua Lake for the signature view up to the mountain of the same name. The water was calm and clear; the skies were blue with powder puff clouds. It was the most pleasant of summer days, the kind you remember from your childhood when being idle was good enough.

Samwise was fascinated with sniffing the woodland path near the water, and the stones placed there for people to sit on. Eventually, he settled next to me and took in the view and the breeze and the scent of summer by the water. Then, in an instant, he cocked his head, his ears rose, and he let out several shrill barks to raise the alarm. I put my arm around him and told him it was okay. I spoke calmly and as I did his ears relaxed and his body was no longer as tense and ready to spring. But he couldn’t take his eyes off what had upset him. It was a large rock, sitting in the lake, with only its top quarter above the water, and it stood only fifteen feet away from shore.

He’s not a constant barker, but if something startles him, or if he doesn’t know what it is and it looks strange to him, he sounds the alarm. He’s done it with leaves blowing in the wind, the Saco River, the cackling crows who loiter in the black ash in our backyard. One morning, we came out the front door, and he let out his shrill bark to let me know there was a deer twenty yards away. Heck, he even barks at people we encounter along the trail when they seem to materialize out of nowhere.

The other day, one good-natured woman petted him and said, “It’s kind of difficult to be afraid of that little bark of yours.”

For Samwise A. Passaconaway, it’s not about aggression, but being surprised. He’s a young fellow learning his way in the world.

This morning, on our woods walk, he met his first bear. He was off leash, as he always is when we are in the woods, and he ran into the underbrush, and his machine gun barking led to some crashing through the trees. Something big was rumbling along, startled by Samwise’s barks.

When I called him, he returned to my side, and I attached the leash to his harness. He continued to be vigilant and continued to erupt with his barking now and then. I sat down next to him, requested that he “please be gentle,” and stroked his wiry fur. He looked at me, then up at the tree where a young bear was trying to hide, and he growled.

Down into the gully we went, but instead of having him walk, I carried Samwise in my arms and whispered to him the entire time. Eventually we stood right below the bear. I explained to my little friend that brother bear is not to be quarreled with. Even further explained that Samwise A. Passaconaway’s last name translates to “son of the bear.”

At first the bear gnashed his teeth. He snapped his jaws a few times. And when he did this, Samwise growled.

I continued to whisper to him and then they both quieted down. Samwise was no longer tense in my arms. He relaxed and looked skyward to the young bear in the trees with curiosity. For his part, the black bear looked down on us, I think, perhaps trying to figure out what we would do next. But as I backed away and apologized to the bear for the early morning ruckus, he too seemed to be at ease.

Eventually, we walked several feet away and I put Samwise down and sat with him. The three of us watched each other, until we left the bear to do whatever a bear does on an early Saturday morning.

I remember, years ago, when we first started hiking, that I was fearful of running into a moose and having Atticus bark at it. For moose have been known to stomp on and kill little barking dogs who get on their nerves. So after our hikes, we drove to the more popular moose hangouts at dusk and whenever we saw one, I’d whisper to Atticus, “Pssst, moose. Please be gentle.”

We practiced that a lot. Whenever we were in the woods, no matter what the stimulation was, I could softly say, “Pssst, moose,” and Atticus would calmly sit down and look around for a moose. We did this especially in trails where moose were known to hang out. I wanted Atticus to be aware, and to be ready to be calm whenever he saw one.

Through the years, it worked. I even have photos of Atticus sitting twenty yards from a moose who is wading in a local pond and looking back at Atti.

I’m not sure how much of this Samwise will pick up. He’s still an excitable puppy of only seven months or so. Time will tell. But starting him on the path of being gentle cannot hurt.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Coming Soon to the White Mountains: Samwise A. Passaconaway

I don't know much about him, other than he's sweet
and less than a year old.

I wrote this to a friend yesterday from my cardiologist's office in Maine.

It is May 26, 2016.

Atti and I were supposed to be in Montana right now. But one of us is dead, and the other is sitting in a cardiologist's office.

WTF happened?

(As I just wrote that one of us is dead, the tears snuck up on me. I don't cry that much any more but it seems when I acknowledge he's gone, I do.)

What happened? Life happened. As it always does. 

When I told another friend that I was considering taking this death row dog in, he wanted to know why I would do that so soon after Atticus.

"Well, he needs a home, and my heart was meant to love. Plus, in case you forgot, I nearly died last month. Life is too short not to do what your heart tells you. And there's something about this fellow that calls out to me."

No, Samwise won't replace Atticus. No one could do that. But in giving him a life, through the help of the Conway Area Humane Society, who is flying him up here after plucking him from the kill shelter he was in at the last moment, I'm also adding to mine, and continuing the legacy of all that I've learned with Max, Atticus, and Will. 

Life is meant to be lived. I'm not a fan of feeling sorry for myself. I'd rather pick myself up where I fell, and move forward. There's a meaning in "Onward, by all means," and that's it.

How will things turn out with Samwise? 

I've no clue. That's part of the mystery of life.

Life happens, and so, gosh darn it, does love. My love for Atticus will be found in the nurturing of this young soul. 

Saving lives, creating friendships, transforming people and it any wonder why we support our local shelter and set up a memorial fund for Atticus there? Ironically, by supporting them, they now have added to my life.

Onward, by all means, everyone.

 If you would like to help us support the Conway Area Humane Society in Atticus's name, please click here. Who knows, the next life they save may add to yours. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Jung Believed Death Brings Us Closer to Life

Atticus M. Finch with a local moose.
Jung believed that death brings us closer to life, and there are few times we are more alive than when dealing with death.

That’s where I am these days.

Many are surprised that I smile as much as I do when talking about Atticus. But hell, I had it darn good for fourteen years. We were like an old couple who knew everything about each other, dancing to music in perfect harmony, never missing a step. There was little need for words, for we had melded together first in our initial bonding, then on the way to standing on two thousand mountaintops. Never underestimate the intimacy of hiking partners.

Yes, mourning is taking place and tears fall, but overriding all of that is a warmth that emanates from within that shouts, “You two got it right!”

Our non-human animal friends don’t have our same lifespan. We can see this as cruel, or we can take it at face value and appreciate what we do (or in our case, did) have.

Someone asked me about my outlook the other day, about going through what I went through in the hospital and saying goodbye to Atticus.

“I figure we have two choices,” I told him. “We can be broken and just lay down and quit, living in the past and loss, or we can figure that whatever powers that be have dealt us a hand and it’s up to us to play it. I may not always have a choice in picking my experiences, but I have the freedom to choose my attitude.”

In saying goodbye to Atticus, I sometimes find it hard to believe he’s gone, but more than that I smile at the joy of a life shared together that marched to its own drummer. We found a place where species didn’t matter, layered in love and dignity. From the beginning, I told him I’d treat him like an equal. He would never be infantilized by me or anyone else. When people referred to him as a baby, I reminded them that he was an adult, or even elderly (at the very end). I let him know he’d always have a say in what we did and where we went and how we did things.

From the very beginning, he hated wearing a leash, so we set out together to live a leashless life. That’s one of the reasons we moved to this small town because it was acceptable for him to walk freely. If it were an issue here, we would have chosen  another community instead.

And when Atticus decided he didn’t want to hike on certain days, we always turned back, or in one case, never got out of the car. Because of this, I didn’t have to worry about him endangering himself just to please me.

The only rules enforced in the beginning was that he treated everyone respectfully, and behaved responsibly. He was never a nuisance and was always polite and for that reason, he was invited into many businesses that may not always allow dogs.

He earned freedom and trust. People often commented about how he’d walk along Route 16 ten to twenty feet ahead of me, right on the very narrow shoulder of the road facing traffic.

A woman asked, “Aren’t you afraid he’s going to run into the street and get hit by a car?”

“No. Why, is that something you’d do?”

Not all souls are alike, but it’s our job to read those from other species and see their needs and abilities. Where Atticus thrived, others might not, whether it’s along a busy road or a mountaintop in winter, or sitting within twenty feet of the bears in our backyard.

Once, when people were pulled over on the side of the road and standing outside of their cars to watch a moose, Atticus and I pulled over and also got out. We took a seat on a small hillock close to the moose. He looked in our direction.  A man on the other side of the small marsh started yelling at me to get Atticus out of there for the moose would charge him. I mostly ignored the fellow, other than perhaps a small hand gesture suggesting he mind his own business. But the man didn’t and he continued to create a ruckus. Eventually, the moose did charge, not at us, but at the loud fellow.

I don’t know why animals felt calm around Atticus; I just know they did, and I trusted him to know what he felt comfortable with. Now and then, however, I’d remind him to be cautious. One night, on a hike along the Doubleheads, we encountered a porcupine. She immediately put her quills up and turned them in our direction.

“She’s nervous, Atti. How about if we just have a seat and let her know we mean no harm?” 

We sat and watched her and eventually she turned back around and sat and watched us. It was twenty minutes of bliss under the moonlight in the col between two peaks.

When I did speak to Atticus, it was as an equal. Words like “please” and “thank you” were commonly used. And when a woman I was dating took a video of a “chat” between Atticus and me on top of a mountain without me knowing, I delighted in watching it later. For I spoke with words delivered to a friend, and for his part, Atticus responded with his ears and eyebrows and eyes. That was his way of communicating.

People may be surprised to realize I’m not pining away, choked by sadness. It is because I have much to be grateful for, much to smile about, and I’d rather leave all that sadness behind. It has been my experience that many people like to dwell in sadness, and while that’s fine for them, it’s not a place I find very useful.

My friend lives within me, and I’m sure when the next book tour begins, it will be a challenge talking about Atticus and Will without breaking down on stage. The tears will flow, and I’ll need a box of Kleenex on hand. But here’s the thing about those tears, they will be caused more out of being part of something so powerful and good than they will be out of sadness.

For here’s the way I look at it, just what do I have to be sad about? I have been given the gift of life, of feeling and loving and being one of Creation's lively souls. The dance continues, no matter the tempo, and I persevere not only to just get by but to thrive.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Walking with Atticus at Thorne Pond

For all the certainty we chase after, what we mostly have in the great unknown.

When I am alone, I sometimes ponder my sickness. Not out of pity, but circumstances.  I contemplate how Atticus and I were both sick at the same time, and both of us could have died, but I’m the one who lived, even though it didn’t seem like I would some days.

I deal with my grief on my own. There is a public me who is mostly okay, and occasionally a flash flood of tears will let loose, but it happens more when I’m alone. I appreciate my friends and all the loving sentiments sent this way from people who know me from our book or from social media, but what I’m doing now is an inside job. It’s up to me to work through it and come out the other side. No one can help with that.

I usually post something on our Facebook page and then retreat, letting my moderators deal with the comments. Occasionally they’ll point out a few to me, and I’ll respond. But for now soul work is all important and what I need and want. Meanwhile, people tell me I should be broken, I should be incomplete, I will never heal. They tell me I should be smiling; I should be happy because of all we shared or thrilled by the public sentiment toward Atticus.

But what I want is for no one to tell me what I should be doing or feeling. I just want to be. This is the cost of social media, I suppose. It helps to step away.

Lately, I’ve been walking at Thorne Pond on my own. This was a favorite place of Atticus once he couldn’t hike anymore. We’d get lost in the woods, and by the river, with one of the only lowland views of the iconic Mount Carrigain. (It's ironic that you can see it from nearly every four thousand footer, but not from most anywhere else down below.)

Whenever I walk by the pond, by the ducks and the birds coming and going, across the stubbled field, and enter in the mint green woods, I feel release. My shoulders are suddenly unbound and unburdened. I feel myself looking around through the sun-dappled woods, and half expect to see him there. At times, I feel like we are walking together, not like we were in the last couple of weeks or even the last year, but before that when his legs had springs in them, and his ears flopped in happiness as he trotted along.

The other day I stopped where he used to get his drink of water. The day before that, when I was tired, I rested and leaned on my trekking poles. When it was time to go, I looked down to where he’d be sitting in the past, right beside me, and I asked, “Do you want to go first?”

Into the afternoon light, we walked as it splashed through the leaves and gave them tips of gold. Along the water, we moved as wind whipped up little waves and diamonds rushed downstream while reflecting the sun. We – my memory and me.

People are always telling me where Atticus is, what he’s doing, or what he’s thinking. They are well-intentioned, but the truth is, no one knows anything. We talk about what we wish was true, or what we want to believe, but in the end, I leave it all in mystery. That to me is gift enough for I believe in the grand unknown.

I have no clue if Atticus’s spirit is waiting for me somewhere. I hope it isn’t. I mean, I hope he’s off on his next adventure, because I may be a while, and I would be selfish to expect him to wait for me. What I feel as company is his inspiration and the love we kindled together into a flame. I will always have that, the beauty of how we touched each other through a fourteen-year-long dance of swinging and swaying, of embraces, and dips and lifts.

As I sat on a fallen birch tree, again to catch my breath, leaning forward on my poles, I found myself smiling. For the powers that be have delivered me through hell, and I’m optimistic enough to think, “What’s next?” in the most positive way. For I had something so special, so special that Atticus waited for me until I got out of the hospital to say goodbye. It was the exclamation point at the end of a love story that will never grow old for me.

During the final stretch of the woods, the sun had dropped from the sky and shadows spread their wings everywhere. But still I smiled, picturing him bounding ahead of me as I hurried along as best I could, my right legs limping out of weakness. And when I took the last turn and climbed a short rise, I grunted because my legs are still so weak, but when I stepped out into the remaining glow of the day, there was the pond and the mountains and green trees, and the only thing I could think to say was, “Thank you.”

“Thank you.”

“Thank you.”

A week from this Sunday, I’ll take this still withered body and my trekking poles, which I need for balance and to propel myself uphill, and I’ll climb my first mountain without Atticus leading the way. I’ll do it for him, and I’ll do it for me, one month after getting out of the hospital. It’s been a tradition for us. A month after my gallbladder surgery, he led me, my drainage tubes, large scars, and bag up a mountain. Then, just under a month of having his toe amputated due to cancer, we climbed the same mountain again. So it’s only right I push forward this third time...for him, for me, and for us.

While he won’t be leading me, he’ll be with me nevertheless, inside my heart, just as he’s always been.

One of my main beliefs is that nothing is truly ever taken from us. Things change forms and loss becomes gain. I will forever move forward from the difficult experiences of the past two months knowing I’m alive, and I have been given the gift of arduous experiences knowing they’ve made me stronger, wiser, and more complete. I'm not sure why things happened as they did, or why I'm alive while Atticus isn't. I leave all that up to the mystery of things. Through tears and smiles I move on, through difficulty and joy it's onward, by all means.

It’s like Joseph Campbell said when Bill Moyers asked him the meaning of life.

“I don’t think people are looking for the meaning of life; they’re looking for the experience of being alive.”

(I've created a memorial fund in Atticus's name at the Conway Area Humane Society. To donate to help animals in need, simply click on this link. Thank you.)

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Amputee

Today, the sky is draped in mourning as clouds cover the valley and snow returns to the higher summits. Today, I listened to our friend Roy Prescott of WMWV radio break down in tears while offering a tribute to Atticus. Today, when I woke up, I moved slowly in bed so as not to disturb Atticus, just as I got up to let him out last night.

I’m now like one of those amputees you read about who still feels his missing leg.  It’s fitting because I too feel as if something has been amputated.

When Dr. De came up to me in the parking lot a half an hour after I held Atticus in my arms for the last time, she was concerned for me.

“I’m about to do something I haven’t done in fourteen years. I’m going home without Atticus. I’m afraid.”

We were inseparable, especially since moving north to New Hampshire. Every decision was based on his and our well-being. Whether it was about when to go to the store, dating, or even book tours. From the day we first met when he was only eight weeks old, Atticus and I became “we.” Heck, even two months ago when a beautiful woman invited me to an Avett Brothers concert with her, I told her I couldn’t go because I didn’t want to leave Atticus alone.

When a well-intentioned person suggested her relationship with her dog was just like ours, it was the fiftieth time I heard it this weekend. Finally, I had to point out, “No, it wasn’t. What we had was unique to us, just as yours was unique to you. Not better, just unique.”

Our course was different from the moment I followed Paige Foster’s advice to “Carry him everywhere you go for the first two months and don’t let anyone else hold him.” Add to that the many sacrifices so we could always be together. And finally, ask any hiking partners about intimacy. It’s a rare thing to share several mountains with a good friend. You end up sharing things others can never imagine, especially if hundreds of those mountains were climbed in winter.

I don’t know how many mountains we climbed. I guesstimate we stood on more than two thousand summits. That’s a lot of work, a ton of trust, emotion, and effort.

Through the years we dealt with Atticus’s blindness, his first cancer scare, his eventual cancer and chemotherapy, my septic shock six years ago, Will’s needs, a tumultuous relationship with a woman who we discovered had histrionic personality disorder (a form of narcissism), and as of late my near death experiences, and what turned out to be Atticus’s brain tumor.

Most importantly, the differing factor right from the beginning is that Atticus was never treated like a dog. Hell, he was never referred to as one, just as I ignored whenever anyone referred to him by his breed. For what I wanted for him from the very beginning was to be himself and not someone else’s idea of what he was or should be.  The terms master and owner were never used. Neither was pet. And as much as some people like to refer to him as a baby, I’d point out he was an adult. When they referred to him as my son or me as his dad, I corrected them, “He’s my friend.”

When a New Haven, Connecticut police officer wanted to give me a ticket for Atticus being off leash and sitting calmly outside a downtown Subway restaurant as I ordered breakfast sandwiches for the homeless in a nearby park, I went outside to see what the problem was.

“Is this your dog?”

“Mmmm, I wouldn’t say it that way.”

“What do you mean? Is this YOUR dog?”

“I wouldn’t say he’s mine. He’s his own dog. But we do hang out together.”

He looked at me like I was crazy.

“Listen, I don’t like the ownership thing.”

“Listen, I’m going to have to give you a ticket because he’s off leash.”

“Give him the ticket; he’s the one who is off leash.”

Eventually, the officer said, “Wait a minute, is this Atticus?”  And then he proceeded to help us distribute breakfast sandwiches to the homeless sprinkled on the park benches.

Atticus was many things through the years. He was his own dog. He was my hiking partner. He was a pacifist. He was a great athlete. He was a record setter. But most importantly, he was my friend, and as much as an equal as a non-human animal can be with a human in a society controlled by humankind.

There is much more to be written about Atticus. You’ll read about him a great deal in “Will’s Red Coat” when it comes out in March. And there are other stories to be shared. In the future, when another dog lives with me, his or her path will have been smoothed by the lessons Atticus and I learned together. You’ll hear about that.

For now, I’m going to end with three out of the thousands of various forms of communication that came to me this weekend.  You see, I’m okay with death. I mourn my loss and I’m fighting to keep my heart together, but I do recognize death as the final miracle of life. And just as I never wanted Atticus to be referred to as a cliché in life, I abhor clichés about death. My moderators do their best to wipe out all such clichés: “The rainbow bridge;” “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,” etc…)

Most good friends have it right when they know if they don’t have the right words, it’s best just to say, “I have no words…”

But when the right words appear, they are golden medicine for a seared soul who is missing his other half. This weekend I read through so thousands of comments and emails, and I was moved by the genuine nature of most of them. Astounded really. Atticus would have been thrilled if he cared about such things. But since I do, I was thrilled for him and me.

 It was our vet and friend Rachael Kleidon who pointed out that she believed Atticus waited for me to get home from the hospital so he could die in my arms. I honestly believe this for this is the kind of relationship we had.

‪@TomandAtticus‪ He waited. What a gift he gave you.  You came home.  What a gift you gave him.  #onwardbyallmeans

Correspondence from Wendy Anthony, a librarian at Skidmore College who came to see us at a book event:
"When I saw you guys at the Rocks (Estate), I had never seen a dog as happy as Atticus in my whole long life of being fascinated by dogs. The way he looked at you explained it all: You gave him everything. You were the deepest and best of friends, and you fulfilled every promise. His eyes were universes speaking this. I have never known such a lucky person in my life as Atticus because of that.

"Yours was the greatest love story I have ever known. And oh, the cost is dear. Oh, Tom. That is so weird that he left fourteen years to the weekend. Your connection was made of other stuff."

From book blogger, Ashley Williams at @mybookfetish:
There's a scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where Dobby the House-Elf is fatally injured rescuing and protecting Harry and his friends from certain death. As Dobby passes, on a beach they've escaped to, he says, “What a beautiful place to be with friends. Dobby is happy to be with his friend.”  Ever since I read the post on Friday, this is the scene that's been going through my head. That as painful as this is, Atticus was with his friend. I don't know if that's any comfort or not. But I am thinking about you. And hugging my own little cats a bit more.

Now, as I step away from the computer for a bit, I’m reminded that life goes on. I have work to do. My rehab calls to me. It will be harder without Atticus by my side. (The other day I took my first walk without him in fourteen years.) The dishes have piled up in the sink. There are bills to pay. I have to drive to North Country Animal Hospital to pay our final bill from the other night. There’s that needed appointment to fix the car. Beans and rice and onions are on my grocery list. Laundry needs to be done. I have to prepare for tomorrow’s appointment with my kidney doctor to see how I’m doing.

Among these mundane things that make up the duties of a life, my heart will continue to ache. As I wrote the other night, there are times I’m so bereft I feel like the moon if the sun were ever to disappear. I feel hollow and have to remind myself to take one more step, to take another breath. Then I remember the magic, and I feel gratitude for a unique friendship and fourteen years where I was never bored. These are the things I reminded the crows of in our backyard this morning as I fed them some of Atti’s food. They ate and listened and cocked their heads in my direction. Sometimes, that’s all a man needs when it seems so much has been taken from him.

Onward, by all means, everyone.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

An Atticus Update

The signs are showing up more often.

Old age has delivered weaker hips and a weaker bladder. 

This morning, I heard that old familiar sound Will used to make when he urinated on the wood floors and then fell in it when his hips gave out. And then lay stuck in it. It was a heartbreaking wail.

Worse, today it was Atticus's cry.

I am not used to seeing him this way.

Already, I had placed yoga mats around our apartment, but he's found a few places between them where he gets stuck when his hips give way. And now the outside stairs are adding to the problem as well. He doesn't trust what he sees and has to walk side by side with me, watching my every step as we descend. But the further we go, the more his hips "frog leg" out.

Today, I realized, he now has to be carried down most steps.

This morning's pee in our apartment was a first for him; last week he urinated in a local store, which was also a first for him.

From the moment I met him, I realized Will needed help, so when he faltered, I was okay with it; I was right there for him.  With Atticus, as he turns fourteen within the month, I've noted all that's happening, but I've been taken by surprise nonetheless.  There's a new reality facing us, and the self-assured "Little Giant" who was always so at ease on these mountains that surround this region is no longer that way. Still, what a strong memory that is of him. 

One of the reasons I'm taken by surprise, by the way, he's diminished in ability and control is that to look at him; he is strong and hearty. He's solid. There was none of the attending frailty Will carried.

I write none of this looking for sympathy, or to whine about his condition, or to embrace sadness and what the signs point towards down the road. I write just to make note that the changes that are coming, and we must adapt to how we live.

Sometimes as we age, parts of us don't work as well. Some are better at accepting the necessary help, while others...well, with others, it can catch them by surprise just as it does us who are there to help them. After the first few weeks, Will was very good at accepting help and realizing he needed it. Atticus isn't at that point, and may or may not get to that point. After all, they are as different as you and me are.

His new "needs" are part of my friend's education. To a lesser extent, they are also part of mine.

As we have experienced the waning of what he once was, the most common phrase I hear from others, especially those who have lost a beloved four-legged friend recently is "Cherish every moment."

I know there is kindness in the offering of the words, but part of me struggles to shut my mouth when what I want to say is, "And makes you think there was there was ever a day that wasn't cherished?"

If you were out here during the two and a half years Will was, you'll realize that I don't fear death. Instead, I treat her as an old friend. Still, that doesn't mean there won't be sadness and tears and lots of prayers of gratitude. But more importantly to me, is to see that my friend lives as fully as possible until the day comes when it's time to say goodbye.

Still, all the bravery in the world doesn't make one's heart invincible to the way each reminder that time is passing tugs and tears at us and teaches us anew to be strong and to have faith.