The course of my life was determined by a cigarette. Forty years ago tomorrow, my family fell into a spiral it never recovered from when my mother, long-suffering from MS, died in a hospital bed after dropping a lit cigarette. I was eight years old, the youngest of nine children. The hub of our universe was gone and all the spokes splintered and went their own ways like survivors of a ship wreck – man and children doing their best to somehow survive each on their own.
My father never recovered from this loss and when he died this year it was a relief to him to finally go and join the woman he loved. Some my siblings never recovered either. God bless them, I still root for them. But being the youngest and with a grand view of all of them, I wanted something more. I loved them but didn't want to be anything like them. And so the past four decades became a quest to seek a path where there was none to follow. Sometimes awkwardly, often blind, I wandered and tried to find my way to the top of a mountain I had dreamed of. Step by step, piece by piece, I put together the life I had dreamed of through the best and the worst of times.
Because of what you all do for a living (and obviously for love) you will appreciate that the last steps could only be taken after being touched by two wonderful dogs, my dear Max, whose ashes now grace the top of each of the 48 4,000-footers and, of course, dearest Atticus, who helped me spread those ashes. I did all I could do to reach the mountaintop I had dreamed of in the darkest hours of loneliness but there are some things a man needs help with, some things he cannot do on his own. I learned what I could on my own, but I needed these two souls to teach me what I could not learn on my own - love.
This journey to the mountaintop is a walk from a parking lot (society); into the woods with faith there is something more even though you cannot see it; blood, sweat and tears in climbing over rock, root and other obstructions; challenges of cliffs, ice, snow, high rivers, wild winds; and then when things seem bleakest, when there seems to be no end to the fight for survival, the never-ending journey does end with a brilliant view from a mountain peak.
Atticus brought me to that mountaintop, then when he was sick last year I feared I would lose it all.
That's where you came in. What hit me most about Angell was not that I thought you all could solve anything, but that you brought us hope and hope is a very bright star on the darkest of journeys. It is what is needed most, especially when it seems so far away. There are thousands who have received much more from Angell than Atticus and I have, but I wanted you all to know if you touched us as deeply as you did then, and in knowing that you will always be there for us, there are so many others out there who feel just as deeply and appreciative for what you do as we do.
Richard Bach, in his wonderful little book "Illusions", wrote: "The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other's life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof." First Max, and then Atticus, proved this to me. And you, our Angell Family, have proven it more than you will ever know.
We both thank you for being perfect at what you do. If I could afford it I'd buy each of you anything you would have this Christmas, but since that is not possible, I offer you the only thing I can afford to give – our love and thanks for all you do. I'm sure you hear such things quite often but as far as I am concerned, you all can never hear it enough.
This Christmas Eve, when Atticus and I climb a mountain for our now annual dinner (complete with Christmas lights), we'll give thanks for the gifts you have given us and thank you for touching our lives again and again.
Onward, by all means,
Tom Ryan & Atticus M. Finch
PS: For our other readers, as you know, Atticus and I are not going to be fundraising for Angell this winter while I work on our book, however, giving to Angell and the great work they do is always worthwhile. When our book is published, we’ll be offering a portion of each book sale to the Angell Animal Medical Center. If you are looking for the right gift to give to the animal lover in your life you can always make a donation in their name to Angell. Our contact, and oh, what a contact she is, is Kathleen Santry. If you would like to make a donation so that other animals can have the same care Atticus received, you can email Kathleen for information on how to give at email@example.com.