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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Song of Renewal

When I let friends know we were adopting Will, a fifteen year-old with special needs, I heard a lot about the heartache that was sure to follow.  I heard about the vet bills and the way we’d never have the benefit of truly knowing him and we’d only witness his demise without any of the joy that comes from living with an animal.  I heard of the way his last weeks or months (if he lived that long) would be utterly depressing and would drain our home of happiness. 

When Will first arrived I was indeed heartbroken.  For before me stood (barely with shaking legs) an angry, betrayed, neglected, and perhaps even abused dog.  There were many temper tantrums.  There were flashing teeth and threatening growls.  There were the challenges of getting him up and down the stairs without an all-out war breaking out between us because he didn’t always want to be touched and hated being picked up.  And yes, the vet bills came fast and furious right from the beginning, especially when we decided to do something about his rotten teeth.

He was in such a miserable state back in May I wondered why anyone had bothered to keep the poor wretch alive.  I even talked with our vet about how long I should give him and I cursed myself for taking in a dog only to have to put him to sleep. 

I told myself we were simply giving him a place to die in dignity and on his terms.  But it’s now February and March is coming and soon after spring will be here and looking at Will…well, he doesn’t look like he has plans to be going anywhere sometime soon.  He likes his new life, enjoys the luxury of many beds to choose from, and his contented snores fill our little home as happily as healthy food fills his once tiny belly and pumpkin stains his whiskers.  This in itself would be enough to make me happy about the journey we’ve taken with Will.
But there’s more.

What thrills me is that he’s not waning, as I would expect of a sixteen year old who came with rotten teeth, had been crated far too long to be humane, and was clearly neglected through the years.  It’s just the opposite.  He’s entered into a second puppyhood.  He’s become a geriatric puppy where wonders abound on a daily basis for him.

Sure he cannot always see them and he never hears them but he certainly is aware of them, even if at times he slips and falls on his way to getting to them . . . or us. 

And to be honest, that’s the part the delights me most of all – the “or us” part. 

Numerous treats and several beds to choose from in a warm home where he’s free to walk around is one thing, but what makes Will live is what makes us all live.  It’s his heart.  It’s love. 

He’s not just surviving, he’s thriving.  And it’s because of love. Our love for him, his ability to accept it, and now his ability to return it to us. 

In Will’s case the Beatles were right, “All you need is love.” 

After we returned from our hike on Saturday we walked in and there was Will stretched out on his bed.  In the first couple of months we’d return to find him that way and he wouldn’t even know we were back. He’d sleep for another hour or two.  On Saturday though, he lifted his head up immediately, ignored the age in his old bones and the creaky joints, and did his best to run to us and chase after us.  It was a beautiful scene – little happy and excited grunts rising from somewhere in his throat, his front legs kicking up like a horse bucking, his back hips not able to keep up so his leaps turned into half leaps, but with an abandon to them that was nothing less than joyous. 

Remember when you were a kid and you had that nightmare where a monster was chasing after you and no matter how hard you tried or fast you ran they were always right behind you?  You slipped, tripped, and stumbled and all the time they got closer and closer and the anxiety and panic rose in your dream.  With Will, it’s the same thing, only reversed.  All of it.  He’s doing the chasing but there’s no way he can keep up.  He stumbles, he slips, and his back hips just can’t propel him when he chases us.  And best yet, there is no anxiety or panic.  It’s a jubilant dance.

He rumbles after us, his back arching through the slow-motion gallop like an old Slinky and the determination on his face is priceless and through it all he cannot catch us. . . . until we let him and then the old dog who used to growl and show his teeth and nip and bite no longer does any of that.  Instead he pushes his head into us and wants to be pet, wrestled with, hugged, picked up, and carried around.

This has been the greatest gift of all.  For both Will and me.  I’ve not witnessed his demise.  I’ve witnessed his resurrection.  He has risen to new heights with his limited body and limitless capacity for love and renewal.

When I contemplate Will’s last chapter, which he continues to write, I often think of Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” that ends like this….

“Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

That last line has always been a favorite of mine.  But it’s those last three words in the next to the last line which gives you a clue to why we no longer call him “William”. . . “strong in will. . . “


cindidejnozka said...

I have a picture of Will on my desk right next to my computer. It was one you had taken of him in the Cape, Tom. It inspires me everyday and reminds me of how life can change in a day, a moment. I'm also saving this blog because we have an old gal who does a very similar dance. She is 16, we believe. Her determination, like Will's, is endless. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.

Janice Hummel said...

Each time I read your words about Will, my heart fills with the joy of knowing that this once broken little boy now knows, without a doubt, what tender touches and the vibrations of music mean. They mean safety. They mean comfort. But mostly they mean love. Sharing this journey through your words is such a gift. Thank you for sharing the miracle of Will with all of us. said...

I am so grateful for the Internets and this world we live in as it has enabled me to First) discover and read your book. and Second) to keep up with this incredible story of love. You have blessed my life. Thank You.

Jan Keefe said...

What a wonderful, wonderful thing you have done for Will, by giving him a home and teaching him to love. Every time I read something about him, it just warms my heart to no end. Thank you for sharing with us!

Cathleen McDevitt said...

That was lovely. God bless you Will. Such a lucky dog.

pam and the ojai pack said...

Where there is a Will, there is a way to see the Transformation that unconditional Love can bring about....Bravo Ryan Pack for your patience and's so inspiring to those of us who do adopt Seniors....

Anonymous said...

In some sense your stories of Will have allowed him to tame us, and it matters much that Will is happy although we have and will likely never meet him. He is a powerful pup after all.


Carter W Rae said...

Tom A beautiful post.... Will's journey is not only highly viewed but that these thoughts are universal. You are a remarkable man Tom you see the value in the plain, true and simple. These thoughts are also shown in your story... You have a real gift for sharing and we are the benefactors Thank you ... A very emotional post also ... We all get so attached to these little, special spirits

Anonymous said...

I love this little friend of yours so much, from so far away.

Thanks as always for sharing your lives with all of us. I am so happy for Will and for all of you.

Oh! the power of redemption, the power of love. This is why we rescue. It's simply amazing.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful sentiment. Will teaches an invaluable truth.

Cyndy Kirk said...

Thank you for this moving post Tom.
Will has indeed been reborn since coming to live with your very special family. It is so heartwarming to see how he has changed during this past "almost" year that we have all known him. It always brightens my day to read your posts and see the pictures and videos of Atticus and Will. They are both very special little angels - thank you for sharing them with all of us!

Anonymous said...

I am, as always, uplifted by the courage and amazing grace that you - Tom, Atticus and now Will have been given.

Will is a lucky, happier dog for having been allowed a second chance on life to replace the one that he lost before. It warms my heart to hear the updates as they come.

On behalf of myself, my wife Kim, our dog Maisy, and the two cats Tiger and Junior, may God continue to bless you all! Thank you so much for the post!

Sincerely, Joseph Seals, Santa Ana, CA

Mary said...

It is so inspiring to read your words about Will. I enjoyed reading your book about you and Atticus and how you reached such heights together. Wow. Finding love, compassion and simplicity in life means so much in this hurried throw away world.
All the best.

Linda Walker Howard said...

In September, our 88-year-old mother was given two months to live. We arranged Hospice care for her in her home and we waited. Like Will, she isn't ready to go anywhere ... she is not hindered by her limitations; she revels in the small things that most of us are too busy to see. She can't see to read, so she watches the birds; she can't follow conversations, so she just says whatever is on her mind whenever she pleases; she is content being surrounded by her things in her home and her kids. Dorothy Teague Walker and Will were cut from the same cloth. We should all watch and learn!

Anonymous said...

That is just a beautiful story. It has been a treat to follow Will's story. What a blessing he has been to and you to him.
We adopt rescue dogs, and two of our favorites were sibling 10 year old lab mixes. They are both gone now, but they provided us with so many laughs and so much joy, along with challenges. Bless you for giving Will a chance at life.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful story. I have so enjoyed following Will and his remarkable progress. We adopt rescue dogs, and two of our favorites were 10 year old mixed lab siblings, who are now gone. They gave us a great deal of joy and also challenges. Bless you for giving Will a chance at life.

Linda said...

Always love reading your posts and enjoy the pictures as well. I have shed many happy tears thinking about Will in his new happy life that you have given him. God bless you guys.

Sherry said...

I found your book one day in the bookstore and bought it because I had a schnauzer at one time. I was carried on the adventure with you and Aticus. I now have a rescue poodle/ terrier and want another dog..because of Will! You have to be the kindest man on earth!

Mollie said...

"Strong in will." Will has showed me (and I'm sure others) what will (Will) can do and also what unconditional love and acceptance can do. I've gifted my family members with your book, Following Atticus and then tell them about Will. They've all loved your book, as did I. And I am grateful your story continues. Some day I hope to meet all of you on a trail in the White Mountains. Before your book I was barely aware of them, except for Mount Washington. Now I yearn to go. And experience. And find the "will" in my life. Namaste.

Fellow wanderer said...

We have just discovered Following Atticus and we are hooked on your journey and now with Will. Kudos, friend of nature and all living things.

Annie Watson said...

Dear Tom,
I am reading Following Atticus and I keep crying. What an amazing story. Thank you for sharing Atticus with everyone. And of course, Thank you to Atticus who is the embodiment of love.

Casey55 said...

I just finished reading Following Atticus. a great read. Atticus is adorable. liked your blog about Will the elderly dog your adopted. he is lucky to be in a good home in his twilight years. our dog molly is 15 almost 16. she is a terrier mix. glad i got a chance to read your book.

Unknown said...

This is truly inspiring and makes me read couple of more times. It is so wonderful blessing and great feeling for both of you getting the best out of almost no hope.

Thanks for the share!


jarred & chloe the collie
Hike, run, rest, large crates and lots of treats.

Unknown said...

This is the second time I have brought home an ancient to finish out his last few days in a soft setting buried in love. And this is the second time our beloved vet, Elizabeth Hennessy in Newburyport and her crew have fixed up an old guy to live and flourish in a harem of beautiful girls.I can wrap my arms around these old guys and shut my eyes and go to magical places in their hearts.