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.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

A Friend Is A Friend

Dear friend,

These are the days we live for.  It’s a perfect August afternoon and Atticus and I are sitting out by the garden under the shade of the trees.  I’m on one of the Adirondack chairs and he’s on a folded blanket.  We’re both as filled with contentment as can be.  Just a few feet away the crawl of the pumpkin vines appear to be headed in every direction and the tangle of bright wild flowers is perfect for our humble backyard.  They’re also a good place for old Will to trundle through causing butterflies, bees, grasshoppers, and dragonflies to take flight.  But not right now. He’s inside listening to Beethoven, snoring blissfully away, and dreaming (I imagine) of the life he now has, and not the one that abandoned him.

From time to time one of the chipmunks that shares the rocks around the rustic property scurries to the top of the nearby stonewall, picks up a morsel of food I’ve left out for them expressly, and sits on his hind legs like a prairie dog and watches us.  Atticus returns the gaze and happily we all look at each other while the chipmunk nibbles away. 

Why feed the chipmunks? I must admit that I never did before I moved to Jackson. Atticus and I were in the former library listening to an old Yankee complain about what chipmunks were doing to her garden.  So she filled an old bucket three-quarters full with water, floated a handful of sunflower seeds on the surface, and placed a small piece of narrow wood across the top of the bucket, lining it with more seeds. The chipmunks followed the trail of food and then found the jackpot floating in the water.  When they reached down to get the bounty they fell in and drown.

Although that old woman is very kind to me, we don’t give her much attention.  Instead we give it to our chipmunks and that’s why I feed them.  I’m trying to balance her out.  For some reason I get the impression the little critters know they are welcome with us because they sit and watch us all the time. This morning when I cradled Will in my arms after he had gone to the bathroom, one stood on a high rock just three feet away watching us.  When I moved closer, the chipmunk leaned a bit closer to look at Will. 

“He can’t walk up the stairs on his own,” I said.  “Have a nice morning,” and then I carried Will past and the chipmunk watched us go up the stairs.  (So you see, I not only feed them, I talk to them.)

If we get lucky enough, we’ll see a bear, maybe two.  I don’t think they come looking for what I put out for the chipmunks since the portion is so small, just enough to offer them a gift and to apologize for the actions of your Yankee neighbor, who everyone but the chipmunks seems to like. 

The breeze is gentle and it sends the leaves whirling and turning on the trees. Birds sing, a bee buzzes by us occasionally, and I noticed Atticus licking his paw.  But it wasn’t the one with the three toes.  It was his whole and healthy paw.  Not the one where the digit was amputated because of cancer.  I wondered how that new-look foot would feel today.  It’s only twenty days post amputation and yesterday was an active one for us.  Well, relatively active.  Compared to the last three months when we haven’t been able to hike, it was a big day…just not compared to what we’re used to doing. 

Friday was Atticus’s first chemo treatment and as is the case with chemo, it’s a crapshoot.  Many will say that dogs handle it far better than humans and from what I’ve read they do, for the most part, but it’s still poison being pumped into the body to kill fast-growing cells and one never knows.  Before that first treatment we prepared for the worst and hoped for the best.  We got the best. 

That afternoon Atticus was a bit lethargic but by Saturday morning Atticus and I walked a good flat portion of the Bryce Path.  Later in the day we walked for two miles on the same trail.  By the end he was tired and happy to be back at the car, but it was clear he was also happy to have returned to the woods and the soft paths carpeted with red pine needles.  Sunday we got out for two more walks but they were gentle and Atticus wanted to take it easy.  By Monday he was hopping around and happy.  We took three walks for the first time in months and the total was between four and five miles.  On Tuesday he seemed fine. 

Watching him closely and realizing Atticus never worries about saying he’d rather turn back than go on, I decided to take him to the Black Cap trailhead.  We started out early in the morning on the path we’ve walked a hundred times.  We took it slow and easy and on the way up Atticus stopped far more often than he ever has.  He stopped and panted, his tongue out, his lungs working to move air in and out. 

“You want to go home or keep going?”  I say this to him whenever he is tired.  He knows how to head for home when asked, although he doesn’t chose that option very often.  Yesterday, each time I asked him, he looked me in the eyes, took a pause as if he was trying to decide what he could do, and then moved forward. 

For all the trails, all the miles and mountains we’ve traveled together, I think this is the first one we’ve ever walked up side-by-side.  This was his hike and I let him set the pace.  We drank a lot of water along the way.  At the fork where left will bring you to the summit in three-tenths of a mile or right will get you there in half a mile (but it’s easier), we went right – as we always do.  Slowly we moved together like two old friends just happy to be with one another.  From time to time I sat down on the trail next to him, poured him some water, and he drank.  After he drank, I drank from my bottle. 

Halfway up that longer but easier route we stopped at the hidden ledges with the view to Chocorua, Passaconaway, the Moats, and other faded peaks.  We always stop there to enjoy the panorama.  The ledges aren’t really all that hidden but most people pass them by in their hurry to get to the top.  For us though, it’s one of our favorite places, this little hideaway, and yesterday was perfect.  We sat next to wild blueberries bushes and I picked them and we shared.  While I continued to eat he walked away from me, to the middle of an opening in the trees, and sat down and cast those eyes of his out toward the ripple of mountains on the horizon.  I heard his trademark sigh, saw his body relax, took a photo of it and sent it by text to you, and finally let you know what we were up to. 

It wasn’t long before we returned to the trail and made our way up that curl of earthen path that wraps around the western slope of the mountain.  Summer was in full swing and just above the high brush tops of mountains were visible as were an armada of floating clouds sailing the blue sea of sky.  We continued on side-by-side, moving slowly.  One last time before getting to the top I stopped to offer him water but he refused it. Instead he moved ahead of me. 

In the beginning years of our hiking when it was clear we had a mountain to ourselves and we neared the top I used to say, “Do you want to say hello to the summit?”  He’d look at me and then spring forward.  Not quite a run – more of a happy trot – and he’d moved quickly and for the first time leave me behind.  I could see him ahead of me sitting on top of the mountain while I was still climbing.  These days I no longer say it because he does it on his own, but I didn’t expect it yesterday, not with the fatigue and the cancer and the chemo, but that’s exactly what he did.  He bounced along, his ears flopping with every step and his swagger seemed to be saying to the mountain, “Hello, old friend.  I’m home.” 

At the top he waited, turned to face me, and sat when he saw me taking out my camera.  I don’t imagine he intended it but he sat in a proud manner with his left foot, still looking like a three-toed claw, closer to the camera as if showing it off.  I took several photographs and then called Rachael Kleidon, his wonderful vet.  She was with a client and when she picked up the phone she was nervous.  “Is everything okay?” 

“Not all emergencies are bad, Rachael.  Sometimes it’s good to take time out for just the opposite. I just wanted to call and tell you that nineteen days ago you amputated Atti’s toe.  Five days ago we started chemo.  Today, at this very moment, he’s sitting on top of Black Cap Mountain.” 

Her joyous response was why I called her.  She’s been invested in our journey in a way that speaks of friendship more than doctor – client.  Rachael and I talked excitedly for a couple of minutes with wonderment in our voices.  When I hung up I turned to look at Atticus and he was at the highest point watching the clouds and saying hello to the other peaks.  Little Buddha had returned to his summit sitting.  I sat behind him and took it all in.  But this was not just his moment and I think he wanted me to know that because he stood up on that highest rock and looked back at me. 

Spend enough time with any close friend and actions and expressions say far more than words can. I climbed up next to him and sat down just as he wanted me to.  He sat down again, his body pressing into mine, our eyes looking out at hundreds of places we’ve been throughout the White Mountains, many, I’m sure, we’ll never get back to together – not as he gets older.  We sat for several minutes without anyone else there and when I looked at him my heart was filled beyond anything I’ve ever known and all that love spilled out of my eyes.  I wiped away the tears that kept gently rolling down my cheeks and I said the short prayer I think I’ve said on every single peak we’ve ever climbed.  “Thank you.” 

I never know who I am saying it to.  It’s never really mattered to me.  I just say it and it feels good, and it feels right.  

The chemo will continue through the middle of November.  I’m told there will be good days and there will be bad.  I’m told it’s unpredictable to know how he will handle it all and how he will feel going forward.  But I don’t think there will be any truly bad days, because no matter, he and I will be together in land we love and call home.  So cancer and chemo will can continue to be a part of our lives for a few more months but I don’t really care.  We are where we are supposed to be.  Together. 

Thank you for your friendship.  I have relied on you and all our other close friends for inspiration when we needed it most.  It’s been the best medicine for me as I’ve taken care of Atticus and Will.  We look forward to seeing you soon, and sitting on a mountaintop with you.  

Onward, by all means,
Tom (& Atticus [& Will})
Atticus M. Finch, back home again.
 

36 comments:

Pam Hicks said...

Tom, I'm sobbing through this post, as I have through so much of Atti's story - they're happy sobs, as you might say. This blog is all the more meaningful to me because I took that same hike once, thanks to you. You go deeply into the authentic stuff of life, Tom & I am so grateful to be able to share in your experiences. Much love to you, Atti & will.....

Ginny Suhr said...

And with this, as always, I pray with you.

Thank you.

Peace and love.

Vickie Williams said...

Thank you for sharing these moments with your followers. They mean a lot to us, and I am so happy to see Atticus willing and ready to go forward. Friends are such an integral part of our lives, they help us feel better and give us a chance to help them. Thank you again for showing me that we can overcome anything for love.

Anonymous said...

Tom & Atticus, What a joy to hear how your first hike post surgery and 1st chemo treatment went. As I read this post I found myself smiling as I picture Atticus trotting through the woods and finding that perfect spot to sit and take in the view. All three of you have been blessed by being in each others lives - such gentle souls filled with love & kindness.

Susi B. said...

That is a beautiful article, Tom. Thank you for sharing your hike and your feelings with us! I hope that Atticus continues to be able to hike to your beloved summits with you. Our prayers are with you, Atticus, and Will!

KGMom said...

I don't often comment--but I resonate so completely with many of your thoughts here. Saying yes to the worthiness of life in other creatures--YES.
Thanking the spirit of the mountain as you reach the summit--THANKS.
Letting Will be Will--YES.
And knowing that the bond with Atticus is such that you each know what the other needs--THANKS.

Felicia Smith said...

Beautifully written and thoroughly heartwarming. Thank you for continuing to share your journey with all of us.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely post. I wondered if Black Cap is where you headed for yesterday! I still remember you recommending just that hike when Frank and I met you at White Birch Last Year. The view was spectacular even though we shared it with many others and a short wave radio! I look forward to my return there this fall and while I know her view of it will be from a very different angle I look forward to sharing it with my dear friend, Diana, as well as with Frank. I know that she will be with me in spirit this year and will see my tears and hear my sobs. Last year as we drove past the trail where you park the car I remember her telling me to shout out her name when I reached the top next time. I will call out her name there as well as all the other places we visit this fall in her memory. Thank you for sharing your magical world with us.
Denyse

Anonymous said...

You always know how to make a gal cry Tom. So glad you & Atticus got to share such a very special day together. You two are truly one.

Thank you for sharing it with us.

Silvia G. Soos-Kazel said...

I'm in gratitude Tom and Atti for taking me along on your special "returning home" hike. Since I will never be able to physically do this hike, I must say you have both given me the joy of mentally and emotionally joining you in spirit and envisioning for myself the wonderful experience for which you say "thank you" and for which I now say "thank you"!

Ivana said...

Nice and touching post, I felt that I was on the mountain with you. I wish you both a lot of power.
Ivana

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Jan Reed said...

So often your posts sneak up on me and punch me in the heart and I feel the tears rolling down my face. This is one of those posts. I don't even know how to express how happy I am that Atticus and you are back on a mountaintop, which is definitely where you should be, together. I hope all continues to go well with his chemotherapy and that there will be many more hikes through the lovely fall weather that's fast approaching. You are both healing, although from different wounds. I'm confident that all will be well.

Mary Jane said...

You are such a wise man Tom, with your wise fellow at your side. Thank you for sharing this touching moment, tears are streaming down my cheeks now as I have just been so moved. I am grateful that you are sharing such an intimate moment with so many people, many of whom you will never meet, but you so generously let us be a part of your life. Thank you, Tom, Atticus, and Will!




Anonymous said...

So very happy for both you and Atticus that in spite of the chemo you're able to go to one of "your special places". I like to think that this will help Atticus heal and beat the cancer more quickly than he would with just the chemo. You're all amazing and wonderful.

Donna Fitzpatrick said...

All is just right in your world. Guiding me to appreciate that all is just right in my world as well. Carson got his lovely scruffiness shaved off today so we will stay close this muddy day and look fluffy. Tomorrow Bear Creek Trail.
High three Atti!

Chris said...

Dear Tom, Atticus and Will....I have a feeling you know that we all love to read your posts. However, I'm not so sure you know how deeply they affect us. The more I read your words, the more I contemplate life, my surroundings, nature, and how I interact with people on a daily basis. I can only speak for myself, however, I bet there are many more readers who you have helped immensely. Thank you for making me cry...thank you for making me laugh, but most importantly - thank you for sharing your story with all of us. We are all better beings because of you. Peace.

GranSan said...

Nice post. Tears are following but your writing is beautiful. Enjoy the good days and embrace the bad together. Prayers for all of you. Hope Will is enjoying his time too.

Carter W Rae said...

Tom the images on this are so real it is almost like being there .. Life is precious and you have given us a great insight to all of the beauties of the back yard sort of like going into the wardrobe of C S Lewis.. a beautiful place you share with all of your friends some you have met and some you have not ..Hopefully we can be in the area of "have met" sometime.. in the meantime take it all in with gratitude.We are. Thanks for sharing these are real treats from us to your pack ...

PhotographyByBlythe said...

Thank you for warming my heart today...it was much needed. God bless you all!

Donna Jean said...

Your story warms my heart & brings tears to my eyes the love shared between You & Atticus. Every Day Is A Gift to be enjoyed ... Two hearts, One Soul ... Onward, by all means!

Mary said...

I really like what Carter wrote about "going into the wardrobe." ;-) Your writing is so descriptive, not just of the surroundings, but of your thoughts and feelings, that the words become alive, affecting our hearts. I'm so happy you all got to share such a beautiful moment as reaching that mountaintop. Life is made up of moments like these. Although it will be a different type of moment, I'm looking forward to sharing one of those with you and Atticus in October, on top of a mountain.

Sharon Malouf said...

As usual, I am transformed to the mountains by your stories. How blessed you and Atticus are to have the kind of friendship many dream about - one filled with love, complete acceptance and dedication.

When it comes to your little chipmunk friends, I share the same love for them. We have several that make their home within the stone walls surrounding our yard and they scurry about during the day to enjoy the seeds or little bits of cut up fresh fruit I leave for them.

Thank you for continually sharing your story. In a world where so much of what we read is negative, it is wonderful to hear how the power of love can truly conquer all!

Anita Beaumont said...

Tom & Atticus back on top of a mountain ... perfect!

Anonymous said...

Tears of joy...for you, for Atti, for Will. So happy the little Buddha is enjoying his "sits" again. So happy that your heart is so full of love that it spilled out of your eyes and ran down your face. So happy to see Will napping on a rainy day with his music, his flowers and his snoring. You have spoiled us Tom Ryan. When all is right with the 3of you, all is right with us. Love, light and hugs. xoxoxo

mlaiuppa said...

What a beautiful day you all had together.

Maria Joslin said...

I enjoy living through your words and experiencing the joy of hiking with Atti once again. I think of you both as I walk my four pups (one is a rescued foster dog) and gaze at the Rockies in the distance. The White Mountains are beautiful and I'm so happy to see the connection you and Atti have not only with each other, but also with nature. Onward indeed... (hugs to Will too)!!

Betty and Lenny Fagen said...

Another sweet memory has been made and shared ... thank you taking us along!

Anonymous said...

You are the inspiring one, Tom. Through your thoughts and words you quietly guide us to want to live life to the fullest and appreciate the opportunities than come our way. Thank you - thank you!

Pat Langer said...

So honored to be your friend. It truly is in the moments of life that we find our treasures. But only if we are looking. So happy to have a friend who helps me find them and points out all of the golden moments that I would have missed otherwise. Knowing that this is shared across the miles and across this network is nothing short of amazing. Thank you right back at you! Please give Atti and Will a sweet scratch in their favorite spot, they have become very precious to me.

Judy Johnson said...

There are no words to adequately express how deeply I am moved and how privileged I feel to be included in this journey......God's love on all of you!

Murphy Bourret said...

How important for both of you to be in the mountains again together. The healing power of hiking together again cannot be measured. Both of you needed it and you were blessed to have it. Always interesting how almost losing something makes having it again sweeter than any time before.
So pleased to read this tender moment.

Anonymous said...

I think the only way I could meaningfully describe my relationship with my dog would be to refer someone to this story. Simple and true.

John

Kat French said...

You know Tom, people make fun of me for talking to my friends, Laci and Heidi Schnauzer and for talking to the hummingbirds that spend a lot of time in my yard. I also talk to the deer that bound into the soybean early in the morning when we are on our walk. I tell them they have no fear, we are just passing through. Your blog has given me a new perspective on just who Heidi and Laci are with the way you relate to Atticus and Will. I now treat them as the 4 year old and 6 year old they are and not babies which I am ashamed to admit I did. I am so glad you helped out Will and showed him what a true home is like with love, good food and companionship. AND I'm glad Atticus made it through his surgery and is doing well. Thank you for opening your world and sharing it with us. Kat, Laci and Heidi Schnauzer.

josie said...

I am feeling that you and Atti and Will may be my kindred spirits and wonder if you are open to such a feeling?

MastHoliday said...

Interesting story narrated beautifully!