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 22, 2013

The Sun & Moon

Atticus sitting on Chapel Rock watching the sunset.
“Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid. Ain’t nothing in the woods going to hurt you unless you corner it, or it smells that you are afraid. A bear or a deer, too, has got to be scared of a coward the same as a brave man has got to be.” ~ William Faulkner

The years have taught me many things but one of the most important is that change is everywhere and we do our best when we come to grips with it, accept it, and then figure out how to move forward in spite of it. 

Last night, walking through a hot and humid last hour of daylight along a dusty road, I was watching Atticus.  He’s now halfway between eleven and twelve.  In comparison, that makes him older than I am.  That thought had a tinge of melancholy to it but not enough to change the mood as we huffed and puffed uphill while the sun passed through the trees to the west and we stopped often to take drinks of water. 

We were on our way to Pine Mountain. It’s an old friend to us.  And yet as many times as we’ve been there, the road walk is never as easy as I expect it to be.  It rises hundreds of feet in elevation in one and a half miles.  Much like walking up a ramp.  At the top of the road there sits the Horton Center, a religious camp now closed for the year, and a short trail to Chapel Rock called “A Pathway to God.”  The first time I went to Pine Mountain I had no idea how stunning the views from Chapel Rock were, but I took that trail because the name intrigued me.  I mean who wouldn’t want a pathway to God? 

What I found was indeed a bit of God. Before us was heaven (to paraphrase Thoreau) both under our feet and above our heads.  The wide sweeping valley south through Pinkham Notch is epic in the way it sprawls like a rich carpet.  Route 16, which can be seen for a bit, is a mysterious thread through the wilderness promising new journeys, destinations, and adventures.  Above and beyond, the wide panorama arcs from the Carter-Moriah Range down to the Wildcats. Across the notch to where a bit of Mount Washington can be seen, but the view is predominated by a staggering and pointed nearby Mount Madison.  Not far away, in the shadow of Madison, sits the main mass of Pine Mountain.  High atop Chapel Rock the views carry over to the west and north and to the primordial Kilkenny Range.  It’s a humble climb to a prolific place, where I am always humbled in relation to what God has created. 

Whenever Atticus and I sit on that highest rock it’s as though we are sitting on top of the world.  Our own little world.  A sacred pinnacle where I am visited by deep and lovely and transformative thoughts.  It’s a place for man and dog to meditate. 

Seasons come and go, years pass, and always we find ourselves atop that rock slab – three constants: it, Atticus, and me.  Last night, however, things were a bit different.  We haven’t been hiking much these last four months.  In July Atticus had a toe amputated because of cancer.  The margins were clean but the high mitotic index warned us that trouble was lurking so we elected to start chemo.  The first of six sessions went okay.  There was some abdominal unrest, one round of vomiting, but overall he did well. 

One of the pleasures of living with Atticus is that he takes care to express his needs and comfort levels.  He doesn’t climb a mountain if he doesn’t wish to, nor does he get off the couch if he doesn’t feel like it – which is hardly ever the case but it’s the way it was just over a month ago.  So it’s been easy taking this unknown journey through cancer and chemo with him.  He lets me know how he is feeling and my job is to pay attention.  It’s the same way he’s always been there for me.  In the three weeks since his first treatment we have climbed Black Cap, White Horse Ledge, Peaked Mountain, Potash Mountain, and last night it was Pine Mountain. 

I’m told the second round of chemo, which is tomorrow, can be one of the worst.  So it was important to me that we get out and up to where we are happiest just in case it will be a while before it happens again.  That’s why we ventured along that dusty road through heat and humidity to get to our sitting place just before sunset.  With the end of daylight just ahead Atticus sat down and looked not at the surrounding peaks as he typically does, but to the yellow sun, which soon became orange, then pink, and then – and then it was gone.   It was only after dusk surrounded us that Atti walked over.  He sat by my side and drank the water he had declined before so he could spend time with the waning sun.  He ate a few treats and put his now-three-toed paw on my lap.  His pink tongue was showing, not from the heat, because the cool had settled in, but out of what seemed to me to be joy. 

With three toes on my lap and Atti’s sparkling eyes looking into mine, I stood and scooped him up as I’ve done thousands of times before in these mountains, rested his fanny in the crook of my arm, and took a slow turn to take it all in.  We looked as we always do: content, happy even, filled with awe, but more importantly we stood as we always have – together.     

My friends keep worrying about us and how we are handling the cancer and chemo.  I tell them without the slightest pause that we are fine and will be throughout it all.  I’ve said it before, but that’s the gift of something like cancer.  There’s no time for anything other than what’s genuine.  You leave take out the trash in your life, ignore anything that isn’t important, protect that which is most important, and always – always – cultivate love.  Standing there with our heads at the same level, and I imagine our hearts pretty even as well, I think we were both smiling. 

That’s something I’ve learned lately.  Cancer can take toes, larger limbs even, perhaps even a life, but it cannot rob you of what’s most important unless you allow it to.  Cancer may kill, but love is untouchable. 

I had chosen Pine Mountain for a few reasons.  It’s a great peaks to get back into shape with, we treasure the views from various outlooks, but also because on this night we’d be able to watch the setting sun from Chapel Rock and then hustle down the trail, across the boarded walkway, up through the dark, dusky tangle of rocks, roots, and trees to the trail to the top of Pine Mountain Trail to the second viewpoint.  When we emerged from the forest to an open ledge we found what our friend Ken Stampfer (who is far more scientific and gadget-wise than I am) told me we’d find, the full moon rising over the shoulder of the Moriahs. 

We moved quickly to get there in time and when we stumbled into the opening to a breathless stop, we watched an orange moon rising through the haze in the night over the dark bruise of layered mountains.  So beautiful.  So perfect.  So private and intimate.  I picked up Atticus and four eyes watched that ghostly, glowing moon. Then I placed him on the table of rock three feet high that stands in the middle of the ledge and we sat side by side.  Two sighing souls taking in the ethereal night. 

A gentle breeze swirled around us, the murky woods behind us produced nighttime sounds, and we sat in perfect harmony with it all.  We had said goodbye to the sun, now we were greeting the moon, as it elevated ripe and mysterious. 

Atticus and I have finished many hikes in the darkness and it always tugs upon my childhood fear of the dark, but it also emboldens me.  As I told my friend Dee last night, “Life is so short, why would I want a fear to rob me of something as beautiful as what we were seeing?”  Of course it’s one thing to sit on a mountaintop and have a conversation with silhouetted mountains, the moon, and all those stars, but where I often have to steal myself is returning to the woods where the it’s darker than anything I’ve ever known and my headlamp creates lurching shadows of witches, ghouls, and childhood demons as we pass by trees and limbs. 

But that’s part of the excitement, I suppose. To go where I never would have gone before, to experience these new adventures in daylight and darkness.  Of course what makes it all safe and sound and worthwhile no matter how gloomy and dreary it gets is to have Atticus by my side.  Then fears become adventures, challenges become opportunities for new experiences, and life becomes all that more textured. 

Who knew after all these years of walking these trails in darkness that it would not only help me grow into the man I wanted I dreamed of being as a young boy, it would get us ready for our greatest challenge.  For a journey through cancer and chemo could be considered just as frightening to a man as the nighttime is to a little boy afraid of the dark.  But facing these challenges together, Atticus and I are armed with faith, friendship, and love. Because of that, anything is possible. 


Tomorrow, as Atticus has a port in his front leg accepting the poison meant to kill cancer, his paw will be on my hand as it was the first time, and it will be just like walking those dark mountain trails.  It’s not the forest or the darkness that defeats you, it’s the fear.  But we’ll be together and because of that there’s nothing to fear.  It’s but one more adventurous chapter in this book called life.

The full moon rising above the Moriahs.

39 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wow.....just wow!

Clara said...

I always go back and read your posts and one my favorites is when you talked about saying goodbye to MRW.

You wrote that you each wanted different things out of life.

What I don't get is who would want anything other than what you write about? I guess I will never know.

I wonder if she is in contact with you regarding Atticus' cancer. That must be hard on her not to be there for you three now.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Ed C said...

Beautiful.......

Anonymous said...

Thank you. Your thoughts about life give us all things to ponder about in our minds. As for myself, it helps me strive to be a better & more compassionate person. Onward and upwards by all means!

T. McCann

Michelle Gray said...

Absolutely beautiful, Tom! Your wonderful writing always draws me in, captivates me, and touches my heart. Sending prayers, healing energy, along with much love and strength for Atticus (and also for you).

Betty and Lenny Fagen said...

Thank you for your beautiful thoughts and words ... they carry me some days ... a day like today and I am grateful.

I will be thinking of you and Atticus tomorrow ... together being warriors and their for each other.

I wish for tomorrow and the days after to pass as easily as possible so the both of you can return to where you should and love to be.

Hopefully, you can feel the hugs being sent from here to there, for all three of you to be wrapped in.

Have a peaceful night.

Betty

Anonymous said...

Barbara on facebook summed up what I was thinking. You ARE amazing. We'd all like to think we could be strong for those we love but you ARE strong. You are a most remarkable man. - Sue

Anonymous said...

Tom, what a wonderful bond you & Atticus share, it is truly one of life's best gift's. Two spirit's one sole onward by all means!

Anonymous said...

I hope the two of you can see the "two moons" next week. I think it would be amazing to see this from a mountain top or from a chair in your back yard. Tom, you must know that so many hearts are praying healing and comforting prayers for your family. Thank you for sharing your life with all of us.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this and other parts of your lives you've shared with us. You, Atticus and Will are all amazing. May God bless and keep the 3 of you for many more years.

Anonymous said...

As usual...really enjoyed the read. Thanks so much and wishes for an easy next few days...

Nannette said...

My heart will be with you and Atti tomorrow. I just hope Little Buddha doesn't have too tough an aftermath. Maybe having filled up on his summit sitting and soul work will give him extra strength for the days ahead. Onward to kick some cancer butt!! ♥

Cheryl said...

Tom, I know who takes care of Atticus and Will but who takes of you and your big heart? I'm volunteering. :-) :-) :-)

Carter W Rae said...

Tom We are so honored to share this very private and intimate time with you and Atti .. I cannot tell you how encouraging this all has been to many of us out here...us included as we navigate this journey...life.. and it's turns and twists.. your comparison to the small child in the woods at dusk and the figures in the night as only shadows.is so accurate .. please know of the genuine caring and love that we all have for you... Atticus..Will and this journey that has far surpassed your initial story that is Following Atticus. Your honesty, caring and drawing form the great quotes of literature are a blessing to us all... Again please know that we, our pack and I am sure the entire Atti's Army are offering our love and prayers for continued success with this and great comfort knowing that you are NOT ALONE... I am sure thoughts and much love are continuing this evening and through tomorrow to up hold you and strengthen you .. Again it our privilege to be part of this journey.. Following Atticus we are with you in spirit Tom ... Also your evening photos are stunning!

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful column. I fell in love with Following Atticus from the first words I read. And I have read it and listened to those words again and again. They have given me the strength to be at my friend's side as she finished her last race here on earth. They have also given me the strength to face a fear that I have carried with me for almost 40 years. I am going to climb one of those beautiful mountains of yours and when I reach the top I am going to quote a most remarkable author. That quote has just 2 words. Two strong powerful words. "Fuck Fear"
Thank you.
Denyse

Anonymous said...

Love love love your exqusite story telling writing format. Capitavating!
I hope to meet you and Atticus and Will one day ! Onward you say!
I say Bravo!

Anonymous said...

My long gone dad, a farm boy in his youth, once told me when I was very young that the dark I knew as a city girl never could compare to the dark he knew as a boy trying to feel his way through the dark deep woods when his jalopy broke down. Needless to say, I had no idea of what he was talking about.
A few years later, however, my parents packed my bags and shipped me out of the city for a two week stay at summer camp on Lake Ossipee, kicking and screaming of course most of the way. (A diehard home sick coward to the core!)
Yet, when that first night fell, I remembered what my father had said and on this one occasion I could really connect with him and understand him. The stars had never been so plentiful, so beautiful, so dazzling bright. A shimmering lake below reflected their twinkling light and, for a moment in time, I felt so small, in total wonder. I was for all intents and purposes standing at the very edge of the universe, lost but found, weightless yet still.
How that memory sustained me and still does through difficult times! And while I can’t relate fully to what you and Atti are going through now, Tom, as no man can fully understand another, I do understand how your surroundings give you faith and keep you strong.
Invite the dark. Look to the stars and follow one or two for my sake. They are sure to lead you to many more fine memories of sunsets, moons and shooting stars…and most importantly, peaceful, loving thoughts.
One day I hope to revisit that wondrous place. Until then, I rely on you and your wonderful words that transport me back in time. Onward tomorrow…hitch your wagon to a star even for just a day it's the one you saw reflected last night in Atti's eye.

Silvia G. Soos-Kazel said...

Yes Tom and Atti, the faith, trust and love that you share as a loyal team have seen you through many a blessed adventure. Each adventure a journey unto its own, always unique, always giving you more insight into a life lived to the fullest. Last evening was a gift to encourage you both to continue so graciously to embrace a negative in the "book of life" and create your own positive chapter. Enfolding you Tom and Atti with Love that tomorrow as you continue to meet challenges in your true partnership, you will be met only with success.

Peter/Julie McClelland said...

"In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him." Psalm 95:4

Cyndy Kirk said...

Beautifully written as always, Tom. Constant prayers and positive thoughts going out to you and Atticus as you face the next step in this journey tomorrow. Atticus draws his strength from you and from his mountains, and it will carry him through! Have a peaceful night, and hoping for a good outcome for Atti tomorrow.

Anonymous said...

Reading your writing is more filling than any meal I could ever imagine, and far more satisfying for sure. Thank you for sharing your gifts.
Cindy in Hampton

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom, Atticus, Will,

I will probably never get to hike in the White Mountains but in reading your book and this blog, I can close my eye and imagine what it must be like. Thank you for sharing your private hikes. I feel like a silent hiker following you 2 as you describe the wonders of nature.

Mike

Anonymous said...

Sending you love and good wishes!

anonsue said...

Atticus is lucky to have you as his dad, friend, and companion. I'm praying that the second round of chemo will go well, and that in the end Atticus will be healed. You need each other, and you, Will, and Atticus are a wonderful family. Thanks for sharing your life and your stories with us.

Zoe the Therapy Dog said...

Thank you! I hope to share some of your words with some of Zoe the Therapy Dog's patients tomorrow on our visit to the cancer center.

"Cancer can take toes, larger limbs even, perhaps even a life, but it cannot rob you of what’s most important unless you allow it to. Cancer may kill, but love is untouchable."

Mary McCulley said...

Tom, not sure what to add after reading this, and all of the lovely comments. I echo their sentiments..your words paint not only a picture in my head, but a piece of art in my soul that is still being drawn and defined. Blessings and peace tomorrow to you and Atticus...all will be well.

Anonymous said...

Bless you both as you face the next phase of the adventure. As always Atti's Army will be pulling for him and for you. Prayers and peace.
Donna

St Eriksplan said...

So happy that you got a chance to spend some time on Pine Mountain. I have spent some days up there with my local church, attended a service at Chapel Rock, played violin on that spot and spent hours sitting at various viewpoints. It really is a special place and I hope it brought you some peace.

Canines for Service said...

Tom and Atti - thank you. your words inspire me. We just made the necessary and difficult decision to stop chemo treatment for Maggie after dealing with the ugly subcutaneous lymphoma. Yours word "That’s something I’ve learned lately. Cancer can take toes, larger limbs even, perhaps even a life, but it cannot rob you of what’s most important unless you allow it to. Cancer may kill, but love is untouchable. " Thank you for helping my heart see the clarity of this choice for her. Maggie is the magic age between 11 and 12 and now as always it is about her being happy and loved. - Pat & MAggie

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the beauty. The time you and Atticus have been given together is an immense blessing, and I enjoy being a spectator of your friendship. Reading this entry made me cry, because I was reminded that my friend Butch and I weren't given the time to even try to beat the cancer. He became sick out of nowhere, and we learned that his cancer was already advanced. I stood by him bravely for his last days, doing the things we always did together. I slept on the floor next to him those last nights, holding his paw all night, for he couldn't breathe laying on a cushion or the bed. I held him as he left me, and I wouldn't cry and frighten him or waste our last moments together doing anything but loving him. The tears came after, and continue even after a year. So hugs to you and Atti and Will. Go and kick cancer's ass today! <3 <3 <3

Patti Bellshot Gardner

Tina said...

Tom, I just finished your book and went directly to your blog. Its sad to learn that Atticus is having to battle cancer.

I have two mini schnauzers myself and they mean the world to me. My thoughts are with you and Atticus and hope all goes well for him. All the best.

Shannon Zapf said...

Thank you for sharing a glimpse into your hike last night. My thoughts are with you and Atticus today, and with you, Atticus, and Will later this weekend. I hope it's peaceful. You all deserve peace and happiness...together. Much love to you.

Anonymous said...

Your blogs have always been a wonderful read and they have captured so much of what I feel with my dog and the mountains. But the most recent have been even richer, in style and meaning. You and Atticus have followed Thoreau's dictum: “Pursue some path, however narrow and crooked, in which you can walk with love and reverence.”

John

Laury said...

Beautiful. Especially the line, "Cancer may kill, but love is untouchable." I've found this to be true in the journey of mother's cancer path as well. Cancer teaches us to appreciate every moment, something I wrote on in my small book. Thank you for sharing your profound thoughts. Tonight, when I take my 4 times weekly route from Seattle to Anchorage and back, as the majestic Chugach Mountain range comes into view as a plane slowly descends into a city surrounded by a vast wilderness, as the setting sun dances upon the snow-capped peaks...I'll think of you and Atticus, sending positive thoughts of healing your way. ~Laury

dee said...

thank you. beautiful. simply beautiful.

Ellen Snyder said...

Hi Tom And Atti and Will,

Here's wishing that Atti has a good, peaceful night with dreams of moons rising, and golden sunrises, and winds whispering in his ears.

All the best in the days ahead.

Ellen

Trish said...

i'm on edge waiting to see your next post Tom, to see how Atticus did on Friday. My thoughts are with Atticus and hoping he has skated through that 2nd tx well. take care Tom, you and Atticus are good souls.

Winnie Nepgen said...

Two beautiful souls, a book of beautifully written prose against the majestic backdrop of a beautiful country. God is indeed good.