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.

Monday, September 02, 2013

A Call & A Text


The view from King's Peak.
We woke up to thunder boomers as only the mountains can throw them, echoing from peak to peak and reverberating down into the valleys.
 
Atticus has never been bothered by them and Will can't hear them so that's not a problem either.  Actually, I wasn't awakened by the storm, but by Atticus giving me the "Will Warning".  When Will gets out from under his covers and off of his bed, Atticus wakes me up to let me know I'd better get my old friend outside so he can go to the bathroom.  (And before you go thinking that this is kindness on Atticus's part, it could be many things, including enlightened self-interest - for he cannot understand why an animal would go to bathroom inside a house, especially his house.)
 
Duty done (by Will); breakfast eaten (by all three of us), the windows are all open for the first time in days.  The rain, with its ferocity and promise to last much of the day, is ushering out the humidity we've had sitting on top of us, and letting the last of the summer tourists know it's time to leave early.
 
While Route 16 and I-93 are choked by traffic today, we'll accept the refreshing feel to the air and the restful quiet in tiny Jackson. We'll also get ready to hike either tomorrow or Wednesday, the smaller peak we climb will depend on the weather forecast and how Atticus feels at the moment.  Nevertheless, we'll get to the top of something and that will make us both happy.
 
These next two months really are the best two months of hiking of the year and I look forward to walking through lush green corridors that in a few weeks’ time will have an explosion of color.  I'm giddy with the thought of the summit views down into the valleys with varying shades of red, yellow, and orange.  But this morning I'm thinking more about one higher peak, more brown than lush, and much higher than the peaks here in New England.  It's called King's Peak and it is the highest point in Utah, topping off at more than 13,000 feet in elevation.

Now I’ve haven’t been to Utah since the summer of 1969 when my father piled the seven youngest of his nine children (Joanne and John were already out in the world) into a new station wagon and he pulled a tent trailer across the country and back again for a month.  It was his way of getting us away from a house filled with memories and draped in sadness.  The previous December, six days before Christmas, my mother died in a Boston hospital.  To this day I think of it as perhaps one of the most courageous things a parent can do, to try to lift us all out of grief by shepherding seven children to places like Mammoth Cave (KY); Hot Springs (AR); Shamrock (TX); the Grand Canyon (AZ); Disneyland, LA, Yosemite, SF, the Redwood Forest, and the Big Sur (CA); Boulder Dam and Las Vegas (NV); Salt Lake City (UT); Yellowstone (WY); Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills (SD); and pretty much every stop in between before driving us back home.  Of course now I realize he also did it for himself.  Nevertheless, what a gift it was for all of us.  I was only eight at the time, the youngest in my family, and I vividly recall many of the sights, tastes, and sounds of that epic journey. 

But that time in Utah was long before we climbed mountains of any height.  Although we were active, we were mostly windshield tourists.  Someday, I tell myself, I’ll return to those places on my own road trip all these years later, but for now I am happy in these green peaks that have become our home.

So why is King’s Peak on my mind? 

It’s because the photograph above was sent to me the other day in a text.  It read, “On top of King’s Peak, reception bad…but beautiful.  How is Atticus?  I’ve been thinking of him the whole time.”  It was quickly followed by another: “Just found out from Meg that Atticus is doing great and I couldn’t be happier! Will touch base in a few days! :)” 

It’s not the first time I received a message from out west in the past ten days. The other came in the form of a telephone call wanting to know all about Atticus and how he was doing.  It was on the Saturday of the previous week, the day after Atticus’s second chemo treatment. 

Both the call and the text came from Rachael Kleidon, Atticus’s veterinarian at North Country Animal Hospital.  Later in the day of his chemo treatment, Rachael and her husband Bryant flew out to Colorado and were driving north to Utah to backpack through some high peaks on a long-planned two week vacation.  She called before she lost a signal with her iPhone upon entering the wilderness. 

Friends, albeit fewer and fewer of them, reach out to me and/or to Atticus to say, “I’m so sorry for what you are going through.”  They mean the cancer and the chemotherapy and the loss of his toe.  Or they say, “Poor guy.”  Or, “I’m sorry you have to go through this.”  I change the mood immediately but lifting it upward, even though I know they won’t understand. 

I’ve said it many times over the past two months: cancer, as strange as it may seem, has been a gift to us.  Its arrival forced us to focus on what’s most important and drop the silly things (and some people) who seem to rob us of what’s most important in life. 

My knees buckled and my heart ached when I first heard the dreaded word that begins with a “C”.  Fears ran through my veins like blood, only it was colder, and the ground beneath our feet shook.  Within hours though, the mourning and the fear was put away.  Our path was clear.  So not only did we throw out the self-pity and the “why me?” we also threw out a few people who use that as their mantra. 

Cancer has turned into another hike for us.  Each important occurrence – the first evaluation, the amputation, the biopsy results, the decision to go with chemotherapy, each three week cycle, and every weekly blood test, has turned into its own climb to a summit on a greater quest.  It’s a challenge and like all challenges it washes us clean, makes us stronger, and brings us closer. 

I don’t think the television has been on over the past couple of months.  Instead there’s music and good books and fresh fruits and vegetables and fires outside at night.  There’s sunsets and moonrises and laying on our backs watching owls, bats, bugs, and the heavenly stars above.  There’s no time for things that shouldn’t and don’t matter.  There’s also some new people in my life.

As I looked around our humble little home back when this first began, I saw what was essential, some items we just loved, and others that were nothing but clutter.  As harsh as it may seem, the clarity of cancer gave me the same view of the people in my life.  When faced with what’s most important, it made it easier to move on from those who were no longer important in our life and by sweeping our lives clean and tidying up a bit, it made room for those who are.  This is not something I may have done, at least not so quickly, without the gift of cancer. It serves as a wakeup call. 

One of those people we made more room for is Rachael Kleidon.  Seriously, who has a vet that calls on the second and eighth day of her vacation to a place where she wants to get away from it all with her husband two thousand miles away in a quiet mountain range and writes, “I’ve been thinking of him the entire time”? 

On the day Rachael called, it was to get me ready for what we needed to do if the blood work came back and showed me that the levels were not where we wanted them to be.  As always, we talked of the worst case scenario (she and I have a “no bullshit” agreement) so we could plan for it, and hope for the best.  She was preparing me because she knew she would be out of town for the next two times Atticus’ blood was drawn and she didn’t want me to hear such things from someone else. 

We are extremely blessed.

Looking now at Atticus, who is sitting on a chair at our kitchen table right next to me as I type, letting me know the rain has stopped and it’s time to go for a walk, it feels just like it does when we are on a long hike.  We’ve reached the latest summit together, taken time to rest, take in the views, and now it’s time to move onto the next.  It’s a long hike, after all.  There’s time to stop and pause, but there’s no use in stopping altogether.  Over the past eight years of hiking with Atticus, I’ve learned the key to these long quests is to be grateful for the view along the way and to keep moving, onward, by all means.

One of my favorite and most sensual writers is Marianne Williamson.  She writes: “Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.”  That’s how I feel these days.  Cancer may have knocked on our door and walked into our home, but it came bearing gifts and I continue to find them hidden all over the place.
 

37 comments:

Catherine said...

Tom, when I read something you've written, I appreciate my day more. Thank you for always doing that.

Jack Welsh said...

Hello Tom, Atticus and Will. Thank you once again for sharing your thoughts and feelings.
Be well.
Peace & Love

Bev A. said...

Good morning...your words are wonderful company for my morning coffee and continued search for a life of authenticity.

"An early-morning walk is a blessing for the whole day."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Adonna said...

This post is why I love your mantra "Onward by all means"..When my sister was diagnosed with GBM brain cancer (terminal), her first and only response was "Let`s do this!"..She never wavered and only expressed fear a handful of times..
Thanks for the update Tom and you three boys enjoy this beautiful day.

Cindy said...

To paraphrase a term from Jerry Maguire...."You make me want to be a better woman."

Debbie K. said...

Beautiful. Joy is a also being alive and enjoying it in any form. Y'all are doing this. Hike on! Be no stranger to the rain. It cleanses more than the Earth.

Debbie said...

As always, I appreciate your ability to see things in a different light. Thank you for sharing so openly. Enjoy your peaceful day

JennieP said...

Good morning Ryan clan! Yet again, Tom, you have set the tone for my week. How can I be sad or down over my mundane problems when you guys are so uplifting and positive in the midst of your big one? Your comments are always a reality check, always much enjoyed, thoughtful and beautiful. Thank you all for allowing me to be a part of your lives. Jennie

NY Nan said...

Tom,
I learn something new from every one of your blog posts.
I have struggled to understand when people say: "Cancer has turned out to be a blessing,(or a gift)."

I'm starting to get it.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Your writings have done more for me to center my life than anything else. I can now look to the day and live it, putting the past in the past and looking forward to the next wonder that life will open.

Anonymous said...

I just lost my precious dog to cancer of the spine. It came on fast and furious, as he became paralyzed within hours in the front and back legs, and continued a downward decline for a week before. His pain became so severe, the strong medication couldn't stop it. He died in my arms. I'm not writing for pity or comfort. I'm just writing to say, this is how it ends for all of us. In death. And nobody knows what happens on the other side. So live while you are living!! Savor every moment!! Be who you are, and find grace enough in that. And remember to risk everything for love.

Anonymous said...

You have such a way with words. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion this is your best blog yet! Your words are very powerful today. How blessed to have a vet like Rachel with you on this journey. I have felt a difference in your words over the past months as you have dealt with some huge life changes. Your journey is such an inspiration to me and so many others. I know I garnered strength from your quotes and your words while helping my dear Diana on her final journey. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself with us.
Denyse

Carter W Rae said...

I try not be too wordy because I am not a writer.. But I can not help it when I see beautiful thoughts that are not always available around my immediate area ;-) .. Hope you know Tom and Atticus and William you are in thoughts frequently and in prayers regularly. We are so very grateful that our heroes are doing well and it is clear that you are thriving in your element..For right now we are dealing with circumstances that are beyond our control and are counting our blessings for all good and important things that sustain us..Daily Atticus is one of these blessings That being said we share the joy of Atti's continued good fight with so many helpers out here that share his good news and give thanks... A true privilege to be part of the journey of Following Atticus... As you ounce said so much good energy with the FB page ... it is a real group effort I still can not help it as you describe your morning, sights and smells a feeling of a simpler time .... no mountains but beautiful forest that always drew me in to explore and see what was on the other side of THIS little stand of trees.. Thanks Tom for being our friend.. Best to all

Priscilla Welcome said...

Thank you for the update and great insight. Onward!

Lydia & Max said...

I have to remember to read your blog/facebook entries more often. They are indeed a blessing. I take my Max for walks, not enough for him, but it's only on the streets where we live. I can only imagine how he would love walks in your mountains. Peace.

Lori Kracoff said...

Enjoy your Day

Anonymous said...

Thank you for new ways of experiencing all things. Your positivity keeps getting more clear.

Anonymous said...

You and your dogs are amazing! I wish more people would adapt your attitude about life and the hurdles we all have to get through.

Anonymous said...

You & your beloved dogs remind me of a favorite quote of mine "We cannot direct the wind but we can adjust the sails" Onward my friend!

Michelle Gray said...

Tom, thank you for sharing a piece of your life with Atticus and Will with us. Your writing warms my heart and helps me keep in perspective that which is really important. Sending prayers, healing energy, strength and love to you, Atti and Will.

Silvia G. Soos-Kazel said...

Tom Ryan, did you ever believe that in your lifetime, you would become a true inspiration to thousands of other beings on a daily basis? Well you have! Through your own human experiences, be they positive or especially the negative ones, you set example how to live life to the fullest and as they say, make lemonade out of the lemons life at times shares with all of us. You then so eloquently use the written word to further inspire, encourage and motivate others who need that daily boost to by all means go onward and upward in their own lives. Your leadership of positivity gives model to those who need direction to meet their challenges to permit them to find their pleasures in life. My heartfelt appreciation for your continuous sharing of living a simple, but most uplifted, meaningful and insightful life!

Kat French said...

I know exactly what you mean by the mountains and thunder. I woke up around 1:30 am to first a lightening show I've not seen in a long time, then the thunder of the world. I live in a cove surrounded by the Appalachian Mountains and it echoes EVERYTHING, whether it's thunder or hard winds blowing across the cove hitting the house so hard I can't get warm (and I have gas heat, only way to keep warm unless you are lucky enough to have a wood burning stove). I leave a radio on in my girls room to keep out noises like the coyotes and such and since 'art' and 'burt' had already warned me we were in for this storm I had turned it up higher so they wouldn't hear the thunder. It scares them so. My hubby won't let them sleep in the bed with us, so they have their own beds. I am so glad Atti is doing well on his treatments and the picture of Will and his post-nap treat was so sweet. Thanks so much for sharing your life with strangers.

Kat, Heidi and Laci Schnauzer

mlaiuppa said...

I thought of you and Atticus when Candy was having her eye surgery. It helped.

My parents did a similar trip one year.

Usually, we did a car (or truck) trip in California. A no frills, not much money thing. Camping in Yosemite, Sequoia or just the Nevadas. When we lived in San Jose we did a tour to Big Basin and we went to Lake Tahoe once. I'll never forget how clear the water was or how very beautifully blue. I'm grateful I got to see the lake that way. (This was in the 60s).

But the trip I remember was the summer I was 13. My Dad took out a loan to take the entire family to Europe. I was old enough to realize this was aberrant behavior as my parents didn't borrow money for essentials let alone a luxury like a vacation. But I understand why. It was the last time we might all be able to do it as a family as I was entering junior high.

I remember a lot of it. One week with my maternal grandparents and then two weeks touring as much of Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy as we could get into an 18 hour day.

Every time I read of your hikes I think of this year's New Year's resolution. It is the first one I have broken. It was to go on walks more, work up to a hike and take the dog with me. I'm still working and I never manage to get us out of the house and anywhere to hike. Still only the weekly walks with my parents and Candy.

But you are still an inspiration and I hope to do one before the end of the year. Even if it is a small one.

Dan Bruneau said...

For years my wife and I have companioned grieving people. As you well know, some see grieving as doom. Others take grief as a challenge. These people take one step at a time and enjoy life for each of its moments. They have taught me to live now and be the best that I can be. Your blog does the same for me. Thank you guys.

Sandy Zerbinopoulos said...

Beautifully written again! Hope you find the inspiration and joy in another writer's work as much as I enjoy yours! Not only do I adore your four legged friends through the events and happenings that you have shared, but your insights help frame my life events as well. Do you have any idea how powerful your blogs, articles, and Facebook entries are for your thousands of readers? Job well done Tom Ryan! You are impacting the lives of many - few people can make that claim!

Shirley Mulholland said...

Just a simple "Thank You". You lift me up everyday.

SusanSerene said...

Tom, others have so eloquently commented on the brilliance and inspiration of your post and I will add "honesty". My life has improved so very much since I began "Following Atticus" and reading and believing the truth of your words. You are a blessing to me and to others, I know, and I thank you from the depths of my heart. Goodness returns to those who share it; we're witnessing the blessings being visited on Atticus, Will and yourself. What a joy and privilege! God bless you all. <3

barbara Grant said...

Tom, Atticus and Will,
Thank you for your blog and facebook page. Your writings have made me long for the mountains again. I live on the water, and used to be an advid skier and hiker. I was speaking with a college friend and she asked if I had been up to NH? She also brought up a life changing event that made me think back and realize I need to do the things I love and miss. I was diagnosed with breast cancer 34 years ago, treatments were very different and caused more side effects. I vowed that when I was feeling better I would never get into a rut. Well time has passed and the "rut" has come and bitten me.
Is there a particular mountain you would suggest to start? I haven't climbed or hiked in years. I am hoping to start in a couple of weeks. Any suggestions??
Good luck in Utah.

Thank you,
Barbara

Chris said...

Beautiful. Simply beautiful.

Mary McCulley said...

Ending a lovely week spent with family and friends, reminding me of what's most important in life, and just found this before sleep. MW has gotten me through some very dark times and her writings continue to guide my path. (Somehow I never outgrow her). Your writing and beliefs certainly reflect her teachings of a life path based on love, not fear. Grateful that Atticus has a wonderful vet who understands those same principles. Hope he continues to feel well, enjoying every day.

Pam Hicks said...

Isn't it great how it's completely up to us - we have the choice to attract the events & people that support our highest calling. You are such a wonderful example of this, Tom. From the very beginning when I first read Following Atticus shortly after it was published, you have been an inspiration & role model for me.....thank you :-)

Lindsey Archila said...

Tom!

So happy I found your blog! I read Following Atticus back in April and was trully inspired! Hope to see you on the trails some day!

Lindsey

Laury said...

What you've written is simply the truth. I know this to be true from the walk I've taken with my mother on this wooded path. I've also written about the absolute clarity cancer can provide on appreciating the world's beauty and the things that are most important to us. I too, have eliminated some unnecessary things from life with this new found clarity. Facebook being one of them, although I do miss reading your updates there. :) I'm off now to continue in my genealogy quest, attempting to diligently locate who my mothers birth family was as she was a black market adoption baby from Quebec in the 1950s. I may not be able to cure her cancer, but perhaps I can help uncover the mysteries of her origins. Perhaps, in a way, you're helping Atticus in a similar fashion, by providing meaningfulness in his life at a time when he needs it the most. All the best to you and Atticus...

Anonymous said...

Even though I don't catch up every day, it seems like I am guided to the website just when I need it most. I can't tell you how much I admire the positive attitude you all face the life you've been given each day. It is a reminder for the rest of us that even though the big C or some other kind of horrible disease may be in our life, it's how we live the life that matters.

Luckies said...

Beautifully written blog. Totally enjoyed it all the way. Keep doing you excellent work. Thanks

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