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, October 31, 2013

Facing the Bully

 
The authentic journey is the one we're faced with.
We’re feeling a bit like Sisyphus these days.  Every four weeks we start from scratch by pushing that boulder up the mountain again, only to return to the base and begin again after each chemotherapy treatment.  During the weeks after each treatment our hikes get longer and more arduous, and Atticus does well with them, but he lets me know what he needs and in the week following the injection of poison whose job is to take on a greater poison; he’s simply tired. 

That’s okay.  It’s what I expected, and I think the treatments as a whole are going as well as we could have expected.  I knew when the first hint of cancer arose that we had to get rid of the toe, then when the tests biopsies following the amputation showed clean margins I was well aware there was a chance cancer could come back again. 

I did my research; trusted Rachael Kleidon, our veterinarian and friend, for her input; talked it over with friends, but in the end it was my decision.  I knew we’d be giving up a solid six months of hiking, including the best months of the year on the trails.  I also knew, however, that I’m no fan of bullies and cancer is the ultimate bully.  So the decision ended up being an easy one.  Instead of hoping it stayed away, praying Atticus would always be safe, but always fearing its reappearance, and then being forced to play catch up if and when the bully came knocking again, we faced jumped into the fire.  Yes, Atticus is the one receives the injections in one his front legs every four weeks, but we face everything as a “we”, including this dance with cancer.     

Atticus is so comfortable he falls asleep during the treatments, and I am just as comfortable.  Over the handful of days following each treatment, we take our time, just hang out together in the yard, and we nap.  We do that a lot.  After the most recent chemotherapy treatment, I was glad Atticus wanted to go for a walk.  That hasn’t been the case recently on chemo or post-chemo days.  We did our usual 1.4 mile loop that used to be nothing more than an afterthought, but on that day, we poked slowly along, and it took us close to an hour.  But still, we were out there, and I was grateful for that.

Another thing to be grateful for is as of late Atticus's appetite is better, and we’ve made it through the nights without incident. No diarrhea. No vomiting. All good signs.

I take note of such things, but I don’t fixate or obsess.  It’s a lot like going on a winter hike here in the White Mountains.  I plan for the worst, hope for the best.  Either way, I am prepared for the tough and the easy. 
One of the side effects of the cancer I wasn’t ready for is that it seems that everyone who has had a dog in his or her life who has fought it has reached out to me. The messages are typically in one of two forms. People either lost a dog to cancer, and they are expecting that Atticus will die as well.  Or surgery and/or chemotherapy was successful, and they deliver to me a “been there, done that” cavalier message.  Although they mean well, I'm not a big fan of either and tend to ignore the messengers and what they have to say.
 
During the summer of 2005, when Atticus and I hiked the forty-eight four thousand foot peaks in eleven weeks, we were only about a quarter of the way through the list on a day when we were on our most ambitious hike of the summer up to that point.  We’d been over North and South Twin and were resting at Galehead Hut before making the short ascent up the mountain with the same name.  There was a large group of women hiking together, and they’d been at it a long time.  One of them had two dogs with her.  I was so happy Atticus and I had accomplished what we had and eager for the adventures of the rest of the summer when this one particular woman talked about her hikes and the quest we were on, she seemed bored and her exact words were: “Been there, done that.” 

Walking down the trail that afternoon, just Atticus and me once again, I thought of her words and decided I would never take that approach with anyone, no matter how many mountains Atticus and I ended up climbing.  We all have our own reasons for climbing mountains, and I do my best to approach every other hiker, especially new ones, with a sense of respect and reverence for their personal journey.  In our own life, I tend to approach each peak with reverence and respect, not to mention a sense of wonder.   

Well, this dance with cancer is the same way for me.  We didn’t choose cancer.  It chose us.  Nevertheless I looked upon it as a new adventure.  There were gifts to be discovered along the way that would be revealed only to us.  I didn’t want to belong to any support groups.  I didn’t want to hear that the sky is falling or that we had nothing to worry about.  Cancer and chemotherapy may not be the same as climbing a mountain in the sense that it’s not much fun at any time throughout the process, but to me it represents a personal experience and the authenticity helps shape us.  What we make of it, what we take from it, becomes part of our story and part of who we are.  I don't want that devalued in any way. 

Considering all we've been through, am I happy with the decision to have chemotherapy I made?

Happy wouldn’t be the right word. I am convinced, however, that I made the correct decision. I'm also thrilled that we stuck with Rachael giving the treatments at North Country Animal Hospital even though it's something they (and she) have only done there once before (for a staff member's dog). I went with my heart, knowing Rachael understands the relationship Atticus and I share and because she allows me to be with him throughout all the treatments.  That wouldn’t have been the case if we had gone to some expert in a more sterile facility in Portland, Portsmouth, or Boston.  Not only would they not allow me to sit with him through the chemotherapy treatments, they wouldn’t have allowed me to be with him during the surgery and the recovery.  It may not be the way other people would have done it, but it’s been the path I chose, and it’s now the journey he and I are on.   And to paraphrase Maya Angelou, “We wouldn’t take nothing for our journey now.” 
 
If Atticus has a weakness, it's when we are away from each other. I never taught him how to do that and like all good hiking partners; we go through thick and thin together. His sleeping through a treatment shows how at ease he is, how this is but another mountain for us to climb, and how we are exactly where we are supposed to be.  Yes, we deal with stretches where he lacks energy and are missing out on many of the hikes we planned on, but on this current journey we are very near the views at the top.  And when all is said and done, and the chemotherapy is a thing of the past, we won’t have to worry that bully coming back into our lives. 

This is our journey, our mountain, our life, and we’re writing the story we wish to live in. I believe that when we face a fear and eat the fear, it allows us to make strengths out of our weaknesses and give us courage where once we only had fear.  Do this with someone you love and it’s all the more special – and all the more meaningful.
    
 

31 comments:

Nancy Roper said...

Beautifully said. I personally want to thank you for allowing me feel as if I am a part of this journey. The vulnerability you expose is inspiring. I only pray that I am just as authentic in my own life and with those that share it.

Shannon Zapf said...

Beautiful. I'm so glad that you and Atticus have each other. Enough said (by me, anyway). :)

Pam Hicks said...

As always, thanks, Tom & much love to you & Atti & Will.

Lewis Green said...

Thanks, as always, for sharing. You, Atticus and Will have taught me much about life. And at age 67, I know I still have much to learn. Your stories are one of the blessings I have received in my nearly seven decade journey. I look forward o receiving more.

argolouse said...

Thank you for your perspective and appreciation for your companion and everyone else. I think of you and Atticus (and Will) when things go right and not so right. One day at a time.

Dave O'Terp said...

Having faced cancer in our human and animal family several times over the past decade, I find myself silently mouthing "yes" as I read your post.

Each journey was different, each ending was different, and all the travelers were deserving of respect for traversing the peaks and valleys in their own way.

Thank you again for sharing your insight and love.

schnauzergrrl said...

O, to conquer the fear. Beautifully said, as usual. Thank you, Tom and Atticus.

Christina Traven said...

Thank you once again for sharing the journey .... and some of life's lessons.

travelgardeneat.com said...

This is one of my favorite posts to-date -- and it is because of that paragraph in the middle where you remind us of the wonder even while in the repetition of life -- to not take away from someone else that wonder with a "been there, done that" attitude, and to try and renew that spark for yourself each day. Arguably every morning we get up is a "been there, done that" moment, but what a gratitude-filled moment it should be, each and every day. Thank you, Tom, Atticus and Will for continuing to share your journey. ~ Kat

Michelle Gray said...

Dave O'Terp said it so well...I echo his sentiments. Every mountain, every challenge, every time we face whatever bully challenges us, it's a different experience. And while some aspects may be similar with previous experiences or another's experiences, it's never the same. And people (and animals) should be treated with respect and reverence always, for you never know what bullies or challenges they are facing. No one deserves to have their experiences minimized. Thank you for sharing part of your life with us.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

Dearest Tom, Atticus and Will:
Your words always touch the core of my heart. The bonding you have with Atticus and Will is something so rare...something I believe I have with my animals - Prince Midnight Shadow - my youngest rescue - a black as night giant schnauzer; Sir Shakespeare Hemingway, my mini-schnauzer; Sir Hankster the Prankster, another mini-schnauzer, rescued, fostered and adopted within our family; and Sandy Bear Sebastian, our blonde mini-schnauzer. With each of our precious boys, we have a special bonding - something close to what you share with Atticus and Will. I look forward to your posts on Facebook, and the blog and I have shared your stories with all of my fans on Facebook. Your words of inspiration fulfill something to all of your fans, simply because you open your heart and share, while teaching so many that we must move Onward...we must have faith, belief and inspiration within our daily lives, and we must have gratitude -- for life, family, friends and so much more. We must fight the bully of cancers while believing that this too shall pass. You teach us to let go of anger while finding the tiny mustard seed of gratitude that is necessary for our lives. Your words teach us to let go and to heal. Bless you, Tom as you and Atticus climb the mountains in life. Bless you for caring and loving Will during the twilight of his life. You have given him a new lease on life while teaching us to move ONWARD! As a writer, I find inspiration in your words. As a foster, and the mommy of my precious babies, I find my heart swells with love for them every time I read your caring words. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

This post really resonates with me. My dad has had stage 4 cancer for three years, and every time I see him, I'm so grateful that he's still himself. Yes, he's lost a lot of weight, and yes, he's having to cope with pain, but his mind is clear, his sense of humor is intact, and his basic decency still shines through. Some day, this won't be the case, but for now, I'm thankful that it is. When I look at him, I see Dad, just as I suspect that when you look at Atticus, you see *him,* Atti, the Little Buddha, *not* Atticus-my-dog-with-cancer. What a gift! Thanks for sharing it with us. (And hugs to Will.)

Lis Boucher said...

Any fight is more easily won with the one you love beside you. Onward......

Anonymous said...

With each writing, you are doing so much to heal and give courage. Thank you for that!! Showing authentic love, caring and understanding is such a gift to us all.

Anonymous said...

I have come to realize that life is drama, a barrage of goodness and muck that happens to all periodically. No rhyme or reason. Some drama is brought on by our own random thoughtless or thoughtful behavior and some not but I learned through you that it isn't so much the thing that's important but how we deal with the thing. Our actions or reactions are our defining moments. I admire your friendship with your best friends and truly appreciate your taking the time to share.

Anonymous said...

Your words are always such an inspiration! You truly "get it" and without a doubt go "onward." Bless you & Atticus & Will

Carter W Rae said...

Tom, your word smithing is a real inspiration to us all ... our continued healing thoughts, prayers and deep appreciation for your desire to share this for we all have the times as we push our load along and get strength form others that do the same .... Much love and respect from us to you and the crew there .... Onward by all means ♥♥♥♥

Anonymous said...

Tom - you're a very strong person and Atticus is very fortunate to have you and you to have him. I think you were "meant for each other". I do hope and pray that Atticus and you both come through this trial and that you'll both be better for it.

I've not experienced this and hope I never have to with my beloved Schnauzer.

Silvia G. Soos-Kazel said...

Thank you Tom and Atticus~~your journey of self determination and courage give example and encouragement to those you are or may face similar. Everyone has to do it their own way when fighting a bully like cancer. Tho your demeanor has been of a partnership with shared love, respect, support and only looking forward. Seems like an equation for total success!

Lori JK said...

Thank you for sharing your journey once again.

JennieP said...

This was definitely worth the wait, Tom. Each of us lives a life full of ups and downs...good times and bad. I love the Maya Angelou paraphrased quote, "Wouldn't take nothing for my journey now." None of us knows what our journey is, until it occurs. We make the best decisions we can with the information we have at that moment. I think, with the experiences you have had, you have learned to make your decisions and see the positives. You yourself "ate" your fear of the dark by purposefully hiking with Atti after dark and finding comfort in his presence...relegating those fears to a far distant place where they didn't bother you any longer. I think you and Atticus were meant to be together...to help each other thru thick and thin, good and bad. To use a REALLY trite phrase, you "complete each other". I'm very thankful that Atti is on the back side of his chemo and that he seems to be weathering them better. I'm also very thankful for your wisdom, your insights into human nature, and your sharing with us your most unique relationships with Atticus and Will. WE are the blessed ones. Onward, Ryan clan...ever onward.

Debbie said...

Strength, perseverance and love. The greatest strengths of your relationship.

1HappyHiker said...

Tom, while reading this post, this quote kept coming to mind: " . . . grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.”
― William Wordsworth, Ode: Intimations Of Immortality From Recollections Of Early Childhood

PawtographLove said...

Tom, I love your blog and following your story. Atticus, who to me just happens to be a dog but I believe is really an multi-faceted character (that rivals some people I've known.) Your story makes me think about friends and friendship - not pets nor species. I just wanted to post a note to say that sharing your story really opens your story up - to the wonderful and to the unfortunate. For you to choose to be that open -- well I only hope that this community that loves you so gives you what you really need, and when you most need it. Bless you Tom, and may all warms your heart and nourishes your soul be abundant in your life. Thank you for the inspiration -- I love how you celebrate life and friendship.

Anonymous said...

Tom, My Mom, who you met in Meredith at the book signing two summers ago is facing the bully again at 91. She has me with her on this journey which we are both grateful for & I do believe I am right where I am suppose to be!
A very special thanks to you, Atticus & Will for sharing your life! <3

Betty and Lenny Fagen said...

In life we are dealt cards that we were not given an opportunity to select. It is our choice to play the hand or just give up. I try to play the hand each time and make the best outcome possible … I can live with the fact that I gave it all I could and didn't sit in the corner forever feeling sorry for me.

I was told 12 years during one of the most difficult hands, when the BULLY visited me, to pick my path of treatment and not look back and question my choice. To move forward, be a warrior, stay as strong as possible each day, and learn from my new normal.

I believe that I did and I hear it in your posts and blogs, too. BULLY beware!

Thankfully, the Yankee fan and I spend our days doing as much laughing and sharing as possible.

You, Atticus, & Will are always in our thoughts and on our hearts.

Enjoy a peaceful weekend.
Betty and Lenny

PS Congratulations on the Red Sox win!

Stephann1417 said...

As always, that was beautifully said. I have not commented here before, but never miss your blogs or Facebook updates since reading "Following Atticus" a year ago. Your incredible insight and truly heartfelt philosophy resound for me. Wishing only the best for Atticus, Will and you.

Ang said...

I haven't looked at the blog in awhile and just stopped in and saw about Atticus's battle. Sending our positive thoughts from Pittsburgh!

Saint of All Animals said...

I think Atticus and you are incredible. I wish you both luck and lots of prayers for both. In my own life I have done the been there done that thing to others and I try not to do that now. Very nice post.

Kris said...

Okay, Atticus, I am going to be brave like you! I was in remission for 2 years but now it's back. My first chemo is tomorrow. I am going to be thinking of you while I do my treatment. You, Will and your dad inspire me. I love following you on your blog and Facebook.

From your friend and fellow cancer fighter....Kris

Connie Ellis said...

A friend of mine, Netagene, turned me on to your website. I am an animal lover myself and was deeply touched by the obvious affection you and Atticus share. It takes a good person to give of himself as freely as you have.

Connie from Alabama