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 03, 2013

Gratitude

This afternoon I turned off my phone, turned up the music, plugged in my ear buds,
and began to write this column about gratitude.  When I opened the door to take
Will outside, this is what I found.  And that's what this column is about. Thank you.
A missing toe.  Two broken ears. Eyes that see little more than shapes and shadows.  Bad hips.  A chemotherapy needle.  All things to be grateful for, at least in our world. 

I’ve come to believe that wherever we are, whatever we are facing – we are right where we are supposed to be.  There’s no controlling outside influences but what we can do is decide how we want to see them. 

When fifteen year old Will was discarded with his bad hips, eyes, and ears at a kill shelter his life must have seemed over to him.  The only family he’d ever known let him down.  Rumor has it they grew too old to take care of him, but when he arrived in our lives my first thought was they must have been too old to take care of him from day one because he was in such sorry shape and pain.  On the first day Atticus and I took him in, he bit me several times.  He’d keep this up for a couple of months.  Always growling.  Always snarling.  Always fearful.  Never trusting. 

Early this past summer Atticus was struggling with a toe injury. We thought he caught his nail on something and it ripped away from the nail bed.  Two weeks passed, the toe worsened, eventually it abscessed.  We moved quickly and it was amputated.  Biopsy results showed cancer, but it looked as though we got it all.  Later tests revealed it had been moving so rapidly we took a proactive stance and started chemotherapy, with the idea that it’s easier to fight cancer cells when they are just forming than playing catch up with one of life’s greatest thieves.

Will hadn’t been here very long before I notice that with all his faulty senses, he loved smelling the wildflowers in our yard.  So I started to court him. Once a week I bought him flowers.  He’d sniff them repeatedly and seemed to find peace. Occasionally, I’d put them next to his head when he was napping and when awakened he’d inhale, seemed to sigh, and then lay his head back on them and went back to sleep. 

When I told this story on our blog and Following Atticus Facebook page this past spring a most unusual thing happened.  A once-discarded, broken, and angry dog started receiving flowers – from all around the world!  In the past several months more than a hundred bouquets have come in for him from people he’s never met but have read his story and want him to be happy.

The day we decided to amputate Atticus’s toe, I also announced it on our blog and Facebook page.  I would later learn that the phone at North Country Animal Hospital started ringing and a day later more than $2,000 had come in from donations – once again from all over the world.  (The donations covered the surgery and the first three chemo treatments, only now have I started paying for Atticus’s medical bills with my own money.  This not only stunned me and the staff at North Country Animal Hospital, it humbled us and brought tears to many an eye.) 

Strangely, as Will gets older and creeps closer to death, he’s more content than ever.  Strangely, when Atticus’s cancer arrived it, I spent a few minutes to break down, then became strong again, as you do for a good friend, and the strength between us grew just as it had on all those winter peaks we climbed together in both the best and worst of conditions.  We’d been challenged before.  We had this, no matter the outcome. We were right where we belonged.  Most importantly we were together…come what may. 

All of his had me thinking of nothing but how fortunate we all are.  Sure, Atticus and I had been kept off the trails for months and away from what we love.  And Will, I imagine, will soon be gone because ailments come and go and seem more serious as of late, but in the seventeen months he’s lived with us he’s grown to love and allow himself to be loved and he’s truly become a pleasure to have around. 

At another time in my life even the smallest misfortune would have upset the apple cart and yet here I found myself smiling through what would have crippled me in the past.  I kept counting my blessings.  Numerous people sent me cards, letters, and emails talking of mourning and expressing how sad they were for the three of us and telling me they knew how I felt.  But even though they were being kind, they had no idea how I felt, for I wasn’t and I’m not mourning the eventual loss of Will.  How can I not celebrate seventeen months when I thought we’d have but two with a thankless and angry old dog?  Nor am I fearing cancer.  I figure if anyone should have to dance with that despicable disease, it’s Atticus and me, because we’re built for it. 

In spite of the darkness I’ve held onto the stars: two good souls and the support of thousands of people, most of whom we’d never met.  The challenges Atticus, Will, and I face are ours to climb, but we’re doing it with a safety net of kindness, prayers, and the most powerful love I’ve ever witnessed. 

How do you say thank you to something like that?  I decided to give the one thing we most appreciate in life, the one gift we cherish more than any other.  So it was announced that Atticus and I, famed for hiking on our own accept for the rarest of occasions, would take twelve Facebook followers on a hike.  I figured we’d get fifty requests to join us  but within three days we were flooded with 1,500 requests to follow Atticus.  So instead of a dozen, we decided on twenty-three people from around the country.

They started arriving in our hometown of Jackson today.  California, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine are all represented on what we’re calling the Following Atticus Gratitude Hike.  We have an eleven-year-old, one in his twenties, two in their thirties, four in their sixties, the remaining fifteen in their forties and fifties.  These individuals, the vast majority of, we have never met even in passing, will do something we don’t even do with our friends.  They’ll hike with us and we’ll share with them the glory of New Hampshire’s stunning White Mountains.  Most are not hikers, but that’s okay.  We weren’t hikers at one point either. 

These are twenty-three very different folks.  A few couples are in the mix, one father and daughter team, a mother and daughter as well, but twenty-three individuals.  What they have in common is that they’ve been following a little black and white dog over mountains, down into valleys, under the brightest of lights, and through the darkest of times.  They’ve also fallen for old, broken down Will.  Some see him as their personal hero.  I’ve heard from several: “If Will can survive all he’s been through, I can survive what I’m barely enduring.” 

Atticus is doing well half way through his chemotherapy.  Will, although faltering here and there, is doing well in the last chapter of his life.  That brings us to me.  And here’s how I feel – grateful.  I am grateful for what the three of us share in good and rough times.  I wake up saying prayers expressing that gratitude and every day is Thanksgiving for there is always something to be thankful for.  I’m grateful that we are together.  I’m grateful we have started hiking again on the better days, albeit it short hikes.  I’m grateful that people care enough about Atticus and Will to send flowers and cards and handmade quilts.  And I’m grateful that Atticus, Will, and I are all where we are supposed to be. 

On Saturday morning we’ll have breakfast with this crew and after we drop Will off with a dear friend for a day of care and comfort, the rest of us will head to a mountain and Atticus and I will show our thanks on the summit as we always have.  But this time we’ll also be thanking twenty-three people who represent thousands upon thousands of others who care and invest their hearts and thoughts in every step of our journey.

Today as we were driving down the road from our house, just two miles away, I found it fitting that we were passing Storyland, as we do every day.  Because life is indeed a fairytale, if only we choose to see it that way.  And that's what I've learned to do. 

In a dysfunctional world where religious fanatics use bombs to kill people in the name of God, where those who are supposed to represent us in government make fools of themselves and glorify their own egos, where broken people kill school children or employees at shipyards, where we pollute and smother the air and water and earth we need for life, and animals are abused out of both cruelty and ignorance, I count my blessings.  Among those blessings are the following. A missing toe.  Two broken ears. Eyes that see little more than shapes and shadows.  Bad hips.  A chemotherapy needle. 

And two little dogs who are great souls.
 

33 comments:

Melanye said...

As always, a beautiful thought-provoking blog. It actually brought me to tears when I think of the petty things that can set me off. I need to remember all the little things that make my life beautiful. I will be thinking of you all on Saturday as you hike in the lovely mountains. Atticus & Will never fail to bring a smile to me. Love to you all.

Karen said...

Well said. Thanks for the reminder.

Krista said...

I came across your book at my school's book fair last year. I love dogs and my husband and I rescued our own Mini-Schanuzer, Trixie, in January of 2011. Then, through the grace of friendship, my high school English teacher started following you on Facebook and I am so glad I found you and Atticus there. I have been debating on when to read Following Atticus, as I'm seriously chomping at the bit to read about your adventures. I can't decide if I want to read this on my own or with my 5th grade students.

Tom, I am in love with your story and your dogs. Atticus and Will represent a lot in life right now. Thank you for sharing your story in so many ways.

Hearts and flowers to you, Atticus, and Will.

Shannon Zapf said...

Thank you, Tom. I wish you, Atticus, Will, and all of the friends well this weekend. Have a great time!!! Be safe.

Lisa in N.C. said...

Your writings become more beautiful every time you write, Tom. What a beautiful blog you have written today. I do believe you are drinking from your saucer because your cup has run over! As always, my thoughts and prayers are with you and the boys, and now all of these wonderful people you will be sharing the hike with on Saturday. So happy to know my home state is represented on the Gratitude Hike. I too, have much to be grateful for. I'm keenly aware of that, and your writings and posts reinforce my awareness. Of all the things I am grateful for, your heart is one of them. The way you care for Atticus. The way you took an old, broken, throw-away dog and gave him warmth, safety, security and love. Sometimes it's all just too much and my eyes spill over with tears of joy for these two little boys. And for you also. I suspect they have done just as much for you as you have for them. I know that all of your guests on the hike will have a thrilling day. My prayer is that everyone has a wonderful time and a successful hike. And for you, Tom, that you will receive as much love, joy, happiness, comfort and happiness as you give.

Jack Daley said...

Wonderfully written as always Tom! As much as I can't wait to hike with both you and Atticus, it is Will's story of triumph over his own physical failings and those of his previous family that really makes me smile. To see him hop across the yard seems nothing short of a miracle. However long he has, you have granted the possibility of living out his remaining time with Dignity.Onward by all means!

Kim Hampton said...

Thank you, as always, for the wonderful post. I find comfort in your words as we are facing the loss of my husband's 20 year old son from cancer. It means so much to me to be able to comfort my husband with all that you share, for the words and thoughts resonate on so many levels.

I so wish I could be with you all on the Gratitude hike, and in my imagination I will be - drinking in the magic of the mountains and the loving energy from this amazing group of folks all centered around one amazing little Buddha. I read Following Atticus when it first came out, loved it, read it to my husband, shared it with friends, read it again - laughed, cried, smiled, and counted my blessings...who knew it would be such a very special journey, and what a joy to be part of it.

Wishing you all a wonderful hike, full of magic, healing, inspiration, spectacular views, and enjoying the closeness to heaven that the mountains bring.
<3

Lori JK said...

Amen.

Barb Cuffley said...

Sending my warmest wishes for the success of your weekend. Thank you for sharing your life and story. Onward and ever upward!

Silvia G. Soos-Kazel said...

My gratitude to you Tom, Will and Atticus for helping me continually to see the good in my life and be appreciative. Though a bit like Will, I do stumble about with a cane now a days, but hopefully that can be altered in the next few months. I try to tell myself it is just an inconvenience and how much better I am off considering what others must face on a daily basis. God has thrown me some curve balls during my lifetime, but never such that I couldn't, as you say continue to proceed onward and upward. I thank my dear Parents and wonderful persons like yourself who give encouragement that is the light at the end of the tunnel to survive daily existence. You show that looking for the positive instead of lamenting about the negative brings the happiness to ones life~to really enjoy the life we have been bestowed and blessed with. As you share the gratitude of the Ryan 3 this weekend with a representation of FA fans and friends, I will also in spirit relish your gratitude gift. Happy and safe trails to you, Atti and the GH team!

Carter W Rae said...

And you Tom our wonderful friend that makes THREE beautiful souls Thanks for allowing us to share this wonderful journey Following Atticus you and William of course Have a beautiful hike with you in spirit as always From us

Millicent Conover said...

Thank you.

Terry Schaulat said...

You three are each my heros. I can't even imagine a day going by anymore without "Following Atticus". The journey of life is indeed magical, if we choose to see it that way. You are so right about the world too, Tom, and about the change in our country. But for 23, (or should we say 24 + 2?) this weekend will mark a break from all that, and gratitude will reign. I have kept a "grateful journal" for many years, to look back upon and cherish even the smallest of events. I have a feeling this weekend will be life-changing for many, if not all, on the Gratitude Hike. The lives of Atticus and Will will never be forgotten, in your heart certainly, but in the lives of thousands of others. The love so many feel for you three transcends time and space, and it doesn't matter that we've never met. You take all of us up that mountain in spirit, as we take Atticus and Will in our hearts daily. The Hike is a dear gesture, to all of us who have been blessed by the "Following Atticus" family, through your words, pictures, and videos. I wish you the most amazing weekend, with God's blessings for the safety of all, and the health and happiness of the three most wonderful souls I've never met. :D

Kelly Woods Lynch said...

Reading your beautiful post and the many heartfelt comments in response, it occurs to me that at this point in time, I simply can't remember a day when I haven't thought of first the Jackson Two, and then the Jackson Three! Indeed, it's your Facebook page that is the first one I turn to ... I have been brought to tears by your poignant posts, witnessed beauty and friendship via your videos, and held my breath with the rest of your followers when Will had his stroke early in his arrival, when Atticus had his surgery, and as "we" all awaited his test results.

Your previous vet and now Dr. Kleidon ... your local florist ... the groomer -- I feel at this point as if they are around the corner in my little town, too!

But most importantly, I am thankful to be shown true perspective thanks to your writing. I eager await stories from the amazing weekend you have planned.

Onward by all means -- you and your 23 companions!

George G. said...

A friend of mine recently posted "what if all you had tomorrow was what you were grateful for today." Simple and profound, and that would find you, Atticus and Will in good shape. Gratitude is best when practiced daily, and often.

Stu Harrison said...

I'm reminded of an old saying - "Jump and the net will appear"
Stu Harrison
Peterborough Ontario

Pam Hicks said...

Just simply, Thank You, Tom, Atti. Will :-)

Jennie Gillihan said...

Oh, Tom, you've brought me to tears yet again. I know the things you say about Will are true, that he has known love and trust and been able to return both to you in the last 17 months...but after losing my best little friend and my heart in July, Will's situation just brings me to tears. I feel that I have known you three all of Will's life. Reading about your adventures with Atti on the peaks of New England...watching sweet, sweet Will doing his bunny hope around the yard...all these things just touch my heart so much. And your writing is so personal that it touches each of us in a special way. You have drawn the thousands of us into your daily lives and I for one can't start my day without checking in with you guys. I hope you all have the most magical and wonderful weekend up in Atti's favorite places...among the clouds. Thank you, thank you for allowing us to share your day-to-day lives...it means more than you know. Jennie

Priscilla Maccallum said...

Hi Tom,
I look forward to reading your blog and your daily FB posts. Thank you for sharing your life and adventures with Atticus and Will with all of us! I am so happy that Will's last chapter is being filled with love, comfort, contentment, flowers, delicious treats and warm blankies. Also thrilled that Atti's chemo treatments are going fairly well. He is such a trooper. He has touchd the heart and soul of thousands.

Wishing the Gratitude Hikers a beautiful fall day. I wish I were going along, but will be there in spirit and waiting anxiously to see photos and hear about your hikes. It sounds like an AMAZING group of people you have invite. Glad to see that Hampton is well represented.i am sure some lifelong friendships will be formed on a very memorable hike. Such a beautiful gesture on your part . Love to you all and happy hiking.

Sue Hockley said...

Thank you Tom, beautiful. With love to Atticus and Will and have a fabulous weekend.

Anonymous said...

As always, thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings. Wishing everyone a good time with Tom, Atticus & Will this weekend.

Kay in Va. said...

Much love for Atticus, the cutie of distinction, for precious Will, and for Tom....a most loving protector of both their hearts. Have a blessed weekend. May the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi go with you on your climb. Onward by all means :)

Kathleen Sachs said...

Tom, your writing is so lyrical, it reads like poetry to me. I'm grateful that you created the Gratitude Hike, and that I am not going hiking! I love following the story of how it got created, then expanded, then expanded again as you allow more people in.It's been fascinating to read the stories of those who have been selected & what it means to them. I am a walker on flat ground, rather than a climber of mountains. My magical dog is named MiniMe (because she looks just like our older rescued dog, Angel.) Since January, we have been doing Pet Therapy visits to people in Hospice and it has reinforced my desire to live in gratitude.Some of the most powerful experiences of my life (I turned 62 TODAY) have happened in these moments of touching someone's life, however briefly. MiniMe knows instinctively how to be with each person - sometimes sitting, sometimes laying next to them or across them. She requires no response from them, has no need for recognition and when she is done, she looks up at me and I take her off the bed.I have the immense pleasure of watching this gift and communication, and know that in this moment, it is good enough. Thanks for expressing so well what I can not yet adequately describe.

Deb said...

Just sending love, and lots of it. Hope the hike is a wonderful day for all involved <3

Anne K said...

The only prayer you ever need is thanks... Thank you for your gift

Carole Ormiston said...

It seems like there is so much to be upset about in the world now. So many things I an do nothing about, but wish I could. So many injustices to be angry about, and so many tragedies. I worry about what kind of a world my infant grandson will have to live in.
Yet I am very grateful for my life, which has been very good to me.
This is the first time I've read Following Atticus. it won't be the last!
What you wrote has inspired me to let go of the negative worries and try harder to do as many positive things as I possibly can. I it so beautifully simple, a change of focus, looking up from the dark into the light.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Tom! This was perfect for me to read this morning! My Mom, who you met last summer at the book signing in Meredith is at the same stage in life that Will is & like Atticus is dealing with cancer. It is a gift to be a part of her journey & we are where we should be in life! Very grateful!

GranSan said...

I am grateful that I was introduced to the three of you and that you share each day a part of this country that I have never seen. You show me the beauty of the mountains, the creatures of the area and every once in awhile a glimpse of something I truly love - a mountain stream. I could sit and watch one all day long. I'm grateful that you share your friends Atticus and Will. And I'm sure that when the day comes for Will to leave I will shed many tears with you -sad but happy because you have given him joy and happiness in the last years of his laugh. You have let him dance. You have given him music and flowers to smell.

Elsa said...

..and I am grateful for you, Tom. You have brought perspective to my outlook. You exemplify the lessons of Gratitude. Most especially, you have shared the story of the two beautiful souls who live with you. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

You guys will be in my thoughts all day tomorrow - enjoy the day, the mountains, the fall air, the foliage - I know you will be ever thankful for what you are able to share with the people who are hiking with you, and all of us that they are representing! Onward - by all means

Rocky said...

I liked the column a lot.

Baby Rocket Dog and Hootie said...

We too are grateful for small blessings and large ones too. A lovely post.

Ivana said...

Another beautiful and kind contribution, that is for me caress your soul. I would write more, but who knows how bad it Google Translate.
I send greetings to all the big three.