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, November 14, 2013

A Short But Special Journey To Ourselves


Atticus M. Finch on Square Ledge with Agiocochook in the background.
The notches can fool you, especially when winter comes for its annual visit.  It’s especially so in Franconia and Crawford, and while less so in Pinkham, the wind and cold conspire to make you think it’s much worse than it really is.  The trick is to remember that as soon as you step away from the wind tunnel near the road and enter the forest, the wind becomes a non-factor.   silent. 

That’s the way it was Wednesday in Pinkham Notch.  Stepping out of the car was a chilling (literally) experience.  The parking lot at the Appalachian Mountain Club was icy with small drifts of snow and repeated gusts battered us.  After crossing Route 16, I put my MicroSpikes on and we started down the Lost Pond Trail.  Once in the sun dappled woods the wind was a silent memory as we walked carefully over the tumult of rocks, planks, and frozen ground along the Ellis River toward the pond. 

I was happy to see Atticus moving gaily ahead of me, ears flopping, legs with a spring to them, and a gleam in his eyes whenever I caught up to him.  Quite frankly, that’s not how it’s been over the past month since chemo treatment number four.  His weekly blood work has been great, his appetite strong, and he’s downright gleeful when we are out driving from store to store and meeting our friends.  But where once we walked three times on those days we didn’t hike, totaling about four miles, he’s now only doing a single walk a mile in length.  He doesn’t want to do much more than that. 

One of our favorite hikes, along the Hedgehog loop, is five miles of heaven to us.  We return to the root-crossed trails, open ledges, and expansive views as if returning to an old friend and the mountain always welcomes us.  We know it so well I think we could walk the trails blindfolded.  But on a perfectly sunny day last week, with mild temperatures and the pleasant scent of autumn everywhere, at the one-mile mark, Atticus stopped and looked at me. 

“You okay?” I asked.

In response he sat while continuing to hold my eyes with his.

“Do you want to turn back and head home?”

With that, he stood up, gave me a knowing look, and started back the way we came.  He moved easily enough, didn’t seem tired, but he knows himself well.  For him to not want to hike says a great deal.  That’s as far as we’ve gone in the last few weeks. 

I’m reminded by those who know more about chemotherapy than I, about the cumulative consequence.  The poison kills cancer cells, but it is a coldblooded killer that has no conscience about killing good cells, as well.  Chemo is but a hired mercenary, brought in to fight another bully.  The body becomes a battlefield and at times, a wasteland. 

We knew this going into it, but it’s still tough to watch.  We’re now five treatments into the six Atticus will have, and I am quick to point out that this was my choice.  To hunt down the possibility of hiding cancer cells and get rid of them, instead of just sitting back with fingers crossed and wishful thoughts.  We walked toward the fire, and I’m happy we did. 

Over the past few months, we dealt a bit with vomiting and diarrhea and some strange side effects.  However, Dr. Rachael Kleidon and I adjusted the plan, and Atticus has adjusted, too.  That’s made things better.  But what we are dealing with now is like an invisible blanket of quiet exhaustion.  Atticus knows what he would like to do as he springs down the stairs on our way to a walk, but a hundred yards down the road he stops and wants to turn back. 

I remind myself his energy will return when the chemotherapy stops after next month’s final treatment.  I also know we are where we are supposed to be.  Neither one of us does the pity party thing.  There is no “poor me” or “poor us”.  (I even go so far as to have the moderators delete well-meaning comments on our Following Atticus Facebook page when people write, “Poor baby.”  I just don’t like the whole victim thing.) 

When we made it down to Lost Pond and turned back the way we came, I was thrilled to see Atticus decide to go up the trail to Square Ledge, instead of heading back to the car.  And it felt right to me, too.  The sound of our feet against the snow, the bite of my MicroSpikes, the soft stab of my trekking poles in powder, the way Atticus kicked up powder as we moved up the trail. 

The entire hike from trailhead to the top of Square Ledge is only half a mile, but it climbs five hundred feet in elevation, with most of it coming in the last couple of hundred yards of trail.  It’s steep…extremely so.  The rocks are a rugged mess, as if someone has blown up the mountain.  You have to be careful where you step.  So while it was only a half mile up, it was about as intense a half mile as any you see in the White Mountains.  Yet there was Atticus, bounding from rock to rock, wading through snow drifts, striding into sun and shadow under a brilliant blue sky that comes with subzero wind chill days.

Neither one of us is in good shape these days.  It’s been the least amount of hiking we’ve ever done in spring, summer, and fall.  Add to that the chemotherapy, and it’s a wildcard about how Atticus will feel on any given trek. 

But for this one day; this one startling, beautiful, breathtaking day, when wind and cold gave us a taste of what is to come, we climbed as we’ve done thousands of times before, chemo and cancer merely backdrops to the main act in front of me.  As we climbed, I watched, I smiled, at times I even laughed out loud as Atticus was who he has always been on the trails and will be soon enough again. 

Once on top, Atticus walked to the edge, sat on the windswept rock, and looked out at Mount Washington in her glorious white gown.  So beautiful!  Both mountain and dog.  I gave him some time until he got up, walked over to me, and nudged my leg with his nose.  I picked him up, our bodies pressed together, our faces side-by-side, and he sighed, let his body weight relax into my arm and chest, and we took communion together. 

In the frigid temperatures my hair had grown some icicles and I found that cold tears were running down my cheeks.  I didn’t feel sad, nor did I think I was crying, but when I felt his tongue kiss them away while they flowed, I realized the tears were for happiness and beauty and this peace we share together.  Being a fifty-two year old man, not a lot brings me to tears, but being there on the open ledge with Atticus in the midst of all we’ve been through and are going through, I found a great release.  My small friend twisted his body in my arms so that he could look at me.  He took one paw and put it on the far side of my neck and draped his head over my shoulder and together we stood silently and happy. 

By the end of the day we had hiked no more than two miles, but it came at a perfect time.  It came the day before our next to the last chemotherapy treatment.  It came when we hadn’t been hiking.  It came when we needed to feel and not just see the mountains.  Sometimes all we need is a bit of trail, a short mountain experience, a view shared with a hiking partner, and we are renewed and ready for whatever comes our way. 

This morning when Rachael Kleidon injected the poison to kill a greater poison into his front right leg, Atticus rested his head on my hand, and relaxed he napped.  I respect Atticus too much to put words in his mouth or to try to tell people what he would say if he could, but I’d like to think that as the chemotherapy was taking place, the medication he and I both needed had already been received yesterday, standing above Pinkham Notch, keeping company with the greatest of New England mountains, the one once called Agiochook.
      

27 comments:

Unknown said...

I know the peace of the hills, mountains, a big sky... a place where we all can be one with each other and with the universe. Namaste

carolyn bonier said...

Your words are an inspiration. It feels like you are an AtticusTom rather than two separate beings. Thank you for sharing your journey!

Jackie Christian said...

What an inspiration you two are! Every single day I just savor what you write. I feel your calmness and your caring and it is all good. Thank you tom, Atticus, and Will. thank you.

Derrie said...

Thank you...

Kay Kelley said...

I could feel every step you and Atticus took up the mountain. The love shared between you and Atticus shared on top of that mountain was breath taking. My heart was so happy. Thank you so much. Keep on keeping on Tom, Atticus and Will.

Pam Hicks said...

Thank you,Tom, for sharing so much about something so private & intimate. Much love to all three of you............

Sue Fox said...

Beautifully painted picture...
Thank you

C White said...

"I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out till sunset, for going out, I found, was really going in." John Muir
His words always come to mind when I read your blog and see your slide shows and movies. What a joy to read, what a spirit lifting reward for all of us who follow you, following Atticus. Thank you for sharing you and your FAMILY with all of us.

Silvia G. Soos-Kazel said...

Thank your Tom for sharing your very personal moments between you and Atticus. Your words give insight to the demon cancer and how one dog and man are facing and dealing with this fact. I for one believe you both will successfully conquer this inconvenience in your lives and will have grown from the experience. Warmest wishes to you, Atticus and Will.

Angel Judy said...

I know it isn't much to say, but all I can think of is W O W !

So happy for the two of you !

Carter W Rae said...

Tom We are so glad and grateful for Atti's continued strength and steadfastness in fighting this beast... You and your relationship with him and Will and even us out here is an inspiration , a blessing and a joy to share ... I am sure at a certain amount of emotional risk you do this but I must say It is a great journey and a privilege Following Atticus with you and your pack Truly an island in a very stormy sea around us Thank you so much Tom .. All the best and continued blessings to you!! Carter & Stacy

Anonymous said...

It was wonderful to see your post today and to hear that you and Atticus are making good progress. The mountains are an amazing healing sight and I think they'll help Atticus recover. You're really good for each other.

Jack Welsh said...

Thank you for sharing that Tom. As I reads it all I could visualize the tow of you up there. It is a very special and beautiful relationship that you have with Atticus. Unconditional love and respect. Peace.

Patrice Simon said...

Thank you for this lovely, moving tale of today's activities, and particularly allowing us to partake in the intense love that you and Atticus share. Hoping the two of you are blessed with a gentle treatment.

Anonymous said...

The last one! Best wishes to Atticus for the recovery from treatment.

I agree with you, the walks and views you managed during this time are part of the medication, What matters is that you were out there, together, enjoying what could be enjoyed. Thank you for sharing something personal and difficult, and allowing us to see love in action.

All the best to all three of you!

Anonymous said...

Onward by all means!

Rich&Joan said...

Love the Lost Pond Hike...gentle but definitely out-of-the way. Volunteers were working on the logs along the trail our last visit.

Best for your treatment.

R&J

Anonymous said...

Fantastic! What an amazing experience.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfulread Tom

Proof again it isn't the number of miles that you hike, but the number of smiles in your hike that matters. Go Atticus!

John

Anonymous said...

when will your next book be available? You are an execptional writer, word to page, great reading. Atticus, Will and Tom are our everyday adventures. Thank you. Josie and Bingo

Sandy Zerbinopoulos said...

Another very special article written with joy and beauty and thankfulness. Thank you and well,wishes for you all.

Saint of All Animals said...

Very nice post I can just imagine Atticus and you on the trail. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and Atticus's adventures with us.

Kris said...

Been really sick since my chemo. But I am so excited because I got my Atticus mug today! Makes me smile and lifts my spirits. I pray that Atticus is not feeling as sick. Praying for you, Atticus and Will and myself as well.

Betty and Lenny said...

Hi Tom,

We hope today finds the three of you warm and feeling rested.

We talk about you daily when we read your posts … we appreciate the connection through the screen and the sweet memory we made with you and Atticus in CT.

Our hearts have been touched and we are grateful.

In three weeks we are taking a road trip south and will listen to the audio book for the second time - so looking forward to hearing your voice.

Please know you, Atticus, and Will are on our hearts and in our minds.

Until we meet again (Lenny's convinced we will) continued peace, warmth, and love to you and all you hold dear!

Feel the hugs,
Betty and Lenny


SusanSerene said...

And so I begin my day with the delightful blessing of reading about you and Atticus sharing your gentle communion in your beloved mountains. Thank you, always, for sharing, Tom, and for letting us experience the bond of love you and Atti share. He's a wise creature to know his limits, even more wise to be seizing each day, living and loving with confidence. Atticus is my inspiration, Will my spiritual guide and you, Tom, are the guardian, the keeper of the stars. My life is forever changed through you three. Thank you. ❤️

Anonymous said...

Tom Ryan the more that I read your blog, the deeper in love I fall for you! Through your writing you have touched my core. Thank you for being the wonderful person that you are.

Anonymous said...

I hope I don't lose this note as I already did. I haven't quite finished the book about Atticus and have been talking about you two. I am so enamored
by the two of you. I have a little rescue dog and we are soul mates but You an Atticus are one being. I pray for many people and you are now in my prayers also. the best of everything to you and Atticus.