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.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Traditions

Yes, where we go is important, but not nearly as
important as who we share the journey with.
Some traditions should be protected; others should fade as memories do, and we should make room for new ones that elevate us.  Coming from a big family, it’s akin to sacrilege to step away from something we’ve done for decades, but for me there came a time when I wanted something different.  So over the last several Thanksgivings, Atticus and I have not driven to our crowded family gathering, but instead stayed in the mountains.  Weather permitting; we look for an empty trailhead and climb a solitary mountain.  This is not difficult to do since on Thanksgiving; the trails are as quiet as a whisper. 

I don’t think there’s ever been a mountain I did not give thanks on.  Yet, on Thanksgiving it seems especially so.  Perhaps it’s knowing that while most of the rest of the country is caught up in where they are expected to be, Atticus and I are instead where we want to be.  While the eastern seaboard is manic with traffic and plane and train travel, we are alone – blissfully alone.  There is no football.  No big meal.  No family dysfunction to wade through like a minefield while trying to force a Hallmark moment out of fractured relations.  It’s just the mountain, Atticus, and me.    

It’s for this reason, the stepping away from the complicated to the simple, and the contrast of who I once was to who I am now, that Thanksgiving has become my favorite day to hike.  Rarely if ever do we ever see others out on the trails.  And when we return to our humble little home after a day of hiking, I feel far more filled with gratitude than I ever have after a day of eating a huge meal, sandwiched between traditional appetizers, and multiple servings of pie.

In the weeks leading up to the holiday, friends will often ask what our plans are.  When I tell them we are spending Thanksgiving alone they bristle and express worry about us.  We then get numerous invitations to join them.  I assure them that we’ll be off on our own by choice and there is no sadness attached to it; they don’t seem to believe me though.  But, after all the football games are over, the turkey carved, the pumpkin pie eaten, the long drive home, and getting ready for a round of compulsive holiday shopping, they often say to me, “I wish I’d done what you and Atticus did.”  I understand that they don’t always mean climb a mountain.  Typically it’s more about spending a holiday the way they wished they could. 

Last Thanksgiving we climbed Little Haystack, Lincoln, Truman, and Lafayette on a crystal clear Thanksgiving Day.  We did see others, but only a handful of people.  On Black Friday, a perfectly colored description of the day, we climbed South Moat.  It was so warm I wore shorts.  How fitting it was to stand high up above the outlet stores of North Country, turn my back to them, and gaze off into the Pemigewasset Wilderness where nature presides.  Through both hikes, my heart was filled with things I was grateful for.  It was a true Thanksgiving. 

In past years, we’ve hiked parts of the Presidential Range; Waumbek; the Carter-Moriah Range; the Kinsmans; and on Crawford, Resolution, and Giant Stairs on the holiday.  I’ve never regretted it and at times I even think, “Where should we go next year?” with excited anticipation. 

This Thanksgiving, however, it appears we will be breaking tradition again.  Not out of choice, but out of necessity.  The cumulative effect of the chemotherapy has been wearing Atticus down.  It’s not the occasional vomit, or the night of chemo tremors.  It’s more like a general malaise when it comes to exercise.  When people see Atticus and I out in the car or at the post office or in a store, they can’t tell anything is wrong.  He greets them, often gives them a smile, and is happy.  However, when it is just him and me, I notice it.  Where we used to go for three walks a day, now it is often only a single short one.  Our hikes have mostly stopped, although I still drive to a trailhead occasionally, gear up, and set off up the trail. Atticus often stops after a half mile or so and lets me know he’s had enough.  It’s not always easy to see him this way, but I’m fortified by him knowing he’s always had a choice, and he seems to get that I respect his choice to turn back.  It makes going through chemotherapy together easier when he knows what he needs and shows me in his own way. 

So tomorrow, when we set out to hike a simple peak, I won’t be expecting much, and we may not get very far at all.  But I will be grateful knowing there is only one chemo treatment left for him; that he knows he can stop on the trail when he wants to; that soon enough we’ll be done and slowly the poison will lessen its grip on him, and we’ll be back to hiking the peaks we love.  I’ll also be thankful for the gifts cancer has delivered into our lives. 

Yes, gifts.  Cancer forces you to look at things differently.  You pay attention to the little victories and to the blessings in life.  To us all of this has simply turned into a different kind of mountain.  It’s like many of the tougher hikes we’ve been on in the past: we set a goal, face adversity, work through it together, and grew closer in the end. 
 
I’m thrilled that when cancer came knocking we had a insightful vet in Rachael Kleidon who has allowed us to take this journey side-by-side, including being together in the operating room and during the chemo treatments.  I’m also thankful we had a choice to chase the bully.  We didn’t have to go through the chemo treatments.  I could have ignored the rate at which the cancer was spreading and just been happy that the amputation appeared to be successful.  But had we not taken this next step, the six chemo treatments, I always would have wondered.  As Rachael pointed out, it’s much better to face the bully (my term, not hers), than it is to play catch up. 

I’m also grateful that other than limiting our walks and hikes, cancer hasn’t taken much else from us.  Instead, it has given us the opportunity to further define ourselves by our choices and our attitude.  We are still Tom and Atticus, and we are still climbing mountains, they’re just a different type of mountain. 

And come next Thanksgiving, Atticus and I will be on another quiet peak, our only company the peak itself and maybe the wind, and when we look off at the distant peaks surrounding us, I’ll also look back on all of this and say, “We made it…together.”

So this Thanksgiving, instead of being someplace I’d rather not be to make others happy, I look at it this way, “We are right where we are supposed to be.”  You have no idea how comforting that is.
          

29 comments:

Amanda said...

Thank you Tom! Your blog posts always elevate me. Happy Thanksgiving. Love the Kathy Freston quote, too!

Anonymous said...

You give me courage to face my mother's cancer. Your attitude is always upbeat. I'm thankful for you and Atticus and Will. :-)

Lori JK said...

Enjoy your day

KatVon said...

So well said. You truly do know the meaning of gratitude. Thanks for sharing, Tom.

Anonymous said...

I also am doing just what I want to do and not what everyone else THINKS I ought to do! Very happy with my choice. Enjoy your holiday your way!

Kathy said...

Enjoy your day of peace, solitude, and company of one another.

Chris said...

Enjoy your time together, my friend. You certainly deserve a peaceful day. Thank you for helping me on my journey to appreciate what truly matters in life.

SILVIA SOOS-KAZEL said...

The independence of observing tradition in one's own manner is what makes whatever holiday so special. Tradition should not dictate one's peace and happiness. Tom, Atticus and Will thank you for your so wanted insight and encouragement to your fellow beings to live life to the fullest~~~ to share in our hearts and souls love, contentment and gratitude. Peace and blessings to the Ryan 3!

Betty and Lenny said...

Hi Tom,

Climbing any kind of mountain is always easier when you share it. Grateful you and Atticus have each other and wonderful Will has the both of you.

Choices we make are part of our journey … once made we move forward and don't have the what ifs haunting us. We live with them and are grateful for the days we are given and make the most of them.

Together is key to the positivity that we try to surround ourselves with on a daily basis.

Whatever you do tomorrow and all the days after … I'll quote my Dad, "Be happy in life." As you say, "We are right where we are supposed to be."

Be well friends and peace to all.

Feel the hugs from here to there!
Betty and Lenny

Anonymous said...

Dearest Tom
Today my husband's 20 year old son lost his battle with cancer. The initial diagnosis was Stage 4 Hodgkins, and the battle lasted over 2 years.

You mention family dysfunction, and a part of me bristles as I think back on all of the cruelty that went on during this family's journey - battling the enemy...although, there were enemies beyond the cancer.

Spirituality means a great deal to me, and it was chilling to know this was a young man with no belief in anything - no God, no kindness, no forgiveness, no gratitude. As I prayed for his physical well-being I prayed even harder for him to see the beauty of this world. He will never know it here in this existence, and I imagine that now he will know the comfort of love and peace in his next home.

I take comfort in your philosophy, that we are all exactly where we are meant to be - that no life is ever in vain.

I am so grateful to have you, the little Buddha and sweet Will in my life ~ you are all my heros. Thank you for lightening the load through these darkest of days, for making me smile at all of the wonderful adventures of Atti and Will.

Sending blessings and thanks - enjoy your Thanksgiving day hike, no matter how short.
And to borrow a phrase from a very special friend, onward by all means.

Kim

Amanda Cabral said...

Tom, I hope you all enjoy your Thanksgiving doing what you love. My two best Thanksgivings involved an unplanned trip to Pittsburg NH. There was no drama, no stress about who was making and bringing what. My husband and daughter enjoyed it more than they thought they would. Waking up to the quiet, looking out over Round Pond and the Connecticut lakes and taking a hike up Mount Magalloway was the perfect holiday. My father in law has liver cancer and chose one round of chemoembolization and that is it. It's not a cure but a life extender. This year I'll be taking one for the team and going to the inlaws. They have known me for 20 years and I've always been a vegetarian or vegan. As always, the mashed potatoes are made with chicken broth and the veggies always have some type of pork fat in them. I never expect someone to make something special for me but, really? I started bringing my own food and that just drives them crazy. I look at it as an opportunity to introduce new foods to the other members of his family. I make one heck of a vegan chicken pot pie and some great gluten free vegan chocolate cupcakes. Your post made me realize how much I'd love to be up North tomorrow (and always). I can't say we'll be where we want to be but we'll be where we should be. Happy Vegan Thanksgiving!

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

Your words and wisdom are so comforting to all of us. Yes, cancer is a gift. That six letter word teaches us so much about life and how precious life is to all living in this world. I wish you, Atticus, and Sweet Will a wonderful Thanksgiving, thankful for all you are and all you will be, especially to each other. Such inspiration in your words. Happy Thanksgiving!

Anonymous said...

Tom, very grateful to you, Atticus & Will for sharing your very special journey with us. Enjoy your peaceful day tomorrow!

SusanSerene said...

Happy Thanksgiving to you, Tom, and to Atticus and Will, as well. In our house we are blessed to celebrate our way, with peace and love, as our family is all far away. We're very happy with our lretired ife and grateful each and every day. We're learning to celebrate each other, each day, each moment, with a nod of appreciation to you three for lessons shared. ((hugs)), blessings and gratitude from Oregon ❤️

Kris said...

I so love to read your blog posts. I feel the same way about cancer and am fighting mine with all of my might! I can still take a walk just like Atticus does! Have a blessed Thanksgiving your own way. The three of you deserve it.

Carter W Rae said...

To our friends in New Hampshire Thank you so much for sharing as always Each of us has a mission and many times a cross to bear.. You and your journey is a positive signpost for us all .. One of the great things that is greatly enjoyed is the community we all share in a very kind environment... for whatever the many reasons it is a daily treat Tom .. Being there in the "early days" of Following Atticus maybe 2200 or so it has been a great confirmation to me that my original thoughts about your wonderful story and a very special friendship with Atticus and now Will is a real joy!!! On many levels!! Maybe some time at a signing we can thank you in person and have chat how fun would that be??!! Best of blessings to the entire pack from us Tom Thank you again for this beautiful island Carter & Stacy Will and Atticus in our thoughts and prayers ..

Jan Reed said...

A lovely post, Tom. It sounds like you and Atticus and Will will have a peaceful, restoring day of gratitude. In a time when Thanksgiving is being rapidly overrun by our commercial Christmas and turned into just another "buy it now! buy it now!" shopping day, your thoughts are especially relevant. I wish the three of you all the best, always.

Anonymous said...

Kim, prayers and good thoughts to you and your family.

Cheryl said...

WONDERFUL, JUST WONDERFUL....We are doing the same and loving it. BLESS you for sharing this with the rest who still feel they must conform. Enjoy your days.

Donna Wallis said...

I am going through a huge life change right now. You posts are so uplifting and positive. You have made me realize I need to take this one day at a time and look for the good things and not dwell on the negative. My positive outlook on what I am facing I owe to you. Thank you so very much.

Pam Hicks said...

As someone who has deliberately & carefully changed my holiday experiences so that they work for me, I understand! Have a wonderful day, your way, Tom, Atti & Will :-)

Tandi said...

Thanks for the inspiration to be unconventional....and that it's okay to be different than what the rest of society, family, and friends expect of us. Liberating! As for me, in my own peculiar way, I'm celebrating Hanukkah today. Thanksgiving is a holiday that I remember with fondness from my childhood when my Mom gave her all for her family's delight. How hard she worked! I could never duplicate that effort as a mom myself, and felt guilty that I was such a slacker and could not bake pies, etc. The commercial intrusions into the sanctity of the day also hampered my enthusiasm for it as the years went on. One of my fondest memories in relatively recent times (late 90's) is eating cold pizza for Thanksgiving stranded at an Econolodge in frigid Duluth, MInnesota with my husband and son. That was the beginning of the end of trying to do a traditional family Thanksgiving. No regrets. I'd rather be hiking too. In fact, that's what Denise and I plan to do today. Missing the mountains though. Be well. Love to Will and Atticus. -- Maureen

Anonymous said...

Just some positive reassurance. I have had chemo, more than once. I am fine now, I am sure that you know it accumulates and the fatigue is "normal. Once the treatment is over, the tiredness recedes. You have a good handle on it but I wanted to reassure you that this too shall pass.

Laura D. said...

Happy Thanksgiving Tom, Atticus and Will! I'm thankful that you all have each other, and that you share a little bit of yourselves with the rest of us.

Kay said...

Kay in Va. here...
Before this Thanksgiving Day closes, I wanted to make sure I told you how special it has been for me to follow Atticus, since his eye surgery; and to have reconnected this summer. Each day I play one special video, the one posted Oct. 30...in which Tom says "wait there, I'll be right back"..Atti looks and bolts back!! And toward the end of it, the way Tom says "my friend," lifts the heart. And Will :) I love his dances in the yard, especially the one of Nov.3. I am grateful that the videos and pics are there to allow me to feel a part your family. Love you all.

Donna Jean said...

My prayers always include Tom, Atticus & Will ... I pray for strength and a positive ending to this journey you are traveling together. I'm feel honored that you share this very personal battle & am sending positive thoughts & love to you all.

Binky Curwen said...

Hope your Thanksgiving was peaceful and enjoyable for the three of you.

Anonymous said...

A beautiful thank you message Tom.

Thank you, Atticus and Will for being in our life through these stories.

John

Anonymous said...

Thank you Tom. As always, well said and uplifting. I am thankful for all that you share. Enjoy your blog and your facebook page...love the book. I read it twice and listened to you read it with the audio book...what a treat! Looking forward to the next book. Blessings to you, Atticus and Will.