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.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

There's a Difference Between "Being Old" and "Growing Old"


The wind chimes are lively tonight. They are dancing and singing and gracefully playing their music.  It’s near January, and one of those wicked Washington winds is roaring by overhead, sounding, not unlike a freight train just out of sight.  From time to time an independent tendril dips lower and plays with the chimes sending them twirling and bumping into each other.  But no matter how awkward they may look, they sound as if they are an instrument of angels.   

A friend once told me I should take them in when the wind picks up like this.  I didn’t say anything, since I wanted to be polite (which I can’t always promise to be), but I never have taken them in.  No matter how strong the gusts roll down on us from the north, I let them feel what the trees feel.  Wind chimes, after all, were made for the wind, and they would have no life without it.

There may come a day when they twist and get tangled, but I’ll worry about that when it happens. Until then, I just tell the band to play on.  And it does.  Joyously, I would like to think. 

When there’s deep snow in Jackson, as there is now and will be until spring arrives, Will cannot get out in the backyard.  Instead, when it’s time to go to the bathroom I take him out into our sizable driveway and watch him pee.  When squats to defecate and puts more weight on his hips, shifting his center of gravity, I get behind him and spot him, just in case he’s standing on a bit of ice.  When he’s done, he twirls as he loves to do, throws those stiff front legs up in the air and performs his interpretive dance.  It’s a perfect accompaniment to the music coming from the wind chimes above. 

I say he’s mostly blind.  I can’t give you percentages but while he often can’t see a cookie I hold right in front of him, he can see shapes and shadows.  He nearly always knows where I am. If I am sitting in dim light, though, I’ll wave my arm to let his eyes grab hold of me.  But sound is a different thing.  I can’t say as I’ve noticed him responding to any sound.  Vibrations yes; hence the Willabys I play for him. 

However, there is one thing he seems to be picking up on lately.  It’s the music from those chimes.  I noticed it again tonight; they played, and he raised his head in their direction.    

Because we are a straight shot down the road from Mount Washington, the wind is a regular visitor to our place.  It’s not uncommon to look up and see Orion, the Big Dipper, or the Pleiades on a stunning night sitting in a pool of pitch black, and have tiny snowflakes blown to us by way of the great peak.  The wind can push and even slap at our backdoor; much as Butkus, the oldest of our neighborhood bears did in November when food was growing scarce.  He was out on the deck and I opened it a foot or so, braced the bottom with my foot, and said, “You know better.  Get off the deck, please, Butkus.”  He’s a pretty decent neighbor and has always listened, but during that visit he left with a huff and an angry hiss.  I yelled to him as he was walking down all the stairs the lead from our second floor home, “Don’t hiss at me. Go find your food elsewhere.” 

For the first time ever old Butkus returned after being sent on his way.  It was probably ten minutes later when showed up at the backdoor, which is made of sturdy glass with very strong metal framing.  He looked through the glass to see if I was watching and when I came toward the door, he looked me in the eye and slapped it with a big paw.  I slapped it right back, opened the door again, and this time I raised my voice.  (I find this is always something you can do with those you like, so long as you let them know it’s not personal.  And that’s exactly what I did.)

“Go!  Go on!  I’m sorry, but you know better!”

This time he didn’t hiss, but he did huff while turning that great rump to me and thumping down the stairs, and off into the darkness. 

Being November, and food being scarce, I would have fed him but that never leads to any good.  The bears just get too used to people and sooner or later a bear is relocated, or worse.  One of the common sayings in this part is “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

So why do the bears frequent our yard – eight of them this year – if we don’t feed them?  It’s because we are close by some restaurants and inns, and they make the rounds like the hungry tourists do.  I can just imagine how tantalizing the scents from the better establishments are to them.  Since these mountains were home to bears before people, I don’t have an issue with them.  I try to be a good neighbor to them and typically they return the consideration. 

Anyways, I’m getting off track here.  The wind, when at its strongest, sends gusts against our door, and it sounds like it did the night Butkus slapped it.  It can rattle the door, and it can thump the door. 

A couple of weeks ago, around the time Will was sneezing up blood, and we were concerned, I was taking a bath and Atticus was on the only dog bed he uses – the one next to the tub.  He likes being close to me at all times.  Will was asleep in the living room and quite content. I had music playing on the floor for him.  Meanwhile, I had my own music playing in the bathroom.  I was reading; Atticus was sleeping, and Josephine Baker was singing. 

It was one of those nights where strong gusts were rattling our home.  After a while, Will walked into the bathroom toward Atticus, who was hoping Will would just go away.  This is a regular routine.  Will comes in for a visit, disturbs Atticus, often stepping on him, and I reach out of the tub to rub Will’s ears to give Atticus space.  Will left, but soon returned.  This time he didn’t bother Atticus but came to the side of the tub.  He rested his chin on the edge.  I rubbed his ears, thinking he wanted more affection. 

Right then he did something he’d never done before.  He raised his head, opened his mouth, and grabbed a couple of my fingers.  When he first moved in with us a year and a half ago, I never would have trusted my fingers in his mouth, but I went with it.  He bit down, not too hard, just enough to hold on tight, and pulled back.  I plucked my fingers from his mouth and tousled his ears again.  He stepped back, tried his hardest not to let his hips give out, and grabbed my fingers again.  He grunted when he pulled. 

I had no idea what he was saying or wanted, but any interaction with Will is a gift.  When he first arrived he didn’t do much.  Even now people see him in a photo and think he’s very cute – which he is – but when they meet him they understand there’s not a lot of communication.    

Don’t get me wrong – he and I do play.  We wrestle.  He lets me know when he’s hungry.  When I’m going to get his food, he’ll reach out with his front paws and try to grab hold of my legs.  When he knows it’s time for a treat, he now sits – this is something else that was impossible in the beginning.  The sit doesn’t last long, and he slowly sinks down like a cartoon dog into a sphinx position, but I love the progress nonetheless.  He also lets me know when he wants me to pick him up and bring him up on the couch with us.  And when it’s time to go out, he relaxes in my arms (or over my shoulder) when I carry him outside.  Other than that, he mostly just takes care of himself, just as he should at his age.

But on the night he came into the bathroom and grabbed hold of me, after leaving he returned and went straight for my fingers.  I could hear the wind and feel the house rattling. I could also feel those heavenly chimes in the cold, windy night.  They were so clear I decided to turn down the music and get out of the tub.  I looked at the backdoor to see that the wind had blown it wide open, and the living room was quite cold.

I do my best not to pretend to know what Atticus or Will is thinking or what they would say if they spoke words I could understand.  That’s up to them.  (I cringe when I read a comment from someone who is telling me what Atticus and Will is thinking.)  From time to time though, we connect.  With Atticus, it’s easy, but with Will it’s something that seldom happens.  On that night, when gusts blew open the door, the wind chimes sang as never before, and cold air spilled into our little home Will had come to let me know he needed some help.  For as soon as I closed the door, he went back to his nearby bed and snuggled in for a nap.

I know that Will is getting older – just as we all are.  But the difference is, he’s much older than anyone I know.  He will be seventeen in January and came to us in brutal shape.  Having just been sneezing up blood at the time that famous final scene appeared even closer. 

Here’s what I love about this whole thing.  Even as he gets older, he continues to grow.  He learns things; finds new ways to express himself; tries to sit, where he never dared before, and he let me know the door was open, instead of just trundling out of it and falling down the stairs (which has always been a worry and why our little deck is gated in the fair months before and after the black flies visit). 

That’s the difference between being old and growing old.  Will is still growing, and I take comfort in that.
    

24 comments:

Cindy said...

Your words make me feel peace all around me & you bring light to Will's victories. You make the ordinary appear extraordinary.

Donna Jean said...

Another wonderful story!!! Thank you for sharing more of the life in the Great White Mountains! I can almost hear the wind chimes and the roar of the winds. I'm glad Butkus didn't choose that night to visit when the door blew open, OH MY what a different end to that story!

Lori JK said...

Wow! Thank you for this Tom. As always, your words have touched my heart.

Lori Padgett said...

Thank you for sharing Will and Atticus with all of us. I love reading about them both!

Silvia G. Soos-Kazel said...

Be it man, dog, whatever creature of this earth, it is always so amazing how one can adapt with a physical challenge such as blindness, hearing loss, mobility challenges, etc. Will is a fine example of meeting his challenges and knowing that you Tom are his trusted companion and friend. Will has become very comfortable and secure in the loving routine and home you have provided for him. He also seems to want to be protective of you. Therefore when sensing the not so norm in your household and possibly also hearing the high pitch of the chimes, felt it was his responsibility to alert you. As you say, no one really knows about Will's past. It may be that at some point he was a well loved dog and was comfortable in returning love. The beauty of his revival is that he has come to trust and love or maybe trust and love again! We can all take heed from Will that everyday is a gift to cherish and relish in living. Will also lives by you motto of onward by all means and he is definitely not looking back, only forward each and every day. Thank you for this very endearing blog.

Anonymous said...

Tom, you find the good in every moment of the day. The chimes and wind, the sweet and simple things that many never notice are your joys, and thank you for pointing them out in the most delicious way.....with your shared personal story of your time with your friends. You are all blessed to have a life together. We are all blessed that you share it with us.

Laura D. said...

Tom, keep sharing your stories. I love the inspiration of Atticus and Will, and lovely words of your peaceful life in the White Mountains.

Kim Hampton said...

Moments like these are heart warming, love hearing about your adventures. I am in awe of your encounters with Butkus, you are very brave Tom!

Xxxxxx

Christina Traven said...

I loved this ..... thanks for sharing.

Sally Myers said...

Such an enjoyable read, especially on a cold Saturday night in New England.

The Southerner said...

God Bless you Tom, Atticus and Will! I'm so grateful to hear about the adventures you guys have. May the three of you have many, many more to come!

ingrid fluke said...

WOW, Animals are amazing.

Anonymous said...

We love your stories Tom especially these that give us the very essence of the quality of all of your stories, the spirit that soars and grows and is a tribute to life it's self We really love it here Tom thanks Carte & Stacy

Donna Fitzpatrick said...

Another wonderful sharing...right there with you, chimes and all. Reminded me of a cold blustery early morning last winter. I snug in my quilted layers, my older dog began jumping on my body. She would not let up, no barking just pestering. I got up to investigate, and as soon as I threw back the covers I knew something was very wrong. She knew it wasn't supposed to be 45 degrees in the house, and she wanted me to do something about it. The blowing snow had clogged the vent on the furnace. All was as it should be a few hours later.

sjvo@aol.com said...

Tom, you have such a way with words. You fire the imagination and arouse feelings. Thank you for sharing them with us.

Ruth Cave said...

Like you I can never guess what Max may be thinking. He has his little tricks though. When he wants to go out, he will come sit in front of me and stare at me, when I say what do you want? He will go to the door. When he runs out of water, he will turn his bowl with a thump. When he is ready to go to bed, he will go lay down in front of my bedroom door. Say the word go or ride and there is no way you are getting out the door without him. So ready about Will and his learning to let you know is very special to me.
God Bless you and Atticus and Will

Garnet said...

What a delight it is to read the latest chapter in the lives of Tom, Atticus & Will! The city of Somersworth, NH, library book discussion group enjoyed Following Atticus in the month of December, Tom, and it was one of the most well-attended meetings of the year. Thank you for your scintillating book, and for the continuing chapters here on your blog!

Kelly Woods Lynch said...

Another inspiring tale from a master storyteller who recognizes the beauty of moments big and small. Thank you for sharing -- and thank you, Atticus and Will, for inspiring these lovely slices of life. :-)

Mary in A2 said...

Amen, Brother, Amen.

Deb White said...

I have found, as you and many others have, that if you learn to listen to a dog or cat's body language, they can be very clear in their communication. Love your writing. Thank you for sharing your life with Atticus and Will with the world.

Kay S. said...

Kay in Va.
Best Wishes for a happy new year, Atti, Will & Tom, in 2014!

Warmly
Kay

Anonymous said...

I love how you take a cute incident, and from it create a delightful bit of writing, an engaging story, that naturally carries with it an inciteful truth.

John

www.robinbotie.com said...

I'm so glad I found you and Atticus again. I lost track of your site for a year or more and so much has happened. Like Will. Happy New Year to all of you. Cheers!

Elayne Tiller said...

So, when can we expect your next book? They are wonderful to read and make very special gifts to almost anyone......