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, December 04, 2013

Why Play Music for a Deaf Dog?


In our little corner of the world, we do our best to not only celebrate
individuality, but also equality. (A Ken Stampfer photograph.)
Long ago, I worked in a nursing home.  It wasn’t a very nice place; probably the last facility on earth you’d want to place a loved one.  As it turns out, there weren’t many loved ones fading peacefully away in the facility.  Most had been long forgotten and had no one to love them. 

Although I was not a big fan of a lot of the other employees and the way the treated the elderly, for the most part, I enjoyed my time there.  I also understood that much of the staff didn’t care much for me either.  We were different.  Many came from difficult pasts and were on a treadmill of misery.  The majority of the staff was not well educated.  Some were in abusive relationships, and the mute residents would end up with mysterious bruises themselves.  For some of the staff, working with the elderly, and in some cases, talking down to them and ordering them around, was their only way to feel like they were in charge.

During their breaks, while others would grab a cigarette, watch television, or talk about going out for drinks after work. I would spend my breaks reading Sam Keen, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, or Kahlil Gibran.  They looked at me as though I was crazy.  I think it also bothered them that I was happy and laughed often.  But I believe what defined the difference between us more than anything else is the way I interacted with the elderly residents. 

I could be found brushing the hair of a silent and broken old woman, and asking her to tell me about her first kiss.  There would be a moment of quiet, searching look on their faces, ever so slowly their eyes would come to life in a sparkle, and their wrinkles disappeared as they soaked in the memory.  When they told me of that kiss the decades, the struggle, despair, and loneliness vanished, and we’d both be transported to a time long ago.  We’d sit and talk.  Eventually, laughter bubbled up as one story lead to the next.    

I asked other questions, as well.  It could be about the day their son or daughter was born, their wedding day, or their favorite Christmas gift as a child.  The answers were often beautiful but not as important to me as the life that returned to them and replaced the numb and vacant stares out the window. 

One day I asked Edith Stanwood, whom I think may have been ninety, why she was always grouchy.  She stamped her cane and bellowed, “Because no one will dance with me.”  At lunch that day I brought Sinatra to the dining room, turned it up loud and asked her to dance.  Old Edith was full of purpose and took her dancing seriously.  When I fell to the floor after a couple of minutes feigning exhaustion, she playfully kicked me and said, “Get up! We’re not done dancing yet.”  When I stood back up, we started dancing again, and the whole room, Edith included, laughed.    

I didn’t stay at the “home” for very long. A few months after I left, a state agency came in and shut it down.  But those months I worked there shaped my life and views in ways that will forever be with me.

I’m the first to admit that I am not a dog expert, and I cringe when others pretend to be.  I rarely pretend to know what Atticus or Will are thinking and dismiss those who claim to know.  What I attempt to do, is my best to rely on empathy and observance, while paying attention to what they like.  It also helps to put myself in their respective places.  After all, they are as different from each other as you and I are.  This worked well when raising Atticus and continues to.  People often note that I don’t treat Atticus like a dog, and the truth is I don’t.  I’m not so deluded that I think he’s human.  Instead, I think of him as an equal from a different species and concentrate on what we have in common as much as I respect our differences. 

As for Will, my days working at that woebegone nursing home, has contributed to the way we get along.  Of course, I can’t ask him questions and expect him to tell me he’s angry because no one will dance with him.  What I do instead is pay attention to what pleases him and, conversely, what angers him.  I try to honor him as an equal (no; he’s not my “baby”, he’s an elderly soul who deserves my respect), even though at his advanced age and because of his physical limitations he needs a lot of help from me, just as those elderly twenty years ago did.

Will may not be able to tell me about the first time he was hugged, or what it felt like to be a puppy in a new home.  He can’t tell me about how he felt when he could move freely and run through the fields or even if he ever had the opportunity to.  What he can do is show me what infuses him with life.  Then it’s up to me to pick up on it. 

Soon after he came to live with us, the wildflowers around the borders of our backyard were in bloom, and Will would often stumble over to them, inhale, and linger.  Sometimes he would close those mostly blind eyes.  Since noticing that, once a week, from that time on, I’ve bought him flowers for inside the house. 

About the same time, back when Will was still but a shell of the dog you see now and mostly just stayed on his own, wrapped in anger and sadness, Atticus and I went out for a walk.  When we returned, I saw that Will had crawled from his dog bed and placed an ear on the leg of the coffee table in the center of the living room.  On top of it, my iPad was hooked to a speaker and music was filling our happy abode.  It was also sending vibrations down the leg of the coffee table.  To this day there is music playing in our house throughout most of the waking hours and a small speaker on the floor near where Will rests. 

One thing that was not easy to honor, but we’ve done our best with it, was Will’s apparent sense of pride and the rage he carried with him.  We live on the second floor, and I have to carry him up and down the stairs several times a day.  In the beginning, he had a harness on.  This kept him from being able to reach around to bite me, something he did quite a bit of.  When I placed him down on the grass, he’d go off and do his own thing.  But bringing him back upstairs I had to lift him again, and he would throw a temper tantrum.  Once back in the living room, I’d wait for Atticus to hop onto the couch and safely out of reach, and I’d place Will on the rug.  He’d turn at me; teeth snapping, growling, and did his best to bite me. He’d whirl around, his back hips often giving out, and he’d be unapproachable.  I decided to let him do this.  He was obviously angry at what life, and more importantly, people had done to him. 

Will’s temper tantrums are a thing of the past.  However, his first instinct, when he doesn’t want to do something, is to get ready to bite. His lip curls back; he starts to growl, and then he remembers he no longer has to be angry – and he choices to trust.  He’s become such a great patient because of this when he needs help.   

Will has retained his swirling, drunken, bucking bronco dance when we return from being outside.  But there’s no longer any anger attached to it.  It’s become a game for us, and I imagine that maybe, just maybe, his pride is telling me that he could have climbed all those stairs himself.  But just to be safe, Atticus still hops up on the couch and out of reach of Will.

People who are new to our Facebook page are sometimes curious about the music and the flowers for Will.  Or they haven’t read Following Atticus yet and aren’t aware of the way he was raised, or why he was raised the way he was. 

I won’t pretend that our way of doing things is right for anyone else.  I know I may even be in the minority in refusing to use words like “pet”, “owner”, “master”, “fur kid”, or in not considering Atticus and Will my “children” or “babies”, and I simply walk away from those who “baby talk” to Atticus (and I like that he does, too).  But words and the way we communicate are important to me, as are my friends.  While this may not be the way others do things, it works for us.

In the end, what’s most important to me is that the three of us are learning as we go.
 

25 comments:

Anonymous said...

Another fine and enjoyable read. I am also uncomfortable with terminology like being my dog's master or he my pet. What words do you use to describe your relationship to others; to yourself? I've used companion and buddy. I see you use friend. Are there others? They are better but still just not quite right all the time.

John

Anonymous said...

The best compliment I can give you is that your posts make me think and feel when I read them. Thank you. - Cheryl P.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Hey, John. Good to see you out here. My best to Pepper. I simply refer to them as Atticus and Will. Occasionally I refer to them as my friends. It works for us. :-)

Lewis Green said...

Thank you for sharing, Tom. As one getting on in age, I worry sometimes what lies ahead for me and my wife. I hope we are lucky enough to find a caregiver such as you when the time comes.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

As a child, I grew up under the discipline of an angry, cruel mother...always reminding me that 'actions say more than words...' I've always practiced that philosophy in my lifetime. Actions truly do say more than words. You are a gentle, kind man. I can relate to much that you share. My father resided in a nursing home for two years. There, I discovered lots of hungry people. Hungry, not for food, but attention. A gentle touch. A brushing of hair from a beautiful face of a classy lady, now crippled. Each time these residents saw me, they rushed to me, still able to recognize that someone would share time, a voice, and a soft touch. Actions!

Will and Atticus are so blessed to communicate with you via their actions. I have several schnauzers and a frail, older Maltese. Due to her seizures, we've considered letting her go, only to discover from her ACTIONS that she is not ready to leave us. Actions say so much. Thank you for sharing your actions, not just with your readers, but your precious Sweet Will and adorable Atticus! Merry Christmas to all of you!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful...just beautiful...you have such a kind heart Tom and SUCH a way with words...thank you again for sharing Atticus and Will with us...for sharing your journey and the ups and downs and the love and hope....your page here...is a respite from the rest of the world...there is hope and courage found here...I always walk away feeling uplifted..and you always give me something to ponder on. Thank you Tom!!!!!!!

JulieR said...

I am a nurse and started my career long ago in a nursing home. Most nurses don't want to work there. I loved being there. I learned so much from the residents. So often, they wanted you to listen, not talk. Sometimes they wanted you to engage in conversation. Sometimes they just wanted a hug or a touch. I would always talk/explain to those who were silent or seemed confused. Anyway, it touches my heart to hear someone "gets it." Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy the words and stories you write about Will and Atticus. Today's post about working in a nursing home is especially resonant for me because I worked in one, too - many years ago. You carry with you a fine sense of people and places, Tom. You observe, you pick up on things, and you remain true to yourself. You are lucky to have Will & Atticus, and dammit, they are lucky to have you. If we were all able to co-exist with kindness and patience, this world would be a better place. Until then, let's watch the dogs play and listen to the music!

Anonymous said...

You sure do have a beautiful soul Tom Ryan. Namaste.

Shannon Z. said...

Will has shown us that you don't have to have perfect sight to see, nor must you have perfect ears to hear. Will FEELS the love and acceptance from you and Atticus, he feels the sun, he smells the flowers. I think he understands more about the world than I do on so many days...

Linda English said...

I get it.

Anonymous said...

I have always called my dogs, as well as my horses, my friends. I have been blessed to be able to receive the gifts they have given me. I want to make sure I can respond in kind. One thing about dogs, they make no excuses about who they are - a lesson we humans would do well to learn.

Carter W Rae said...

Hi Tom and friends As al;ways I enjoy posting a response... Your life experiences having and are serving you well .. and us out here .. In the beliefs and "standard" responses you given us a great view of what is really important respect for all living !! .... I see that we are to be good stewards with kindness and respect for the little spirits around us that as William was brought from the very brink of the "untimely end" to a beautiful resurgence of the beauty and possibilities of life... You and Atticus have made that all happen and with our gratitude, shared it all with any of us that have the ears to hear and eyes to see it all !!! I think that one of my wishes especially in this special time that is for many of us, that we would see that these principles could be applied EVERYWHERE, all of us as in Peace on Earth and good will to all people but to these very special little and large critters that look to us for mercy and love.. may we always be that well spring Thank you to the Ryan three from us .. Stacy and Carter

Paula Arceneaux said...

Thank you for the information. I too wondered...but, really didn't care...just so long as Will was loved...which I know he is now. I've just started your book and it's had me in tears, laughing out loud...and reading to my own mini schnauzer-Carlos, who by the way has the same markings as Atticus. Looking forward to following your blog and can't wait for the next book...

Cathy Boucher said...

Thank you so much for your kind words. I look forward to your new book and eagerly wait for new posts. Your insights make me a more reflective person and make me more appreciative of the things that really matter in life.

Frannie said...

Well said, it hit me in my heart.

SILVIA SOOS-KAZEL said...

Tom we should all be blessed with your patience and kindness that you show humans and animals alike. If not blessed, at least take heed of your fine example.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tom, Thanks for the post and sharing your experiences which brought you to the point that you are at now. It's funny, I am a CNA, although now I work mainly with short term care, rehab, patients I have and still have a few long term care residents. Those that need help physically also benefit immensely from emotional support as well and I am rewarded handsomely, though this is not a field to expect great rewards financially. I've always thought that your care, compassion and concern for Will and Atticus is amazing - now I realize that you are "wired" for it. I think it is awesome that you have such a great canine "facility" going at your house. Will, Atticus and all of us you have touched during this journey are extremely lucky! I've been a fan of your book and fb page and even more a fan of the person! The world would be so much better with more people like you!

Prill Maccallum said...

I am so thankful that my father did not have to go to a "home". Assisted living was difficult enough,. You are a remarkable an, Tom. The world needs more men like you! Your heart is overflowing with love, compassion and kindness. Your writing is absolutely beautiful...such a way with words you have. As I have said before, thank you for sharing Atticua and Will with the world. And thank you for giving Will the chance to know what love feels like!

Anonymous said...

If onlymy Gram and my Mum had experienced the good fortune of having someone with an attitude such as yours when they were in nursing hours! Huzzah to you!
I cringe when I see those post where people chair"interpret" what an animal is doing/thinking in a photo...that strange language they print with the photo is just so inane.....I made the mistake of asking what one post meant and why the quasi-phonetic spelling. I was inundated with responses/defenses for this practice......people LIKE talking baby-talk to the creatures around them, AND, further more, the animals like it too...
My dog hates it! She just cocks her head to one side and looks askance at anyone who talks baby-talk to her.
I am just now reading your book, Mr.Ryan

Donna Jean said...

Hi Tom, It is hard to add anything to what has been posted here in the comments. I feel the same as all these wonderful followers of your blog. Your an extraordinary man and I'm so blessed to have found You through your book Following Atticus, add to that the FA facebook page and my favorite book never ends! My grandma was in a nursing home, for 13 years, my Mom was there everyday to make sure she was getting the care and attention she needed. I went once or twice a week to help my Mom, plus to visit with grandma. I got so much joy from so many of the forgotten people who only wanted a little attention or as you said, an ear to listen and make them feel important for just a little while. I was always so shocked & saddened by how many will just bring their parent into this kind of facility, never visit, just walk away from their family and never look back. I'm not surprised to find out that you were one of those "angels" as I called them who cared about the elderly folks that were thrown away & forgotten. As always, thank you for sharing... GOD Bless You, Atticus & Will!

Anonymous said...

Having read ALL the comments above, there is little left to say other than "BRAVO" for your LOVE OF LIFE and all that falls in your path. I am so touched by your actions/deeds/words/and all you share with us. It is nothing short of miraculous.....magical......the coming together of 3 souls in love and joy. Each of you lets the other provide lessons to grow from and then share with us that gift. YOU are a GIFT to all who read your words. Thank you for sharing your mountains with us, the actual mts and the OTHER MTS that are just as hard to climb. There is a higher power watching over you.

Jonathan Steele said...

Tom, your stories, book, & relatonship with Will & Atticus are metaphors for meaningful relationships. Your listening, observing carefully - then acting, is the bond of true friendship. Your lessons are life-altering for those continuing to tinker with life's meaning.

Absolut Ruiness said...

This is going to be one long comment. I have read through your blog non stop from your first post to last in the past two weeks. Apart from being a sensitive writer you have established your self as a good human being in my heart.
As is the case with travel blogs and me, I get ever so slightly jealous of the good times that person was having in his life and I wasn't. You, though, have taken me through the journey with you rather than led it. I felt I had been to those peaks and walks and trails. The best part is when you quote from all these other authors and these words just bring me closer to other writers too.
I have fallen in love with Atticus and William. They seem to be such powerful people and inspire me through your words. I have a 12 yr old dog in my family and we have always treated him as an equal too. This was not a deliberate effort but that is just how my mom brought us up. Its not always been possible to give him a free rein all the time though because we do have to sort of shepherd him staying in quite a dense city. Even so, we are able to let me walk free at least 80% of the time.
You speak about death and separation very courageously and I am in awe of that. I am still not able to take Boozo's (our dog) evident departure from between us as naturally as you have written about. I am not saying that it is, or will be, easy for you but some how I just don't know how we will go through that. Surely, your words will definitely be remembered then and drawn solace from.
I wish a speedy recovery to Atticus and a lot of loving times to come for William. May you always be able to be the person you are and draw as much from life as you can.

Sublime Birdy said...

What a simply beautiful post! I have just found your blog and am enjoying very much reading through each of your entries. I also have and old dog (she's 15 and continues to come along with me on XC skiing runs, today we did almost 5 miles!) and another dog who came to me when no one would take him. He had awful health, was never walked and going crazy with bad behavior, shelters wouldn't touch him. After two years he has simmered down but is still a daily challenge health wise but now he is a loving companion and like a different dog. Enjoy your two and thank you for writing such a fantastic blog!