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.

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.