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, April 17, 2014

Since We Cannot Bring the Mountain to Will, We're Bringing Will to the Mountain

The snow is nearly gone in the valleys.  Rivers are running high.  Each day the sun climbs higher in the sky and day grows as night wanes.  Spring has arrived. 

The season of growth and eventual verdant growth is always a hopeful time for us.  We are rewarded for what we endured in winter and then can look forward to clear sailing.  The snow shovels, snow tires, and rock salt are put away.  Out comes the rakes, sunscreen, and pale skin. 

Each year it is the same. 

But this year there’s something a little different about this spring in Jackson.  When May 7 comes around, it will mark the two year anniversary of Will coming to the White Mountains after fifteen years in New Jersey.  I did not expect much of Will back then, especially not after meeting him. He was fifteen, neglected, and in poor health.  He could see, but not well; couldn’t hear anything; and wore his anger, resentment, and nearly feral ways of being dropped off at a kill shelter on his sleeve. 

I gave him two months, maybe three.  More importantly we were giving him a place to die with dignity.  But here it is two years later, and his gate is not as lopsided, his mood is pleasant – even happy.  Whatever problems he had are mostly in the past.  In spite of all of this, he still can’t walk very far.  Now that the weather allows it, we play in the backyard but there are now walks.  This is completely different from Atticus, who is not a big fan of playing but couldn’t live without his hikes and walks. 

As May moves further along and roads closed for the winter are open again, we’ll be taking advantage of increased access to do something special with Will.  Along with some friends, I’ll be pushing Will in his stroller (affectionately known at the Will Wagon) up an access road, then he will be carried to the summit of a mountain.  The whole adventure will be captured by Willem Lange and his team at Windows to the Wild on New Hampshire Public Television. 

A question I am often asked is why I would want to do this.  Why bring a deaf, mostly blind, seventeen year old dog who cannot walk very far to the top of a mountain?  It has to do with my past.  I grew up with a mother in a wheelchair, and her Multiple Sclerosis did not keep my father from getting the entire family out as much as he could.  We came north to the White Mountains and headed south to Cape Cod.  We did all kinds of activities with that wheelchair crammed into the station wagon with a car load of kids. Later in life I worked with mentally and physically disabled children, and then elderly – most of whom had been long forgotten. 

This is what I learned.  Life does not stop because you cannot walk, because you possibly drool on yourself or have to wear a diaper.  Nor does it end when your hearing and eyesight fail you.  Your senses are always alive, always willing to be stimulated.  No matter what we are missing, we (and I am talking both human animals and non-human animals here) still have the ability to feel! 

It could be a breeze, water, the earth, a rock, or wonderment, excitement, adventure, and love. 

When Will first came to live with us, before I knew how bad off he was, I was hoping Atticus and I could get him up a mountain.  Then, when we met, I knew it probably wouldn’t happen.  But months passed and not only did he not die, his health improved.   He enjoyed being outside with wildflowers or in the shade of the backyard grass, in the early evening.  As the months stretched on, and the seasons changed, Will did, as well.  His past no longer mattered as much, and we then were able to live in the present. 

One of the things I’ve most lived from the animals I’ve known is that they are not very different from you and me.  They like to be happy.  They want to be safe.  They want to be comfortable.  And they do not want to suffer, nor do they want to die.  They want to live!
 
So six months after Will came to us a shell of a soul, with the help of a friend, I pushed Will up an access road, and then we carried him to the top, all the while following Atticus.

The most remarkable thing happened.  Will couldn’t do too much, and as far as I know he couldn’t see very much, but when I let him sit in the crook of my elbow as I often do with Atticus on a mountaintop, Will leaned toward me and did something he’d never done before.  I felt the softness of his small pink tongue against my cheek. Then his head relaxed, he let it rest against mine, and he sighed. 

Other than giving Will a safe place to live in good food, medicine, dignity, kindness, growing love, and consideration, I do not think anything impacted him as much as that day on the mountain did.  There was a noticeable difference after that day.  He was even happier, more interactive with Atticus and me; he wanted to play more.  When I walked toward the door, he now followed whereas, in the past he didn’t seem to care. 

So why climb a mountain with a seventeen year old dog?  Because he is not unlike you and me.  We are all tied to nature.  There's a feel that comes from being on a beach by the ocean and it's different from being in a city park, in a desert, or high atop of a green mountain.  Nature heals and it does this by the way it infuses our senses and makes us feel.  That's the general answer.  As for the "Will answer" - he clearly wants to live, and living doesn’t mean just sleeping the hours away in one of his beds chasing after fleeting patches of shifting sunlight.  Loving someone, anyone – whether they have two legs or four, means being present, paying attention to what stirs them, and investing in what makes them happy.

When night falls after the upcoming hike Will is going to sleep very well.  But in the hours before then Willem Lange and his great crew send Will’s message out throughout New England when the shows air next fall.  Old age is not a disease; and it’s never too late to trust again; to love or be loved again, and it’s never too late to live again.”
  


Will's first trip to a mountaintop.
 

24 comments:

Anonymous said...

I remember when you first brought Will up a mountain. It was awesome! I'm looking forward to his next climb. Glad it's gonna be on TV.

holly from plum said...

when i read about will and atticus...i stop and take a breath...and remember all the good in my life...and the good i can give to others...thanks tom

Unknown said...

Is there anyway this will be aired in Texas???? I want to see this so badly. Should I notify our network here? Any suggestions.???? Thank you Tom, Atticus, and Will. Reading your stories. Always touches my heart and makes me want to be a better person.

Ellen Mari said...

The heavens are smiling because of what you are doing for Will. Onward…onward, and bless you all!

carolyn bonier said...

Beautifully said, Tom, Reading this brings tears to my eyes. I volunteer at the MSPCA shelter in Methuen and there are always elderly dogs who have been left behind as Will was. I wish they could all have a Will experience. Yesterday I held one in my arms and hoped to give him at least a small measure of love and comfort. As an elderly person, I know how important this is. Thank you!

kathleen roy said...

Takes my breath away! Would love to meet you & your boys! Will be in Jackson end of June, staying at Christmas Farm!

jean said...

I love reading your writing. I love Atticus and Will. They could not be loved any better than they are by you. Keep up the good work.

Michael Morse said...

We walked The Flume, my wife and I, and her multiple Sclerosis had blinder her that day, but she saw with her cane, and felt her way along the trail and heard the mighty river roar, and a chipmonk ran in front of us, and she saw him, and we walked some mor. The cane is still with us, but her sight has returned, and we adopted a beautiful dog Named Mr. Wilson, and we'll be bringing him to the mountains soon.

We'll be seeing a lot, perhaps we'll even see you and the Will Wagon, but we'll be leaving the wheelchair at home.

Thank you, lovely post.

Anonymous said...

I love the way you love Will and Atticus! I am also in a wheelchair plus recovering from cancer... I don't live my life like I'm dying~ I am dying to live my life everyday! I don't feel disabled at all. Just different. And my 7 yr old cat I rescued is more like a kitten every day because I love him just the way you love Will! Loving someone is so wonderful~ thank you~ prayers & kisses for Will from Oregon♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

kay G. Schraff, in Va. said...

How awesome, Will, you'll be on your own special Celebration Ride!! Hugs....

Nancy G said...

Two years! Will has come such a long way thanks to the patience and love you, Tom, and Atticus have given him. Will gives back to all of us who get to share (through you, Tom) his wonderful journey. A window to us all how patience and love can make differences in our own lives. TY

Linda said...

I so look forward to your blogs and check every day. Your writings are so beautiful and inspirational and this one particularly hit home for me personally. Will and Atticus are so fortunate to have you as you are to have them. I
enjoyed "Following Atticus" so much. Can't wait for your TV program and, as I understand, a new book? As an aside, Laurie, an old friend of yours from Newburyport is a caregiver for my mother and says she knows you well and she has had the pleasure of meeting Atticus.

Anonymous said...

William Lloyd Garrison, what a great journey you are on & I am very grateful to be "Following Will" <3

Patsy Haigh said...

Will there be a link so that people in other countries can see this wonderful journey of love? I truly hope so x

Leigh Yates said...

Will's story is amazing. To touch a life and make a difference is what we all should strive for. You are truly an amazing person! Will's stories are touching many hearts across the world :)

Anonymous said...

This is beautiful! Your writing always moves me. Thank you!

Kathleen said...

Nature fills Will with all the wonderful scents around him. His appreciation of you bringing him to the mountains the first time is such a beautiful image of how the spirit, though crushed, can rise to the heights of mountain peaks and transcend to a place of peace, contentment, and unconditional love. You will be in my thoughts a month from now as you, Atticus, and friends bring Will to the mountain.

Rick in Duxbury said...

My French Canadian mother was a Celine Dion fan.In her song "I'm Alive", there's a line: "I can't wait for the rest of my life". She introduced me to the song when she was fighting pancreatic cancer. They gave her six months; she lasted four years. Previously, she had triple bypass surgery at 78, they told her to slow down. She joined a health club. We all look for our inspiration in our own places. Thanks for being one of the places where I find mine.

Kathleen said...

Nature fills Will with all the wonderful scents around him. His appreciation of you bringing him to the mountains the first time is such a beautiful image of how the spirit, though crushed, can rise to the heights of mountain peaks and transcend to a place of peace, contentment, and unconditional love. You will be in my thoughts a month from now as you, Atticus, and friends bring Will to the mountain.

Carter W Rae said...

So enjoy and appreciate your showing us Will's journey through this season of his and our lives. In the cacophony and dysfunction of what passes for life out there , we are privileged to share an other healing moment with one of our heros, William in his rediscovery of the sweetness of it all.. Thank you Tom (Hugs to Atticus too ) Let's watch nature now put on her beautiful spring garments !! ♥♥♥♥ from us Stacy & Carter

Ann G said...

Beautifully written, Tom. Will is one of the luckiest dogs on earth!

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

Your words never fail to inspire me. You have such a breathtaking, compelling way of getting the words right. How I love your stories about Will, his growth and trust to allow someone to love him again. Thank you for sharing your life, your love and experiences with us, your reading public. Beautiful. Moving. Touching. God has blessed you with such talent. Will and Atticus are so blessed to have you in their lives. Thank you so much for sharing!

Ivana said...

Will be happy to be with you! Beautiful and touching read ... and so true ...
Ivana

Lynni OHaver said...

Thankful for someone like you who does not discriminate against any thing. The feeling Will experienced when you took him up that mountain was amazing. Reading your interactions with Atticus and Will is my therapy...continue on my friend....Although selfish, please continue on....I will enjoy every step.