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.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Sharing the World with Will


As the sun was setting and dusk draped itself over the Village of Jackson yesterday, Atticus and I took Will out for a walk.  Well, technically, Will rode while we walked. 

The Will Wagon has proven to be indispensable for us since it gives Will a freedom to get out and about.  It’s always been important to me that he doesn’t stay a shut in.  That he gets to enjoy the things we all enjoy: fresh air, the wind in our faces, the smells, textures, tastes, sights (as limited as they may be), and social interaction. 

Will is mostly happy sleeping much of the day away, he, like all of us, likes to get out and do things, even If he can’t do many things. 

I was laughing as we walked along the road with Atticus in the lead; Will stuck his head out of the unzipped portion of the Will Wagon on the left hand side to better watch Atticus and the world pass.  His pointed ears, looking not unlike a silhouette of Batman, and his head off to the side, looking like an engineer in an old locomotive.  He rides contented along.

I had a rare thought of my mother.  I don’t think about her much because I don’t remember much.  She died so long ago.  I was seven.  What does come to mind is an occasional drifting memory.  She had Multiple Sclerosis by the time I came along, the ninth of nine children.  She wore heavy braces on her legs and made her way around the house on crutches, the metal ones that wrap around your forearms and offer up a soft clank each time they are planted.  After she died the crutches stayed behind and in my high school years they became my constant companions.  I had problems with my legs and most of the time there were either casts or immobilizers on my left leg and I’d hop around with great dexterity on those same crutches that gave her freedom to move in our house.  At one point, in the summer before my senior year of high school, I started doing four mile loops with them through the Medway late day summer air.  I was determined not to be held back and to be able to get out into the world and away from the house on my own.

But outside, Isabel Shea Ryan needed a wheelchair if we went anywhere.  And my father did a great job of making sure we went plenty of places.  What a sight it was, Isabel in a wheelchair, often with my father pushing her, followed by nine kids.  Trips to a restaurant.  Shopping.  Even up to the White Mountains on vacation. 

So last night I thought about how we used to take turns pushing my mother around as I pushed Will around.  The concept is the same, to not let those we care about be shut up inside and isolated from the world because of a physical limitation. 

When I push Will, Atticus does his own things, gets his own stimulation.  He leads the way, or floats behind.  He likes it better when it’s just the two of us and we have more freedom, but he’s patient and kind when Will is with us. 

We stop often, so that Will can experience things we take for granted most of the time.  The rumble of the covered bridge when cars pass through it, or the smell of the aged wood.  A patch of wild flowers.  Visits in the front yard with Kevin and Michelle at Flossie’s General Store.  At the town park I take Will out and let him trundle unevenly along, circling and hopping.  At first he hangs around me, a little tussling and wrestling between us, and then he gets bolder and starts to investigate what’s around.  I let him go for quite a distance to give him his freedom.  Every now and then I redirect him or bring him back to where we are and he starts out again. 

Then there’s the soft lapping current of the Wildcat River.  Atticus drinks from it on our walks but I carry Will across the rounded rocks that are difficult for him to negotiate and I help him stand in the river.  I think of the elderly I used to care for during a short chapter in my life and how much they would have loved to feel wild waters made soft by the miles they have travelled, fresh and cool, swirling around their feet on a summer night. 

From our home, the loop we do is 1.4 miles, and we pass by a few inns, some restaurants, the post office, and Carrie’s Dutch Bloemen Winkel.  In the early morning, the promise of a day is dawning and all looks optimistic in the soft, golden light.  At the end of the day it feels differently.  Lights slowly come on like the stars coming out above us.  I think of what it must feel like to Will as we roll along to see the change in the lighting, to feel the textures his wheels pass over, to feel the coming night.


As we rumbled across the old Stone Bridge last night, we waited for Atticus, who was sniffing some wild roses.  I took Will out again and held him in my arms. We both looked down on the water and followed the current through a corridor of darkening trees until it disappeared in the distance.  Even then I tried to imagine the sensations he might be feeling.

While approaching home, on the last stretch by the golf course, two locals called out to us and we crossed the road and stood on one of the greens chatting with them.  Atticus said his hellos and they greeted Will, who they’d never met.  I took him out and let him bounce around the spongy putting green and it gave him a chance to pick up speed and enjoy his freedom.  I chased him down and carried him back to where we all were.  That’s when Will had the opportunity to feel another sensation.  Being held by the woman we were chatting with.  She squeezed him in her arms and he graciously accepted it.  He sat snuggled, his face against her cheek, watching me, inhaling her soft scent.

While the three of us talked, Atticus watched and sat while we stood, and Will was cradled for several minutes before he wanted to get down and bounce on the green again. 

By the time we arrived home, the stars were out completely.  I had my headlamp on and a pair of glowing eyes looked our way from the back of the property.

“Hello,” I said to the passing bear, before the three of us went upstairs and left him sniffing Will’s wild flower garden.  As soon as we got inside Will took a drink, then found his way into the bedroom and went to sleep.  The ride to touch his senses capped off a full day. 

I’m not Will but I do my best to recognize him by putting myself in his place.  He’s elderly and highly dependent on me, but he leads a pretty cool life.  I know I’ll most likely not live as long as he is going to.  Most of us won’t.  But I think of myself as an old man and I consider what I’d want if I was in his place.  Time to time I come up with new ideas about what to share with him, but mostly, I know what he appreciates is a place to belong, someone to belong with who cares for him, and allows him to be who he is.  Although I take care of Will, I avoid many of the endearing terms some like to use with animals, just because, while cute, they minimize, they put animals below us.  That’s not my intent with Will.  I like the idea of honoring his life.  Of treating him as I would any elderly individual.

When I worked in that nursing home with many long-forgotten people, I would sit quietly with them and ask, “Would you tell me your story?  Tell me about what makes you happy?  Who you miss and who you love and what you want to do today?

In his own way, by the responses he gives me, elderly Will, ancient in so many ways, tells me his story and I do my best to honor it. 

Will has his limitations.  We all do.  But I look at him and see he’s more alive than many people I know who are supposedly in the prime of their lives.  We start the day by me carrying him downstairs.  We end it by me pulling a blanket up over his body as he lies softly snoring.  In between, he lives.  We live.
 

22 comments:

Cissy said...

A beautiful expressive blog, Tom. Through you, we all get to know Will, albeit a small piece. Gosh, words escape, but this blog brightened my morning more than you know. Peace to all three of you.

Ed C said...

All I can say in response to that is "thank you"

Lori said...

I loved ready your blog today. Wanted to share a story with you...I have a weekend home in Bartlett NH (A.K.A my sanctuary) so I am very familiar with many of the places you write so passionately about. This past weekend I was hiking up Mt. Willard with my Cairn Terrier Tucker. Tucker is about the same size as Atticus and the same creamy color as Will. He is even groomed by Tracy at the Ultimutt cut in Conway. As we were coming down the mountain we passed two small hikers (I am guessing 8 and 10 years old) and one of them exclaimed..."look it's Atticus"...and the other said "no it's Will". Unfortunately I had to disappoint them by both by informing them that it was neither Atticus or Will, but added, "wouldn't it be fun to meet them on a hike?" They agreed enthusiastically and continue hiking up the trail. As they walked away, I heard one of them say "I sure wish that had been Atticus". You have touched so many lives with your stories of Atticus and Will...even the children. I found it very touching that these two boys were hiking in the White Mountains with secret hopes of meeting you all. Pretty cool Tom. Please don't stop writing...you have a very special gift. Looking forward to reading your next book, in the meantime...onward. -

Cathy said...

A great way to live. Thanks, as always, for transporting us into your peaceful world for a while. Always an inspiring start to the day.

Jerri said...

Wonderful!

Karesa Stephenson-Dickamore said...

Your writing always has me feeling as though I'm there with you. Thank you Tom

Donna Jean said...

Thank you for this soothing story. I can visualize the loop and Will romping on the green while Atti watches on seriously. It is a wonderful way to start my Friday and end this hectic week. Onward my friends. Hugs to all 3 of you!

Anonymous said...

Your story reminds me of my dad who, at 91, passed away on June 2nd. His last 5 months were spent in a nursing home as my sister and I could not longer care for him at home, much to our dismay. I picked him up once a week and took him for a ride along the seashore or in the mountains where we both found renewal and relief. It was the only thing left he could do...ride and look around. He loved it and so did I.

Jan English said...

Love...If only all humans could have your spirit, we'd live in a different world! Keep on keepin' on! XO

Larry C said...

Tom, in addition to your next book, you should put all of your blogs together in a separate book. They would make for delightful continuous reading and reflection.

Anonymous said...

In January of this year I adopted a 14 year old dog that was given up by her family. She joined my other dogs, 14 and 10. My 91 year old father had passed away two months prior. He and I were the dog people in the family. My dogs loved him and he loved them. I know he would have loved this old girl because he loved all dogs. But like you, he didn't deify them, he didn't try to make them people, he just respected them as dogs. Your writing gives me peace, it reminds me of my dad in some weird way, and it has helped me look at my new 14 year old girl differently. Instead of feeling sorry for her that someone gave her up, I just try and give her a good life. That's all. Thank you

gee said...

thank you so much for this piece - I whole heartedly second the suggestion that your blog posts be compiled and published

Janice Hummel said...

I truly am a firm believer that this is a huge difference between existing and living. Thank you for really showing us how it's done. Have a great day!

Linda Carr said...

I thought your blog about Will was wonderful, oh how lucky he was to find you, and you him, because I am sure you have learnt so much from each other.

Shirley Mulholland said...

What a life you three live, would that we all could live like that.

Susan Murphy said...

Just......beautiful.

Carter W Rae said...

Tom A beautiful collection of pictures, feelings and memories..I could almost smell the wood there on the bridge.. Weaving so much of what is your journey.... into a gentle and kind picture ... I have said it before you really are a remarkable man ... So nice to walk this with you We too have a journey of a refiner's fire and this is a balm for the soul, Thank you so much for your efforts .. Wish we could hug William and say hello to Atticus as he will. Maybe a treat perhaps ?? Continued blessings our friend from us .. Onward by all means :-)

Linda P said...

Yet another wonderful, inspiring message. We all need to enjoy life the way you three do. Will is so lucky to have you and Atticus to share his life with. You make us stop, look around and think about our own lives and how we can make life better for everyone.

Joanne Walsh said...

Hi Tom: Where and when are you and Atticus going to speak. I have two books that I would love for you to autograph, but most importantly, would love the opportunity to meet you both, and Will, too, if possible. I was in Jackson earlier this month with my grandson from Denver, but didn't have the good fortune of meeting you. I LOVED YOUR BOOK !!!
Joanne Walsh

Anonymous said...

All I can say is another beautiful message...thank- you!

Unknown said...

You write such beautiful words. They fill my heart with peacefulness. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Reading this today gave me a peacefulness over Will's physical absence...