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.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Considering Will


It's Monday morning and the forest has a different look and feel to it after the strong winds we've had.  Gusts still ride high over the tree tops sounding like a runaway ghost train but the sun has returned and red squirrels and chipmunks are active and their chatter is comical.  Pine cones are everywhere, knocked from their perches to the earth where death will become life.  They crunch underfoot and the pine tar gets on everything.  Once a week I massage and clean Atticus's pads with olive oil to get rid of debris and to recondition them.  This time of year I do it twice a week. 
 
Ten days have passed since Will left us and I'm avoiding our Facebook page to some extent. This is when it helps to have great moderators.  The kindness and love is evident by the vast majority of people who post, and also appreciated, but this being social media, projection also is present.  We all experience death but it's a personal experience.  I've never been a big fan of people saying "been there done that" about anything, and because I think of death as a miracle of its own - which may differ from what others believe - I tend to avoid the typical calling cards of cliché when it comes to something equaling a sacrament to me.  Life and death are worthy of so much more than clichés. 
 
My goal in loss is to learn and grow from it, to take joy from those who we traveled with who are no longer with us, to make their presence in our life into a gift I can always carry with me. 
 
Several times last week people wanted to believe that Atticus was mourning.  He wasn't.  He still isn't.  He's buoyant and free.  I'm not mourning either, not really.  As I told Christine Heinz on Twitter this morning, we did what we set out to do in taking in Will. 
 
I thought his visit with us was going to be much shorter than it turned out to be.    That was a plus to me.  When Will reclaimed himself it was a joy to behold.  His eyes were young and expectant.  When I'd walk up to him and he looked at me and I couldn't help but smile. 
 
In the very end Will was far less than what he'd come to be with us.  He couldn't sit like a lion for more than a few seconds.  He'd topple over without being propped up.  He was rotting from the inside out (I'll leave the details too various myself).  You saw him mostly as fresh and clean and sweet and so alive over the last few months, but that's because of the photographs I shared of him.  He was still sweet, but he was also dying.
 
I've not been crying very much.  I have thoughtful moments and much to digest.  I will cry for Will down the road when I talk about him at events, I'm sure, but not out of sadness.  It will be because of the gift of the experience.  It's what the mythologist Joseph Campbell aptly named, "the experience of being alive." 
 
Will came to us at fifteen.  My job was to be by his side and give him what he needed when he needed it.  That was everything from patience; to food and water; to bathing him when he fell in his urine and feces and couldn't get up; to stretching exercises and massage; to experiences with nature; to flowers and music and sweet and savory smells; to reassuring touches; to love and acceptance and shared growth; and finally to let him leave this physical world when his body no longer worked and I didn't want to compromise him for my own sake. 
 
The decision to say goodbye is so very hard, but in Will's case it was easier because it was clear to me.  I considered the entire journey to be textured and genuine and fortunate for Will and me.  Sitting in a beautiful mountainside field with him in my arms while he snored, then standing to hold him while Rachael let his sleep become permanent was and will always be a sacred experience.  I can think of no higher honor than to recognize a friend for who he or she is and what his or her needs are and help them to where they need to go. 
 
Will needed to be loved and believed in. He needed someone in his corner over the last chapter of his life.  He had that.  I can't speak for him but I imagine he has no regrets and he felt nothing but love. 
 
Over the past week I've heard from friends who knew Will two and a half years ago from when he first came to be with us and they couldn't believe the impressive change in him.  There weren't many he didn't try to bite those first few months - even the ever-so-gentle Tracy at Ultimutt Cut Salon, who understood his hatred of being put in a crate and never forced that on him - had to be careful of his teeth in the beginning.
 
When Will first arrived here he smelled of death.  Much of that had to do with his mouth and his rotten teeth.  Our vet at the time, Christine O'Connell, went to work on that but could only get a fraction done while he was under anesthesia.  There were several places where the gums had receded so far tips of the roots were barely concealed and you could push a small object through the opening between them. His mouth hadn’t been taken care of for years – if ever.   
 
Exercise specialists we went to clearly saw what I did, that Will had not had much, if any, exercise for a long time before he came to us.  They concluded his unnaturally stiff hips were a product of being crated for far too long for far too many years. 
 
His mouth would never improve, but his willingness to accept love and offer it did.  His joints improved too, until the last weeks when they appeared as though they had been tightened to the point of pain by a wrench.
 
One of the joys in sharing our journey with hundreds of thousands of people is that Will, once unwanted and neglected, was celebrated.  He became a model for adopting animals who seem like lost causes.  He was proof you can't judge a book by its cover.  I was thrilled that for the past year and a half he's received flowers and blankets because of many of you investing in him. 

Will was so miserable and broken when he arrived that over the first two weeks I was close to putting him out of his misery.  I pitied him.  In the last week of his life, I knew what had to be done but pity was the furthest thing from my mind.  I’d say what I was feeling had more to do with celebration. 

I can’t speak to what befell Will before he came to us, only to what the evidence revealed.  But even then it wasn’t to judge those he lived with before because that didn’t matter to me.  What mattered was what we were going to do with the shattered puzzle of Will.  Together, he and I worked to put him back together again, with an occasional assist from Atticus.  But as I always say, in the end Will rescued himself.  We gave him a helping hand but in the end the final choices were always his to make. 

I’m glad we’ve shared Will's life with you, and his passing, but I also know enough to stay away from too much that is written about him by people who never met him, or interacted with him for a very short while.  It’s sickening to have someone you love be dissected by those who knew very little and who cared nothing of him over the past two and a half years.  Thankfully it’s also rare, but when it happens it’s noticed, occasionally by me, more often by others.  This is the price of making public your life with someone.  I understand this.  But it’s also one of the reasons I’m careful about wading into uncomfortable waters and why I’ve never visited other websites about dogs.  Too many armchair quarterbacks.  As of late some of them have appeared on our own Facebook page (and others), but our moderators quickly move to change that. 

On the positive side, there has been an incredible amount of response in celebrating Will’s life.  I know many feel sad about his dying but I cannot do anything about that.  I can only say that I’m not feeling the same way and I have a hard time imaging Will was ever very sad over the past two years of his life.  It was a grand final chapter and I’m happy for him and proud of him.

Life and death are very personal, but if we can share these personal experiences and people are reverent enough to simply witness what they see and not judge it, some good can come of it.  I feel confident much good has already come from Will and his journey and that many can only continue.  Knowing that others will do get chances at new life because of Will is something to celebrate.

Thank you,
Tom




(To help other animals in need we've set up a memorial fund in Will's name at the Conway Area Humane Society.  Some have asked why I chose C.A.H.S.  There are many reasons, but they start at the top of that organization.  I believe anytime an unwanted animal finds a new home there are limitless possibilities for happy endings.  That said, I've learned quite a bit about rescue - the good and the bad.   It's hard work.  I support C.A.H.S. because of Virginia Moore, the executive director. In a field where some put themselves above the animals they are supposed to be helping, Virginia has the perfect perspective.  She restored my belief in those who get rescue right.) 

    

41 comments:

henrietta larcade said...

Well said....thank you !!!

Robert said...

I respect how you set boundaries and let people know what's acceptable and what isn't.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

I truly appreciate how you embraced Will, cared for him and allowed him to show you his needs. I believe there is a time when one should be allowed to die with dignity, and I embrace it. Will was so blessed to have his dignity maintained. Through the vibrations of music, the aromatic scent of flowers, he taught you his needs. Thank you so much for all you did for Sweet Will. The gift of life and death is such a valuable gift that Sweet Will taught all of us who followed his story. Thank you. Thank you. Onward!

Bev A said...

Yes... Tom...I have nothing profound or enlightening to add..just a gentle chime ...mighty fine....mighty fine...

Angie said...

Very well said. Thank you

Sharron said...

So very well put .... I say AMEN to all of that !!!

Thank You TOM for always putting everything in perspective ..... ❤️

Anonymous said...

Tom Ryan, we may never meet but I think you'd be a tenacious friend. - Crystal

Eugenia DeVendra said...

Thoughtful truth.

IndigoWynd said...

I have the utmost respect for you and the moderators. There is often so much drama surrounding social media and I look forward to reading your posts and blogs as they offer a positive experience. Even with sweet Will's passing, it was about celebrating his life, his transformation, and a special bond. There are many things to thank you for and not enough words to do them justice. Onward!

Janice Hummel said...

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

I donated to my own shelter for in Will's name but I'm now going to donate to your local shelter because what you wrote about it.

What you write is true about rescue people. I've volunteered for over a decade. Some really get it and are there for the animals. Some make it all about themselves.

I'm sorry you've had bad experiences but I'm happy your faith is renewed by Ms. Moore.

Cindy Ciocca said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lis Boucher said...

Will remember Will romping in the snow when we do our first snow covered hike....

Terry Metayer said...

"I know many feel sad about his dying.." You're right about that and I can only speak to my own thoughts on feeling sad. I read all of your posts with varying degrees of sadness as you were readying us for Will's death. Some was my own as I had come to know him through your very visual, sensory posts and had become attached to him vicariously. I wasn't so much saddened for you because I knew from reading between the lines on some posts that it truly was Will's time to leave and had a feeling that you 'got him' & thus knew that this was best for him and you were prepared. I was not sad for Atticus as I knew that he would be fine, but I was sad for Will.

Not that Will was dying but that such a beautiful, joyful being who loved his music & flowers & had such a fun-loving soul - as you were able to help him access - had not been giving the opportunity over the first portion of his life to be that, (Or at the very least hadn't been allowed to access it over such an expanse of time as to cause his health issues.) and for that I was saddened.

I feel that all beings, wild or domesticated, should be treated with love and dignity throughout their entire lives. I have cautioned people who think about getting certain animals for their children as a holiday pet, that an animal is a lifetime commitment not an accessory to be had until it no longer suits them. But here I'm digressing.

My point is, although I was sad that Will had to leave his body and would no longer enjoy life in the way he had come to, it was because I only wished he had had more of that joy for a longer period of time. Yes, I know that 2 1/2 years was far more time than was expected but an entire life of 17 years full of love, joy & flowers would have been better.

lis boucher said...

I will envision Will prancing through the snow when I do my first snow covered trail..

Anonymous said...

Thank you.

Toni :O) said...

Thank you for being so honest and forthright. I think that is why I fell in love with your book. It's honest and true to the love animals can bring into our life. They bring compassion, responsibility, love, snuggles and true joy. Rescuing our sweet Schnauzer was one of the best decisions we ever made nearly five years ago. She brought all of those things and more and we love her unconditionally. I'm thankful you have this blog because for some reason I'm not able to like or leave a comment on the FB page and it makes me sad. At least I can do it here. Keep living your beautiful life and thank you sharing it with all of us. Onward by all means.....love that. :0)

Linda Carr said...

So glad you wrote this piece, thank you, it says a lot about you as a person, I liked it very much.

Becki Cromer said...

Beautiful words....thank you! 🐾

Melinda Stephenson said...

Thank you Tom! I love to read your thoughts.

Lynni OHaver said...

As always Mr Tom Ryan, your way with words awakens a multitude of emotions....spiritual & inspiring. It is often difficult for some to realize death is a part of living, and often the sadness of goodbyes are more selfish then selfless.

When I look at Will he immediately reminds me of a celebration of life. Now & before....his journey with you & his legacy that will always be. A celebration. That is what Will is to me.......

Please don't stay away too long from FB....some of us miss your wit & daily wisdom.

Ewa and Hugo said...

You did a great job Tom...the world need more people like you...thank you for doing this for Will

Carter W Rae said...

I have few words right now Tom but this is beautiful we are all better for sharing and gaining love and insight from it all . You are a special person with a big heart!! From Carter & Stacy

Kerina Strevens said...

I like your blog and books because they make me think. Mostly, I agree with you, other times not so much, but you make me see things from differing angles and that's good. I love nature and believe that animals think and feel and should be given respect and space and treated well by people. So please keep writing, as it's a fascinating and unfolding journey and I look forward all the time to the next chapter.

Lynn Heiligenthal-Showalter said...

Your writing is such a wonderful commentary on life. You have shared so much with so many and have warmed the hearts of many. You and Atticus are loved as was Will.

Anonymous said...

I can't wait for a book about Will. I love your writing & your love for your dogs.

Anonymous said...

You gave him unconditional love! That is usually what they naturally give us. As you said, you can't account for what went on, before he became part of your life, but you gave him back his dignity! Bless you for that! Thank You for sharing your experiences and love. I know that he felt the Love, and it showed, in how he flourished. And you let him be a happy old man, and then die with dignity! Thank you for that!

Anonymous said...

Thoughtful words. Thank you.

Laura said...

Will's journey has been like certain favourite books. They bring tears, smiles and laughs. But when the end few pages come, I often put them down to wait, savour and digest. Then the last few pages are read and end the book.

To quote a favourite elder..."you Sir, are a Gentleman" There was no higher praise.

BJ PUP said...

Your words made Will come to life for me.

Jeanine Ford said...

Thank you for your continued honesty, and for teaching us about love, respect, and empathy for all living things. You have taught us by the example you show us every day in the way you live your life. You are a good man, Tom Ryan.

Anonymous said...

The Gift of Will. Yes, and such a gift he was. He still is. Sometimes I ask, how do we get so lucky? Often during the times that we are feeling like life's over and how are we going to handle it from here. How will we go on? We handle it by realizing how fortunate we are to have life and love for however long it's with us. Treasured moments, however fleeting, are just that. Gifts. So often we don't see them when they are all around us. How lucky are we to experience so much of life. May our eyes, ears, senses, being, continue to be open to new adventures in every moment. Sweet William, you left the legacy of Hope. You gave us the gift of You.

Capt Steve said...

Tom,

From the first day with Will to the last day with Will, you did the right thing.

Anonymous said...

I came because of Atticus, but I slowly fell in love with Will, his story and your relationship. These last few weeks have encouraged me to think a lot about what I can do and I'm going to open up my heart and home to another cat. Will's life and rebirth inspired me to really consider how many "Wills" are out there - of every species - and I'm going to do a little something because his life encouraged me. Thanks Tom.

Betty Fagen said...

Hi Tom,

We have met and maybe it will happen again. Even before the bookstore in CT there was a place in my heart for you and Atti. I was where I was supposed to be when I found Following Atticus on the shelf. And then came Will. Brought home to spend his final days and hours in comfort surrounded by friendship and ultimately love. Never to be disrespected or alone again. Too any of us have suffered those challenging times in our lives and sadly, there isn't always a Tom Ryan on the path. But your openness and sharing has made it so much better for us. Will's story opens a loving and beautiful world to others on the verge of giving up. He will live on in the adoptions of seniors and we will live on from lessons he taught his about life. Forever grateful that the three of you were where you were supposed to be.
You are respected and admired around the world. Atticus and Will are loved from a distance.
I wish you peace up in Jackson and wherever your journey takes you.
Hugs to you and Atti. Enjoy a restful night filled with pleasant dreams.

oxox my friends
Betty

Bernadette Beach said...

I have enjoyed EVERY post about Will, and I appreciate you sharing his story! Thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

"Will needed to be loved and believed in. He needed someone in his corner over the last chapter of his life.  He had that."
(a universal need, often unfulfilled. not this time. not for Will. thank you very much for sharing this.)

Anonymous said...

Thank-you immeasurably for caring for Will. The stories of Atticus and Will touch our hearts. We are so glad that you perform everyday for them. Wonderful photos of Will and Tom on conwayshelter.org. "Onward", indeed. ..Sarah

Zara Benton said...

I only knew about Will a couple of days before he left but I feel as if I have always loved him. Through your words and actions and because you shared his last few days with us all I came to realise what life is really about, what living really means and what love can do. Will's memory will live on, you still have a journey to continue with Atticus and I look forward to reading so much more about your adventures in the mountains. I also have the book to read and will take time out from the hum drum of life to relax and just enjoy my dogs and share in their joy for life and nature. Thank you for guiding me back to that. I cannot like or comment on your FB page and I wanted you to know how much you have helped me get back on track. Onwards - by all means.

FinleytheWestie said...

My eldest daughter adopted a cat who had been dumped at her apartment complex. Charlie stole all our hearts, and it was a wonder to see him come out of his shell, quit being fearful of being dumped outside, and blossom in his new surroundings. After about a year, he got sick and we found out he was a lot older than we had been led to believe by the first vets he saw. He had been living as a stray for over 10 years at the complex and was at least 15. Didn't really matter, she would have adopted him no matter what his age. When he died, we got all kinds of comments on social media praising us for "rescuing" him, etc. And I could only think how they didn't get it at all... that we didn't do it to feel good about ourselves or be some kind of hero. It was about Charlie. We had met him, loved him, and wanted him to have the inside home he so craved. He gave us more than we could ever have given him. My main sadness when he passed was because he deserved better, more years of good times, not because he had died. So few people understood that. Grief is individual and we shouldn't project how we would feel onto others..

Location longue durée said...

Intersting thank you !