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.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Jung Believed Death Brings Us Closer to Life

Atticus M. Finch with a local moose.
Jung believed that death brings us closer to life, and there are few times we are more alive than when dealing with death.

That’s where I am these days.

Many are surprised that I smile as much as I do when talking about Atticus. But hell, I had it darn good for fourteen years. We were like an old couple who knew everything about each other, dancing to music in perfect harmony, never missing a step. There was little need for words, for we had melded together first in our initial bonding, then on the way to standing on two thousand mountaintops. Never underestimate the intimacy of hiking partners.

Yes, mourning is taking place and tears fall, but overriding all of that is a warmth that emanates from within that shouts, “You two got it right!”

Our non-human animal friends don’t have our same lifespan. We can see this as cruel, or we can take it at face value and appreciate what we do (or in our case, did) have.

Someone asked me about my outlook the other day, about going through what I went through in the hospital and saying goodbye to Atticus.

“I figure we have two choices,” I told him. “We can be broken and just lay down and quit, living in the past and loss, or we can figure that whatever powers that be have dealt us a hand and it’s up to us to play it. I may not always have a choice in picking my experiences, but I have the freedom to choose my attitude.”

In saying goodbye to Atticus, I sometimes find it hard to believe he’s gone, but more than that I smile at the joy of a life shared together that marched to its own drummer. We found a place where species didn’t matter, layered in love and dignity. From the beginning, I told him I’d treat him like an equal. He would never be infantilized by me or anyone else. When people referred to him as a baby, I reminded them that he was an adult, or even elderly (at the very end). I let him know he’d always have a say in what we did and where we went and how we did things.

From the very beginning, he hated wearing a leash, so we set out together to live a leashless life. That’s one of the reasons we moved to this small town because it was acceptable for him to walk freely. If it were an issue here, we would have chosen  another community instead.


And when Atticus decided he didn’t want to hike on certain days, we always turned back, or in one case, never got out of the car. Because of this, I didn’t have to worry about him endangering himself just to please me.

The only rules enforced in the beginning was that he treated everyone respectfully, and behaved responsibly. He was never a nuisance and was always polite and for that reason, he was invited into many businesses that may not always allow dogs.

He earned freedom and trust. People often commented about how he’d walk along Route 16 ten to twenty feet ahead of me, right on the very narrow shoulder of the road facing traffic.

A woman asked, “Aren’t you afraid he’s going to run into the street and get hit by a car?”

“No. Why, is that something you’d do?”

Not all souls are alike, but it’s our job to read those from other species and see their needs and abilities. Where Atticus thrived, others might not, whether it’s along a busy road or a mountaintop in winter, or sitting within twenty feet of the bears in our backyard.

Once, when people were pulled over on the side of the road and standing outside of their cars to watch a moose, Atticus and I pulled over and also got out. We took a seat on a small hillock close to the moose. He looked in our direction.  A man on the other side of the small marsh started yelling at me to get Atticus out of there for the moose would charge him. I mostly ignored the fellow, other than perhaps a small hand gesture suggesting he mind his own business. But the man didn’t and he continued to create a ruckus. Eventually, the moose did charge, not at us, but at the loud fellow.

I don’t know why animals felt calm around Atticus; I just know they did, and I trusted him to know what he felt comfortable with. Now and then, however, I’d remind him to be cautious. One night, on a hike along the Doubleheads, we encountered a porcupine. She immediately put her quills up and turned them in our direction.

“She’s nervous, Atti. How about if we just have a seat and let her know we mean no harm?” 

We sat and watched her and eventually she turned back around and sat and watched us. It was twenty minutes of bliss under the moonlight in the col between two peaks.

When I did speak to Atticus, it was as an equal. Words like “please” and “thank you” were commonly used. And when a woman I was dating took a video of a “chat” between Atticus and me on top of a mountain without me knowing, I delighted in watching it later. For I spoke with words delivered to a friend, and for his part, Atticus responded with his ears and eyebrows and eyes. That was his way of communicating.

People may be surprised to realize I’m not pining away, choked by sadness. It is because I have much to be grateful for, much to smile about, and I’d rather leave all that sadness behind. It has been my experience that many people like to dwell in sadness, and while that’s fine for them, it’s not a place I find very useful.

My friend lives within me, and I’m sure when the next book tour begins, it will be a challenge talking about Atticus and Will without breaking down on stage. The tears will flow, and I’ll need a box of Kleenex on hand. But here’s the thing about those tears, they will be caused more out of being part of something so powerful and good than they will be out of sadness.



For here’s the way I look at it, just what do I have to be sad about? I have been given the gift of life, of feeling and loving and being one of Creation's lively souls. The dance continues, no matter the tempo, and I persevere not only to just get by but to thrive.

54 comments:

AWBookGirl said...

Tom, I love this. Grief and gratitude often go hand in hand for people.

Donna Safford said...

Great blog, Tom! I especially liked this, "The tears will flow, and I’ll need a box of Kleenex on hand. But here’s the thing about those tears, they will be caused more out of being part of something so powerful and good than they will be out of sadness." Attitude has so much to do with how we deal with loss, and yours is a wonderful example to everyone. Atticus will always be with you, and with many of us, in loving memories. Dance on!

Christine McDonald said...

A beautiful tribute to Atticus and a healing perspective on death!!

Anonymous said...

A beautiful gift indeed Tom and what a wonderful journey, the two of you most certainly got it right! <3

Margo Chapski said...

Thanks for putting your self out here.

Anonymous said...

With tears running down my face I just finished listening to Tom read Following Atticus and I am overwhelmed emotionally. This is the most beautiful love story I have ever read. Tom you are courageous in exposing corruption and conquering your fears. Your love and repect for living creatures both human and non human is heart warming. You and Atticus are truly unique and both great athelets. I loved your reaction when you got the sheep, and even though it probably wasn't funny at the time, reading about Atticus spreading poop in your car and in the crate was so funny. Tom, words flow from you like a Mozart symphony.
Thank you for shraring your experiences and precious Atticus with us all. It is amazing how you and one little dog could spread so much love around the world I am eagerly awaiting "Will's Red Coat."

Kim Hampton said...

Beautifully said, wonderful to have you share such joyful thoughts <3

Jan said...

Onward, by all means...

MarieLise West said...

You are very wise,the way you deal with life and death is the way it should be,we just sometimes forget how to live and appreciate the one life we are given,you've mastered the way.

Melissa Cruz said...

Well said and beautifully put. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us.

Carol West said...

Simply beautiful.

Audrey Thibodeau said...

Powerful. This really makes a person take stock of their own life and relationships.

Debbie said...

This was very timely. I am putting my old friend Attila the Cat down tomorrow, and I've been unable to put into words how I feel. I have had him since he was only about 6 weeks old, and he is now 13. Cancer and kidney disease have taken it's toll on him, and I can't let him suffer anymore. A friend told me that he would let me know when it's time. He just looked into my eyes the other day, and I could tell he is ready to let go. We'll spend today just sitting together, and I'll be thinking of the words you've written.

Richard Karkkainen said...

Atticus lives in our memory.

Unknown said...

Thank you for explaining your feelings so clearly. You have helped me to begin to articulate my similar philosophy on life and death.

Your recent journey is all too familiar. My husband was in Maine Med this past winter as well in a life and death challenge involving his heart (and mine) and his lungs. He too is now spending his days strengthening his body and soul. Also, my life has been enriched with the fabulous souls of dogs, cats, horses and even one guinea pig who all taught me valuable life lessons. There were times when I read your posts with tears streaming and yes, they were "caused more out of being part of something so powerful and good". Your posts and those tears were and are part of the healing and strength 'boosts' which I have needed along the way.

For now, the 2 of us find joy in each day together, knowing that more hiking experiences will come to us, all in good time, all in good time.

It always amazes me that powerful souls do not need to meet in person to make a profound impact. You, Atticus and Will are part of my soul and are always in my heart. Thank you!

Carol Acord said...

Thank you, Tom, for your words of wisdom through experience, which help those of us who are walking a similar trail to perhaps understand a bit better and to see things a bit differently.

Anonymous said...

Right on!

Anonymous said...

Beautiful. I also had a good laugh at your comment: "No. Why, is that something you'd do?" Perfect response and so you! Thank you

Anonymous said...

Wonderful blog today. I have shared my life with many non human friends. They gave me such companionship and happiness and I hope I returned as much to them. I know people who say they cannot have another non human companion because the pain of loss is too great. I do not understand this. What we shared over the years is worth so much more than the pain of saying goodbye (always too soon)
I consider these furry and feathered friends to be treasured blessings in my life.
Wishing you comfort in your memories and blessings in your life. Thank you for sharing the stories of Max, Atti and Will.

Honey Bear said...

You will continue to carry him every where. Peace.

Julie Harpigny said...

It is the poignancy of the bond you and Atticus shred and your recognition of it that brings me to tears, Tom. Atticus will live on. Thank you for posting this.

Anonymous said...

I know of someone who lives in sadness over a lost loved one. I wish there was something I could do to make her see there is some much more to live for. To me, it is not living.

Karin Wilmarth said...

Another beautiful post, Tom. I thank you so much for sharing Atticus with us and look forward to reading more about Will as you share him with the world. I will try to remember two boxes of tissues ... one for you and one for me ... when I next see you on your book tour.

And some of your words remind me of the story of why dogs live less than us ... they come into the world knowing how to live a good life, how to love and be loved, how to be nice to others while we humans need to learn this. So we need to remember to
Live simply.
Love generously.
Care deeply.
Speak kindly.

Peace to you Tom and enjoy your mountains! I look forward to leaving for a weekend in Bartlett on June 3rd. I will breath in the mountain area driving the beautiful West Side Rd and enjoy the view.

dragonlady said...

Dear Tom

Thank you so much for your beautiful writing. I too just lost my best friend, my buddy. After almost 16 years together. We didn't climb near as many peaks as you and Atti did, but bonded in many other ways. I cared for him into his old age the way you'd care for an elderly parent. And like you, I cry, but not so much for sadness or loss, but just out of missing the incredible creature Sam was. Blessed and grateful we were able to share his life. Thank you for sharing!!

Anonymous said...

Bravo!

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Tom! You spoke to my heart on a day I really needed it. It's often easier to "wallow" than be grateful. You reminded me. Brenda

Joanne Johnson Harrelson said...

I love this..you know what I thought about? That Atticus waited for you to come back home from the hospital before he passed. Maybe, he was just waiting for his dearest, loving friend to be near him when he died..not dying alone~ In time, I hope that you will decide to get another companion to walk with you through those steep hills~If so, you will both be blessed.

Trish Dinsmore said...

Thank you Tom. I loved reading your thoughts. I really appreciate your sharing with us. Your words beautiful and inspiring.
Trish

Onesnap said...

Wonderful post! I connect to so much of what you say when thinking about my cat Maximus (who is 16 now). Treating an animal with respect and really paying attention to their responses and actions makes so much sense.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

Truly, you and Atticus were an amazing pair. He understood what you said to him, and his actions and behaviors communicated what he could not speak. A couple of years ago, I met an animal communicator when I fostered a small, unloved dog for the schnauzer rescue I volunteer for. After the dog decided to choose freedom instead of staying inside a strange home, the animal communicator contacted me. I was amazed with her reactions. She understood him so well. I'm happy to say, the runaway was found, returned to me, and I must say, he taught so much about what he needed and was willing to accept. Like you, I believe animals communicate to us. I've followed your blog and read FOLLOWING ATTICUS, discovering I was happiest and more nurturing to animals. Thank you for sharing your stories and your love for animals to all of us. Life would be so much happier if people could treat everyone with LOVE. I am so sad that Atticus left us, but his memory and his stories will remain forever. Today, I am caring for my oldest friend, a 13-year-old schnauzer named Shakespeare Hemingway. When I got home, I watch his actions as he watched me. We've together so well and now, with every week, he seems to be drifting away from me. Yes, my heart will break when he leaves, and I will be a more caring, compassionate person, all to the gifts of love from little Shakespeare. Thank you, Tom for sharing your life and the love of your precious, Atticus. We are enriched with love and kindness just by caring so much. ONWARD Tom. I hope one day, you will find another - not to replace because I do not believe our loved ones can be replaced. You have much to share. Our world needs more who walk in similar shoes.

Cindy Gregg said...

Tom, I cannot tell you how important this particular blog is to me. My Cricket is almost 13 and showing the signs of an aging dog. He is a small dog (Pomeranian) who has gone to work with me everyday since the day he was rescued. As he sits under my desk right now, I am reminded of the love and respect I feel for him, in many ways he is similar to Atticus. His passing will be difficult indeed for me, but your words have made the inevitable kinder. Thank you.

Brenda Meacham said...

How Blessed I have been "know" you and your attitude about your friends, including Atticus and Will. It has made a profound difference in my own attitude, actions, feelings and the life I live with four elderly friends of my own. I've stopped babying them, started changing our relationship to be more like yours~ I'm happier, they are happier, I've stopped worrying about the dreaded days to come when they leave~ We will always be together~ Thanks You, and Will and Attticus! Onward~

ROSALINDA GARCIA DRYDEN said...

Loved it......beautifully said.

TwoSpecialWires said...

This could not be more perfectly stated. Thank you so very much for putting your heartfelt and personal thoughts to words, and for sharing them with us. You've touched a soulful place inside of me.

rozilla said...

It always surprises me that people don't get what having a animal friend is all about. Well they have had a loss in their lives, so sad. Tom as you well know it is better to have known what we lucky few have with our animal friends. Not just pets but real friends!!! Better that than nothing. I do understand, we lost our Sadie Mae Frost last Sunday. She is really free of pain and worries. Tom, by all means carry on!! Sincerely, LNM

Anonymous said...

Tom, having just found out about Atticus, and with a heavy heart, can I send our warmest thoughts and thank you and Atticus for the pleasure you have given us over recent years. Following Atticus is a very special book; funny, moving and a celebration of life! I'm sure I speak for many people who feel part of your life story. We live in the UK and our own miniature schnauzer is 9 this year. He has also changed our lives and we have just given him a hug for you and in memory of a 'dear friend' Atticus who will live on in our hearts. Best Wishes A&J

Mary Ann said...

Love it and your perspective. And your journey.

Thank you for sharing.

Betty F. said...

We are dealt many hands of cards during our life. What we play is our choice. Once the choice is made there is no looking back and thinking I should have done it the other way. No regrets. Learn as your journey moves forward.

Spending time filling our hearts and heads with negative feelings brings the negatives forward and it is so exhausting and time consuming. Spending time on the negatives is wasted time and it attracts more negative. Being happy is so much easier to be and it feels so good.

Tom, continue dancing your dance at the pace you choose.

Goodnight my friend. Maybe tonight you will have pleasant dreams about Max, Atticus, and Will.
Peace.



Tandi said...

Thank you for putting your thoughts to words. Lots to ponder. Wish I could do the same. Your writing inspires me to try.

Anna Fernandez-Gevaert said...

Atticus. Dear Atticus.

Katherine Beach said...

Beautiful and uplifting. Makes my heart feel light and full of gratitude for your sharing of your wonderful perspective.
Thank you.😊

CAvila said...

thank you for your beautiful words!

k kelly said...

Beautiful! This attitude is what you gave to me in the loss of my friend, McIver. Thank you more than you will ever know.

Melinda Stephenson said...

Gratitude makes life wonderful! Gratitude for every second of life and the sharing of it.

Barb said...

If only humans could have this depth of respect, love and communication between one another what a beautiful relationship they could have
As I read your words what a beautiful love story you and Atticus shared. Your words inspire me . This blog brought good tears because of the amazing loving friendship you shared with Atticus
Yes I think death brings us closer to life. Brings us back to what and who is important in our life.
Thank you for this blog. Looking forward to seeing you next year on your book tour.

George West said...

Brings to mind "The Dance" by Garth Brooks - Here's to 14 years of dancing.
"Looking back to the memory of
The dance we shared 'before the stars alone
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known that you'd ever say goodbye
And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I'd of had to miss the dance"

Barbara Sutton said...

I'm moved by the way you describe your tears as coming from a deep gratitude for all you and Atticus shared. I certainly miss my beloved mutt, Puanani, yet the deeper feeling IS gratitude for all the love and sweetness we shared during her 14 years with me. You've given me another way to hold her in my heart. Thank you.

Heather Wilson said...

Tom - I used to be able to post on your Facebook page, now can only post on here. I have always enjoyed following your FB page and your blog - and this very well written tribute to Atticus is another example of why that is so. Your writing is such an encouragement, and full of wisdom, to many who have pets. As you carry onward by all means - your memories you choose to share of your friendship with both Will and Atticus will be a blessing to many - and a reminder that our friendships as we go along lifes' path are many and varied - some are more honest than others - some friendships last but a short time - and others last a lifetime - but the constant in all is that we all need to treat each other with respect, kindness, and honesty. Blessings to you - and may you continue to get stronger each day - as you continue to dwell on the many wonderful memories you have of your time with both Will and Atticus.

Linda P said...

WOW! Comforting, inspirational and profound words and thoughts. Thank you Tom and Atticus.

Anonymous said...

Tom, thank you for this. I have shed so many tears over the last 13 days for a dog I never met and a man don't know. Even again last night in the solitude of the evening I wept for you. But then I re-read this post and the perspective you share helps heal my own heart. Onward Tom Ryan - I am undeservedly blessed by the words you so generously share with us.
Janet Campbell

Anomomous said...

Sometimes the greatest gift is just to simply listen.

Paul Ilmer said...

Thanks for sharing that. Simply, beautifully said. Gracias a la vida!

Johanna Donovan said...

Regarding your new friend, good for you, Tom!
I'm sure Atticus would approve.

I look forward to reading about your new adventures.

Johanna

karen koszuta said...

Life does go on......sometimes we forget why. But then the sun starts to rise and the wind whispers messages of hope. I will miss Atticus and your love stories but "there are miles to go before you sleep." Hugs and much love from Karen, TJG