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.
Wednesday, September 28, 2016
The Experience of Being Alive
Today is the darkest of days for my friend Virginia and her partner Brenda. They are preparing to say goodbye to their beloved Kiko, a four-legged soul with the best black and white markings I’ve ever seen. She is gentle and kind and lives in their hearts. And, by chance, if it is not today, it will be soon. This morning, they are emptying themselves out in grief.
Alas, there is no escaping death, or what it leaves behind. If we are lucky, we know what it is like to suffer this deepest of losses, because it means we have loved completely and surrendered our hard selves to another. If we are the dying, we should all be so fortunate to have been loved and to leave behind broken hearts left clinging to memories.
I have offered Virginia a few words this morning, but nothing suffices. You know this from the grief you’ve experienced and how it changed your life.
I will forever remember coming home for the first time without Atticus. I screamed at God through tears knowing that I too was so close to death, “Why not take me while you are at it, you bastard?” Yes, there were a few more cuss words in there as well, but I never worry about it. As I’ve told some of my rigid and respectable Christian friends, I am not respectable and have no desire to be. Mine is a less formal and more relaxed relationship with God. What’s a few cross words between friends?
Virginia and Brenda know they are making all the right decisions. How? Because it hurts so much. They are placing Kiko’s peace above theirs.
I would like to be able to tell them that all will okay over time. Their scars will heal, and they’ll move forward. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. I have seen too many that can not let go of their sorrow, and they cease to live. When one they love dies, so do they. They continue to breathe, but that’s about it.
I met someone a few years ago who told me that a beloved four-legged friend had died seven years earlier, and she still hadn’t found a reason to smile. Oh, my. What to say to such a person? I chose not to say anything and instead I just nodded and went on my way.
We often forget the contract we have with life. We seem to think things don’t have a cost, and that there is no expiration date. But birth, life, and death are all part of the same contract. How we deal with it all goes a long way toward our quality of life.
At my lowest depths in May, I couldn’t imagine how life could possibly go on. I worried about my heart, which had been so diseased and barely functioned. I thought about how the stress would shut down my kidneys, again, or how that massive blood clot that was in me would come loose and block an artery. As I lay grieving in the days to come, nothing anyone said offered me hope. They were kind, but this was an intimate dance I was in. At night, I’d choke on my despair and wake up gasping, swallowing a lung full of air to try to keep from dying there and then.
That’s when it hit me. That’s when I knew I wanted to live. I was worried about my heart. I was fighting to breathe. If I were really ready for death, I wouldn’t be grieving so much. Instead, I would have given up. I wouldn’t have cared…about anything.
The other day, a friend asked me, “How did you do it? How did you get beyond all you went through in that intense period of sickness and heartache?”
“I took a breath. Then I took another. I’d remind myself to get out of bed. I told myself I was alive for a reason. I thought of Atticus and believed that the last thing he’d want is for me to suffer in life. In a way, he was my inspiration to keep going."
My conversations with God continued. Some were heated. Some were kind. There were tears, and laughter, and swearing. But it was all good in the end. I asked about the purpose of life, and thought time and again of Joseph Campbell’s belief that we’re not looking for the meaning of life, but the experience of living. The good, the bad, the hard, the immensity, the emptiness of it all. That’s when I began to smile. I was alive. Completely alive. I wasn’t thriving, but I figured, there’s a reason for this, so I went on.
I was compassionate to those who had suffered loss, and wanted to huddle together and commiserate with me, telling me “I know how you feel?" In the end, though, they didn’t. What they knew was how they felt. So I went on my private journey, took nourishment from friends, and believed that I was not so important that everything should stop because of my weak and broken heart.
"Thank you, God, for this morning. What strange form of teaching do you have for me today?” I’d ask.
Faith plays a part in my journey. The sun will come up again, even on rainy days, and, as Robert Frost reminded us when he wrote that he could sum up all he’s learned about life and in three words, “It goes on.” Mine did. Without much direction. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t walk very far. I definitely couldn’t hike. I didn’t have the concentration to read.
But still, I tried. Each day, I tried a little more.
Then, when I worked so hard to rescue myself and felt human again, along came Samwise. People like the narrative of “Who rescued who?” This weekend, a reverend heard me speak of the loss of Atticus and the arrival of Samwise and said to me with doe eyes, “Who rescued who?” I wanted to say, “I fucking rescued myself,” and that’s why Samwise came into my life. Because I chose to live again. But instead, I said, “Go F.Y. and that tired cliche.” I smiled when I said it, and she smiled in return as I reached to her and said, “Matters of the heart are too important for Hallmark catch phrases, no matter how well intended they are.” And we left each other in good spirits.
Lastly, my story of loss has another part to it.
A broken man chose to live again. Chose to rescue himself. Then he chose to love again, and Samwise came for that reason.
But something else occurred to me. Deep down I knew there was something else to be learned and experienced. Atticus’s departure left a lot of room within me to fill, after all.
I told my friends I was enjoying my monastic life. Some walking, writing, reading, teaching Samwise the lessons he’d need to understand, and continuing with my own lessons. I was healing, and reaching a contented place.
When many suggested setting me up with someone for a date, I had no desire. It’s been three and a half years, and once you go through a relationship with someone with the traits of histrionic personality disorder, you tend to want to avoid that kind of toxicity ever again. You want to play it safe and not chance revisiting the madness. This was only reaffirmed when I became friends with two others who had dealt with various forms of narcissism and studies show that many of us who survive narcissists, never get involved with anyone again. I held no grudges against the woman I had been with; she couldn’t help being what she was. I was angry with myself for being fooled so completely, when what I thought was a most remarkable woman turned out to be the most regrettable decision of my life. So, yes, being alone was okay with me. I have Samwise and nature and good books and music and nurturing foods, and my health is returning.
But God had other plans. They included you, dearest. Who knew that such loss and emptiness was preparing me to be filled with a new wonder? New loves a new chapter and experiences.
You seemed to come out of nowhere, and yet it feels like we’ve always known each other. Neither of us has any idea where this journey will lead as we move forward. Life offers no guarantee other than the invitation to participate. But right now, just as Samwise trusted that life had brought him to where he belongs, I too believe that I’m right where I’m supposed to be, just as I’ve always been.
When I told my friend Jan about the news of us, she was jubilant for me, even though she is going through her own loss. She understands about the fallout from narcissism, and how many just try to get by without taking a chance again. But she is thrilled for me, and for us. For while you and I had pretty darn good lives to begin with, we’ve both decided to dance again.
I have learned that the best way to get over loss is to surrender to it. Wallow in despair. Cry your guts out, ask all the unanswerable questions you can, and then you rescue yourself, and when you do that, you begin to live fully again, and accept the gifts that life is offering you. But it only happens if we choose to move forward, choose to move onward, by all means.
As I told you last night, one of my close friends who had also suffered in a narcissistic relationship has been paying attention to what we’re going through. When a man reached out to her, where at first she thought of all the reasons not to respond and from what I know ignored him, now she has decided to jump into the pool again and give life with others another try. It would seem that the decision to live again is contagious. As is love.
I will now say goodbye, and look forward to whatever song plays for us to dance to. The beat of life and hearts go on, from sorrow to song, we are all we choose to be. Thank you for being uniquely you.
Now, you’ll excuse me. The rain has stopped, and the birds are singing, and Samwise and I are going for a walk. As we move through the forest, I’ll be saying my prayer while conversing with God, "Thank you for this morning. What strange form of teaching do you have for me today?” From my heart to yours, Tom