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

Dearest friend,

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


40 comments:

Kay Distefano said...

Amen

bonneMaria said...

Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful

dennis said...

Tom, as always thank you for sharing your life and reminding each of us how we might live ours.

Glori Duesterhaus said...

Thanks for your post this morning. I really needed to hear this as we are preparing to say goodbye to our 4 legged family member. He isn't even sick yet but our vet found swollen lymph nodes and diagnosed lymphoma. We are trying to live in the moment and make his last month or two joyful and full of dog experiences but it is so hard to watch for signs of illness, knowing that they are coming and the end will be so soon. Thanks for the words that helped a little with this journey we are on with our friend.

Newfie said...

Tom, your commentaries are so insightful and moving. What about a "pocketbook" of them for all of us in need of inspiration to carry with us---for "those" moments? I cannot tell you how many times you have changed the course of my day after I have read one.

Katy said...

Absolutely beautiful Tom. Blessings to you and samwise and may love keep us all moving forward towards the next adventure.

colodreamer said...

Wow....is all I can think to say...onwards Tom and thanks

Starr Miller said...

Well said as always, Tom.

Anonymous said...

Thank you!!

Valerie Macneir said...

Just a beautiful message, beautifully written. I am going through a transitional time, and this letter was particularly inspirational. Thank you for sharing your wonderful gift of words and writing.

PhotographyByBlythe said...

And from my heart to yours...thank you for the inspiration that you unselfishly share with us everyday!

C. D. Banks said...

Thank you for expressing and sharing. You calm my soul.

George G. said...

Being involved with senior rescues, I've learned to make the most of the time we have, and go make each day count. the goodbyes when they come are painful, but it's heartening to know their last days were some of their best, and we got to share them. Yes, "life goes on" - as the saying goes "The trouble is, you think you have time" (Buddah) - and you don't. Tom's journey has taught me to treasure what is here and now and to move "Onward, by all means"

Donna Jean said...

My heart goes out to Virginia and Brenda. I have also known the grief that comes each time one of our 4 legged family members has to be relieved of the pain or suffering. The letting go feels like a physical pain in the heart even if you know it is the right thing to do for the ones you love so dearly. It is never easy but I have said the pain is always worth the love given and received.

I'm very happy for you giving Samwise and yourself a home in each others heart. It is never a replacement of the ones we lost when someone new becomes a part of our life. I believe it is a testament to the ones we loved and lost, of the love we have to share again. Atticus was so unique, the Prince of New Hampshire's White Mountains, his story will live on forever in the hearts of the readers and for those who loved him.

I'm also happy you are opening your heart to new love and companionship with your new friend. I wish you both so much happiness and joy as you discover each other. You fought to stay alive, you recovered when some others never would have. You deserve to have a heart full of love and share it with someone who returns the same love. You are always in my prayers. Thank you for sharing your life with all of us followers & friends. Onward, by all means!

Anonymous said...

Thinking of your friends, the beginning is a raw topic, had to make that decision 9 days ago. We sure miss him terribly. Ever so thankful for the glorious gentle hike he was able to do the week before and for the bond shared over 13 years. Peace.

Laurie Zarrella said...

As always love reading everything you write. I just put down my Tucker abour a month ago.

Kathy M said...

Your writing today resonates so deeply with me, thank you for sharing such personal feelings and experiences. After my husband died at age 55 just 3 1/2 years ago, I grieved profoundly and wondered what the future might hold. I went through the motions of living, it was pretty tough. But I had a dream, or visitation, from him 18 months ago where he was happy, healthy and had an aura of light around his head. I woke up from it to find myself immediately at peace, a peace like I'd never felt in my life. And it remained, I felt fully alive again! Six months ago, I went on a date and met a most wonderful man who brings joy and companionship into my life. Off soon to play in Italy together. Life is friggin' good! Best to you Tom.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

Dearest Tom:
Your words always move and inspire me. How you wrote about the loss of Atticus caused me to cry once again -- over the loss of my precious Prince Marmaduke Shamus, aka "Shamey-Pooh." When his quality of life no longer existed, I had to make the decision to let him go. Over four years ago now. I've come to the conclusion, grief never leaves us. The tsunami of grief teaches us that we MUST go on. Thank you for sharing your words again. We are so blessed to read your words. You inspire us, and Samwise teaches us how we must move ONWARD. Thank you, my friend!

EM Lynch said...

Thank you for reminding so many of us what we tend to forget - nothing is forever. Having lost family members (both human and animal) and experienced the depths of depression for both. It can be hard to rally and find the strength to move onward. One foot in front of the other, make an effort, each day a bit more effort than the last. We return to our former self with a richer experience. I had put a "Life is Good" sticker on my fridge. It reminded me each time I passed it - I was still living. So make it a great day with whatever energy/effort I could muster.

Anonymous said...

Tom,
You sure have a beautiful talent for words. I realize much from your writing....it's like you help us to see when life gets cloudy and confusing. You also remind me that it is my right and responsibility to rescue myself. Blessings to you and your doggy.

Shelley Brown said...

Just beautiful. Thank you for sharing Tom ❤

Barb said...

Inspirational words today. Spoke volumes of what I am currently going through. Yesterday Was a day I never wanted to go through. My four legged friend gave me the sign it was time. 16 + years so the sadness is tough tears are plentiful I didn't think I could live without him. But today is another day I am still here.
Tom your words always make me feel. Either love laughter or sadness. Your words are raw emotions that I am learning to feel. Thank you for being you.

Jan Reed said...

This is such a beautiful post, Tom. And of course so meaningful at this time of my life. I will now have a new question with which to begin each day. Thank you.

Ella Lindenhofen said...

I recall the day when my husband sat on the floor with our Tootsie, knowing it was a matter of time before we would say goodbye. He cried saying that he didn't know how he would be able to handle losing her. They were best friends for 14 years. As fate would have it, the following week I lost him, my husband of almost 50 years very suddenly. I didn't think it was possible to continue living without him. The following week I had to say goodbye to out Tootsie. I remember screaming, I wanted to be with them, there was nothing left for me. It was an indescribable pain. Then my grandchildren came to see me, reminding me that I would be so selfish to cause them more grief. Well along came a pup named Hope, who at one year of age had never known human kindness. She was in bad shape and she needed someone with patience and love to give. I took her into my life 6 years ago and she has taught me a thing or two about living in the moment. I'm sorry about this long winded post Tom, although I truly doubt you will get to read it, but your blog brought out so many emotions, both sadness and joy. Thank you for sharing your life with us, both flawed and perfect. You are a good man Tom. Thank you

Caryl said...

Thank you, Tom, for opening your heart and sharing with us. Your words are what I needed to read today. My sister is living day to day with her husband of 50 years who has vascular dementia and has maybe a few months left. A dear friend of ours has only days to live. I am 55 and now understand the sadness older people would feel when they would say that most of their family and friends are gone. For a while, my thoughts led me to what it might be like in a few years when more and more family and friends pass from this life to what awaits all of us. Another dear friend is battling manageable, but incurable (though I'm praying for a cure) liver cancer and has such a wonderful outlook on life. I thank God for her! She said, "No one is guaranteed tomorrow and we need to go out and live life. Help others as much as you can; when you give to others, you feel so much better yourself!"

Jean Ostergren said...

Inspiring, insightful and so completely thought provoking. I always feel like I have gained new perspective every time you tell us more about your horrible time. I'm not sure I could be as introspective as you but I'm trying to be. So happy for your new or should I say re-found peace and happiness!

mlaiuppa said...

You have expressed it so well. I will come back to reread this post when it is time to bid my friend, Ramses, goodbye. Thankfully he is still in good health and approaching 13 years old in February. I look at the little white hairs invading his once black coat and I am reminded that he is only visiting with me, not staying forever.

I lost my Caesar 14 years ago. It took a long time to function again. I never adjusted to the silence of the house or the empty bed, the lack of his breathing at night. His bowls and toys remained scattered where he left them. Until I brought Ramses home3 months later.

But Caesar is hardly forgotten. While I eventually stopped crying and was able to smile and even laugh again, I cannot say I have stopped grieving. Every once in a while I cry for him. I remember his loss because I remember his love, his face, his devotion, his paw on my arm or his nose nuzzling my neck, his tongue washing my face. I miss his smell.

Yes, it can be a cruel bargain. To rejoice in years of such deep and pure love and then have to say goodbye.

But I wouldn't have changed anything. I would still have Caesar in my life. I would still have Ramses. And I will have others because the only way to show how much I loved them would be to open my arms to another who needed me. Both were rescues. I will rescue again.

Mrs A said...

It does go on, I'm sure God didn't mind a few cuss words, and look to many happy times ahead, fill your heart with peace and joy as nothing else matters. Give Samwise a pat and happy chats with God :)

Anonymous said...

Tom, Thankyou for sharing as always. Your thoughts in this post have helped me shake off a recent rough time. You always have a positive out look. You and Samwise have made my day that much brighter.

Michele said...

Thank you for sharing your life with us. I connected with this post on SO many levels (having gone through a rough last couple years that included a relationship like you describe, a divorce, becoming a single parent, and the loss of 4 dogs that all got to 14 around the same time). I'm at that "never wanting to be in another relationship" stage, but what you wrote has opened my mind to the possibility I won't always feel this way. I'm emailing myself this post as I'll need to re-read it many times.

And most importantly, I am beyond happy for you & wish you & your very resilient heart all the best.

Sharron Restivo said...

Tom, this letter was the most heartfelt one I have ever read ....how beautifully written...a glimpse of your soul came through loud and clear ...
Thank You for always sharing your wisdom and your life with all of us ... We never know what we are called upon to do or how our lives will change forever ... And yes, we DO rescue ourselves over and over again !!! We go through all the steps of grief and finally realize yes...I want to live !!!! I too say every morning " Thank You God for another Day ! " and really , that's all we ever have is one more day ... Nothing after that is promised, so we better make it a good one of discovery and joy !
Bless you and Samwise , maybe you both enjoy each other and treasure the moments ❤️❤️

Ed Ryan said...

Enjoy the dance for as long as the music plays.💜

Ruth said...

My heart to yours.

Jackie said...

I am so happy for you Tom. You have given love to so many. I have prayed for one that would come into your life and love you beyond belief and that you would also love. Always keeping you in my prayers.

Linda said...

My heart goes out to you. Thank you so much for sharing, and warm greetings from Montreal, Canada.

Barb said...

Tom Thank You for the gift of you

Bulldog Blog said...

Home Free's new mountain rendition of "How Great Thou Art" is appropriate for Atticus here!

Anonymous said...

I decided to google you after watching an episode of Windows to the wild and being introduced to you and Atticus. A week ago I bid farewell to Oreo my beloved cockerpoo. It was gut wrenching. I made a vow. Never again. It's too painful. But seeing you and Atticus and the way you spoke of him made me smile and remember the joys of sharing your life with a dog. Then I read your blog about losing him and that journey which do closely mirrors how I feel right now. The fact that you are able to move on with a new companion Samwise gives me hope that maybe I can open up my own heart once again.

Gretchen C said...

I lost my girl Daisy a week ago today. I came back to reread this post. Thank for your words.