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.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Kindred Spirits

Atticus and I have just returned from Pudding Pond. The day has a carefree, breezy, September feeling to it, with the leaves gently twisting and turning about and an occasional ripple seen on the water. Tomorrow the roads of the Mount Washington Valley will be choked with traffic for the holiday weekend and their mechanical whine and roar and the beeping of horns will be heard in those gentle woods, but today it’s peaceful.

When we walked around a bend near where the beavers have built a dam at the northern end of the pond, we encountered an elderly gentleman enjoying the peace and quiet. I didn’t want to interrupt him as he contemplated the water but when we drew near he turned and asked, “Is that Atticus?”

This gentle man’s name is John and we talked for a good twenty minutes while Atticus sat patiently either watching us or the pond. I’m guessing he is in his early 70s but when he told me of Boomer, a dog he lost two years ago, he could have been a boy. Watching his old eyes turn young, I smiled.

“He lived to be fifteen,” he said. “But he had cancer and he got worn down in the end but we still got out every day. One day I was sitting down on top of a mountain in Stowe and Boomer came and sat down next to me.

“I felt him lean against me and I knew he was telling me it was almost time to say goodbye.”

John paused, and he smiled while remembering his friend.

“It was the most intimate thing I’ve ever felt – to share that moment with him. I’ve never felt anything like it before or since.”

It would have been a sad thought for most, but I liked how this old man framed the memory. He considered it something special. After all those years together, after numerous adventures shared, two friends were getting ready to say goodbye.

Atticus is only nine, but lately I’ve noticed a catch in his rear hip. When he’s spread out on a dog bed or on the floor and stands up he lifts his right hind leg for two or three steps. Used to be I was the only one of us who limped after a hike, but his limp started a few weeks ago after a traverse of the Moats. He was fine during the hike, fine hopping out of the car, and had no trouble climbing the stairs to our apartment. It was only after a few hours of sleeping that he limped.

Four days later we hiked Caribou Mountain in Evans Notch and he was just fine. But that night the limp returned. Over the next week, especially during rainy days, the limp was clearly evident but only on the first three steps. After that it disappeared and he walked with a normal gait.

I made an appointment with Christine O’Connell, our local vet. I hoped it was Lyme disease because that’s something a bit of medicine can straighten out. My bigger fear was arthritis. Atticus finds himself on a mountaintop and I can’t imagine him enjoying life much if he can’t be up on top of one every now and again. Luckily, Christine said it was neither and even complimented his range of motion – especially for a dog his age. The problem is more muscular than anything else. So each morning and night I massage his hip and he lets me stretch it out and take it through range of motion exercises. He still limps when he takes his first few steps after lying down but at least now I feel like we are doing something about it. If it persists we’ll head into Angell Animal Medical Center and enlist the help of a specialist.

I figure no matter what it is; he and I will find a way to work things out, just as we always have. And yet while my bigger fears have been assuaged, I realize he’s not as young as he used to be. There were some hikes when we went over twenty miles where he would limp just the slightest bit the next morning but it never lasted long. But it’s never been like this. I’m smart enough to know that time does not stop and the years wear us down.

I was thinking about that as we climbed the Edmunds Path on Monday. We walked up the gentle grade at the beginning of the trail through the early morning diffused light of a lush green forest with spongy moss and healthy leaves all about. We climbed higher and reached a steeper section of the trail and we stopped to rest often, not for him, but for me. Our stops never last very long. Sometimes it’s just ten seconds, other times thirty. On rare occasions I sit down and when I sit he does too. It was while we were sitting there in that forest that I looked at his bright eyes and that little pink tongue and smiled.

These are indeed special times. These memories we’ve made, and are still making, will last my lifetime. Even something as simple as sitting for a spell in the woods on the side of a mountain casts its spell on me. How special it is to share that silent sacrament with another.

I’ve come to think of Atticus’s aging as a gift, for no longer am I deluded by my youth or his. We are both on an equal playing field these days. Even if he were to live another nine years it would still be too short a time for my liking. It’s like it says in Pooh’s Little Instruction Book: “If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day so I never have to live without you.” Who among us who has known the company of a good dog can’t relate to that?

So these days I am thankful for not only where we’ve been but also for every experience we will encounter between now and the end of our time together.

On Monday, when we climbed above the trees, looked towards the towering Northern Presidentials, and found our way across the tumbled rocks on the trail to the intersection with the Crawford Path, I watched Atticus move as easily as he always has. And I did as I’ve done hundreds of times before, I watched this little dog who is so dwarfed by the great peaks of New Hampshire take his place among them as he sat and took in the view.

During our twisting climb up the switchbacks to the summit, I followed Atticus as I have for five years and when I stopped to rest he could sense I stopped and he did as well and waited for me.

At 4,780 feet Eisenhower is the twelfth highest peak in New England. Its flat top serves as a fine front porch that looks out at Franklin and Monroe, Washington and Clay, Jefferson and Adams. Even being so close from that twelfth highest peak, the others loom like giants in their varied shades of green from emerald to dark and the clouds cast shadows over the ravines and forests, rocky tops above and gentle valleys below. The dimensions are vivid and almost too colorful to comprehend!

There we stood together, Atticus and me, looking out at all of that. Eventually I picked him up and our eyes looked out at those mountains. I heard his familiar sigh and the comforting feel of his body leaning into mine.

So today when I heard old John telling me the story of how old Boomer leaned into him and offered an intimacy he’d never known – even though he’d been married and had children, well, I could relate.


cooperhill said...

Wonderful post. My Maggie has arthritis in her elbow. She is now 11 years old and we've had to reduce her trips to the White Mountains with us. Local and easy walks are the key now. We want her around for the long haul.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Thanks, Chris. I'm keeping an eye on him. We'll see what time brings. Ironic, today is the first day he hasn't limped upon getting off the floor in nearly three weeks. (I think he's trying to make a liar out of me.)

Tim said...

Those leans are indeed special. Clover is 7 and she does that with me from time to time, especially if she's in my lap in the car waiting on Robin to come back out.

Kirk said...

Beautiful. Having just lost my Cricket last October I can relate to it. We've had our times together, I'll never forget her. The best company there ever was.
And now with a new dog, who rapidly took me over, dogs give so much and we can never them all we want. They come into our lives and we are never the same.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Amen, Tim. Those little 'leans' are trust and love and connection. So simple, yet so special.

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Kirk, amazing how that works, isn't it? You'll never forget Cricket and yet you're sharing something special with another dog. I'm the same way. I think nearly every dog owner is. We are blessed by what they teach us and what they give and share with us.

Lisa @ Two Bears Farm said...

Our furry companions grow old way too quickly.

Anonymous said...

My Tahoe was a water mutt who told me he was ready one morning on the banks of the Parker River. Instead of leaping off the dock as he had for the past 15 years, he just laid down gently and gave me a look I will never forget.

My vet was so cool about it. When the time came, he traveled with us to our favorite spot on Pine Island Road and helped Tahoe pass.

5 years have passers and Liberty, my little black lab is my constant companion but Tahoe's collar still hangs from my rear view mirror and his memory will live in my heart forever.

Love your work Tom...thank you. Al Gamble Newburyport

Marianne said...

Tom, I love your take on things. Anyone who's been there knows there are no words so I won't even try. You do better with those words than most of us.

Jordan said...

What a great post. When I read this, all I can think about is my dog. He's on his last legs and can barely walk anymore. Its tough to see them in pain.

Janice Badger Nelson said...

We lost one of our dogs last year. He was such a delight and loved going to NH. We really miss him. He tried so hard to live. But one day he just could not get up anymore. It was heartbreaking. I will never forget the look he gave me. He looked sorry. He was sad to leave us after 16 years. And we were sad to see him go.

We have lost others as well. Most to old age. We have 3 dogs now, as well as several other pets. They are all special in their own way and have so much to teach us if we only tune in.

You have tuned in and I have enjoyed reading your stories in the North Country News. I am excited to read the book. I predict it will be a bestseller.

Someone once said that life is a series of dogs. But certain dogs stand out and help make a life special. It is really true.

Anonymous said...

Hello Tom And Atticus,I read your book (bought Friday 'afternoon),I am very glad to have you known through your adventures, you are great,I will follow you'Blog, a kiss from Italy,Silvia.