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.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Following Will

William two weeks ago.
Two weeks ago I was in Eastern Mountain Sports looking at child-carrying backpacks.  You see, Atticus and I were adopting William, a fifteen year old miniature schnauzer who was dropped off at a kill shelter and saved by the good souls at the New Jersey Schnauzer Rescue Network.  I knew by the photograph I’d seen of William he had cataracts and coupled with his age I felt pretty confident he would not be able to hike a mountain.  And yet I wanted him to experience what it was like to stand on top of a peak, feel the wind in his face, breathe the clean air, and gaze out at the sea of breaking waves the mountains resemble as they fade off into the horizon – even through cloudy eyes.  I wanted him to experience the wonder Atticus and I have grown to call life. 

But things rarely work out was we plan them.

When Atticus and I picked up William in Connecticut we got even less than I bargained for.  He was a dog with arthritic hips and had a difficult time standing.  He was mostly blind and mostly deaf.  He didn’t want to be picked up and attempted to bite anyone who did so.  One of my thoughts was that there was no way the poor fellow would live very long.

Whatever hopes I had for him sitting on top of some peak on his own or in a backpack were dashed.  The poor old guy couldn’t even sit – he’d just flop down due to lack of strength – and there was no way he’d let me put him in a carrier. 

I’ve never much liked limitations and I reserve a greater dislike for people who foist their own upon others.  But here was an old dog coming with plenty of his own.  Physically limited, emotionally lost.  He was abandoned, frightened, heartbroken (I imagined), and understandably angry. 

So Atticus and I simply let William be William.  Over the first few days there was a lot of anger and obstacles to deal with.  We live on the second floor and there are quite a few stairs to climb and poor William couldn’t manage a single one of them with his hips.  A harness helped him get down the stairs but I resorted to carrying him up to our apartment and each time he’d fight me wildly and try to bite me. 

Luckily I live with Atticus, who has the patience of Job, and he allowed William a wide birth. I found my patience by imagining Atticus in William’s position.  If he was fifteen and in poor health and something happened to me so that we couldn’t be together ever again, he would be just as terrified as William.  Just as lost, just as hurt.  And this theme stayed in my heart whenever it started to break.  That, and the simplest and best of lessons: the old “Golden Rule” – treat others as you wish to be treated.

One of my friends met William during those first few days and raised his eyebrows.  “Hate to say it, Tom, but you made a mistake. I know you mean well but that old guy should have been put to sleep.”

I looked at him and asked, “If the tables were turned, how would you handle it?”

“I told you the other day, I wouldn’t have adopted him.  It’s not fair to you or Atticus.”

“No,” I said. “What I meant was what if you were in Will’s place?  What if you were in poor health, couldn’t see or hear, had the only home and the only family you’d ever known ripped away from you and you were put in a cage to die on your own unless someone took you home.  What would you have me do then?”

He didn’t say anything.  Instead he squatted, let Will sniff his hand, and gently ran his fingers over Will’s head.

As for my hopes of Will being able to hike?  He may never climb a mountain, not a real one anyway, but I’m reminded every day that in life we all have our own mountains to climb.  And yet some regular gentle exercise has strengthened those back hips.  Metacam and Dasaquin help with the pain and stability. Now when he goes to jump up to play with me his hips no longer betray him when he lands.  This gives him even more confidence. 

Just a couple of days of ago, just over twenty-four hours after a lengthy and much needed dental appointment where anesthesia was used, Will went on his first hike.  For Atticus and me it wasn’t very far at all.  It wouldn’t be far for many people for it was only a mile stroll through the woods along the Saco River.  But it was a sight to behold.  Will following Atticus, albeit slowly, but looking better than he had a week ago, stopping to sniff, and simply enjoy his surroundings.  When we came to a small tree that had fallen across the trail, however, he was stopped in his tracks.  I waited to see what he would do and he just looked up at me and this little dog that used to try to bite me let me kneel next to him and place each of his front paws on the fallen tree.  Then I placed one on the other side and used his harness to help him get over it. 

On our return trip to the car, when we came to that same log, Will stopped and looked up at me again. This time I dropped his leash and stepped over the obstacle and stood on the other side and waited.  Atticus, had stopped, too, and came back to sit next to me and we watched  Will together. After a moment of thought Will hopped over it and trotted to my arms. 

Like I said, we all have our own mountains to climb.  And Will is climbing them, as Paige Foster, Atticus’s breeder would say in her southern twang, “…by the wagonload!”

As wonderful as our little hike in the woods was, it was another journey that impressed me even more.  Five days after Will arrived he traveled down to the Grappone Center in Concord for the annual dinner of the Concord-Merrimack County SPCA.  Atticus and I were the featured guests and I had not intended to bring Will, but that morning something had clicked and he seemed to understand that he had found a home with us and I didn’t want to leave him behind. 

That night, when Atticus and I stood up on stage and I finished telling our story, someone asked me what our next adventure was.  I excused myself, left the stage for a moment, and returned with Will.    

Once lost Will sat comfortably in my arms, next to Atticus who was on a table. I told everyone about his journey and when I was done there was Will pushing his little body against mine, looking out with those old eyes at 360 people as they stood for him in unison and gave him a rousing ovation. 

Oh, I know it was for the three of us, but I think of Will and see his gleaming face, his eyes looking brighter than I’d seen them, his little pink tongue hanging out of his smiling mouth.  He was as dog left behind not two weeks before and now he glowed in a room full of admiration and affection. 

And so it is that those who we lift up can lift up so many others.  And you don’t have to be able to see more than shapes or shadows or stand on top of a mountain to appreciate the view . . . or the love.  

Will’s story is one of redemption. He gives us all hope. He teaches and we learn by following him. It is never too late to love nor too late to be loved.

I cannot help but think of Tennyson's Ulysses when it comes to Will and the last chapter of his life.  But more importantly, there is more to be written.

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Will today.


Blackwell Rock said...


Cheryl T. said...

I'm so moved by your piece, Tom, I find my eyes are leaking again...Will is so lucky you and Atti have given him a new life. I especially loved what you said about lifting up others...the more we give of ourselves the more we receive. Many blessings await you.

Cheryl T.

Jess said...

Nice job, Tom. On all fronts.

Becky said...

I have tears in my eyes!!! Very moving piece. I was at the dinner and I admire you and atticus for taking will into your lives. "Y'all will work it out", quote Paige.

Pam Hicks said...

Simply....exquisite :-)

Silvia said...

So hardly agree with the comments of Cheryl T.! Also Tom, I love how you refer to Tennyson's Ulysses~~I find that those words refer to me some mornings; and it is the love of my "Furry Kids" that makes me want to venture & endeavor into another day!

Janine said...

I could hardly read the end of your post due to the tears in my eyes, which are still there. Thank you for sharing your trials and tribulations. You and Atticus are such an inspiration to all of us. Your rewards will be plenty!

colleen said...

Here I go again, sitting here with tears in my eyes, reading your wonderful column. You are an old soul Tom, and very good intuition. Both dogs have found love and so have you.

Karen Snyder said...

Tears, yet again the tears, Tom! Your writing is powerful. The photos alone these last several days have revealed such defined and positive changes in Will's appearance; now to read the details of those changes is wonderful. He's been given new perspective and a new lease on life; and you and Atticus, in your gentle acceptance and caring, continue to enrich the lives of us all.

Penni Glenz said...

Beautiful....touching....tears as I read your piece. You and Atticus were meant to have give him love and life in this final chapter of his journey. Thank you for being there for him....I was so looking forward to your next book....but now even more as you share Will with us....I couldn't have dreamed that your life could be richer or fuller...but I see that with Will....your cup is truly running over...Who knows what lies ahead?

Anonymous said...

Absolutely fabulous!

Bev A said...

I sensed we did not have the details of Will's first few days with you and I approached the following few posts with my eyes half closed; fearing that the anticipation of what could be would not mesh enough with what begin a forever friendship. Although I understand the tears of others, I am simply too filled with smiles and peace feeling the honor and assimilation of Will into your family. Tom, Atti..I should have had more faith.

claystheway said...

Love is all you need ... love is all you need ...
Totally teary, moved, inspired, touched by your words.
Will and Atticus are lucky doggies to have you in their life. And you too are a lucky man to have them to love. Thank you for what you do.

kathy heywood said...

Great story, tom. Keep em coming about your new Will and Atti adventures!

AnnO said...

Again, Tom, your words bring me tears of joy.

Paula Clare said...

As the "mom" of a 12 year old schnauzer, who's health is failing, some days greatly, some days hardly at all, I SO APPRECIATE your sharing your experience with rescuing heart is drawn to adorable miniature schnauzers...and now, to "senior schnauzers" who are special needs. I am going to plan to adopt elderly miniature schnauzers when our time with Webster is through. Thank you for helping me to see that "It's never too late to become what you might've been."

Richard Jacobs said...

Tom, thank you so much for your story of your first weeks with Will. Will so much reminds us, in appearance, of our previous Schanuzer, BJ, in his grey-furred old age, that it brings tears to our eyes. BJ so appreciated simply being held, cuddled, petted and cared for in his last years, yet kept interested in his surroundings, seen through cataracts. He stayed with us for almost 17 years. It sounds like Will has the same determination. Thank you and Atticus for giving Will a loving home.

Hazel & Trusty Canine Teddy said...

Will reminds me of the "diamond in the rough" as both of you are still discovering what doors Will will unlock and pass through. And so, onward with your, Atticus & Will.

Dave Constance said...

Tom, you are an inspiration beyond measure....

Dave Constance, Stafford, England.

MikeShaf said...

Tom, You have some magic in your heart and soul. Please don't ever lose it as so many benefit from it.
Mike Shafnacker Clinton, CT

Mark Truman said...

I had tears in my eyes as I read this. All those that find themselves in the place that William was should be so fortunate as to find someone like you (and Atticus) who will take them into their hearts and their homes. I wish you, William and Atti many more happy days together. I hope that William has that chance to sit on a mountain, no matter how small, and feel the sunshine and breeze and find what you two have over your years together.


Anonymous said...

It so was not a mistake to get William. All dogs deserve a loving human, and your kindness to animals contines to brighten my heart. No matter what happens, I guarantee you that William doesn't think you made a mistake in adopting him. He is so happy to have your and Atticus's love and patience that he can't believe his good fortune. Keep the faith, Tom. Sending lots of love and healing your way.

Stephanie G from Bainbridge Island

Zenrunner said...

You noted that it is never too late to love or be loved. I have had my second Final Refuge Foster from Old Dog Haven in Washington for about three weeks. He also has visual and hip issues, but he has grown stronger and blossomed personality wise just as Will has. People often remark what a wonderful thing it is that I am doing, but truly the gifts and lessons a newly loved senior dog brings to its new family far outpace anything one might expect. My last foster was supposed to live a few months, and I had him for almost a year. Every day is a gift! Thank you for sharing your experiences with Will!

Hip-Hop said...

Well, I'm crying, I've to say that Will has the best family ever. I think you really understand him and you take care of him even if it's difficult ... Thank you !
*faith in humanity restored*

Sorry for my bad english :/

Anonymous said...

I just finished reading Following Atticus and coudnt wait to get to your blog. Well, was I surprised that Will was in our life. I had to search to read about he came to live with you . I have to start reading your blog , back and forth. Thank you for bringing joy in my life. We no longer have our 14 year old Golden Retriever but someday I hope to adopt a senior .