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, November 01, 2012

Will Power

Will makes his first mountaintop.

As I write this I realize that my life is now different than it was six months ago.  I’m a changed man. . . . a better man.  I’m more than I used to be and inspired in both head and heart.  Friendship and love can do that to even the hardest most dubious man.  So can helping another become who he was meant to be. 

Two weeks ago I sent out the following email to a handful of close friends.

Today, what I had grown to think of impossible became reality when my best friend and I followed Atticus as we pushed and carried Will's hiking chariot to the top of Pine Mountain. It was a very difficult journey and much harder than we expected it to be, but throughout it all Will was comfortable, safe, and even happy. We chose Pine Mountain because of the dirt access road and the relatively short, but challenging (challenging when you are carrying up a dog in a carriage) trail to the summit.  The approach on the road is long and uphill and tired us out as we took turns pushing his little chariot. When we reached the trail itself, which we had scouted out yesterday, we were challenged by rocks, roots, mud (from this weekend's rainstorms), and slippery ledges and we tired quickly as we picked up either end of the rig and carried it over the rougher sections.

We stopped often to rest our shoulders, backs, and arms, and simply to catch our breath.  At one point my friend turned to me and said, “Are you okay?”


“You’re not going to have a heart attack on me, are you?”

I assured her I was okay and we continued following the ever-patient Atticus up the mountain while carrying Will in his chariot.   

In the end we reached the mountaintop and I held Will in my arms as I have always held Atticus and that old, mostly blind and deaf dog sat there and sighed. I'm not sure what he saw, if anything, but he obviously knew it was something special because he leaned in to me, sighed, and licked my cheek - a first.

I am so proud of Will, who could have given up on life long ago. I'm proud of Atticus as well, for he's shared me with Will and didn't seem the least bit put out by Will's first mountaintop, even though it was Will in my arms and not him. And none of this would have been possible without my best friend. I first tried a backpack but Will's hips were too sore to sit in it. I gave thought to carrying him up in a sling but I didn't feel his old body could take the jostling, and I was ready to give up. But she came up with the idea of the hiking chariot and today we took turns pushing it up that mountain, and at times we carried it. In all of the mountains we’ve climbed, this was one of our most challenging.  It’s also now one of our most memorable.

Will is happily snoring at home right now and Atticus is just being Atticus. But we are worn out. But it’s a good tired that has us feeling fulfilled and happy.   

Six months ago Will was abandoned at a kill shelter by the only family he'd ever known for fifteen years. When we took him in he was broken, depressed, angry, and I didn't think he'd live very long. But not only has Will not given up on life, he's thriving and today he reached his mountaintop, and together the four of us made a memory that will last a lifetime.

There’s an old saying about taking in a shelter dog: “Who rescued who?”  But that question doesn’t apply to us.  Will, a fifteen year old partially lame (due to being put away in a crate so he wouldn’t be a bother), mostly blind, and completely deaf miniature schnauzer didn’t save us, for we didn’t need to be saved.  But he has taught us a thing or two about life and love.  He’s taught us, and everyone else who knows his story, that it’s never too late to love or to be loved; and it’s never too late to live. 

In the six months Will’s been with us he’s emerged from the shell of a dog he was to one who is aware, vibrant, and very much alive.  We’ve watched him grow and reclaim his life.  But nothing has changed him more than “climbing” Pine Mountain has.  Perhaps it’s just more of the magic of the White Mountains, but in the days that have followed he’s more self-assured and follows us from room to room.  He wants to be part of us and is so far removed from the little dog who hated to be touched, tried to bite me if I picked him up, and did his best to isolate himself in the very beginning. 

Now, as I sit here writing this, I realize how different everything is than it was in May.  Back then we took in an unwanted dog who had nothing left to live for with the idea of giving him a place to die with dignity.  I figured he’d last a month or two and that would be it and we would move on with our lives knowing we’d done a good deed. 

But as I look at him today I realize I don’t want him to go – ever.  And yet he is closing in on sixteen and the cruel truth is that the dogs we love only live a fraction of the time we do.  When I look at Will and see how alive he is I remind myself that he’s not getting younger, he just seems like he is.  And whether he lasts another year or two, or simply another month or two, it’s all too fleeting.  He’ll take a piece of me with him when he goes and there will always be a bit of Will in my heart.  (Just writing that has tears welling in my eyes for whenever we find a true friend, we never want to lose them.) 

At 2,400 feet, Pine Mountain is dwarfed by Mount Madison, the fifth highest peak in New England.  And yet on one day – a day I will always remember – it was for a little elderly once-broken and once-discarded dog, the top of the world.  We brought him there, and in turn he brought us along for the journey, a journey that will touch us forever.


Shannon Zapf said...

I have tears in my eyes, too, Tom. You are a good man, friend, and guardian. Simple as that. Thank you.

Unknown said...

Beautifully written Tom. Will's transformation over the past few months is extraordinary. Having had the opportunity to meet Will a few days after you picked him up and watch him transform into the sweet and wonderful dog he has become is amazing. You, Atticus and your friend haven given Will a second chance which Will has accepted and flourished with. Thank you for sharing!

altar ego said...

Tears here, as well. The journey is all the more remarkable because of how unexpected so much of it is. Grace flows from doors opened and windows flung wide, and in this case, a hiking chariot to bring a hero to a mountaintop. You are all heroes. Bless you for that, and for touching so many lives.

The Ladies of Beaglebratz Manor said...

If I was home I too would have visible tears in my eyes but sad to say, I am at work so the tears are hidden. Will knew that something special happened that day when you all reached the mountain top - he could feel it as you were holding him. He may be losing the sense of sight and hearing but thank goodness, touch remains and dogs can so quickly pick up on that as being able to sense something special in in the air they breathe.

Anonymous said...

You saved Will and Will is saving some of us that have been broken with loss and are struggling to find hope. I love these stories of your travels and of Will's metamorphosis...All of us love you and Atticus and your partner for rescuing Will. I feel that it will soon be time for me to find a little one that needs to be rescued in hopes that he will also rescue me from the loss, grief and sadness that has been a part of my life for far too long! Thanks for all of the encouraging words and for sharing your family's story.

mary brown said...

Tom I totally understand how you feel. All of the dogs and cats that my husband and I have had during our 17 year marriage have been rescued. I don't know either who rescued who. Doc is the one I remember and miss the most. He followed us home from a walk with our dog Sam. As we walked it was like Sam was encouraging him to follow. This little ball of nasty, smelly, matted hair who acted like the devil himself. He had multiple leashes attached to him, with the beginning one tied around his neck. After a lot of work, vet trips for the bites he had incurred, some gentle grooming, and hair cutting he finally looked like a dog. It took time and patience to earn his trust. He gave me so much love and brought things out in me that I didn't know I could do. He's been gone now for about 4 years. I miss him still and he did take a piece of my heart wth him. I wouldn't have had it any other way.

Pam Hicks said...

The best, Tom....simply the best - you know "quality of life" better than most & with that you have enhanced ours. I'm forever grateful to you, Atti, your best friend & dear, sweet Will.

Silvia G. Soos-Kazel said...

Tom, your writing today is most beautiful and heartfelt. It would be so wonderful if more people could understand "giving" like you and your dear Family do. The love and efforts your Family provided Will have given this sweet fella a lifetime of joy. Thank you for sharing and letting other people of good heart follow this marvelous adventure and positive in living.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post today. You are a very special person and so right when you talk about the magic in these mountains! It is because of you that I decided to come back here for the second time with my friend Diana. We have created memories to last the rest of her days. Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

Librarylady said...

Sigh...again my heart is touched. It smiles and weeps with you as do all of ours. Our dogs are imprinted on our hearts. When Will's time comes you won't be the only one feeling his loss just as you are not the only one feeling joy about his blossoming.
Thank you for allowing us join you.

Anonymous said...

This post is so touching, just as so many of your other posts and Facebook updates warm my heart, just as your book stayed with me long after I read the last page. You articulate better than anyone the joy we receive from our furry companions. Your words over the past few months as you have helped Will blossom and rediscover himself reaffirm why those seniors at the humane societies should not be overlooked -- they still have so much life to give and love to share. Thank you Tom and Atticus, and Tom's special friend, for finding room in your lives and hearts to help Will have a second leash on life. ~ Kat B.

Karen L. said...

Well, I am brand new to your blog. Just starting reading it and have gone back through numerous postings to "catch up" on your life adventures with Atticus and now Will. I cannot even remember how I ended up here but I sure am thankful that I did. I thought the Atticus Story was unbelievable but the Will Story is right up there too, just different. Cannot believe that you took that little broken dog in and was able to reverse his demeanor ... for the better. Shows to go what love/caring can do, I suppose.So good of you to give him love, warmth, and great experiences in whatever amount time he has left. Now I must to pick up your Atticus Finch book so I can read the whole story of how this all started with one incredible little dog. I'll be back to read future postings. You can count on that!!!

M said...

Tom and family,
The power of love and caring is awesome! Will has been able to become the dog he was meant to be... perhaps that is the way he use to be when he was younger.

Since I first listened to 'Following Atticus' on the audio version, I have always hear Tom's voice and emotion when I read the blog updates.. it often brings me to tears.

thank you for sharing

Cyndy Kirk said...

So beautifully written Tom - I've been following your story since reading your book - the change in Will since he came to join your family is nothing short of miraculous - and yes, they all take part of our hearts with them when they go - but when the time comes Will will know he was loved - bless you all!

Cyndy Kirk said...

Meant to mention in my previous comment that we too are schnauzer parents - our girl Maggie is now 2 years old and brings us joy every day, but we always remember the 3 girls we loved before her. Our last girl Bailey was lost in a dog attack similar to what happened to Atticus in your book - reading that chapter brought me to tears - so glad Atticus survived and continues to share your life...and now Will's too. Please continue to share the pictures, videos and stories of your beautiful family!!

Livin Laffin Lollin said...

I had 7 wonderful years with my precious rescued baby girl mini schnauzer Bailey Boppins. Even 70 years would not have been enough. I will always miss her. Her first life was spent creating puppies; her second life was full of love and joy and touch and experiences out of a cage as is Will's second life. He will love you forever, as you will him. God Bless you both.

Ellen Snyder said...

Beautiful Tom, what a wonderful photo and the story that goes with it.


Chris Willis said...

When my dachshund, Ro, went down paralyzed in the hind end due to a ruptured disc (IVDD), I was originally told to put him down as to keep him alive in that state "wasn't fair to the dog." But what I learned through the uncertainty with his surgery and subsequent work together through intensive rehab was that attempting to apply human values and predjudices on a dog are what is truly unfair.

Ro never lost his spirit or appetite - for food or life in general. He wobbles when he walks, and has suffered two relapse periods when he has ridden in a chariot not unlike Will's. But he has never once had any sense whatsoeer of being less than any other dog. "Handicapped" has no meaning to him. To see him run on the beach today is to know pure joy. Only a careful and knowledgeable observer would ever recognize that his running gait is different from "normal" dogs - and his speed leaves litte time for observation!

Shame is a human construct. We are the ones compelled to pity the injured, the elderly, the infirm dog and lock them out of sight and mind lest we have to face our own decline and mortality. How empowering it is to have the blinders of fear lifted from our own eyes and recognize that to grow old with dignity and loving support is something not to be feared, but cherished.

Godspeed to you all!

claystheway said...

There are no words ...
Love you - all three of you.
Look forward to your posts
and pictures.
Dogs are full of love to mine.
Some people too.
Thank you for what you do.