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.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

There's a Difference Between "Being Old" and "Growing Old"

The wind chimes are lively tonight. They are dancing and singing and gracefully playing their music.  It’s near January, and one of those wicked Washington winds is roaring by overhead, sounding, not unlike a freight train just out of sight.  From time to time an independent tendril dips lower and plays with the chimes sending them twirling and bumping into each other.  But no matter how awkward they may look, they sound as if they are an instrument of angels.   

A friend once told me I should take them in when the wind picks up like this.  I didn’t say anything, since I wanted to be polite (which I can’t always promise to be), but I never have taken them in.  No matter how strong the gusts roll down on us from the north, I let them feel what the trees feel.  Wind chimes, after all, were made for the wind, and they would have no life without it.

There may come a day when they twist and get tangled, but I’ll worry about that when it happens. Until then, I just tell the band to play on.  And it does.  Joyously, I would like to think. 

When there’s deep snow in Jackson, as there is now and will be until spring arrives, Will cannot get out in the backyard.  Instead, when it’s time to go to the bathroom I take him out into our sizable driveway and watch him pee.  When squats to defecate and puts more weight on his hips, shifting his center of gravity, I get behind him and spot him, just in case he’s standing on a bit of ice.  When he’s done, he twirls as he loves to do, throws those stiff front legs up in the air and performs his interpretive dance.  It’s a perfect accompaniment to the music coming from the wind chimes above. 

I say he’s mostly blind.  I can’t give you percentages but while he often can’t see a cookie I hold right in front of him, he can see shapes and shadows.  He nearly always knows where I am. If I am sitting in dim light, though, I’ll wave my arm to let his eyes grab hold of me.  But sound is a different thing.  I can’t say as I’ve noticed him responding to any sound.  Vibrations yes; hence the Willabys I play for him. 

However, there is one thing he seems to be picking up on lately.  It’s the music from those chimes.  I noticed it again tonight; they played, and he raised his head in their direction.    

Because we are a straight shot down the road from Mount Washington, the wind is a regular visitor to our place.  It’s not uncommon to look up and see Orion, the Big Dipper, or the Pleiades on a stunning night sitting in a pool of pitch black, and have tiny snowflakes blown to us by way of the great peak.  The wind can push and even slap at our backdoor; much as Butkus, the oldest of our neighborhood bears did in November when food was growing scarce.  He was out on the deck and I opened it a foot or so, braced the bottom with my foot, and said, “You know better.  Get off the deck, please, Butkus.”  He’s a pretty decent neighbor and has always listened, but during that visit he left with a huff and an angry hiss.  I yelled to him as he was walking down all the stairs the lead from our second floor home, “Don’t hiss at me. Go find your food elsewhere.” 

For the first time ever old Butkus returned after being sent on his way.  It was probably ten minutes later when showed up at the backdoor, which is made of sturdy glass with very strong metal framing.  He looked through the glass to see if I was watching and when I came toward the door, he looked me in the eye and slapped it with a big paw.  I slapped it right back, opened the door again, and this time I raised my voice.  (I find this is always something you can do with those you like, so long as you let them know it’s not personal.  And that’s exactly what I did.)

“Go!  Go on!  I’m sorry, but you know better!”

This time he didn’t hiss, but he did huff while turning that great rump to me and thumping down the stairs, and off into the darkness. 

Being November, and food being scarce, I would have fed him but that never leads to any good.  The bears just get too used to people and sooner or later a bear is relocated, or worse.  One of the common sayings in this part is “A fed bear is a dead bear.”

So why do the bears frequent our yard – eight of them this year – if we don’t feed them?  It’s because we are close by some restaurants and inns, and they make the rounds like the hungry tourists do.  I can just imagine how tantalizing the scents from the better establishments are to them.  Since these mountains were home to bears before people, I don’t have an issue with them.  I try to be a good neighbor to them and typically they return the consideration. 

Anyways, I’m getting off track here.  The wind, when at its strongest, sends gusts against our door, and it sounds like it did the night Butkus slapped it.  It can rattle the door, and it can thump the door. 

A couple of weeks ago, around the time Will was sneezing up blood, and we were concerned, I was taking a bath and Atticus was on the only dog bed he uses – the one next to the tub.  He likes being close to me at all times.  Will was asleep in the living room and quite content. I had music playing on the floor for him.  Meanwhile, I had my own music playing in the bathroom.  I was reading; Atticus was sleeping, and Josephine Baker was singing. 

It was one of those nights where strong gusts were rattling our home.  After a while, Will walked into the bathroom toward Atticus, who was hoping Will would just go away.  This is a regular routine.  Will comes in for a visit, disturbs Atticus, often stepping on him, and I reach out of the tub to rub Will’s ears to give Atticus space.  Will left, but soon returned.  This time he didn’t bother Atticus but came to the side of the tub.  He rested his chin on the edge.  I rubbed his ears, thinking he wanted more affection. 

Right then he did something he’d never done before.  He raised his head, opened his mouth, and grabbed a couple of my fingers.  When he first moved in with us a year and a half ago, I never would have trusted my fingers in his mouth, but I went with it.  He bit down, not too hard, just enough to hold on tight, and pulled back.  I plucked my fingers from his mouth and tousled his ears again.  He stepped back, tried his hardest not to let his hips give out, and grabbed my fingers again.  He grunted when he pulled. 

I had no idea what he was saying or wanted, but any interaction with Will is a gift.  When he first arrived he didn’t do much.  Even now people see him in a photo and think he’s very cute – which he is – but when they meet him they understand there’s not a lot of communication.    

Don’t get me wrong – he and I do play.  We wrestle.  He lets me know when he’s hungry.  When I’m going to get his food, he’ll reach out with his front paws and try to grab hold of my legs.  When he knows it’s time for a treat, he now sits – this is something else that was impossible in the beginning.  The sit doesn’t last long, and he slowly sinks down like a cartoon dog into a sphinx position, but I love the progress nonetheless.  He also lets me know when he wants me to pick him up and bring him up on the couch with us.  And when it’s time to go out, he relaxes in my arms (or over my shoulder) when I carry him outside.  Other than that, he mostly just takes care of himself, just as he should at his age.

But on the night he came into the bathroom and grabbed hold of me, after leaving he returned and went straight for my fingers.  I could hear the wind and feel the house rattling. I could also feel those heavenly chimes in the cold, windy night.  They were so clear I decided to turn down the music and get out of the tub.  I looked at the backdoor to see that the wind had blown it wide open, and the living room was quite cold.

I do my best not to pretend to know what Atticus or Will is thinking or what they would say if they spoke words I could understand.  That’s up to them.  (I cringe when I read a comment from someone who is telling me what Atticus and Will is thinking.)  From time to time though, we connect.  With Atticus, it’s easy, but with Will it’s something that seldom happens.  On that night, when gusts blew open the door, the wind chimes sang as never before, and cold air spilled into our little home Will had come to let me know he needed some help.  For as soon as I closed the door, he went back to his nearby bed and snuggled in for a nap.

I know that Will is getting older – just as we all are.  But the difference is, he’s much older than anyone I know.  He will be seventeen in January and came to us in brutal shape.  Having just been sneezing up blood at the time that famous final scene appeared even closer. 

Here’s what I love about this whole thing.  Even as he gets older, he continues to grow.  He learns things; finds new ways to express himself; tries to sit, where he never dared before, and he let me know the door was open, instead of just trundling out of it and falling down the stairs (which has always been a worry and why our little deck is gated in the fair months before and after the black flies visit). 

That’s the difference between being old and growing old.  Will is still growing, and I take comfort in that.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Why Play Music for a Deaf Dog?

In our little corner of the world, we do our best to not only celebrate
individuality, but also equality. (A Ken Stampfer photograph.)
Long ago, I worked in a nursing home.  It wasn’t a very nice place; probably the last facility on earth you’d want to place a loved one.  As it turns out, there weren’t many loved ones fading peacefully away in the facility.  Most had been long forgotten and had no one to love them. 

Although I was not a big fan of a lot of the other employees and the way the treated the elderly, for the most part, I enjoyed my time there.  I also understood that much of the staff didn’t care much for me either.  We were different.  Many came from difficult pasts and were on a treadmill of misery.  The majority of the staff was not well educated.  Some were in abusive relationships, and the mute residents would end up with mysterious bruises themselves.  For some of the staff, working with the elderly, and in some cases, talking down to them and ordering them around, was their only way to feel like they were in charge.

During their breaks, while others would grab a cigarette, watch television, or talk about going out for drinks after work. I would spend my breaks reading Sam Keen, Henry David Thoreau, Robert Frost, or Kahlil Gibran.  They looked at me as though I was crazy.  I think it also bothered them that I was happy and laughed often.  But I believe what defined the difference between us more than anything else is the way I interacted with the elderly residents. 

I could be found brushing the hair of a silent and broken old woman, and asking her to tell me about her first kiss.  There would be a moment of quiet, searching look on their faces, ever so slowly their eyes would come to life in a sparkle, and their wrinkles disappeared as they soaked in the memory.  When they told me of that kiss the decades, the struggle, despair, and loneliness vanished, and we’d both be transported to a time long ago.  We’d sit and talk.  Eventually, laughter bubbled up as one story lead to the next.    

I asked other questions, as well.  It could be about the day their son or daughter was born, their wedding day, or their favorite Christmas gift as a child.  The answers were often beautiful but not as important to me as the life that returned to them and replaced the numb and vacant stares out the window. 

One day I asked Edith Stanwood, whom I think may have been ninety, why she was always grouchy.  She stamped her cane and bellowed, “Because no one will dance with me.”  At lunch that day I brought Sinatra to the dining room, turned it up loud and asked her to dance.  Old Edith was full of purpose and took her dancing seriously.  When I fell to the floor after a couple of minutes feigning exhaustion, she playfully kicked me and said, “Get up! We’re not done dancing yet.”  When I stood back up, we started dancing again, and the whole room, Edith included, laughed.    

I didn’t stay at the “home” for very long. A few months after I left, a state agency came in and shut it down.  But those months I worked there shaped my life and views in ways that will forever be with me.

I’m the first to admit that I am not a dog expert, and I cringe when others pretend to be.  I rarely pretend to know what Atticus or Will are thinking and dismiss those who claim to know.  What I attempt to do, is my best to rely on empathy and observance, while paying attention to what they like.  It also helps to put myself in their respective places.  After all, they are as different from each other as you and I are.  This worked well when raising Atticus and continues to.  People often note that I don’t treat Atticus like a dog, and the truth is I don’t.  I’m not so deluded that I think he’s human.  Instead, I think of him as an equal from a different species and concentrate on what we have in common as much as I respect our differences. 

As for Will, my days working at that woebegone nursing home, has contributed to the way we get along.  Of course, I can’t ask him questions and expect him to tell me he’s angry because no one will dance with him.  What I do instead is pay attention to what pleases him and, conversely, what angers him.  I try to honor him as an equal (no; he’s not my “baby”, he’s an elderly soul who deserves my respect), even though at his advanced age and because of his physical limitations he needs a lot of help from me, just as those elderly twenty years ago did.

Will may not be able to tell me about the first time he was hugged, or what it felt like to be a puppy in a new home.  He can’t tell me about how he felt when he could move freely and run through the fields or even if he ever had the opportunity to.  What he can do is show me what infuses him with life.  Then it’s up to me to pick up on it. 

Soon after he came to live with us, the wildflowers around the borders of our backyard were in bloom, and Will would often stumble over to them, inhale, and linger.  Sometimes he would close those mostly blind eyes.  Since noticing that, once a week, from that time on, I’ve bought him flowers for inside the house. 

About the same time, back when Will was still but a shell of the dog you see now and mostly just stayed on his own, wrapped in anger and sadness, Atticus and I went out for a walk.  When we returned, I saw that Will had crawled from his dog bed and placed an ear on the leg of the coffee table in the center of the living room.  On top of it, my iPad was hooked to a speaker and music was filling our happy abode.  It was also sending vibrations down the leg of the coffee table.  To this day there is music playing in our house throughout most of the waking hours and a small speaker on the floor near where Will rests. 

One thing that was not easy to honor, but we’ve done our best with it, was Will’s apparent sense of pride and the rage he carried with him.  We live on the second floor, and I have to carry him up and down the stairs several times a day.  In the beginning, he had a harness on.  This kept him from being able to reach around to bite me, something he did quite a bit of.  When I placed him down on the grass, he’d go off and do his own thing.  But bringing him back upstairs I had to lift him again, and he would throw a temper tantrum.  Once back in the living room, I’d wait for Atticus to hop onto the couch and safely out of reach, and I’d place Will on the rug.  He’d turn at me; teeth snapping, growling, and did his best to bite me. He’d whirl around, his back hips often giving out, and he’d be unapproachable.  I decided to let him do this.  He was obviously angry at what life, and more importantly, people had done to him. 

Will’s temper tantrums are a thing of the past.  However, his first instinct, when he doesn’t want to do something, is to get ready to bite. His lip curls back; he starts to growl, and then he remembers he no longer has to be angry – and he choices to trust.  He’s become such a great patient because of this when he needs help.   

Will has retained his swirling, drunken, bucking bronco dance when we return from being outside.  But there’s no longer any anger attached to it.  It’s become a game for us, and I imagine that maybe, just maybe, his pride is telling me that he could have climbed all those stairs himself.  But just to be safe, Atticus still hops up on the couch and out of reach of Will.

People who are new to our Facebook page are sometimes curious about the music and the flowers for Will.  Or they haven’t read Following Atticus yet and aren’t aware of the way he was raised, or why he was raised the way he was. 

I won’t pretend that our way of doing things is right for anyone else.  I know I may even be in the minority in refusing to use words like “pet”, “owner”, “master”, “fur kid”, or in not considering Atticus and Will my “children” or “babies”, and I simply walk away from those who “baby talk” to Atticus (and I like that he does, too).  But words and the way we communicate are important to me, as are my friends.  While this may not be the way others do things, it works for us.

In the end, what’s most important to me is that the three of us are learning as we go.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving Traditions

Yes, where we go is important, but not nearly as
important as who we share the journey with.
Some traditions should be protected; others should fade as memories do, and we should make room for new ones that elevate us.  Coming from a big family, it’s akin to sacrilege to step away from something we’ve done for decades, but for me there came a time when I wanted something different.  So over the last several Thanksgivings, Atticus and I have not driven to our crowded family gathering, but instead stayed in the mountains.  Weather permitting; we look for an empty trailhead and climb a solitary mountain.  This is not difficult to do since on Thanksgiving; the trails are as quiet as a whisper. 

I don’t think there’s ever been a mountain I did not give thanks on.  Yet, on Thanksgiving it seems especially so.  Perhaps it’s knowing that while most of the rest of the country is caught up in where they are expected to be, Atticus and I are instead where we want to be.  While the eastern seaboard is manic with traffic and plane and train travel, we are alone – blissfully alone.  There is no football.  No big meal.  No family dysfunction to wade through like a minefield while trying to force a Hallmark moment out of fractured relations.  It’s just the mountain, Atticus, and me.    

It’s for this reason, the stepping away from the complicated to the simple, and the contrast of who I once was to who I am now, that Thanksgiving has become my favorite day to hike.  Rarely if ever do we ever see others out on the trails.  And when we return to our humble little home after a day of hiking, I feel far more filled with gratitude than I ever have after a day of eating a huge meal, sandwiched between traditional appetizers, and multiple servings of pie.

In the weeks leading up to the holiday, friends will often ask what our plans are.  When I tell them we are spending Thanksgiving alone they bristle and express worry about us.  We then get numerous invitations to join them.  I assure them that we’ll be off on our own by choice and there is no sadness attached to it; they don’t seem to believe me though.  But, after all the football games are over, the turkey carved, the pumpkin pie eaten, the long drive home, and getting ready for a round of compulsive holiday shopping, they often say to me, “I wish I’d done what you and Atticus did.”  I understand that they don’t always mean climb a mountain.  Typically it’s more about spending a holiday the way they wished they could. 

Last Thanksgiving we climbed Little Haystack, Lincoln, Truman, and Lafayette on a crystal clear Thanksgiving Day.  We did see others, but only a handful of people.  On Black Friday, a perfectly colored description of the day, we climbed South Moat.  It was so warm I wore shorts.  How fitting it was to stand high up above the outlet stores of North Country, turn my back to them, and gaze off into the Pemigewasset Wilderness where nature presides.  Through both hikes, my heart was filled with things I was grateful for.  It was a true Thanksgiving. 

In past years, we’ve hiked parts of the Presidential Range; Waumbek; the Carter-Moriah Range; the Kinsmans; and on Crawford, Resolution, and Giant Stairs on the holiday.  I’ve never regretted it and at times I even think, “Where should we go next year?” with excited anticipation. 

This Thanksgiving, however, it appears we will be breaking tradition again.  Not out of choice, but out of necessity.  The cumulative effect of the chemotherapy has been wearing Atticus down.  It’s not the occasional vomit, or the night of chemo tremors.  It’s more like a general malaise when it comes to exercise.  When people see Atticus and I out in the car or at the post office or in a store, they can’t tell anything is wrong.  He greets them, often gives them a smile, and is happy.  However, when it is just him and me, I notice it.  Where we used to go for three walks a day, now it is often only a single short one.  Our hikes have mostly stopped, although I still drive to a trailhead occasionally, gear up, and set off up the trail. Atticus often stops after a half mile or so and lets me know he’s had enough.  It’s not always easy to see him this way, but I’m fortified by him knowing he’s always had a choice, and he seems to get that I respect his choice to turn back.  It makes going through chemotherapy together easier when he knows what he needs and shows me in his own way. 

So tomorrow, when we set out to hike a simple peak, I won’t be expecting much, and we may not get very far at all.  But I will be grateful knowing there is only one chemo treatment left for him; that he knows he can stop on the trail when he wants to; that soon enough we’ll be done and slowly the poison will lessen its grip on him, and we’ll be back to hiking the peaks we love.  I’ll also be thankful for the gifts cancer has delivered into our lives. 

Yes, gifts.  Cancer forces you to look at things differently.  You pay attention to the little victories and to the blessings in life.  To us all of this has simply turned into a different kind of mountain.  It’s like many of the tougher hikes we’ve been on in the past: we set a goal, face adversity, work through it together, and grew closer in the end. 
I’m thrilled that when cancer came knocking we had a insightful vet in Rachael Kleidon who has allowed us to take this journey side-by-side, including being together in the operating room and during the chemo treatments.  I’m also thankful we had a choice to chase the bully.  We didn’t have to go through the chemo treatments.  I could have ignored the rate at which the cancer was spreading and just been happy that the amputation appeared to be successful.  But had we not taken this next step, the six chemo treatments, I always would have wondered.  As Rachael pointed out, it’s much better to face the bully (my term, not hers), than it is to play catch up. 

I’m also grateful that other than limiting our walks and hikes, cancer hasn’t taken much else from us.  Instead, it has given us the opportunity to further define ourselves by our choices and our attitude.  We are still Tom and Atticus, and we are still climbing mountains, they’re just a different type of mountain. 

And come next Thanksgiving, Atticus and I will be on another quiet peak, our only company the peak itself and maybe the wind, and when we look off at the distant peaks surrounding us, I’ll also look back on all of this and say, “We made it…together.”

So this Thanksgiving, instead of being someplace I’d rather not be to make others happy, I look at it this way, “We are right where we are supposed to be.”  You have no idea how comforting that is.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Short But Special Journey To Ourselves

Atticus M. Finch on Square Ledge with Agiocochook in the background.
The notches can fool you, especially when winter comes for its annual visit.  It’s especially so in Franconia and Crawford, and while less so in Pinkham, the wind and cold conspire to make you think it’s much worse than it really is.  The trick is to remember that as soon as you step away from the wind tunnel near the road and enter the forest, the wind becomes a non-factor.   silent. 

That’s the way it was Wednesday in Pinkham Notch.  Stepping out of the car was a chilling (literally) experience.  The parking lot at the Appalachian Mountain Club was icy with small drifts of snow and repeated gusts battered us.  After crossing Route 16, I put my MicroSpikes on and we started down the Lost Pond Trail.  Once in the sun dappled woods the wind was a silent memory as we walked carefully over the tumult of rocks, planks, and frozen ground along the Ellis River toward the pond. 

I was happy to see Atticus moving gaily ahead of me, ears flopping, legs with a spring to them, and a gleam in his eyes whenever I caught up to him.  Quite frankly, that’s not how it’s been over the past month since chemo treatment number four.  His weekly blood work has been great, his appetite strong, and he’s downright gleeful when we are out driving from store to store and meeting our friends.  But where once we walked three times on those days we didn’t hike, totaling about four miles, he’s now only doing a single walk a mile in length.  He doesn’t want to do much more than that. 

One of our favorite hikes, along the Hedgehog loop, is five miles of heaven to us.  We return to the root-crossed trails, open ledges, and expansive views as if returning to an old friend and the mountain always welcomes us.  We know it so well I think we could walk the trails blindfolded.  But on a perfectly sunny day last week, with mild temperatures and the pleasant scent of autumn everywhere, at the one-mile mark, Atticus stopped and looked at me. 

“You okay?” I asked.

In response he sat while continuing to hold my eyes with his.

“Do you want to turn back and head home?”

With that, he stood up, gave me a knowing look, and started back the way we came.  He moved easily enough, didn’t seem tired, but he knows himself well.  For him to not want to hike says a great deal.  That’s as far as we’ve gone in the last few weeks. 

I’m reminded by those who know more about chemotherapy than I, about the cumulative consequence.  The poison kills cancer cells, but it is a coldblooded killer that has no conscience about killing good cells, as well.  Chemo is but a hired mercenary, brought in to fight another bully.  The body becomes a battlefield and at times, a wasteland. 

We knew this going into it, but it’s still tough to watch.  We’re now five treatments into the six Atticus will have, and I am quick to point out that this was my choice.  To hunt down the possibility of hiding cancer cells and get rid of them, instead of just sitting back with fingers crossed and wishful thoughts.  We walked toward the fire, and I’m happy we did. 

Over the past few months, we dealt a bit with vomiting and diarrhea and some strange side effects.  However, Dr. Rachael Kleidon and I adjusted the plan, and Atticus has adjusted, too.  That’s made things better.  But what we are dealing with now is like an invisible blanket of quiet exhaustion.  Atticus knows what he would like to do as he springs down the stairs on our way to a walk, but a hundred yards down the road he stops and wants to turn back. 

I remind myself his energy will return when the chemotherapy stops after next month’s final treatment.  I also know we are where we are supposed to be.  Neither one of us does the pity party thing.  There is no “poor me” or “poor us”.  (I even go so far as to have the moderators delete well-meaning comments on our Following Atticus Facebook page when people write, “Poor baby.”  I just don’t like the whole victim thing.) 

When we made it down to Lost Pond and turned back the way we came, I was thrilled to see Atticus decide to go up the trail to Square Ledge, instead of heading back to the car.  And it felt right to me, too.  The sound of our feet against the snow, the bite of my MicroSpikes, the soft stab of my trekking poles in powder, the way Atticus kicked up powder as we moved up the trail. 

The entire hike from trailhead to the top of Square Ledge is only half a mile, but it climbs five hundred feet in elevation, with most of it coming in the last couple of hundred yards of trail.  It’s steep…extremely so.  The rocks are a rugged mess, as if someone has blown up the mountain.  You have to be careful where you step.  So while it was only a half mile up, it was about as intense a half mile as any you see in the White Mountains.  Yet there was Atticus, bounding from rock to rock, wading through snow drifts, striding into sun and shadow under a brilliant blue sky that comes with subzero wind chill days.

Neither one of us is in good shape these days.  It’s been the least amount of hiking we’ve ever done in spring, summer, and fall.  Add to that the chemotherapy, and it’s a wildcard about how Atticus will feel on any given trek. 

But for this one day; this one startling, beautiful, breathtaking day, when wind and cold gave us a taste of what is to come, we climbed as we’ve done thousands of times before, chemo and cancer merely backdrops to the main act in front of me.  As we climbed, I watched, I smiled, at times I even laughed out loud as Atticus was who he has always been on the trails and will be soon enough again. 

Once on top, Atticus walked to the edge, sat on the windswept rock, and looked out at Mount Washington in her glorious white gown.  So beautiful!  Both mountain and dog.  I gave him some time until he got up, walked over to me, and nudged my leg with his nose.  I picked him up, our bodies pressed together, our faces side-by-side, and he sighed, let his body weight relax into my arm and chest, and we took communion together. 

In the frigid temperatures my hair had grown some icicles and I found that cold tears were running down my cheeks.  I didn’t feel sad, nor did I think I was crying, but when I felt his tongue kiss them away while they flowed, I realized the tears were for happiness and beauty and this peace we share together.  Being a fifty-two year old man, not a lot brings me to tears, but being there on the open ledge with Atticus in the midst of all we’ve been through and are going through, I found a great release.  My small friend twisted his body in my arms so that he could look at me.  He took one paw and put it on the far side of my neck and draped his head over my shoulder and together we stood silently and happy. 

By the end of the day we had hiked no more than two miles, but it came at a perfect time.  It came the day before our next to the last chemotherapy treatment.  It came when we hadn’t been hiking.  It came when we needed to feel and not just see the mountains.  Sometimes all we need is a bit of trail, a short mountain experience, a view shared with a hiking partner, and we are renewed and ready for whatever comes our way. 

This morning when Rachael Kleidon injected the poison to kill a greater poison into his front right leg, Atticus rested his head on my hand, and relaxed he napped.  I respect Atticus too much to put words in his mouth or to try to tell people what he would say if he could, but I’d like to think that as the chemotherapy was taking place, the medication he and I both needed had already been received yesterday, standing above Pinkham Notch, keeping company with the greatest of New England mountains, the one once called Agiochook.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Facing the Bully

The authentic journey is the one we're faced with.
We’re feeling a bit like Sisyphus these days.  Every four weeks we start from scratch by pushing that boulder up the mountain again, only to return to the base and begin again after each chemotherapy treatment.  During the weeks after each treatment our hikes get longer and more arduous, and Atticus does well with them, but he lets me know what he needs and in the week following the injection of poison whose job is to take on a greater poison; he’s simply tired. 

That’s okay.  It’s what I expected, and I think the treatments as a whole are going as well as we could have expected.  I knew when the first hint of cancer arose that we had to get rid of the toe, then when the tests biopsies following the amputation showed clean margins I was well aware there was a chance cancer could come back again. 

I did my research; trusted Rachael Kleidon, our veterinarian and friend, for her input; talked it over with friends, but in the end it was my decision.  I knew we’d be giving up a solid six months of hiking, including the best months of the year on the trails.  I also knew, however, that I’m no fan of bullies and cancer is the ultimate bully.  So the decision ended up being an easy one.  Instead of hoping it stayed away, praying Atticus would always be safe, but always fearing its reappearance, and then being forced to play catch up if and when the bully came knocking again, we faced jumped into the fire.  Yes, Atticus is the one receives the injections in one his front legs every four weeks, but we face everything as a “we”, including this dance with cancer.     

Atticus is so comfortable he falls asleep during the treatments, and I am just as comfortable.  Over the handful of days following each treatment, we take our time, just hang out together in the yard, and we nap.  We do that a lot.  After the most recent chemotherapy treatment, I was glad Atticus wanted to go for a walk.  That hasn’t been the case recently on chemo or post-chemo days.  We did our usual 1.4 mile loop that used to be nothing more than an afterthought, but on that day, we poked slowly along, and it took us close to an hour.  But still, we were out there, and I was grateful for that.

Another thing to be grateful for is as of late Atticus's appetite is better, and we’ve made it through the nights without incident. No diarrhea. No vomiting. All good signs.

I take note of such things, but I don’t fixate or obsess.  It’s a lot like going on a winter hike here in the White Mountains.  I plan for the worst, hope for the best.  Either way, I am prepared for the tough and the easy. 
One of the side effects of the cancer I wasn’t ready for is that it seems that everyone who has had a dog in his or her life who has fought it has reached out to me. The messages are typically in one of two forms. People either lost a dog to cancer, and they are expecting that Atticus will die as well.  Or surgery and/or chemotherapy was successful, and they deliver to me a “been there, done that” cavalier message.  Although they mean well, I'm not a big fan of either and tend to ignore the messengers and what they have to say.
During the summer of 2005, when Atticus and I hiked the forty-eight four thousand foot peaks in eleven weeks, we were only about a quarter of the way through the list on a day when we were on our most ambitious hike of the summer up to that point.  We’d been over North and South Twin and were resting at Galehead Hut before making the short ascent up the mountain with the same name.  There was a large group of women hiking together, and they’d been at it a long time.  One of them had two dogs with her.  I was so happy Atticus and I had accomplished what we had and eager for the adventures of the rest of the summer when this one particular woman talked about her hikes and the quest we were on, she seemed bored and her exact words were: “Been there, done that.” 

Walking down the trail that afternoon, just Atticus and me once again, I thought of her words and decided I would never take that approach with anyone, no matter how many mountains Atticus and I ended up climbing.  We all have our own reasons for climbing mountains, and I do my best to approach every other hiker, especially new ones, with a sense of respect and reverence for their personal journey.  In our own life, I tend to approach each peak with reverence and respect, not to mention a sense of wonder.   

Well, this dance with cancer is the same way for me.  We didn’t choose cancer.  It chose us.  Nevertheless I looked upon it as a new adventure.  There were gifts to be discovered along the way that would be revealed only to us.  I didn’t want to belong to any support groups.  I didn’t want to hear that the sky is falling or that we had nothing to worry about.  Cancer and chemotherapy may not be the same as climbing a mountain in the sense that it’s not much fun at any time throughout the process, but to me it represents a personal experience and the authenticity helps shape us.  What we make of it, what we take from it, becomes part of our story and part of who we are.  I don't want that devalued in any way. 

Considering all we've been through, am I happy with the decision to have chemotherapy I made?

Happy wouldn’t be the right word. I am convinced, however, that I made the correct decision. I'm also thrilled that we stuck with Rachael giving the treatments at North Country Animal Hospital even though it's something they (and she) have only done there once before (for a staff member's dog). I went with my heart, knowing Rachael understands the relationship Atticus and I share and because she allows me to be with him throughout all the treatments.  That wouldn’t have been the case if we had gone to some expert in a more sterile facility in Portland, Portsmouth, or Boston.  Not only would they not allow me to sit with him through the chemotherapy treatments, they wouldn’t have allowed me to be with him during the surgery and the recovery.  It may not be the way other people would have done it, but it’s been the path I chose, and it’s now the journey he and I are on.   And to paraphrase Maya Angelou, “We wouldn’t take nothing for our journey now.” 
If Atticus has a weakness, it's when we are away from each other. I never taught him how to do that and like all good hiking partners; we go through thick and thin together. His sleeping through a treatment shows how at ease he is, how this is but another mountain for us to climb, and how we are exactly where we are supposed to be.  Yes, we deal with stretches where he lacks energy and are missing out on many of the hikes we planned on, but on this current journey we are very near the views at the top.  And when all is said and done, and the chemotherapy is a thing of the past, we won’t have to worry that bully coming back into our lives. 

This is our journey, our mountain, our life, and we’re writing the story we wish to live in. I believe that when we face a fear and eat the fear, it allows us to make strengths out of our weaknesses and give us courage where once we only had fear.  Do this with someone you love and it’s all the more special – and all the more meaningful.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Potash....Then & Now

Atticus crossing an open ledge on Potash in the Sandwich Range.
About a month ago, Atticus and I sat on the familiar steep rock ledges about a hundred yards below the summit of Mount Potash.  We had the mountain to ourselves, and if you had stumbled upon us you wouldn’t have thought anything was wrong.  We sat as we usually do – side-by-side, sipping water, enjoying the view, enjoying the silence.  Rising up in front of us stood Passaconaway, Son of the Bear; West and East Sleeper; and the Tripyramids.  We know these peaks as well as we know some friends; that’s how familiar they’ve become to us through the years.

Potash is an interesting mountain to climb.  It’s only a 3.6 mile round trip, but there are sections that are pretty darn steep.  Although there isn’t much elevation gain in the beginning, over the entire 1.8 miles it rises up 1,480 feet which tells you how challenging it can be. 

Potash is part of the Sandwich Range that runs from Waterville Valley in the west over to Chocorua in the east.  The peaks have a different feel to them, almost primitive.  The trails are rough and dark. Many of the mountains are named for legendary Indians.  I like it there because it is rarely crowded on most of the lesser known peaks and it feels as though climbing through those woods is like hiding inside of a secret.  The forest has a mythic texture to it.  It’s the stuff of Tolkien’s hobbits, elves, and dwarves.

On that hike a month ago we didn’t make it to the top.  Atticus had enough of the climb.  He was happy to sit and take in the views where we were.  It was during a rough point between his second and third chemo treatments, and his blood levels were dipping lower than they should be.  While he was moving slowly over the tossed rock and tangled root of the mountain, he was happy to keep moving.  As if often the case, we checked in with each other to see how the other is doing.  I do it by watching him and asking him.  He asks with a particular look in his eye.  It’s a look halfway between contemplation and concern as he studies me.  I typically say, “I’m okay. How about you?”  Sometimes he will toss his head as if to nod and then look up the trail, an action I’ve taken to mean “I’m ready when you are.”

But since the cancer came and the amputation and the chemo, we move more slowly.  Lately, we spend a lot of time walking together.  Instead of following Atticus, he spends just as much time following me.  It’s a sign of the chemo but also of times to come as he grows older.  It’s okay.  We simply adjust as we go as we always have. 

I never worry about whether or not Atticus can do something. He’s always found a way to express what he wants or needs.  And on that day, just a hundred yards or so below the mountaintop he wanted to sit for a while. So we sat.  We looked out at a place we call home.  When it was time to get up I asked him, “Do you want to go say ‘hello’ to the top, or do you want to go home?” 

He turned to go home.

He had no trouble making it down the mountain, and he seemed content, if not happy, and he was very healthy throughout the night and during the next day. 

When I told another hiker about this a few days later, she asked, “Why didn’t you pick him up and carry him to the top?”

“Because he didn’t want to go.”

I’m not sure if she thought I was being flippant or not, but it was not my intent.  Atticus always has a say.  It’s how we’ve accomplished what we have.  I try to put him in the best position to succeed on a mountain by making good choices and he lets me know what he can and can’t do.  He’s very self-assured in this way.   

On that day, Atticus had had enough of going up.  So instead we went down and then we went home and all was well. 

Yesterday, on the same tough trail, we took our time.  I’m fighting the lingering grip of a cold with congested lungs while Atticus is getting ready for his fourth chemo treatment.  But it was clear that he’s feeling better than I am.  While we stopped and rested frequently, sometimes for me to cough, others to take in the views or a bit of water, we continued going up.  When we reached the place we stopped at just a month before, a place we’ve passed more than twenty times on the way up this rugged peak of 2,680 feet, we passed on by and made the last leaps and bounds to the top. 

Again we had it to ourselves, as we usually do.  He climbed to the highest point, took in the view; sat and took it in some more.  We ate our late lunch and drank, and the breeze came and the clouds parted, and blue skies were revealed as were the rust colored valleys below – showing off the lingering leaves tucked in the waves of evergreens for as far as the eye can see.

Atticus looked at me, and I knew to pick him up.  We walked over to the edge, and he put his head next to mine as we’ve done more than a thousand mountaintop times.  Together we took it all in.  I said my simple prayer, “Thank you.”  I don’t know what he says, but the expression of peace and tranquility in his eyes, the heavenly sigh, the way his full weight relaxes into mine, I think it also equates to a prayer of gratitude. 

In life, there will always be people who tell you what you shouldn’t be doing.  Recently I’ve received a few letters from people scolding me for hiking while he’s going through chemo.  These are the same kind of people who told me long ago we shouldn’t be hiking in the winter or hiking in any weather at all because Atticus was just too small.  I tend to ignore the advice of self-proclaimed experts and consider instead the communion of two souls from different species when we are together on high. 

It’s sacred and trusted moments such as yesterday’s, and what happened just over a month ago on the same mountain that tells me when a needle is slid into an artery in Atticus’s leg and the poison of chemotherapy is injected into his little body to fight the poison of cancer that as soon as he lays his head upon my hand and our foreheads touch and eyes meet as they often do on a trail we’ll be just fine.  Just as we always have been.  Just as we always shall be.

Thursday, October 03, 2013


This afternoon I turned off my phone, turned up the music, plugged in my ear buds,
and began to write this column about gratitude.  When I opened the door to take
Will outside, this is what I found.  And that's what this column is about. Thank you.
A missing toe.  Two broken ears. Eyes that see little more than shapes and shadows.  Bad hips.  A chemotherapy needle.  All things to be grateful for, at least in our world. 

I’ve come to believe that wherever we are, whatever we are facing – we are right where we are supposed to be.  There’s no controlling outside influences but what we can do is decide how we want to see them. 

When fifteen year old Will was discarded with his bad hips, eyes, and ears at a kill shelter his life must have seemed over to him.  The only family he’d ever known let him down.  Rumor has it they grew too old to take care of him, but when he arrived in our lives my first thought was they must have been too old to take care of him from day one because he was in such sorry shape and pain.  On the first day Atticus and I took him in, he bit me several times.  He’d keep this up for a couple of months.  Always growling.  Always snarling.  Always fearful.  Never trusting. 

Early this past summer Atticus was struggling with a toe injury. We thought he caught his nail on something and it ripped away from the nail bed.  Two weeks passed, the toe worsened, eventually it abscessed.  We moved quickly and it was amputated.  Biopsy results showed cancer, but it looked as though we got it all.  Later tests revealed it had been moving so rapidly we took a proactive stance and started chemotherapy, with the idea that it’s easier to fight cancer cells when they are just forming than playing catch up with one of life’s greatest thieves.

Will hadn’t been here very long before I notice that with all his faulty senses, he loved smelling the wildflowers in our yard.  So I started to court him. Once a week I bought him flowers.  He’d sniff them repeatedly and seemed to find peace. Occasionally, I’d put them next to his head when he was napping and when awakened he’d inhale, seemed to sigh, and then lay his head back on them and went back to sleep. 

When I told this story on our blog and Following Atticus Facebook page this past spring a most unusual thing happened.  A once-discarded, broken, and angry dog started receiving flowers – from all around the world!  In the past several months more than a hundred bouquets have come in for him from people he’s never met but have read his story and want him to be happy.

The day we decided to amputate Atticus’s toe, I also announced it on our blog and Facebook page.  I would later learn that the phone at North Country Animal Hospital started ringing and a day later more than $2,000 had come in from donations – once again from all over the world.  (The donations covered the surgery and the first three chemo treatments, only now have I started paying for Atticus’s medical bills with my own money.  This not only stunned me and the staff at North Country Animal Hospital, it humbled us and brought tears to many an eye.) 

Strangely, as Will gets older and creeps closer to death, he’s more content than ever.  Strangely, when Atticus’s cancer arrived it, I spent a few minutes to break down, then became strong again, as you do for a good friend, and the strength between us grew just as it had on all those winter peaks we climbed together in both the best and worst of conditions.  We’d been challenged before.  We had this, no matter the outcome. We were right where we belonged.  Most importantly we were together…come what may. 

All of his had me thinking of nothing but how fortunate we all are.  Sure, Atticus and I had been kept off the trails for months and away from what we love.  And Will, I imagine, will soon be gone because ailments come and go and seem more serious as of late, but in the seventeen months he’s lived with us he’s grown to love and allow himself to be loved and he’s truly become a pleasure to have around. 

At another time in my life even the smallest misfortune would have upset the apple cart and yet here I found myself smiling through what would have crippled me in the past.  I kept counting my blessings.  Numerous people sent me cards, letters, and emails talking of mourning and expressing how sad they were for the three of us and telling me they knew how I felt.  But even though they were being kind, they had no idea how I felt, for I wasn’t and I’m not mourning the eventual loss of Will.  How can I not celebrate seventeen months when I thought we’d have but two with a thankless and angry old dog?  Nor am I fearing cancer.  I figure if anyone should have to dance with that despicable disease, it’s Atticus and me, because we’re built for it. 

In spite of the darkness I’ve held onto the stars: two good souls and the support of thousands of people, most of whom we’d never met.  The challenges Atticus, Will, and I face are ours to climb, but we’re doing it with a safety net of kindness, prayers, and the most powerful love I’ve ever witnessed. 

How do you say thank you to something like that?  I decided to give the one thing we most appreciate in life, the one gift we cherish more than any other.  So it was announced that Atticus and I, famed for hiking on our own accept for the rarest of occasions, would take twelve Facebook followers on a hike.  I figured we’d get fifty requests to join us  but within three days we were flooded with 1,500 requests to follow Atticus.  So instead of a dozen, we decided on twenty-three people from around the country.

They started arriving in our hometown of Jackson today.  California, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Indiana, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine are all represented on what we’re calling the Following Atticus Gratitude Hike.  We have an eleven-year-old, one in his twenties, two in their thirties, four in their sixties, the remaining fifteen in their forties and fifties.  These individuals, the vast majority of, we have never met even in passing, will do something we don’t even do with our friends.  They’ll hike with us and we’ll share with them the glory of New Hampshire’s stunning White Mountains.  Most are not hikers, but that’s okay.  We weren’t hikers at one point either. 

These are twenty-three very different folks.  A few couples are in the mix, one father and daughter team, a mother and daughter as well, but twenty-three individuals.  What they have in common is that they’ve been following a little black and white dog over mountains, down into valleys, under the brightest of lights, and through the darkest of times.  They’ve also fallen for old, broken down Will.  Some see him as their personal hero.  I’ve heard from several: “If Will can survive all he’s been through, I can survive what I’m barely enduring.” 

Atticus is doing well half way through his chemotherapy.  Will, although faltering here and there, is doing well in the last chapter of his life.  That brings us to me.  And here’s how I feel – grateful.  I am grateful for what the three of us share in good and rough times.  I wake up saying prayers expressing that gratitude and every day is Thanksgiving for there is always something to be thankful for.  I’m grateful that we are together.  I’m grateful we have started hiking again on the better days, albeit it short hikes.  I’m grateful that people care enough about Atticus and Will to send flowers and cards and handmade quilts.  And I’m grateful that Atticus, Will, and I are all where we are supposed to be. 

On Saturday morning we’ll have breakfast with this crew and after we drop Will off with a dear friend for a day of care and comfort, the rest of us will head to a mountain and Atticus and I will show our thanks on the summit as we always have.  But this time we’ll also be thanking twenty-three people who represent thousands upon thousands of others who care and invest their hearts and thoughts in every step of our journey.

Today as we were driving down the road from our house, just two miles away, I found it fitting that we were passing Storyland, as we do every day.  Because life is indeed a fairytale, if only we choose to see it that way.  And that's what I've learned to do. 

In a dysfunctional world where religious fanatics use bombs to kill people in the name of God, where those who are supposed to represent us in government make fools of themselves and glorify their own egos, where broken people kill school children or employees at shipyards, where we pollute and smother the air and water and earth we need for life, and animals are abused out of both cruelty and ignorance, I count my blessings.  Among those blessings are the following. A missing toe.  Two broken ears. Eyes that see little more than shapes and shadows.  Bad hips.  A chemotherapy needle. 

And two little dogs who are great souls.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Being Will's Friend

Will posing with a sketch of him by one of my
favorite New Hampshire artists, Chris Garby.
Well I fell down, down, down
Into this dark and lonely hole
There was no one there to care about me anymore

So starts the song “Clouds” written by the late Zach Sobiech when he was 17-years-old, before he passed away from a rare form of bone cancer.

And so starts the story of Will just before he came to us. He was dropped in a kill shelter by the only family he ever knew (no judgments here please since we don’t completely know their story) at fifteen years of age. I imagine that this poor old dog, mostly blind, completely deaf, and in such pain from rotten teeth and decaying hips (after having been kept in a crate for far too long) must have felt like he was down in some “dark and lonely hole” with “no one there to care” for him anymore.

Thanks to a good soul, New Jersey Schnauzer Rescue was called and they saved Will and we learned of his plight through Laura Bachofner, and then Atticus and I adopted him into our lives on May 6th of 2012. He was in horrendous shape.  Angry.  Betrayed.  Brittle.  In agony in more ways than one. 

I wondered why no one had put him out of his misery and thought of doing it soon after he came to live with us.  It was a nightmarish start with several nasty bites suffered (always biting me and not Atticus, then again Atticus would have nothing to do with him).  Yet somehow we ended up just as Paige Foster, Atticus’s breeder, used to say, “Y’all will work it out.”  We did work it out and I’m so happy we did.

Here it is now less than a week before October of 2013 and Will has a whole new life.  Unfortunately, he seems to be waning a bit. I’ve told him to stay for as long as he wishes but also told him he’s free to go whenever he wishes.  He’s got nothing left to prove.  He’s learned to love again, to let love in again, to live again, and to trust again.  That’s no easy feat. Not many people are as brave or successful in reclaiming life as he’s done. 

People often say to me, “Who rescued who?”  I laugh.  I know they want to romanticize a rescued dog, but the truth is Will didn’t rescue us.  Not in the least.  The one he rescued was himself.  We were just there to help him. 

In my time with him I’ve become a better person. So, while no, he didn’t rescue me, he has, however, helped me grow.  I will be eternally grateful to him for this gift.

I have no idea how much longer Will is going to last.  When the day comes to say goodbye Rachael Kleidon will join Atticus and me and we’ll find a pretty place outside to give him that special kindness and my heart will be broken. 

I’ll miss him dearly.  But I’ll be so proud to have been his friend and to have helped him reclaim his dignity, his life, and his innocence.  Because of that, and the words I write of him every day, he not only inspires thousands, but his life will go into our next book and he will live forever.  For his has been the hero’s journey if ever there was one. 

I entered this relationship with Will knowing his time with us was temporary. I thought we were doing a good deed.  What I didn’t expect was to love him like I do.  He’s a lot of work and he can be thoughtless at times, but I love him. 

I won’t be greedy.  I’ll be happy with whatever we have left, but I’m only human.  And these words from the Zach’s song could be about Will – or even about me – when it comes to saying goodbye.

If only I had a little bit more time
If only I had a little bit more time with you.
We could go up, up, up
And take that little ride
And sit there holding hands
And everything would be just right
And maybe someday I'll see you again
We'll float up in the clouds and we'll never see the end.

I love you, Will.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

At Times A Little Is Enough

Jack Ryan would be happy with the hikes we’ve taken this week. 

My father was mostly what’s known as a windshield tourist.  Whenever we came north from Massachusetts, he’d drive us around the White Mountains and that’s how we saw these wondrous peaks – through a windshield.  Oh sure, we did all the touristy things such as Clark’s Trading Post, the gondola up Cannon Mountain, the auto road and the cog railway up Mount Washington, the Flume, Santa’s Village, Storyland, and all the other activities young families tend to do.  But we also did some hiking.  Just nothing of any height or difficulty. 

Our hikes were more like walks in the woods of no real distance.  Occasionally we’d stumble upon a view.  This past weekend, while sitting up on the Roost at the northern end of Evans Notch, my father came to mind.  It was only a half mile to the summit, then down another tenth of a mile to a brilliant viewpoint.  We finished off the hike by walking down the long way (seven tenths of a mile), to the southern terminus of the trail, and with an eight tenths of a mile road walk back to our car.

Yesterday, we drove to Wonalancet and hiked to the top of Mount Katherine (a 3.2 mile round trip).  Now if ever there was a mistaken classification here in the White Mountains it would be calling what was named after Katherine Sleeper a mountain.  It’s more like a hill.  But once on top of that splendid little summit there is a beautiful view across the bucolic farmland in Tamworth and the land rises slowly until it reaches the crescendo of Mount Chocorua off in the distance.  And as soon as I finish typing this up, Atticus and I will be heading to Lincoln to drop in on Steve Smith at the Mountain Wanderer to take care of some business.  When in town we’ll drive up through Franconia Notch and take advantage of Bald Mountain and Artists Bluff.  We used to take that 1.5 mile hike quite often when we lived in Lincoln and treated it as an afternoon or morning walk. 

Now in all fairness to these smaller peaks, or what could be considered mere bumps in relation to the rocky behemoths around them, a mountain doesn’t know whether it’s tall or small.  A mountain just is and seems quite happy with its circumstances.  All three of these sensational short hikes have something in common, for little peaks they give great bang for the buck views to the surrounding area.  As short as they may be, there is some work involved.  The climb up the Roost may only be half a mile but it rises up more than 550 feet in elevation.  According to the AMC’s White Mountain Guide (edited by Smith and Mike Dickerman), an elevation gain of one thousand feet over a mile is considered a steep climb.  (No wonder we were feeling out of breath in Evans Notch on Sunday.)  And that last scramble up to the top of Bald Mountain has you using your hands from time to time. 

Okay, so none of these are to be confused with Lafayette, Washington, Moosilauke, or the Kinsmans.  But presently we take what we can get.  Atticus and I are a long way off from the days of thinking nothing about trekking longer than twenty miles.  The little guy is halfway between eleven and twelve, but I don’t think his age would really slow him down.  Cancer has, however.  Actually, the cancer hasn’t.  It’s the chemo.  He doesn’t seem to miss that absent toe since its amputation earlier in the summer.  Heck, we climbed Black Cap less than three weeks after its removal.  But chemo is a different thing.  It’s fighting poison with poison, but the drug doesn’t differentiate between good cells and bad and it wreaks havoc on the body. 

Atticus’s body handled the first treatment well.  The second wasn’t so easy.  It got worse as the weeks went on, so much so that we’ve now moved his treatments from every three weeks to every four. There were even some days last week he chose not to go for our regular morning or evening walk. 

So while in the past I would have had nice things to say about the views offered from the Roost, Mount Katherine, and Bald Mountain and talked about them being pleasant “walks”, for us, they’ve turned into mountains.  At least for this summer and fall. 

My father loved such gentle hikes and it was a great way to work out his troop of children when we were on vacation.  But like the mountains themselves, Jack Ryan didn’t seem to consider them small at all.  He was away from his Framingham or Boston office and was in the woods, armed with a sense of wonder and a lightness of spirit.  And oh, what a pleasure those walks in the woods were – even if I was too young to appreciate them.  Those gentle seeds he sprinkled throughout our childhood turned into something much more for Atticus and me.  They turned into our way of life. 

As we wait patiently and hold onto ourselves throughout the chemo storm, I remember what my father thought of little mountains and those walks into a wooded wonderland and I feel it, too.  For now, they are all Atticus and I have as we scale our toughest mountain.  And yet, they feel like enough.  While sitting on those rocky viewpoints, the world is quite glorious to me – far more so than the view from our couch – and especially so when I look to my side and see one paw with a missing toe and a soul at peace as he too takes the views and fills his soul.

Atticus M. Finch takes in the view from The Roost.