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.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

A Song of Renewal

When I let friends know we were adopting Will, a fifteen year-old with special needs, I heard a lot about the heartache that was sure to follow.  I heard about the vet bills and the way we’d never have the benefit of truly knowing him and we’d only witness his demise without any of the joy that comes from living with an animal.  I heard of the way his last weeks or months (if he lived that long) would be utterly depressing and would drain our home of happiness. 

When Will first arrived I was indeed heartbroken.  For before me stood (barely with shaking legs) an angry, betrayed, neglected, and perhaps even abused dog.  There were many temper tantrums.  There were flashing teeth and threatening growls.  There were the challenges of getting him up and down the stairs without an all-out war breaking out between us because he didn’t always want to be touched and hated being picked up.  And yes, the vet bills came fast and furious right from the beginning, especially when we decided to do something about his rotten teeth.

He was in such a miserable state back in May I wondered why anyone had bothered to keep the poor wretch alive.  I even talked with our vet about how long I should give him and I cursed myself for taking in a dog only to have to put him to sleep. 

I told myself we were simply giving him a place to die in dignity and on his terms.  But it’s now February and March is coming and soon after spring will be here and looking at Will…well, he doesn’t look like he has plans to be going anywhere sometime soon.  He likes his new life, enjoys the luxury of many beds to choose from, and his contented snores fill our little home as happily as healthy food fills his once tiny belly and pumpkin stains his whiskers.  This in itself would be enough to make me happy about the journey we’ve taken with Will.
But there’s more.

What thrills me is that he’s not waning, as I would expect of a sixteen year old who came with rotten teeth, had been crated far too long to be humane, and was clearly neglected through the years.  It’s just the opposite.  He’s entered into a second puppyhood.  He’s become a geriatric puppy where wonders abound on a daily basis for him.

Sure he cannot always see them and he never hears them but he certainly is aware of them, even if at times he slips and falls on his way to getting to them . . . or us. 

And to be honest, that’s the part the delights me most of all – the “or us” part. 

Numerous treats and several beds to choose from in a warm home where he’s free to walk around is one thing, but what makes Will live is what makes us all live.  It’s his heart.  It’s love. 

He’s not just surviving, he’s thriving.  And it’s because of love. Our love for him, his ability to accept it, and now his ability to return it to us. 

In Will’s case the Beatles were right, “All you need is love.” 

After we returned from our hike on Saturday we walked in and there was Will stretched out on his bed.  In the first couple of months we’d return to find him that way and he wouldn’t even know we were back. He’d sleep for another hour or two.  On Saturday though, he lifted his head up immediately, ignored the age in his old bones and the creaky joints, and did his best to run to us and chase after us.  It was a beautiful scene – little happy and excited grunts rising from somewhere in his throat, his front legs kicking up like a horse bucking, his back hips not able to keep up so his leaps turned into half leaps, but with an abandon to them that was nothing less than joyous. 

Remember when you were a kid and you had that nightmare where a monster was chasing after you and no matter how hard you tried or fast you ran they were always right behind you?  You slipped, tripped, and stumbled and all the time they got closer and closer and the anxiety and panic rose in your dream.  With Will, it’s the same thing, only reversed.  All of it.  He’s doing the chasing but there’s no way he can keep up.  He stumbles, he slips, and his back hips just can’t propel him when he chases us.  And best yet, there is no anxiety or panic.  It’s a jubilant dance.

He rumbles after us, his back arching through the slow-motion gallop like an old Slinky and the determination on his face is priceless and through it all he cannot catch us. . . . until we let him and then the old dog who used to growl and show his teeth and nip and bite no longer does any of that.  Instead he pushes his head into us and wants to be pet, wrestled with, hugged, picked up, and carried around.

This has been the greatest gift of all.  For both Will and me.  I’ve not witnessed his demise.  I’ve witnessed his resurrection.  He has risen to new heights with his limited body and limitless capacity for love and renewal.

When I contemplate Will’s last chapter, which he continues to write, I often think of Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” that ends like this….

“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.”

That last line has always been a favorite of mine.  But it’s those last three words in the next to the last line which gives you a clue to why we no longer call him “William”. . . “strong in will. . . “