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, 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.

Monday, September 02, 2013

A Call & A Text

The view from King's Peak.
We woke up to thunder boomers as only the mountains can throw them, echoing from peak to peak and reverberating down into the valleys.
Atticus has never been bothered by them and Will can't hear them so that's not a problem either.  Actually, I wasn't awakened by the storm, but by Atticus giving me the "Will Warning".  When Will gets out from under his covers and off of his bed, Atticus wakes me up to let me know I'd better get my old friend outside so he can go to the bathroom.  (And before you go thinking that this is kindness on Atticus's part, it could be many things, including enlightened self-interest - for he cannot understand why an animal would go to bathroom inside a house, especially his house.)
Duty done (by Will); breakfast eaten (by all three of us), the windows are all open for the first time in days.  The rain, with its ferocity and promise to last much of the day, is ushering out the humidity we've had sitting on top of us, and letting the last of the summer tourists know it's time to leave early.
While Route 16 and I-93 are choked by traffic today, we'll accept the refreshing feel to the air and the restful quiet in tiny Jackson. We'll also get ready to hike either tomorrow or Wednesday, the smaller peak we climb will depend on the weather forecast and how Atticus feels at the moment.  Nevertheless, we'll get to the top of something and that will make us both happy.
These next two months really are the best two months of hiking of the year and I look forward to walking through lush green corridors that in a few weeks’ time will have an explosion of color.  I'm giddy with the thought of the summit views down into the valleys with varying shades of red, yellow, and orange.  But this morning I'm thinking more about one higher peak, more brown than lush, and much higher than the peaks here in New England.  It's called King's Peak and it is the highest point in Utah, topping off at more than 13,000 feet in elevation.

Now I’ve haven’t been to Utah since the summer of 1969 when my father piled the seven youngest of his nine children (Joanne and John were already out in the world) into a new station wagon and he pulled a tent trailer across the country and back again for a month.  It was his way of getting us away from a house filled with memories and draped in sadness.  The previous December, six days before Christmas, my mother died in a Boston hospital.  To this day I think of it as perhaps one of the most courageous things a parent can do, to try to lift us all out of grief by shepherding seven children to places like Mammoth Cave (KY); Hot Springs (AR); Shamrock (TX); the Grand Canyon (AZ); Disneyland, LA, Yosemite, SF, the Redwood Forest, and the Big Sur (CA); Boulder Dam and Las Vegas (NV); Salt Lake City (UT); Yellowstone (WY); Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills (SD); and pretty much every stop in between before driving us back home.  Of course now I realize he also did it for himself.  Nevertheless, what a gift it was for all of us.  I was only eight at the time, the youngest in my family, and I vividly recall many of the sights, tastes, and sounds of that epic journey. 

But that time in Utah was long before we climbed mountains of any height.  Although we were active, we were mostly windshield tourists.  Someday, I tell myself, I’ll return to those places on my own road trip all these years later, but for now I am happy in these green peaks that have become our home.

So why is King’s Peak on my mind? 

It’s because the photograph above was sent to me the other day in a text.  It read, “On top of King’s Peak, reception bad…but beautiful.  How is Atticus?  I’ve been thinking of him the whole time.”  It was quickly followed by another: “Just found out from Meg that Atticus is doing great and I couldn’t be happier! Will touch base in a few days! :)” 

It’s not the first time I received a message from out west in the past ten days. The other came in the form of a telephone call wanting to know all about Atticus and how he was doing.  It was on the Saturday of the previous week, the day after Atticus’s second chemo treatment. 

Both the call and the text came from Rachael Kleidon, Atticus’s veterinarian at North Country Animal Hospital.  Later in the day of his chemo treatment, Rachael and her husband Bryant flew out to Colorado and were driving north to Utah to backpack through some high peaks on a long-planned two week vacation.  She called before she lost a signal with her iPhone upon entering the wilderness. 

Friends, albeit fewer and fewer of them, reach out to me and/or to Atticus to say, “I’m so sorry for what you are going through.”  They mean the cancer and the chemotherapy and the loss of his toe.  Or they say, “Poor guy.”  Or, “I’m sorry you have to go through this.”  I change the mood immediately but lifting it upward, even though I know they won’t understand. 

I’ve said it many times over the past two months: cancer, as strange as it may seem, has been a gift to us.  Its arrival forced us to focus on what’s most important and drop the silly things (and some people) who seem to rob us of what’s most important in life. 

My knees buckled and my heart ached when I first heard the dreaded word that begins with a “C”.  Fears ran through my veins like blood, only it was colder, and the ground beneath our feet shook.  Within hours though, the mourning and the fear was put away.  Our path was clear.  So not only did we throw out the self-pity and the “why me?” we also threw out a few people who use that as their mantra. 

Cancer has turned into another hike for us.  Each important occurrence – the first evaluation, the amputation, the biopsy results, the decision to go with chemotherapy, each three week cycle, and every weekly blood test, has turned into its own climb to a summit on a greater quest.  It’s a challenge and like all challenges it washes us clean, makes us stronger, and brings us closer. 

I don’t think the television has been on over the past couple of months.  Instead there’s music and good books and fresh fruits and vegetables and fires outside at night.  There’s sunsets and moonrises and laying on our backs watching owls, bats, bugs, and the heavenly stars above.  There’s no time for things that shouldn’t and don’t matter.  There’s also some new people in my life.

As I looked around our humble little home back when this first began, I saw what was essential, some items we just loved, and others that were nothing but clutter.  As harsh as it may seem, the clarity of cancer gave me the same view of the people in my life.  When faced with what’s most important, it made it easier to move on from those who were no longer important in our life and by sweeping our lives clean and tidying up a bit, it made room for those who are.  This is not something I may have done, at least not so quickly, without the gift of cancer. It serves as a wakeup call. 

One of those people we made more room for is Rachael Kleidon.  Seriously, who has a vet that calls on the second and eighth day of her vacation to a place where she wants to get away from it all with her husband two thousand miles away in a quiet mountain range and writes, “I’ve been thinking of him the entire time”? 

On the day Rachael called, it was to get me ready for what we needed to do if the blood work came back and showed me that the levels were not where we wanted them to be.  As always, we talked of the worst case scenario (she and I have a “no bullshit” agreement) so we could plan for it, and hope for the best.  She was preparing me because she knew she would be out of town for the next two times Atticus’ blood was drawn and she didn’t want me to hear such things from someone else. 

We are extremely blessed.

Looking now at Atticus, who is sitting on a chair at our kitchen table right next to me as I type, letting me know the rain has stopped and it’s time to go for a walk, it feels just like it does when we are on a long hike.  We’ve reached the latest summit together, taken time to rest, take in the views, and now it’s time to move onto the next.  It’s a long hike, after all.  There’s time to stop and pause, but there’s no use in stopping altogether.  Over the past eight years of hiking with Atticus, I’ve learned the key to these long quests is to be grateful for the view along the way and to keep moving, onward, by all means.

One of my favorite and most sensual writers is Marianne Williamson.  She writes: “Joy is what happens to us when we allow ourselves to recognize how good things really are.”  That’s how I feel these days.  Cancer may have knocked on our door and walked into our home, but it came bearing gifts and I continue to find them hidden all over the place.