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, 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.