Following Atticus: Forty-Eight High Peaks, One Little Dog, and an Extraordinary Friendship by Tom Ryan is published by William Morrow. It tells the story of my adventures with Atticus M. Finch, a little dog of some distinction. You can also find our column in the NorthCountry News.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

John Updike, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Thomas Merton: My Thanksigiving Column for the NorthCountry News

"The stripped and shapely
 Maple grieves
 The ghosts of her
 Departed leaves.
The ground is hard,
 As hard as stone.
 The year is old,
 The birds are flown.
And yet the world,
 In its distress,
 Displays a certain
~ John Updike

There is a song of November and I think it is as lovely as the trees are barren.  Updike sums it up well.  Sure there are gray days ahead, more darkness and freezing temperatures are on the way, but the forests are so beautiful this time of year.  The streams murmur and run clear and cold.  The night sky black but adorned by stars so brilliant it takes your breath away.  And the quiet is peaceful and calming, especially on a mountainside now that the crowds have gone. 

High up there are varying levels of snow but below three thousand feet the mountains are simple bare and plain.  A simplicity exists away from the heat and humidity and the bugs and the people, and a certain bare-bones familiarity that exists before winter hits us full on and covers everything in white for the next four or five months.  I’ve fallen quite in love with November for these very reasons.  And now that it’s easier to breathe, so has Atticus.  He no longer slinks about like an old dog who is closer to thirteen than twelve.  He’s back to bouncing along the trails knee deep in a plush carpet of crinkling brown leaves on the forest floor.  He’s young again, happy to be out again, and having to wait up for me once again.  How can I not love this time of year for that reason alone? 

On Thanksgiving Day Atticus and I will head off and find a mountain where there are no cars at the trailhead.  I’ll make a list of a few and if the weather is dry and the views clear, we’ll climb a mountain by ourselves and eat our dinner on a ledge with views to the sacred lands before us.  How fortunate we are to live in a place where this is possible and to live without the constraints of having to be somewhere else to please someone else.  This was part of our reason for leaving behind a more civilized life which also felt like a more stultified one.

We all have our reasons for seeking out the mountains.  For me it’s as much about spirituality and peace as it is about the beauty and exercise a hike contains.  I find myself in these mountains again and again.  I find reasons for gratitude on the flat and steep trails while breathing easily or with so much difficulty I have to surrender to my own exhaustion and racing heart.  As a matter of fact, that’s where the moment of grace often hits me – when I have to stop because my breath cannot keep up with my desires and I’m hanging my head and wiping sweat from my brow.  There over the noise of my inhaling and exhaling sits the quiet of the natural world. 

This time of year there isn’t even much birdsong and the leaves are gone and the trees stand before me as naked as can be.  There’s nothing to hide, no one to impress, and they are nothing but who they are.  It’s ironic to me that when I often find the forest most alive is when all is gray – sometimes even the November sky. 

I read yesterday with a heavy heart that Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk who is perhaps the most spiritual soul I know of on this earth, is close to death.  At eighty-eight he’s had a brain hemorrhage.  There is no way of knowing how much time he has left before his body gives up and he becomes spirit and memory.  I often think of him and his spiritual soul mate, Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk, writer, and mystic when I’m in the woods this time of year.  The two men only met once but they stayed in touch until Merton died a few years later in the late sixties. 

Both of these monks from different religions and opposite ends of the world found tranquility and grace in nature.  Much like many of us do.  They understood our place in the grand scheme of things and whenever life became too crazy they retreated to the simplicity of nature. 

Following Atticus on the mountain trails helped me to ditch my ego, my accomplishments, even the stopwatch I used to wear on every hike.  Following my friend I fell more in line with what matters most and let nature set the pace.  This is something both Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh came to understand.  It’s what I am always learning on the sides of mountains and why we seek out the peaks where no one else is. 

It’s during those moments when my body cannot keep pace I’m made to stop and just take a moment to wait and be silent.  Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote: “Breathing in, there is only the present moment.  Breathing out, it is a wonderful moment.”  And that’s what I’m learning.  There is the trailhead, there is the summit, and then there is everything in betwee

As Thanksgiving Day arrives I hope that each of our readers finds far more to be thankful for than to be weighed down by.  May you have a day of simplicity and joy with those you love, doing what fulfills you. 

Onward, by all means,
Tom (& Atticus)

Monday, November 03, 2014

Considering Will

It's Monday morning and the forest has a different look and feel to it after the strong winds we've had.  Gusts still ride high over the tree tops sounding like a runaway ghost train but the sun has returned and red squirrels and chipmunks are active and their chatter is comical.  Pine cones are everywhere, knocked from their perches to the earth where death will become life.  They crunch underfoot and the pine tar gets on everything.  Once a week I massage and clean Atticus's pads with olive oil to get rid of debris and to recondition them.  This time of year I do it twice a week. 
Ten days have passed since Will left us and I'm avoiding our Facebook page to some extent. This is when it helps to have great moderators.  The kindness and love is evident by the vast majority of people who post, and also appreciated, but this being social media, projection also is present.  We all experience death but it's a personal experience.  I've never been a big fan of people saying "been there done that" about anything, and because I think of death as a miracle of its own - which may differ from what others believe - I tend to avoid the typical calling cards of cliché when it comes to something equaling a sacrament to me.  Life and death are worthy of so much more than clichés. 
My goal in loss is to learn and grow from it, to take joy from those who we traveled with who are no longer with us, to make their presence in our life into a gift I can always carry with me. 
Several times last week people wanted to believe that Atticus was mourning.  He wasn't.  He still isn't.  He's buoyant and free.  I'm not mourning either, not really.  As I told Christine Heinz on Twitter this morning, we did what we set out to do in taking in Will. 
I thought his visit with us was going to be much shorter than it turned out to be.    That was a plus to me.  When Will reclaimed himself it was a joy to behold.  His eyes were young and expectant.  When I'd walk up to him and he looked at me and I couldn't help but smile. 
In the very end Will was far less than what he'd come to be with us.  He couldn't sit like a lion for more than a few seconds.  He'd topple over without being propped up.  He was rotting from the inside out (I'll leave the details too various myself).  You saw him mostly as fresh and clean and sweet and so alive over the last few months, but that's because of the photographs I shared of him.  He was still sweet, but he was also dying.
I've not been crying very much.  I have thoughtful moments and much to digest.  I will cry for Will down the road when I talk about him at events, I'm sure, but not out of sadness.  It will be because of the gift of the experience.  It's what the mythologist Joseph Campbell aptly named, "the experience of being alive." 
Will came to us at fifteen.  My job was to be by his side and give him what he needed when he needed it.  That was everything from patience; to food and water; to bathing him when he fell in his urine and feces and couldn't get up; to stretching exercises and massage; to experiences with nature; to flowers and music and sweet and savory smells; to reassuring touches; to love and acceptance and shared growth; and finally to let him leave this physical world when his body no longer worked and I didn't want to compromise him for my own sake. 
The decision to say goodbye is so very hard, but in Will's case it was easier because it was clear to me.  I considered the entire journey to be textured and genuine and fortunate for Will and me.  Sitting in a beautiful mountainside field with him in my arms while he snored, then standing to hold him while Rachael let his sleep become permanent was and will always be a sacred experience.  I can think of no higher honor than to recognize a friend for who he or she is and what his or her needs are and help them to where they need to go. 
Will needed to be loved and believed in. He needed someone in his corner over the last chapter of his life.  He had that.  I can't speak for him but I imagine he has no regrets and he felt nothing but love. 
Over the past week I've heard from friends who knew Will two and a half years ago from when he first came to be with us and they couldn't believe the impressive change in him.  There weren't many he didn't try to bite those first few months - even the ever-so-gentle Tracy at Ultimutt Cut Salon, who understood his hatred of being put in a crate and never forced that on him - had to be careful of his teeth in the beginning.
When Will first arrived here he smelled of death.  Much of that had to do with his mouth and his rotten teeth.  Our vet at the time, Christine O'Connell, went to work on that but could only get a fraction done while he was under anesthesia.  There were several places where the gums had receded so far tips of the roots were barely concealed and you could push a small object through the opening between them. His mouth hadn’t been taken care of for years – if ever.   
Exercise specialists we went to clearly saw what I did, that Will had not had much, if any, exercise for a long time before he came to us.  They concluded his unnaturally stiff hips were a product of being crated for far too long for far too many years. 
His mouth would never improve, but his willingness to accept love and offer it did.  His joints improved too, until the last weeks when they appeared as though they had been tightened to the point of pain by a wrench.
One of the joys in sharing our journey with hundreds of thousands of people is that Will, once unwanted and neglected, was celebrated.  He became a model for adopting animals who seem like lost causes.  He was proof you can't judge a book by its cover.  I was thrilled that for the past year and a half he's received flowers and blankets because of many of you investing in him. 

Will was so miserable and broken when he arrived that over the first two weeks I was close to putting him out of his misery.  I pitied him.  In the last week of his life, I knew what had to be done but pity was the furthest thing from my mind.  I’d say what I was feeling had more to do with celebration. 

I can’t speak to what befell Will before he came to us, only to what the evidence revealed.  But even then it wasn’t to judge those he lived with before because that didn’t matter to me.  What mattered was what we were going to do with the shattered puzzle of Will.  Together, he and I worked to put him back together again, with an occasional assist from Atticus.  But as I always say, in the end Will rescued himself.  We gave him a helping hand but in the end the final choices were always his to make. 

I’m glad we’ve shared Will's life with you, and his passing, but I also know enough to stay away from too much that is written about him by people who never met him, or interacted with him for a very short while.  It’s sickening to have someone you love be dissected by those who knew very little and who cared nothing of him over the past two and a half years.  Thankfully it’s also rare, but when it happens it’s noticed, occasionally by me, more often by others.  This is the price of making public your life with someone.  I understand this.  But it’s also one of the reasons I’m careful about wading into uncomfortable waters and why I’ve never visited other websites about dogs.  Too many armchair quarterbacks.  As of late some of them have appeared on our own Facebook page (and others), but our moderators quickly move to change that. 

On the positive side, there has been an incredible amount of response in celebrating Will’s life.  I know many feel sad about his dying but I cannot do anything about that.  I can only say that I’m not feeling the same way and I have a hard time imaging Will was ever very sad over the past two years of his life.  It was a grand final chapter and I’m happy for him and proud of him.

Life and death are very personal, but if we can share these personal experiences and people are reverent enough to simply witness what they see and not judge it, some good can come of it.  I feel confident much good has already come from Will and his journey and that many can only continue.  Knowing that others will do get chances at new life because of Will is something to celebrate.

Thank you,

(To help other animals in need we've set up a memorial fund in Will's name at the Conway Area Humane Society.  Some have asked why I chose C.A.H.S.  There are many reasons, but they start at the top of that organization.  I believe anytime an unwanted animal finds a new home there are limitless possibilities for happy endings.  That said, I've learned quite a bit about rescue - the good and the bad.   It's hard work.  I support C.A.H.S. because of Virginia Moore, the executive director. In a field where some put themselves above the animals they are supposed to be helping, Virginia has the perfect perspective.  She restored my belief in those who get rescue right.) 


Thursday, October 09, 2014

An Unusual Guest On A Wild Night

We have been off center the last several days.  There was an accident in our little apartment and we’ve been left with some water damage.  The carpet in the bedroom is one of the casualties.  Mold formed quickly and because of it Atticus and I have been sleeping on the couch with Will tucked in one of his dog beds just below my head.  We have a small place, but a cheery one, and the kitchen and living room is combined with big windows on the east and west side and a glass door to the north that looks out on a quaint roofed deck where there sits a small table and two chairs with some plants along the railing. 

Two nights ago a wicked storm blew across the mountains and covered the bright moon with fast moving clouds.  When the rain came it was as if the sky exploded and heavy raindrops pounded on the metal roof of the house.  I sat up on the couch to look out from our second floor perch into the backyard to the skeleton of our black ash tree, which had dropped its leaves several weeks ago.  The heavy rain was mesmerizing.  I tucked back into sleep with Atticus behind my knees and Will snoring blissfully below. 

Sometime later I was startled awake by a crash.  One of the ceramic planters must have been blown over by the storm on our deck.  I walked to the door and took my headlamp off the knob and turned it on.  I could see the planter broken into bits but I also saw an enormous bear settling down on the deck, it seemed, to take shelter from the storm.  When the light flashed on him he jumped up and turned around, ready to race down the stairs. 

It was Butkus, who I had not seen in over a year.  He’s the largest and oldest of our local bears and the first we encountered some five years ago. I turned the headlamp toward myself so he could see me and gave him a casual wave.  He stopped, moved closer to the door to look at me, and then he sat down. 

We haven’t seen the bears for nearly two months.  There is a house that is rarely used right next door to us.  You cannot see it because of the trees and the way it’s back form the road.  But for the past two months a young man in his twenties was staying there.  He rode a motorcycle and revved it loudly shaking walls and the peace and quiet.  He came and went  at all hours of the night.  Through other discoveries (which I will not go into) I learned he was not a very nice fellow. Since the time he moved in the bears had stopped coming by.  They are funny that way.  Although they have always come and gone in Jackson as they please, drawn by the sweet and savory aromas of the inns and restaurants here, they watch closely and don’t reveal themselves often when things are different.  Whenever our landlords are up for a visit and staying downstairs they bears don’t reveal themselves.  Nor do they when the landlords let friends use their place.  But as soon as the downstairs is quiet again, the bears return.  Alas, this hasn’t been the case over the last two months. 

But the young fellow next door is now gone and I wondered if we’d see any of the bears again before they disappeared for the winter.  And here was Butkus, enormous and wet and sitting out the storm on our deck. 

I watched him for a few minutes and then pulled the comforter and pillow and my Kindle from the couch and sat with my back against the glass door, drawn by this incredible animal.  Soon Atticus was with me, his head raised up on my thigh watching Butkus.  Eventually Butkus lay down and placed his huge head against the glass next to where my head rested against the pillow.  Our eyes were only the width of the glass apart. It wasn’t long before both Atticus and Butkus were asleep. 

When I woke up, still pressed against the door where I sat with Atticus and Butkus the night before, the rain was gone and so was our neighbor.  Blue skies poured over the valley and the sun danced on the jeweled raindrops left behind.  A gift of a day followed the gift of the night before.

The bears fascinate me.  We know enough to be careful around them and to make sure they have an exit plan, and so do we.  We don’t encourage them with food; they just pass by on their way to other places.  Occasionally they linger for a little while, but they don’t appear to be very comfortable with most people.  They obviously didn’t like the short term lodger next door, and they don't like the family that moved in on the other side of us.  Once when Atticus and I were sitting out back a few months ago Aragorn showed up and sat contentedly with us fifteen feet away for fifteen minutes.  Some of you may remember the photographs.  He only left when our neighbors came outside, unseen due to the summer foliage, but easily heard.  He gnashed his teeth and repeatedly snapped his jaws before growling and running down to the Ellis River. Last year when two of our moderators, Christina and Mike, showed up for a visit while Atticus and I were watching the “Jackson Five” (a mother and four cubs) playing in the yard, the bears abruptly left. 

I’m not certain why they come around us as they do.  I’ve always believed it has something to do with Atticus and how other animals are often drawn to him.  That’s how we met Aragorn three years ago.  He was a yearling and followed us home from a walk. He trailed us for half a mile before showing up in our backyard.  When I reminded Atticus, “Not all dogs are friendly,” Atti sat down.  In the bushes on the border of our yard Aragorn did, too.  When Atticus dropped into the sphinx position, so did Aragorn.  Since that day, of all the bears, it’s been Aragorn who spends the most time around us, always looking to Atticus, and occasionally to me. 

I’m reminded of our third floor apartment in Newburyport where there was a window box without flowers in it.  We couldn’t plant anything because the wind would rise up from the Merrimack River and rush up State Street removing any of the flowers there.  But one year a pigeon built as nest and Atticus, who was very young, stood up on his hind legs with the window open and watched her, his head less than a foot away.  When there were chicks in the nest he was fascinated by them and the mother thought nothing of leaving them behind to seek out food while Atticus watched over them. 

Pigeons are one thing, but bears are another.  Although I’m fascinated by all forms of wildlife, the bears most intrigue me because of how we share this yard with each other.  When young ones come along, I typically scare them away.  But the older ones know their boundaries with us and I let them come and go as they will.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

As Atticus Ages, I Find Myself Growing Up A Bit

Lately I've been keeping company during the late hours of each night with May Sarton's "Journal of a Solitude."  I've encountered her poetry for years and whenever I do I appreciate her gift, but her journal is something deeper, more honest and genuine.  The late New Hampshire poet lived down in the Monadnock area and well understood the small towns that dot our state and the land and weather we all know intimately. 
Each night, I read an entry.  I portion it out so that I will not finish the book too quickly.  Each morning, as Atticus and I walk or hike, her words return to me while we pass through the colorful foliage, along earthen paths, by rivers and ponds, to ledges with views more breathtaking than I've ever noticed.  For this certainly has been the best fall foliage I've seen in years.  And just as the colors and the light have been luminous, so are her words.  How fortunate we are to live here, and how fortunate to have poets and writers who understand New Hampshire.  As they reflect this great area and the natural world that surrounds us, Nature reflects who we are as we surrender to her charms.  
There is something in Sarton's journal entries that pierce me.  A stark reality made beautiful.  It's exhibited in the way she sees the trees and her words offer lessons to each of us.  Perhaps lessons we already know, but need a gentle reminder to see clearly once again.  How appropriate she starts off in the fall and notes the changing of the landscape.  Just as we are currently witnessing as we look out the kitchen window, walk the dog, or drive to work.   
As Atticus continues to age I am faced with a new reality. He's twelve now; in the autumn years of his life.  He's not as quick or strong as he once was. His hearing is failing - a bit.  His eyes don't see as clearly as night, nor do they judge depth as accurately either.  But he's still well, still enjoys getting out and about.  If we are not out three times a day he stares at me as I write to remind me we need to be outside.  "Get a move on," I imagine his stern look saying.  "Life is calling."
As Atticus ages, I find myself growing up a bit.  For when dogs are young or in the prime of their lives, we are all children in their company.  But I am learning to accept things that the young may not quite comprehend.  One of them is understanding we won't be returning to nearly any of the highest peaks we've done together.  Not at his age.  And the next time I return to Franconia Ridge or the Bonds or the Presidentials, it will be without him.  Hopefully it will be years down the road.  But still I have been forced to accept the change we all must deal with when those we love turn elderly and cannot get around quite as easily as they once did. 
But amidst the loss, there is a grace to be found.  Look no further than the trees that blaze bright red, orange, and yellow everywhere we look.  May Sarton wrote: "I think of the trees and how simply they let go, let fall the riches of a season, how without grief (it seems) they can let go and go deep into their roots for renewal and sleep."  Then she added: "Is this a key? Keep busy with survival. Imitate the trees. Learn to lose in order to recover, and remember that nothing stays the same for long, not even pain, psychic pain. Sit it out. Let it all pass. Let it go."
It seems that is the lesson we are learning in Atticus's old age.  To let go of the past.  Past expectations.  Past performances on the trails.  We both are older than we were when we started hiking ten years ago, but while I'm middle aged, my four-legged friend is now becoming elderly. 
Acceptance has come in the form of appreciating nature whenever we experience it and wherever we can.  So what if we don't go as high as we used to or traverse for as many miles?  In the White Mountains we are blessed with waterfalls and valleys, ponds that are secreted away where the moose go to play and eat, and rivers both strong and gentle.  The air is clean, the wildlife abounds, and we are still free as we wish to be as we make our way into the forest each time we enter one, leaving the car and the rest of the busy world behind. 
Nature calls to us and we still respond.  Our age doesn't matter.  As we grow older we temper our desires and find new places to embrace and different ways of getting lost in nature in order to get lost in ourselves.   
Nature teaches us what we need to learn.  We merely have to take the time to pause and pay attention.  Right now the trees are reminding me that in the autumn they are at their most beautiful.  Looking to Atticus now as I write this, his eyes are a tad bit cloudier, his muzzle has a touch of gray in it.  Beyond that though, he shines as he always has.  Only this morning, in mountain air clean and cool, he bounced along a trail that traces the Saco River like he was a pup again.  Young and free and happy.
The passage of the seasons is much like the passage of life.  There are lessons to be learned and gifts to received, no matter the time of year. No matter the time of life.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

A Seasonal Meditation

We were out in the dying light late yesterday, and in the new light of this gray New England morning.  We were walking.  Walking and thinking and reflecting.  I do some of my best writing this way.
Steve Smith, the author of several White Mountain guide books and a friend of ours, takes copious notes when out on a trail.  A section of his home is devoted to decades of tiny notebooks filled with his scratched observations.  We once compared writing habits and he was surprised that I do not take notes on a hike.  Instead I walk with Atticus and Nature and a theme is delivered to me. I ruminate on it and allow myself to actually feel it.  I bring that gift home with me to my writing table.  That's how it is when we hike, and now when we are hiking less and walking more.  This is how I write. 
Recently, while corresponding with a friend, I shared some experiences Atticus and I are going through that are new for us.  We have been discussing the aging process and how I notice signs that things are different for my friend.  As he ages we change the way we do certain things.  We grow together, even as he gets older.  So while his physical limitations accrue, so do the gifts of the experience of this friendship and shared love and life. 
I've come to realize that most of the mountains we've come to know intimately - the mountains who have helped shape our identity and this bond - will never see the two of us together again.  There will come a day when I return to them, but Atticus won't be with me. 
Fortunately, there is so much more he and I share than just our love of mountains.  We still enjoy our walks; our visits with the cool running waters of streams, brooks, and rivers; sitting on the side of a trail to catch our breath and let the setting of Nature catch up to us; and just being at one with Nature, or in our little home.  Atticus is supportive of Will by being understanding and patient.  But where Atticus thrives is when it's just the two of us out on an adventure either big or small.  Away from man made noise, and wrapped in the sounds of sighing trees, birds singing, chipmunks chirping, the grumble of bears we sometimes encounter, and of course, the rustling of leaves overhead and now underfoot as they fall from the trees.
Old age delivers lessons for us to learn together.  It's one thing to take in an aged Will at fifteen; it's entirely different to pay attention as Atticus ages before my eyes.  It's a process and together we handle it as a team.  I prefer to consider it a new mountain range to traverse.  

Walking through corridors of colored trees and watching a handful drift carelessly down upon us, spiraling to a quiet resting place to create new life in coming years; it’s easy to think of the passage of time. Of life and death.  There will come a day Atticus will die.  There will come a time when I do as well.  It’s something none of us can escape.  I learned this at an early age and I tend not to obsess about it, although I understand most other people do.  For some reason I do not fear death.  The adventurer in me thinks of it as a mysterious new beginning.

This was my contemplation while enjoying the glory of leaves as we strolled along the solitude of a country road, the only sound being the three crows who were following us from tree to tree and calling out their pleasantries or obscenities.  In the autumn we get a great lesson of how graceful that passage from life to death can be.  It's natural.   
When we returned home this morning I responded to a friend’s letter and wrote something I’ll share here with you as well. 
"Those we love, after all, are never really gone.  We may not be able to touch them any longer, but they can touch us and most likely always will." 
But death will have to wait, for today we live.  I don't mind visiting with it in my thoughts now and again, but these are the days for living.  I know that by the way Will is doing his best to jump up on me as I bring food to his dish.  He doesn't get very far off the ground with those two front paws.  He's more like a wind-up toy.  Yet his exuberance makes up for what his physical abilities lack.

So it's onward we go.  Onward, by all means.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Renewing Vows

My dearest friend,

I fell in love again today.

I read your latest letter and took it with us into the woods where it warmed me from the autumn chill.  As I walked with Atticus, you were with us as well, for I know you’d be just as enchanted by where the forest took us.  It was a different trail, one I never knew existed.  We strolled through the fading greenery and met with maples half red, looking like last night’s woodland elves didn’t finish painting them.  The path moved gently up and down, like a children’s rollercoaster and we rode it happily – deeper away from the unnatural noise we live into and into the natural world we thrive in. 

Atticus was young again, happy to be trotting with me through a realm cool and fragrant.  Pine cones here.  A few fallen leaves there.  Slick roots.  Boulders split in two allowing our passage.  Cool earth underfoot.  The air was clean and sweet enough to drink.  We stopped more often than Atticus wanted to, which is a nice change from what he experienced in the warmer more humid months.  We stopped so I could sit and look about us to see things we might miss if we were moving as we had been. 

With each pleasant break, I looked into Atticus’s eyes and he into mine.  I measured his age, thought about how just thirty minutes before he was having trouble on a linoleum floor, but once back in the forest he was moving as I hadn’t seen since early last spring.  Rolling along an undulating trail, that turned here and there to some mysterious place awaiting us, before we left that behind as well to move forward, ever onward. 

I thought about a repeated comment many who have lost the friendship of a dog have posted regularly on our Facebook page in regards to Will: “Treasure every moment.”  Whenever I read it I understand it’s more about their grief than anything else, but I also look at Will and Atticus and everyone else I love, you included, and say to myself, “Why wouldn’t I treasure every moment?  I always have since starting this new life.”  To me it’s only natural to always embrace and exhibit gratitude.

What made today even more special was discovering this new place to walk.  We had the sun dappled forest, the singing birds, sighing trees, and mountain breeze to keep us company, but that was it.  Other than my thoughts.  Watching Atticus move along I laughed aloud a couple of times and said what I often say in the woods, “I love this place.  God, how I love this life!”  Call it a simple exclamation or yet another prayer.  Either way works. 

I know Atticus and I will never return to most of the places that drew us here in the first place but to find our own hundred acre wood to rally through without a care in the world brought out the best in both of us.  I was breathing happiness.  At times we jogged up a slight rise, around a seductive bend, and when we came to an especially beguiling splash of red in all that green I stopped to take it in.   It wouldn’t have been right not to pause and take it in.

Falling in love again . . . I owe that to the forest and the lower reaches of the mountains.  To walk through the trees as we did today was reminder of what we treasure.  A fresh feeling in the midst of the familiar.  I felt as excited as a child and I wouldn’t have been able to speak even if you had been here because I was breathless, not with work but through beauty.  It’s the sixth sense that works for me.  It always has.  We can see, touch, taste, hear, and smell, but what matters most to me is how I feel when with a person or a place.  Today’s gift was a reminder of love, a renewing of the vows – to love and to cherish until death do us part.  Such is the ecstasy of walking through a new mystery and realizing that there are miles and miles to go that will both remind us of another special time, but also teach us again that each new day in the natural world is an adventure if we simply appreciate it. 

As I notice visible signs of Atticus aging, my challenge now is not to pay as much attention to what we can no longer do, but to the gifts still within our grasp.  Time spent in the forest where our bodies are free and filled with life are one of them.    

Today I fell in love again, and I knew you’d understand deep in your pilgrim soul.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Sharing the World with Will

As the sun was setting and dusk draped itself over the Village of Jackson yesterday, Atticus and I took Will out for a walk.  Well, technically, Will rode while we walked. 

The Will Wagon has proven to be indispensable for us since it gives Will a freedom to get out and about.  It’s always been important to me that he doesn’t stay a shut in.  That he gets to enjoy the things we all enjoy: fresh air, the wind in our faces, the smells, textures, tastes, sights (as limited as they may be), and social interaction. 

Will is mostly happy sleeping much of the day away, he, like all of us, likes to get out and do things, even If he can’t do many things. 

I was laughing as we walked along the road with Atticus in the lead; Will stuck his head out of the unzipped portion of the Will Wagon on the left hand side to better watch Atticus and the world pass.  His pointed ears, looking not unlike a silhouette of Batman, and his head off to the side, looking like an engineer in an old locomotive.  He rides contented along.

I had a rare thought of my mother.  I don’t think about her much because I don’t remember much.  She died so long ago.  I was seven.  What does come to mind is an occasional drifting memory.  She had Multiple Sclerosis by the time I came along, the ninth of nine children.  She wore heavy braces on her legs and made her way around the house on crutches, the metal ones that wrap around your forearms and offer up a soft clank each time they are planted.  After she died the crutches stayed behind and in my high school years they became my constant companions.  I had problems with my legs and most of the time there were either casts or immobilizers on my left leg and I’d hop around with great dexterity on those same crutches that gave her freedom to move in our house.  At one point, in the summer before my senior year of high school, I started doing four mile loops with them through the Medway late day summer air.  I was determined not to be held back and to be able to get out into the world and away from the house on my own.

But outside, Isabel Shea Ryan needed a wheelchair if we went anywhere.  And my father did a great job of making sure we went plenty of places.  What a sight it was, Isabel in a wheelchair, often with my father pushing her, followed by nine kids.  Trips to a restaurant.  Shopping.  Even up to the White Mountains on vacation. 

So last night I thought about how we used to take turns pushing my mother around as I pushed Will around.  The concept is the same, to not let those we care about be shut up inside and isolated from the world because of a physical limitation. 

When I push Will, Atticus does his own things, gets his own stimulation.  He leads the way, or floats behind.  He likes it better when it’s just the two of us and we have more freedom, but he’s patient and kind when Will is with us. 

We stop often, so that Will can experience things we take for granted most of the time.  The rumble of the covered bridge when cars pass through it, or the smell of the aged wood.  A patch of wild flowers.  Visits in the front yard with Kevin and Michelle at Flossie’s General Store.  At the town park I take Will out and let him trundle unevenly along, circling and hopping.  At first he hangs around me, a little tussling and wrestling between us, and then he gets bolder and starts to investigate what’s around.  I let him go for quite a distance to give him his freedom.  Every now and then I redirect him or bring him back to where we are and he starts out again. 

Then there’s the soft lapping current of the Wildcat River.  Atticus drinks from it on our walks but I carry Will across the rounded rocks that are difficult for him to negotiate and I help him stand in the river.  I think of the elderly I used to care for during a short chapter in my life and how much they would have loved to feel wild waters made soft by the miles they have travelled, fresh and cool, swirling around their feet on a summer night. 

From our home, the loop we do is 1.4 miles, and we pass by a few inns, some restaurants, the post office, and Carrie’s Dutch Bloemen Winkel.  In the early morning, the promise of a day is dawning and all looks optimistic in the soft, golden light.  At the end of the day it feels differently.  Lights slowly come on like the stars coming out above us.  I think of what it must feel like to Will as we roll along to see the change in the lighting, to feel the textures his wheels pass over, to feel the coming night.

As we rumbled across the old Stone Bridge last night, we waited for Atticus, who was sniffing some wild roses.  I took Will out again and held him in my arms. We both looked down on the water and followed the current through a corridor of darkening trees until it disappeared in the distance.  Even then I tried to imagine the sensations he might be feeling.

While approaching home, on the last stretch by the golf course, two locals called out to us and we crossed the road and stood on one of the greens chatting with them.  Atticus said his hellos and they greeted Will, who they’d never met.  I took him out and let him bounce around the spongy putting green and it gave him a chance to pick up speed and enjoy his freedom.  I chased him down and carried him back to where we all were.  That’s when Will had the opportunity to feel another sensation.  Being held by the woman we were chatting with.  She squeezed him in her arms and he graciously accepted it.  He sat snuggled, his face against her cheek, watching me, inhaling her soft scent.

While the three of us talked, Atticus watched and sat while we stood, and Will was cradled for several minutes before he wanted to get down and bounce on the green again. 

By the time we arrived home, the stars were out completely.  I had my headlamp on and a pair of glowing eyes looked our way from the back of the property.

“Hello,” I said to the passing bear, before the three of us went upstairs and left him sniffing Will’s wild flower garden.  As soon as we got inside Will took a drink, then found his way into the bedroom and went to sleep.  The ride to touch his senses capped off a full day. 

I’m not Will but I do my best to recognize him by putting myself in his place.  He’s elderly and highly dependent on me, but he leads a pretty cool life.  I know I’ll most likely not live as long as he is going to.  Most of us won’t.  But I think of myself as an old man and I consider what I’d want if I was in his place.  Time to time I come up with new ideas about what to share with him, but mostly, I know what he appreciates is a place to belong, someone to belong with who cares for him, and allows him to be who he is.  Although I take care of Will, I avoid many of the endearing terms some like to use with animals, just because, while cute, they minimize, they put animals below us.  That’s not my intent with Will.  I like the idea of honoring his life.  Of treating him as I would any elderly individual.

When I worked in that nursing home with many long-forgotten people, I would sit quietly with them and ask, “Would you tell me your story?  Tell me about what makes you happy?  Who you miss and who you love and what you want to do today?

In his own way, by the responses he gives me, elderly Will, ancient in so many ways, tells me his story and I do my best to honor it. 

Will has his limitations.  We all do.  But I look at him and see he’s more alive than many people I know who are supposedly in the prime of their lives.  We start the day by me carrying him downstairs.  We end it by me pulling a blanket up over his body as he lies softly snoring.  In between, he lives.  We live.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Walking with Jack Ryan

My father loved words, and he loved books.
Whenever he found one he didn’t know he looked it up in the dictionary, then pulled out encyclopedias, and even Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. 
He was a well-read man.  In his early years he had high hopes and big dreams for someone who was Boston Irish and whose father was a milkman, delivering to many of the ramshackle neighborhoods of Boston in a horse drawn carriage.  But that humble beginning was not about to hold my father back. He dreamed of being a Harvard man, or, at the least, a Boston College graduate. 
He was neither.
After the war, he went to school at Northeastern but never received a degree. He and my mother were busy pumping out children, and he needed to work.  He took a job with Bell Telephone and stayed with them for more than thirty years.  He climbed the corporate ladder, about as far as anyone could who started out as a pole climber without a degree.  Then his back went out.  After that, he was retired in his fifties.
As he aged he continued to read, and I can remember him sitting in his recliner with a pile of library books nearby.  He no longer read the classics.  Or even much literature.  Mostly it was mysteries in the years I knew him.  He was a Robert Parker fan.    
One day I came home from school, and he had tacked something on the small bulletin board in our kitchen/dining room. It was a typed piece of paper with the names of various flocks of birds.  He was thrilled to have discovered that a flock of crows was called a “murder." 
It’s ironic that as much as he loved to read, I hated the idea of it. It reminded me too much of him.  With his temper and its ability to erupt at the slightest provocation, I wanted something more.  Something not Jack Ryan.  Here I am at fifty-three, a few years younger than he was when he was forced to retire, bemoaning that I picked up reading as late as I did in life, and hoping I’ll grow old so I can continue to read as much as I want. 
I was thirty when I thought myself dumb and uncultured so I decided I would read a classic a week.  Moby Dick was the first on my list. I finished three months later and had to force myself to do so.  Reading became easier after that, and more enjoyable.  From the classics I discovered the likes of Richard Bach, John Irving, and Tom Robbins.  I was off and reading!
Yesterday morning, while Atticus and I wove through the warming woods along a path carpeted with red pine needles, through a glen of cathedral pines, I first heard and then saw a great commotion in the branches ahead of us and up above. The largest flock of blue jays I’d ever seen were calling out to each other to announce our trespassing.  They’d hop from branch to branch, took short flights to other trees in the lofty neighborhood, sometimes swooping down into the air and then rising into a higher location on another tree.  They made their various calls to each other.
Atticus and I stopped for a moment. He sat, and I squatted and soon the blue jays returned to what they were doing before they arrived, all the while keeping their eyes on us. 
Were my father still alive and in the woods with us he would have whispered to me, “They’re called a ‘party’ or a ‘band’ of blue jays.” I would have acted like I didn’t know, like I’d never read the thumbtacked piece of paper he posted in our old nicotine-stained kitchen. 
“That’s neat,” I’d say.
He would be pleased with himself for teaching me something new.  And as we talked in hushed whispers Atticus would have turned his head back and forth between us, following the conversation as if it were a tennis ball in a match. 
I think of Jack quite often, but I don’t miss him.  How can I when I carry the best parts with me and act many of them out on a daily basis?
I’m not oblivious to the distant father, the one who beat us, who berated and demeaned us at his worst.  Nor do I care to invest much in the man who seemed to wish he didn’t have children as he aged in the years after my mother died.  I’m aware of that man, but choose to see the other parts of him, the better parts.  These are the portions of him he lost along the way – the dreamer, adventurer, the bright man with the capacity for wonder.  These are the parts I prefer to live with.
He would love this life we’re leading.
At first he would have been ticked off by our taking in Will, but eventually he would have recognized that in their old age, battered, disappointed, and frustrated by what life could have been, he and Will were indeed confederates. 
Although we always had dogs and cats, gerbils and parakeets, rabbits, and rats, he never warmed to them. They were simply there and something else to take care of.
But I can remember when I brought home Max and one of my nieces, who was somewhat hyperactive at the time, kept getting in his face. She finally cornered him beneath the table cloth during one holiday and came out crying because Max had bitten her in the head. It wasn’t a bad wound. She was more frightened than anything else. When the report came to my father, I’m sure he hurt my sister’s feelings when he said, “Max bit her? Good!  She deserved it.” 
From that moment on he looked at Max more kindly.  (By the way, it was the only time Max ever bit anyone in the year and a half he lived with me.)
By the time, Atticus came around, and we’d visit my dad during Red Sox or Patriots’ games, Jack would look at Atticus, his thoughtful and quiet ways of following our conversations – during commercials only, because that’s when we’d talk – and he’d say, “He’s different. So quiet. He acts like he’s listening to us.
Just after Atticus came into my life, one of my brothers bought a puppy.  My father wasn’t much of a fan of “Duggan.”  He’d mutter about him, turn to Atticus and say, “Thank you.”  In response Atticus would sit silently raising a single eyebrow to Jack. 
“For what?” I asked him. 
“For being Atticus." 
This visit had taken place right after another visit from Duggan.  One the day Duggan was there, Jack grunted and rose with great effort out of his worn recliner on his way to the bathroom, and another can of iced tea, only to find Duggan standing on the kitchen table.  My father was not a gentle man, especially to repeat offenders.  He told me that Duggan “learned to fly that day.”    
Here in Jackson, Jack would love the crows that visit in the early morning. He’d drink his tea with them and watch the finches come and go.  (And he’d say, “They’re called a “charm” of finches.”  And I would say, “I didn’t know that.”)  He’d be stunned by the bears.  First at the wonder of them, then their ease.  He would include them in his letters to wartime friends, his brothers and sisters, and my sister-in-law, Yvette, his favorite pen pal.
Like us, he would have no use for the heat of summer, and he’d drink his iced tea throughout the hottest months. 
When I think of him when we are walking on the trails, he is my age and doesn’t seem so much like a father, but more a friend.  He was not a huge hiker.  With up to nine kids in tow, depending on the year and our ages, we mostly did the White Mountain tourist loop. He was a windshield tourist, but we always made time to walk small trails and sit by the crystal streams.
I think that was his idea of heaven.  Sitting by a stream, watching the sun bounce diamonds off the current as it flowed over the rocks.
After he had died, I became close to his last remaining sister, Marijane.  She lived in Arizona, and we emailed and spoke very often. We became great friends.  She taught me a lot I didn’t know about father.  I returned the favor by teaching her a great deal she didn’t know about her brother. 

As a gift to him, even though he was dead, I flew Marijane out to travel a few stops on the Following Atticus book tour with Atticus and me when the hardcover was launched.  We talked mostly about Jack, how he would have loved every bit of this journey. 

He and I are so very different.  In other ways, in the ways of reading and nature we are very similar.  In our love of words and books we are twins, except I am so far behind in my reading I don’t spend much time with mysteries.  I read literature and the classics.  I still read poetry, something he stopped when he was young, but never stopped appreciating. 

A couple of years before he died, right after a Red Sox game ended and Atticus and I were heading back to Newburyport, eighty miles away, he said, “You’ll do alright.”

“With what?”

“When I die.  Out of all my kids you’ll do the best.  I’ve always made fun of the way you are expressive, sentimental, and all that.  But you’ll do well because you don’t hold back. You won’t have the regrets.”

And Jack is right.  I don’t.  There are things he could have done better, and things I could have handled in a different manner.  But I don’t miss him.  I love him and carry him with me. 

I don’t mourn death.  Perhaps that’s a byproduct of my mother dying when I was seven.  I don’t know.  I used to struggle with goodbyes, but that doesn’t happen as much anymore.  Since I have chosen a simpler life, I do my best to pay attention to what’s here and what’s now.  And who is here. 

In many ways, Jack’s still here, as we walk through the woods and up mountains and along streams.  The White Mountains were vacationland for him, and he’d love every bit of it.  Something he’d like even more – although he wouldn’t admit to it – is that I’m telling you about him now.