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.

Monday, January 27, 2014

A Will Update: He's Gotten Off of the Seesaw

Will with the drawing New Hampshire
artist Chris Garby made and sent to us.
The seesaw gait is gone.  When Will walks he no longer rocks up and down like a broken slinky.  Instead, he moves forward.  There’s a fluidity to it that speaks of younger days. 

When we play Will buries his head in me. I tussle his hair a bit, give him gentle shoves, he shoves back, and he gives as good as he gets.  He then spins away, always to his left, bounds up as high as his hips will allow him – like a drunken bucking bronco, which means it isn’t too high – then returns to push in on me again.  I tug him closer and wrestle with him; he nuzzles me with his nose, his once angry mouth, which once-hungered for flesh and blood, still snaps but it is a soft playful snap aimed away from me and without malice.  It’s as though he’s learned to play again and taught himself not to bite.

His journey away from anger is not unlike my own, and I often recall my Aeschylus: “Tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”  That’s one thing Will and I share.  We’ve both tamed our “savageness” and in our own way made “gentle the life of this world”. 

This past weekend dear friends came north, and we enjoyed a long visit with them.  They had the opportunity to see what Will was like the first few weeks he lived with Atticus and me, and they even took care of him one night when Atticus and I were out.  He terrorized them with his temper tantrums. 

They’ve seen Will since then, but not all that often.  Now it’s months between visits – at least – and they see the changes that have taken place in the seventeen year old who wasn’t supposed to live this long.  Several months ago one of their children asked, “Are you sure that’s the same dog?” 

He isn’t. 

That was several chapters ago.  Will’s been writing a new conclusion to his life.  It falls under the category of a fairytale endings. 

Will was given a chance when we took him in.  Atticus and I surrounded him with peace, good food, compassion, empathy, and medication when he needed it.  He’s taken advantage of those footholds to save himself – with a little help from his friends.

I know the term “rescue” is big with some people, but I differ from many others in that I try not to look at how people and animals differ, but what they have in common. 

I know there were times in my life when I needed rescuing, and no one could do it for me.  It had to be an inside job.  Ask any of your friends who are in recovery.  You cannot rescue anyone.  What you can do is offer them an anchor.  “I’ll hold this end, drop the rope down into the abyss you are mired in, and I won’t let go as you pull yourself up.” 

I find the term “rescue” to be almost self-congratulatory and takes credit away from where it is due.  As I see it, Will rescued himself.  Atticus and I helped him along the way, gave him the anchor to a good life if he chose to take advantage of it, picked him up when he stumbled, and urged him forward.  But just like you and me he had to make up his own mind.

Yes, there have been many factors that conspired to help him along the way, but whenever Will arrived at a set of crossroads, the choice was always his.  That’s part of what makes his story unforgettable.  It is his story with his choices and his redemption.

I do believe in the osmotic effect of love.  I believe in prayers and good wishes and the scents of flowers, the vibrations of life-affirming music, and the softness in the fabrics I wrap his easily chilled body in. 

Recently someone mentioned that Will has received quilts, Afghans, and prayer shawls from all numerous people.  I like that these were made with caring hands fueled with loving intent.  He seems to enjoy each and every one of them.  I rotate them.  Some out of need, because he still has accidents and urinates on himself or falls in his own feces and things get messy, and floors, blankets, and carpets (not to mention Will himself) have to be washed, but even if that wasn’t the case, I like to imagine he feels the healing love that went into making these lovely garments as they are gently draped over his body.

Will, like all of us, needs help every now and again.  But I never tell myself or rob him of his dignity by referring to him as a “baby”.  Instead, I equate him to the elderly people I used to work with in the nursing home.  He deserves the same respect I offered elders who have endured much.  But in Will’s case, he has survived more than just years, he survived years of neglect and the way I see it, neglect is just another form of abuse. 

After surviving the terrors of a Nazi POW camp, Viktor Frankl wrote and spoke for decades about the choices he had to make and those that Will was confronted with: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Since I chose to see animals in the same light as I view humans, Frankl’s words work well for Will, and any other human or non-human animal that has been robbed of dignity.  This is one of the reasons dignity has been as much a part of Will’s rehab as have been the Metacam, Dasuquin, massages, and gentle stretches.  All of these have contributed to help Will recapture some of his life and because of that his seesaw gait is gone…as are nearly all the rest of the ups and downs he has wrestled with.   


Samantha said...

Yay WILL!!!!!

Yay ATTICUS!!!!!

Yay TOM...for recognizing that you have helped but Will deserves credit for his own rescue!!!!!

Unknown said...

Beautiful love story.

Anonymous said...

You always make me think. I know refer to Yukon by his name instead of as "my dog" now because of you. I don't use words like master and owner because of you. Now I am rethinking the term rescue. Thank you for keeping it fresh.

Lisa said...

Oh, Will.... :)

Cheryl said...

Tom, you brought the floor up to meet Will's feet, gave him firm ground to stand on and the love and respect he needed, all with choices. The combination of all the joyful puzzle pieces of recovery that you provided....used by Will in the freedom to be himself, is now shining from within. You are all a blessing to one another....AND TO US.

JulieR said...

Such a heart-felt story of love and dignity. Thank you for sharing it.

Vicki said...

Will has much in common with Darcy, the rescue that now resides with me. He had to learn every nuance of what life has to offer since he came here from the madness that threatened to consume him entirely. Darcy has been here with me since 2011, just turned 4 in December. We have playtime in the bed, that is his comfort zone, so that is what I have adapted to, I adapt to his limits, not vice versa. I understand the mentality as I have rescued several animals over the years and all I have taken into my home were rescues. Darcy lived his entire existence in this "place" in a 2 & 1/2 ft. X 2 & 1/2 ft. X 20 & 1/2 inch wire cage with wire bottom. Anyway he is learning to trust again and how life should be not as it was before coming here. He still has his moments when I move too quickly or something else triggers the PTSD and he will cow down and urinate on himself, but becoming less frequent and I have learned when entering a room to slow my pace and give him time to adjust to my entrance. He has taught me and continues to teach me to appreciate the little things in life and just to slow down and "live". Thanks for allowing all of us to have a glimpse into your,as well as,Will and Atticus's world.

Vicki N Darcy

Unknown said...

Tom, I thank you...thank you...thank you so much for taking your time to share your lessons learned, your tender emotions and your increasing wisdom with all of us.

I look forward to all of your postings and carry you, Atticus & Will in my head and heart throughout every day.

My work is with horses and their people. Sometimes this can be extremely challenging for many reasons. Your thoughts and philosophies follow closely with mine and at times. It is greatly comforting.

Thank you again.

Linda Black
McNeal Arizona

Shirley said...

Thank you so for posting this. I too have changed my relationship with my dogs. They don't belong to me, they are my friend, who just happen to live with me.. I have learned so from your interactions with Atticus and Will. Thank you...

Kelly Woods Lynch said...

Tom, thank you so much for this update! It's wonderful in so many ways. Kudos to Will for not giving up, and engaging with what you and Atticus have so generously offered him in terms of love and support. It never ceases to astound me the amazing difference a helping hand extended in kindness can make ... and I try so hard to remember this in my daily choices and actions. Thank you for the reaffirmation.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

Another amazing, touching read about the life of Will, and how he truly found life again in his elderly years. This story so reminds me of the characters I met when I signed my dad into a nursing home as a resident. I fought to maintain his dignity, just like you have fought and invited Will in to find love and acceptance again. Now, he dances and prances his graceful dance of happiness, all to the credit of a little lost soul who just wanted to live. No doubt, you have assisted in the gift of his life. Without you and your acceptance, Sweet Will would not be able to dance his happy dance. Bless you for all that you do, and thank you for sharing your stories with us. You are an inspiration. I share your stories with my friends, my special animals. Bless you!

Unknown said...

Thank you Tom for the wonderful Will update. You & Atti opened your home and your heart to this lost soul. I think the love & respect Will feels is the most healing medicine he gets. You are all in my prayers & I give thanks for my friends in NH. Stay warm :)

Carter W Rae said...

Always enjoying hearing about your progress and the victories of spirit..Really do not have the words to tell you Tom about how much these little shared moments are enjoyed ...This is not only about our little companions but how wonderful it would be if all of us on this planet would do the same extension of love, respect and kindness.. It is obvious that this relationship for you and Will and of course all of us who Follow Atticus with you are elevated by these tender moments Thank you Tom from Stacy and Carter (and pack) stay warm and safe over there

lou said...

Thank you Tom, I am at aw of the great knowledge you have and share. So love Will and Atticus they are so fortunate for you and you for them. So glad Will is making this wonderful progress. I hug my schnauzers a little closer!

Unknown said...

Wonderful! We need a video of that! What a guy! Onward!!

Laura D. said...

We all post comments about loving Will and Atticus, which I do, but I love Tom too for caring and treating them as he does. What a gentle soul Tom exhibits with such a caring touch. Makes me feel warm reading his stories. Thank you.

Grace Unfolding said...

Will... you have chosen to allow currents of grace to surround you and fill you... take good care.

Julie's Journey said...

My day is complete. A Will story. Thank you.

Karen Marginson said...

Your post reminds me of this two-verse Shaker song, written by Joseph Brackett (1797–1882) in 1848. It has been in my head since I first heard Judy Collins sing it in the early 1970s. The cover by Jewel (see link below)would make a lovely lullaby for Will. It is my gift to him and to you and Atticus for your wonderful book and blog.

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained, To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come 'round right.

Deb said...

I love Will stories, and Willabys and all things Will. As well as Tom and Atticus. Last week my Will coffee mug and Will tshirts arrived - daily reminders of this wonderful, precious soul and the wonderful and precious family that surround him. God bless you all.

WendyandBug said...

As much as I am deeply blessed to very much like my job and have a beautiful work place, you have no idea how delicious it is to take a break to hear your thoughts or check in with the latest on the NH 3.

I agree that rescue is a loaded, too self-congratulatory term. I try not to use it with our dog, though it is a cultural shorthand that I'll sometimes pull out if we're in a rushed conversation with a cashier. But I do feel that words matter.

I also feel that the people who went to great lengths, expense & sacrifice to catch our dog (and so many others they've helped), thus saving her at the 9th hour from starvation, treating her heartworm, and so on were rescuers and did rescue her. The noun and verb usage there seems valid to me. But she was once rescued; she is not now "a rescue." She's her own absolutely unique being.

Writer Vicki Hearne wrote in defense of calling a dog "my dog", seeing it like "my daughter" or "my boyfriend"-- or from the dog's perspective, perhaps, the concept of "my humans" (our cat, particularly, seems to operate from that place). I could go either way.

The wonderful canine soul who lives with us now is certainly my friend but that she did not get to choose us makes me hesitant to speak for her on that front and say OUR relationship is one of friends. That the title "friend" be reflective of a mutual choosing on both sides is important to me. She arrived flown in in a cargo load of dogs, already spoken for by us. In the past I have most often let the dog choose me, and it's been remarkable how even young puppies have distinct leanings. As a child in the 1970's, I used to hang around a pack of free-roaming dogs who would come and visit me after school almost every day. In those cases, mutual selection on both sides, I felt completely comfortable applying the friend title.

Once again, your thoughts and writings are much appreciated and I look forward to more of them each day.

Unknown said...

Tom, your gentle touch and soothing Voice has helped Will.Atticus and Will are very lucky to have you in their life.

Cherie said...

I cannot begin to tell you how you enrich our lives with your telling of your family's story. I will often pick up the phone and call my elderly parents and read the day's offering to them (after having read your book to them aloud when it first came out). What they always ask is, "When is the next book coming?".

Mother is a published author and she loves your writing style (high praise indeed). So...when can we expect the next bound copy of the sequel to "Following Atticus"?

Anonymous said...

Thank you Tom & Atticus for giving Will a loving, caring home for him to make his choices.

You are awesome Will!!

Anonymous said...

A delightful read. Succinct, well-crafted and very perceptive.


Betty and Lenny said...

Hi Tom,

Lenny and I have a favorite place at the park ... the swings. In our opinion, after all his hard work, Will is on an upward swing and soaring until his paws touch the sky!

Wishes for peaceful days always.

Hugs from here to there.

Anonymous said...

I'd heard of this wonderful couple...a man and his dog, for quite some time now. I have a great friend, Winston, who looks similar to Atticus, so people assumed I read the book. It's been years of off and on curiosity, when I saw your Facebook page I decided to "like" it, just to see what all the fuss was about. I don't read much. (one eye blinded in a foggy manor makes it difficult) However, I decided I would like to listen to the book and bought the CD. I won't go on and on, but I do wish to THANK YOU. I've laughed out loud, I've cried and I've felt so "at home" in your book - well, I just can't explain it.
I'm turning 62 soon, Winston just turned 9 and I have the good fortune to live in these glorious White Mts. We've talked about getting out into our woods more and I wish to thank you also, for the push we needed.
We may never do the 48 or even any of the 4,000 footers, but thanks to you and Atticus, we will walk in the woods - finding ourselves, once again.

Pam Hicks said...

Fantastic news!

Ocean Breezes and Country Sneezes said...

I can't help but see a youthful and loving look on Will's face in your photo. Congrats to the both of you - you for showing Will a better life & to Will for trusting you and for being willing to make the change in his life.

Anonymous said...


I just finished reading following atticus. I hope one day to have a friendship as special as the two of you do.

- Jen