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, April 17, 2014

Since We Cannot Bring the Mountain to Will, We're Bringing Will to the Mountain

The snow is nearly gone in the valleys.  Rivers are running high.  Each day the sun climbs higher in the sky and day grows as night wanes.  Spring has arrived. 

The season of growth and eventual verdant growth is always a hopeful time for us.  We are rewarded for what we endured in winter and then can look forward to clear sailing.  The snow shovels, snow tires, and rock salt are put away.  Out comes the rakes, sunscreen, and pale skin. 

Each year it is the same. 

But this year there’s something a little different about this spring in Jackson.  When May 7 comes around, it will mark the two year anniversary of Will coming to the White Mountains after fifteen years in New Jersey.  I did not expect much of Will back then, especially not after meeting him. He was fifteen, neglected, and in poor health.  He could see, but not well; couldn’t hear anything; and wore his anger, resentment, and nearly feral ways of being dropped off at a kill shelter on his sleeve. 

I gave him two months, maybe three.  More importantly we were giving him a place to die with dignity.  But here it is two years later, and his gate is not as lopsided, his mood is pleasant – even happy.  Whatever problems he had are mostly in the past.  In spite of all of this, he still can’t walk very far.  Now that the weather allows it, we play in the backyard but there are now walks.  This is completely different from Atticus, who is not a big fan of playing but couldn’t live without his hikes and walks. 

As May moves further along and roads closed for the winter are open again, we’ll be taking advantage of increased access to do something special with Will.  Along with some friends, I’ll be pushing Will in his stroller (affectionately known at the Will Wagon) up an access road, then he will be carried to the summit of a mountain.  The whole adventure will be captured by Willem Lange and his team at Windows to the Wild on New Hampshire Public Television. 

A question I am often asked is why I would want to do this.  Why bring a deaf, mostly blind, seventeen year old dog who cannot walk very far to the top of a mountain?  It has to do with my past.  I grew up with a mother in a wheelchair, and her Multiple Sclerosis did not keep my father from getting the entire family out as much as he could.  We came north to the White Mountains and headed south to Cape Cod.  We did all kinds of activities with that wheelchair crammed into the station wagon with a car load of kids. Later in life I worked with mentally and physically disabled children, and then elderly – most of whom had been long forgotten. 

This is what I learned.  Life does not stop because you cannot walk, because you possibly drool on yourself or have to wear a diaper.  Nor does it end when your hearing and eyesight fail you.  Your senses are always alive, always willing to be stimulated.  No matter what we are missing, we (and I am talking both human animals and non-human animals here) still have the ability to feel! 

It could be a breeze, water, the earth, a rock, or wonderment, excitement, adventure, and love. 

When Will first came to live with us, before I knew how bad off he was, I was hoping Atticus and I could get him up a mountain.  Then, when we met, I knew it probably wouldn’t happen.  But months passed and not only did he not die, his health improved.   He enjoyed being outside with wildflowers or in the shade of the backyard grass, in the early evening.  As the months stretched on, and the seasons changed, Will did, as well.  His past no longer mattered as much, and we then were able to live in the present. 

One of the things I’ve most lived from the animals I’ve known is that they are not very different from you and me.  They like to be happy.  They want to be safe.  They want to be comfortable.  And they do not want to suffer, nor do they want to die.  They want to live!
So six months after Will came to us a shell of a soul, with the help of a friend, I pushed Will up an access road, and then we carried him to the top, all the while following Atticus.

The most remarkable thing happened.  Will couldn’t do too much, and as far as I know he couldn’t see very much, but when I let him sit in the crook of my elbow as I often do with Atticus on a mountaintop, Will leaned toward me and did something he’d never done before.  I felt the softness of his small pink tongue against my cheek. Then his head relaxed, he let it rest against mine, and he sighed. 

Other than giving Will a safe place to live in good food, medicine, dignity, kindness, growing love, and consideration, I do not think anything impacted him as much as that day on the mountain did.  There was a noticeable difference after that day.  He was even happier, more interactive with Atticus and me; he wanted to play more.  When I walked toward the door, he now followed whereas, in the past he didn’t seem to care. 

So why climb a mountain with a seventeen year old dog?  Because he is not unlike you and me.  We are all tied to nature.  There's a feel that comes from being on a beach by the ocean and it's different from being in a city park, in a desert, or high atop of a green mountain.  Nature heals and it does this by the way it infuses our senses and makes us feel.  That's the general answer.  As for the "Will answer" - he clearly wants to live, and living doesn’t mean just sleeping the hours away in one of his beds chasing after fleeting patches of shifting sunlight.  Loving someone, anyone – whether they have two legs or four, means being present, paying attention to what stirs them, and investing in what makes them happy.

When night falls after the upcoming hike Will is going to sleep very well.  But in the hours before then Willem Lange and his great crew send Will’s message out throughout New England when the shows air next fall.  Old age is not a disease; and it’s never too late to trust again; to love or be loved again, and it’s never too late to live again.”

Will's first trip to a mountaintop.