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.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

It's May 6, Will Day

It is a pleasant day here in the White Mountains.  The sky is muted, the temperature cool, but there is a breeze that carries with it the song of spring.  That song is one of hope.  It’s of new beginnings.  That’s the way of the physical world.  It’s always changing, yet coming around again.  Weeks into months, months into seasons, and seasons unfurl to stitch together years. 

When it comes to animals, human and non-human alike, we have a limited number of springs, a limited number of years, before it’s time to say goodbye to our bodies.  But while we are all here, a new season can begin at any time.  We can change direction on a dime, make a choice to live differently, and, of course, fate is always sitting out there, just beyond eyesight and behind the next tree ready to unveil whatever challenge or gift (they can be the same) we will come face-to-face with. 

Much of what defines our lives are the choices we make.  Sure, life can throw anything imaginable at us, but we have a choice of how to handle it.  Goodness knows it can be tough.  It can seem near impossible.  There are days we have to remind ourselves to get out of bed, to take the next step, to breathe. 

But that’s the beauty of spring.  Not just the one that rolls around each March, but the one we can choose for ourselves each day.  With spring comes possibility, growth, and hope. 

I was awakened this morning at three.  Will wasn’t in his bed.  I don’t mind if he sleeps somewhere else (which he usually doesn’t), but if he does, he gets cold and needs to be covered.  I was drowsy and shuffled across the bedroom floor and didn’t put my slippers on.  Atticus raised his head to check on me.

“I’m good.  Be right back, just checking on Will.”

When I stepped onto the wood floor of the hallway I heard Will drinking from the water dish around the corner.  My next step was into a puddle of his piss. 

This is something I very rarely experienced with Atticus in his puppy months, but with Will it can happen every day.  Heck, it could happen several times a day.  A regular schedule helps, but even then, Will is old and his body is like ours.  Bladders can be a challenge for the elderly. 

During those first few days with Will living with us, Atticus heard me say quite a few words he wasn’t used to.  They weren’t directed at Will, just at the impact that comes from the surprise of stepping out of bed into a pile of shit (a rarity, but it has happened) or into the invisible puddle. 

But times change, we change, just as the seasons do.  Life teaches us about expectations. 

So at three this morning, my foot wet with urine, I didn’t swear.  I laughed.  This is why you have slippers, Tom, because of Will’s surprises.  Why aren’t you wearing them?  I grabbed some disinfectant and wiped it up.  While I was on my hands and knees, Will shuffled over and watched me.  I laughed again.  “Just once, you could help, you know.”

Of course,he didn’t speak but he looked up at me with those mostly unseeing unblinking big eyes and watched me.    

He followed me to the trash, then to the bathroom where I washed my hands.  He leans sometimes, so he often stops in the doorway of the bathroom and leans his weight against the door jam for balance and looks up at me.  That’s how he was watching me this morning as I towered above him.

I pet him and he trundled after me, those sagging hips riding low from too many years in a crate. 

Atticus raised his head when I got into bed and pushed himself back up against the blankets and me.  Will bumped into the bed with the side of his body making his way around it and then found his own bed right next to me on the floor, and settled down into it silently.  I leaned over, draped one of the blankets made with loving hands for him by people he will never meet, and draped it over his crescent shape.  He raised his head, gave a soft and satisfied grunt, and within a minute his snores rose into the room and passed out the open window. 

Four hours later and we were up for good.  Atticus and I were, at least.  Will joined us eventually.  Leaning against the wall entering the living area where I was typing and Atticus was eating.  He stood watching us. 

He sing-songed his body with its stiffness over to the water bowl, took a  long, loud draught, and when he turned to come to me, his back paws ended up in the water bowl.  No reaction.  This is typical for him.  It took him some time to decide what to do,but he walked out of it and over to me. 

I was on my knees again wiping up water. 

When Atticus and I took him outside to greet the mountain air, Will stood when I put him down and seemed to take inventory of his body.  He then squatted, started to waver a bit, I got behind him as would a catcher awaiting the pitch in baseball, and gently held his hips.  He grunted like an old man, did what he had to do, and I let go.  Before getting something to pick it up with, I blocked it from his circling body so he wouldn’t step in it. 

He went on his way and watered some dull weeds while a lone crow called down to us.  Atticus and I looked up.  I greeted the bird, “Morning, Crow.”  Will circled. 

I picked Will up, his head against my chest, little old dog satisfied grunts rising from within him, and I carried beyond one of our chipmunks, who was sitting up watching us from a few feet away, and we went upstairs for breakfast, leaving our little neighbor to find his own. 

Atticus always eats his quickly but gently.  He sits on the couch so he can have his space, his food dish balanced on the arm.  Will does his bunny hop, several of them really, as I approach with his food.  His front paws make it an inch off the floor and he looks like a wind up toy when he does this and I’m bringing him his food.  The excitement is palpable.  But rarely does he eat right away.  He sniffs it, walks away, then walks around the apartment.  He doesn’t seem to be looking for anything.  It’s exercise, I figure.  He returns to eat it when he wants.

After his circling this morning, he went over to his bed is during the day and looked at my direction.  I walked to the bedroom and brought it back for him.  He grunted and took a few tries to step over its soft walls and into its empty belly.  He didn’t make it.  Half in the bed, half out.  I picked him up, placed him in it, turned on music, and covered him while resting his head on a pillow of soft fabric.  The snores came quickly.

When he got up an hour later, he went to get his drink and emptied the bowl.  I filled it back up.  He drank some more.  When he went turned back to bed, he stepped in the bowl and tipped it over.  For the third time this morning I was on my knees wiping up fluid.  No complaining.  It’s part of what I do here.  I often laugh thinking about how silly I felt and thought everyone looked when I was a little boy in church and people were standing up, kneeling down, sitting down, kneeling down.  That’s what living with Will is like.

But it’s also more than that.  I see him catch the breeze in his open mouth.  I watch him following Atticus when he’s unsure when we visiting somewhere new.  I see how comfortable he is in his home and how he comes to me an nudges me when he wants something.  How he responds with a grunt.  I see him play and fake bite me after months of several bites that were real.  I see him when he wants to sit with me but can’t jump up on the couch so I pick him up and hold his head so he can look out the window before he slumps into my arms and falls asleep. 

A certain dog I know pretty well has climbed thousands of mountains in his charmed and challenging life.  Other dogs run like the wind.  Some swim or catch balls or leap for flying frisbees.

Will?  He’s mastered the art of being himself.  There are no apologies.  He’s comfortable in his own skin, even when his physical skin breaks down at times and needs to be shaved, washed, and medicated. 

Two years ago today Will came into my life.  The first ten days I wondered what I had done.  He was a wreck.  People had done that too him.  I knew I couldn’t save him.  All Atticus and I could do was to hold a rope and lower it into the dark hole he lived in.  It was up to him to grab it and pull himself out into the daylight again. 

In those first two weeks,Will was in so much pain, so angry, so miserable, that I often wondered why he hadn’t been put out of his misery.  That’s how bad he was.  I even talked with our vet at the time, Christine O’Connell about the humane thing to do.  He wasn’t expected to live, especially since he didn’t really seem like he was alive.  He was but a skeleton, a ghost, a faded memory of what someone brought home as a puppy full of promise, and he was done in by people. 

When I think of Will, and of other non-human animals and what we do to them, a line from the Little Prince comes to mind.  
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
wrote, “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed.” 

That didn’t happen to Will. He was betrayed.  Many are. 

Two years after coming to live with us Will trips and bumps into things, he shits and pisses inside sometimes, he can’t always get into his bed, he knocks things over and I wipe them up.  But he’s alive.  Really alive.  He feels things, emotionally and physically.  He appreciates things.  When he eats he loves to eat.  When he drinks he does it like he’s been stranded in the desert for months, and when he’s loved, he soaks it up like a sponge. 

All relationships are reciprocal.  He gives what he can.  So do Atticus and I. 

Life goes on.  Moments become minutes.  Minutes turn to hours.  Hour to days. Days to weeks and months and years.  And all around us the miracle of life and its multitude of choices combine to create a symphony
.  This is Will’s.  Listen and be happy for him.


Debra said...

Tom Ryan you make me cry.

This is incredible "Life goes on. Moments become minutes. Minutes turn to hours. Hour to days. Days to weeks and months and years. And all around us the miracle of life and its multitude of choices combine to create a symphony. This is Will’s. Listen and be happy for him."

Anonymous said...

I'm at work with leady eyes. Love you Will!

Anonymous said...

Happy Will Day!!!!

Betty said...

Hi Tom,

Good almost afternoon. I'm listening, watching, reading, sharing, and growing. I am happy for him, you, and Atticus every day!

Enjoy Will Day … I am and thank you! Hugs from here to there.


Mar said...

Happy Will Day :) and Happy Day, Will. You're so great <3 Thanks for sharing Tom.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

Dearest Tom, Atticus and precious Sweet Will:
I hope you all will dance today, just like Will does when he prances around, dancing gracefully while enjoying and appreciating Life! Your words flow like a sweet, rhythmical stream, filled with incredible passages that paint a brilliant picture of how Sweet Will came into your life and chose life. No doubt, he was knocking on death's door when you came into his life. You, and the words and stories you share, showed Will how to dance again, and to choose life again. I have tears streaming from my face, but these are happy tears because I can see Sweet Will dancing, so happy to choose life -- and what a precious life it is for him. Thank you for sharing your beautiful, touching stories. Mostly, thank you for allowing Will to dance, even when he has accidents. Thank you for the laughter and the unconditional love. Sweet Will, let us dance while you teach us how to love unconditionally!

Anonymous said...

What a day! Thanks for sharing! Enjoying my day as well!

Sharron Restivo said...

Happy Happy Will Day indeed !!! How my heart is full of joy and love for all of You .... Love you Will ❤️❤️❤️

Ginny Suhr said...

Gosh, but your writing just moves me so often to tears. And most often when it's about Will. Someone told me a long time ago that tears are a gift of grace from God; whether it's pain or joy or loss or awe, our tears show an open heart and the very real emotions within. How lucky we are, then. My heart overflows with gratitude every time my tears fall listening to Will's symphony as you have shared it with us. Thank you, Tom. All around us the beauty and the miracles of life and love and Will's beautiful music...I am so happy for him and the life he now lives with you and Atti. Peace and love.

Shannon said...

My new favorite blog post. Happy Will Day. And I'm so glad Will is happy.

Martha S said...

I thank you from the bottom of my heart, Tom. My 90 year old mother is living out her last days and your words bring me comfort. She is lucky to have lived a blessed life. Will is lucky to have you and Atticus with whom to spend the rest of his life. Bless you.

carolyn bonier said...

I have heard people complain about the messes their elderly dogs make and know that many consider euthanasia at that point . I have never heard anyone talk with such love and appreciation while caring for a "messy" aging individual. I hope for that loving care too when and if I am in that stage of life. I know that you gave that kind of love when you worked in the nursing home. Dear Will landed in the perfect place for a good old age! Happy Day to the three of you!

Janet Kidder said...

Tom, your descriptions are so vivid and full of warmth and love. We most certainly are "responsible for what we tame." I wouldn't have it any other way.

Elsa said...

Tom, your writing is brilliant. I am happy for Will today and every day.

Jan Reed said...

You're makin' me cry again, Tom Ryan! Thank you for giving Will a second life, a much better life than his first one, and thank you, Will, for accepting that life and making the absolute most of it. Will, may you continue to live every day of your life! Happy anniversary to you both (and of course, to Atticus, just for being Atticus!)

Anonymous said...

I had just dried my tears from thinking about my beloved Airedale, Buster, that passed away 7 wks ago, and then I read this! Bless you for caring for this dog most others would have"put down."

Anonymous said...

Such love you have for each other! Happy Will Day!

Anonymous said...

I think it is amazing how much love you have to give! I wish someone would take care of me with such tenderness and love when I become old and infirm._

Sharon said...

I so look forward to your thoughts on the Following Atticus page. Through your words I feel the pain, and joys of Will's journey. My heart breaks for his past and soars for his present! Bless you!

mlaiuppa said...

Best Wishes to Will on his new birthday. You are all so fortunate to have each other.

I love those little old man dog grunts. My dog does them too, as well as the hops. My sister calls him Mr. Jumpy.

It's hard to think of time passing but my little man is 10 now. He has grayed and slowed a bit. As I see his time passing I am reminded of mine too. I have accepted his passage into seniority but still forget that I am now a senior and must learn to be myself now, not myself in the past.

Dogs don't need to be taught this. They are always in the now. My job to make sure the his now is the best it can be.

When my little man starts to lose some control, I'll just be cleaning it up. It's why I have tile and hardwood floors, not carpet. There is no point in getting upset for him being him. It's what old dogs do.

I think what I need to work on most is being me. Reading this blog helps a lot. There is a lot of food for thought. I just need to slow down and chew on it. Reading these posts, especially about Will, makes me stop and think about things I usually avoid. And that's a good thing. It will help me to become more me. The me in the now.

Anonymous said...

Tom: Thank you for sharing the "new life" of Will. The way that you're able write the daily happenings of Will being Will so the reader may experience what you experience is something not too many people are able to do well!

Enjoy your evening with Atticus & Will.

andrea slowick said...

There is a special place in heaven for you Tom. I look forward to your posts everyday now. You are a lucky man to have the unconditional love of Will and Atticus and I am lucky to have found your blog. Thank you for reminding me there are good people out there.

Unknown said...

Loving Onward, all of us. Life is an incredible adventure. Thank you Tom for sharing yours, Atticus', and Will's.

Anonymous said...

Aa always, thank you for sharing the adventures of Tom, Atticus & Will. You have a way with words and I can imagine being there as you tell a story.

kay g schraff said...

from Kay in Va. ....

We do hear the symphony, and we rejoice as Will dances to his own special melodies..

Love & hugs, Will.

Unknown said...

Thank you. You have given me hope and insight into helping my little rescue. She had been abused and neglected. And she was pregnant when she was left at the shelter one week before she gave birth. Even thought she was extremely fearful of everything, she raised five beautiful puppies. And now it's her turn to find out what life can be like in a home filled with love and understanding. I hope she can learn to trust and love as Will has learned to trust you. I'll be more patient going forward and give her the space and time she needs. Thank you for sharing your life with Atticus and Will with the rest of the world.