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.

Friday, May 02, 2014

Two Years With Will And How It's Been Done

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image.  Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.”  - Thomas Merton

Earlier this morning I posted a photograph of Will from his first morning with us on our Facebook page.  The comments were numerous and kind.  Some emailed and others posted comments asking me how it worked out that a fifteen year old dog who was ready for death choose to stick around long enough to not only celebrate his two year anniversary with us on May 6, 2015, but also thrive and turn his anger into happiness, his loneliness into trust, and his painful past into redemption.
For those who posted, thank you for your kind words.  Many are far too generous with their praise. 
First off, I'm not a saint. Far from it...which helps me in many ways, I think.  For there were times in my life where I was also lost, just as Will was.  That made it easy for me to choose to look at Will from the very beginning in the same manner I looked at Atticus when he came to me as an eight week old.  And I don't mean as puppy, but as an individual. 
I have always tried to put myself in his skin and thought about how I would want to be treated if I was Will.  After that it was and, continues to be, trial and error.  If something works, we keep doing it. If it doesn’t, we try a new approach. 
It’s important to point out that I do not consider myself an expert (and avoid most experts whenever I can), but in the instances with Will and Atticus, and with Max preceding them, who, like Will, came to me as an older dog, it has worked out well enough that I have no plans to change our approach.
When dealing with those I care about, I choose to concentrate on their individual journey, or as Joseph Campbell wrote about, "the hero's journey".  I do my best to eradicate that which divides us and concentrate on commonalities while still respecting our differences.  That’s why the Golden Rule works for us.
Because I'm a writer, words are extremely important to me.  They represent and make concrete my thoughts.  They form my contract with life and the outside world and are the basis of human communication.  It's one of the reasons we are very careful with our social media postings and what we allow on our Facebook page as far as comments go.  You will never see breeds mentioned.  I think generalizing is silly.  And I definitely don't think one breed is better than the rest or has a better personality than the others.  It's the same with people.  I try not to judge people based on their background, whether it be race, religion, or political party.  I avoid the clichés.  (This is one of the reasons I was thrilled when the NBA stood up to Donald Sterling last week.)  So when someone posts that a certain breed has such and such a personality, it hits the ether long before we ever see it, thanks to the ingenuity of the moderators.
I often consider Will in the same manner I considered the senior citizens I worked with in a nursing home.  To me he's not my child, definitely not my baby, nor am I his dad.   In his life span, he's twice my age.  I respect that.  I choose not to minimize his existence and make him a subset of me or an accessory.  I know this doesn’t work for everyone and that’s fine if you like to practice it in your own world, but in ours, it is one of the cornerstones of our relationship.
Will, in my eyes, is pretty much who I am.  Who you are.  He's one individual on a journey.  One individual’s journey is not equivalent to another’s.  No one’s life has ever been like Atticus’s or Will’s or mine…or yours.  That's always what I think about whether Will's happy and dancing, sleeping peacefully, collapsed in a puddle of his own piss and shit and incapable of getting up, or angry, resentful, and striking out like he was when he first came to us. 
As my literary soul mate and I have been corresponding about lately, I believe that Will rescued himself, ultimately by his decision to live.  Sure, a nice lifestyle and a safe place, good food, caring, and medical attention helped, but in the end it was always his decision.  I equate it to the people I know who are down on their luck or addicted to drugs or alcohol or anger.  No one can save them.  Those who love them and care about them can get them to rehab, or to a therapist, but in the end the only one who can save you is yourself. 
So yes, Atticus does deserve much credit for his patience, and I made a choice to take Will in and do my best by him, but Will's the one who had the final say on the happily ever after part.  Will deserves the credit.  We simply gave him a place to live out his days, and a right to choose on a daily basis, and to be himself. 
In responding to a few comments that talk about love always being enough, I have given this much thought.  I'm a romantic and I always believed this when I was younger, but then the years passed and experiences added to more experiences, and ultimately, what I had to admit, sadly, is that love is not always enough.  Stories don't always have happy endings.  Just look around you.  Not everyone is living a fairytale life.  But happy endings do exist, so I chose to believe in their possibility and work towards them.
That’s what so great about Hemingway's famous line, "The world breaks everyone, and some are made strong at the broken places." 
On the occasion I have talked about my philosophy regarding Will, Atticus, Max, or individuals of any species, breed, race, sexual orientation, or religion, and done my best to ignore those dividing labels, some people get pretty ticked off at me.  This is where I return to my mantra:  I'm not an expert.
What works for us in our little corner of the world may not work for others in theirs because of their own belief system.  I don't have a problem with that.  I figure I'm happy enough in our lives that I don't aim to change anyone else.  I simply draw boundaries around what is acceptable to us so that people don't get very far when they try to change ours, or in the rare case where they decide to express anger about what I believe. 
I’m simply expressing these thoughts because some have inquired about how I came about succeeding with Will.
Thank you all again for your nice words.  I am thrilled we are about to celebrate two years with Will when at first we thought it would be only two months. 
While some deserve credit for getting him to us, and Atticus and I may deserve credit for taking him in and allowing him to be himself and grow as he needed to, the hero in all of this is Will.  Once he was an afterthought, an accessory dumped in a shelter; now he is indeed a hero. 
Will is writing his own story, I'm just putting it down on paper for him. 
I couldn't be happier for him, or more proud of his journey. 


Anonymous said...

Because of you three, I now treat all my family members differently. It doesn't matter how many legs they have! LOL! Thank you for helping me look at each as an individual. XXOO Shari

Carol said...

Mr. Ryan I think I see the man who used to print the Undertoad in this blog. I like how you are willing to write what you believe even if others might not like it. My compliments to you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing the journey with me. Of not just Will, but of you and Atticus also. I've found that as I age, I've become more tolerant of things that years ago might have really annoyed me! I have a whole new outlook on life. I've gone into the local coffee shop just after they've opened and started a "pay it forward" with a coffee & muffin. The following day I went back and was told it went until noon that day! Just simple, little things that can make a difference insomeone's life.

Carter W Rae said...

We ALWAYS enjoy your insights Tom and look at you as an example and a friend ... Since my boyhood back when ... I was blessed with time to be in nature and was able as now to appreciate all of the wonders around us .. We are all better for having our portion of Following Atticus and being able to have this Community to share it with ... The numbers of "followers" is a real testimony of that :-)... I knew that from the very beginning . As we all face our own hero's journey looking to your world is a great blessing .. Thanks Tom and to your friends there with you .. Gives us all hope and courage to press on .. Onward by all means as you would say .. very best of continued blessings to you all from us

holly from plum said...


the happiest of all endings...

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much Tom. We have a rescue dog that we have had for 14 years and because of you, we are treating her different. We don't look upon her anymore as in her last years. We have no idea how long we will have her and every day she is here is a blessing. We try to treat her like we would want to be treated as we age, with respect and love.

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

I so look forward to reading your inspiring stories and have shared many of them with my friends. I would like to thank you for opening your heart and world to the wonderful, amazing world of animals, and I appreciate how you teach others that just because a life has four legs, this doesn't mean they cannot accept, love, communicate and understand humans. Thank you for all that you do. Mostly, thank you for giving Will the desire to live, under his own terms, along with Atticus.

Michelle said...

Tom, I've said on many occasions how Will's journey to learn to trust and love again has been my inspiration. Blessings to dear Will on this anniversary as he climbs his own mountains. And blessings and gratitude to you for sharing his story and Atti's story with us.

Unknown said...

. . . such a gift. I look forward to your posts everyday. Thank you both from the humans you reach and the shelter pets who benefit from your words.

Anonymous said...

Tom I always appreciate your attempts to take Facebook away from "idiot mode" by providing thoughtful posts. You give me something to think about. I'm impressed that you haven't been driven away from social media yet. You must tell me your secret some time! Ben from Concord

Anonymous said...

Borrowing from(and most probably misquoting) several amazing teachers I have read..."when you are ready the teacher will come". Thank you for being one of my teachers. Accepting and learning from all you meet is a true gift. I am grateful for the gifts you bring through you writing and sharing. Thank you

Donna Jean said...

Will and his choice to live again, trust again and love again is a huge inspiration to so many of us. , Thanks Tom, for telling Wills story and sharing your life with Atticus & Will.. JC and I never miss a post on Following Atticus page, it has always been the most peaceful positive feel good page to visit on Facebook thanks to you and your awesome moderators. Your Zero tolerance for negative, angry, hateful, Mack truck full of crazy experts seems to work great. We look forward to the next book and all your blogs and posts to come. Onward my friends!!!

Kady said...

Tom, your posts on Facebook always leave me in tears - happy tears though. I have a cat of undetermined age but my vet suggests she might be 13 or so. I used to consider her to be "on her last legs", until I began following Will's journey. Dixie Ann lived a very rough life in our former neighborhood. She was shot twice, had numerous litters of kittens, none of whom survived, though I tried my best to save them, and people say she has a bit of a bedraggled look about her...but I think she is beautiful. She finally allowed me to humanely trap her and take her to my vet. Though she had every parasite imaginable, few teeth left, and was scared to pieces, I saw something in her, something which seemed akin to the will to live that you see in Will. I wanted to express how much your sharing of Will's story has helped me with Dixie. I no longer think of her as being near the end of her life. I love her with as much physical affection as she will allow and respect her when she would rather sleep in a corner on a soft bed than be touched. She sometimes eats but sometimes refuses to eat. I've made "protein shakes" for her for about a year now and that seemed to be exactly what she needed. Some days I find her happily perched on a table by a big window - something she never did before. Other days, she comes running and greets me at the door of her room. There have been a few days when I checked to see if she was still breathing. Her length of days is not the most important thing. I am blessed to be her friend and caregiver and when she does decide it's time to go, I'll miss her but I'll embrace the richness of having known and loved her.

Barbara Glantz said...

Your stories of Will are especially touching for me. They are more then just "dog" stories, they are stories of an individual of the canine species. Your commitment to allow him to find his way is a lesson we all need to examine. We ultimately need to find our way in order to have a genuine life. Thank you for being real, bringing quotes and life lessons on a page.

Unknown said...

I am not quite sure why anyone would believe everyone's journey is the same. We are individuals and everyone's journey is different. Thank God.

Tandi said...

The most important thing you have taught us all, Tom, is to let everyone be who they are, and not have expectations that they fit into a certain mold. We are who we are, faults and all, and acceptance and inclusion is what we all crave and how we all thrive.

Betty said...

Hi Tom,

My sincere thanks to you, the Mods, others in the background, Blog readers, and all who come to the Following Atticus Facebook to read, listen, respond to, and respect the thoughts and words shared by others.

I appreciate everyone who is true to themselves as they walk their walk. I believe, on some level, we are all heroes as we travel on our way.

Grateful for the two year celebration that is upon you, Atticus, and Will … delighted that we are able to watch from afar.

Sending wishes for Will to be happy ... always happy.

Have a pleasant night dear friends. Peace.


Anonymous said...

Well said Tom.


Anonymous said...

Hi Tom,

Just wanted to say thanks again for sharing your life with us. I would also like to thank you for turning me on to the works of John Irving. I try to follow your advice and thoughts on being the best I can be, it is a work in progress :) I agree with you about not stereotyping the dog breeds... I live with 2 that are the same breed but they are different as night & day..and I love them both.

and thanks to the moderators for the great job they do.

Michael Morse said...

We have just begun our journey. Mr. Wilson is a Rescue Dog, and a pretty good one at theat! We're taking our therapy dog and good citizen tests next Saturday, I think he wants to spread his love, so we shall.

All the best to you, enjoying the reads.