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, July 11, 2014

There are times when we glimpse the extraordinary in the ordinary. Sometimes
sitting in the backyard is more profound than standing on a mountaintop.
I know Atticus well. 

It’s a product of twelve years together, starting when he was eight weeks old.  But more importantly, it has to do with our partnership in hiking far more than a thousand mountains together, sometimes in extreme conditions.  In the mountains, up high and far away from home and everyone you’ve ever known, when the temperature soars to unbearable reaches or the cold comes at you at forty below zero wind chill, or the snow is blinding and you are stuck in unexpected blizzard conditions halfway through a twenty-four mile a hike, you reach new levels of knowing and trusting.    

Trust is everything.  We had that from the beginning, but it was strengthened in the mountains. 

Hiking is an intimate partnership.  Strangers become fast friends.  True friends become even truer.  And when man and woman meet on the trails, well, let’s just say these mountains host as many affairs as the hotels in Boston do on any given day. 

So while I don’t pretend to know everything Atticus is thinking, I feel comfortable in knowing what he wants most of the time, what makes him happy, what fulfills him, what he dislikes.  And it’s not just the silent human and dog bond, it’s the connection between two hiking partners who have grown in the mountains together.

With Will, I’m still getting to know him.  I do my best to put myself in his position and try to figure him out that way.  I do not know much about his past.  What I do know is how scarred and scared he was when he came to us.  How angry and lacking trust he was.  I saw the rot in his mouth from lack of care, the hips that had been imprisoned  in a crate for far too long, the willingness to bite and draw blood.  Somewhere along the way Will had been betrayed.  He’d grown old and was not taken care of. 

I’m told there’s a difference between neglect and abuse, but I don’t see one.  Neglect is just another form of abuse, whether it is from ignorance and arrogance.  Our job is to care for others in our lives, and if we can’t do that, the least we can do is not hurt them.

I catalogued these observations in my head over the first few months Will came to live with us.  It was my job to put myself in his place, to figure out how to help him, if I could, and figure out if he wanted to be helped.  The rest was up to him.

With Atticus it’s easy.  We’ve always been together and more often than not, I just know.  With Will, I don’t presume to know much.  Still, we did the usual things – the supplements and drugs for hips and pain, dental work, a wholesome diet, healthy grooming habits, protecting him from himself and the outside world.   But that was only the beginning. 

We all have a story to tell and after those initial steps, Will started to reveal his own.  I don’t pay much attention to the past or to why things happened as they did in his life.  I rarely think about the people he used to live with, nor do I completely condemn them for I don’t know their whole story.  What I have been concerned with from the beginning is how Will is any given day. 

I decided to leave behind his past, and concentrate on his present and the future.  As a man who grew up with abuse, I understand that the best way to live is to concentrate on the next step….on the now and the places you’re going.  Yes, we can learn from the past, but we can also be made prisoner by it.  So we took what we could from Will’s past and then dumped it.  It no longer mattered. 

One of the reasons I like this photo from yesterday is because it speaks of possibilities. 

It looks simple enough.  Will is doing something a lot of animals like to do.  He’s sitting outside on a picturesque summer day, enjoying the shade and the breeze and the way he feels.  But when we first met Will, he didn’t sit.  He couldn’t sit. 

He gets massages.  I stretch him out.  He gets many warm baths and cold river soaks.  He may be deaf and mostly blind but I concentrate on his senses with textures, scents, tastes, and vibrations.  Do these help?  I like to think it all contributes to his quality of life but I refuse to be absolute in understanding everything. 

But what I do know is that he now he sits.  Not often and not for long, but it’s so damn good to look at him doing something we all take for granted that was once robbed from him. 

Will cannot run and bound through the yard or the forest, or even leap up onto the couch.  He has physical limitations.  But the again when I’m around a hundred, if I live to be that old, I’ll have them as well.  Heck, at only fifty-three I have many. 

I can do many things that Will cannot.  I take some of them for granted.  But here’s something Will and I do have in common.  It’s possibility.  The gift of now.  No matter what happened yesterday, or two years ago, or when we were young, what we have today is what matters most.  We always have a choice to elevate the day, as Thoreau once mentioned.   

I don’t know all the answers to the puzzle of Will.  But day by day, through friendship and empathy, we seem to find our way.  I teach him, he teaches me, together we learn and grow.  He and Atticus are as different as their ears are, but what’s powerful about each of their stories is that it is unique.  Not one is more special than the other.   

So on this morning, as I sit next to Atticus who is watching me, and Will snores a few feet away, something he’ll do many times throughout the day, I ask one simple question for the three of us knowing that each of us is different yet connected.

What can we unwrap today? 

Gifts are everywhere, even if they are wrapped in mystery and challenge, in scars and fear.

When I look at Will, I smile because of his quality of life.  There are many things he cannot do.  But there are so many that he can.  He can now trust.  He can be happy.  He can love.  And he can accept love. 
So while I do not know everything about Will, what I do know is what I see.  It’s called life.  And Will’s is a good one because he's made it so.   


James D. said...

Great to see him sitting.

Anonymous said...

So good!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for being such a great friend.I love being with my pups also.

Anonymous said...

Be here now!

Anonymous said...

Well said!

Barbie Perkins-Cooper said...

Every day, may we all learn from Sweet Will. Let us start each day with an 'unwrapped gift' called life and let us all take a journey each day to embrace each and every day -- because each day is a gift. Let us all step to do the Sweet Will Prance, as we learn to 'slow dance.'

Anonymous said...

I've unwrapped my first gift of the day....thank you.

Unknown said...

You are all so lucky to have each other. Every day is a gift we take for granted

Katetme said...

As I struggled down a mountain, I met a man climbing up that same rough patch with one leg and I cast my eyes upward and gave thanks for the 2 old legs that are getting me up and down the peaks you and Attic us inspired me to try. The gift is the trying and I am forever grateful.

carolyn bonier said...

Reading what you write is unwrapping a gift for me!! Thank you..what a way to start the day it is already elevated!

Unknown said...

Love your updated posts! Keep them coming!Thank you :)

Sandy Z said...

Love this article and especially the photo caption. Finding the "profound" moment in common, simple, everyday occurences is pure joy! Off to walk on the beach to enjoy the special morning sparkle of the waves and sea birds! May sweet William enjoy moments of his own today - and you and Atticus too!

Michael Morse said...

How do we not regret the past and worry about the future? I don't know. But my dog does. Thank you for the enjoyable read, always worth the time.

Carter W Rae said...

Saw when William came into the mix there and we are all better for it because of your ability Tom to show us all how this journey can be when making it better !!! I am not sure why but reading your word-smithing is like coming home with all the really great nuances that make it good Have a wonderful time today Tom I know you will :-) from us Carter & Stacy

Unknown said...

Thank you for a little of Wills story, I agree there is no difference between abuse and neglect they are the same, what a forgiving man you are, I understand that what happens to Will is here and now, but I do find it difficult to forgive people who are cruel to any living thing that relies on them for everything, you are a good man Tom.

Anonymous said...

Each of these blogs is a gift and I love to unwrap them at lunch at work. Thanks Tom, Atticus & Will.


Donna Jean said...

Thank you Tom, I love unwrapping your gifts of words. Your words caress my heart and give me positive feelings to ponder. I'm loving the audio version of Following Atticus, it is very soothing to listen to you tell the story, the story I never get tired of reading or hearing. Atticus, Will and You are very much loved here in Kipton, Ohio. Onwards by all means my friend.

mlaiuppa said...

I don't do Facebook but I went to your facebook page and looked around.

I saw the video of Will dancing.

What a delight!

I don't know if Will ever danced before but if he did, you and Atticus are the ones that allowed him to dance again. That dog you described when you first got him, that wanted to die, he's gone. In his place is a dog that wants to dance and does.

I truly believe dogs talk to us in their own way. We just have to take the time to listen.

Thanks for not only listening to Atticus and Will, but acting on what they're telling you. And sharing with us so that we, too, may become better listeners.

Anonymous said...

I so enjoy your blog. I like the way you look at life and today (a beautiful day) in northern NY as I was driving along I began to notice the puffy clouds the smells. ou are not only the family of Bill, Atticus and Will, but help all of us to become a better person, who looks at life a little differently today then I may have ib the past. Thanks so much for sharing!

Unknown said...

I think that is what attracts me to Will so much...something about his determination to "be in the moment", and taking advantage of having the opportunity at life again.

I believe that Will really came alive because you gave him that opportunity.... he shines out to others because at his age, most are ready to just be...

Your words "...we can learn from the past, but we can also be made prisoner by it." will be posted so I can see them daily. You reminded me of the many limitations I have placed on myself because of the past.

Never enough "thank you's" for you Tom....

Unknown said...

Yes, it has been several days since you wrote this blog. Ever since I read this piece there has been a line within the blog that keeps floating back into my mind, " I’m told there’s a difference between neglect and abuse, but I don’t see one. Neglect is just another form of abuse, whether it is from ignorance and arrogance. Our job is to care for others in our lives, and if we can’t do that, the least we can do is not hurt them." This is such a powerful statement of which I totally understand and embrace it. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, for these words for they are so darn true.