Today, the sky is draped in mourning as clouds cover the valley and snow returns to the higher summits. Today, I listened to our friend Roy Prescott of WMWV radio break down in tears while offering a tribute to Atticus. Today, when I woke up, I moved slowly in bed so as not to disturb Atticus, just as I got up to let him out last night.
I’m now like one of those amputees you read about who still feels his missing leg. It’s fitting because I too feel as if something has been amputated.
When Dr. De came up to me in the parking lot a half an hour after I held Atticus in my arms for the last time, she was concerned for me.
“I’m about to do something I haven’t done in fourteen years. I’m going home without Atticus. I’m afraid.”
We were inseparable, especially since moving north to New Hampshire. Every decision was based on his and our well-being. Whether it was about when to go to the store, dating, or even book tours. From the day we first met when he was only eight weeks old, Atticus and I became “we.” Heck, even two months ago when a beautiful woman invited me to an Avett Brothers concert with her, I told her I couldn’t go because I didn’t want to leave Atticus alone.
When a well-intentioned person suggested her relationship with her dog was just like ours, it was the fiftieth time I heard it this weekend. Finally, I had to point out, “No, it wasn’t. What we had was unique to us, just as yours was unique to you. Not better, just unique.”
Our course was different from the moment I followed Paige Foster’s advice to “Carry him everywhere you go for the first two months and don’t let anyone else hold him.” Add to that the many sacrifices so we could always be together. And finally, ask any hiking partners about intimacy. It’s a rare thing to share several mountains with a good friend. You end up sharing things others can never imagine, especially if hundreds of those mountains were climbed in winter.
I don’t know how many mountains we climbed. I guesstimate we stood on more than two thousand summits. That’s a lot of work, a ton of trust, emotion, and effort.
Through the years we dealt with Atticus’s blindness, his first cancer scare, his eventual cancer and chemotherapy, my septic shock six years ago, Will’s needs, a tumultuous relationship with a woman who we discovered had histrionic personality disorder (a form of narcissism), and as of late my near death experiences, and what turned out to be Atticus’s brain tumor.
Most importantly, the differing factor right from the beginning is that Atticus was never treated like a dog. Hell, he was never referred to as one, just as I ignored whenever anyone referred to him by his breed. For what I wanted for him from the very beginning was to be himself and not someone else’s idea of what he was or should be. The terms master and owner were never used. Neither was pet. And as much as some people like to refer to him as a baby, I’d point out he was an adult. When they referred to him as my son or me as his dad, I corrected them, “He’s my friend.”
When a New Haven, Connecticut police officer wanted to give me a ticket for Atticus being off leash and sitting calmly outside a downtown Subway restaurant as I ordered breakfast sandwiches for the homeless in a nearby park, I went outside to see what the problem was.
“Is this your dog?”
“Mmmm, I wouldn’t say it that way.”
“What do you mean? Is this YOUR dog?”
“I wouldn’t say he’s mine. He’s his own dog. But we do hang out together.”
He looked at me like I was crazy.
“Listen, I don’t like the ownership thing.”
“Listen, I’m going to have to give you a ticket because he’s off leash.”
“Give him the ticket; he’s the one who is off leash.”
Eventually, the officer said, “Wait a minute, is this Atticus?” And then he proceeded to help us distribute breakfast sandwiches to the homeless sprinkled on the park benches.
Atticus was many things through the years. He was his own dog. He was my hiking partner. He was a pacifist. He was a great athlete. He was a record setter. But most importantly, he was my friend, and as much as an equal as a non-human animal can be with a human in a society controlled by humankind.
There is much more to be written about Atticus. You’ll read about him a great deal in “Will’s Red Coat” when it comes out in March. And there are other stories to be shared. In the future, when another dog lives with me, his or her path will have been smoothed by the lessons Atticus and I learned together. You’ll hear about that.
For now, I’m going to end with three out of the thousands of various forms of communication that came to me this weekend. You see, I’m okay with death. I mourn my loss and I’m fighting to keep my heart together, but I do recognize death as the final miracle of life. And just as I never wanted Atticus to be referred to as a cliché in life, I abhor clichés about death. My moderators do their best to wipe out all such clichés: “The rainbow bridge;” “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened,” etc…)
Most good friends have it right when they know if they don’t have the right words, it’s best just to say, “I have no words…”
But when the right words appear, they are golden medicine for a seared soul who is missing his other half. This weekend I read through so thousands of comments and emails, and I was moved by the genuine nature of most of them. Astounded really. Atticus would have been thrilled if he cared about such things. But since I do, I was thrilled for him and me.
It was our vet and friend Rachael Kleidon who pointed out that she believed Atticus waited for me to get home from the hospital so he could die in my arms. I honestly believe this for this is the kind of relationship we had.
Correspondence from Wendy Anthony, a librarian at Skidmore College who came to see us at a book event:
"When I saw you guys at the Rocks (Estate), I had never seen a dog as happy as Atticus in my whole long life of being fascinated by dogs. The way he looked at you explained it all: You gave him everything. You were the deepest and best of friends, and you fulfilled every promise. His eyes were universes speaking this. I have never known such a lucky person in my life as Atticus because of that.
"Yours was the greatest love story I have ever known. And oh, the cost is dear. Oh, Tom. That is so weird that he left fourteen years to the weekend. Your connection was made of other stuff."
From book blogger, Ashley Williams at @mybookfetish:
There's a scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, where Dobby the House-Elf is fatally injured rescuing and protecting Harry and his friends from certain death. As Dobby passes, on a beach they've escaped to, he says, “What a beautiful place to be with friends. Dobby is happy to be with his friend.” Ever since I read the post on Friday, this is the scene that's been going through my head. That as painful as this is, Atticus was with his friend. I don't know if that's any comfort or not. But I am thinking about you. And hugging my own little cats a bit more.
Now, as I step away from the computer for a bit, I’m reminded that life goes on. I have work to do. My rehab calls to me. It will be harder without Atticus by my side. (The other day I took my first walk without him in fourteen years.) The dishes have piled up in the sink. There are bills to pay. I have to drive to North Country Animal Hospital to pay our final bill from the other night. There’s that needed appointment to fix the car. Beans and rice and onions are on my grocery list. Laundry needs to be done. I have to prepare for tomorrow’s appointment with my kidney doctor to see how I’m doing.
Among these mundane things that make up the duties of a life, my heart will continue to ache. As I wrote the other night, there are times I’m so bereft I feel like the moon if the sun were ever to disappear. I feel hollow and have to remind myself to take one more step, to take another breath. Then I remember the magic, and I feel gratitude for a unique friendship and fourteen years where I was never bored. These are the things I reminded the crows of in our backyard this morning as I fed them some of Atti’s food. They ate and listened and cocked their heads in my direction. Sometimes, that’s all a man needs when it seems so much has been taken from him.
Onward, by all means, everyone.