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.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Experience of Being Alive

Dearest friend,

Today is the darkest of days for my friend Virginia and her partner Brenda. They are preparing to say goodbye to their beloved Kiko, a four-legged soul with the best black and white markings I’ve ever seen. She is gentle and kind and lives in their hearts. And, by chance, if it is not today, it will be soon. This morning, they are emptying themselves out in grief. 

Alas, there is no escaping death, or what it leaves behind. If we are lucky, we know what it is like to suffer this deepest of losses, because it means we have loved completely and surrendered our hard selves to another. If we are the dying, we should all be so fortunate to have been loved and to leave behind broken hearts left clinging to memories. 

I have offered Virginia a few words this morning, but nothing suffices. You know this from the grief you’ve experienced and how it changed your life. 

I will forever remember coming home for the first time without Atticus. I screamed at God through tears knowing that I too was so close to death, “Why not take me while you are at it, you bastard?” Yes, there were a few more cuss words in there as well, but I never worry about it. As I’ve told some of my rigid and respectable Christian friends, I am not respectable and have no desire to be. Mine is a less formal and more relaxed relationship with God. What’s a few cross words between friends?

Virginia and Brenda know they are making all the right decisions. How? Because it hurts so much. They are placing Kiko’s peace above theirs. 

I would like to be able to tell them that all will okay over time. Their scars will heal, and they’ll move forward. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. I have seen too many that can not let go of their sorrow, and they cease to live. When one they love dies, so do they. They continue to breathe, but that’s about it. 

I met someone a few years ago who told me that a beloved four-legged friend had died seven years earlier, and she still hadn’t found a reason to smile. Oh, my. What to say to such a person? I chose not to say anything and instead I just nodded and went on my way. 

We often forget the contract we have with life. We seem to think things don’t have a cost, and that there is no expiration date. But birth, life, and death are all part of the same contract. How we deal with it all goes a long way toward our quality of life. 

At my lowest depths in May, I couldn’t imagine how life could possibly go on. I worried about my heart, which had been so diseased and barely functioned. I thought about how the stress would shut down my kidneys, again, or how that massive blood clot that was in me would come loose and block an artery. As I lay grieving in the days to come, nothing anyone said offered me hope. They were kind, but this was an intimate dance I was in. At night, I’d choke on my despair and wake up gasping, swallowing a lung full of air to try to keep from dying there and then. 

That’s when it hit me. That’s when I knew I wanted to live. I was worried about my heart. I was fighting to breathe. If I were really ready for death, I wouldn’t be grieving so much. Instead, I would have given up. I wouldn’t have cared…about anything. 

The other day, a friend asked me, “How did you do it? How did you get beyond all you went through in that intense period of sickness and heartache?”

“I took a breath. Then I took another. I’d remind myself to get out of bed. I told myself I was alive for a reason. I thought of Atticus and believed that the last thing he’d want is for me to suffer in life. In a way, he was my inspiration to keep going."

My conversations with God continued. Some were heated. Some were kind. There were tears, and laughter, and swearing. But it was all good in the end. I asked about the purpose of life, and thought time and again of Joseph Campbell’s belief that we’re not looking for the meaning of life, but the experience of living. The good, the bad, the hard, the immensity, the emptiness of it all. That’s when I began to smile. I was alive. Completely alive. I wasn’t thriving, but I figured, there’s a reason for this, so I went on.

I was compassionate to those who had suffered loss, and wanted to huddle together and commiserate with me, telling me “I know how you feel?" In the end, though, they didn’t. What they knew was how they felt. So I went on my private journey, took nourishment from friends, and believed that I was not so important that everything should stop because of my weak and broken heart. 

"Thank you, God, for this morning. What strange form of teaching do you have for me today?” I’d ask.

Faith plays a part in my journey. The sun will come up again, even on rainy days, and, as Robert Frost reminded us when he wrote that he could sum up all he’s learned about life and in three words, “It goes on.” Mine did. Without much direction. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t walk very far. I definitely couldn’t hike. I didn’t have the concentration to read. 

But still, I tried. Each day, I tried a little more. 

Then, when I worked so hard to rescue myself and felt human again, along came Samwise. People like the narrative of “Who rescued who?” This weekend, a reverend heard me speak of the loss of Atticus and the arrival of Samwise and said to me with doe eyes, “Who rescued who?” I wanted to say, “I fucking rescued myself,” and that’s why Samwise came into my life. Because I chose to live again. But instead, I said, “Go F.Y. and that tired cliche.” I smiled when I said it, and she smiled in return as I reached to her and said, “Matters of the heart are too important for Hallmark catch phrases, no matter how well intended they are.” And we left each other in good spirits. 

Lastly, my story of loss has another part to it. 

A broken man chose to live again. Chose to rescue himself. Then he chose to love again, and Samwise came for that reason. 

But something else occurred to me. Deep down I knew there was something else to be learned and experienced. Atticus’s departure left a lot of room within me to fill, after all. 

I told my friends I was enjoying my monastic life. Some walking, writing, reading, teaching Samwise the lessons he’d need to understand, and continuing with my own lessons. I was healing, and reaching a contented place. 

When many suggested setting me up with someone for a date, I had no desire. It’s been three and a half years, and once you go through a relationship with someone with the traits of histrionic personality disorder, you tend to want to avoid that kind of toxicity ever again. You want to play it safe and not chance revisiting the madness. This was only reaffirmed when I became friends with two others who had dealt with various forms of narcissism and studies show that many of us who survive narcissists, never get involved with anyone again. I held no grudges against the woman I had been with; she couldn’t help being what she was. I was angry with myself for being fooled so completely, when what I thought was a most remarkable woman turned out to be the most regrettable decision of my life. So, yes, being alone was okay with me. I have Samwise and nature and good books and music and nurturing foods, and my health is returning. 

But God had other plans. They included you, dearest. Who knew that such loss and emptiness was preparing me to be filled with a new wonder? New loves a new chapter and experiences.

You seemed to come out of nowhere, and yet it feels like we’ve always known each other. Neither of us has any idea where this journey will lead as we move forward. Life offers no guarantee other than the invitation to participate. But right now, just as Samwise trusted that life had brought him to where he belongs, I too believe that I’m right where I’m supposed to be, just as I’ve always been. 

When I told my friend Jan about the news of us, she was jubilant for me, even though she is going through her own loss. She understands about the fallout from narcissism, and how many just try to get by without taking a chance again. But she is thrilled for me, and for us. For while you and I had pretty darn good lives to begin with, we’ve both decided to dance again. 

I have learned that the best way to get over loss is to surrender to it. Wallow in despair. Cry your guts out, ask all the unanswerable questions you can, and then you rescue yourself, and when you do that, you begin to live fully again, and accept the gifts that life is offering you. But it only happens if we choose to move forward, choose to move onward, by all means. 

As I told you last night, one of my close friends who had also suffered in a narcissistic relationship has been paying attention to what we’re going through. When a man reached out to her, where at first she thought of all the reasons not to respond and from what I know ignored him, now she has decided to jump into the pool again and give life with others another try. It would seem that the decision to live again is contagious. As is love.  

I will now say goodbye, and look forward to whatever song plays for us to dance to. The beat of life and hearts go on, from sorrow to song, we are all we choose to be. Thank you for being uniquely you. 

Now, you’ll excuse me. The rain has stopped, and the birds are singing, and Samwise and I are going for a walk. As we move through the forest, I’ll be saying my prayer while conversing with God, "Thank you for this morning. What strange form of teaching do you have for me today?”

From my heart to yours,

Friday, September 23, 2016

Dear Atticus

Dear Friend,
All those years. The miles. Thousands of mountains. As I sit writing to you, they all run together, and then like a slide show on shuffle, mountaintops and memories come into focus before yielding to the next one. 
It's our favorite time of the year. The sugar maples along the Ellis and Wildcat rivers are beginning to flame red. The wildflowers in the meadows are yellowing, and death becomes hope in the form of seeds. The mountainsides fade and are a lighter shade of green. Occasionally, while Samwise and I walk the paths you and I used to walk, I'll spy a single red maple leaf on the earthen floor. I can't help but stop at each one. I stoop down as to not to disturb it, and then, with some, I feel compelled to pick them up and study them. Not as a scientist would, but as a lover. I take in the lines and the grades of colors, feel the texture of the skin, notice the stem, and when I bring it near, I smell a thousand autumns against my cheek and under my nose. I am touched by the season.
I often think of you and wish the days could have gone on and on. But that's not life, and that is why we cherish it when we can. So while I'm here, and you are there, please know many remember you. Your good deeds for others, your kindness with other animals, your enduring patience with Will, your prowess on the mountains, your summit sitting, and how we were one instead of two. 
Tomorrow, many will remember you as we walk in your memory in North Conway during the Atticus M. Finch Memorial Walk for the Animals. It benefits the Conway Area Humane Society. While I've rarely been one to put words in your mouth, I imagine you'd approve. Although you would have hated the actual walk. You see, leashes are required, and I know from the very beginning you hated them. Ironically, that's why we moved to Jackson because you could be leash free here. 
When they can catch a glimpse of me, the locals are kind in remembering you. They too have memories of a little dog who did grand things. And still, tourists pour into Jackson from all over the country, and all over the world, wanting to see Atticus's White Mountains. 
The doctors continue to be surprised by my recovery. One tells me he is always surprised because he expected me to be in a wheelchair for a very long time. So when I walk into his office and give him a bear hug, he laughs, and sometimes he wipes a tear out of the corner of his eye. Many of them have now read about you and wish they had met you. 
Down in Providence earlier this week, many of the booksellers who came to know you on tour stopped by our table to offer their condolences. They proudly told me again and again that you will always grace their bookshelves. That's one of the things that makes me smile the most. 
You came into my life, and all I wanted to do was not screw you up. I longed to let you be an individual, not defined by breed or size or species. No stereotypes. I wished to give you a good life. You took it from there, from the first time I held you as an eight week old puppy on the way home from the airport, to fourteen years to the very weekend you arrived, when I held you for the last time under the pine trees in that soft rain. 
Your legacy is that you were your own dog. You had a sense of self. 
Currently, young Samwise Atticus Passaconaway is finding his way in the world. He's very different from you. You both have me in common, along with a keen intelligence, a love of the wild, and your gentleness with other non-human animals. He sits and watches the beavers and the cormorants. He likes to spy on the otters when they play, and he is fascinated by ducklings and their incessant chatter. Once, I saw him touch noses with a chipmunk. 
While he's seen bears at the pond, not a bear has entered our yard since you've been gone. That's a first. There was always a parade of them through the years making their way up from the river, across the lawn, on their way to the restaurants and inns of Jackson Village. Butkus, Walter, Passaconaway, State of Maine, the Jackson Five, the second Jackson Five, and of course our beloved Aragorn, who used to sit in the yard with us watching the blue jays and the butterflies. 
I find it fitting that when you left, so did they. I always said you drew animals to us, and now I know for sure that you did. 
Well, friend, I must go now, and take Samwise out for a walk. Around town, he's on a leash, but in the forest he's as naked as you were, romping along the trails half puppy, half stately mountain dog. He's learning. His is a soul on fire with joy, and he carries your name with him on his way to defining himself.
NOTE: If anyone would like to contribute to any of the members of Team Atticus for tomorrow's walk, you simply have to click on the following link:

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Part of his Education

Watching the ducks, part of Samwise's education, so different than
the one he'll get in the next couple of weeks.

As the sun was setting, I looked to my left. Seated next to me was Samwise. He was alert but calm, and watching a simple scene play out in front of us. A mother duck and her four ducklings were just below us in the water, quack-quack-quacking away. He had noticed them before I did since he was walking in front of me. He stopped where he was, looked from the ducks to me, and back to the ducks. Finally, he sat, and I sat with him. 

For fifteen minutes we watched them circle in the water, never getting too far from us, always turning back to face us, their constant chatter was busy amusement. 

I repeated my mantra to Samwise, the one I always use around others if I’m not sure how he will act, “Gentle, Samwise. Always be gentle, please.” However, he didn’t need those words, for he wasn’t bothering anyone. He was sitting and watching them, curiosity percolated in his rising and falling ears.

During our fifteen minutes, the last five under the softest rain shower, he only looked at me two or three times. Mostly he kept is eyes on the young family, and listened to their incessant noise. Occasionally he lifted his gaze to Mount Pickering and Mount Stanton, whose green coats are showing the faintest of a yellow tinge. 

It’s been three months since Samwise arrived, and I couldn’t be happier for him, or us. He’s fit in nicely, is a darn good roommate who respects my things (other than a couple of instances, which we used as teaching moments), and I enjoy watching him grow toward adulthood. 

We forgo many of the terms of endearment society uses when describing non-human animals, mainly because they don’t fit us. And when people try to put the “daddy” label on me, or the “son” label on him, we sneak away as soon as possible. I like that he’s fast maturing toward equality in our relationship. One day he won’t have to be guided regarding what is acceptable and not, and what is respectful toward others, or safe for him. 

The only familial term I use, and I notice that I’ve said it a few times over the last couple of weeks as he ages, is a word I used last night. 

“What say, brother? We ready to go now?”

It’s a term I used with Atticus, and later Will. With Atticus, the mountains brought out that kinship in us. All those trails. All those peaks. All those hours through sun and snow and warmth and cold. With Will, as he let his temper evaporate and he accepted his new chapter in life, I was honored to feel a brotherhood with him, realizing that he was making a similar journey like the one I had already made. 


I find it is a word that bonds, and it comes naturally. I don’t want him to be above me, or below me. I don’t deify animals, and I don’t look down on them. Instead, I prefer to look them at them eye-to-eye. But that’s just my choice. Rumor has it that a noted author is writing about book about the words we use when dealing with other species. I hear her argument is that words mean something, and can help or hurt. Language can be a bridge that bonds us or one that is burned. 

As society changes and now refers to our four-legged friends and relations in terms that make me uncomfortable, I find that I adhere to a bond that is centuries old. Most of the learning and togetherness is forged through the osmosis of being with one another hour after hour, day after day. 

I’m not a fan of words that separate. Samwise doesn’t have a “forever home,” he has a home. Just like I do. And while he was a “rescue,” he isn’t now. As the world continues to change, the way society looks at non-human animals, I find comfort in being on the edge, further and further away, towards a life I find to be comfortable. It is one of those examples of how being an introvert helps. 

While it works, for us, I realize it doesn’t work for everyone, and that’s fine with me. I’m not trying to change the world, just live happily and peaceably in my corner of it.

I often find social media ironic for me. Part of me embraces it, while I also keep a leery eye on it. It is a contradiction that one who likes to spend so much time out of the public eye posts as much as I do. And soon, our lifestyles will face a dramatic temporary change. 

In less than two weeks, Samwise will make his first trip to a big city. I’m honored that the New England Independent Booksellers Association has invited us to be at their annual fall meeting. We’ll encounter many of the bookstore owners I’ve already met when touring with Atticus for “Following Atticus.” I look at some of them as warm acquaintances, and laughter will rise from our conversation. Atticus handled all those kinds of get-togethers with aplomb. Each event has been a celebration of sorts, and I love them, but after they are done, I seek out the quiet and feel the need to regenerate. I’m not the social butterfly I used to try to convince myself I was. 

I like people, but as my friend Martha says, sometimes she gets “peopled out.” I can relate. Some of us are made for crowds. Others are wallflowers. And then there're people like me, who at an event feels very much at ease and self-assured, but once it is over, I like shrinking off into solitude. 

A few days after the NEIBA function, we’ll participate in the Atticus M. Finch Memorial Walk for Animals. It is the first kind of walk I’ve ever participated in. Leashes are required, and I’ve never been a fan of them, preferring to place my four-legged friends in environments where they can be free. Unlike Atticus, Samwise has no aversion to a harness or lead. He’ll do well, I’m sure, in the big city, and then on the walk a few days later. 

But oh, I’m sure I will be touched by the nostalgia of Atticus walking through various cities by my side, or just in front of me, as naked as can be, while civilized folks on cell phones and drinking high-priced lattes stared at him as if he was a savage beast just out of the jungle. The last time we were at NEIBA, Atti and I went for a walk through the city in the early morning. When we came to a Starbucks, he sat outside by the door as I ordered our drinks. 

A crowd gathered around him. Camera phones out. Some were panicked that he was lost stray without a collar. As people approached him, he ignored them. When I came out, he left the circle that had formed around him. I didn’t have to say a word. He just fell into step with me, and we walked along the busy sidewalks without explanation. When we came to a little park, we sat next to each other on a bench, by a statue with a hundred of pigeons on it and around it. I put out his cup of water for him and drank my tea. The noise of the beginning of the workday faded away, as did the excitement of the night before when we met with all those wonderful booksellers. 

So Samwise is in for a bit of a culture shock. From watching beavers and ducks and bear and herons, he will be in a ballroom with many people who are glad to meet him. A few days later, we’ll stroll with Dr. Rachael Kleidon on a walk named after my dearly departed friend, my brother, as I came to know him. 

After the walk, it will be a quarter of a mile down the road to White Birch Books for an hour of meet and greet. It’s an unusual event for us, one where other well-behaved dogs are invited to. When I knew we were doing the walk, I called Laura Cummings at White Birch and said, “What the hell, since we’re being public that day, we may as well be public for an hour at the bookstore and sign some copies for those who want them. 

It will be fun. But by that afternoon, after we take our nap together, Samwise and I will once again find a lonesome patch of land where the only watchful eyes will be those of the trees and the wild things which live there. 

It is part of growing together, getting Samwise ready for the spring book tour and the long road trip that will follow. From the silence of the forest to the buzz of society - it’s all part of this life we live, and it’s all part of his education. Although he’ll be excitable at first, I look forward to the way he’ll eventually grow calm when we meet crowds. 

We grow together, towards a brotherhood that feels right, onward, we move, by all means.