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 30, 2010

Twenty Minutes That Will Last A Lifetime

Ignorance can be bliss.

In my case it definitely was.

When I was rushed to the hospital a few weeks ago by ambulance, I knew I was in trouble. I just didn't realize how much trouble I was in. My temperature was 104.9 and I was in septic shock. In the emergency room I became non-responsive for 20 minutes and doctors feared they might be losing me. The culprit was a gangrenous gallbladder. It took 18 hours to stabilize my body before they could cut me open. Once inside the surgeons found a mess and the infection was already into my bloodstream.

The following day a surgeon told me had they not operated, I'd be dead. Another told me had I not called 911 when I did I wouldn't have been able to later because of the septic shock and someone would have eventually found my dead body in my home.

And yet when I was sick my focus was not on how serious all of this was. Instead it was to get out of the hospital as soon as possible. The gravity of the situation didn't hit me. Eventually I did leave but only after eight nights in North Conway's Memorial Hospital, several of which were in the intensive care unit. Even now, nearly two weeks after getting released, I continue to learn how bad things were. But while I was in my hospital bed my concentration was focused more on Atticus, who'd only been away from me for three nights in eight years - and he hated each of those; and how soon we could hike again. Luckily good friends took care of Atticus every night – not that he enjoyed it, but it at least made it tolerable for me and gave me one less thing to worry about. And Memorial’s staff welcomed Atticus and allowed him to spend each day with me. That made things better for both of us. It was in those hallways of the hospital that we started to hike again, in earnest. We walked up and down those corridors together, just as we have over Franconia Ridge or across the Northern Presidentials. The only difference was our pace was much slower in the hospital. At first it was one lap, then two. By the time we left Atticus and I were doing fifty laps in that hallway; still slow, but oh-so-determined.

As for our next hike in the mountains? That will take some time. The tube sticking out of my side (a drain from the common bile duct) reminds me of that with every step, cough, twist or turn I make. It's a strange thing to look in the mirror and see a large scar that wasn't there before, but even stranger to see a tube with a large bag attached to it. I'm told it will be my constant companion for the next month and only after it is gone can I hike again or at least start working my way up to hiking again.

Throughout all of this seriousness, talk of life and death, in looking into the faces of concerned friends who were worried about me, I found myself leaning on a fresh memory for strength and inspiration. James Barrie wrote, "God gave us memory so that we can have roses in December." My roses were "picked" on the fifth of July, a stultifying hot night, when Atticus and I sat in the dark of night looking down on the lights of the Village of Jackson. Even though the sun had set we could still feel the oppressive heat. Atticus' pink tongue hung from his mouth and my sweaty shirt clung to my back as a few stars glistened through the haze above.

We were sitting at one of our favorite places, the ledges of South Doublehead. We'd taken our time walking up the steep Old Path in the dying light of the day and drank plenty of water to combat the high temperature and humidity. Normally we'd avoid hiking in such conditions but I had planned the hike for a year.

You see, Jackson is a small town with a population of about 800 and there's only one traffic jam per year. It's for the fireworks on Independence Day weekend. People come from far and wide and they gather in the village, spill onto lawns and sidewalks. Cars are parked everywhere. Fried dough concession stands even set up shop next to the Wentworth Golf Course. And while the multitude pulsed below and looked up at the sky with anticipation, Atticus and I sat far away from them and looked down with the same anticipation.

We sat and waited and waited and waited. The show was late in getting under way. Eventually though a flare shot up into the sky and exploded into a brilliant white flower below us. Then another followed and another. Soon fireworks were going off in rapid succession and we sat and watched from an angel's perspective.

The show lasted no more than 20 minutes, but oh what a 20 minutes they were! I'll never forget the sight of those colors bursting before and below us. How could I? Those 20 minutes will last me a lifetime. I knew it even as the last explosion took place and the echo faded into far off mountains as Atticus and I sat next to each other.

That’s what I was thinking about when the pain grew so strong I asked for morphine and the each cough sent stabbing pains through the incision in my abdomen. I thought about those ledges and the night sky and the echoes in a sea of mountains. I thought about how after the last flash reflected in our eyes how my headlamp led us down through the tangle of thick trees in the saddle between North and South Doublehead where mostly moose gather and how we slowly moved our way down the dark path, back to our car, back to civilization.

One of my favorite Emerson quotes returns to me time and again when I write about the mountains and I’ve used it here before: “Our faith comes in moments; our vice is habitual.” And so it was that the memory of our night on the ledges watching fireworks below us filled me with faith at a dark time. These are the moments we live for – beautiful moments; moments that carry us through the dark or tough times; like a lone star on a dark night.

I suppose lying there alone with Atticus in the hospital I could have thought about a lot of things, most of them unpleasant, but that’s the beauty of these mountains we live in. It allows us to see glorious things even when they are not readily available.

Nature is always there for us, always reaching out to us. At times it carries us through the worst of times – just as faith does.


Cindy said...

Glad to hear you're on the mend and will live to hike with your faithful buddy and write about it all.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Tom, for the long-awaited and welcome piece of writing from your heart, once again. You put into print, what so many of us who often feel marginalized by society's chaotic buzz, are thinking and feeling at each clumsy turn.
And to be quite honest, I believe that your post, after these many days, is a great relief for those of us who have appreciated your heart and soul writing for a long while.
Be well,

Jemk said...

I'm so glad to hear you're doing better. As you, I had to have my gallbladder removed a week ago, (thankfully I didn't have any major problems with mine). But I did have a herniated stomach that they fixed at the same time, & I'm still having pain with it, which should go away soon. Keep us updated on your recovery & of course hikes, even though they may be short!

Thomas F. Ryan said...

Thank you for your good words, Cindy & Cindy.

This tube sticking out of my body frustrates me and is a bit painful, but I suppose it's a good thing it's in me for another few weeks as it will keep me from pushing it. But it really is the strangest feeling. I feel as though some blindfolded fool was playing pin the tail on the donkey and I got in the way and now have a "tail" sticking out of my side.

Jemk, talk about timing. Having lost both of our gallbladders at about the same time must qualify us for membership in some strange club. Here's wishing you a healthy recovery.

Misty Wood said...

I just saw your and Atticus' story on television yesterday (Dogs 101). I googled and found your blog. I'm so glad I did - I love your stories of adventure! I currently live in Florida but was raised in northern Georgia and so miss living near the beauty and peace of mountains. I lived in Danvers, MA for almost 2 years and visited New Hampshire several times. Such gorgeous mountains and views!

I'm glad to hear you are doing better and out of the hospital. I'm sure Atticus is happy to have you back home! I have two schnauzers myself (Smokey, a male rescue) and Ally (6 year old female). I can definitely relate to the strong bond you have with Atticus. They are true friends and always there when we need them!

Keep mending and hope you and Atticus are able to get back to hiking soon!