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.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Will's Choice


I believe in the magic of these mountains.  It’s what drew me here; it’s what keeps me here.  It’s where I connect with my late father, where I made peace with him when he was still alive. It’s where I followed a little dog home to myself, the self I always dreamed of being.  It’s where I finally met my best friend and the love of my life.  For me, the White Mountains are my beginning and my ending; my alpha and my omega. 

I find a certain synchronicity here – not only on the trails, by the rocky streams where mountain waters rush swiftly by, on the exposed ledges of the Presidential Range, the mysterious forests of the Sandwich Range, or on summit halfway between heaven and earth.  It’s even in the little house we live in down in the valley and it’s where things come together and life makes sense. 

No matter what we plan for, we can never be truly ready for what life will deliver to us. There’s just no way of knowing who or what is on the other side of that door we’re about to open.  It’s part of the mystery of it all.  Look at it all in the right way and you can see what Einstein meant: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.”  It’s what keeps life interesting.  It’s what makes us grow. 

Last spring I lost a friend to alcoholism.  No matter what I did or tried to do, I couldn’t help him, but as anyone who has been through a similar experience will tell you, the only one who can save an addict is the alcoholic himself. My friend didn’t die, he simply crawled further inside the bottle and I had to make a decision to go on with my life. What died was our friendship. 

Within a month we adopted Will, an elderly, mostly blind, deaf, and arthritic miniature schnauzer. Another friend had the opinion that we rescued Will because we couldn’t rescue the alcoholic in our lives.  Perhaps there is some truth to that – but I’m not really sure. 

I ran into the alcoholic in July.  He was still drinking and still sinking deeper into the bottle.  Meanwhile, I had expected Will to be dead by July.  He was in such bad shape, so angry, in so much pain when he came to live with us in May I wondered if it was cruel keeping him going.  But by July Will was doing much better. By August he was thriving.  Now here in the middle of October I look at this nearly sixteen year old dog with a sense wonder.  He’s not only joyful and fulfilled; he’s discovered a sense of self.  He knows who he is and what he wants.

Will doesn’t get around much. He’s been to some book signings with us, but people in town don’t get to see much of him because his poor stiff hips are in such bad shape – probably from being crated for far too many years – and he can’t walk very far.  Two weeks ago I shared our plan to try to get this old boy to the top of a mountaintop.  His hips have gotten better.  They’re no longer tender to the touch and he sits in the crook of my arm as Atticus always has. They are still not strong enough to allow him a long walk, never mind climb up even the easiest of mountains.  But I thought he may be ready to sit in one of the child-carrying backpacks parents put their kids into.  So we went to Eastern Mountain Sports, picked up a backpack, crossed our fingers, and gave it our best shot while sitting in the comfort of our backyard. 

I held Will as I always do, slowly slid him down into the seat and let his long lower legs poke through the openings and dangle downward.  At first he was a bit nervous by this new position.  Then he whimpered.  Then my heart broke when I heard him crying.  I pulled him out and held him for a bit.  We waited and gave him another try but it was clear he wasn’t just limited by fear, it was also pain. So I pulled him out and sat for a while as he buried his head against my chest and let me hold him.  (This is something that never would have happened in the beginning. He wouldn’t have let me hold him like this. He barely let me touch him, and I wouldn’t have let his flashing teeth so close to me.) 

Sitting there cradling this dog who was left to die in a kill shelter less than six months ago I wondered if maybe, holding him like that, letting him cry, letting him feel safe in my arms, letting him feel loved, if maybe sitting there with me was his mountaintop.  Perhaps he didn’t need to reach some summit thousands of feet in the air.

But while I was holding him I soon noticed that as soon as he calmed down and gave me a tiny flick of his tongue – a kiss perhaps? – that this mostly blind dog started casting his nose about in the air and let his eyes try to focus on shapes and movements all around us.  A gentle breeze tussled his white hair, he closed his eyes, seemed to smile, and I heard that same familiar sigh Atticus always makes on a mountaintop when he’s in my arms. 

Seeing him like that has me determined to get to a mountaintop.  I want him to experience what it is like just once in his life.  But I want him to enjoy it for if he doesn’t, and if he doesn’t feel safe and comfortable, there’s no sense in it.  And I want to do it before too much time passes.  Soon the roads with access to the easier mountains I have in mind will be closed.  Soon the snows will come and winter’s cold will keep Will and his brittle bones inside. 

I’m smart enough to know that for as far as we’ve come, and how Will finally understands what it is like to be loved and is clearly loving us back, how he’s so much healthier than he was, this redemption he’s going through will soon come to an end.  That’s the thing about adopting an older dog. Time together is dear but all too short. The reality is that he may not live to see another spring, not at this age. 

It seems rather cruel, that now that he’s found his home, he may not get to enjoy it for a long time.  We all knew this taking him in.  We did it to give him a place to die in dignity and with respect.  I just didn’t count on him living.  And it’s not that I didn’t count on him living this long, I just didn’t count on him choosing to live again and love again.  Unlike the friend we lost last April, Will chose to live when he had every reason to give up on life as life had given up on him. 

Because Will chose to live he’s made our lives richer because of it.  He fills our hearts on a daily basis and when the time comes to say goodbye, he will break them. 

So when people ask me why I would want to take an old blind and deaf dog to a mountaintop my answer is clear.  It’s because life is all too fleeting and all too dear not to. I want him to live while he still can, especially since he's chosen to live!

So this weekend, we’ll take one last shot at getting Will to a mountaintop.  An enclosed stroller made for dogs and cats is arriving tomorrow.  It’s rugged enough to take on a gentle trail and should be far more comfortable for Will to ride in than the backpack was, especially since we’ll swaddle him in padding.  Of course we’ll be following Atticus up that mountain and there will be two of us to lift the stroller when we get to the rougher parts. 

Hopefully when the weekend is done, Will would have sat on his first, and most likely, last mountaintop.  Will it all be worth it?  I believe so.  For I believe in fate and synchronicity.  I believe we come into each other’s lives for a reason. 

The translated Italian title for Following Atticus equates to “With You to the Top of the World.”  I think it’s ironic that while we’ll be helping Will get to a special place that’s not even close to being the tallest peak in our valley, never mind the White Mountains, or the world, something tells me that when all is said and done, all of us will feel as though we’ve reached the top of the world together.
 

27 comments:

Sondra Palazzo said...

What a great thing you are doing for Will. Hope you have a great weekend and he loves his mountaintop.

Janice Hummel said...

I needed a moment to brush away tears before I wrote this. What it all comes down to is allowing all of God's creation-two or four legged-the chance to live with dignity. How we treat those we encounter in life is a choice. Tom, you have given this scared little man a life that is full of love, and joy. But mostly, you gave him back, at age 16, the right to be himself. Bless you for your big heart.

Anonymous said...

I have been falling Will's story on Facebook. I love watching him get tucked in at night. We have fallen in love with him as you have. I'm so exited to see him make it to the Mountain. XOXO Tisha

Ginny Suhr said...

I'm brushing away tears, too. What a beautiful post, Tom. Thank you, as always, for sharing your life and those of your best friends with us. I cherish every post and share many with my own friends. I am so excited for Will and for all of you as you make this journey this weekend and will pray all goes well. Peace and love to you all.

Linda said...

Oh dear Tom, How wise you are and how much I am starting to understand my journey through life as well. Reflection and pushing forward is what it takes each and every day. Here's hoping Will gets to his mountain, no matter how small. To him, I'm sure it will be huge. And I know he'll thank you for it.

Mark Lewonis said...

I think it is great that you want to share your source of Genesis so to speak with Will. Perhaps the healing power that a lot of us have felt here in the White Mountains will touch Will. I have commented on your posts in the past on Facebook. I was able to substitute my addiction to the bottle to that of peak bagging. It truly saved me. I wanted to save myself and that was the first step. It is very hard once you get in too deep. I know not only from my own experience but have tried to guide others out. I have not been successful in that endeavor unfortunately. Substance abuse and the abuser have to be divorced in a mutual way. You are right in saying the abuser HAS to make that choice. My brother was as deep if not deeper in that bottle than I was. I tried to be "on his case" as much as I could without pulling away my love from him. He eventually passed away most likely related to his high blood pressure. The high blood pressure was brought on by alcohol abuse and I am sure that attributed to his death. I also lost a few very good friends the same way. Before they passed away though, I developed anger towards them. Perhaps that is why I was not successful in helping them. I confronted them about it because I cared. I wanted to show them through my own experiences that it can be done. Their addictions were stronger than anything I could do for them. When my brother passed away it nearly killed me too. A deep depression settled in and caused several other problems in my life. I found comfort though in them thar hills. I am glad we have them nearby. It gives me goose bumps as I write this because my wind chimes are ringing. On top of Black Cap Mtn. close to the summit is a homemade memorial made by the family of a local deceased North Conway restaurant owner who passed away from cancer I think. It is a hidden memorial perhaps a 1/2 mile from any trail. It has several wind chimes. Where am I going with this? For me, for some reason wind chimes seem to be a communication of sorts from those that have passed. When I thought of you carrying Will up a mountain Black Cap came to mind... don't know why it just came to me. When my wind chimes rang perhaps it brought me to Black cap. Don't be angry at your substance abusive friend. Don't abandon him. If he dies you will be forced to remember the good things about him... the things you saw in him worthy enough to be your friend.

Carter W Rae said...

Tom you are a remarkable man I so enjoy your comments what a resonance!.. Even though just on the social media, I feel as though we have friend over there.... thanks!!! Still enjoying the ride with you and your story. You & Will are in our prayers.. We all have very little control sometimes but when the joy of life is realized it is very important .. Thank you so much!!!

Chris Ryan said...

Godspeed to you, Will and Atticus.

Patricia Simon said...

This beautiful post left me in tears as well - so sweet, tender and loving. I wish you success this weekend and look forward to hearing about the adventure. Will has been so successful in learning to live and love again, that, whatever the outcome of your attempts to climb a mountain, he has given, and received, so much from you (and your friend), that he actually has already reached a mountaintop of sorts. This post so eloquently relates your loving attempts to successfully get him to the top of one of the mountains that you have given you and Atticus so much meaning, my heart will be filled with joy if you are successful in sharing a little of that with William. Bless you for this incredible act of love. I am overwhelmed thinking of what the two of you mean to each other, and I am so thankful that you have shared the journey with all of us. With best wishes.

Anonymous said...

I have a nearly 15 year old mini schnauzer. Indee is deaf but not blind. He is not my first old dog. What I've learned about dogs is that they live in the moment. They do not fear the future nor rue the past. I hope you and Atticus and Will have a blast on the mountain.

Anonymous said...

Wow!!!!

Julie said...

I look forward to hearing about Will's moment in the mountains! Wonderful posting, as always :)

Anonymous said...

Tom, your posts here & on FB always find a way into my heart. I've left comments on some & "liked" others... but your writing always has a kindness & gentleness of spirit that makes me happy to have "found" you. I hope to follow you, Atticus, Will & BF for a long time to come. Thank you.

Librarylady said...

Thank you for the update Tom I was wondering and now I know. I feel just as blessed as Will because I am lucky enough to have found your musings. Almost every time I read one of your posts I am touched and so often moved deeply. I reflect on how shallow life is, for the most part, and anything (words or otherwise)that cause us to pause and take a moment is wonderful. I thank you from the bottom of my heart Tom to help me take those moments.

Nancy said...

Very touching and life affirming. Thank you. Here's hoping all goes well this weekend.

Francy said...

Godspeed to all on your journey. You know, when you wrote how cruel it seems that Will has finally found a home and he might not get to enjoy it for long....don't you know that every single second he gets to spend in his new home with his loving family is like a lifetime to him. He doesn't know time, just knows that he is now completely loved.

harry said...

As I sit here crying after reading your tender loving words that are so compelling and well written of your love for Atticus and Will....I think if only there were others who did what you did ....adopting an ole guy to finally feel what LOVE is.....Where there is life there is hope and where these is hope there is love .....Love to you guys ....See you on the mountain top

Anonymous said...

This post left me in happy tears. God bless you Tom for all you have done for sweet little Will! Thank you so much for sharing all of your stories. Atticus and will are very lucky to have found you and it's amazing to know how they have inspired you as well. Animals are such amazing creatures; all with their own lessons to teach. We just have to be willing to stop and listen! Thanks for opening your heart and sharing all you have learned from your furry little friends. Can't wait to hear about more adventures!

Anonymous said...

As always your words touch my heart and in most cases bring me to tears. I know I am just one of many who are praying for success in getting Will to the top of a mountain, and while we won't be there physically we will be there in spirit to help lift him lovingly over the bumps. And if by some chance it is not meant to be maybe Will can still enjoy going on rides around your beautiful village with you and Atticus. Again I thank you for taking all of us with you on your adventures!
Denyse

Anonymous said...

A wonderful and moving post, thank you! "He's not heavy, he's my brother"...as the song goes. I carried my brother, out of the bottle, and to his final resting place after a beautiful later life and dignified, peaceful death. His ashes are on a hillside, in green cemetery of natural beauty, not far from trails we hiked in our youth.

We are all equal on this planet, creatures great and small. How fitting you will carry Will so he can feel his spirit soar, as he will surely follow yours, sharing the joy of love and life.

Silvia G. Soos-Kazel said...

Tom, your writing today and those that have written comments are all so heartwarming. Life can be so harsh, yet you have created a beautiful haven for many to find a least some moments in daily living to cherish. Yes, fate does bring various aspects to our lives and Will is such a great example of this. Will not only has endeared you, and your dear Family, but the many that follow Atti's Army. Therefore wishing Will, with the love of you, Atticus and your dear Partner a successful venture into the trails of the White Mountains. God speed, love and peace.

M said...

Tom and family,
You are making Will very happy with all the love you give him. Have a great hike this weekend I bet when Will is at the top and the wind is blowing in his face, he will have a smile.

Judy Delaney said...

Just finished your book and learned of Will. Hope he feels more comfortable soon. Just lost my 13 yr old mixed breed soulmate over Labor Day. Your book was a gift from a dear friend. It both helped and hurt....

I've moved many times in my life so home has always been where the dog is. I hope someone new will come along soon... Tks Tom

Ashley Wilkins said...

Ok it's Sunday afternoon and I am anxious to hear how Will did on the hike. My soon to be 14 year old schnauzer joined his two brothers and sister (a 10 yr old schnauzer runt, a 9 yr old rat terrier rescue and the baby girl of the family....a 6 year old American Staffordshire Terrier) at a benefit festival for animals surviving disasters. Krupp was a rock star. Hip and back issues did not stop him and he prance through the park like they were celebrating his arrival. These days are few and far between and maybe that's why I want so much to hear of Wills day on the mountain. Thanks for sharing with all of us.

Karen said...

Such a sad and moving story, I am in tears. You are very brave for rescuing an ageing dog, with not much time left, I feel for both of you. Best wishes Karen.

Ellis M said...

Your blog is actually very inspirational!

Urban Wild said...

I rescued a dog about two years ago. He was an "owner surrender" at a shelter. I was overweight and out of shape and this dog needed a new home. Together we've given each other a new life. I have lost 60 lbs. and am able to once again enjoy the hiking I'd neglected for so long. And Digby has come to love the outdoors as much as I do--I think he never got to experience the real outdoors before.
People and dogs find each other when they most need each other.