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, December 13, 2012

The Long Night Calls

We woke up just before seven this morning and it was still dark out – dark and cold.  Daylight continues to dwindle while the night grows.  And yet it felt warm and bright within our  little home this morning. 

There is a comfort in getting out of bed and turning the thermostat up on these frigid mornings.  Then there’s the stove and the frying pan awaiting the blueberry pancake batter; Bing Crosby singing carols in the background; and the Christmas tree glowing in the corner of the room with its little while lights and silver and gold ornaments.  Outside in the backyard, on the other side of the picture window, stands another tree; it’s wrapped in blue lights and is our beacon in the morning drear.  The other day it looked like a greeting card dressed in a thin layer of snow and we all stood in wonder as we gathered around it. 

Then there is Will, who is nearing sixteen.  He may be deaf and see nothing more than shapes and shadows, with hips so weak they often collapse beneath him – and yet he wakes up every morning tangled in joy.  He leaps to and fro in his desire to play and if his legs were stronger and his aim truer he may actually be able to catch us as he “gallops” like a slow motion drunken horse.  His front legs are ambitious but are disconnected from the rear ones that don’t have the heart to do go very fast and they are unsure of themselves.  So he rears up to give chase and then realizes it’s not going to happen.  There are even times he topples over.  But none of it dissuades his happiness.  And yet this spectacle is nothing compared to the unmitigated celebration that explodes within him when I’m getting his breakfast.  Every morning is Madri Gras for Will here in Jackson! 

On the other end of the spectrum, Atticus waits.  He sits and watches patiently.  He also eats but neither food nor happiness has ever been withheld from him so he exhibits a stately grace compared to Will.  Besides, although he likes food, what delivers elation to Atticus can’t be found indoors.  It waits outside beyond the fraying edges of the gray morning in the trees and the paths that wind their way through them.

Later today, we’ll leave all this comfort behind.  I’ll get dressed in my hiking gear and bring my three headlamps because I know that night will fall early, and we’ll head out into the woods and up a mountain.  That’s where Atticus is in his element.  It doesn’t matter how cold it is, how much the wind is blowing, or whether we’re being watched by the sun or the stars.  What matters is that we’re out there and up there together. 

For Atticus he is most at ease with me, but he is happiest when we are together on a mountain.  But still, he takes it all in stride, as if this is what life was always supposed to be and what we were meant to be together.  When it comes to me though, I cannot tell you the pleasure I find in being out in the woods when the sun falls behind the mountains and darkness grows.  It used to unnerve me and the darkness fed on a fear that grew with the night.  But now I find comfort in the dance that leads from day to night. 

I even find comfort in the long nights in the coziness inside and the excitement outside.  I like how the wind taunts and harasses me.  I like that I’m warm in my gear with just a hint of discomfort to create an edge.  And I like that together we are far away from anyone else.  It took some time but I finally learned to appreciate that Saint-Exupery quote: “Night, the beloved. Night, when words fade and things come alive.  When the destructive analysis of day is done, an all that is truly important becomes whole and sound again.  When man reassembles his fragmentary self and grows with the calm of a tree.”   

And that’s what I feel like when we are miles away from the rushing world, especially around the holidays like now, when roads and restaurants and stores are crowded and everyone is in a hurry to get somewhere other than where they are. 

In recent hikes night fell on us as we travelled carefully down the icy trail along the Three Agonies as we descended Lafayette; we watched the sun dissolve behind the Tripyramids on the Sandwich Range when we were just a third of the way down the ledges of South Moat; and watched a pregnant moon with its perfectly round belly rise over the little boxes of the village of North Conway below us while we traversed Cathedral and White Horse Ledges.

I derive a delicious pleasure of being where once I feared to be and when considering those steps taken in the forest at night I thrive on the simplicity of it all.  Let the world unleash itself on us as it does from time to time and you can find us on a mountaintop in the dark where I am reassembling my “fragmentary self”.

There’s also something else that’s pleasurable about being on a mountain this time of year when it is cold and the winds are howling when darkness falls.  It makes you feel raw and utterly alive, but it also makes you appreciate a place called home.  It’s adventure that plants the seeds for later contentment. 

So tonight, long after this has been sent off at deadline, we’ll be up on mountain, cloaked in darkness, little lamps lighting our way as we trek across icy rocks leaving behind whatever troubles we’ve accumulated throughout the past days and there will be one thought on my mind – home. 

And when we return home we’ll be happy we ventured away from it, only to return to it with a renewed appreciation and greeted by a little blind and deaf dog who has redefined that term for us – and in the process discovered his own home.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Will in December

Will greets the morning snow on December 2nd. It's good to be alive!
It’s a fine December morning and we’re feeling good.  There’s a coating of crusty snow on everything and it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas here in Jackson.  Better than that, as you can see by the photograph, Will is enjoying the snow. 

There was a time I wasn’t certain he’d live long enough to see it. 

When he arrived in May he was frail and bitter, he was in pain and ill-suited for much of anything but snapping and getting angry. He threw temper tantrums and did his best to bite me whenever he could. The first morning I took him outside and he shivered, even though it wasn’t cold.  I didn’t think he’d last a month or two.  Worse, I feared I’d have to make a tough decision so soon after bringing him into our home because, quite frankly, I wasn’t sure why he was kept alive. 

He was fifteen, had been neglected and abandoned.  He struggled to walk.  It was nearly impossible getting him in and out of the car or up the stairs to where we live without him attacking me.  He was alive, but he wasn’t living.

I was so depressed that first day I met him and wondered what we’d gotten ourselves into.  But I remembered why we took him in in the first place – to give him a place to live out his days with dignity, and a place to die with dignity. 

With that in mind I set out to make him comfortable, to help him understand he was allowed to be himself, even if that meant getting angry.  Because, quite frankly, I’d be awfully angry if the only people I ever knew dropped me off someplace where I was left alone without much sight, without hearing, without an ability to get around, and there was a good chance no one would want me and all that was left for me was to be put out of my misery. 

I also decided to give him what he wanted – food!  He was starving for food and I wanted to put some meat on his bones, always a touchy balance because of his decayed hips (he’d been crated for far too long), just in case he made it to the autumn so he wouldn’t be cold.

And when his guard was down – when he was sleeping – I’d drape a blanket or towel over his shivering, elderly body and put flowers, which he seemed to like, near him for when he woke up.  I played music so he could feel the vibrations.  I lay on the floor with him – on his level – and we started to bond, and I talked to him, even though he couldn’t hear me.  I also touched him, a lot.  I touched him whenever I could when we were on the floor together.  Oh, there were times he’d still bite me, and even then I gave him permission to do that if that’s what he felt he needed to do.  I guess I did this to let him know I’d respect him, respect his right to feel whatever he was feeling and allowed him to express whatever he wanted to express.  (Thankfully, he never went after Atticus, only me.  Then again, Atticus saw his behavior and stayed away from him, always seeking comfort where he most finds it – by climbing.  Not mountains, since we don’t have any in our home, but onto the furniture, where he’s always been welcome and Will couldn’t reach.)

Over time Will stopped being so angry.  Like most of us, he simply wanted to know he could be mad if he wanted to be.  Give someone that opportunity and they rarely stay made very long – that is, if they have half a heart.  He realized, I guess, that he could simply be Will.  And while there are times he still throws a minor temper tantrum, they are so rare they happen less than once a month and they are mostly associated with the pain he is in.    

Since arriving in May Will has gained seven pounds and we’ve cut back on the food and he’s a rather happy, well-fed fellow who no longer shivers outside, even when it’s only 25 degrees, as it is this morning, or 12 degrees as it was the other night.

And Will, who was in such pain he didn’t like being touched, well, this morning when it was time to come inside, I scooped him up into my arms and rolled him over on his back and carried him up the stairs like a little baby, his rear legs stretched out and his head dangling in about as relaxed a position as he could possibly be in.

So yes, it is a good morning.  I’m happy to report that Will has become Will.  He’s alive and well, happily living out his days.  He takes comfort in eating good food; listening to (or feeling) music; smelling beautiful flowers, greens, and candles; being touched and held and even gently wrested with; watching the shadows move about him; and most of all, he simply loves being loved and knowing he belongs. 

The best part of each day here is when Will wakes up.  He’s an old fellow and he groans in his bed as he takes inventory of his aches and pains and looks for a way to get to his feet – which isn’t easy.  When he does, he stumbles about a bit, usually bumping into a wall, and finds his balance. Then when he sees me something magnificent happens. He becomes a puppy again. He greets me by wanting to play. He’d jump on me if he could.  He spins and dances and prances about and joy flashes brightly in his eyes and overcomes the dullness of his cataracts.  It is a morning ritual we can only smile at and laugh with.  It’s pure, unmitigated elation. 

Will is my morning reminder to show gratitude.  I’m not only grateful he’s still alive and doing well, he’s grateful, too, and he shows it each morning.  What better way to start each day than by giving thanks?

With Christmas on its way, I’m happy to report that the tree will go up today and eventually there will be presents under it for a little dog we didn’t think would live long enough to see it.  But Will not only lives in our happy little home in the heart of the White Mountains, so does gratitude, peace, hope, and love.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Order Personalized Autographed and Pawtographed Copies of Following Atticus from White Birch Books for the Holidays and You May Win One of Our Following Atticus T-Shirts

We do so love independent bookstores and here in the Mount Washington Valley we’re fortunate to have a great one in White Birch Books.  It’s my favorite place to stop by in North Conway and has been since we moved to the valley.  They’ve always welcomed Atticus, and now they welcome Will, too, which makes me like them all the more. 

From the day Following Atticus first came out in hardcover Laura Lucy and her staff have been great supporters and they’ve now sold more than 2,000 copies.  Below you will see a photo of Laura and Barb with Atticus and the cake HarperCollins sent them congratulating them on 1,000 sales.) That’s an astounding number for any bookstore, but especially so for a small indie bookseller in the mountains. Every author should be so fortunate to have a place like White Birch Books in his or her corner.  And since day one they’ve handled special orders for personalize autographed and pawtographed copies of our book and sent it throughout the country, and even overseas.  

They are now busy at work doing just that with the holiday season upon us and this year we’re teaming up with them to give away our next Following Atticus t-shirt.  Between now and December 15th, anyone ordering a personalized autographed and pawtographed copy of Following Atticus from the good ladies at White Birch Books will be entered into a drawing for a Following Atticus t-shirt.  And the more special orders you make the better chance you have of winning.  For instance, if you order one book, you get one chance of having your name drawn on December 16th. If you order five, you get five chances of winning the t-shirt. 

So if you are giving Following Atticus as a gift this holiday season and want to make it extra special, call White Birch Books at (603) 356-3200 and we’ll be by the shop two or three times each week to personalize them for you.  Better yet, you could win the t-shirt they are giving away.