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.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Our Latest Column for the Northcountry News

"It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure." ~ Joseph Campbell

On a perfect autumn day when the sun was warm but not hot, when the breeze was cool but not cold, when the foliage flamed orange and red against a cerulean sky, Atticus and I went for a walk. We came to a house where a dog quickly made her way towards us and always-innocent and always-trusting Atticus bounced forward to say, "Hello, friend." In a split second the other dog had Atticus by the throat, ripping and tearing at him, shaking his little body like a rag doll. By the time I reached Atticus his body was hanging limply. I feared him dead. When she dropped him he crumbled to the ground.

In a matter of seconds we fell from Heaven into Hell.

In the hours that followed I watched over Atticus after Dr. Christine O'Connell from the North Country Animal Hospital in North Conway sewed up the hole in his throat and inserted gruesome tubes to drain the area beneath his flesh that had been poisoned by the dog trying to kill him.

That night, while on a sleepless vigil over my little friend, I posted a message on our website telling friends of the horror that had transpired earlier in the day and of how I had to watch Atticus that night and check his breathing, hoping a lung was not collapsed and hoping he did not go into shock.

Emails started coming in. The first was from Bryan Flagg, the editor and publisher of the North Country News. Bryan wasted no time in posting the news on this paper's website. News also spread like wild fire in the hiking websites that little Atticus had been attacked and was not doing well. Within a day and a half, more than 200 emails came in, all offering prayers for Atticus; all wanting updates. Within a couple of more days the total was well over 400 emails. People offered money to help pay for his medical bills. One man offered his company helicopter to airlift Atticus down to Boston's Angell Animal Medical Center, one of the best hospitals in the world, if he needed to get there in a hurry. Representatives from Angell informed me that if we needed them they would be there for us and we would not have to wait longer than 10 seconds before coming in the door to be seen.

A year ago Atticus and I move north from Newburyport, Massachusetts. We had fallen head over heels for the mountains and decided this was the only place we wanted to live. I threw caution to the wind, dropped out of Newburyport's mayor's race, sold my newspaper and we came north. It proved to be a difficult move. We'd come from a small, tightly-packed city where nearly everyone knew our name and we ventured to the mountains where hikers knew us but no one else did. I was concerned about leaving behind the sense of community we had enjoyed.

I learned many lessons in the days following the attack on Atticus:

  • Most dogs Atticus' size would not have survived the attack. Hiking hundreds of mountains has made his neck strong, not to mention his will.
  • There are good vets up here in the mountains. During our emergency we literally stumbled upon Dr. Christine O'Connell and now we know we have a vet up here that is as good as any I've ever met.
  • This little dog I live and hike with is made of stronger stuff than I am. In the days that followed, I watched his healing progress beyond anything anyone could imagine.
  • Thanks to Bryan and Suzanne Flagg, we have found a new community and it is called the Northcountry News. It's made up of the great couple who run it and those of you who read it. In the week following the attack, Bryan circled the wagons and made sure all knew about Atticus and how he was doing, whether it was in the newspaper, the website or on the radio. I received countless emails from strangers who were there for us because of Bryan.

Six nights after nearly dying, Atticus walked the red carpet into the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston to be honored as the co-recipient of one of the four Hero Awards the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals gives out annually. The big star for the night was supposed to be the country singer, Emmylou Harris. However, in the end, it was clear that a little dog deserved equal billing, if not sole billing.

Atticus sauntered into the place, weaving through the crowd of the wealthy donors, many of whom brought their dogs with them – at least for the cocktail reception leading up to the dinner – but he was the only one off leash, the only one to walk through that crowd as if he owned the place. You can only imagine the joy I took in watching him climb out of what had befallen him less than a week earlier and seeing him mingle with other dogs, without fear, just as trusting and innocent as he had been before – as only an advanced soul can do.

Much of the way Atticus handled everything had to do with how I handled it and for that I have all of you who reached out with kind thoughts and prayers and warm words for through them I found the strength to lead

In the days following the event at the JFK Library I closed a long passage about the week that was and the night it ended with with the following:

"How lucky we are, this man and dog, to have the experiences we share. How many lifetime moments we've already had together in the 6 ½ years we've known each other. I cannot imagine a world without Atticus in it, not now, not while the adventures come at us one after another.

"Some day, if I live long enough so that I last longer than my family and friends and most of my good senses and I end up in a nursing home where I am all alone, those who take care of me will surely think me mad when I tell them of one little dog, the adventures we shared together, 188 mountains climbed in three winters together, a night on the stage of the JFK Library.

"I'm a sentimental fool; it's in my Irish blood. It's for this reason that I think it is so cruel that dogs lives are shorter than the people who love them. No wonder when thinking of Atticus and our adventures together, I'm so moved whenever I read that wonderful last line from A.A. Milne's House at Pooh Corner: "So they went off together. But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be

A writer needs readers. Without Bryan and Suzanne and without all of you, these words would mean nothing. I thank you for your good thoughts and wishes; I thank you for your prayers; I thank you for this sense of community; and I thank you for reading. Here in the mountains, neighbors may not be right next door like they were in Newburyport, but I take heart in knowing the distance does nothing to lessen the warmth that comes with community.

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