A walk in the woods

Published 9:04 am Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Charles Qualls

A walk in the woods can normally be a refreshing thing for the soul. The recent death of poet Mary Oliver shone light on her love for just such a stroll. She was enamored with the power, depth and sheer creative energy she found in a forested area. So inspired, she eventually took to hiding pencils along her normal paths. Just in case the inspiration hit her to capture a new idea in writing.

So far, these two Januarys, we have taken a walk in the woods near our house at the beginning of the month. We go to deposit our Christmas tree. This provides a natural place for it to compost, and a temporary habitat for low-roosting birds and other wildlife.

Since we moved to Franklin, people have been fascinated to ask us what the adjustment from midtown Atlanta has been like. They’re thinking culture, traffic and entertainment options. They’re thinking restaurants and sports. What they don’t know is that none of these have been the real struggle for us at all.

You want to know what keeps me up at night? The walk in the woods. No, it’s not the kind which Mary Oliver found so inspirational. Nor the one we take with the old tree. This is a walk that began just about the time we moved here and so far grows deeper and darker with every passing month.

Our parents are in poor health back at home. I have come to characterize our journey with aging parents as our “walk in the woods.” In the case of our remaining loved ones, we don’t know for how long we will wander until we one day come out on the other side.

As I write, my wife is home in Georgia with her mother following a hospital stay. My spouse of nearly 30 years is showing me a grit, meddle and resourcefulness I never had to know she possessed. She is inspiring.

Ministers see and learn just enough medicine to be dangerous. We also view long-term health journeys differently than most would. In some ways, we’ve seen too much for our own good.

None of this is the voice of regret for having moved here. To the opposite, neither of us could imagine being surrounded by a more loving congregation during these trying years. The distance is rough, but we have other family members and friends looking out for them. We visit when we can.

Still, I am learning in these years. I am learning what our parents had to learn when their parents’ health got fragile. The lessons of this frightening time make me a better minister in some ways.

I am learning that if one is blessed to have parents live to advanced age, this odd journey is of course universal. We are not alone in wondering if we should find a way to be with them more. We are not alone in worrying that their money will run out before their years do. We are not the first who have bought a home, ready in our minds to accommodate a parent should they need to move in with us. We are not nearly unique in pondering whether the amount of time we can spend with them is enough.

Now that my father, in particular, has taken a forested trail off into dementia I am only just awakening to new questions I wish I had asked him. The more substantive questions only seem to come to us as we ourselves age a bit. Now, I know some things I wish he could tell me. I fear most of those memories are trapped deep within his fading reality.

I’ve listened a lot to others talk about the health challenges or deaths they have experienced with loved ones. But, I listen with renewed ears these days. Lately, my mind is taking notes because there may be something I need to learn from their reflections.

I have friends, a rewarding work world and all the material things that make life at least comfortable. Seems lately, the one thing I don’t have is the ability to get out in front of time and slow it down. The clock respects no income, no giftedness, no achievement, strength or prowess. The clock marches on and does what it will to us all.

This walk in the woods is yielding one gift, though, for all its fearsomeness. I have a renewed sense of gratefulness. An awareness of blessing that is grounded and not trite. I have great gladness for these beautiful lives grown so old.

THE REV. DR. CHARLES QUALLS is senior pastor at Franklin Baptist Church. Contact him at 562-5135.