The last time I picked up a shotgun and turkey call was four years ago, almost to the day that my last tag was filled on a small Appalachian hillside farm owned by an elderly couple who had befriended me and my family. Three month later, a career move and chance to return to Tennessee seemed God-sent.
I had no time to think about hunting while settling into the new job and relocating.
On the morning after our physical move, my wife became critically ill. She lingered in intensive care until passing away just before Christmas. I questioned God then, wondering aloud and in my prayers how He could allow such a thing to happen. We’d been married more than four decades. There had never been anyone else for either of us.
People must put their lives back together. I was given this advice countless times by well-meaning relatives and friends. But I became bitter. While I did not fully turn away from God, the relationship became distant. I was angry with Him.
I found no joy in my life. My depression was a deep pit with slippery sides. It seemed impossible to escape. In a period of three years, I had lost my parents and my wife. Then my younger sister died, an uncle and several dear friends. Why was this happening to me? What had I done to deserve such punishment?
Hunting companions called and invited me to deer camp or to accompany them on spring turkey-hunting trips. I would agree, then back out at the last minute, offering lame excuses. My favorite guns and gear, I locked away. Other equipment was sold or given away.
I remember a fine October morning – first frost of the season – when golden beams of sunlight angled through oak and hickory trees laden with acorns and nuts. I thought to myself: “This would be a fine morning to squirrel hunt.” Except, to whom would I come home at the end of the day? To whom would I display the hunt’s harvest? Who would listen to my stories and reflections? Who would help me dress and freeze the meat? Who would understand this ritual of helpmates bound by years of love?
Who’d have a cup of coffee or glass of iced tea waiting for me and dinner on the stove? Who’d have the fireplace crackling and our chairs pulled up close? Who’d share her day’s events and gossip from the community, as she stroked a purring cat in her lap or a sleeping dog by her side?
She was part of my outdoor life, both as a participant and encourager, for longer than anyone. This facet of my existence and so much more was anchored to her.
My wife worried when I did not return from the woods or river at the appointed time. She’d scold me for not spraying down for ticks or slathering on sunscreen before a day on the water. She loved to fish and was good at it. Some of my fondest memories are of the two of us in a flat-bottom boat, noses in the air to detect panfish nest areas by scent, then filling a cooler with fat bluegills.
She patiently endured my acquisition of guns, archery equipment, blinds, stands, campers, hunting leases and hunting property. She also put up with my hunting trips to other states and foreign countries.
For years, she welcomed into our home a procession of grizzled strangers with muddy boots, whose clothes reeked of deer guts or fish scales. Her hospitality — home cooking and clean linens on the beds — made them feel special. On countless mornings, she dragged herself out bed to bake biscuits, fry bacon and scramble eggs for me and our sons, plus assorted hunting buddies, before we went afield.
While I don’t think my interest in the outdoors ever waned, I stopped being an active participant. I could not stand the thought of sitting in a tree stand or the turkey woods, worrying about going home to an empty, silent house with nothing to keep me company except too many drinks of whiskey.
My anger at God finally burned out. I was distant from Him, however, and floundering. I also wrongly assumed blame for my wife’s illness and death, felt guilt that I did not exert enough influence on the outcome, either through medical science or prayer. I waited for an epiphany: there was nothing.
Someone asked me recently when was the realization that I had hit bottom. I don’t believe there is a bottom; you sink deeper and deeper until your soul cries out like King David in his Psalms.
I did start a daily journal of my feelings and thoughts. It did not take long to fill up pages; and in the process, I discovered that my writing had evolved into a dialogue. I was speaking again to the GOD — somewhat obliquely — but He was answering.
The conversation went something like this: “The only solace I can find in this tragedy and loss is believing You had a greater need for her, or that she was an angel on earth whose work was done here. If the latter, I should be thankful for Your gift. But it was too soon, and this is why I struggle. The balance is gone in my life. I can’t find the center. Help me.”
Among my late wife’s most cherished hopes was that our sons would give us grandchildren. In my journal entry, dated January 12, 2016, I wrote: “Last night, I learned that Charla and I are to be grandparents. I feel my wife close to me again. I can almost hear her singing with happiness. I hope the baby is a girl.”
And she was: Bowie Opal Oden, the new center of my life, and so much like my late wife. She was born last fall, has her grandmother’s eyes.
This started me thinking that she did not need a crazy, grieving old man for a grandfather. With my refocused center, I needed new balance for her sake and mine. Or maybe a blended balance of new and old.
The hunting clothes and boots came out of the closet. I cleaned my shotgun, bought licenses, and began to plan an opening day turkey-hunting adventure. My calling skills are rusty; I am four years older and a senior citizen, to boot; eyesight poorer (cataracts); and hearing not so good.
My wind was bad, so I started walking every day to restore strength and stamina. And I am watching my diet. (I’ve lost 15 pounds.)
I approach my first wild turkey hunt in four years with trepidation. The thing is, I will still be coming home to an empty house. But I can punch a speed-dial number stored on my smartphone and call Bowie’s house. Although she’s not yet able to understand or talk back, I can share my experiences with her. I hope the Lord lets my wife listen in on the angelic party line.
Next Column: An old man and ancient gobbler come to terms with their places in the cosmos.