I think what I like most about walking in the Pennsylvania winter woods is the clean slate feeling of it. There is either a fresh layering of snow blanketing all the dirt and scrabble below it–so that all you can see is a fresh start to the day–a new world of sorts, or there is this dry, leafless look to the forest, that clears the view for miles. Things are revealed to the naked eye that you’ve never seen before. An abandoned eagle’s nest, a small stream that winds between the maple trees, a marsh. Without the dormancy all the lush growth of summer and spring, and the quick fire-colored drama of fall, we’d have no more beginnings. The cycle would just burn itself out. Nature needs winter to sleep off the work, to store up for what comes next, and to see what’s been lurking below all that busy work for months.
But not everything is beautiful that is revealed. Sometimes, you find a pile of beer cans or a half rotted animal carcass. Life is similar. I think God reveals life’s ugliness in the winter of our lives as well. Yesterday, I visited my father in the hospital for alcohol withdrawal again. I have lived with alcoholics my whole life. My stepfather is a recovering alcoholic and my childhood was the timeline of his drinking. I knew what time it was midnight, because he’d come stumbling in the door singing a Frank Sinatra song or crying about Vietnam. I remember then capturing the sober, kind moments like fireflies and holding them tight inside my memory, because there were so few. I wondered what it was like to have a father who was around–something my biological father wasn’t–or a father who was sober–something my stepfather wasn’t. I envied children who knew such luxuries.
My stepfather, eventually, got sober, and we have the best of relationships now. I lean on him for many things and he’s the father I always wanted. I called him, in fact, yesterday, to ask for advice. “Remember,” he said, “it’s not your fault, and you can’t fix it. This thing is a lot bigger than you.” And for this reason, I don’t feel guilty for writing this piece. I know many can relate.
A few years ago, I went out to Oregon to to assist my father after his first recovery, and he refused to get treatment, believing that he could overcome his biological urge to drink on his own. Doctors and specialists tried to tell him that this was impossible, but he’s a stubborn man, who like many alcoholics, is smart and witty and capable of so many things all on his own, so he assumed that he could overcome alcohol in the same way that he plowed through everything else in life. It was a difficult two weeks that I, both, cherished and tired of at the same time. I appreciated the opportunity to care for him, to serve him in this way, but I, also, really wanted my father back. I wanted the guy who didn’t choose alcohol over living. Alcoholism is a monster, the kind that buries itself deep inside the forests of our lives and when it’s revealed during the frigid sting of winter, we realize that it’s become part of the landscape, like a hidden stream we can hear but, maybe, haven’t clearly located until it overflows into a raging river.
When I went walking in the woods behind my house the other day, I did as I always do, and I prayed silently, thanking God for the beauty of the forest that He’s allowed me to live near, thanking Him for my husband and my beautiful family, for the life that He’s privileged me to live. My heart was heavy with joy, but there was something else weighty there, too. Something I knew was coming up in the near future, but I wasn’t sure what. During those moments, I tend to do as my Celtic ancestors did, and I look toward nature. It holds so many answers. I took comfort in the forest, in how much bigger it is than I and how it lives, grows, and dies completely beyond my control. Perhaps, I am strange, but I find comfort in knowing that there are things I cannot change, that are not my business to change. Things that have existed before me and that will exist beyond me.
I made the Sign of the Cross as I passed through the forest with my eager dogs, each of them sniffing and barking and wagging their tails wildly at the smells and delights of the world outside our house. I didn’t know I’d be bringing my father back to the hospital to survive another withdrawal episode, facing another shaky attempt at sobriety, but I knew something was coming, that nothing in life was certain, but for this moment, I was thankful for the presence and sense of God in the winter forest that surrounded me. I have no idea if my father will get sober this time, but I know his drinking is not my fault, and alcoholism is not something I can fix. Only God can smooth over those craggy places in the human heart and stop the bleeding. I know not everyone accepts this idea of a creator. That’s fine for those who don’t, but I like my winter forest to have roots eternal. It makes the human messes so much smaller.