From Chicken Soup for the Country Soul

Just Keep Walking

When I was growing up in Georgia, I loved to sing and play the guitar, even though I had no illusions about being especially skilled at either one. I was pretty gun-shy about performing in public, but I knew I wanted a career in country music. I figured if I couldn’t make it on stage, maybe I could succeed as a songwriter. In 1977, I moved to Nashville to pursue that dream. When the music community didn’t immediately embrace me, as I had hoped they would, I was forced to take a day job as a desk clerk at a motel to support my family. Naturally, that didn’t leave much time for writing songs.

To make matters worse, within a couple of years, I began to lose my eyesight, due to complications from diabetes. By 1980, the doctors said they could do no more; I was totally blind. After receiving the news that I’d never see again, I went through months and months of depression and soul searching. During that period I spent most of my time just lying in bed day and night. Some days it took a real effort to get up and get dressed before my wife came home from work, but I didn’t want her to know how defeated I felt.

I had a friend, Judy Mahaffey, another aspiring songwriter, who I would talk to several times a week by telephone. One day she asked me a really strange question, “Is your garbage can full?”

Startled, I said, “I have no idea. Why?”

“Go check,” she answered. I went into the kitchen and discovered it was full. When I reported that to Judy, she simply said, “Take it out.”

“What do you mean take it out? Judy, I’m blind. How am I supposed to get to the Dumpster?”

“You’ll figure it out,” was all she said.

That turned into a real adventure. I picked up the trash and carried it about fifty yards across the apartment complex parking lot. I was real tentative and took little tiny baby steps, but I finally got going. I’d take a step, bang into something, get scared, gather my resolve and move on. Finally, I made it to the Dumpster. By the time I got there, I felt like I’d climbed Mount Olympus. That was the moment things started to turn around.

Within a few weeks after I emptied the trash on my own, I set up a training session with a mobility instructor.

She taught me to walk using a cane to guide myself. She also introduced me to the bus system.

Using the bus to return to Music Row, I developed a relationship with Pi-Gem Music, a publishing company who didn’t offer me any money, but did provide me with office space. Every day for the next two years, hot or cold, rain or shine, I made the trek to my office to write songs.

Unbeknownst to me, a fellow named Chuck Neese, who had an office across the street from Pi-Gem, was watching the whole time. He told me years later that he often wondered who that blind man was. He said that he figured that I must want to be a songwriter real bad and that I was the kind of guy he’d like to work with if he ever got the chance.

One afternoon, right after Chuck had taken over as head of Alabama’s new publishing company, we ran into each other. His first question was, “Who are you and what do you do?”

“I’m trying to be a songwriter,” I answered.

Chuck said he wanted to hear some of my stuff, so the next day I went over to his office. The second song I played was “Nobody But You,” which after being recorded by country superstar Don Williams, turned out to be my first number one record.

Over the next few years a number of other hits followed by such artists as Alabama, the Forester Sisters and John Schneider. As those records were climbing the charts, however, further complications from the diabetes surfaced. Having lost the use of my eyes, my kidneys were the next organs to be affected. In turn, this impacted my overall health. Along with my health, my songwriting, my marriage, my finances, and my emotional stability all started heading down the tubes. I was as low as I had ever been, feeling lost and uncertain. It wasn’t until the spring of 1989 that I experienced another life-changing event.

One morning, for reasons I still can’t explain, I didn’t feel like going to the office. I was planning to write at home that day and I decided to go for a walk to clear my head before I got started. I asked my wife to drop me off on Music Row and began hoofing it back home. Within a couple of blocks, I accidentally caught the tip of my aluminum cane under a bus bench and snapped it completely in two.

I was pretty upset about this turn of events but I realized I could just have a seat on the bench and wait for one of my friends who customarily travel that area on their way to work to rescue me. Before I sat down, I heard a voice inside me clearly direct me to, “Just keep walking.”

The words repeated themselves the instant I questioned them; so I reluctantly obeyed. At first, it was difficult to trust the process, but after a few blocks, walking without my cane felt perfectly natural—natural, at least until I approached a major intersection.

When I hesitated, I heard the voice again advising me, “Just keep walking, son, you’re doing fine.” After I made it across six lanes of traffic, I began to feel so comfortable that I even refused a ride from a friend who stopped alongside. She later told me I looked so relaxed that she hadn’t noticed I didn’t have my cane.

As I moved along, I couldn’t get over how good I felt, serene in the feeling that everything was going to be all right. I felt at peace about that walk and about my life in general. It was really strange knowing I should be scared but I wasn’t. I can’t explain it, but I felt completely taken care of.

I wish I could tell you that my life worked out perfectly after that; but it hasn’t been quite that simple. My marriage could not be salvaged. A difficult divorce and financial distress followed. My career bottomed out. My health continued to suffer culminating in complete kidney failure and more than a year of difficult dialysis treatments. Through it all, however, I was able in my mind to return to that walk and hear that reassuring voice telling me to “Just keep walking.”

I walked a long way before the situation turned around, but when it did, it did so in a mighty way. Kidney and pancreas transplants eliminated the need for dialysis and insulin injections and my career rebounded with eight more hits, including six number-one records.

In 1991, I attended a codependency workshop, On-Sight, in South Dakota. My group counselor, Ted Klontz, was incredibly supportive and has become a friend for life.

At the end of the treatment program, Ted and my fellow group members outlined how they’d seen me develop and grow. They also made a recommendation that I reconnect with my musical side by performing in public. Remembering my insecurities as a teenager, I totally rejected the idea. When I got back to Nashville, however, I felt myself being led in that direction by the same voice that had kept me moving several years earlier. Little by little, I began playing writer’s nights in small clubs around town, quickly discovering a lot of joy and fulfillment in my music again.

My roller-coaster ride continued over the next few years with some really terrible things and some really wonderful things. In late September, 1995, my transplanted kidney failed. In October of that same year, I married Janet, my soul mate, my best friend, and the love of my life. In March of 1997, circulation problems caused by the diabetes resulted in a below the knee amputation of my right leg. Four months later, I got another kidney transplant, but in September I was back in the hospital for the amputation of my left leg.

The trials seemed to go hand in hand with the triumphs but through it all I just kept walking and my dreams kept coming true.

Working with the Nashville office of the American Diabetes Association, I teamed up with several other writers and performers to produce a pair of concerts that raised over eighty thousand dollars for diabetes education and research. We performed at the Ryman Auditorium, the venerable home of the Grand Ole Opry. For me, it was the culmination of yet another dream. Ted Klontz, my On-Sight counselor, and his wife Margie, flew into town for the first of those occasions. Their presence and that performance reminded me just how much change is possible in one person’s life. In less than five years, I had gone from saying, “I’ll play in public when hell freezes over,” to playing a show at the mother church of country music with Waylon Jennings, Hal Ketchum and Rodney Crowell—all heroes of mine.

With the loss of both my legs, a transplanted kidney and the use of my eyes, I’ve come to realize something quite remarkable. I’m more than just my body. Through all the trauma, my life has continued undisturbed at a much, much deeper level. Now don’t get the idea any of the physical changes have been easy to accept. They haven’t. I’ve often lashed out, demanding that God put an end to all the catastrophe. I’m finally coming to accept, however, that there are no guarantees for any of us, about anything, but I have choices about whether or not the fear and frustration go as deep as my soul. So far, thank God, my soul is intact and as long as that’s the case, I’ll pay attention when he tells me to “Just keep walking.”

Walter Moodie

Excerpted from A Country Music Christmas by Cathie Pelletier. Copyright ©1996 by Cathie Pelletier. Reprinted by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.

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