Does a Shroud Have Pockets?
Last May, while Joanna and Chloë scooted ahead from Roncesvalles in the morning, Randall, Janine, Vicki, and I brought up the rear. We were still getting to know each other. Soon, another woman about our age who was walking alone ahead of us slowed her pace and joined our group until Zubiri. Recently widowed, she was in a talkative mood. Mesmerized by her incredible life story, I must have been blind to our surroundings. I think none of us paid much attention to anything but the woman’s story as she related how, forty years before, in her twenties, she had met a mysterious, charming man, very attractive, although he looked a bit old for his age. He was funny, smart, debonair, and full of great business ideas. Soon they were dating. Soon they were married. Soon they were having children. One day, the husband confessed he was ten years older than he had told her. “Had you never looked at his birth certificate?” asked Janine. It had never occurred to her. Janine was surprised. I wasn’t. I don’t think I have ever seen my husband’s birth certificate. I thought nothing of it. “I had never felt the need to question his age,” said our impromptu companion. A clever man, her husband took care of all business, filed the income tax papers and any form requiring a date of birth. They were married for over forty years. Even after he confessed about his age, she never saw proof of it, never looked for one. Life went on as before. He was a sharp entrepreneur and a good provider. He went from one eccentric venture to another, some successful, some not so. At least that is what she guessed. He kept his business details to himself, and talked about his successes, but only by accident did she stumble upon hints of occasional failures...
The Escape Artist
At the last stop before Burgos today, a short, barrel-shaped woman with thinning grey hair waddles aboard and takes the seat across the aisle from mine. When the bus has come into the terminal, and we are standing in the aisle, she blurts out: “You know, I’m an escape artist. This is my third time on my own on the Camino.” It turns out she is running away from an intolerable situation at home: her middle son has been suffering from breast cancer for two years. “Yes, men can get breast cancer,” she assures me. (I was sadly aware of that; we lost a friend to it in his forties.) Her other son is a drug addict, bipolar, in and out of jail. Her daughter has become estranged from the family because she cannot stand the dynamics. I didn’t ask about a husband. My life has not been without obstacles. Whose life has? Once in a while though, the vicissitudes of my own life seem rather inconsequential. I can see why the woman finds the Camino soothing. As I walk, day after day, my spirit rises far above my inner turmoils. Even though I don’t think I am running from anything, except perhaps the noise of lawn mowers, leaf blowers, garbage collectors and partying students, I know the blissful rest walking the Camino can offer.
In front of the cathedral defaced by scaffolding, Susan and I find a gaggle of ebullient pilgrims, backpacks on the ground, hugging, posing, taking photos of each other. They have conquered the Camino. Their cheerful voices rise above the square. The ambiance is electric. Except for me. And perhaps a few others like me. It will take me a while to understand why. For me, the Camino was what mattered: the changing scenery, the people, the villages, the walk, the daily a to b. Whether or not I would reach a destination never mattered too much to me. It was the moment that counted, that I enjoyed, the friends I made along the way, the stories I collected, the spirits of those who had preceded me and lingered in history. It was the way my life was being enriched. For me, Santiago means the return to my role on life’s stage at the end of a beautiful interlude. Santiago means goodbyes. I am fortunate to have a loving family to return to. I wonder what it is like for those who must return to an empty house. I have it good both ways. Looking back now, I can understand the elation of those for whom carrying a heavy bag, walking with blisters, suffering from exhaustion, was a challenge. They deserve to be proud. I can understand the elation of those who felt they had been walking with God, asking for a favour, or less often perhaps, even thanking God for one. I hope wishes are granted. I hope God receives thanks graciously. I understand those for whom the Camino was a time for spiritual reflection, a search for a new direction, a quest. I hope they found the answers they were looking for. I also understand those who sought healing. I sincerely hope they went home healed. That evening, while the pianist played, with Susan, Gabriela, Lizi and Bori, a reporter we had met briefly a few days before, we celebrated in a restaurant near the cathedral. Tomorrow, Susan was going on a bus tour to Finistere and Muxia. Lizi would be off to Andalucía to vacation with her sister. Bori would be going back to her work in Slovenia. Gabriela and I had no luck securing seats on the excursion bus with Susan. We met the group in the morning, hoping for a couple of cancellations. When there were none, we made a mad dash for the local bus station twenty minutes away, where the driver welcomed us on board as he was pulling out of the station. Once in our seats, much to my delight, I realized we were on the local bus, the one that pulled into every cove and village. We would at least get a scenic tour. In Finistere, Gabriela and I walked along the beach and treated ourselves to the most delicious seafood I had ever tasted. Then, she took a direct bus back to Santiago. She would leave for Málaga the next morning and spend a week at the beach with one of her fourteen siblings. I walked two or three kilometres up the hill to the lighthouse where I bumped into Susan and her bus tour, and I took the slow bus back so I could enjoy every bit of the scenery again. I would return to the same restaurant in Finistere two days later with Nuala on an excellent tour with a knowledgeable guide. Our favorite stop would be Muxia with its tragic history of the oil spill, its giant sculpture commemorating the thousands of international volunteers who came to clean and restore the shoreline. I was ready to return home now. It would be good to be with my family again. Before my train back to Pamplona, Nuala and I would have time to explore Santiago off the beaten track. What a treat it was to have a private room. I could leave my belongings all over the place. I was glad she had suggested the Seminario Menor. We enjoyed breakfasts at her hotel, and I cooked us dinner up the hill. Sadly, the Camino was not to end on a cheerful note for everyone. On my last evening, as I was preparing a salad at the long kitchen counter, I heard a middle-aged woman weeping. Her sobs were getting louder and louder. Bent over the counter, her tears fell in large drops in a puddle on the stainless steel. I went to her, put my arm around her shoulder, and asked if I could help. She picked up her cell phone, entered Korean characters into a translation App, and showed me the screen: ‘My father died.’ I was shocked. She had obviously just received the news. I put my arms around her and let her cry. After only a few seconds, she picked up her phone again and wrote something else. ‘Suicide.’ I couldn’t believe it. It was all too brutal. Too unreal. Why couldn’t he at least wait until she got home? I held her in my arms. When her sobs abated somewhat, I asked a young man to please go to the common room and find some Korean women to help comfort her. Before he could find anyone, a Korean man arrived and asked what was wrong. He shook his head, thanked me and took her away to another area. I knew nothing of that woman; I had never met her before. It seemed a cruel irony, a nasty twist of fate, that this should happen now. Often, people come on the Camino to heal. I have no idea why she was here. Was it a quest for her father’s healing? She would be going home with pain rather than a cure. In that moment, I felt angry. I felt all the unfairness of life. I understood once again there is no point in looking for the meaning of life. Just live it to the fullest. Carpe diem.