In September of this year, I will walk the Camino Portuguese. I have been planning this walk for a good five years now, ever since I was performing an ultrasound on an 80 year old woman who told me she was on her way to Spain to walk a section of the Camino de Santiago. Intrigued, I looked it up and found out that it is an ancient pilgrimage through Spain that spans five hundred miles from St Jean Pied de Port, France to the cathedral in Santiago, Spain, where the remains of Saint James are reportedly interred. This path is known as the Camino Frances. Christians have been making the pilgrimage for thousands of years for a variety of reasons, mostly faith based. But in recent years, a new kind of pilgrim has emerged, and the popularity of walking has increased dramatically. The reasons for walking now are as varied and plentiful as the universe allows. Everyone there is there for a reason, although to some, the reason is hidden even from themselves. Some may think the reason is one thing, only to have that change as they walk. Miles of walking and talking to yourself within your head has a way of untangling your mind and your heart.
My own reason for wanting to do this has changed and evolved over time. When the idea first came to me, it was more about the physical challenge. I have always envied and admired those who had the physical strength to do big things. Marathon runners, rock climbers, long distance bikers, people who have the ability to endure hours and days of moving their bodies to exhaustion have always captivated me. I have felt inadequate in their presence. But walking I could do. I love to walk. I love how my body feels when I walk. The challenge of walking twelve to fifteen miles or more a day for a sustained number of days felt like a goal I could accomplish. The idea of walking in a place where there are thousands of others all moving in the same direction, toward the same destination also fueled my desire to walk the Camino. I could walk anywhere, by myself, with whatever endpoint in mind and accomplish the physical feat I wanted. But the collective soul of the people on the Way grabbed me. That sense of belonging to something big. I’ve always loved the idea, belonging to something bigger than me. I love to be part of something, part of anything. There is comfort in knowing there are others around you, others in the same boat, moving in the same direction, grabbing at the same brass ring. There is collectiveness in the knowledge that you can reach up, back, forward, or down and find others who are reaching for you.
Over the past five years, the reason for my wanting to walk the Camino has evolved, and changes in my life have added reasons to the list as well. I still want to do it for physical challenge, and I have become much more aware of the benefits was walking, but a major change has been that my mother died, rather unexpectedly to me anyway. She was diagnosed with lung cancer, and passed away six months and three days after the date of diagnosis. While the fact that she had developed lung cancer should not have come as a surprise, (she had smoked for over fifty years) it did. It was a surprise because my mother was the strength of our family. She was the heart, the brain, the legs, the soul. She was the one who kept everything and everyone else together. She didn’t ask questions, she just dug in and provided answers. I never even fathomed that she would die before my dad. No one did. I never fathomed that she would leave us, my brother and I, to deal with taking care of him. I don’t think she ever did either. She was invincible. But leave she did. And now we are both several hundred miles away trying to deal with our grief and tackle the day to day world in which my dad barely exists. I video chat with him every day. His every day is exactly the same as the one before and exactly the same as the next one will be. He has no desire to do anything more than sleep. He gets up only to fix a meal, and returns to bed. It is exasperating to watch. It is no different than when my mother was alive. She implored him to do more. But he would not. He still will not. He is fine with his existence. He is happy with how much time he is able to spend in bed. He would love someone to pick up the duties of his life: preparing meals, doing dishes, washing clothes. But he is not dissatisfied with how he is living his life. It is me who is dissatisfied with how he is living his life. I took over my mother’s role of trying to prod him into doing and being something more. Just like her, I am getting no results.
After my mother died, I felt the Camino was going to be my best outlet for grief. Even though the actual date of the walk was still going to be a year and a half in the future, I knew that I had this future time already set aside. As it has turned out, a year and half is going to be about the perfect amount of time after her death in which to begin. In the six months between her diagnosis and death, I flew home to my parents between once and three times a month, staying for anywhere between five and seven days at a time. In between going home I worked at my job as much as I could. I am self-employed but work a job where is it necessary to show up every day. Luckily, I have a contract worker who works for me two days a week. I hired her when I knew that I wanted to walk the Camino in the anticipation that I would need several weeks off and needed someone who could fill in that time for me. She was at a point in her career that she needed some change and so we fit into each other’s needs perfectly. Because of her, I was able to work a schedule that allowed me to spend a lot time with my mom in those last few months. I could depend on her for whatever my needs were, even at the last minute. She would work a week for me then I would return and work a week for her. This was probably the first of my Camino Miracles (everyone who walks talks about how the Camino will provide). At the time of my mom’s death, I was exhausted. I also needed time to make sure my dad was going to be okay. He had little experience in taking care of himself. And, like I said before, he would rather sleep than anything else. Those first few months of his new life alone were hard. Hard on him, hard on me. There were things he was adamant about. He did not want to move closer to me or my brother. He understood that neither of us could move closer to him. We both have lives and families in our respective present locations. I did not feel that he was always safe in his environment by himself. I was afraid of what would happen to him. I could not have left the country for several weeks and been comfortable with being relatively out of touch. So we have spent the last year making progress, accommodations, and feeling out this new world, without his wife and my mom, in which we each live.
Now the time is right. My walk is about five months away. The person with whom I am walking was feeling that the Frances required too much time, and she was worried about the elevation with walking over the Pyrenees since she has been living at sea level now for several years. This may have been my second Camino Miracle. During my research of the Camino, I discovered that there are many routes that pilgrims used to get to Santiago, as they usually began from wherever they lived and joined others at certain points along the way. We could have just started the Frances at a point closer to Santiago, but the we decided that Camino Portuguese from Porto would better fit our needs. The shorter time frame, about three and half weeks compared to six to seven, works for me as well. I am more comfortable about leaving my dad and my job for this amount of time. We will walk the coastal route from Porto to Santiago, probably returning to the central route just before the Spanish border. We may take the Spiritual Variant and we may also walk to the end of the world at Finisterre and Muxia. We will make these decisions as we go.
What I know for sure is that I am ready to meet this challenge, both physically and emotionally. That doesn’t mean that I will not encounter obstacles. But I know that I have the strength to find ways to deal with the obstacles. If I don’t walk every step, carrying my backpack, that is okay. If I don’t deal with every last bit of grief I have over my mom’s death in those three weeks, I know I will at least make a start. I have not yet started to grieve. I have been putting it off until…until everyone and everything else is taken care of. There has been no space for grief. In this walk, I will find space. That is my first goal now, find the space within myself to begin to heal. All the rest will take care of itself… at least until I return.