Recognizing National Melanoma Month

Bringing awareness to the dangers of Melanoma and helping eradicate the disease is the goal of the Melanoma Coalition. So with the first Monday in May—designated as National Melanoma Monday—and a day set aside by the American Academy of Dermatology, to raise awareness about this disease, I will share the final stage of my Camino journey.

This post, like others from the Camino are taken from my personal journal. It so completely personal that sharing it publicly leaves me feeling vulnerable. But today being Melanoma Monday, I am acutely aware of the dangers of Melanoma. I have intimate knowledge about this disease and what it can do to a person, to a family, to a life. And so today, of all days, I wanted to remember that last part of my 500-mile trek and the lessons of the Camino.

The Camino Provides

My last day on the Camino began at about 6:30 a.m. in Amenal. I had about a 10-mile trek into Santiago. While there were a few climbs those last 10 miles, the most challenging part of the day began as soon as I stepped out of my albergue and lasted until sunrise. By this point on the hike, the sun was rising around 8:00 a.m. I had been leaving before sunrise each day and made my way with the help of a headlamp and a small flashlight. On this morning I was in a hurry, because I wanted to be in Santiago by the mid-day Pilgrims Mass. I left the albergue alone though I could see some lights bobbing in the distance ahead of me so I knew I was not the only Pilgrim beginning so early. After about 15 minutes on the trail I was in trouble—my headlamp and my flashlight were both dimming quickly. I knew they would not make it until sunrise and I didn’t have any replacement batteries. I didn’t feel safe enough navigating the trail without light and the Pilgrims who were ahead of me had, by this time, outpaced me. So my only option was to sit in place until there was enough light to continue without risking injury. I should have known I wouldn’t have to wait long, as with every other challenge faced during the previous 34 days, the Camino provides. And very shortly a group of three Pilgrims found me and I was able to walk with them using their lights, until sunrise.

It was as close as I had come to feeling peace since Connor died.

I’m certain that I missed some beautiful landscape walking those first miles in the dark. I’ve read posts from other pilgrims about the beautiful eucalyptus trees and scenery. But I came to enjoy those first miles that I walked each day in the dark. The trails were less crowded, the stars were incredible and the only sounds were footsteps. It was as close as I had come to feeling peace since Connor died. That last morning was no different except that I was filled with joy knowing that I was so close to my destination, but also mourning the end of a beautiful experience.

About an hour outside of Santiago, I climbed the last hill. Monte do Gozo (the Hill of Joy) is just over 1,200 feet in elevation, and by the time I had reached the top, the sun was up and the hillside was packed with Pilgrims. It seemed liked hundreds of Pilgrims had stopped to sit on the hill by the monuments for a rest or a chat with friends, while delaying those last steps into Santiago. By the time I reached this point I was so excited that I didn’t stop to take pictures. I made one stop at the chapel to get a final stamp in my pilgrim’s passport; the last stamp before reaching the Cathedral. And I kept walking.

I walked the last 5 days of the Camino completely alone, in silence. And these last 10 miles I spent reflecting about this incredible journey and how the stages of the journey are similar to the stages of life. Life begins. We grow. We learn. We give. We receive. We overcome obstacles and pain. We feel joy. We love. And the cycle continues. If you believe in a God, then part of life’s journey is reaching that final destination in His Glory after a life well-lived. As I reflected on this, it again seemed to me that there are a lot of parallels between the experience on the Camino and the experience of life. These last steps on the Camino were spent thinking about Connor’s last hours on this earth and his final journey.

Coming Home

I was almost running when I reached the Cathedral. It was 10:30 a.m. and the Square was packed with people greeting us as we came around the corner. Suddenly there they were, my two Camino Sisters, Bev and Colleen, who had arrived the day before, and one of Connor’s best friends, Cheyenne, who was studying abroad and flew to Santiago to greet me at the Cathedral. The anticipation of seeing them that morning was almost overwhelming. There were hugs and tears and laughter. It felt like coming home.

Connor’s last days and hours on this earth were peaceful. He was surrounded by so many wonderful friends and his family. The final hours were quiet and I knew from his changes in breathing that the time was getting close. I heard his last breath. I had my hand on his chest and felt his last heartbeat. On that final day on the Camino I thought about the mourning that one has about the end of a journey—the end of life—but the joy of reaching the final destination. Kind of like coming home. I pictured Connor’s arrival in heaven and I’m pretty sure that he said to God when he arrived “I gave it all I had. I’m home now.”

This walk is dedicated to my Ginger kid, Connor M. Cockerham, who lived out loud. And to his dad, Jerry Cockerham. It was his walk to begin with.

Walk with Joy and Buen Camino.

(Buen Camino is what is said to pilgrims as they pass you by. It literally means “good path.” Its deeper meaning however, is related to the pilgrimage intent and an acknowledgment that the pilgrim is on a spiritual journey. It’s an acknowledgment that becoming your best self—what God intends—is the goal.)

My Camino Journey is dedicated to my ginger kid and to his dad, Jerry.

My Camino Journey is dedicated to my ginger kid and to his dad, Jerry.