The Camino: A Metaphor for Life

Part 3: A Walk with Joy

In my last post, I spoke about a few of the wonderful people I met on the Camino and the Moving Village that became part of me throughout my trek. And I also talked about finally arriving to the halfway point on October 1st, after having walked into Sahagun, Spain, completing 250 miles. October is a significant month for me and especially October 1st. For me, it’s the last good month, as it was my family’s last “normal” month in Connor’s life. We didn’t know it yet, but Connor was already sick. In October of 2013 Connor and I were making plans — planning his trip to NYC for Halloween, planning the NYC marathon and family weekend, planning Thanksgiving and planning Christmas. It all started out as a happy month. I didn’t know it, but it was the last month I would work at my job, in a career that I had for over 25 years. It was the last normal month: On November 1st, in NYC, Connor said to me,

“Mom, my whole body hurts.”

And those words changed our entire lives and sent us on a trajectory that I still cannot believe is real. October, for me, is a marker of the last good month. And, October 1st, the day I hit the halfway mark on The Camino, marked 21 months since doctors told me that treatment would no longer work, since the last time Connor said “Mom,” since the last time we held hands, since his last seizure, since I had to make that awful decision to stop treatment — standing by myself in Connor’s room watching the doctors trying to get his pain under control. It was the day I knew that he was really going.

Walking into Sahagun that day I thought about where we were just 2 years ago. It was that month when Connor and I were in my car driving somewhere and talking about our plans for marathon weekend in NYC when out of the blue he said to me “Mom, keep running marathons, because I need to you be healthy and live a long time.” When he said that to me I reached down and grabbed his hand and told him that I promised I would stay healthy. I didn’t know that in just a few short weeks, Connor would be diagnosed with metastatic melanoma.

“You may not believe in signs but I do. These were signs.”

I didn’t plan to be at the halfway mark on The Way on October 1st. For me it was significant though. It kind of felt like a sign. I had spent so much time that day thinking about the month of October and I was dreading October 9th — which marked 21 months since Connor let go of life. I wondered if the 1st and the 9th of each month would always be reminders for me and I wondered if there would be a time when I stopped counting the days and months. And then I looked ahead on my itinerary to see where I would be on October 9th. What I saw took my breath away. I realized that on the anniversary of Connor’s death I would be climbing to The Iron Cross, The Cruz de Ferro. This was another key point and marker in my trip that I had planned and thought about about for months. I literally could not believe that I would be there on the anniversary of Connor’s passing. What are the chances that I’d be halfway on October 1st and I’d reach the cross on October 9th?! You may not believe in signs but I do. These were signs.

There are a lot of theories and legends about The Iron Cross. Some historians say the cross was erected as a guide for pilgrims to help them find their way, while others say it originates from Roman times and marks a border between territories. Regardless, the cross has been a key point in the Camino Frances since the 11th Century. Pilgrims traditionally carry a rock or stone from the beginning of their pilgrimage and leave it at the foot of the cross, symbolizing the sins or burdens of the pilgrim and the act of leaving these burdens behind.

I did not carry a rock or stone; I carried a treasure from Connor’s treasure box. I guess at this point it’s probably time to let you know that I left home on September 10th not only carrying the treasure from Connor’s treasure box, but also carrying Connor’s ashes. I’ve not shared this broadly because it’s very personal. I’ll talk more about Connor’s ashes another time, but I carried them with me, on my back, along with his treasure to the Iron Cross. The treasure I carried was a shell that Connor and I had collected together from his favorite beach in Galveston. He was probably 5 when we found this shell. He brought it home and kept it in his room in a box that looks like a pirate’s treasure chest. I found it there in the weeks after he passed. It was a symbol of happy times and memories and childhood and innocence. It was a Connor treasure. So 9 days after I passed the halfway mark, I climbed to the highest point on The Camino, over 1500 meters above sea level, and placed Connor’s shell and a Ginger bracelet that I’d been wearing since he died, at the base of The Iron Cross. But I wasn’t leaving a burden. I was celebrating a life. I was celebrating with a grateful heart and thanked God for the blessing of Connor, and that I got to be his mom. And when I walked down off of that mound of stones and rocks and now a shell, I walked with joy.

Is the pain of losing Connor gone? No, certainly not. It never will be. Everyone on the Camino has a story. Just like in life. Every day is a new day on the Camino with new challenges and obstacles and rewards at the end of it. Every day leads a pilgrim one step closer to Santiago. I had to keep going no matter what — and each day was one step closer. Some days require an angry determination. All days require this Moving Village that becomes your support. Standing at The Iron Cross that day I realized that every step I took wasn’t one step further away from Connor. It was one step closer to him.

Walk with joy.