When his time comes, I prefer my father die in his sleep, at home, surrounded by his family. What I don’t want? For his death to come while walking the Camino de Santiago.
I can’t recall when this possibility first crossed my mind. Probably back in the planning stages when a sibling wondered if our Camino trip was my effort to get my inheritance quicker.
But I certainly remember the moment on the Camino when the thought first came to mind.
Dad and I were climbing a hill outside of Cizur Mayor. As I watched him a few steps ahead of me, then a few hundred steps, then a few hundred more, I thought, “Crap. If he has a heart attack and dies, my siblings will never forgive me.”
I’m not one for such negative thoughts, so I can’t say the idea haunted me every moment of our time in Spain. . . but the thought certainly creeped to the front of my mind more than a few times over the course of our week together.
So when, after our first (and what I thought would be our only) week on the Camino, Dad said he wanted to do all 500 miles of it, one week at at a time, over the next few years, my initial thought was, “Seriously? I managed to get you home alive once. . . and now I need to do it five more times?!”
For our second Camino, in 2021, I chose to walk the last 100 kilometers of the route into Santiago de Compostela–the final destination for most pilgrims, but hopefully not the final destination for my father.
Why that section next? Because I remembered an earlier Camino when I’d met an 87-year-old Irish man who was doing the entire 500-mile journey one week at a time over a few years with his three sons.
“He’s already been to Santiago,” one son told me. “For his first week, we did the last 100 kilometers. We wanted to make sure that, if anything happened to him, at least he got Santiago.”
With that optimistic outlook, in 2021, I walked with my father into Santiago de Compostela. Just in case.
Thankfully, on that trip, my mother tagged along (not to walk herself, but, I’d like to think, to help me maintain my sanity). So my fear of killing my father was lessened by the fact that my Mom would be there to remind me, “Your father wanted to do this.”
But when Dad, for his third (!) Camino, told me he wanted to do the section that goes over the Pyrenees, I thought, “Are you f***ing kidding me?!”
There are no rules when it comes to walking the Camino de Santiago. You don’t even have to walk: you can ride a bike, a horse, bring along your dog, your donkey. You can start in France, in Germany, in Slovakia. You can walk for one month, 3 months, one week. You can do any length of time on any section on any one of dozens of routes and can then say you’ve “walked a Camino.”
There is no rule that says your Camino has to include a walk over the Pyrennees.
“But you always say that was your favorite part!” Dad pleaded.
“Well, yeah, but. . . “
I’d already walked over the Pyrenees. Twice. I was under 40. My father, at this point, was 74. He has been described as having the energy level of “a monkey on crack.” But have I mentioned my occasional fear of unintentionally killing my father?
People do, in fact, die on the Camino. And I, in no way, mean to make light of this fact.
On my first Camino, in 2012, I came upon a Scandinavian woman and her two grown children staring at a silver cross they had just planted in fresh cement, in memory of their husband and father who, exactly one year earlier, died in that exact spot.
A friend had gifted me five wooden rosaries to give out along the Camino. I asked the family if I could leave one at the foot of their cross and they agreed. I and my two friends Rick and Rémy, whom I’d met just three days earlier but now felt like family, paused in silence for a few minutes, staring at that cross, our gazes united with theirs. We then said some parting words to the family, none of which seemed enough, and continued our walk.
Conversation turned to the possibility of our own deaths on this very route. Each of us had started this walk alone.
“I’d like to think he was with friends,” Rick said. Rémy and I agreed. It was hard to not make friends on the Camino de Santiago.
“I imagine he’d always wanted to do this walk,” Rémy said, “so hopefully he died a happy man.”
There are no official records on this, but from what I’ve learned from those that know more about this than I do, most deaths on the Camino are caused by heart attacks and pilgrims (usually on bikes) getting hit by cars. There’s now even a memorial garden for those who’ve died trying to get to Santiago.
I didn’t care to add a marker there for my father.
Dad persisted. Insisted. And, well, the man helped to raise me, put me through college, tried his best not to cry every time I resigned from yet another job. He’s really at the point in his life where there are few physical things he needs.
So here’s my gift to you, Dad. I will follow you as you charge ahead of me up into the Pyrenees.
So in July, 2022, a mere ten months after finishing Camino Part 2, Dad and I found ourselves in St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port, a tiny town in France in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
In a heat wave.
2 Comments Add yours
This was a wonderful read. What a pistol your dad is. I hope you don’t wonder where you got your spunk and your wild side! Very much looking forward to the next installment.
Thanks, Ursula. I so appreciate you taking the time to comment. I always thought I was more like my mother–quiet and pensive. But I had a college friend who once said, “You are an exact mix of your mother and father. It’s just that, on any given day, we don’t know which one you’re going to be!”