Trail Day 31: Pain and Cold and Wet and a Promise

Photograph by J W Foster

Photograph by J W Foster

Astorga to Rabanal del Camino, 20 km

Elaine: There have been days where I have pushed beyond what I thought was my capacity on this Camino but today was the Grand Camino in this regard. I am typing right now on my iPhone from inside my sleeping bag which is acting as an isolation and recovery chamber for me. We are in Rabanal del Camino high in the mountains, in a stone building with about 20 other pilgrims. It’s cold and dark and raining outside and there is no heat except for a fireplace in the dining area. The hospitaleros are two Brits with quick wits and such great warmth and caring, we decided to stay overnight. One of them is so attuned to each pilgrim who enters, he immediately senses there is something wrong with me and steps forward to meet me like a parent scooping up an injured child.

As I type I can’t stop shivering, probably because my thermal regulation center has gone on strike along with my feet, calves and knees. They just refuse to accept any more punishment. Why all the dramatics about pain now, so far into the Camino? Well, it goes back to my recent post about my father being ill. I’ve struggled to make the best decision about returning home immediately versus finishing the Camino. I think the natural impulse for most people would be to return home when a loved one is at risk. That morning when I turned around and walked back down the trail to reach out to our friends and we all came back crying; I felt they were important touchstones. “How could you turn to people you just barely know for such an important decision?” you might ask. I hardly believed I could do it myself, but every single one of these people had trusted me with their own experience of loss–and I’m talking about the loss of important loved ones–a mother, father, husband, and wife. These people were on average, 15 years older than me and they had wisdom that comes from life experience. In the Spanish culture there is a saying, “The Devil knows more from being old than from being the Devil.” In this case, I had over 250 years of collective wisdom to draw from.

When I asked each one of our friends for his or her thoughts about whether I should finish the Camino or rush home, I could tell they were each pondering their responses with extreme gravity. None wanted to give a recommendation because of how important we each knew the outcome would be. But when I pressed for their thoughts, my request was met with a battery of questions:

“What do you know of his illness?” “Is it immediately life threatening?” “Have you asked your father what he would like you to do?” “What is your relationship like with your father?” “Would he feel comfortable telling you he wanted you to come home now?” “Do you have any unfinished business, things left unsaid, undone with your dad?”

These were just some of the questions they asked me as they considered how to respond. Beyond questions, they also provided anecdotes from their own lives when they were faced with similar decisions.

As we walked and shared, it became increasingly clear that short of direct knowledge of what was wrong with Pop and an imminent need for my presence, I and the family would be best served by finishing the Camino. My father didn’t even have a diagnosis, he was feeling about the same as when I left according to both he and my mother, and I have no unfinished business with him–we’d talked daily before I left. But could I really keep walking in Spain when my father might receive some horrible news? I resolved to wait.

“Resolved” does not capture the anxiety I was feeling about waiting. What could I take control over from halfway across the world? Duh!! I am on a pilgrimage seeking a stronger faith. I went to church and like so many little miracles I’ve experienced here so far, the priest started the service by asking us to move to the entrance of the church. He then informed us that the Pope has declared this the year of faith and that we were all to be baptized again as we renew our commitment and relationship with God and the church. I knew then that I was exactly where I was supposed to be, and I went even further to draw upon a family tradition of asking God to intervene through a “promesa,” a promise. I promised to walk the rest of the Camino without any medicine for pain. My mother had done this when my sister was a baby and had a life-threatening fever. She promised to wear white for a year if God would save her. Needless to say, my sister was saved and a tradition was born.

Now we have come full circle to me laying here in bed and shivering from the havoc this pain is wreaking on my entire constitution. There is a rebound phenomenon that occurs when a person abruptly stops an antiinflammatory and pain medication and I am no exception but I am committed to walking the Camino with nothing except antiinflammatory fish oil. It is my expression of faith and commitment to a greater cause. And, here’s some good news that we just received: My dad does not have cancer. I am even expecting he will be better than I left him when I get back from Santiago Campostela. This is indeed the year of faith.

Lesson for today: It is natural to pull away from others as a form of rest and protection when tragedy strikes, but true healing comes through the balm of compassion applied by others to the places we cannot reach.

“In everyone’s life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” – Albert Schweitzer

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