Walk 130 km in 6 days….it’ll be fine they said. Earlier this year, in a post New Year commitment of “do” rather than “think”, I signed up for the inaugural Irish Hospice Foundation fundraising Camino walk. What wasn’t to like? I like to walk…check; it’s in Spain…check; the weather will be nice…check check check. More importantly it was in support of the wonderful work of the Irish Hospice Foundation, and in memory of, and in honour of my husband Don. Don died in 2014 after a journey with cancer. In his last days events overtook us more quickly than anticipated and he did not make it to hospice care. We did have the support of the hospital palliative care team and from a physical and emotional perspective they were central to Don’s care. I know that the move to hospice care would have been a strong and powerful support for Don and for the entire family.
“You matter because you are you, and you matter to the last moment of your life. We will do all we can not only to help you die peacefully, but also to live until you die.”
The quote from Dame Cicely Saunders, best known for her role in the birth of the hospice movement, expresses the aims of hospice care. It also, for me, expresses Don’s philosophy through his illness. He lived until he died, with a lot of laughter, grit, and always love. For him, life was not about bucket lists; it was about living in the now as fully as possible and never procrastinating . The Camino challenge was for me a way of incorporating that spirit into my changed world.
The year progressed, the fundraising was successful (thank you kind supporters) and suddenly 55 excited and ever so slightly apprehensive people were at Dublin airport ready to take flight. Over the next 6 days, those 55 initial strangers formed a community of grit, determination, friendship, and no small amount of laughter (with a few tears thrown in just to balance things out). No one really knew what to expect or how prepared they were. How can you prepare – you can’t really. Cheryl Strayed, in her book “Wild” about a trek on the Pacific Crest Trail wrote
“ each day on the trail was the only possible preparation for the one that followed. And sometimes even the day before didn’t prepare me for what happened next”
And so it was on our Camino trek. No one could have prepared me for the beauty and peace of waking thorough kilometre after kilometre of Galician coast, vineyards and hamlets. The exclusive focus on getting to the top of that next hill; your mind empty of other thoughts.The sharing of stories and the openness of people who were complete strangers a few days beforehand. The daily blister count….who knew you can spend a week enthralled by the state of other people’s feet. A Galician sunrise. The scent of grapes trod underfoot as you walk through vineyard after vineyard. The regular “buen camino” from fellow walkers. The glimpses of daily life in the villages and hamlets.The consuming search for the stamp at every stop. The chats; the ice cream stops; the food (who knew it was possible to put on weight as you walk over 100km); the colours; the stopping to take a photography of anything and everything (giant marrows were a key attraction for some reason!). The luxury of that hot shower and ridiculously cheap glass(es) of wine at the end of the day. The joy of something new around every corner. The sense of those we have lost being very close to us and their pride.And the emotion of finally reaching Santiago de Compostela and the end of a week which had raised €73 000 for the work of IHF.
Some say the Camino can be a transition point in one’s life. Did it change my life overnight? No. Did I learn from it?Most certainly. It’s easy to say you should focus on the moment and not sweat the small stuff, but not always easy to do in day-to-day life. On the Camino trail, you have no choice, and reminding myself of that feeling and the calmness it brings is something I am trying to apply back in the real world. In the words of the Erin Hanson quote
“There is freedom waiting for you,
On the breezes of the sky,
And you ask “What if I fall?”
Oh but my darling,
What if you fly?”
Walk 130 km they said…it’ll be fine they said. Well you know what, it was so much more than fine.