A dozen times since I first saw Finisterre on the horizon, I felt tears overcome me. I brushed them aside while climbing down the hillside plateau above Cee when the cape – Cabo Fisterre – appeared, more than 20 km in the distance. Then, as I lay in bed, thinking of the next morning´s trek into destination city. Then still, another handful of moments while walking along the coast, seeing the colorful houses of the town and the lighthouse off in the distance.
Tears make everything harder. Along the steep and rocky descent into Cee, where each footstep needed to be carefully placed, it slowed my pace. During the evening, trepidation mixed with the excitement of the journey ending. The next morning, as the waters edge appeared closer and closer and I walked beside it for the last 6 km, I began to think of why the prospect of making the last 7 km rountrip – from the town of Finisterre to the cape (the land´s edge) – was so hard.
I am glad to be finishing. There is no doubt about that. Hours upon hours of walkng, carrying everything on your back… constantly scanning the horizon for markers of the way to go, always fearing the missed-sign which leads miles in the wrong direction and adds hours to the journey. Arriving at each day´s destination, only to have to go from hostel to hostel to see if they have room… showering in a closet-sized room and stepping on your dirty clothes to keep from getting your clean ones wet as you put them on. Washing your clothes by hand and hanging them on the line. Getting up hours before the sun, walking by lamp-light so as to have a better chance at an open hostel and enough sunlight left in the day for your clothes to dry before dark.
It´s not without an array of blessings: beauty being one. And adventure. And some of the most fascinating and amazing people. There are enough moments of wisdom and inspiration and useful lessons doled out in one day to last a year in the ´real world.´ I won´t forget the places I´ve seen, the people I´ve met or the lessons I learned and wouldn´t trade them for any amount of comfort I could have crammed into this past six weeks.
I´m not at a loss for what the tears are about. Or the challenge they place before me.
I did a pretty good job of packing for this trip. Where as many perrigrinos (Spanish for ´pilgrims´) fell to the temptation of trying to avert disaster or discomfort and carry along their hairdryer or the eight books they planned to read along the way, I took only what I knew I needed. Where many were mailing packages of supplies home or simply leaving them in the albergues (hostels) along the way, I packed and repacked the same back (although my medical portion of the bag did significantly increase in volume and weight with the addition of blister cremes, bandages, ibuprofin gel (which is awesome and should be allowed in the US) as well as bedbug spray. But I did bring one thing not on too many other´s check-lists: my mother´s ashes.
It wasn´t much weight. Only a few ounces, really. So I was surprised by the weight of pulling them for the first time from my pack in Peunte de le Reina and scattering them in the courtyard next to the hostel where we stayed – a particularly warm climate with friendly people with songs and stories that created a nice spirit-filled evening. When I poured them out onto the ground it suddenly felt like everything about the journey suddenly became heavier… and harder. I wasn´t expecting such an unbidden response.
Anyone who´s ever heard me talk about my mother knows that the path we walked over the course of our life was not the smoothest or easiest. There were certainly times when she was front and center with care and understanding and acceptance in my moments of greatest need. And even times where I could tell she loved being there for me. But there were many moments where she wasn´t and what needs I had were left unmet. Indeed, there were enough moments where I stopped letting those needs be known, unable to bear the disappointment.
I fell into a habit I´ve seen a number of people try: replacing the disappointment with hurt and anger. And finally filling that space meant for openness, humility or vulnerability with a protective self-reliance. All the while, I harbored a fantasy that one day my mother would figure out how to be the caring person I had needed and set aside her own self protection. I coupled that with the twin fantasy that a mate would come along with that same selfless love I´d always wanted and rescue me – heal the hurts and recognize the love and care I had to offer.
But this year, when I turned fifty, and my mother died, I came to realize that I needed to put these fantasies to rest. Which was part of the whole Santiago adventure: find a way so far removed to carry the grief and set it down. Maybe to the end of the earth.
So the pain at pouring out the ashes at Peunte de le Reina… and then again in Villambistio… and Burgos… and in Carrion… It didn´t make sense why it would feel so heavy to set down grief. Why the tears? Like there were other obstacles in the way.
When I arrived in Finisterre, I checked into the albergue. I didn´t take a shower or do my laundry – the usual orders of business after reaching my destination. There was still 7 km to go to the cape. So, I kept my boots on and put my stuff away. And from my pack I pulled the remainder of the ashes I had been carrying. It felt funny to be walking somewhere without my poles or my pack. And without all that, I was struck that it felt oddly heavier with just the ashes. And as a new set of tears came, it suddenly dawned on me why.
It occured to me that I could never let go of my mother without first finding someone who would be willing to take on all the responsibility I had been draping over her all of my life. The role of someone to offer solace and support, someone to understand the attention that was missing, offer the appreciation and affection, be someone to confide in, and build confidence from… And the only one who could ever offer all that was me. And I wasn´t sure I was up to it. It´s sometimes easier to resent someone else for not loving us than to love ourselves.
Carrying those ashes up the long hill came with all the predictable bargaining. I could hear my mom´s martyred reasoning: begging me to let her retain the responsibility for loving me and providing my sense of wellbeing… and I could hold on to my resentment and all the reasons why I couldn´t have the life I wanted, take the risks that were mine to take and open my heart to the love I hoped to know. I walked on.
When the road arrived at the lighthouse, a smaller dirt path split off and headed down to the water. It swtiched directions, back and forth, down the steep grade until it finally leveled off and became more and more narrow. For a while it became two narrow tire tracks and then one single slender track through the brush until the path disappeared altogether. That´s when it all became clear.
I hadn´t come half way around the world and walked to the end of the earth because I needed a place far enough away to leave my grief. I came all that way to show myself I was strong enough to carry my life as far as I wanted to go.
I followed what appeared to be a little rabbit trail through the bramble and thistle until all that was left was the rocky cliff edge. I traced the edge of the rocks to an outcropping where I could clammer out as far as I could. I sat with the bottle in my hand, listening to Yo Yo Ma and opened a conversation with my mom from every decade of my life. I recalled my changing needs and feelings and her changing response over the years. Remembered the times we connected… the times we struck out. All the tenderness. All the complexity.
Finally, there was a pause. The waves lapped against the rocks as if to offer a reassuring plea – ´we are big enough,´I could feel them say. ´We can take her.´ I let her go into the wind and the waves. And I let go of my expectations and resentment of her. And doubts of myself. I wept for a few minutes, asking forgiveness for the weight of needs I placed on her – and others – that they could not meet for me… and the needs I failed or refused to meet for myself. And then, lighter in spirit, I climbed up through the bramble and back to the town of Finisterre.
Tomorrow, I move on to the town of Muxia. I haven´t read ahead in the guidebook, so I dont know what it means, but I know this: In the ancient Roman days when this camino first began, Finisterre was believed to be edge of everything known. Beyond its shore, lay uncertainty, harrowing and even dreadful predicaments. It wasn´t until later that they discovered that Muxia was actually slightly further west than Finisterre.
This camino is ended. Tomorrow, when I walk on to Muxia, it will be to expand the bounds of all I´ve known. An opened bottle is like an opened heart. You can fit a lot of love and adventure in the space taken up by hurt and resentment. It made me realize that you can use such containers for gratitude. If they´re big enough.