Chapter 11: Jim Croce & My Tropical Fish
A final visit with my family before the long haul to Finisterre. 250 down. 750 miles to go.
The hotel is at the end of a long boulevard. I step into the lobby. It is clean and modern. Surfaces are trim and shiny. There is a revolving door. There are leather couches and empty espresso cups and businesspeople with their legs crossed speaking in lowered voices.
I must be a sight for the clerks at the desk, not to mention the other guests. I haven’t been in a place this nice the entire trip. One night I stayed in the attic of some parish priests. There was animal – let’s politely call it scat – on the top blankets of the bed where I had to sleep. The Camino isn’t all morning fog and waves from children with missing teeth.
The desk clerk tells me that Melanie and the children haven’t arrived yet. I read her face to see if there is any acknowledgement of my appearance or if she is able to maintain her professional demeanor with her clients no matter what their attire. She is. Wow! I’m impressed! If I was her boss in disguise coming to check on her like Odysseus, I’d be very, very pleased.
I must be feeling better because there is a scenario running in my head where the clerk imagines the wife and children of American Backpack Man. They come into the lobby with identical hiking clothing and scallop shells on their hats and scaled-down walking sticks for the children.
My mind is buzzing.
I make my way to the room. Melanie reserved a full suite, and everything is clean and sterile inside. The hotel has wrapped every last object in translucent plastic or thin mobius strips of colored paper with their logo. I don’t want to touch anything or put my sweaty clothes anywhere that might spoil the feel of the place for the others or even disturb it from its silent order.
I stare for a long moment into the refrigerator and it is hotel bare. I don’t know what I was expecting to find, perhaps a small potion and a cursive sign to ‘Drink Me.’
I have an hour before the family arrives, and I’m grateful for the time to rest and clean up. I shower and, then shave for the first time in days. My beard is so thick I have to take multiple razor passes over each section of cheek. I let the water out and marvel at the evenly bearded waterline in the empty sink. I look at myself in the mirror, measuring the weight I’ve lost in my face and stomach. I have truly ‘leaned out’ on this walk. They will be surprised, I tell myself. The kids will say, “Wow, dad! You’re skinny.” Mom will say, “That’s how he was when I met him.”
I wash my clothes in the sink with hand soap because this is done by force of habit now. I’m like the homeless guy who’s spent so much time sleeping on concrete, he can’t fall asleep on a mattress. The road is baked into me. I put away my things in my pack, put on a clean shirt and even decide to touch it up with the hotel iron. The clothes I’m wearing aren’t much, mostly polyester hiking garb already showing wear.
They’re running late. I’m not sure what the holdup must be. I feel like a prisoner trying to clean up before visitation. I look in the mirror again. Long examination this time. Multiple angles. I’m still middle-aged and much older than I used to be. When I wrinkle my face a certain way, I can create a texture of skin I never used to have. I note this without the distress that should probably be there. It is quiet in the room. I tidy up even more, refolding the towels more squarely, wiping surfaces dry in the bathroom, but I can’t get around the unfortunate need to hang my wet clothes on the shower door glass.
Melanie calls and she’s found the right road for the hotel, but she can’t seem to find the actual hotel. They’ve been up and down several times, and it’s very hard to turn around. I tell them I’ll come downstairs and signal to them from the road. I had the same problem finding the hotel myself, I explain. I am really excited to see them.
Everything in the lobby on my return downstairs is lighter. I am lighter. The lobby couches are lighter. I am floating. The desk clerk smiles at me as if she’s been monitoring my room from a secret camera. Without prompting, I explain I’m a pèlerin. I’m walking all the way to the coast of Spain. 1600km. I’m seeing my family after walking for three weeks. I tell her how far I’ve walked that day. She smiles brightly. Oh, big promotion for you, I think.
There is an overriding sense of re-entry to normalcy, and a welcome back to the world of bland corporate art and empty business centers and membership rewards programs. (No, thank you. Can you show me the way to the parish attic?) I head out the revolving doors into the tail-end of early evening, and I stand by the road waiting for my family.
They are coming down the road in our blue Honda CRV.
My wife’s smiling face is visible through the windshield. She’s making mock frustration grimaces about the road or the directions or something. The children are waving from the back window, and I walk alongside the car as they pull into a parking spot. I pretend to direct them in like an aircraft runway guy with orange light sticks. If this is funny at all, it is only funny because I always do this. If I’ve gotten out of our car first, I always ask them to ‘step out of the vehicle,’ and I ask them “do you know why I pulled you over, ma’am.
There is the familiarity of a dad catchphrase. Dad’s still dad! Yay! He’s doing his highway patrolman joke. Eye rolls all around, but the patrolman doesn’t smile, because patrolmen don’t do that. I signal with my command presence and the tips of my fingers to step out of the vehicle please. It has been three weeks since I’ve seen them. I’ve never been away from them so long in my life. They get out of the car and hug me as a clumped trio like they mean it.
And you see? This is why I pulled them over.
Between smiles and impromptu follow-up hugs, the conversation turns to the cheerful recap of the aggro finding the right road and bad directions and how it’s impossible to turn the car around without driving all the way to Grenoble, and I tell them I walked 58km that day, and they don’t realize how much that is until I explain it in Napoleon anecdotes.
I tease Melanie for loading two different ice chests of food into the CRV and all sorts of food and snacks and goodies so that dad could have anything he wanted while we stayed in our hotel apartment for a single Saturday. We carry all the things in. My legs don’t seem so tired now. I can’t help but think the receptionist finds it odd I arrive with nothing but a backpack and a walking stick and my family shows up with four back-and-forth trips to the Honda in the temporary parking area.
I shouldn’t keep repeating how great it is to see them and stopping to touch them, so I force myself not to. In our hotel room, the children’s attention turns to the television, and the infinite potential of the clicker, and all those hotel movie channels or whatever is on there, and Melanie fusses with things in the kitchen and asks if I want something to drink. She explains all my choices peering into the two ice chests.
Daniel’s working on plans for a programmed robot and shares a draft with me. My daughter is practicing a dance in the foyer space with a yellow scarf trailing behind her. I look over at my wife bustling in the small en suite kitchenette and she appears achingly beautiful, her face, but more than her face, something in her movements and the small frame of her back, her hair, the way the surrounding space immediately belongs to her. In forty-five minutes, she has turned this kitchenette into our home. My family’s movements in the hotel suite are as captivating as snorkeling through a swarm of tropical fish.
I’ve become so tuned to the life of the road and its rhythms that I watch our life together there almost from outside myself. It is like I am witnessing my own life, like I am on some kind of spiritual shore leave. I am not returning to them, but my life is being shown to me for the quotidian miracle that it is. It is like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town in that hotel room. If you know the play, then I am Emily revisiting her One Day. My wife and children are probably aware how much time we actually have remaining together – now Friday early, then late evening, now Saturday morning, afternoon, and night, now Sunday – but I am in a curious state of timelessness. I never feel the clock that weekend. I just float.
All Saturday we drift from location to location in Toulouse. There is a visit to the main cathedral to get my daily pilgrim passport stamp from Toulouse. We stop for coffee and then walk through a downtown fair for Airbus aviation technology, then in and out of bookstores, and on to a charming downtown park that I walked through on the way in and made a note to share with my family. Across the street from the park we buy a French version of Chinese food from a mobile food vendor. We seat ourselves at the only folding metal table that doesn’t wobble on its patch of sidewalk. People pass and flow. It is warm on our faces, and someone near us is feeding birds and almost singing to them.
We make our way across the street to the park where Melanie and I nod off directly on the grass, our heads on the ground. The kids play behind us under a large ancient tree. The two of us hear the sound of the children’s laughter and playful squabbling behind us. My wife and I hold hands lying there with our eyes closed. The touch of hands is electric, but we don’t pull in any tighter.
This has been an incredible year.
We both know that. The thought is never far from our minds as the months start to wind down. We’ve known that what we’re doing with the children, taking them to Europe, not even working, spending all our savings to take this absurd, wild adventure. We’ve brought them to Greece, to Israel, to ten weeklong destinations in France, to Portugal. In the summer, we’ll head to Italy. Most people either don’t get to do this, or don’t take the time, or don’t dare to if they could. All of our other years will be judged by this one. This is The Year. We know while it is still unfolding that this is our summit. We are planting the family flag on this mountain.
In the back of our minds there are also some major decisions we need to make during The Year. The stress of my work that has made this sabbatical possible has also taken its toll. When we return to the States, will I expand my business or simplify my professional life? Will I make things harder or easier, bigger or smaller? How much should I take? How much can I take? From time to time, Melanie and I joke that we’ll end up deciding the year’s big questions on the plane home.
But we certainly don’t want to think about them that afternoon in Toulouse, lying in eternity on the park grass, side by side, husband and wife, our blue force field crackling, the sound of the children’s play drifting over from just behind us.
Daniel is explaining the made-up rules to something to his sister. Alannah is giggling. They are laughing. Our children are increasingly independent of their parents. They are together. The sibling bond has taken root, a deep hope granted. By design, they now have each other through the course of their lives.
The weather is exceptional that entire day, and we rise from our nap in the park. We stop in a drugstore to buy some foot care items, which are now heavily blistered after the long push the day before. We make our way back to the hotel and then out to dinner. Melanie sits at my side at dinner. The children sit across from us. We return home late. The children sleep on the foldout bed in the small hotel suite living room. The light on the kitchenette oven remains on so the children can make their way to the bathroom in the night. There is just enough light for one last midnight swim to visit my tropical fish. Melanie and I stand there for a long moment.
God, they are beautiful.
The realization strikes me that, for the span of a day, I was present, patient and loving. I was my own North Star for a stretch: I said ‘yes’ to all ideas. I floated with them. I took their hands. I pressed my lips against the shifting grain of their hair. I released them. I didn’t count the hours down. There was no resistance. I didn’t snap at them at the street crossings. I didn’t hurry them.
In the morning we get up early to make the most of our last time together.
I borrow Alannah’s iPod to listen to The Waterboys’ Strange Boat. I want to hear the second verse of a song I tried to remember for an entire afternoon a week earlier. Then Alannah plays Time in a Bottle for me, a song from a playlist of songs from my childhood that I’d given her before I left. We lie on the hotel bed and talk about what the lyrics mean.
She loves these conversations. We discuss the empty box of wishes that never came true, and I call out the song’s final chord, a strange arpeggio that stood out to me in the song even when I was her age. My own hunger for these sorts of contextual parallels from my parents’ childhoods had been insatiable as a child, and now I leave their equivalents for my own children in a generational breadcrumb trail.
So, we cue up the strange Jim Croce chord a second time, sharing the earphones, straining to hear my childhood in the mix, looking at each other without expression across the wires, waiting on the shimmering chord like WWII radio operators.
We have breakfast just down the street from the hotel. Afterwards, I pack my things up, checking, as always, that I have my passport and personal papers, electronics, plug adapters. I make sure that I haven’t forgotten my clothes from the makeshift line in the bathroom. I’m shifting back into the rhythm of pilgrim mode. They are saying something in the other room, but I’m checking my guide for a town I can make by nightfall.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.