Chapter 19: Trouble Strikes
Everything you will ever need to know about why you walk the Camino de Santiago and what will happen while you're on it.
I’ve been skirting around it and putting it off, but there is something I haven’t told you about this year in France my family is taking, and what this trip is about, and why Melanie and I are here plowing through our savings.
It is a year before we move to France.
We have lived through months of a health scare, and we have finally arrived at something tangible. We have waited a harrowing three days for an appointment with a neurologist in Seattle. He will discuss my wife’s scan results.
We have kept everything secret. We’ve agreed that we will not tell the children anything until we know firmly what is going on. We’ve coached each other to be calm. We’ve tried hard to stay cool, to avoid exaggerated emotion, to downplay speculation anywhere it might pop up. There was no luxury in indulging a single grim thought. Don’t dance with the devil. We were on an emotional high wire, focusing on what we needed to do next and only that thing. Both of us.
I still went to work. Melanie still got the children up and off to school in the morning. In the afternoons, she let them play at the neighbors, and when the neighbors offer to make the children dinner, now she said okay. There were brief interludes where everything was normal for ten minutes or so, but then the whole thing resurfaced again. It was like trying to forget there was a shark in the pool.
We thought together and separately about what it meant, or what we thought it would mean, for each of us in our different ways. We both thought about her age and the arithmetic of our children’s ages. Hidden from the other, we both got onto the web and looked at survival rates and treatment protocols for this thing. We read up on what kind of choices we would soon have to make. We were trying to ready and brace ourselves. We kept reminding each other that we don’t know a thing yet. It could be anything. It’s never as bad as you imagine it.
On the ferry ride into Seattle the day of the neurology appointment, we stayed in our car. It was too much to go upstairs and run into anybody we knew in the galley. Then we would have to explain what was going on, or where we were headed that morning, or why. You do not want to have those conversations when you’re trying to keep it together. So, we hid in the mini-van and watched all the other people milling among their cars, going up and coming down the staircase.
These were people who weren’t dying or losing their mothers or their wives. We watched them walk around and take pictures off the bow looking towards Seattle, and heard them squawk and complain, and high-five, and bump their coffees and say shit, and yell at their kids to get out of the car and do all the things people do when they’re healthy. They were living on a different planet. The weather was the same, but everything else about their world was different. It was hard to fathom how things could be so much the same and so different.
I don’t remember how it came up, but I said with a burst of foxhole optimism, that if we got through this, we will have to go to France for a year. We had talked about a year abroad practically from the day we met, and we will have to do it if we can. We would have to stop talking about it. Everybody talks about everything. But clearly there was no open-ended forever winding out before us. There wasn’t for anybody, not for us, not for the people yelling at their children and spilling their coffee. God, if anything was obvious now, it was that. There’s just not a whole lot of tomorrow out there.
“Sweetheart, if we can do it, and you are better or healthy enough to get on a plane, we’ll do it. Even if we have to blow our entire savings, we’ll do it. We’ll do it.”
While I was talking, Melanie was lying back in the passenger seat with her eyes closed.
She took my hand.
His name is Marcus.
He is Austrian, and right away he tells me that he hates walking. Walking is not his thing. He has never liked walking. He would never choose to walk anywhere he says, serving himself a heaping pile of salad. He tells me good-naturedly that he thinks we are all crazy, you people who do this for fun.
I laugh, but I also wonder if it was one of those things that happens with children where they have trouble doing something, and then they say they hate it in a kind of see-through, self-defense strategy. I think that maybe he’s run into health problems and is now cursing the whole endeavor.
But, no, his health is fine. His feet are good. Knees are good. It wasn’t that at all. He really doesn’t like walking, not even before he set out. In fact, he is on the Camino for a totally different reason, maybe even a little bit because he doesn’t like walking.
Three years earlier, during the delivery of his youngest daughter, his wife had developed a sudden complication. Moments after giving birth, her heart had started to fail. Alarms went off, and he could see something was wrong on the monitor. Everything got crazy in the room, and he was shunted to the side, and after some kind of on-the-scene intervention, his wife was skirted out and carted away somewhere. He was not allowed to follow, and it was too urgent to even tell him where they were going. He didn’t know if she was dying right then and there. The baby and a handful of nurses remained in the room. You can’t imagine the horror of this, he tells me. In a matter of moments his whole life had gone from tingling joy to a flow of grey terror.
Later that evening things stabilized, he says. He was told by the doctors that his wife suffered from a rare cardiac syndrome affecting one in a million pregnancies or something like that. A third of the women who suffer the syndrome recovers. Another third needs a heart transplant. Another third dies. His wife was among the group that needed a heart transplant, and, it would turn out – this was three years ago, he said – that she was able to hang in there long enough to get one.
But fate is as slippery as a fresh deck of cards.
The heart transplant was not the end of their ordeal. There were additional complications immediately afterwards. Her body came down with a viral infection of some kind, and it rejected the new heart. She remained incapacitated fighting the virus. For three years, Marcus had been living with an ailing wife and two young daughters. Often, he took care of them on his own.
And at some point during all of this, somewhere in their darkest hour, Marcus promised God that if He would save his wife, then he would walk the Camino. He would get himself to Santiago.
“Save my wife, Lord.”
Marcus tells me that the very first day of his Camino he got hopelessly lost. He had walked for close to fifteen hours. He’d come over from the French side of the Pyrenees and down into Spain. For the pilgrims who walk this major route, this stage is probably the most demanding of the entire journey, and, unfortunately, he missed a key turn on the descent.
He didn’t speak either French or Spanish, and he misunderstood some directions, walking a whole slew of extra kilometers in the wrong direction. Then he had to make his way back up and over, and then, because it was getting really dark and hard to see signage, he missed another turn. The trails all look the same, and he was on some kind of hiking trail, he explains, but it wasn’t for the pilgrimage, and it was leading the wrong way, he tells me. He was sure he would have to spend the night in the mountains, exhausted and hungry. He was out of water and getting cold. It was raining intermittently.
An absolute nightmare of a first day, he tells me with his warm smile, like he’s talking about somebody else.
He doesn’t say this, but I can’t help but think that this is a guy whose entire life is about trying to hold it together. Certainly, it has been for the previous three years. And sure enough, once again, the cheerful guy held it together and got himself back on track. He ran into a helpful stranger and found his way back to the right trail. Sometime well after dark, he arrived at an auberge, mentally and physically exhausted.
Bit by bit after he checked in and sat down, he began to settle. There was an almost surreal surge in normalcy about him, people laughing and buzzing about, proud they’d made it through the first day and the big climb. None of these people knew what he’s been through that day or over the previous three years. There was a Wi-Fi connection in the common room, and he took out his cell phone to check his email.
Now, Marcus explains to me that before he left, he had set up two beach buckets. He put them over the family fireplace. One bucket had a picture of the cathedral at Santiago on the outside. The other had a picture of their home. Inside the Santiago bucket were the exact number of shells, one for each day he had set aside to make his pilgrimage. The count was timed from the day of his flight to France to the day he returned home to Austria. The idea of the two buckets was that every evening his daughters would move a single shell out of the Cathedral at Santiago bucket and into the bucket featuring a picture of their home. It would help them visualize the length of the trip and daddy’s remaining time away. When all the shells but one are out of the first bucket, then daddy will be home.
The last shell they would do together as a family.
And that very first night that he was out here on the Camino, when he had finally gotten to safety, he sat down in an armchair in the auberge. He found an email on his cell phone from his wife, who was better now, finally on the mend, and was well enough to hold the fort during his pilgrimage.
Marcus shows me this email on his cell phone at the dinner table.
She wrote in her email that she was proud of him. She told him how grateful she’s been for his support. She wrote that everybody was doing well at the house, and that they were all missing dad. She attached a photo of the girls just before they’d been tucked into bed that night. It was a picture of their two daughters at the fireplace They were transferring the very first shell from one bucket to the other. The children were looking at the camera and holding up one of the scallop shells together. Jointly. They were waving to their father with their free hands.
They were young and beautiful.
They were smiling.
They were six and three.
Marcus tells me that when he saw that photo, he cried for twenty minutes without stopping.
I could not stop, he repeats to himself, taking the phone back.
I do not know what was happening to me that night, he says.
I tell my Austrian friend he is sitting next to the right guy.
I tell Marcus about our visit with the neurologist and how we sat there with the tumor magnified on his computer screen and how the doctor poked at it and flipped it and drilled in. He showed us first this thing and then that thing with his pointer.
“Yes, there may be something wrong with you, but it is not because of this tumor, not the stage it is at now anyway. We will keep an eye on it, of course, but you do not need to worry about the neuroma.”
Melanie mentioned some of the other symptoms, and the neurologist became even more convinced that it wasn’t the tumor. His physician confidence was growing and our relief.
“No, of course, nobody wants one of these, but they are not necessarily the end of the world, he went on. You should absolutely come back in six months to have it scanned again, and these guys usually grow by such and such a percentage every year, so you need to be careful, with x millimeters on average, and sometimes they can really mushroom up on you, but you shouldn’t worry too much.”
And just like that the brain tumor death sentence was lifted. It was like Melanie was pardoned at the gallows. We walked around the hospital corridors in a kind of daze. I’m not even sure if we were heading back to the car or where really. It was like we just wandered the hospital shell-shocked. We were too relieved to feel anything like the joy you might imagine, probably because we still hadn’t solved the real problem.
And it is only this year that we’ve been in France that we really told the children what was going on there during those difficult months and, in particular, during those three harrowing days before the neurology appointment.
I explain to my new Austrian friend that Melanie’s health began to mend inexplicably again a month or so later almost on its own, as it had one prior time. I tell him we have a theory now, but the doctors don’t seem to agree on it, and other than to bat down your theory, they’re really too busy to think about it much when you’re out of the woods. So still nobody knows what is going on. We may never know. The whole episode could be gone forever, or it could start again in the morning. There’s just now a whole lot of tomorrow out there.
But she’s here. I’m here. We live in France like we promised each other we would. I still have my wife. The children still have their mother. Maybe it’s the reason we’re both sitting next to each other, I said to Marcus.
“I liked you right away, he says. That is why I sat next to you. I just had a feeling.”
We toasted our wives, and our children, and our promises kept.
We toasted our beautiful, but delicate, delicate lives.
“To promises kept,” my friend repeats when we pass each other on the road the next day.
And then we never see each other again.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.