Chapter 26: A Zen Candle
The place where the only way to know what is within is to allow another to enter and describe it.
The night I stop in Atapuerca, I meet a Brazilian woman. She is in the restaurant’s waiting area, and we get to talking and then end up sitting together. As is inevitable, we fall into sharing our stories.
There is a stranger-on-a-train quality to forging relationships on the Camino. You share things about your life that you would never share with someone you had only known for fifteen minutes anywhere else.
So, my new friend learns about my year in France, my “unpack everything,” my “let it go, let it go, let it go,” my day in Toulouse, my moment on the stairwell, my prayer in Vernègues, my children, my wife – everything that I have shared with you here.
And I learn what brought her to the Camino, alone, a woman from another continent, halfway across the world, far from her husband and her two young children. There are many older women on the Camino and many younger women in their early twenties. They travel with friends in the laughter and safety of small groups, but it is rarer to meet a mother on her own, willing to part with her children, to walk and be alone for days on end. I admire the courage of women who travel alone and immediately like and trust her.
She is not doing well physically. Her knee is swollen and wrapped. She’s been to the doctor and given ibuprofen and told to rest, but the pace is catching up with her. I’d seen her on the porch of the hostel that afternoon with her knee elevated, but she carries this setback lightly.
She had her backpack couriered the day we meet. Unlike some people – me – she is not a purist in the sense that she needs to carry her pack every inch of the way on her own or the whole thing doesn’t count. There is something spiritually relaxed in her, at ease. She isn’t someone who catches pilgrim fever. There are times when I meet someone whose disposition is so different than mine that I can’t help but get along with them, almost out of amazement.
She calls the weary pilgrim’s transport service the whiner bus, and that makes me laugh. But, still, quietly I wonder if she was ever going to get there. We are a long way from Santiago to be leaning on a taxi service.
And then it is her turn, and she shares why she is on the Camino. She gives me the initial high-level answer, the need for down time, the opportunity for mid-life reflection, the chance to slow things up. She tells me that she is a successful jewelry artist in São Paulo, a small-business owner. Some of her comments about the lure and trap of entrepreneurial and artistic projects resonate, but there is more to her pilgrimage than that, and she shares the larger reason she is on the Camino.
She tells me that in her backpack she’s carrying a candle, a small Zen candle she calls it, and with it she has brought a slip of paper that reads “the death of young people serves as a reminder to us of life’s impermanence.” The words are from the Dalai Lama, words she discovered by chance on the day of a tragedy that she relates to me. She says the words feel sent to her somehow. And next to the inscription is a small picture of the two of them, her sister, not yet forty.
“She was my little sister, and she was my best friend,” she tells me. “We talked all the time, my sister and I. We did everything together, and when I get to the Cathedral in Santiago, I’m going to light this candle in her memory.”
I listen quietly. I think of my older brother and how much he means to me. I can’t imagine losing him I think to myself, finding a sympathetic reference point.
“She was killed in a car accident six months ago,” she adds.
The hair goes up on my arms.
You know, your life floats up at you out there.
When you’re on the Camino, especially when you’ve been on it for a long time, you see how the walk breaks itself up into chapters. There are themes that you work over for a week or two weeks at a time, and then the next thing, and then the next thing.
It is like they find you. The chapters are delivered to you by the people that sit down next to you or walk up beside you on the road or greet you in a restaurant waiting area. They come out of conversations struck up while waiting for the daily stamp on your pilgrim passport.
The thing is that you don’t need to search for them. They introduce themselves. This is why the pilgrim advice I read early on to “forget even the plans you have for the pilgrimage” is so very, very accurate. You may only be getting the way.
Bring nothing. The Camino will be brought to you. You are its audience, not its actor.
When I first read the instruction to bring nothing, I felt I would come away with nothing if I followed that, but now I’m realizing I have the space to hold things I never thought to bring. Somehow, I dared to trust this admonition and benefited from it.
And, now, in a restaurant in Atapuerca, here we are again. When I thought I had nothing left but homestretch, I’m suddenly holding something so delicate it can only rest on an open palm.
I am awake that night for a long time, lying in my bunk. I think how odd it is that I had started to think the meaningful parts of the walk were winding down for me. I had spent weeks working through what felt to me the important things in my life. I had begun to pick up my pace a bit and the daily business of completing the Camino. I had begun to think a lot about getting back home to my wife and children. I was eight weeks in and ready to wrap up a journey of gratitude and love in all of its warmer, happier aspects.
And then here it is suddenly, in a chance conversation, the last chapter, the chapter of loss.
The moment she says “car accident” I know what the chapter is called, and who it is about. It makes perfect sense. Of course her death was going to come up on the walk. Her death and its troubling timing and circumstances have been under the entire year, almost from the week that we arrived in France. She had been floating in a grief-less vacuum, waiting for sustained attention and a proper good-bye.
I know how I couldn’t have seen it coming.
We were in the Dordogne the previous summer in Southwest France. It was only the second week of our trip. We had rented a small apartment in a hilltop town. It looked out over the confluence of two rivers. There was a small beach there at the river’s edge, and all day long a steady stream of rental canoes floated in from somewhere upriver.
There is a word for this type of day. It’s not a word that commands attention. It’s a word we almost mock, but it is the right word for a certain kind of summer day, and a subtle one. The word is pleasant. I believe that if our lives were pleasant for long enough, our hearts would burst. We would know heaven.
And everything was pleasant that day.
We were only getting started on a great, circling tour around France. We had walked home from a terrific dinner that evening, one of the best of the entire summer. It had been hot in the afternoon, but there was a lovely breeze on the patio where we were eating. The presented the food on old-fashioned, cracked wooden cutting boards. Melanie spent half the meal taking pictures of everything they brought to the table. The children and I teased her about it, and we were in great spirits.
The wine was great, and after we looked around the patio for gendarmes and disapproving adults, we gave the children teaspoonfuls of wine so they could taste the same cherries that mom and dad were going on about, and perhaps a hint of adulthood, too.
After dinner, the four of us walked home up our cobbled street. We stopped by a parapet that looked out over a twinkling valley. When we got back to our apartment, I told Mel I was going to check my email quickly, and that I’d be up in a moment to say goodnight to the children.
I saw two Facebook messages from people I hadn’t spoken with in twenty years. The first was from my old girlfriend’s best friend. The second was from her sister. They both said the identical thing.
Please call me when you get this.
A vehicle struck her on Broadway and Amsterdam, at an intersection not five blocks from our old apartment. The toxicology report was unequivocal and disturbing. I’ll never know for sure whether her death was intentional that evening - I only have her note – but her drug history made her early loss inevitable to everyone. This was not a surprise. And if she had taken her life that night, it would not have been her first attempt.
The accident was on the night of June 14th, the same day she’d sent me her last Facebook note. And then for the next three weeks – while my family and I were packing our bags and starting off on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure – she had been hanging onto life in a coma before eventually slipping away. She was 46 years old.
I told Melanie what happened. I said goodnight to the children. I sat there and looked at her Facebook photos. I reread her last note and then the small set of back-and-forths over the previous year, the likes, the comments on photos. I read everything she’d posted on her own wall and on the walls of her friends. I systematically saved all of our personal communication to my desktop, so that I could hang onto what I had left of her, in case she disappeared from Facebook as suddenly.
You know I probably would have never seen her in person again. We were not in any true sense friends anymore. I didn’t know the details of what was going on in her life. I didn’t want a day-to-day involvement or to become invested in her battles and dramas.
I am a married man with a family. I’m careful and jealously protective of that. I’ve never been a man that keeps women in his life as close, personal friends, not apart from the couples or friends that Melanie and I know mutually. So, if she’d pushed for more connection, I would have shied away from it and hardened up and called out my boundaries in some awkward, possibly hurtful way. It is likely she sensed this or felt a similar way herself. She kept her distance as I kept mine.
When Melanie and I moved back to New York City for a couple of years in the early 90’s, I did not seek her out or stop by her restaurant. It was unlikely, even if I had been back in the city, that I would have ever joined her for coffee or let her know I was in town. Our life together was long since over, and I didn’t want to build anything on the ruins. When she reappeared in my online world a couple of years ago, there was no upswell of nostalgia for our years together. I had no desire to say, oh, remember this thing or that thing about our past life. I didn’t need to feel anything again. Maybe the ability to respond to each other with surgical care on Facebook made this small level of reconnection even possible.
And now the larger thing should be – must be – called out explicitly.
I had no residual romantic feelings for her. I had no leftover longings, no regrets on the outcome, no fleeting sentiments and “if we only had done it differently.” It was over. We were over. Mercifully. We’d known it nineteen years ago. Getting to that point was what made it possible, eventually, at our bitter end, despite the threats and the risk, to part finally and get away from each other.
It was also clear, painfully so, that I’d found the thing I had been holding out for. Between the lines she had acknowledged it in small notes among my posted family pictures. The love in my life was the elephant in the room. Not even naming that would have made it go away.
Maybe six months before her death, though, she had sent me a note. She’d titled it All Those Years Ago and she’d apologized for how she’d been when we were together. She wrote I always wanted to tell you this, so here it is. After I’d cleared it with Melanie, I sent her back an equally heartfelt apology for what I’d done and said, getting at some of the things I was most ashamed of. For each of us there was plenty to be ashamed of.
We had said good-bye long ago.
But I will tell you this:
If her life had unfolded differently, if she had lived to be 92, and I’d run into her one day somewhere, her tiny, ancient self sitting on a park bench in Greenwich Village or fussing with her dogs on a midtown curb – I can tell you that I would have looked at her and still known exactly who she was.
We both knew this about each other. I knew who she was in love and in war. I knew the heart of her. I knew the parts of her that would not move and would never change, parts as hard and as fixed as altar stone. I knew what was there from the beginning and may very well be, somehow, somewhere, still.
I knew her because she had let me in.
She had allowed me to know her as I had allowed her to know me. That was our gift to each other. She had let me into her heart in the same innocent and beautiful way a child lets you in. By which, I mean without reservation. I knew the whole terrified, beautiful, tender and self-destructive her. She was each of those four things in full measure, more than I would ever want or feel free to tell you.
And the old woman in the park fussing with her dogs would have known that this old man had once looked directly into her and fought with her and held her and known her, and loved her, really loved her – still loved her after all of her everything, it might have seemed to her.
He had stood at the intimate heart of her. He had been allowed into the place where our beauty has been hidden from our own sight, where we are blind to who we truly are, where the only way to know what is within is to allow another to enter and describe it.
I had been her witness, and I am her witness now.
There are only a small handful of people in any of our lives with whom we are this intimate. She was one of my precious, precious few, and to know someone like this is a gift. It is to know the place where the person that you love has been signed by God.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.