Chapter 27: Santiago de Compostela
“Think of that. Because that is your life.”
She used to celebrate her adoption day like a birthday, just like she used to celebrate her actual birthday. It was the day she came home to a true family, was loved, and welcomed, and held close and dear.
It was the day she finally had a true mother, a mother who loved and claimed and wanted her. I realized at some point walking along out there, that her adoption birthday would have fallen on Easter. How fitting.
It is probably a special day for many adopted children, the particular day when they are plucked from being some nameless Baby Girl #15 or whoever it is you are when you are living under a temporary name that nobody commits to or believes in. And you can’t really have a temporary name. It is the very symbol of you.
Your name is the trestle of your soul.
And walking across Spain in those last few weeks towards the end, I thought of something she said one afternoon in our New York apartment. She had been talking to a friend, and her adoption had come up, and when she came into our apartment, she put her stuff down, and sat near me on the bed, and asked me, but also asked nobody in particular, asked the apartment, asked herself, asked the world: who the fuck held me the first six months of my life?
She said it softly, with a trace of confusion even, kind of shaking her head, and then she stood up again and was off somewhere to be alone with it. I don’t know if she’d ever really thought about it that way before, but the question had grabbed a hold of her. I remember I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t really a question that can be answered with words. It was a question into the void.
And walking along out there I thought of her smile, too, and how it always kind of asked you that same question. And that question became a part of how I thought about Santiago and what I wanted to do for her once I got there. It got wrapped up in the notion of lighting a candle for her in the cathedral, an idea that I was moved by and borrowed from my Brazilian friend.
In the little rush of borrowed faith that graced me for a few weeks out there on my pilgrimage, I felt that I had a sort-of response for her, for the Catholic girl from Long Island. Maybe I just knew who I wanted to have held her for those first six months, who might have in some way looked after her, leaned over her as an infant and then, at the end as she lay crushed and dying in a hospital at the end of her life. And maybe that’s what I wanted to give her, to summon, to find for her and spiritually complete, in Santiago de Compostela.
I was thinking specifically of the Pieta Mary. The compassion in her features, the exquisite femininity, the resigned gaze into infinity. What radiates out of hard stone is something bigger than the rules and creeds of men, their heavens and hells, who is going where and how and why, and which particular ideas and exact words must be used to navigate and sustain it all. The bitter, self-evident foolishness of all that.
The Pieta Mary doesn’t busy herself with any of it. She doesn’t comfort herself with her fading memory of her son’s Sermon on the Mount. Her expression sweeps all of that away without even raising her eyes. It radiates that none of that is important now.
My oldest is dead.
This idea of Mary is before and beyond all of the masculine doing and measuring and adding up. She simply loves you, the broken, crucified, un-resurrected tragedy of you. I imagine for Catholics there must be a liberation in trusting in her, in counting on her, in inviting the thing that she represents to be one’s deepest ally, in making the case for you with her eyes.
And if there is a Christ who must come, for whatever reason, to judge the quick and the dead, then let us hope and pray that he can be reminded that he is – as he has always been – his mother’s son.
This idea of the Pieta Mary practically pulled me across the last few weeks in Spain. I had a very specific notion of how when I got to the Cathedral in Santiago, I would look at every Mary in the great church, every last one. There might be hundreds of Marys in there, but I would spend as long as I needed to discover them all. I would go through every candlelit side chapel until I found the right Mary for her. Her Mary. The most beautiful one in the cathedral. The best one. And I had the same blind confidence that I would find her Mary as I believed walking along that I would meet the people I was supposed to meet, day by day, moment by moment.
And I knew that when I found her Mary, I would light her candle there, and that I would pray for her somehow, too, with whatever small measure of faith I might have recovered. This idea saddened and relieved me. It became exactly what I wanted for her. Because there was a part of me that trusted what was felt or even hidden in this idea of Mary, this Pieta Mary. So, let Mary carry her, intercede for her, defend and deliver her. Let Mary look down on her with the same Pieta expression.
Let her look down on all of us this way.
Towards the end of the walk it was all I thought about.
When I found her Mary, I recognized her immediately.
She wasn’t in the cathedral.
I found her in a gift shop. I was only a few blocks from the cathedral picking out a candle, and there she was, engraved on silver, mounted on a small woodblock. She was a Mary with an infant child no older than three or four months. The baby Jesus – but really, he could have been any baby – pressed dreamily to the top of her chest. The child was sleeping, as if on a hot summer afternoon after nursing, mouth slightly ajar, peaceful, pressed against the mother, the child’s head just below her chin. Mary was looking down at the child – but really, she could have been any mother – with that same lovely, Pieta-soft expression.
On the back of the woodblock a small oval sticker read Made in Italy and that felt right, too, for the Italian girl from Long Island. The little plaque was no bigger than the dimensions of a playing card. It had a little triangle hook on the back, but I’m not sure where you’d even hang it.
Originally, I had imagined something bigger and grander, a whole Mary statue extravaganza tucked into her own side chapel with a team of marble cherubim, and twisting Bernini columns, and an enormous rack of candles burning in front of her, but immediately I knew this Mary was the right Mary when I saw her.
And the thing is, when I think back on it now, I’m not even sure the mother in the engraving was even supposed to be Mary. It might have been a generic mother and child, and it was me thinking so much about Mary that I assumed it was her, but it was, nevertheless, the truest symbol of her, the thing a Mary might be, and we all long for, every last one of us, irrespective of our faith, and recognize instinctively.
I returned to my hotel room that morning and I carved out her full name, the dates of her birth and her death, and a two-word epitaph in parentheses on the candle. I blew away the wax shavings from the letters and numbers. I placed the candle and the little plaque and a miniature cigarette lighter in the plastic bag from the candle store. I also had a tiny cross that was given to me by an Armenian archbishop I’d met on a plane ride the year before. He’d given it to me after a long conversation when he’d learned I was walking the Camino.
I explained to him that I wasn’t a Christian and that wasn’t why I was walking it, but still he’d turned around as we were getting off the plane, and in one of those last awkward moments when everybody’s filing out, he pulled this miniature cross out of his jacket coat pocket and gave it to me. The awkwardness of it had moved me at the time because I realized it was given from his faith rather than his station. So, I’d saved it and taken it with me on the pilgrimage as a kind of good luck charm. And I decided suddenly to put the tiny cross in the plastic bag, too. Then I packed the rest of my things into my backpack and checked out of the hotel.
Before lighting the candle in the church, I said the Lord’s Prayer. I remembered my father teaching it to my brother and me as children. My father was a Jew who converted to Catholicism in his twenties. At his death, he took his Last Rites, but as far as I know he never went to Mass my entire life. But we learned the words from him.
My mother was in charge of our religious upbringing, but it was my father who taught us to pray, and he made prayer seem like something important. Nothing more than the Lord’s Prayer.
He didn’t believe you should go to God with a whole list of personal wants and needs. But no matter how crazy other things got during the craziest, post-alcoholic, joint custody visits, he would always lie down beside us at bedtime and recite the Lord’s Prayer with us. It was our one reliable oasis of weekend-visit peace. And in the cathedral in Santiago, the Lord’s Prayer felt like the right thing to say, so I said it.
And then I told her as if she stood before me, that I didn’t know what really happened at the end. I would never know. I probably don’t want to know, I said.
But I told her to think of how many people she touched in her life. I told her to imagine how many people would miss her if they knew she were gone. I told her, without the slightest exaggeration, that this vast cathedral wouldn’t be big enough to hold all the people who’d felt her smile at them.
Think of that, because that is your life.
There was a flat piece of metal on the ground to catch wax and a half dozen other candles burning there already. I sat her candle down and placed the archbishop’s cross around it like a necklace. I straightened everything up so that it was neat. I leaned the small Mary plaque up against the side of the red plastic tube that held the candle.
There was a priest or a monk or somebody arranging things around a nearby altar, and I thought for a moment of asking him to look after the Mary plaque once everything was burned out the next morning. For a second, I thought of asking him to give it to someone afterwards, a child or someone, or I didn’t know who really. I was not making a lot of sense.
But then I was afraid that if I went up to him, I’d learn that leaving the plaque was prohibited, or something else would get in the way, or they’d make me move her candle, and I just couldn’t bear the thought of anything going wrong or even differently for her, so I said nothing.
I took a moment before lighting the candle, because I had the very real sense that this was it. The two of us were down to goodbye. Saying goodbye to my candle had become saying goodbye to her, and it was getting so that my feelings were so strong I couldn’t tell the difference or what was really what anyway. But none of that was important now.
I thought about how I’ve been telling myself for a thousand miles that I needed to unpack and let myself go where I go, meet who I meet, and let everyone come and let everyone go, the places and the people, the love and the loss. I’d made a personal religion out of this letting go, out of saying goodbye, and here I was again, one last time.
So after a moment I said, “Goodbye, Cathy” and then headed out into the sunlight towards Finisterre.
Feel something. For free. Twice a week.