The Sculpture on Monte do Gozo
At the Main Plaza
I startle awake to Madeleine’s hand on my shoulder. Mom, it’s time to get up. I roll over to face her and despite my blurry vision I can see that she’s already dressed for the day. Apparently, I am the last to wake, having slept soundly through the departure of most of the pilgrims in the bunkroom. I lie there for a moment to let my heart rate return to normal, and notice that the sun is streaming full force through the window beside my bed. How late could it be, I wonder?
Suddenly, it comes to me. Today we walk into Santiago! Anticipation propels me out of bed. I grab my clothes and toiletries and hustle to the ladies room. Having dressed in record time, I take up position at the bathroom mirror and set my contact lens case on the sink. I am strangely calm, given the uncertainty of the moment. I
will either have my vision, or I won’t. I smile wryly, thinking of how upset my Mother would be if she saw me take a lens that had been trampled on a stone floor and put it in my eye – disinfected or not.
I dump the lens in question into my palm, and squirt it with a generous amount of saline solution, and carefully position it on my index finger. Holding my eyelids apart with my other fingers, I place the lens on my eye. I am fully anticipating the irritation that comes from a damaged or dirty lens, but am surprised that it feels fine. It floats as comfortably on my eye as a new lens. Cautiously optimistic, I move my eye to the left and right, then up and down. No discomfort. Not a bit. Given the abuse the lens had endured, it is nothing short of a miracle that it is intact and useable.
I walk back to the bunkroom, slightly stunned, with the weight of the unexpected blessing on my heart. Thank you, Lord. Thank you.
I share the good news but there is little time to dawdle; even Mark, who still looks a slightly grey and shaky, has his pack on and is ready to go. Lila gives her pack to me and slings mine over her shoulder in a smooth motion. As I leave the bunkroom, I notice that the bunks where Irish Simon and his brother slept are now vacated; they must have called an early cab to the airport. I can’t help but feel disappointed for them, and hopeful that Mark’s health will allow him to be able to walk into Santiago today under his own steam.
I hurriedly retrieve my boots from the silver rack outside the bunkroom, then perch on the top step of the staircase. I affix a Band-Aid at the base of my right big toe where a metal eyelet has rubbed a small raw spot. I count myself blessed that my only problem spot happens to be on the top of my foot, rather than the heel or sole. Mercy and Grace have been such faithful companions these last 9 days.
I can hear the group chattering downstairs, anxious to get started on today’s 20 kilometer walk; by the time my laces are secure and I catch up to everyone, the faster walkers have departed. We follow suit, a few paces behind Robbin. At only 8:15, the sun already feels warm on our backs. I tie and cinch my jacket around my waist not because I think I’ll need it, but because it provides a convenient, snug place to store my water bottle. Like a gunslinger, I have learned to keep my water within quick draw territory.
Our long shadows dance before us as we walk west out of O Pedrouzo. Cassidy
and Madeleine stay close as we navigate out of the city, then lengthen their
strides as the path becomes wooded.
It isn’t long before my stomach begins to growl rather insistently.
I retrieve the last two chewy nut bars from my pack and offer one to
Lila. She declines, so I polish them both off as we walk. Thirsty now, I down
half a bottle of my now lukewarm water. I am craving a cup of hot coffee right about now, but the road is thus far bereft of any promising cafes.
The signs for Santiago begin to appear more frequently, and the declining kilometer count feels encouraging especially as the path begins to ascend. The climb is long and challenging – more than 4 kilometers of uphill walking – but I keep a strong and steady pace, silently synchronized with my Jesus prayer. Lila doesn’t comment, but I can tell by her smile that she’s proud of my progress.
We round a bend and find the girls resting by the side of the road. Madeleine is wearing her hair in charming braids today, with a green and tan striped hat perched jauntily on her head. She looks straight out of an REI camping store advertisement, and I cannot resist snapping her picture. Once I am done, Lila grabs the camera and
tells me to pose with Madeleine.
As an obese woman, having my picture taken is an exercise in finding creative ways to hide in plain sight. Fortunately, I am tall and have a legitimate spot
in the back row of any group picture and I have also become expert at placing my
children strategically in front of me in an attempt to hide my girth. I know how to stand at an angle to not appear as wide as I actually am. I know to how
to smile in such a way that my eyes won’t disappear into my chubby cheeks. Big handbags, carefully positioned, can also be useful. Low angles are bad; higher
angles mean fewer chins. Tactics and strategies and subterfuge – it is all-out inner warfare whenever I am aware of a lens being trained on me.
In this moment, as my daughter takes her position next to me, I have even more reason to feel self-conscious; she is young and slender and breathtaking – I suffer terribly by comparison. But she is clowning around and being silly, and her joy is an infectious sneak attack that slips past my well-honed defenses. I cannot be
in my head in this moment; I can only love and laugh with this beautiful girl. Much later, Lila shows me the series of pictures and my bliss simply leaps off the screen.
I am beautiful in these pictures; they defy any self-judgment to the
We eventually resume our climb, the tall spindly trees gradually giving way to brown scrub brush as we near the top of the hill. Our reward for the climb is yet another hill, and as my disappointment registers, I realize that I was hoping our reward would be a glimpse of Santiago. I chasten myself to not get too attached to
the destination and to savor these last, precious hours on the Camino
Several paces ahead of us, Madeleine begins to sing to pass the time. Her voice rings strong and pure, and I feel that familiar surge of pleasure and pride in listening to her. She and Cassidy pass by a man walking alone, and he smiles in appreciation. He is rather large and is walking slowly with great effort. As there are very few
pilgrims on the path who seem to be slower than I am, he catches my attention. As we move to pass him, he compliments the ‘young lady’ on her singing, and says that it lightens his heart. His eagerness for conversation – for human connection – is palpable; and I oblige by adjusting my pace to his for a time while Lila moves forward to walk with the girls.
With a distinctly eastern European accent, he begins to talk – his eyes fixed on the road ahead. He shares that he has been slaving away for the past 15 years at a stressful night-shift job; packing on more than a hundred and fifty pounds in the process. He has become little more than a roommate to his wife and a virtual
stranger to his three teenage children. His doctor has informed him bluntly that he will be dead within 5 years if he doesn’t make some significant changes in his life.
He attached himself to the idea of the Camino as a catalyst for a new life. He has been walking – laboriously and alone – for two and a half months. In that time he estimates he has dropped more than 50 pounds. He speaks very matter-of-factly, yet shares very deeply of himself.
The threads that connect me to this man feel very tangible; I see myself in his story. I ask him what has been the hardest part of his journey thus far, but I suspect that I already know his answer. “Being lonely,” he says. He shares that he has quit the Camino half a dozen times – usually at night after particularly solitary days. When morning would come, though, something propelled him to continue walking. We pass a few moments in silence, and then he raises his eyes from the road, smiles at me and says “Sometimes people slow down and keep you company, which is nice.”
A small stream trickles on the left side of the path; and Lila and the girls are stopped. I assume that it’s to look at the distinctly copper shade of the dirt and sand of the stream but instead they point to a tall chain link fence beyond the stream where people have made dozens of crosses from sticks and inserted them into the fence. Lila mentions that she had heard our companion Phil mention that he tried to genuflect when he noticed a cross along the Camino. “He must have been here all morning,” she teases, and we all giggle. Behind the fence we see the smooth paved end of a runway; we are passing the Santiago airport! This proof of proximity to our destination has the girls excitedly jumping and hugging each other.
The girls and Lila once again take the lead, and I follow with my new temporary companion. I realize suddenly that I have neglected to introduce him to the others and that, in fact, I do not even know his name. I offer mine, expecting him to
respond with his, but he only nods and smiles. I find this odd, but choose not to press the issue. Perhaps, having shared such emotionally intimate details of his life with me, he would prefer to remain somewhat anonymous. We continue to walk and talk, passing a few pleasant kilometers together.
My group flags us down as we pass by a café. Madeleine is nearly apoplectic because she has spotted glazed doughnuts in the café’s display case. My new friend wanders off to find the men’s room and the four of us search for table. We prefer to sit outside on the patio, but all of the patio tables are taken; and judging by the amount of cigarette smoke, the inside dining area is just as crowded. We finally find a few vacant bar stools and get off our feet for a while.
We hail a passing waitress and order our drinks, several doughnuts, and a few Spanish tortillas, the egg and potato dish which has become our new culinary obsession. My new friend sits at the other end of the bar and peruses the menu for a long time before ordering. He doesn’t seem interested in joining our
A table for four opens up about the time our drinks come, and we quickly move to claim it. It has a view of the kitchen, which provides for a bit of entertainment, despite making us hungrier by the minute. I make quick work of my coffee, taking long, deep sips and order another one before the first one is empty. The waitress brings the doughnuts along with my second cup of coffee, and we dive into their sticky sweetness, savoring every bite and licking our fingers. Our Spanish
tortillas arrive and are demolished very quickly; along with a third cup of
coffee for me.
After the meal, Lila and Cassidy excuse themselves in search of the ladies room, and Madeleine and I have a rare few minutes alone. It feels like a luxury to have her to myself, and I am greedy to hear how she’s doing and what she’s experiencing thus far on this last day of walking. She chirps away, waxing poetic about the doughnut, clearly angling for another one. I don’t have the heart to say no, so we grab our gear and head toward the cash register which is conveniently located next to the bakery display case. While she orders her doughnut, I say goodbye to the gentleman I had been walking with. He has just received his meal, and is attacking it with gusto. He
gives an awkward wave with a mouth full of pasta, then I turn and head for the
door. Perhaps I will see him again, perhaps not. But I feel blessed to have walked
with him for a time.
I step out onto the patio and see Cassidy sitting on the ground leaning against the wall of the restaurant soaking up the sun. I join her, sliding down the wall and plopping onto the cement. Cassidy’s long toes wiggle in the sun, as if happy to be on parole from their tennis shoe prison. At 14, Cassidy is as tall as I am with size 10 feet; but her athletic frame has just recently begun to develop graceful, willowy curves. With her dark hair, eyes, and height she could easily pass for my daughter. I rest beside her for a moment, my eyes closed, my face raised to the sun. It is
nearly noon, and it is the warmest day thus far on our Camino. A fleeting thought of sun block occurs, but I quickly discard it. My hat should provide sufficient protection (I rationalize), and besides, the sun feels marvelous.
My light is suddenly cut off, and I open one eye to see my daughter towering above me, the sun creating a luminous halo around her head. She offers a hand to help me to me feet. Cassidy dons her socks and tennis shoes and we continue on our way to Santiago. We are within 12 kilometers, I think.
I can’t help but admire Mother Nature’s handiwork today; golden flowers dot the fields in bright patches, the trees bubble with delicate lavender blossoms, and a cluster of brilliant blue-violet iris yawns delicately toward the midday sun.
Although the next hour of walking is easy, the combination of the sun and my heavy lunch has made me drowsy; I long for a siesta. Apparently, I am
not alone in this sentiment because Madeleine and Cassidy have stopped at a
rest area and are eyeing a picnic table that two pilgrims are in the process of
vacating. It is idyllic; a lovely, secluded grassy spot complete with a babbling brook.
Cassidy quickly strips off her shoes again and dips her feet into the
water. Madeleine keeps her boots on, but rolls her pants up above her knees to soak in the sun. Lila and I settle in to opposite sides of the
picnic bench and relax; I place Lila’s backpack on top of the table, cover it
with my coat, then lean forward and rest my head on my crossed arms.
We watch the girls lay side-by-side on their backs on a large flat rock in the middle of the stream; they dangle their hands in the cool, flowing water and are asleep within
minutes. My own impulse to catnap mysteriously vanishes
as Lila and I begin talking. Ten solid days in her company and I have yet to be the slightest bit bored in her company. How is this possible? Yes, her interests are varied, her life-experiences broad and deep and (often) hilarious, and her stories are told with a self-deprecating humor and warmth. But she is also a wonderful listener; someone who has the patience to really listen to me sift through my (often voluminous) thoughts until I have discovered my point. This is a true gift to me, as often my verbal nature is something for which I feel compelled to apologize. She never hurries; she never interrupts; she always encourages me by remembering where I was before my thoughts went on a tangent. She allows me the time to draw the convoluted map of my reasoning, follows the connections and detours with equal patience, and – in letting my process run its course – helps me arrive at a deeper understanding of what I think and feel and believe. I am deeply appreciative of Lila, and the gift of time she has given me; would that I could always listen to others and be listened to myself as if there were naught but hours to fill.
As we sit together, watching our daughters snooze, it occurs to me that our Camino is almost over. And as much as I want to see Santiago, I do not want this to end – this perfect hour, this sweet peace, this precious companionship. We are quiet for a time,
soaking in the rustle of the breeze in the trees, the gurgle of the water, the
footsteps of the occasional pilgrim passing by.
Eventually, reluctantly, we surface from our reverie. The girls,
rested and newly energized from their siesta, head off to a nearby restaurant
to refill the water bottles. I follow them to visit the bathroom, and find the boisterous noise coming from inside the courtyard of the restaurant jarring, like an alarm clock tearing me away from a pleasant dream.
We resume our trek on a windy stretch of the pilgrim path; the rolling hills make for somewhat challenging walking, but Lila falls into step with my slow-but-steady pace. After a bit, she begins to speak of the xperience of her father’s passing.
Apparently, her father – a math professor – was very unwilling to
entertain any kind of sentiment or emotion as he grappled with his ultimately
fatal illness. Her sisters had, in vain, atempted to express to their father how they felt about him. He stopped them each in turn. The three sisters and their mother,
naturally, were very upset by this and supported each other by confiding what
they would wish to share with their father before his passing.
Lila, who doesn’t see herself as particularly cerebral or articulate (I beg to differ), says that she had a profound experience of the Holy Spirit as her father was dying. She believes that the Spirit gave her an uncharacteristic composure and eloquence that she needed to be able to speak to her father in a way that he could hear her and accept what she was saying. I imagine her in that moment, at her father’s
beside, telling him in a warm, calm voice how loved he is, how important he is
to his family, and how dearly he will be mourned. She confesses that she does not remember the specifics of what she said, only that her sisters (who were in the room) told her later that she was able to relay exactly what her sisters and mother had hoped to share with him. Her father listened to her, and was visibly moved by what she expressed. He died soon thereafter, surrounded by those who loved him. Lila’s voice is heavy with emotion as she speaks, and I am moved to tears by her story.
My tears seem to give hers permission to flow. I am blessed to share this
intimate moment with her. Not for the first time, I marvel at how the Lord moves through her in order to to bless others.
The kilometers disappear beneath our feet, and a little before 3 p.m. we find ourselves within spitting distance of our destination. We stand atop Monte
do Gozo, (Hill of Joy), which would quite likely provide a spectacular view of
Santiago, were it not for buildings and eucalyptus trees blocking the way. We can, however, glimpse patches of the city which suffices for the moment. We opt to
take a short break here and scope out the food cart in the hopes of discovering
ice cream. Unfortunately, the vendor is sold out, so we settle for sodas and candy instead.
We take our snacks and wander toward an hulking gray trapezoidal sculpture in the middle of the clearing. A huge glass and steel cross perches on top of the sculpture, an oddly incongruent touch. On one side of the stone, we see a view of two men from behind, as if they are gazing out over the city. The unmistakable
likeness of Pope John Paul II rests his right arm on the shoulder of St. James,
who is depicted with a halo as well as scalloped shells on his pilgrim
garb. We discover later that the monument commemorates the Holy Father’s visit to Santiago during World Youth Day in 1989. Another side of the sculpture depicts St.
Francis of Assisi, walking with a cane, and holding a basket that pilgrims have filled with rocks. Apparently, St. Francis made a pilgrimage to Santiago in the 13th century, walking the entire way with bare feet.
We take a few pictures, but do not linger long; the pull of Santiago is inexorable. Our excitement quickens our pace down the wide, paved path toward the city. We
stick close together in our foursome, and are finally rewarded with a stunning view
of the sprawling metropolis that is Santiago de Compostella.
Twenty minutes later, we cross a two lane bridge that spans a major freeway.
Halfway across, we spy the red and white Santiago sign indicating that
we are entering the city. It seems arbitrary, especially given the walking that remains to reach the Cathedral, but we are so elated to see the sign that Lila and I stop in the middle of the bridge to take pictures of each other in front of it.
About a kilometer into the city, we see a restaurant with an ice-cream cooler situated prominently in front. We splurge and each buy a Magnum – an ice cream bar covered in Belgian chocolate. We sit on a sidewalk bench in front of the restaurant and slurp our rapidly melting treat. This little bit of sugar should give us that
final burst of energy that we’ll need to find the Cathedral.
Before we leave, though, nature calls, and I go in search of the restaurant’s bathroom. This requires traipsing through a dining room filled with business lunch eating professionals. Surprisingly, no one even lifts an eyebrow at
my red, sweaty face and pilgrim attire; we must be part of the wallpaper in a
pilgrimage city like Santiago. Before I leave the bathroom, I splash my face with cold water and wet a few paper towels to put on my neck. I am regretting the
choice not to use sunblock today, as my reflection clearly shows a sunburn in
progress. No matter…we’re almost there.
I rejoin the gang, and after locating a few wet wipes for sticky fingers, we resume the walk into the city. Given our unintentional detour in the last
big city we had walked through, Ponferrada, we are paying very close attention
to the Camino signs, yellow arrows on sidewalks and buildings. City walking is infinitely less enjoyable than that which we have become accustomed; often we are forced to walk single file which makes it difficult to hold a conversation. It becomes, in large part, a solitary endeavor.
I find myself bringing up the rear of the group, trying not to fall too far behind. We walk in this manner through busy city streets – mostly uphill – for about 45 minutes.
As I bob and weave through and around shoppers and other pedestrians, I
develop a sort of tunnel-vision, aware of very little else other than keeping
an eye on Maddie’s backpack and keeping the rhythm of my internal prayer – Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Eventually, the wide and straight streets of the new town give way to narrow, windy streets lined with old, yet well-preserved architecture. Signs for the main plaza and Cathedral quicken our pace; it seems possible that every corner will be the last. We see pilgrims everywhere, but there is no discernable flow to follow. One wrong turn takes us a bit out of our way, but we eventually course-correct back toward the square.
At long last, we round that final corner and suddenly find ourselves in the main plaza. We walk to the center of the enormous square plaza, gaping at the magnificent front of the Cathedral. The late afternoon sun glows warmly off the Baroque façade. There, we drop our packs and lower our hot, tired bodies down to the ground beside them.
Cassidy, once again, takes off her shoes and I imagine for a moment what it must have been like for barefoot St. Francis in this moment. I sit in awed silence for a
bit, trying to grasp that I am sitting on ground that he and countless other
pilgrims have trod on over a thousand years of history. I stretch my feet in front of me and snap a picture of Mercy and Grace with the Cathedral in the background. They got me here, safe and sound.
Lila eventually makes a call on her cell phone, and within minutes her husband Gary appears to lead us to the hotel where we will stay for the next two nights. It is, mercifully, only a few blocks from the Cathedral, but the manager walks us up four flights of stairs to show us our room. We pay the man in cash, he hands
us a key and two towels, and instructs us to leave the key in the door when we
leave. In the meantime, Lila and Cassidy are whisked away to a separate floor where their room is waiting.
Madeleine and I walk into the smallish room, toss our packs into the corner, and sit on the end of the double bed. It is cool in the room and my damp,
sweaty shirt clings uncomfortably to the small of my back. I suddenly feel chilled and isolated. After 10 days of companionship and communal
sleeping, to be behind a closed door with just Madeleine feels like I am cut
off from our Camino family. Madeleine unwittingly voices what I’m thinking;
“I miss Cassidy,” she says.
“I miss Lila,” I respond.
After a tepid shower, a comparison of sunburns, and a short rest, we hear a knock on our door. It is Cassidy, filling us in on the plans for dinner. We meet up with everyone at a restaurant a few blocks away for our next-to-last family meal. The host leads us up several flights of stairs to a dining room set up for large groups. It is painted in a warm burgundy and decorated with vibrant artwork; the effect is cozy and pleasant.
As we settle at the table, I notice that Robbin is missing, and I ask her husband Mark about her whereabouts. Apparently, she had begun feeling ill that day
on the road and was spending the evening in bed. Mark looks less gray than he had that morning, and seems to recovered well from being sick he night before.
Everyone is in a celebratory mood this evening, and many order off the menu instead of opting for the cheaper pilgrim meal. When the waiter delivers the meals, we discover than Logan has adventurously (and mischievously) ordered a plate of pulpo. Cassidy, Madeleine, and I take one look at the steaming platter of octopus and gag. Lila, sport that she is, takes a bite or two. “It’s not as rubbery as Tina’s
pulpo,” she offers in amusement, then washes it down with a platter full of
After dinner, sated and sipping on my second glass of table wine, I let the conversation flow around me and retreat into my own thoughts. All of
these people have all become so dear to me. As I look each one in turn, their faces alive and expressive, it’s almost as if I am seeing them for the first time and i suddenly wonder what this day would have been like had my contact lens not cooperated; had I not been able to see more than two inches in front of my face.
Lord, I am so blessed to be with these friends; to really see their
Thank you for all of the things you have shown me today:
Joy in my daughter’s face…
A silent plea for companionship on the face of a stranger…
Lila’s tears for her father…
Santiago in the distance…
The golden glow of the Cathedral in the late afternoon sun…
Thank you for allowing me to see today with not only my eyes, but my
It’s getting late, and as we settle our bill we make a plan to meet in the morning to apply for our Compostella – the official document that says that we have completed the Camino – and to attend the pilgrim’s Mass together. That, and a visit to the Shrine of St. James in the Cathedral, is the traditional conclusion to the pilgrimage.
We walk back to our hotel, wearily climb the stairs, and carefully hug everyone’s sunburned selves goodnight. Madeleine and I make short work of the bedtime routine and crawl into bed. It has grown even colder in the room and we are grateful for not only the multiple layers of blankets, but each other’s body warmth.
“Goodnight, Mom, I love you,” Madeleine yawns, burrowing under the covers.
“I love you, too, sweetie.”
I love you, Cathleen.
Thank you, Lord. I love you too.