Be well. Be strong. And Carry on.

Back home, we scoffed at taking 10 days to walk the last 110 kilometres of The Camino de Santiago. However, on Day 9 of our trek, we are not so dismissive. The Camino has its own way of humbling people who might be a tad too full of piss and vinegar.

The walk is strenuous. Our first day out of Sarria had me wondering if I had set off on a fool’s journey. My purpose for this trip was to be the “advance party” for a group of elderly and imaginary women. (They are characters in my current manuscript and while I “know” their back stories and their capabilities, I worried that I had set them an unreasonable quest.) That first day we climbed, not so steadily, upwards of 200 feet. If I was struggling, how would a seventy-five year old manage? The reality is, they manage just fine. Hardship is no stranger to women and men whose families survived The Depression, who lost relatives during the war, and who have watched savings be eroded by inflation.

The Camino follows steep rocky, rutted paths, with equally steep and stony descents. Falling flat on my face is something I have avoided to date, unlike a pilgrim from Australia. And none of us in our party of four have wrenched body parts like the woman from Michigan who felt something begin “to float” in and around her knee one hundred kilometres ago. Her gait is wince-worthy. I do not know what deal she may have made with God. She is upholding her end of the bargain whatever it was.

So what was my deal? There was none. My plan as I noted earlier was to be “the scout”. The trip was to be introspective with thoughts of my imaginary ladies front and foremost of my mind, but the perspective changed before the end of the first day. The Camino is humbling. People have walked The Way of St. James because they have made deals, because they are doing penance, because they are challenging themselves, because it is a UNESCO World Heritage site, because they like to travel, because they want to dis-connect…..There are as many reasons for walking The Camino as there are pilgrims.

I cannot say when the penny dropped for me, but I do know it was beside one of the milestones. There is a tradition at these points of placing a stone on the marker… A way of saying ” I was here.” And perhaps of saying to oneself ” X kilometres behind me, and Y more to go.” When I placed my first stone, my thought was something like “I am so grateful to be on this journey,” which was immediately followed by the realization that I have two friends who are not capable of walking The Camino. Since then I have placed stones along the way, setting each one down, and releasing it only after I have said my friends’ names and a little prayer.

But there has been a problem. Over the trip the list has grown. I have awakened some mornings with names on my mind…reminders that other friends may need whatever intervention my journey can help provide. The practical side of me has had to prevail. Placing ten stones would leave little space for other pilgrims to leave theirs; sweeping away other pilgrims’ stones to make way for mine would invite bad karma; and finally, pausing to send up ten messages every kilometre would slow down my husband and two travelling companions. I have settled for a simple ritual of placing one stone, and releasing it after I have said ” Be well. Be strong. And carry on.” Then I resume The Way and say each friend’s name to myself.

It is not exactly the trip I had expected. True to the original intent,”The ladies” have been with me as I have walked. I have tried to see, hear, and feel the journey through “their” eyes, ears and feet. But there has been something more that this non-church going woman has encountered. The Way of St. James has entered my being and led me to carry other women along the journey. Tomorrow, before we attend mass at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compestelo we will be signing off with the pilgrims’ registry. When asked why I have walked The Camino de Santiago, I will be saying, “It was for my women friends who could not make it.” And then I will name each one of you.

My prayer at mass will be simple: “May they be well. May they be strong. And may they carry on.”

Each one of you has helped me to make my way. Thank you!

You’re all grown-up when…. it’s all up to you

 Centre piece by Chate- Anderson Designs

Remember being sixteen, getting your driver’s licence and thinking you were all grown- up? The card in your wallet brought freedom, as long as the gas tank was full when you returned the car to your parents’ garage.

That feeling of being grown-up may have lasted until you lost your virginity. In fifteen minutes you had been introduced to the mysteries of adulthood, but were left wondering, “Is that all there is? Could there be more to being an adult?”

And yes, there was more.

You cast your first ballot at the age of twenty-one and were finally taking part in the affairs of the country. This had to be what being grown-up was about.

But no. There was still more.

Like the time you received your first paycheque and saw deductions to the Canada Pension Plan. Here you were, just barely out of your teens and you were contributing to your security in old age – a very grown-up thing to do.

After a time you realized that ‘grown-up’ was an illusion. You continued to have these moments of milestone awareness when you married, when you bought your first house, and then again when you had your first child.

However, somewhere between that first child and that same child’s graduation from post-secondary school, a parent died. And that was when it hit you.

“Now, I’m grown-up. I am one of the eldest in my family. I’m it.”

And if, like me, you regressed while your parent was ill, wanting to be the child who did not have to deal with adult situations, it was a wake-up call. Grown-ups drive, vote, give birth, pay taxes, buy a house, pay down the mortgage, raise children and, grown-ups help their parents exit this world.

No one told me as I grew up that I would be helping a parent through an illness. That I would be sitting with that parent as the last breath was drawn. Or that I would be comforting the surviving parent. No one told me, or showed me, and so I was not prepared. And I was a registered nurse. If I wasn’t ready, then who was?

It’s a familiar situation. A parent becomes ill; the prognosis is grim. And squeezed into those free moments amongst the competing demands of children, careers, marriage, and caregiving they/we need to learn more than we ever wanted to know about dying.

But what if we normalized dying and death just as we have done pregnancy and childbirth?

If we considered dying to be part of life, palliative care would be introduced to high school health education classes.  Lessons about learning how to be present to, and caring for someone who is dying would co-exist with other content, like sex-education. The classes could have immediate benefit for some students. The minimal value of being present during the end stages of an illness is that it provides our children with a practice opportunity — long before they assume the mantle of family elder. At best, the experience of being present with several generations creates an opportunity for a family discussion about remembering, grieving, and preparing for end-of-life— while living each day to the fullest.

However, inclusion in high school curricula requires societal pre-cursors such as:

  • Advance Directives for End of Life Care that are discussed, written down, filed, and communicated with the family physician. (About 30% of Canadians have had the discussion — 16% have done something as a result.)
  • Palliative care content that is included in the curriculum of all medical and nursing schools. (There is still work to be done.)
  • Palliative care services that are well-funded and integrated into the health care system. (We’re not there yet.)

If we hope to fare better than our parents may have in their last weeks, days and moments, there is much work to be done. It’s up to us, because we are now the grown-ups.

This note was written to honour Stephanie Chate-Anderson, who with her mother and her brother managed her father’s last weeks, days, hours, and minutes, with grace, courage and love.

The arrangement in the photo was done by Stephanie Chate-Anderson for the launch of Autumn’s Grace.