Of endings, beginnings and continuing journeys.
The first time I held Joan’s hand was at a UVic frosh dance in the Student Union Building on September 25, 1966. The last time I held her hand was as she died on July 20, 2005.
I had retired after 33 years of teaching; Joan had quit her job in retail. We were going to hockey games and movies, spoiling our grandchildren, taking short holidays. In the evenings, we walked and talked, of our children and grandchildren, of our plans for the house, of trips we would take, of our concerns for our aging mothers.
Four years ago, our spontaneous final journey took us back to Vancouver Island where we had both grown up, to our favourite streets and restaurants in Victoria, to the beaches of Tofino, and to Campbell River. We visited relatives and friends, shared memories and planned for the future.
Two months later, I was suddenly and unexpectedly faced with a future that I hadn’t ever considered, let alone planned for. An artery in her brain ruptured and Joan was gone. My life wasn’t just instantly upside down; it was inside out.
Relatives, friends and colleagues reached out. My friend, Terry, who had tragically lost his teen-aged daughter, guided me through the first desperate days and weeks. My children held me up. And then, a lifeline was tossed, and I ran away to sea.
A small ad in the BC Teacher newsletter caught my eye while I was looking for something else. “Digital photographers wanted.” Out of curiosity, I responded, and five months later I was sailing the western Caribbean on a luxury cruise ship, teaching digital photography to the guests. Later assignments took me to the Mediterranean, where I walked the stones of many of my old lesson plans—Rome, Florence, Pompeii, Istanbul, Crete, Venice. I photographed everything and wrote travel pieces for newspapers and magazines.
I kept busy…. I made sure of that. Acquaintances told me how lucky I was to be traveling the world. I bit my tongue and didn’t remind them of the loss I was grieving every day. A colleague insisted on describing his favourite food as “to die for.” I bit my tongue and didn’t tell him he didn’t know what he was talking about. I cried, often, mostly in private.
Two years ago, I flew to Japan to celebrate my eldest son’s marriage. Jason recognized a need in me I didn’t understand and suggested I accompany him on a Buddhist pilgrimage to the 88 sacred places on the island of Shikoku. I knew little of Buddhism and nothing of the Shikoku pilgrimage, but something called out to me.
We walked the 1,200 kilometers around the island. We talked and talked,about music and books and movies, cities we loved, girlfriends, fistfights, dreams and failures and worries. We talked about family history. We talked about Joan and her final days in the ICU. Walking alone in the afternoons, I relived our 39 years together, remembering, reflecting. I read Basho’s poetry and Thich Nhat Hanh’s No Death, No Fear. I lit candles in Joan’s memory. I grappled with the Heart Sutra, which says that nothing ever disappears. I walked with my son. In the seven weeks, a lot of the pain eased.
Back home, I told Jack, an old friend and retired priest who had conducted Joan’s funeral service, about Shikoku. He said that he had always dreamed of walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, an 800-kilometer pilgrimage across the northern part of the country. I suggested that we could walk it together. I was still searching.
The Camino is a different kind of pilgrimage. Not a circle, but a path marked by yellow arrows, up lush green mountain passes, through ancient, crumbling hilltop villages, across the flat meseta. We slept in alburgues, pilgrim hostels. We entered small village churches and soaring cathedrals. We met pilgrims from across the world, as varied in their reasons for walking the ancient route as the countries they came from. Jack and I talked, about Christian history and architecture, about the importance of ritual, about belief and sacred places. I lit more candles. And daily I looked to the west, following the yellow arrows and the sun straight into an uncertain future. In five weeks, more of the pain slipped away.
Two pilgrimages. Two companions. The first helped to reconcile the past. The second pointed to the future. Some questions have been answered, others have leaped up; still others have fled, maybe for good. My journey continues.
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