Immersion Caregiving: Love’s Last Measure
One year and four months before he died, Mike said, “I can’t identify what it is exactly, but something is happening inside my body. I have to pay attention now. I know I’m dying. Don’t know when, but things are really changing.” After almost 30 years with Parkinson’s Disease, Mike’s revelation marked the major transition of our lives, the moment of complete immersion in the ultimate, inevitable adventure.
In my session at the Aging in America Conference in San Diego (March 13, 2014), I will present, Immersion Caregiving: Strategies for keeping our loved ones at home and embracing the enlightening experience of dying.
The Camino de Santiago, also known as The Way of St. James is a 500-mile pilgrimage from the cobbled streets of the medieval town of St. Jean Pied de’Port in France to Santiago, Spain.
On the Camino: The feet are the most important body part. Conditions of the heart are all around you. An ounce is a pound in the backpack. Tenderness exists. Pay it forward with your last Band-Aid. Respect is powerful. A sincere hug can replace a good meal plus a café con leche.
I chose to walk the Camino after my husband, Mike, died on Valentine’s Day 2013. Parkinson’s was his sidekick for over 20 years. I figured it would take six months to organize my mind and begin the celebration of everything we accomplished—all the lessons learned and every decision we made that ultimately led to his profoundly blessed departure. But, I never expected the depth of the impending journey, which officially began on September 6, 2013.
St. Jean is tucked into the foothills of the Pyrenees that divide France and Spain and, as I soon discovered, separates the boots from the flip-flops. My first mistake might have been choosing the more strenuous route over the mountains rather than the simpler path along the road. On that first night, we encountered rain, thunder, lightning and dense fog, as we looked forward to the next day with the same conditions plus no food or water for 20 km.
The climbs were steep and rocky. The descents over loose stones felt even more challenging especially for my knees, ankles and big and second toes. I didn’t think I would survive the second day. Too early to call it quits and I did have good boots. Still, I literally crawled tearfully, painfully to the summit and wondered what I was thinking to have taken this on. I wasn’t prepared. Luckily, because my face was so close to the gravel, it was easy to see the three heart shaped stones that greeted me and urged me forward.
My Camino began at that moment. From then on, I saw hearts everywhere on my path. Some broken in two, some crushed, tangled, smashed, chipped, heavy, fragile, imbalanced, weary, some on the mend. I even found cow pie in the shape of a heart. It made me laugh, just when I needed it.
The biggest problem for pilgrims was blisters. Along the way, I met several people who landed in the hospital because of infected blisters. Fortunate were the pilgrims who had a partner or friend who offered a bandage, a wrap, a sharp, sterile needle to drain a blister and generous moments of heartrending patience and tenderness.
I followed a retired couple for a long stretch to a monastery in Zubrini. The woman was having trouble with a heavy backpack. When she slowed down, her husband would reach into her pack and without missing a step, remove a few items and put them into his pack. He repeated that gesture four times over six kilometers. When we reached the next village, I met up with them and told them what I had seen. He said, “She has a blister on her heel. Just trying to lighten her load. I don’t want her to be discouraged.”
Here’s a taste of what I learned on my first Camino: The culture of the Camino is revered, sacrosanct. Nobody mentions it. It’s not in the guidebook. But, if you’re present and on the path long enough, the spirit becomes part of you, naturally, from the ground up. It’s really magic.
No one tells their story in the middle of someone else’s. Pilgrims take care of each other: forfeiting their last euro, or an extra pair of thick socks, one last ibuprofen, sharing a cold, wet rock on a hedgerow while comforting a faltering pilgrim, maybe you wouldn’t surrender your last banana, but perhaps half of your last banana? Whatever your skill, you’ll share it. And, you’ll listen more than you talk.
The Pilgrim Masses, the villagers, the sights and scents of the medieval churches combined with the exuberant grace of the priests and the nuns, stirred my soul and made me grateful for every second of My Camino and the entirety of my life.
Even the seemingly simple and ordinary events in life have great power and meaning.
June 15th, 2013: Mike’s Memorial Celebration. Guests wrote farewell messages to Mike on sticky notes attached to balloons.
Thank you to our musicians: Liz Cutter on the flute, Kirk Utzinger violin, Joann Armstrong keyboard.
The first two verses of Jay Ungar’s composition, Ashokan’s Farewell:
The sun is sinking low in the sky,
The pines and the willows know soon we will part.
There’s a whisper in the wind of promises unspoken,
And a love that will always remain in my heart.
My thoughts will return to the sound of your laughter,
The magic of moving as one,
And a time we’ll remember long ever after,
The moonlight and dancing are done
August 10, 2013: We sprinkled Mike’s ashes, gracing the Montana land he loved.
His garden sculptures fly freely over Frenchman’s Bench in Lewistown, where it all began.
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