Isabella, who sat in the opposite corner, rejoined, “Yes, it is a story of what is the most valuable in life.” She gave a long pause and added, “That is why it is also a story of love.”
From my comfortable perch on the sofa, I looked at them both, their faces lit by the shaded lamps near them. I said, “Tell me the story.”
Michael is an electronics executive and, though from a Catholic family, essentially an agnostic. Isabella, from a Catholic family too, is a well-known violinist and occasionally attends a mass. It was more as a touristic lark than out of religious fervor that they agreed they will visit Paris and then make the pilgrimage. Camino Francés is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list and it would be fun, they thought, to experience it.
The more they thought about it, as they toured Paris, they grew excited at the prospect of the adventure. They would buy a credencial or pilgrim passport, exactly like a regular pilgrim, that would entitle them to stay in the hostels on the way. They would also purchase two modest haversacks in which they would carry a change of clothes, toiletries and medicines, and rent a car to cover the initial distance from France. Then, once inside Spain, again like a regular pilgrim, walk the last hundred kilometers to the cathedral and shrine.
They were not religious. They had never done anything of the kind. But they were fit, and a longish walk would be a refreshing challenge. When they left the car and started their walk, three other pilgrims were doing the same. Two others, who were doing the last 200 km by bicycle – an option they had considered and rejected – waved at them and moved on. The other three pilgrims were slow marchers and Michael and Isabella waved them goodbye and moved ahead.
It was springtime, turning toward summer. The air was fresh and pleasant, the sky cloudless. Equally cloudless was their mind. They laughed and talked and walked on. Michael felt on top of the world. He was happy, carefree, eager to embrace the novel experience of a venturesome pilgrim. Isabella too was happy in a way. After a long time, she had Michael to herself, fully, free of his perennial preoccupations with his work and his life, eager to assert his completeness the more, she sensed, he felt incomplete in some way.
They did the route amazingly easily. Michael credited it to his daily jog and her daily chores around the home. Then it happened. They were barely 18 km short of the cathedral when Michael suddenly said he wasn’t feeling well and, before Isabelle could ask anything, he almost collapsed. Isabelle held him and gently laid him down on the grass beside the road.
Michael lay on his back, still, breathing slowly. He lay for a long time, while Isabelle waited anxiously. Then his breathing became more normal. He asked for water. Isabelle offered the small cup that came with her water flask. Michael drank. Then he whispered, “I can’t do it without you.”
Isabelle was stunned. In seven years of marriage, she had never heard that. What did he mean? Did he mean just this walk, or their life together? Michael was always so self-sufficient. She felt herself an addendum, useful and ornamental, but never essential or even crucial. She held him.
Minutes later, when four other pilgrims came up, they helped Isabelle and they were able to transport Michael to the nearest hostel. When Isabelle bent over him two hours later to say goodnight, Michael looked at her face for a long time and said, “You are everything to me.” This, too, she had never heard before.
Amazingly, Michael felt much better the next morning and insisted on walking the rest of the way to complete the pilgrimage. They did. Then, on Isabelle’s insistence, Michael had himself examined at the adjacent hospital, which, he noted cheerfully, carried Queen Isabella’s name.
Michael told me, “When I came home, I had a thorough examination, head to foot. Strangely, they found nothing wrong with me. But I had found something terribly wrong with me. I realized my whole life was wrong. I did not relate to the person nearest to me, my wife. Maybe I did not relate to anybody. I decided to change. Rather, I decided I wanted to regain my life.”
Isabelle said, “That strange, inexplicable problem on the road changed everything for us. We seemed to have regained the life we wanted but did not have. I felt I had a new husband – and a new relationship.”
Michael smiled and added, “I am no believer. But that road, Camino de Santiago, became a sacred road for me. Our trip turned out to be a pilgrimage after all.”