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At land's end, a field of stars

There's a new movie out, called "I'll Push You." It's an inspiring story of two friends who travel the legendary pilgrimage route in the north of Spain, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I won't be seeing it.

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, Getty ImagesAs my 60th birthday loomed in the distance, I entertained crazy dreams of doing the Camino. I watched "The Way," a beautiful movie about lost souls drawn to the rough countryside, walking all day for at least a month to arrive at the cathedral of St. James, where the apostle is supposedly buried. I've made pilgrimages to the tomb of St. Peter in Rome, the Holy Shroud in Turin, and the cathedral at Canterbury; I've done a bike century and the Avon Three-Day walk for breast cancer. The Camino beckoned as the ultimate journey, mostly in bold defiance of getting older. Just put one foot in front of the other. Wear a scallop shell—the pilgrim's ancient badge—and stay in hostels. Eat tapas, pray, love.

Photo: Turismo AsturiasBut I didn't get in shape and save up money and go walk the Camino. I didn't really do anything special. Had a nice birthday dinner with my family in Brooklyn. No epic walk, no epiphanies in a distant land on ancient stones. 

But someone else walked a Camino of their own, and it was my privilege to walk some of the way alongside them.

My BFF, as the kids say in their texting. My Best Friend Forever. We met in freshman year of high school. She thought I was a prig. I thought she was a brat. We were both right. I loosened up, under her transgressive tutelage. She reined it in, under my watchful eye. We grew up.

We got married, maid and matron of honor for one another.

We had daughters, godmothers each to the other's.

We spoke just about every day for 45 years, our shared lives a room furnished with instant access to a thousand memories, created once we both entered it. Like the Holodeck on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," we could conjure up and frolic in any scene with a private shorthand.

Most of all, we ate together, and laughed together, and loved each other. A terrible thing, apparently, that laughter-for-two: It almost got us kicked out of places. Except comedy clubs, they loved us there. At chemo, the nurses said they looked forward to our coming, because the laughing would start.

And I guess chemo was our Camino. Hers, mostly, but I went along for the ride. Because we always got together once a week, so why not hang out together?

No tapas, though, just soup at Panera and, when she was too weak for that, the hospital panini we came to revile (and a snack pack of nuts from the cafeteria that we raucously dubbed our Nut Sack).

No ancient cathedral with swinging censer, but the beautiful little chapel on the hospital grounds. Then not even that; they moved chemo to an "infusion center" in a bland office park on Northern Boulevard in Glen Cove. Our Camino was now a stretch of mini-malls and parking lots, waiting rooms and treatment bays.

No pilgrim staff, but an endless succession of IV poles, monitors, tubes and needles.

No scallop-shell badge, but a port under her delicate skin below the clavicle. Four ports, actually; they kept getting infected, and once the surgeon screwed up and it moved.

No "Compostela," the age-old Latin certificate for completing the Camino, but a cupcake and card and jubilation from the nurses when she finished the first five months of weekly treatments. When cancer returned less than a year later, and chemo started again, there would be no finishing the regimen. Chemo was the new normal, and all its attendant miseries.

No rustic Spanish inns (those along the Camino helped originate the concept of "hospital"). But one whole summer in a hospital bed as cancer struggled, and failed, to take her away from us a year ago.

After that, there were days she needed a wheelchair. Last summer, pushing 60, I was crushed to discover that I could no longer push hers, at least not uphill. (And that's why I won't be seeing that inspiring movie.)

But every road ends. Two weeks ago, my friend reached the end of hers. It took three years. She walked the last bit without me, but her greatest champion, her beloved husband, walked her right to the end.

From "The Way," 2010Beyond the town and the cathedral of Saint James, many pilgrims walk further, to the westernmost coast of Spain, to a place called Finisterre—literally, Land's End. Overhead, the Milky Way is said to seem close, as if pointing out over the Atlantic. Compostela, in fact, means "field of stars." There, many pilgrims leave a souvenir of their travels, or burn the shoes they walked there in.

My friend has gone beyond Land's End. I know what she leaves behind, what we'd both burn: a bonfire of walkers, wheelchairs, tubing, pills, gauze and needles. But she also leaves us behind, we who revolved around her like moons around a sun. What's left at Land's End is a field of stars overhead. A glorious thing, but it's no daily, delicious phone call.

So, you look back and you see the road you walked, and it's where you meant to go all along. As if sent to me by Providence, I just found a poet who says in a TED talk that this place, Finisterre, is where the conversation happens. The conversation is precisely what is missing from me now, missing like an arm or a leg. So I'll keep talking. And listening for the stars to laugh.

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Posted on Thursday, October 19, 2017 at 04:00PM by Registered CommenterBrenda from Brooklyn | CommentsPost a Comment

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