A letter to… Amy

Dear Amy,

I really didn’t want to retire.  I loved being a teacher because it kept me feeling young when I was surrounded by teenagers all day.  I didn’t have time to think about getting older, and I carried on teaching until I was 69, just after you died.  Your funeral was amazing, the chapel full of your friends, all of us touched by knowing you.

Not long after that I set out on foot from St. Jean Pied de Port to walk the Camino.  I did it partly to prove that I was still fit and active enough to undertake the challenge, but I also decided to dedicate each day to the memory of someone who would have loved to be able to walk alongside me.  I saved the last day for you.

Your determination to survive was awesome.  When I first met you, you were working towards your A level exams, deciding which university courses to apply for, having driving lessons and waiting for a lung transplant.  Despite the exhaustion caused by cystic fibrosis, diabetes and arthritis, you never gave up.  Some other students complained about the pressures and expectations of school, but you put pressure on yourself to succeed, always hoping that you would have a full and active future.  This was especially true after you received your transplant and, taking the minimum of time to recuperate, worked hard to make up for lost time.

As I stuck plasters on my blisters, trudging up hills to Alto de Perdon and O’Cebreiro, I reminded myself how lucky I was to be fit enough to be walking the Camino.  Yes, I was tired and my feet hurt; I suffered from heat exhaustion and got soaked in a rainstorm; my sciatica played up, and bedbugs were a nightmare; sometimes it was hard to put one foot in front of the other.  All these problems were, however, trivial in the greater scheme of things.  They were temporary – the sun came out, the blisters healed and, after a good night’s sleep in a clean and comfortable albergue, I was ready to face another day (albeit preferably with no steep hills to climb!).

Amy, you would have loved to have felt energetic enough to climb the hills of Northern Spain, to have had enough breath to appreciate the eucalyptus woods of Galicia, to have had the stamina and endurance to walk into the Plaza Obradoiro at the culmination of the Camino journey – to experience the satisfaction of a physical challenge met and a pilgrimage completed.  You passed your A levels and your driving test and made it to university, but your amazing determination was not enough to support your failing health and you died at 18 – far, far too soon.

Those who attended your funeral were inspired by your struggle.  I thank you now for teaching me not to focus on my advancing age, as I contemplate the process of decline and the inevitability of approaching death, but to live life to the full every day whatever the limitations of my body.  You were given a humanist funeral since your family said you had no religious belief, but I hope that you are surprised to find yourself enjoying a new phase of existence with St. James and the whole company of saints in Heaven.

A Pilgrim

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