Spirit of Santiago de Compostela
Dedicated to my dear friends Sue and David, without whom things would have been very different.
They say you don’t know who your friends are until the chips are down. I’d say you don’t know who strangers are either. Or even an old friend you haven’t been in touch with for years. Or her husband whom you’ve never met. You don’t know who anyone is until the chips are down.
“Hello lovely! Ooh look at you! And this is Rotty? Oh what a sweetie! Let’s get her settled upstairs first, and then we’ll come back down and fetch your things.” Sue hugged me so tight it made me laugh. Her dark hair fell over her jacket lapels. Brown boots clicked on the tarmac. There was a splash of Spanish flamboyance to Sue. She hadn’t changed a bit.
“Are you sure it’s OK for her to be in your flat? We’ll be fine in the van if not. Really.” I looked at the horizon. The rain had cleared, but the sky remained swollen and dark on the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela. I inhaled the smell of eucalyptus from the forests around, while Rotty sniffed about the van, shoulders raised in two furry triangles, head lowered to the ground.
“Oh yes! I’m hoping she’ll persuade David to get a dog too. I’d love a dog. I still miss my dad’s old Labrador, Sam.”
And with that we all turned and made for the apartment block door.
Two days later, the three of us we were huddled at the vets. It was a spotless establishment, with all the pet accoutrements of the first world. A dark-haired woman in a white coat walked quietly into the room, a thin slip of paper curling in her hand. She shook her head and began speaking.
“She says Rotty has stage 4 renal failure,” Sue translated. “The leishmania has attacked her kidneys.” My old friend put her arm round me, her face drooping in glumness. Tears dug at the corners of my eyes. Leishmania requires an aggressive chemotherapy type treatment which is horrible to administer. Rotty’s kidneys were shot to bits. We were on the road, and she couldn’t travel.
“But...but last time it was worse than this, and she survived!” I said. “She went down to 14 kg.”
When the vet received the translation, she stared at Rotty hard. “It’s unbelievable. It was a miracle then,” the woman said, shaking her head gravely. She was right. The events of last summer had been a miracle. And now I believed in them.
As we walked back to my van, Sue held my arm again. “Don’t worry. You can stay with us until this is sorted out.”
“Sue, I came for a day or two. This could take weeks!”
“My dad has a flat on the coast. If it comes to it, you can go there. But for now you need to be here near the vet. I don’t think David will mind.”
Would he have said if he did? Because David was a nice guy. Seriously.
Thus began two dramatically upsetting, powerful, exhausting, heart-warming, shocking and amazing weeks. It was as if the universe threw everything into the drum of that fortnight, from best to worst, and span it at 1000 rpm. I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.
Now I don’t normally put too much stock on human beings. We’re a fickle, callous bunch at the best of times. But over the next two weeks, my faith in human nature was steadily reconstructed from the bottom up. It can’t be easy to house a grieving person plus their dying dog in your attic flat after all.
Yet somehow we all got on. It was like our North London flat share all over again. Sue was the working girl, so she was out most of the day educating the Galician youth in the tongue of the Angles. When she wasn’t at work, she could usually be found in the living room, surrounded by towers of files and text books. Every now and again, her head would rise out of the nest of paperwork. “Ooh I don’t know why I always seem to be surrounded by work!” She’d wail before sinking below the marking again.
David was a quiet, meditative chap, which was fortunate, because there wasn’t too much room left in the conversation once Sue and I bit into it. He taught taekwondo in the evenings, and that left us both at home in the day times. Often we’d meet for lunch and have a chat over a nice glass of Alburino.
“He won’t tell you himself, so I shall have to. You know he was the Galician taekwondo champion four years in a row,” Sue said one night at dinner.
David grinned rather coyly, and slid his spoon toward the pan of homemade aloo gobhi on the table.
“He also studied the Camino de Santiago for his thesis. Many strings to his bow, this one.”
“Oh I’d like to do that one day.”
“Well, let me tell you, once people walk that road, it seems to hook them. They just keep coming back to do it again and again. Or different bits of it. It never leaves them.” Sue munched contentedly on some rice.
“There are many roads. Many Caminos,” David murmured mysteriously. He placed his fork carefully next to his plate.
“Tell me more,” I said and reached for my wine glass. “When did the Camino thing start?”
David stood up and piled our plates on top of each other. He spoke slowly and deliberately. “They think it was a Pagan way. May be it was the path to the sun. Because the ending, it is in Finisterre.”
“The most westerly point in mainland Europe,” Sue clarified, pushing her plate away.
“So it’s like Christmas and Easter. They slapped a Christian ritual onto a pagan one.” I chortled and banged my wine glass onto the table.
“You know how it is. Made it easier for the locals to swallow that way.” Sue grinned. Abruptly she turned around. “Oh flower! Come here my little perrita, how are you?”
Rotty wandered into the kitchen and visited each of us in turn, tail wagging. Then she flopped onto the floor by the table. We all looked at her. I suppose it was obvious. But because she’d returned from the brink before, I just didn’t believe it.
Ten days after I arrived at Sue and David’s, Rotty...well...what actually happened to Rotty? What happens to any of us? It is life’s most important mystery.
We are not often honoured enough to watch a good death from start to finish. Human deaths are all too often closeted in old people’s homes, knotted up amidst wires and catheters in emergency wards, or ripped to pieces by violence. And this is tragic because when life evacuates a body, a profound power is released. I witnessed that power. In a dog.
It was the small hours. The witching hours. The hours all supernatural things occur. From somewhere within the thick of sleep, I sensed someone staring at me. Heaving my eyelids up, I vaguely made out Rotty, nose almost touching mine, gawping unblinkingly at me. I reached for the light, and sensed my dog wanted me to move next to her, which in itself was unusual, because she hated sleeping next to me normally. So I laid beside her, head on her cushion, stroking her ears. Her features relaxed. Then for a full hour she stared at me so intensely I thought she was reading my soul.
Rotty was standing at the gate of the mystery. And she knew.
Yet here is the thing. The vet had already told me Rotty’s hemoglobin count was so low she would die any time. She couldn’t understand how my dog could still walk, or poop outside, or indeed do anything. But my dog was walking. She had walked out of the vet that very afternoon, head forward, eyes focused with the determination of a marathon runner.
Groaning, I heard Rotty pulling herself onto her legs. She began pacing the room, claws clipping on the parquet flooring like a deranged tap dancer. “She needs to pee,” I thought. So I hauled myself up and opened the door.
It was barely six am, and the air outside was still inked out with night. Rotty sniffed the darkness, as though she were smelling the stars. Finally she peed, then turned to walk back to the car park. It was here she ran out of steam and slumped onto the tarmac. Bending down, I scooped her up into my arms feeling as sorry as a dog owner can.
Minutes later we were back inside the apartment. I placed my Rotty gently down on her bed. And then it happened. Suddenly her body heaved. I gaped aghast as she took a three or four rasping breaths.
I don’t really know what I saw leave Rotty in the moments after her last breath. But something did. Her essence drained out of her. And yes consciousness leaves gradually, it’s not an on/off-switch affair. You could see it pulling out of the cells. Then at some point, the body that was previously animated, became a piece of meat. No Rotty. No life. No awareness. Just a carcass. I’m still left clueless about it. What was it that left? And where did it go? Can something that powerful, an energy that vibrant, suddenly vanish into thin air? It certainly didn’t feel like it vanished. Because the air in the room was full for a good two hours. But what with?
Now there are all types of words and definitions and theories you can slot into the gaps here, religious, scientific or otherwise. But when you witness it, if you are honest, you are left simply not knowing.
What a mystery death is. What a strange and uncharted land. An unknown laced with signs and meanings, stirred by the hand of fate. My dog made it to Santiago to Compostela and died, her pilgrimage apparently complete. Yet it brought to light how incomplete mine was. I watched something leave my dog’s body, but I didn’t know what it was. Her light perhaps? The light we all carry along the Camino of life. But what is it? What are we? What is that essence that holds the rest of our being together? Because if we don’t know this, and we don’t even bother to research it, then what the hell are we doing?
Ah Santiago de Compostela, city of spirit, how kind you were to me in my hour of darkness. Every single one of your inhabitants, from the vets, to the crematorium, to the random acupuncturist we phoned to obtain herbs, to my dear friends Sue and David...each rose to the occasion. Every single one did their level best, and then a bit more. Compassion and integrity stole through your alleyways, both medieval and modern. You hummed with them.
For a month I couldn’t leave. I drove round the Coast of Death, to the most westerly point of mainland Europe. The rocks roared with messages. The sea foamed and churned in time, before I circled back to Santiago. I walked the Camino too, and saw spirits, ghosts and more. The light of millions of human pilgrims seeped into me, until I rediscovered my own.
Eventually it was time to leave. To reach into another place. Portugal stretched in front of me like a golden finger of promise. Yet as my van crossed the border and the soft green slopes of Galicia slid into the rear view, something told me I was coming back.
22/4/2017 08:18:46 pm
Wonderfully moving. So very sorry for the loss of your friend.
23/4/2017 04:37:46 pm
Thank you Janet. The Camino continues.
22/4/2017 09:09:44 pm
I had to stop and start reading this a few times. Impossible to read without more tears. Dear dear Rotty her pilgrimage for a reason?
23/4/2017 04:39:01 pm
Oh Di, who knows eh? But the more I look at animals, the more I see divine guides. They're special.
22/4/2017 09:11:30 pm
I know exactly what you mean about the gradual withdrawal of something completely known and familiar, and I am convinced a dying dog knows this too, and bids farewell.
23/4/2017 04:40:59 pm
Yes, the last night she was really different. As if she was connecting on another level. Ah and yes it is certainly easier. But hell it takes a while, eh?
22/4/2017 09:17:08 pm
This is stunning, Atulya. Clearly, the personal dimension is what matters here, but with my professional person's hat on (as a life-long writer and editor), I have to say the piece ranks with the very best of your writing that I've seen so far. Of course Rotty, Sue and David deserved no less.
22/4/2017 09:59:36 pm
Thank you for this. I so relate to it, tho' in my case it was my beloved cat. I know Rotty will be with you always and in many ways, with love
23/4/2017 04:43:44 pm
Love to you too Hazel. These animals are so special,
23/4/2017 04:42:57 pm
Well thank you very much Erin! I shall take that feedback and save it somewhere for when I have a confidence crisis:) Yes, Portugal has had its own treasures and illuminations for me. The road. It never fails.
22/4/2017 10:39:17 pm
Moving remembrance. Blessings to you, Atulya, and to Rotty's memory.
23/4/2017 04:44:58 pm
Thank you Karen.
22/4/2017 10:43:43 pm
23/4/2017 04:48:31 pm
Yes in the yogic system the life energy is prana and the Turks call the life force 'can'. But there is something of the divine breath in it, because it has soul, a personal quality... but where does it go??? Ah so much to ponder:))
23/4/2017 01:19:50 am
Thank you for the honesty in your writings Atulya, it is so refreshing and moving. You brought me into the room with the sharing of the deepest part of yourself and your loss of your faithful companion. Love and prayers on your journey. So many of us could learn from your courage.-
23/4/2017 04:51:24 pm
This is an poignant comment for me Margaret. Thank you. I have to be honest, I almost didn't share this, or didn't want to. But somehow I couldn't get to the next thing without expressing this. Because that spirit, or 'ruach' as Daniela put it, coloured what is to come.
23/4/2017 02:27:30 am
Hi Atulya...I've followed your blog for awhile now and enjoy each and every one of your posts so much. Many years ago (2001) I flew to Spain from California, bought a horse (Andalusian mare) in Andalucia, and over the course of 4 months my wonderful mare and I traveled approximately 1000 miles through Spain & Portugal, finishing the ride in at Finisterre. Traveling through Galicia was my favorite part of the ride and I have so many wonderful memories of the people and the countryside. Turned out my mare was pregnant when I bought her (surprise!) & 4 and a half months after the ride, on a beautiful farm near A Coruna, she gave birth to a beautiful, healthy filly who I named "Galicia". (I tell people it's like naming your horse "California".) When Galicia was a little more than a year old I flew her to California and she is the "boss mare" of my little herd of three horses. Thanks so much for this post about your time in Galicia. Like you, I will return one day!
23/4/2017 04:54:28 pm
What a story Katherine! What a journey that must have been! Did you ride those 1000 miles? Along the Camino? I've never owned a horse, nor ridden one since I was about 10, but I will one day. They are magnificent creatures.
24/4/2017 07:29:10 pm
Yes, I rode most of the 1000 miles and when I wasn't riding my mare and I were walking side by side. It was good for both of us when I walked ... exercise for me and she got a break from carrying my 120 pounds! Funny how people often assumed something was wrong when I was walking with her...like if you're not on the horse's back, something there MUST be a problem! Part of the way we followed the Ruta de la Plata (Silver Route) which your friend David may have mentioned is one of the many caminos to Santiago. For other parts of the journey I found the way by asking just about everybody the best route to travel north / northwest with little or no traffic. The older the person I asked the more s/he knew about the "old ways" that would keep me off busy roads. It was a grand adventure!
23/4/2017 10:43:19 am
Thank you for sharing such an emotional and spiritual experience.
23/4/2017 04:56:22 pm
Oh Ann, thank you so much. You were there at the start of my that other journey, the writer's trail:) Very much appreciated too. And I'm sure we'll meet again.
23/4/2017 07:08:13 pm
Dear Atulya, I rarely comment on anything I read online...stopped by the uncertainty of how to say what I truly mean. But I can't help myself in this case. Your powerful, intimate protrayal of this mystical moment that is Death is a remarkable piece of writing. So personal. So true. So relatable. Thank you so much for bravely sharing this. Sending much love from a kindred believer in the purity of the animal spirit.
24/4/2017 07:15:37 pm
I love the comments I receive. Each is quality. They all have something real in them; kindness, wisdom, intelligence, information, empathy, sharing. Honoured to have your words on the page.
24/4/2017 07:21:08 pm
Oh Atulya, every time you move me to the core. And every time it somehow echoes me... and this is something that so rarely occurs. It is borderline freaky. I am glad you found yourself again on the Camino. Love
24/4/2017 07:25:27 pm
Found myself on the Camino, lost myself again, and then I think Tamera put me back on the right road. See you soon insallah!
25/4/2017 08:36:19 am
Dear Atulya, like more of your followers I have been reading your whereabouts for quite some time now, up untill this last update I followed you with great interest, being also very interested in everything ECO and especially into earthbag buildings, but this last written episode really brought tears to my eyes, you manage to move people with your honesty Atulya. Wish you all the best and strength to overcome the loss of Rotty. Lots of love, Jan.
4/5/2017 03:13:53 pm
Hello Jan! Thank you. I'm still driving. And the Earth is once more seeping into me;)
27/4/2017 04:12:10 am
Wow my girl, I am sure the words did not come quite as easily as they appeared too. I am so happy you were with Rotty when he passed on to his next adventure. Yes, there is an essence that leaves the body and is shared with you in the process. I know there are skeptics of this phenomena, but it happens. We are animated and function with electrical pulses and while energy can change it does not just disappear. Animals have a special place in the afterlife and I do believe that their spirit stays with us for a while and revisits us when we need it. We just need to be open to receiving their message and presence.
4/5/2017 03:29:48 pm
Ah Sandi. I have so many angels now, they seem to be jostling for position:) And as if my senses were heightened toward the essential and non matter, on that Camino there were so many entities of all persuasions. It was like an astral super highway. But despite it being an emotional subject, what's intriguing me in a non-emotional way, is why loss hurts so much. Our minds have to recreate themselves over and through the hole, like skin over a wound.
6/6/2017 06:30:10 pm
Atulya - there is no such thing as death, merely a change of direction, as and when the time is ripe Rotty will return to you and when you are ready the pair of you will move on to even greater and more exciting adventures - together! thank you foe spending some time with us an telling us about Rotty's passing - a very hard thing to do I'm sure - well done you! Now on to new adventures with Rotty by your side, the difference is that you may not be able to see and hear her but she'll be there! May your Gods bless and protect you!
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Atulya K Bingham
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