Later in the evening, you notice an older woman at the end of your table. She has piercing blue eyes and blondish-silver hair. Her sweater is a vibrant electric blue, artisanal. You see that she eats some plants she has obviously collected along the way. You leap out of your seat to talk to her about the plants, which you have also been collecting.
The is something angelic about her. You cannot describe it. You feel an immediate kinship with her and you swell with emotion.
“Why do you walk The Camino?” you ask.
Her manner of speaking is eccentric, somewhat fractured—frenetic, yet entirely coherent. “Ten years ago, I was hit by… a car. I was very hurt. My back, my legs, my neck. I could not use my arms and hands—not very well. I had surgery–” she points to a scar on her throat– “and it helped a little, but I was not well. I did some healing on myself with plants and meditation, but I still had many problems. Arthritis in my shoulder. Great pain in my hip and my leg. See, I could not walk. I could only go about 3 kilometers, and then I would be tired, and the pain would be too much. One and a half months ago, I met a woman. She is a healer. She did some healing on me—I do not know what, and I immediately felt better. I began to walk more. 10 kilometers, twice a week. And then more. I could walk again, and I am so happy! I walk The Camino, and I pick flowers and I eat them, and I walk in the sun, and I feel wonderful. It has been so long! I never thought I could walk The Camino!”
You could throw your arms around her and kiss her. You could cry into her gorgeous sweater and tell her it is going to be alright—that you are so happy for her.
Instead, you tell her that you are glad to hear it, and then ask if she has relatives in Sweden or Norway. She says only Denmark. You tell her you think you have the same features. To this, she smiles, and you are lost in the depth her her eyes—eyes that radiate timeless sagesse—wisdom, but also saintly childlike sweetness.
Little did you know at the meeting that you and Grethe would cross paths again and again.
She was your Trail Angel.
She was like the brightest star in a night sky, giving off light and energy to those around her in need of a boost. A smile. A sincere look. A pep talk. A reminder of what struggle in life is all about. She would sometimes share chocolate with you, or force a bottle of juice into your hands and a 2-Euro coin.
“You need this, Maria. This is what you need. Take care of yourself.”
And if you are ever in Denmark, you must visit her.
So you did.
Grethe opened the door to her flat and regarded you with the look of someone who has just perfectly completed a challenging project. A small smile had spread across her face, and she held her hands together in welcome.
“Here you are, you made it. I am so happy to see you.” She lingered on her words. She smoothed them over your hollow-cheeked, exhausted forms like a warming lotion. “Please, come in.”
Her apartment was immaculately kept. Clean. Decorated with freshly-picked flowers and her very own colorful paintings of abstract rainbows and birds. Grethe directed you to glasses of water, the shower, the bed room. Insisted that you nap. And when you surfaced 45-minutes later, you sat before a banquet. Lentils, fresh, wild salad, sausage, and wine.
Grethe beamed at you as she introduced you to her gentle-souled boyfriend, Arne. You spoke about the Camino. Your experience, your struggles, your triumphs, and coping strategies. It was so odd, re-living the experiences. You felt so much emotion trapping in your chest and throat, threatening to strain your voice. You did not want to cry again. Over what, you weren’t sure, but the feelings were there.
“What did you learn on The Camino?” Grethe asked.
Blink. Pause. Consider.
What did you learn? Ummm… well… shit. That’s a tough one.
That you know how to suffer? That isn’t new. That you can walk in pain? Nope.
“It’s hard to say. I suppose that your perspective of an experience can vary tremendously, depending on your circumstances. Nothing changes your opinion more than fatigue, pain, and frustration. It doesn’t matter what is happening. How stupid. How mundane. How trivial. Your negative energy will find a way to seep into every seam and corner and redefine its meaning.
“When I consider my feelings about the what went down with Gerrit, I realize how trivial it all was. He behaved in a way totally consistent with his personality; he hadn’t tried to offend me. But I was in such a low emotional place—such a dark place—that it didn’t matter. It was simply bad timing. And I knew this. I knew that it was just my garbage blowing things out of proportion, but I couldn’t stop feeling my anger and indignation. I had to get it out. I had to find something to rationalize my negativity. He was a good target.
“In a way, I feel like The Camino is a de-tox program. Whatever is inside you will come out. Now and again, I need to wring myself out like a dirty rag.”
Grethe listened intently with her wide, gem-like eyes, nodding and “Ja”-ing with a sharp intake of air. She listened. She acknowledged. She understood. She commented on how amazing it is to share everyone’s experience, to learn and to grow.
This was Grethe, always looking for a lesson and a silver lining. Considering her former circumstances of injury and pain and de-railed life plans, she manifested on admirable ability to remain positive and constructive. Such a rare quality.
“Now you are here,” she said to you and Katie. “While you stay with me, you will get to relax. I leave you my house. I will sleep somewhere else. You must eat anything you find. I will feed you. You do not need to worry about anything. I want you to stay here as long as you like. Because you need it. I know it.”
You nearly fell back on your habit of nodding and smiling along, secretly contriving alternative plans to be more independent. But her sincerity arrested your default reaction; you wanted to allow her generosity. You could see that it meant something to her.
So for four days, Grethe fed you, walked you around Kalundborg, took you to her paradise garden where you lunched and napped, and escorted you to more food at Arne’s place. There were roast, potatoes, BBQ, smoked fish, ice cream, fresh fruit, salad, pizza, cherries and blueberries. And more. So much more. She invited you to her family picnic, where you met her sisters and their families. There was a sand castle competition, coffee, cake, beer, wine, music, and positive energy through and through.
And food. So much food.
And the day you left, even more food. Grethe stuffed you full of food and rest that when you finally parted ways, still holding your belly in over-stuffed sympathy, you cried. Sobbed your little eyes out about how beautiful and kind she was, and wondering why you deserved it.
“I like to do this for you,” she’s said, “Because I can see it makes you so happy! And it is so easy.”
You’d wanted to return the favor, somehow. You wanted to show her how much you cared. You offered her a couple hours of stretching therapy and movement consultations, to help her sort out her lingering issues with pain from her accident.
And you asked Katie to pain your Camino scallop shell and wrote a note on the back. You could think of no more deserving person that Grethe to guard the symbol of your struggle on the Camino.
“You have touched my life,” it read.