Ben had spent the previous year walking, all the way from Canterbury, in England; he had come 5000 miles with his compass set for Jerusalem, and here we were, heading for the fertile crescent by the River Jordan, made famous by the Holy Bible . . . lost.
A year previously, I had flown to Rome to join Ben for the middle leg of his pilgrimage. We walked together for a thousand miles, across Italy and through the Balkans, before the snowbound, thunderstruck mountains of Macedonia put me on a plane for Istanbul.
Those same mountains put pause to Ben’s pilgrimage and so he met me in Istanbul, from where we drove around Turkey together and into Syria.
It is only in hindsight that I understand this was an uncommon journey for a mother to share with her adult son.
It was not the first time we had traveled together.
Two years previously we walked El Camino, The Way, the mystical pilgrimage across Spain – Ben, me and his (then) girlfriend, Renee.
Who does El Camino with his mother and his girlfriend? To fellow pilgrims he was a Very Brave Man.
I have always traveled with my children. There was the time I was in such a hurry to get off the plane that Ben, at 16, swore he was never flying with me again. And there’s my insistence that we get to the airport early because I have no intention of missing a plane.
At some point, however, the leadership tables turned – and that point came when I decided to walk with my son from Rome.
This was his journey, after all.
There was no way on earth you would have found me walking through the Balkans under my own steam – had I not followed my son’s leadership, however, I would never have stared down the horror stories I tell in my mind about these loaded lands.
Surrendering to the son.
For a thousand miles we walked together, navigating the subtle shifting sands of a maturing relationship . . .
* to walk through the dark night on busy highways (Ben – who knew that snow was coming to the mountains) or to rest after a long day’s walking (me – who had no intention of being bowled over by a truck I couldn’t see).
* to sleep beside a sodden rubbish dump in our tents (Ben – saving money) or get a room when one was nearby (me – clean white sheets).
* to walk into the thunderstruck mountains of Macedonia (Ben – let’s go!) or walk the lowlands through Albania (me – I am not equipped for the mountain cold).
At critical needs junctures we learned to find a common language that allowed for the truth of each of us, as defined by ourselves, according to each moment. We learned not to buckle to the forces of pleasing or rebellion, to hold true – then bend accordingly, until finally, we surrendered to forces greater than ourselves and turned our backs on the blackened mountains.
That our relationship as mother and son would be strengthened as the result of this journey was no surprise.
That there was a deeper maturing available to us as adult mother and adult son was astonishing.
There are many significant doorways in a human life, gateways that we mark with ritual and celebration: birth, death, marriage, divorce, puberty, menopause, abandonment, fruition.
How we deal with this commonwealth of human experience determines our capacity to meet the next gateway.
These are butterfly moments, points of change beyond which nothing is ever the same. And unlike every single one of the rest, there is one transition that is invisible and rarely discussed in conversation, public or private.
This is the completion of the parent, the ripening of the child.
Adult son – adult mother/parent.
The chrysalis for this mother and her son was a barren stony desert on the highlands above the River Jordan.
A week later, Ben and I left Amman at the breakfast hour of Ramadan, the great ring roads that pool out from the city center marking our progress through the darkness. By mid-morning the sun was high and hot. By lunchtime, we were rested beside a shady creek filled with rubbish. By early afternoon we were on a country road that wound around stony hills pockmarked with houses and groves, the lush green valley nowhere in sight, our bellies rumbling and our water bags empty. We stopped for shade beneath an orchard beside a grand house. A man came out to speak to Ben. He explained with his hands that he could not show us his usual hospitality because it was Ramadan, but he could bring us water. Ben nodded and the man returned with a jug and two glasses. We walked on, the spaces between settlements growing wider, the grand houses giving way to poverty. On dusk we reached the top of a long, long hill and looked out over – nothing. And I burst into tears.
How did this happen?
We had walked 16 hours, I had given my son all I had to give, we were supposed to be in a fertile valley and here we were on sundown with no food, no water and stony hills rolling bare as far as the eye could see. In a thousand ways, I was depleted. I sat on a rock. I cried and cried. Once again we had set out for a fertile valley and once again we were in a barren land. Ben asked me if I wanted to walk on or camp. I told him not to speak to me. He told me I needed to take more responsibility for myself. I told him it broke my heart to hear him say this, because I had taught him this.
Extract from My Pilgrim’s Heart
Because I had taught him this.
Not for the first time on this journey was I was face to face with my younger self.
That night lost in a biblical desert matured me as a mother in ways that liberated me – and my son – from the petty disciplines of being either mother or child. By facing up to everything that burned in me as a mother – every ounce of guilt, blame, shame and uncertainty, I burned it all off – and emerged transformed as a mother.
I became, in short, an adult mother – in other words, a complete woman, undefined by the role – yet, paradoxically, honoured for the role.
As they say, it’s the journey that matters in the end.