Sean was not an easy child to raise. My husband and I became his parents through adoption and met his birthmother prior to his birth. Young, freckled, and sweet, Janet decided to have a C-section and asked me to be present although she’d be unconscious herself.
On the scheduled day, I stood in an operating room wearing surgical scrubs. Nurses buzzed around, readying forceps and scalpels. An anesthesiologist worked Janet’s IV and checked the electrocardiograph. Janet drifted off, breathing slowly and steadily, her bare belly bulging from a sea of deep blue cloth.
The obstetrician came into the room, holding out freshly scrubbed forearms and hands. He chose a scalpel from a tray as the nurses gathered around. Poising its tip below Janet’s navel, he nodded at his assistants.
A quick slash, a glint of steel. A swarm of elbows and hands like bees around a hive. A bloody eel slithered from the wound—the umbilical cord—and hung between the table and the doctor’s hands. I couldn’t see the baby, just the doctor’s back.
The doctor fussed a bit and looked at me. “Jan, I need your help.” He motioned to a tray with his elbow. “You’ll need the scissors and the clamp.”
Moving beside the doctor, I took the instruments from the tray, slipped the scissors on my fingers. I turned to my first glimpse of Sean—his slimy, bloody body, his writhing head and limbs. I spread the scissor blades apart, cut and clamped the cord, then stroked Sean’s tiny wrist, his eyes opening for a moment, flickering gray-green.
A nurse picked Sean up, weighed him, and showed me how to sponge-bathe him: “Pay special attention to creases under the arms, behind the ears, around the neck, in the diaper area, and to the spaces between the fingers and toes. Then clean the cord stump with a cotton swab dipped in alcohol.”
She also showed me how to swaddle him: “Place him face up on a blanket, pick up a corner, wrap the blanket around his body—snugly, but not too tightly, being careful of the cord—and tuck the blanket beneath him, leaving his head and neck exposed.”
I can’t begin to count the times I cleaned and swaddled Sean in the days and years that followed, even after his baby fat and folds gave way to the long, lean body he’s possessed since toddlerhood. From the moment Sean discovered that he had the power to propel himself, he had a penchant for risk, adventure, imprudence, the forbidden, and injuring himself.
One time, when he was four years old, I’d left him in his bedroom napping soundly—his eyes rolling in their sockets, his breaths even and deep. I took advantage of the moment to collect some laundry from the dryer and was busy folding clothes when I heard a crash and screams.
I ran to Sean’s bedroom. There I saw a toppled highboy dresser, its drawers half-sprung, their contents spilling out. A tiny arm and leg protruded from the rubble. Sean was shrieking, “Mommy, Mommy, hep!!!”
I righted the highboy dresser, a drawer unexpectedly sliding fully out and tumbling on my son, adding insult to injury. Heart pounding, eyes tearing, I pulled Sean from the wreckage: his bones seemed to be unbroken, but blood spurted from a deep laceration in his head.
Frantic, I picked up my son and carried him to the bathroom, where I laid him on the floor. Blood puddled on the tiles as I tried to stop the bleeding. I cleaned the gash and dressed it with gauze pads and fabric tape. Then I wrapped Sean in a towel, drove him to the ER, and held his swaddled, squirming body as the doctor sutured the wound.
Later, after the stiches, Sean told me he’d wanted to reach a stuffed “aminal” that I’d left on top of the dresser, but being short, he’d opened some drawers to use as a ladder up.
That was just one of many gashes I cleaned and bound as Sean went though his childhood and tween years and took up skiing, soccer, hiking, whittling, baseball, biking, climbing, and punching bullies who roughhoused kids at school. But while his early wounds were literal, those I tended later were metaphorical.
When Sean was a sophomore at college, he called right before Thanksgiving to confess he’d not been to classes since October when a close friend had drowned in a lake. Instead of doing any work, he’d holed up in his dorm room drinking beer, smoking weed, writing poems, and entertaining girls. His professors and advisors had informed him it was too late to make up his assignments, so he would fail all of his courses and be suspended for the academic year.
Hearing this, I jumped into the car and drove four hours through a blizzard to meet with Sean’s advisors. I argued Sean was suffering from depression and brokered a medical withdrawal: he’d receive no Fs, saving his GPA. The suspension would have to stand, though, so I helped Sean move out of his dorm room, piling clothes, books, and skis into car with the snow careening down.
At home, I gave Sean his orders: He would go to counseling until March, then begin a leadership program where he’d spend three months in the wild learning outdoor skills and studying ecology. In the fall, he’d return to school.
Right or wrong, I’d once again attempted to clean and swaddle my son. And I did it over and over for the next five years as Sean meandered towards adulthood: for every two steps right and forward, he took one step left and back, and for each misstep he took I stepped in to get him back on track.
Last summer Sean earned a BA in environmental education and a certificate to work as an emergency medical technician. Since the road had been arduous and long, we made plans to celebrate his milestones by walking a comparable path, The Way of Saint James in Spain. Nonetheless, despite Sean’s accomplishments, I harbored doubts that he’d actually matured.
The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage that began in the Middle Ages and remains popular today. Each year pilgrims from all around the world walk from points throughout Europe to visit the tomb of the Apostle James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
Some pilgrims make the journey for sport, some to pray for miracles, others for contemplation. Heads swathed from blazing sun, blisters bursting in boots, backs bent under packs dangling emblematic scallop shells, many trek hundreds of miles, spending a month or more on the road, but most walk about sixty, taking less than a week.
Sean, my husband, Mark, and I would follow the rugged Primitivo route, hiking 200 miles in twelve days.
The Camino Primitivo is the original way to Santiago, although these days it’s been eclipsed by the much more travelled Camino Francés. It begins in Oviedo, Spain, a city northeast of destination with a cathedral called San Salvador that took eight centuries to build.
The cathedral’s Cámara Santa houses the sudarium, a bloodstained cloth claimed to have swathed Jesus’s head in death. Thus, pilgrims on the Primitivo like to scoff at those on the Francés: Why visit the servant and fail to call upon the Lord?
Outside the cathedral there’s a brass plaque embedded in the pavement that marks the Primitivo’s start. Sean, Mark, and I set out one August morning, first winding through city streets, then through suburban sprawl. After crossing a metal footbridge over railroad tracks, we passed through a hilly, grassy park, the sky a brilliant azure, the sun warm but not hot.
Soon we came to San Lázaro Paniceres, a tiny town where a hospital for pilgrims existed in the 1300s but which today is known for a wooden hórreo, a common Spanish granary raised on pillars to keep the rodents out. In Lampajúa we stopped at the Capilla del Carmen, one of many tiny chapels that pilgrims through the centuries have built along the way.
After that, the landscape changed frequently. We passed through rural towns of red, green, and yellow stucco houses. We strolled through meadows of poppies, heather, and angelica.
We mooed at curly-horned cows grazing in fields at the roadside. We wandered through eucalyptus forests, the sun speckling the ground.
We crossed footbridges over streams where dragonflies hovered in the mist. All the while a fresh breeze cooled us, carrying the scents of bay, fennel, and mint.
Often, as the hours passed, we switched configurations on the path: sometimes Sean and Mark hiked ahead to yammer about sports; other times Sean and I strolled behind to philosophize about life.
Sometimes we trudged in procession, each of us lost in private thoughts; other times Mark and I hung back to observe and gossip about Sean; and sometimes we walked three abreast to tell jokes or to play I Spy.
In the early evening we reached the turnoff to Grado, a busy commercial town where Mark and I would spend the night in a B&B room we’d reserved. Sean would hike three more miles to San Juan de Villapañada. There he planned to bunk at the albergue—a pilgrims’ hostel run by volunteers where beds were first come, first served.
At the fork, Sean stopped and looked at me. “Got to book it now, Mom, so I can get a bed. See you at the hostel in the morning.”
Of course, I didn’t want to let him go. He’d never toured alone in Europe and his Spanish was rudimentary. I imagined him getting lost, breaking a leg, losing his cash, not snagging a bunk, being bitten by bedbugs, running off with a girl, getting drunk on cerveza.
“Please be safe,” I said.
“I’ll be fine, Mom. Just don’t worry!” Then he hugged me and strode up the path, walking sticks clicking on gravel, knapsack bouncing on his back.
In the morning I was anxious to retrieve him. Shortly after breakfast, Mark and I set out. As we walked down the central street of Grado, local women waved from upstairs windows, calling out in dialect to direct us to the path. The asphalt gave way to cobbles, then dirt, and the trail, now edged by mauve hydrangeas, ascended steeply up a hill.
We climbed for almost two hours. I could feel my breathing falter and my legs begin to ache.
Where on earth was the albergue? Where the hell was Sean?
Suddenly, there he was, sitting on a bench beneath some trees around a bend. He stood and patted my shoulder: “Steep hill, Mom. How are your feet?”
He had good reason to ask. This wasn’t my first Camino. The year before Mark and I had walked the Francés and my feet had swollen badly; my boots had bruised my toes purple and caused bleeding blisters on my soles.
I’d brought different shoes for this Camino. “My feet are pretty good, Sean. There aren’t any hot spots, just the mildest rubbing on some toes.”
Sean motioned to the bench. “Sit. Let me take a look.”
“Hon, really, you don’t need to.”
He nodded: “Yes, I do.”
So I sat, and Sean plunked himself beside me, pulling my feet onto his lap. He slipped off my boots and socks and began to examine my feet. “Like I thought,” he said. “There’s chaffing on the big and pinky toes.”
He pulled a first-aid kit from his backpack, found some alcohol prep pads, and cleaned my feet methodically. Then he took out a roll of fabric tape, tore off custom-measured pieces, and snuggly wrapped each toe. When he was done, he slipped my socks and shoes back on my feet and tied the laces up.
At that moment, I looked at Sean and realized he’d become the man I hoped he’d be. We had come full circle. In the past, I had cleaned and swaddled him. Now he had cleaned and swaddled me.
The next day would be his twenty-fifth birthday—time to cut the cord again.
Originally published in Good Letters.