Melanie Gow reflects on how walking the Camino de Santiago with her sons gave her the gift of watching them turn into men - and the kind of men she could be proud of.
This scene of two boys walking off down an ordinary backstreet in the middle of nowhere seems unremarkable, but it holds the story of a life-changing moment.
Six kilometres out from Carrión de los Condes, down a side street in Villalcázar de Sigra in Spain, we stopped in a little bar for a much-needed drink. I felt like I had been walking since the 13th century; we had been getting up at 4.30am every day for me to sew the blisters on my feet, leaving the thread in to drain the fluid during the day, and setting off before the dawn to cover 30km before the midday heat.
I was grateful for a break. When I stood up to get back on the road again, there was a searing pain in my knee so sharp I sat right back down again.
Next to our table was an advertising board with a taxi number on it. Harry looked at me sideways and said, “Maybe it’s a sign.”
Amused that he used this to his advantage, I gave in and agreed we’d take a taxi. Both my sons turned to me and said: “No, you’re taking a taxi, we’re walking.”
This was the last time I saw my boys.
The next time I saw them, they were men.
Eighteen months ago, on that ordinary Tuesday night when we sat down with a plate of sausage and mash with gravy in front of a DVD and 123 minutes later the boys stood up and said they wanted to walk 800km to Santiago de Compostela, this is what I wanted to make happen for them.
That night we had put on The Way, a film by Martin Sheen that is essentially about a handful of middle-aged people walking and talking. It is a fictionalized account of a man who walks this 9th century pilgrimage known as The Camino after his son dies in the attempt, and the stories of those he meets on the journey. As the end credits rolled, both boys just knew they had to walk it, and we had to do it together. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that before, where you’ve just had to do something. No reasons why and no rational explanation, you just want to do it.
Watching them walk away, I realised that this was why I had walked all this way.
Nothing quite prepares you for watching your sons grow up in front of your eyes, knowing you will never quite be the same person again.
I could never have imagined I would watch them do it. When I woke up that morning there was no indication that this would be the day. As I bought three bottles of soft drink from the bar, it never crossed my mind that it was going to happen right then.
It’s extraordinary how some significant moments are so quiet you would hardly know they were there.
As a parent, we want to conjure a wind underneath our children’s wings, not so they can fly but for them to soar high with passion and joy. I have no end of failings as a mother but in walking away they showed me I had done all right, and I understood that this was the reason I had come on this walk. I was truly at my happiest.
When they left me in that bar to set off for a town, they had no more information than the name of a refuge I would try and get us into. The town wasn’t an easy one, it was moderately large and our accommodation was off the main street, tucked down a side road. I resisted the temptation to tell everyone to keep a look out for them and decided to let them figure it out…
And they did.
That evening we met up again in the simple reception of the convent refuge, with the singing Augustinian nuns, the gorgeous singing nuns from Columbia. Strangely moving and yet absurd. When they sang Amazing Grace, even the strongest cynic would have folded.
After this the guys went to sit outside a bar in the sun and called my sons over to join them. They had their first boys’ night out with the best men, from a dozen different backgrounds, men with values and a sense of wonder and fun, who treated my sons as equals.
You don’t get your first boys’ night out again, so I left them to enjoy the banter and the sangria they were being bought and wandered off to the church, as I had heard it was worth visiting.
It turned out there was a service for the feast day of The Assumption, a significant day in the Catholic calendar celebrating the belief that Mary was taken into heaven without having to live out her natural life, because she was the mother of Christ.
The priest gave a sermon that I could understand every word of for some reason, about the importance of mothers and the grace of the relationship between mother and child. This sermon on this day was a powerful coincidence. By the time the softly-spoken, Colombian nun accompanied herself on an acoustic guitar, singing Everything Changes Except Love, I was in tears.
When that sweetly-smiling nun went on to give a speech about hope and started handing out little paper stars the sisters had cut out and coloured in while praying for us, I gave in and cried for at least the next three days. With pride for my sons, gratitude, joy, relief, a feeling of coming home to myself.
Imagine what could change if we give our children the space to decide what kind of adults they want to be - nothing will ever be the same again.
Melanie Gow is a writer, speaker and photographic artist who believes life is a brief shot at something incredible. Her book, www.myofficetoday.co.uk., is the inspirational story of walking the Camino de Santiago with her sons, aged 12 and 16, and is available on Amazon. For more details about Melanie and her book, visit her website,
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