On pilgrimage, parenthood, grief, and home repairs

photo by  Basheer Tome

photo by Basheer Tome

Walking Distance: Pilgrimage, Parenthood, Grief, and Home Repairs by David Hlavsa touches on marital challenges, infertility, and finding meaning in life after loss. David and his wife’s decision to walk the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrim’s walking route in Spain, was as an act of faith designed to strengthen his marriage and prepare him and his wife for parenthood. The story progresses into their journey through their first difficult pregnancy and subsequently the devastating loss of their first son, James, at 20 weeks gestation.

David’s writing has a way of luring one in. Chapter after chapter, you want more. His story is unique in some aspects, yet I was able to resonate completely. I could see myself walking the Camino de Santiago with David and Lisa, blisters under my feet, understanding their hopes to complete the journey. I was enthralled by their appreciation of their surroundings, their respect for the culture and history of the city, and their determination to persevere despite the many challenges they encountered along the way. This is a beautiful memoir, with just enough subtle humor.

Their journey of self-discovery is a backdrop for all that was to come for David and Lisa. Their loss, like our losses, was painful and shattering. He writes of both his own and his wife’s overwhelming grief at the loss of their son, and how they both coped: “Like love, grief comes upon us; it happens to us. As with any force that acts on us, we may resist it or we may surrender to it, but either way it changes us and it changes everything around us.”

Once so rare in society, I carry a deep respect for grieving fathers who openly express their deep hurt and grief. David touches on what I struggled with after my daughter Zia died—the need for public acknowledgement that our children had existed; the question of how to grieve someone who, to some, never lived; how to answer that question about how many children we have; how to get back to normalcy when you are obviously not normal anymore.

“There is a part of grief that goes beyond suffering: a burning, searing cleanliness, a scourging of the quotidian right down to the living bone. And so, though I know it may seem odd, I sometimes miss being in that state of grief too—not the pain of it, but the clarity underneath the pain: after the blinding flash, the seeing through.”
—David Hlavsa

This is beautiful memoir—as David describes it, a love letter to his wife. It documents their journey together, and the hope they share for their future together as a couple and family. They tried again, and had yet another difficult pregnancy and all the fears that come with pregnancy after loss. There is such truth in what David writes. Parents with living and rainbow children will especially appreciate a look into life and love after loss, coloured with a sheer appreciation for existence.

When I asked him if we could review his book for the Glow community, David highlighted the takeaway of his book. There's no better way to conclude:

“There some things that are just so life-changing that we just cannot be prepared for them. No one is prepared to lose a child. And I don't think anyone is prepared to raise a child—not really. A lot of couples are driven apart by their different approaches to grieving, to managing family crises, and to raising children. But after going on pilgrimage, it seemed to us that Lisa and I were somehow more married than we'd been before—annealed, tested, tempered. Now, looking back, I don't think either of us would trade any of it for something different. Walking the Camino brought us together. James broke our hearts open. And Benjamin is such a loved, wanted child. Loss is hard, and life is good.”

Purchase kindle or paperback copies of 'Walking Distance: Pilgrimage, Parenthood, Grief, and Home Repairs' at Amazon. David Hlavsa heads the Theatre Arts Department at Saint Martin's University in Lacey, Washington, where he has taught acting, directing, playwriting and film studies since 1989. His article 'My First Son, A Pure Memory' appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times. His essay 'Two Sons, One Living' appears in 'They Were Still Born: Personal Stories About Stillbirth'. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Lisa Holtby, a yoga teacher, and their rainbow son, Benjamin.