Walking Tall: How the sudden death of Jenny, 26, led me to the Camino de Santiago
Lucia Ebbs' Camino began when her 26-year-old niece died suddenly from Cardiomyopathy. She finally hit the pilgrimage trail, in aid of CRY, 12 years later.
I signed up to walk the Camino in 2014, but my journey began long before that... on May 22, 2002, to be precise.
That was the day my niece, Jenny O’Riordan, died.
Jenny (or Jenny Jewel to the family) was my sister Kate and her husband Jerry’s only daughter. She was working with KPMG, and had spent two years there as a Consultant - loving every minute of it and making great friends.
Jenny died from Cardiomyopathy on her father’s 50 birthday.
I will never forget the call – I was just in the door from a holiday, and Kate called to say Jenny had been taken to Blanchardstown Hospital. I collected Kate, and we drove to the hospital.
By the time we arrived, she was dead.
Cardiomyopathy is a term used to describe heart muscle disease. There are different types of the condition, but basically, it makes it harder for your heart to pump blood to the rest of your body.
Cardiomyopathy can lead to heart failure, and is a cause of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome (SADS), which is exactly what happened to my beautiful niece.
Jenny had died while sitting with her best friend. Just like that. One moment she was there, the next she was gone. Her sudden death devastated us all, but especially Kate, Jerry and her brother JJ – she was 26, beautiful, bright, kind and had so much to live for. Her friends and colleagues were heartbroken too.
Lucia Ebbs (left) and friends in Spain
Time helps you to live with things, but you never forget. Nothing is ever the same and no family event or occasion happens without you knowing someone is missing.
Kate now works as a Volunteer with the charity CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young), supporting families that have been affected as she has been.
I've been involved too. I've worked with Michael Greene, Chairman of CRY, since the late 80s. I was working with him when his son Peter died suddenly in 1996. When he and his wife Marie started CRY, I did the paperwork and admin to help.
After Jenny died, we talked of “doing something” in her memory for a long time.
The Camino was on my Bucket List from the time I watched Martin Sheen in “The Way”, so when CRY added the pilgrimage route to our list of fundraising events, it seemed to be a perfect match.
12 years later, my journey was becoming real.
15 of us signed up in total, including my sister Kate and niece Aoife, and we fundraised over the summer to reach our target . The group ranged in ages from 30+ to 60+ and we all had one thing in common: all had lost family members to SADS.
We were under no illusions as to the personal challenge ahead. But it turned out to be a week I will remember forever - walking, talking, laughing, crying and singing (as you do!).
In some ways the hardest week of my life and the best week.
Our trip began with a flight to Santiago de Compostela. From there, a bus took us to Sarria to begin our 110km walk back to to the traditional pilgrimage finishing point.
Some serious work had to be done over difficult Galician terrain – walking through mountains, crossing valleys, old bridges, past ancient cruceiros, streams, river beds, climbing steep slopes and down the other side.
The Mantra of the Camino is Walk, Eat, Sleep.
But for me, it really was just a case of one foot in front of the other.
Day by day, however, we hit our groove. Leaving Sarria for Portomarin, we finished our first stretch by traipsing up 100 steep steps into the town – not easy after 23 kilometres!
A pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago
Over the week, we walked in groups – starting the day with some and ending with others. Sometimes we broke off or separated naturally to walk alone. As the days and kilometres passed, we became friends – we had a common bond in remembering our loved ones.
On our last day, we decided to walk the final stretch, ending up in Obradorio Square, together. It was an incredible experience – 15 “CRY CAMINO 2014” t-shirts walking together through the Porto Del Peregrinos – the Pilgrims' Gate.
I think it was here that we all got the mental image of being a ”pilgrim” – it had been our goal to walk the French Way, the most famous Camino route, and we had achieved it.
We walked into Obradorio Square and we laughed, hugged and cried – such an emotional experience realising we had completed our Challenge.
Our last night was spent together in the Monasteries Hospedeira San Martin Pinario – a beautiful medieval building. It sits in front of the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral and they’ve taken care of pilgrims for five centuries.
After our walk, it was a little surreal to stay in a building like this.
We went to the Pilgrims' Mass, too.
There, in the fabled Church of St. James, the celebrant speaks in five languages and it was a special moment when he welcomed us - the CRY group from Ireland. More tears!
We had a clear view of the altar and the Botofumeiro, which is lowered from the ceiling and filled with incense for its flight above the congregation. As the Botofumeiro swung and the congregation sang, I had the feeling of a profound and life changing experience that I will remember forever.
12 years since Jenny had died, my Camino was complete.
But her memory was as resonant as ever.
Lucia Ebbs and friends will be walking a stretch of the Portuguese Way from October 3-10, 2015. For more info or to donate to CRY (Cardiac Risk in the Young) see www.cry.ie.