The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pathway in Spain that has drawn people for centuries on a quest for meaning. Jindabyne’s Noel Braun has also taken solace there in the years since his wife of 42 years, Maris, committed suicide in 2004, and provided the inspiration for two books that have become part of his long process of healing.
“She suffered from depression, not so much in the early years but in later years it became all pervading,” Noel says.
“It completely cripples your life and she struggled every day, the pain and anguish just became too intense.”
Maris’ two younger sisters also took their own lives before her.
“To outsiders, it was a complete surprise – she looked like she had everything,” he says.
The night before Maris died the whole family was together in Sydney to celebrate the wedding of Noel and Maris’ son.
“She died on the Saturday, we had the funeral on the Thursday and then the wedding on the Saturday.”
The father of four says to a large extent his family had to delay their grief.
“Every assumption I had made about life was completely upset, by the time you are 74 you usually have a fair idea of who you are and what your identity is, but I lost it,” Noel remembers.
“I really didn’t know who I was, I was all over the place.”
Noel says he could have easily succumbed to alcohol to suppress the pain of his life.
“But I came to two decisions, one, this wasn’t going to beat me and two, I was going to tell the world what an insidious disease depression was.”
Noel went on to be an ambassador for Beyond Blue and Lifeline but more than that he has added his own self-styled safety net to the network of mental well-being support.
Five books form the backbone of Noel’s campaign, his two most recent tomes deal with his time walking the Camino on four occasions aged between 77 and 84 years old; each time from a different starting point covering five of the many different routes, each time covering up to 750 km through rural France, Portugal, and Spain.
“Maris and I used to enjoy travelling, she had piles of cuttings from the travel section of the paper, but she couldn’t travel in the last couple of years, she got the guilts about spending that money on herself,” Noel says.
Six months in France after Maris’ death studying the language with “other lost souls” introduced Noel to the Camino and the potential it could play in his recovery.
Four years of physical, mental, and logistical preparation followed before Noel’s first Camino experience in 2010. Sitting on a cruise ship and following an itinerary didn’t appeal, this wasn’t a holiday but a pilgrimage a “step outside of my comfort zone,” Noel says.
Noel’s professional life started as a country school teacher before moving into a corporate career which took him from Melbourne to Perth and Sydney, he says he has always had a passion for writing and has always been active, fit and enjoyed walking, but nothing to the extent of the World Heritage Listed Camino.
According to caminodesantiago.com.au, “The Camino de Santiago, also known as the way of St James, and even just The Way is the ancient Catholic pilgrimage route to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in north-western Spain.”
“Legend has it that the bones of the apostle St James were brought by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain and are buried under the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela.”
‘The Camino offers many things to many people, each comes on the journey with their own motivations – but all are united by the common goal of reaching Santiago,” caminodesantiago.com.au says
“For centuries the Camino de Santiago has been a great teacher and leveller, all those who travel its path connect with simplicity and are changed in some way, great or small.”
Remembering his first day of walking the Camino in 2010 at the age of 77, reading from his book Noel says, “I was shit scared, my heart was pounding, my guts ached, I could smell my own sweat.”
“I could think of no reason to delay, so before I could chicken out I took my first wobbly step.”
An hour into day one, Noel decided “The day was made for walking” which became the title of his first Camino book.
“Every step I dedicated to the memory of Maris,” Noel says.
“Doing the Camino was my way of finding purpose, meaning, and structure.”
Noel says his sadness generated a lot of energy and passion and drove him forward on each of his Camino adventures.
“While I was walking I preferred to walk alone, I preferred the silence and the solitude,” he says.
“My footsteps were like a mantra, just the sound of them, like a wordless prayer.
“It was different at night, at night I sought company, and I had countless memorable nights sharing simple food and jugs of wine.”
That restlessness still motivates Noel now, when I caught up with the 85-year-old at Bega Library he had just completed a three-week book tour taking in 14 libraries across NSW, all on the back of an eight-week stay in the Canberra University Oncology Department.
Noel stays in touch with many of the people he met on the Camino and listening to him talk it’s clear these global friendships have become part of his life’s new meaning, purpose, and structure.
“They all used to look after me – the old fella! We had no common language but we just worked it out.”
Like Noel, each seemed to be walking with a question they hoped would be answered as they travelled through the many rural communities along the way.
“An American lady had lost her son to suicide four months earlier.”
“One of them told me he was walking because his girlfriend wanted to have a babe, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted children.”
“Michael is Danish and only has one arm, he walks a different section of the Camino each year with a different grandchild,” Noel says.
“Danny is Canadian, he was in the Navy, and he’d been used to having everything done for him, the Camino was the first time he’d been on his own.
“Jerry is Irish, he’d lost a sister to suicide, and he was trying to buck up the courage to quit his job of 20 years.
“Heidi is German, she is a very senior academic, but on the Camino, all ranks are levelled out, and that’s what she wanted.
“And Matt who is English and Laura who is Spanish, they are really special, they were considering the next phase of their lives.
“I grew to love this couple, they really supported me, the following April their daughter Maggie Rose was born, she is about 4 years old now,” Noel says.
Noel’s search for meaning is ongoing, sharing his story and his books are part of that. I can’t help but think he has found it but is looking for the words to explain it.
He says he is working on a new book now but hasn’t yet decided if it has legs.
Noel’s books can be purchased via his website.