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Tuesday, April 23, 2024 — Houston, TX

Choosing the right way

By Landon Roussel     1/20/16 11:38am

When I was a student at Rice, I used to walk the outer loop when I needed to ponder an important decision. One of those was what I was going to major in, which I remember mulling over for some hours while (seemingly) endlessly circling the hedges on a Sunday morning my sophomore year. I had already decided that I was going to become a doctor but was not satisfied with going the traditional route of majoring in biochemistry. What drew me to medicine was the closeness to the human experience that doctors witness every day. In fact, it was the funeral of my grandfather, himself a writer, that led me to the choice to become a doctor, as I saw through his memorial my own artistic yearning. Yet as I walked around the outer loop, I pondered the task that lay at hand should I choose to major in humanities. I had already completed nearly all of the requirements for biochemistry. Did I really want to take on another major?

As I walked down Main Street toward University, noting the Medical Center on my left and the campus on my right, I realized that I would have my whole life ahead of me to develop my left--brained technical skills. The next two years offered me the chance to refine my creative abilities to express myself, giving my right brain much--needed exercise. Returning from my walk, I made the decision: I was going to major in Spanish, the language of my mother and the culture from which she came. Back in my dorm, I logged onto the course catalog and enrolled in Spanish Culture and Civilization (SPAN 340), taught by Professor Castaneda.

The following fall, Professor Castaneda would take us from the Paleolithic history of the Iberian Peninsula all the way through modern post-Franco Spain. He also encouraged us to refine our Spanish language skills, which motivated me to consistently attend the Spanish tables every week at Jones. Professor Castaneda was also in the habit of giving out to students promotional material from the Spanish tourism office, and mid-way through the course, he gifted me with a poster from the office. It bore some thirty sketchings of Medieval churches with the inscription below: “Camino de Santiago.” Not knowing what the Camino de Santiago was, I asked a fellow Spanish enthusiast and recent friend I had met at the Spanish table, Amanda. She informed me that the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is an ancient pilgrimage across the Iberian Peninsula to the Cathedral of Santiago, the rumored burial site of St. James the Apostle. The pilgrimage, she said, still continues to this day.

As Amanda and I continued to see each other at Spanish table, it became clear that we were more than just friends, and by spring we were seen as inseparable: “Landie,” they would call us. Having never been to Spain, we both promised each other during this early time in our relationship that should we ever get married, we would walk the Camino de Santiago for our honeymoon.

Two years later, in June of 2009, we got married in the Co-Cathedral in downtown Houston, and the next day we departed for Europe to walk the Camino. Within a week we found ourselves wandering on off--beaten paths in the Pyrenees hundreds of miles away from any city with only our backpacks on our backs. Six weeks later, after many blisters, backaches, swollen ankles and knee pains, we found ourselves in Santiago. In the process, we not only cemented our life-long friendship with a bang, we grew close to friends we made along the Way (some of whom we are still in touch with), to nature as we traversed the mountains of Basque country, plains of La Meseta and hills of Galicia and to ourselves, both of us having journaled more than we ever had in the preceding year. We also experienced much- needed recovery after an extremely stressful academic year.

Back in the U.S., we moved to New York, where I returned to med school and the stresses continued to mount. Realizing the healing power of the Camino, we vowed to walk the Way again. In 2011, while on academic leave from med school, we did, this time walking the coastal route, again finding much needed respite and growing even closer together.

A few months before this walk, I found out that my younger brother had been arrested. He had battled on and off with drug addiction since our teen years, and in a desperate place, he made a foolish choice that landed him in federal prison. Devastated by his arrest, I found comfort in the correspondence that we would send each other. Through hand-written correspondence we were able to begin to reconcile after over 10 years of estrangement. Still, we were not able to see each other in person, as I was living in New York and he was in prison in San Diego. Two years after his arrest, when I found out that his release from prison would correspond with my last vacation with med school prior to beginning residency, I proposed that we walk the Camino together.

In spring of 2013, just two months after he served his prison sentence, he and I departed for Oviedo, Spain. Following the less-traveled Primitive Way (“El Camino Primitivo”), we trekked through the mountains of Asturias to Santiago. On the Way, we found much needed time to spend together, not having spent more than a day together in years. Returning home, we realized that our relationship had changed, having grown closer together than we were even as children.

Just over a year later, my brother was killed in downtown Houston.

Though grief--stricken by the news of his death, I found comfort in remembering our time on the Camino. As I sat on the plane to Houston from Boston, where I was doing residency, I recalled seeing the sun shine on the hills of Virginia, just as it had on the hills of Galicia when we were in Spain. The reminder filled me with gratitude for having the opportunity to make this journey with him just before his life was cut short so unexpectedly.

A couple of weeks after my brother’s funeral, I found myself circling the Rice hedges again, just like I used to do in college. Recalling that memory from the plane, I realized that the miracle of us being able to partake of this much--needed healing experience was too deep, too rich to truly recount on a several--page eulogy that I delivered at his funeral. The only way to recount our history was through a book. But did I really want to write a book? I was a medical resident and had a two-year-old at home. Walking down Main Street toward University, I noticed again the Medical Center on my left, the hedges on my right, reminding me of the decision that once lie before my while taking that same walk 10 years prior. By seizing the chance to explore deeper meanings of my existence through self expression, I followed where the opportunity led and never looked back. This was my chance to do so again, and I haven’t regretted it since.

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