Belfast Telegraph

Home Life Features

How losing my beloved dad set me on a path of healing and a 500-mile European pilgrimage

By Stephanie Bell

When Carol Ann Creagh's beloved father died from cancer, the Belfast nurse undertook a challenging journey across Europe in a bid to deal with her overwhelming sense of loss and grief. Now, she has written a book A Short Stretch of the Legs to record her journey into acceptance.

When Belfast nurse Carol Ann Creagh signed the first copy of her new book and handed it to her newborn grandson, in that moment, she had achieved what she set out to do.

Honouring her late dad and ensuring he lives on in the memory of his family was at the heart of her decision to publish a book about a punishing 500-mile walk she undertook in his memory, along the famous Camino De Santiago.

Nevertheless, the fact that her book - A Short Stretch of the Legs, My Penny Mile Camino - is now being sold in 34 shops across Ireland is a delight to the unassuming author.

Carol Ann (58) first made a name for herself with her moving account of how she coped with breast cancer in what became a critically acclaimed debut book, Angels Under My Bed, in 2011.

A single mum of six and a proud grandmother from north Belfast, she wrote her first book in the hope of bringing comfort to other cancer sufferers, and this time she has again proved an inspiration in the way that her latest publication tackles the pain of grief.

The death of her late father, TV journalist Jim Creagh, in June 2011 from cancer hit her harder than she ever could have imagined.

As the weeks wore on and she still found herself unable to cope with his loss, she knew she needed to do something to help her come to terms with it.

Her dad's way of coping with stress was to go for a walk and she has fond childhood memories of him taking her on her first walks at Belfast's Cavehill.

It seemed natural to Carol Ann that a walk in his memory could bring her some comfort, although, initially, she had no idea that it would turn into an arduous 500-mile trek across France and Spain.

She recalls: "When daddy died it left a big dark hole in my life which I didn't know what to do with and which I couldn't get out of.

"I kept thinking that, as a nurse, I should know how to do this. I spent 11 years in the Casualty Department at the Mater Hospital during the worst years of the Troubles and I just couldn't understand why I wasn't dealing with it.

"Eventually I just thought there has to be a positive way of dealing with such overwhelming grief. I knew it would have been the last thing he would have wanted as he was always such a positive person. Then I realised I needed to do what he loved doing. He taught me how to love walking.

"When I thought about my battle with breast cancer 10 years earlier and the fact that dad had died of cancer, I decided to take on a big challenge and do it to help the Friends of the Cancer Centre."

Carol Ann chose the wonderful Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St James, which is a network of routes across Spain and Europe which are walked every year by tens of thousands of people in what is regarded as an epic 500-mile pilgrimage.

As if that wasn't a big enough challenge in itself, she also opted to do it in just 24 days, arriving at her final destination of Santiago on the first anniversary of her father's death.

Setting out alone, she encountered many challenges along the way and, while there were tears and pain, she also enjoyed fun and laughter, all of which is beautifully captured in her new book.

She says: "On paper it looked do-able and it meant covering around 22 miles a day. I just got it into my head that I was going to do it and there was no turning back.

"I decided to make it my penny mile and for every mile I walked through France and Spain I left a penny. I left one for my dad in the crypt of St James which I thought was a fitting tribute to him. It was sad, it was happy, it was horrible at times and I had terrible blisters and was very homesick. There were so many emotions. Also being on my own was tough and at times I just asked myself 'what am I doing? This is like being in solitary confinement, am I crazy?'

"But it was also a fascinating challenge to know that my entire life was packed in a 5kg rucksack.

"I did get lost and was very scared at times and I also met some brilliant people from all over the world and made some good friends.

"I felt my dad was with me the whole time. I brought his gardening jacket with me and if I felt scared, lonely or sad I would cuddle up in it and I could smell him. I could almost feel him and that jacket was my companion."

Carol Ann describes a particularly poignant part of her journey when near the end, while feeling physically and emotionally exhausted, she found herself marking three major first anniversaries within just a few days.

But while struggling with a great well of emotion she also finally found some peace when, in the midst of terrible anguish, she felt her dad reach out to her and help to heal her hurt.

She explains: "I had walked 400 miles by that point and I was physically at my lowest, mentally burnt out and had dad's birthday, Father's Day and the first anniversary of his death all in one week.

"It was a lot of milestones and I didn't know at that point if I could physically deal with it. I had left myself with no energy to cope with such a roller coaster of emotion.

"Then I spotted some lavender and heather which were dad's favourite smells and some yellow gorse which he loved and I just thought, if you are sending me a sign then this is it.

"I ended up smiling to myself and I just realised suddenly this isn't about loss it is about celebration of life - that I was walking in celebration of my dad and while I couldn't bring him back, no one could steal my memories from me. Even now I still get sad but this was my tribute to him and I hope he would be proud. I know that doing something so positive stopped me from getting lost in a sea of grief."

Carol Ann had not planned to write a book.

The blog she wrote daily during her walk had been intended as a safety measure so that her family back home could keep track of her if anything was to happen.

To her amazement it was being followed online by 5,000 people from 38 countries.

"Because I kept the blog, everything was there on record so it was easy to do the book and I decided to do it for my kids and grandkids to remember their papa," she says.

"The first book I got from the publisher I signed and gave to my new grandson Jude and I just thought it doesn't matter if no one else reads it at least my wee Jude will know my dad."

The title of her book also came from her dad who often would have asked her to accompany him on "a short stretch of the legs".

His idea of a short stretch though, as she fondly remembers, could have meant anything up to 10 miles as he enjoyed getting out to the Black Mountain and Cavehill to relax after a hard day at work.

It was Carol Ann, who was the one of his eight children, who more often than not accompanied him on these pleasant rambles.

It is a great source of comfort and pride to Carol Ann that her book has sold out three times in the Belfast Castle book shop.

"I think it is only fitting that story which started at the foot of the Cavehill should end there and I am just so thrilled that people are enjoying the book," she adds.

"I've had lovely messages from people from as far away as the US who took the time to look me up and send me an email to say how much they loved it and I just think that is so lovely.

"Dad was a very fit and healthy man and when he got cancer he went from walking the world to using a walking stick. He was a proud man to the end."

  • A Short Stretch of the Legs My Penny Mile Camino by Carol Ann Creagh, £10, amazon.co.uk

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph