In Estella, when I first met the Lebanese women, they told me that they’d spent a few
days traveling with a man who had recently lost his son. “But tomorrow was the son’s birthday,” one of the women told me, “and I think he wanted to be alone.”
In Los Arcos there is a cathedral, the Iglesia Parroquial de Santa María de la Asunción,
that was built over a period of 600 years. It betrays a mélange of styles, from Mannerist (~ 1530s to 1600) and Baroque (late 1500s to early 1700s) to Churrigueresque (late 1600s to early 1700s) and Rococo (1700s). We walked through all of it and I took the pictures now on Facebook. We sat down near the back of the church. It was quiet. There were perhaps eight people in it.
Suddenly, from behind and above us, from the choir, we heard a magnificent voice. We turned to see a small, white-haired man, in a blue shirt and shorts like swim-trunks,
with his arms spread before him, perhaps toward Mary in the retablo, and he was singing “Ave Maria”. I immediately turned on the video of my SLR camera.
For ten minutes, he sang three haunting versions of “Ave Maria” – Schubert’s, Gounod’s, and one we didn’t recognize – as the handful of us in the church simply sat motionless, aware that we were in the midst of something rare, powerful, and beautiful. “My heart was beating so fast,” Julio would later say. He sat on one side of a pew behind me, and Mom sat at the other end of it, wiping away tears.
By the time he was finished, I had walked with my camera up to the choir. Again and again he reached his hands out over the bannister at which he stood, in supplication. He reached the end of his last “Ave Maria” and turned around, drained, and made his way to a pew where two of his friends sat. He sat down briefly, and then they all stood up and walked past me. “Grazie,” I said. He nodded at me and walked out the door.
Our group went outside into the quiet and light of the cloister, still emotional, and then
he was there too, like a magnet, but also looking frail, spent, and awkward, with tears in his eyes. Seeing Mom’s own tears, he leaned toward her and said, in Italian, “I sang to remember my son.” Marie Anne translated this, and Mom reached for him and hugged him. He seemed to receive this awkwardly. We were all crying.
Marie Anne and Julio thought he was Italian. Julio thought he heard the day of his singing was the anniversary of his son’s death, perhaps even the third, rather than his birthday.
He would sing again that night, after mass, from the front of the church.
The next morning, he and his friends passed us on the Camino trail, in the dark. His two friends walked on either side of him, and one step back.