4. maría the guide

4. maría the guide

There is just something about being mothers, about wanting to know where our children are and that someone is looking out for them. Checking on the whereabouts of one's children equates to solace and safety– especially when they are young– and knowing they are secure means life can continue. For mothers whose babies and children are on the other side of eternity, the missing and 'not knowing' is the hardest part. If only someone could give us a report every now and then, assuring us the babies we love are thriving, even if we cannot hold them ourselves.

Since the miscarriage of our son, Hjarta, four years before, I had come to believe my baby’s spirit wandered in the wilds of Iceland. My conviction of this was born upon his death, at which time I gave him an Icelandic word for a name. During his pregnancy and my subsequent recovery, I was heavily affected by the Icelandic band Of Monsters and Men, whose music I had loved for years. Their songs gave form to my otherwise indescribable grief, and this led me down a rabbit hole of all things Iceland. In my anguish, I seemed to keep my sanity by reading all that I could about Icelandic culture, history, music, and travel. What began as a single song had, over time, morphed into an all-out, swirling certainty that being in Iceland would help me connect with my lost son. Such are the eccentricities of grief.

It was for this reason my husband BJ and I found ourselves in Iceland– a small, frozen island where the North Atlantic and Arctic Oceans converge– one perfect, grey November morning. The first day of experiencing Reykjavík had been pure bliss; the second day would take us on a journey outside of town to the Golden Circle, whose sights included Þingvellir (where the Vikings began gathering a thousand years before), one of the world's most famous geysers, and a waterfall called Gullfoss, where I particularly believed Hjarta's spirit might be.

BJ knew exactly how much this day meant to me. Touring the Golden Circle was something I had my sight on for a few years. Traveling to Iceland and seeing the northern lights were the top two items on my life’s bucket list, and so he had suggested this journey. We both knew through the calamity of losing our baby, my road to healing led straight through the heart of Iceland. And so we waited, bellies full of warm croissants, coffee, and Icelandic cheese, outside the Hótel Klettur for the bus and our tour guide, who would make the journey with us through the Golden Circle.

At last, the white luxury bus turned onto the street and whooshed to a stop in front of us. We stepped forward as the doors parted, and I half-held my breath with the anxiety of being a confused foreigner. The instant that I glimpsed our guide’s warm, inquisitive smile from the top step of the bus, though, my rigid uncertainty melted into relief, and I exhaled my white cloud of breath into the cold air. Instinct suggested that she was not a stranger.

“Jennifer?” she asked, calling me by my formal name from our registration.

“Yes!” I replied enthusiastically. “Góðan daginn!”

Her mouth opened in surprise and her eyes widened as I wished her a good day in the Icelandic language. Instantly my anxiety returned, but only for a moment, as I worried that I had inadvertently offended her.

“You learned some Icelandic! Nobody ever does that!” she said with a bemused smile as she beckoned us onto the warm bus.

“Oh,” I replied, surprised and a little disappointed in my fellow foreigners as I climbed the stairs. “I think that’s kind of sad. It seems important to at least try.

“My name is María. I’ll be your guide today," she responded. "I want to talk more with you,” she continued as she quickly introduced us to the driver and then pointed us to an empty row on the left side of the bus. I settled happily into my soft seat with its huge window, and shivered in giddiness as I listened to the accents around me. This excursion was going to take me places I had dreamed of for so long!

To my surprise, María followed us back to our seats, making clear she actually did want to speak more with us. She was approximately 40 years old, with long, auburn hair and a kind, round face. Her relaxed eyes seemed to convey the joy of years' worth of adventuring around Iceland, which I would soon learn is one of her personal passions. She expertly donned a brown and olive green lopapeysa, the traditional Icelandic wool sweater. For the first ten minutes of our ride, María sat in the seat opposite the aisle from BJ and me, her legs facing into the walkway, and she asked us about our lives. She wanted to know where we were from, and what it would be like for her if she was to visit.

“I’m from a small town in northern Iceland,” she explained. “Reykjavík is big, and it took me a long time to get used to it.” Internally I observed that Reykjavík is fairly unpopulated, even compared to my hometown in Oklahoma; how small must her hometown be, I wondered? María conjectured aloud how she might feel in a place like New York City, which I mentioned to her as one of my favorite places in the United States. I remember instantly feeling trepidation for her, as though her untarnished Icelandic heart could not bear to beat in the pollution and din of a place like New York.

I felt at ease with María as she spoke. Her curiosity about my life flattered me, and I could tell that she genuinely cared. Since we were the last ones to board the bus, I am unclear if she behaved this way with everyone or if she took a particular interest in us because I greeted her in Icelandic. Either way, I broadly grinned as she taught BJ and me new words in Icelandic, some of which required repeated practice. I didn't feel embarrassed when she corrected me.

As our bus left the city and made its way into more rural parts of Iceland, María returned to the front of the bus, where she referred to herself as “María the Guide” throughout the day. Though her words were beautifully accented, her English was fluent. She spent the hour that it took for us to reach the first destination of the Golden Circle serenading us with facts about Iceland, and making us all laugh with her easy-going nature. She joked about how easily Icelanders can pronounce the name of the volcano “Eyjafjallajökull,” which the rest of the world referred to simply as E-16 (16 letters in its name!) when it erupted in 2010, causing worldwide delays in air traffic. For good measure, she flawlessly pronounced it another seven times as we guffawed in merriment and fascination.

Our day was packed with stops at beautiful places. María patiently guided us on how to negotiate the icy walkways of Þingvellir National Park in extremely windy conditions; unlike most of us, she maintained her patience as two French tourists arrived back to the bus twenty minutes late, from the opposite direction in which she had gone into the bitter wind looking for them. María arranged for us to feed Icelandic horses at a nearby farm, which was unexpected and exhilarating for us. All day long at every stop, María found a warm balance between guiding us foreigners through new experiences and letting us explore the novelties for ourselves. Like securely-attached children, we set out independently on small adventures, knowing she was a reliable base to which we could return.

We stopped for lunch at the geothermal Geysir and its sidekick Strokkur, which faithfully hurls scorching water high into the air every few minutes with a giant hiss. The English word for 'geyser,' we learned, was derived from this original source. María accompanied BJ and me into the restaurant across the street and strongly recommended we try her usual, the daily fish special with curried vegetables. As we waited in line for our food, she and I swapped stories about motherhood.

“Sometimes my son and I are like yin and yang,” she mused. Though María wished her son joined her for more outdoor activities in lieu of video games, she pointed out that nothing was better than motherhood. BJ and I reflected on her words as we inhaled the delicious fish and vegetables.

The afternoon proved to be even better than the morning. Our first stop was Gullfoss, which, more than anything, was the reason we had come. When I saw my first photograph of Gullfoss a year before, some motherly intuition clicked within me: my fervent hope in visiting Gullfoss was to set foot in a place where I could feel the baby I had never had a chance to meet. I had come to believe that my son’s spirit wandered in the cliffs over that waterfall.

María told us we would have 25 minutes to explore Gullfoss before we needed to return to the bus. The lowest viewing point was closed off by a chain; Icelanders are wise enough to not buck such guidelines, knowing that a "closed" or "beware" sign in their home country means that the field beyond is probably boiling or some such atrocity. Foreigners, we were told, sometimes need it spelled out to us: "If you duck under that chain and try to view from the lowest viewing point, you will encounter an icy chute that will deliver you to your certain death in the falls." Noted. We proceeded with the others to the middle viewing point.

As we approached the roped area, my hands instinctively pressed against either side of my head; I could hardly contain the explosion of love, relief, and gratefulness within me. At Gullfoss, meaning "Golden Falls," the Hvítá river plunged in two heart-stopping stages, creating a rising, white mist that perfectly harmonized with the icy, craggy scenery surrounding it. Between the deafening roar of the water and the intensely high winds, BJ and I could barely hear one another speak. I inhaled deeply the cold air as it rushed against my face, knowing that this is my son's playing field. He lives and wanders happily here as a wild spirit--as a mother, I simply knew it.

Crying and smiling, I took photos of the falls while holding a heart-shaped quartz rock that was gifted to me by my close friend, Nicole. Nicole's idea was to have my loved ones hold the stone before I left home, so it may absorb their individual energies which I could then share with Iceland– a conveyer of hearts, so to speak. Conversely, while in Iceland, I could absorb the energies of Hjarta and my soul's homeland to stay forever within the rock once it was back home.

After absorbing the sight of the waterfall itself, I began taking in the details of the place. The grey and white sky seemed to hang just overhead, and I observed a small cliff at the upper left of the falls. Something clicked in my heart, and I knew without a doubt that this cliff was Hjarta's haunt. I could sense it was sacred space. Tracing back with my eyes, I could see that the cliff was accessible via a staircase behind us. There was no chain restricting us from the upper cliffs, and I could see other brave people milling about high overhead. I told BJ that I had to go, and he said he wanted to come with me.

The stairs were numerous and icy, but the real test was the path out to the cliff; the winds were unbelievably high, and twice they blew me completely off the icy walkway into the snow.

Icy pathway to Hjarta's cliff, pictured right

Short on time, we hurried on to the cliff, though, and I made my peace in the three minutes I had to spare. Sinking to my knees on the bluff overlooking the deafening water below, I felt more complete than I perhaps ever had. I pressed my rose quartz into the gravelly snow to absorb a fraction of my son's spirit, and to share with him the spirits of his brothers, who had all warmed the rock with their own soft hands. Its toasty, pink, smooth surface blended exquisitely with the icy, wet, volcanic black gravel it absorbed: a yin and yang for all time.

Our experience at Gullfoss was brief, but it was enough. We hurried back onto the bus, our entrance feeling like an emotional burst into an otherwise quiet, warm scene of serene people. We were the last to arrive, but no one seemed to mind. María greeted us warmly.

"Did you enjoy Gullfoss?" she asked with a smile, not knowing the significance of the last 25 minutes upon my heart.

"Yes! So much!" I replied with a smile, too choked with emotion to even apologize for being the last ones back to the bus.

Going through photos later, I learned BJ had captured a shot of our time on the cliff. This is our first time sharing it.

Our final stop was at the Secret Lagoon, a geothermal spring of intensely hot water, which was a thrilling contrast to the freezing air temperature that we sprinted through wearing only our swimsuits. María circled the perimeter of the lagoon, bringing Scandinavian ciders and snapping photographs upon request. We and our small busload of comrades passed the next hour in solid goosebumps, with frozen noses and pink-hot bodies, as dusk fell into night.

I relished the experience, but was ready to leave the lagoon's waters before BJ. After showering and cozying back into my warm, fleece sweater, I wandered into the recreational room, filled with long tables and refreshments. María was seated across from a British woman, whose self-deprecating humor had me frequently chuckling throughout the day.

"The flight from London to Reykjavík was only 50 pounds!" the blonde, British lady exclaimed in wonder. "I thought, for three hours I can go through just about anything for that price. The space was so tight that my knees were pinned to my chest, but hell! There's plenty of duty-free wine to buy in the airport once you arrive. I reminded myself of that every minute!" she chuckled merrily, a half-empty glass of wine in her gesturing hand. I liked this woman.

The seat beside María was empty. My temperament on any other day would have been to take a seat alone and contentedly observe the others, but this, I knew, wasn’t any other day. I bravely asked María’s permission as I slid in beside her, and she warmly said yes, inquiring about my day.

María wasn’t what I had come to expect of Icelanders. She took away every ounce of intimidation I felt about being an imposition. Experience and research taught me Icelanders generally keep to themselves around strangers; I had read somewhere Icelanders think Americans talk far too much. I had steeled myself to not be that foreigner– the one who just won’t shut up. When María looked at me, though, her entire demeanor seemed open. Her face always folded itself into an easy smile, and there was never tension around her eyes.  I drew a shaky breath and asked,

“Can I tell you something?” She turned her body to me in response.

The words poured forth from me as María and the British comedienne listened intently.

"A few years ago, I miscarried a baby," I told them. Their eyes both immediately showed concern, and I felt it safe to continue. "When I lost him, it helped me to hear music from your country," I looked to María. "It was soothing to hear songs from Of Monsters and Men in my head all the time– especially the song "King and Lionheart," a song about a sister separated from her beloved brother.

"My baby was my little lionheart, so I named him the word 'heart' in the Icelandic language." I showed María my hand, the side of which is tattooed with 'Hjarta.' "I felt him at Gullfoss today. He was there, I believe. I think that's where he always is now. It helps me to know that."

To my surprise, María’s eyes spilled over with tears. She did not tell me I was an American who talked too much. She did not seem embarrassed or overwhelmed by my personal story. I could tell that my experience meant something to her.

“If ever your path comes again to Iceland," she said, "You have to promise me that you will contact me, even after ten or 100 years.” She seemed pleased for me when I told her BJ and I planned to attend an Of Monsters and Men concert the following evening, and we talked music until it was time for our return trip to Reykjavík.

The bus ride home was dark and quiet. I reveled in the glory of the day, giddy to find myself in Iceland– relieved at having connected with my baby. In the pitch-black of the early evening, I scrolled through my phone's photo gallery again and again, reliving the moments spent in the Golden Circle.

At last, the bus pulled up to the curb of the Hótel Klettur once again, this time to release us with full hearts. María made her way down the steps in front of me.

"Today was good!" she said with grin. "But tomorrow will be even better, don't you think? Of Monsters and Men!" And with that, she pulled me into a tight hug, confirming to me her comfort with the intense joy and relief I had experienced and shared with her that day. Mother to mother, I hugged her back and thanked her. She had been far more than a tour guide to the Golden Circle that day; she had personally escorted me to peace and freedom.

Upon our return home, I told everyone I was close with about María because I couldn’t get her off my mind. The day we spent with her had been a salve to my long-aching wound; in many ways, she had enabled my healing. She was like the medic who had skillfully and kindly guided me to the hospital, never comprehending that her routine shift had meant so much to my existence.

"How can she know this if I don't tell her?" I asked my friend Nicole, who had given me the rose quartz. She and I were having one of our frequent heart-to-hearts over coffee.

"I think you should contact her," Nicole said in her usual peaceful tone. Nicole's relaxed rhythms remind me of María in many ways, often soothing those around her without ever knowing.

"Is that weird, do you think?" I asked, once again feeling the insecurity of over-sharing.

"She deserves to know the impact she has had on you," Nicole concluded. In the end, I knew Nicole was right. This world is filled with people whose strings cross and pull all the time, leaving imprints on others constantly. When we create a lasting impact on another person, wouldn't it be nice to know? Thus, I found María's email address and gathered my grateful, jumbled thoughts.

"It's kind of funny, the idea that you can never really know what another person is experiencing unless they tell you," I wrote. "To anyone who was on our bus that day, I looked exactly like a tourist on a bus having a great day. And I was... but there was so much more to it than that." Beneath my surface, I wrote, was a woman in a desperate search to connect with her son at a specific Icelandic waterfall. Sometimes, for a mother who has lost her baby but still must carry on, self-protection is essential, and so we throw our faith into things.

“I could not be content with the vagaries of "heaven”-- whatever that is,” I wrote. “Believing that my son is in heaven was not enough for me. If I press my belief into him being in a wild and beautiful place like Gullfoss, I can rest much easier for the rest of my days. And you, María, were so very important in facilitating this for me. From the very start of the day, your warmth and encouragement were obvious; I felt so comfortable with you. I knew you were there to help me, and your heart--hjarta-- was so kind. You played a significant role on one of the most treasured days of my life. I will never forget you or your kindness.”

I did not hear back from María for some time. The purpose of opening my heart to her was to share her importance, and as long as she knew how much she had helped me, my mission was complete. Six months passed, and I thought of her daily, always with gratitude. Just knowing that María's peaceful presence was in the vicinity of my son's spirit was a consistent balm to me; they were both half the world away, but at least their paths crossed with one another sometimes. It was enough for me.

One hot afternoon at the end of May, a return email unexpectedly arrived. My heart must have skipped a beat when I saw she was the sender.

“Hello dear Jenny,” it began. “I have thought of you and Hjarta so many times… My biggest regret is that I should have given you more time to absorb and sink in at the beautiful place Gullfoss. I just might have a point with Hjarta spirits gliding over Gullfoss... At least my mind always travels to you when I am there. All my best to you both, and I hope I will meet again.” Signed, “Warm hugs,” from María.

I wept in relief all the tears I didn’t even know I was holding in. There it was, all laid out for me: our tour guide had done far more for me than sign up to guide a busload of us around the Golden Circle that day. In her infinite kindness, María had implicitly pledged to join her heart with my son’s “gliding spirit” each time she visited his resting spot.

I still miss Hjarta every day, but I no longer struggle with the "not knowing" of where my son is. My head hits the pillow at night knowing the exact view from his cliff. María is my perfect surrogate, and my soul rests easier knowing she is there, too– a warm, reliable guardian from which my son’s spirit can venture and return.