Perhaps what people fear most about retirement is boredom. Day after day of sameness. And the silence between a couple who, after decades together, have little to say or who have chosen to paper over past grief and grievances.
Such was the (fictional) life of Harold Fry – until he gets a letter from Queenie Hennesey, a former co-worker, who says that she is in hospice, dying of cancer. He tries to write to Queenie, who lives at the other end of England, but what do you say? He tries to call, but she can’t come to the phone. Instead, he starts walking and soon becomes convinced (by a young woman who microwaves him a burger at a gas station) that his journey to Queenie will keep her alive. The notion that determination can defeat death is an idea that captivates everyone he encounters.
But what is most intriguing about “The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry,” by Rachel Joyce, is the transformation and self-discovery that Harold experiences as he steps out of his decades-long rut -- opening himself up to people he meets along the way, discovering a natural world he’s never known, and challenging his body as never before.
Mile after mile on the road, he is consumed by memories that now appear in a fresh light, reshaped by newfound strengths.
In so many ways, he is starting over. And the starting over is not a one-time process. As Joyce writes:
“Harold believed his journey was truly beginning. He had thought it started the moment he decided to walk to Berwick, but he saw now that he had been naive. Beginnings could happen more than once, or in different ways. You could think you were starting something afresh, when actually what you were doing was carrying on as before. He had faced his shortcoming and overcome them, and so the real business of walking was happening only now.”
For that matter, Harold’s wife – left behind –discovers, to her surprise, her own resilience. She, too, takes a deep-dive into their shared history and makes startling discoveries of her own.
It’s a simple tale, with a profound reminder that at any age we can take steps to move in a new direction. That we can walk a path of discovery.