Letter from Spain

Last week brought Dad’s birthday; he would have been 66. This week’s post travels back to one of the first years after he died, and his birthday, when I was overseas for study abroad.

In Granada there are narrow cobblestone streets and you’ll happen upon stalls selling colorful wares from Morocco: piles of embroidered silk shoes in purple and gold and soft brown leather, or little canvas sacks of fragrant spices that are the deep red of crushed chili and the yellow-orange of turmeric and the velvety brown of powdered clove.

There are carts of fruits and vegetables where pudgy Spaniards in white aprons arrange green peppers and tomatoes in unsteady pyramids. There are little bakeries selling flaky golden pastries with creamy chocolate filling, and bodegas selling bocadillos, long sandwiches of tuna and olive oil or cured ham. Everywhere there are busy wine bars, people sitting out in the open air or inside at a place where all the windows and doors are thrown open, and the people are drinking wine of every shade of purple and pink and blonde.

                              Gianpietro Iannitelli

                              Gianpietro Iannitelli

There are archways and staircases made from glossy blue and yellow tile, and there are houses and storefronts painted the color of apricot or a bright clean white.

Jose Luis Mieza

Jose Luis Mieza

The streets open into courtyards with crumbling fountains in the center, where cafés set up clusters of tables across the uneven cobblestone and waiters run to and fro, serving tiny cups of espresso. There are no paper to-go cups here: sit and talk and have your coffee from a ceramic cup and saucer, like a civilized person.

And therein lies the essential difference between Spain and the U.S. There was a word for it, as some proud Spaniard had informed me: bienestar.

“The good life, yes?” the Spaniard had said.

It means you sit and enjoy your coffee. And you sit and enjoy your lunch, a ritual that requires a two-hour recess in the middle of the workday, when clusters of people gather at tables on the sidewalk and take a leisurely repast as if no one had any work to do.

Yes, it was the good life here.

But Spain put a distance between Dad and me. Maybe that sounds strange, because he'd been dead two years. But there was nothing of him here, nothing to remind me. I went for long stretches without thinking about him at all.

And I fought against that. In the time right after he died he had been so close, so alive to me. Now, in this foreign place, and as time wore on, he receded from me. And I wondered about how grief had become this series of losses. First there was the loss itself. But then afterward there were these other things to grieve; there were the sharp memories that were gone now, and his belongings that were given away, and the final dissolution of the way life had always been. The loss was cumulative, I saw. It was cumulative in the sense that there was the number of hours and days and months without him, which I tallied in my mind, and the number could only grow. And I began to think about how a larger and larger share of my life would have happened without him, and eventually the number of days I’d been without him would exceed the days with him – and at that point wouldn’t he be just a ghost, a vague memory of the Dad person I’d had when I was a kid.

Then his birthday came.

My mom and brother and I were on different continents: my brother was in China, where he’d gotten a job teaching English, and Mom was at home, and I was here in Spain. To mark Dad’s birthday we planned a three-way Skype call – at least the three of us could have a conversation from our different hemispheres, to acknowledge the significance of the day.

I didn’t have my own computer, so I borrowed a laptop from one of my flat mates, a sorority sister from the University of Washington, or "UDub," as she called it. And so all through Dad's birthday call I stared at a photo at the bottom of that laptop screen, a picture of my roommate and her boyfriend in purple UDub hats, their pink cheeks pressed together.

I didn’t want to just sit and stare at that picture. What I wanted was to feel a certain reverence, a seriousness, for Dad’s birthday. I wanted to honor him. It was February 24th, the day he would have turned 57. I wanted to feel the weight of that.

But instead my eyes kept going to that photo, and how it made me feel alone.