Pésame: My First Experience with Death in Spain

Juan, my partner Fran’s uncle, died yesterday morning at the age of 76. He had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in late spring after having some health complications earlier in the year. His family chose to keep the diagnosis from him to spare him the worry and perhaps frustration he’d feel after learning it: the doctors said that there was nothing they could do other than wait for the disease to gradually claim his life. So, Juan lived oblivious to the gravity of his condition for the rest of the year, but given his naturally sunny disposition (he had the brightest smile and eyes) you’d never have been able to tell that he was so seriously ill. I saw him a handful of times both before and after his unfortunate diagnosis. The last time I saw him was in September, three months before his condition took a turn for the worse. We were sitting a foot apart on the couch, watching some Spanish singer belt out a lovely song written in the 1950s. Juan didn’t speak much, but you didn’t have to talk when you were near him: he had that kind of energy that’s not so easy to find, the vibration that soothes you when you come near, that makes talking unnecessary, almost superfluous. We exchanged a few mutual looks of enjoyment while we listened to various songs, the afternoon stretching long and lazily into the evening.

For the next couple of months, there was little news. Here and there events about his gradual decline trickled down to us: he felt more lethargic than usual; his hunger started to evaporate; he could barely leave the house; he couldn’t use the bathroom by himself. Then, shortly before Christmas, he was admitted to a hospital in neighboring Sabadell where he died not yet twenty-four hours ago. We went to visit him once, on the first day of winter. He was dozing in and out of sleep, with a half dozen tubes poking into him. Fran bent down to kiss his uncle on the cheek; I placed my hand on his shoulder. Juan had lost nearly a dozen kilos (twenty-six pounds) in the short time in which his condition had taken a turn for the worse. His wife sat in a corner of the hospital room, alternating between making conversation with the family members that had come to see Juan and staring blankly at the floor. As Fran made conversation with his uncle (I couldn’t think of anything to say – what could I have said?) I found that I kept looking at her, wondering how on earth she must have been feeling in a moment like that. We stayed for about a half hour before catching a bus back to Cerdanyola, where we live. We rode with his mother on the packed bus, none of us able to muster a word.

And then, expected but unwelcome, came the news yesterday morning that Juan had died. Fran’s mother called, jarring us awake. Fran picked up and as I lay next to him and heard him say “well, at least he’s not suffering anymore” I knew that he had passed. Fran wasn’t immediately upset after hanging up. He lied back down for about ten minutes, absolutely silent. Then, without saying a word, he went to the living room where moments later I heard him begin to sob. Wide awake, I went to him. As I held him, as he shook I could think of only platitudes to say, hating myself for not being able to say anything more inspiring other than “I’m sorry for your loss” or “He’s in a better place” or “He’s resting now.” My poor partner was in my arms, weeping for his dead uncle that had been a steady force for him growing up, and I could do no more than hug him and tell him I loved him and that it would all be okay. I’d like to think that that was enough, that there really was nothing I could say in the first place. Sometimes a hug, an embrace does the job that any amount of words would do.

Contemplating death in solitude doesn’t make me uncomfortable; it’s a harsh, yet inescapable reality that death will come for each and every one of us, no matter how much we kick or scream and especially no matter how afraid of it we might be. I’ve visited cemeteries wherever I’ve lived or trave

led without the slightest misgiving. I accept death as a condition of life, a sacred transition into whatever-lies-next. Rather, it’s the events surrounding a loved one’s death — memorial services, funeral, wake, etc. — that are somewhat awkward for me, which I suspect might be the case for a lot of other people.

Cementiri de Poble Sec
Stacked cemeteries of Poble Sec. (1 May 2012)

I’ve been fortunate enough to not have been to too many funerals. (My grandfather in El Salvador died in 2008 after his own series of illnesses and though I felt impacted by his death it was somewhat mitigated by the fact that we didn’t spend much time together – I’d met him for the first time a few years earlier, separated by distance and immigration policies.) The only other time I’d been to a wake was in the summer of 2011 in Los Angeles, shortly before I left for Spain. The mother of a family friend had died of advanced Alzheimer’s and my parents decided to pay their respects and invited me to come along. Although I didn’t really know who this family friend was and didn’t know even know the dead woman’s name, I agreed. At the time I was preparing for a long stint away from home and I wanted to accompany my parents. My father and I donned our shirts and ties and my mother wore a simple black dress. We arrived in the late afternoon just as the sun was beginning to set.

I was very nervous. I’d never been to a wake before, and I wasn’t really sure what to expect aside from a casket and a lot of very sad people. As we approached the mortuary, there was a small group standing around the entrance. A man was pouring what looked like fruit punch into a white plastic cup. An older woman with too much perfume on was smoking a cigarette. Children chased one another over headstones. The air was generally happy with people smiling and laughing and leaning into one another: death seemed an unlikely thing to find behind the mortuary’s principal door.

We entered, found the designated room, walked in. There were about a dozen people or so inside, all of whom turned to look at us when we walked in. My parents went over to console their friends while I stood still, observing. Though there were ten rows of chairs, everyone was crowded into the first two rows. The first one was full of what looked to be the dead woman’s immediate family: siblings, children, and grandchildren, judging from the age distribution. The second row was a mixture of close friends and family. I sat in the third row alone, locking and unlocking my fingers. Soon my parents called me over and I was introduced to a woman whose mother lay in the coffin. I shook her hand as a means of introduction and then looked into her swollen, saddened eyes. “Nice to meet you,” I said. “I’m sorry for your loss.” She looked at me, smiled weakly, and thanked me. And then a moment of awkward silence came over us. In any other situation I would have made conversation but it felt rude to do so with someone lying in a casket not ten feet away. Eventually, my folks and I approached the coffin. My mother touched the dead woman’s hands. My father and I stood a couple of feet back, neither of us saying anything.

Two and a half years later I’m in Barcelona, with my partner at his uncle’s wake. If the protocol surrounding death was new to me in the States, it was completely alien to me in Spain. I figured it would be more or less the same thing, that I was thinking too much about something that in reality is pretty simple, but the terror of committing a faux pas at so somber an event came over to me. What was the appropriate thing to say in Spanish when someone’s died? What should I wear? How should I act? Fran told me the same thing: don’t worry, things are more relaxed here, don’t stress the small details. And boy, was he right.

The wake was at a mortuary just outside of Barcelona’s city limits, in the forest of Collserola. One arrives at the blanche, pillared only after following a windy road for a few kilometers. It’s the middle of winter here, and the moment one steps out of the car the cold wind begins to nip at earlobes and nosetips. We walked into a building that because of its lighting and artwork and general atmosphere looked more like a museum than a mortuary. We were directed to a reserved room upstairs where, we were told, we could find Juan’s remains as well as all the family that had gathered.

As we stepped onto the landing, the first thing that I observed was how noisy it was. There were about fifty of Juan’s friends and family members huddled together in the wide hallway. Every one was busy making conversation with someone else, some laughing quite loudly, others looking more somber, still others looking somewhat bored. There were no children present. We made our way to the casket gradually, stopping every other step to introduce to Aunt So-and-So and Cousin So-and-So and even the neighbor Señora So-and-So who had come all the way here by bus. People kept coming up to Fran, introducing themselves and saying that the last time they’d seen him was when he was knee high and that boy, had he grown up. It was like a huge reunion for Fran, he said.

Eventually, we made it to the room where we could pay our last respects to Juan. Fran’s mother, Juan’s widow and his siblings were mostly in the small room, sitting silently. The casket was in an adjacent part of the room. We immediately went to Juan’s widow, gave her a hug, and said how sorry we were for her loss. She looked just lost. She managed to give Fran a small smile and tell him that she loved him, but not much else. She didn’t seem to have the energy for much and when I didn’t know what to say after giving her the pésame (condolences – lit. “let me bear it”) she didn’t seem to notice. There was nothing I could have said to her in that moment other than to hug her and tell her that I, too, shared her pain. She smiled softly before sitting back down and leaned into the shoulder of a friend.

We went to say goodbye to Juan. We walked into the small adjoining room and saw his uncle stretched out in the coffin behind a cold glass lid. His hand were pale – perhaps that’s why they looked larger than normal resting on his abdomen. I came up close to the body (was the person inside still his uncle?) and gazed down at his face. There were the same eyes, now closed, that squinted when he smiled; the ashen face now held still by the cold hand of death. Fran didn’t seem to affected at the moment. Later he told me that for him, his uncle is now on another plane of existence, that the body was simply the physical form his uncle took. The body, though important, wasn’t as important as the memory and the soul of his uncle. We went out into the hallway again and mingled with his family some more.

God was remarkably absent, it seemed. Whenever people talked about Juan and where his soul could be now, not once did I hear anyone say “He’s in heaven with God” or anything of the like. They all shared that they were glad he was not suffering anymore (apparently his last days were quite painful) but not once did anyone try to comfort anyone else by relating it back to God. People always went back to the need to bounce back, to over come, the this too shall pass. Even when people spoke of the pre-burial Mass the next morning, it seemed that Catholicism, at least for this group of Spaniards, had passed from the religious into simply the traditional: the Mass was a part of the service because it seemed appropriate, not because it had to be.

We got home last night shortly before dinnertime, our heads full and sad. I couldn’t help but think of my own family so far away and that, inevitably, I will have an experience like this much closer to home. It’s a disquieting thought, of course, but a reality. Fran and I talked last night at length about what death really meant, and we both came to the same conclusion: that one never dies as long as your memory is kept alive. The body, the mind, emotions – all of these things pass away into non-existence. What’s left is what you leave behind, simple as that. Until then, events like this weekend’s remind me to try to live to the fullest, because you really never know when death is stalking you until it’s too late. In the meanwhile, let’s try to live as positively as possible.

Que descanses en paz, Juan. 

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