October 6, 2016
The entire crowd stood and roared, waving paper Catalonian flags. They began to sing, joyously in fact. My girls jumped up, so delighted.
“What is it, mama?!”
“I don’t know… I think they are singing some sort of Catalonian anthem!”
Everyone in the crowd had so much pride, so much joy in being exactly where they were. It was contagious, and I found my eyes wet. It felt like… like I was becoming part of something new.
My daughters and I were in Tarragona, one hour outside of Barcelona. We had moved to Spain just 3 weeks before and were in Tarragona on a weekend trip to see the biannual Concurs de Castells – the Human Tower Competition. There were teams from all over Europe and from as far away as China. The sea of bodies was truly mesmerizing… almost 20 teams, over 500 competitors, all wearing the traditional white pants and black waist sash, all part of one ocean of bodies huddled together in the arena.
“Oh Mama!” They gasped, eyes wide.
Bodies began to pop up in the air as the first team began. First the sturdy men made the base, holding other men up on their shoulders while others leaned in, pushing against them, reinforcing them for those that would come next. More people stepped on shoulders, walking over the heads of the people leaning in, shimmying up to the next level. Once the structure of bodies was at least 4 high (with several at each level), the kids in helmets began to scamper up to the top. Everything moved fast, because they knew the structure would not maintain itself for long. The kids had made it to the top, waved an arm in the air in victory, and the team began the race to disassemble from the top down.
The structure began to wobble, and I looked away. I don’t like it when bodies fall. I can’t handle it when bodies fall. For two years I have had flashbacks of John and the team of six falling – swept off the ridge, 3300 feet, onto a glacier. Please, don’t let them fall. Nothing protects us. People die.
About four days after our arrival in Spain, my PTSD symptoms began to subside. For over two years I hadn’t been able to shake the night terrors – the 3am episodes when my body would flood with adrenaline, heart racing, body covered in sweat. I had seen doctors, therapists, used various yoga and meditation techniques, and tried a slew of medications. But – what I really needed to do was run away from my life.
And so, run away is what I did. The first few nights in Spain, I still woke up gasping for breath, despondent. “My children will never have a father.” The voices said. “I cannot be everything they need.” “Please earth, swallow me up.”
But, the earth beneath me here in Espana didn’t swallow me up. Instead, it welcomed me, wrapped me up in its arms, and kissed me on both cheeks.
Instead of dying from pain, I was reborn.
My body hardened and I held my breath, but the tower of bodies did not crumble. The kids scampered down, then the strong but not heavy bodies in the middle, then the enormous burly men near the base. I relaxed and let my shoulders drop. The crowd cheered. My eight-year-old Melanie said to me, with confidence and intention –
“Mama, I think we should move here full-time, not just for this year. I want to be on one of these teams, Mama. Will you help me get on a team? I want to be the one that climbs to the TOP.”
Then, about 30 minutes later and 6 successful towers in, it happened. A young boy from the top was scrambling back down. The people in the middle began to sway and shake a bit. I could tell they were barely holding it together. NO. I couldn’t handle it. I looked away as the crowd gasped. When I looked back – a pile of bodies. The boy from the top was holding his bloody nose. Adrenaline flooded. My heart began to race. I said to the kids
“I don’t like this. Do you want to keep watching, or should we go?”
I truly wanted to bolt but I didn’t want to ruin it for them.
“We don’t want to go!” Melanie said, bouncing in her seat.
My 11-going-on-30 year-old Isabella put her hand on my leg and calmly said “Mom, it’s ok. Really, it is.”
Everyone that had fallen got back up. No one on the competition floor seemed overwhelmed. No one left in an ambulance. Each team was given 3 attempts. More towers were built. More crumbled. The girls could tell I was on edge. After the third time I said
“Should we leave now?”
Melanie looked at me with poise, confidence, a tenacity that made me feel like I was looking into the eyes of my younger self.
“I still want to do it, Mama. I still want to be on a team someday. I am not afraid.”
I felt the adrenaline subside. Anxiety had lifted its ugly head and then pulled back into its hole without wreaking havoc on my body. I was… ok. Happy even. Our lives were broken. The towers were broken. Everything was broken. But, broken things can be rebuilt.
The girls and I went to dinner, then back to the hotel. Our room had one double bed and one single bed. I smiled at Melanie and said
“Would you like to share the big bed with me, sweetheart?”
“Mom” she tossed back, suddenly many years older than the little girl who flew across the Atlantic with me 3 weeks before. “I want my OWN bed.”
“Oh” I said, surprised. “Well, looks like there is a Murphy bed on the wall. I will pull it down and everyone can have their own space!”
We all read on our Kindles for a bit and then went to sleep. Yes, I actually slept. For a couple of weeks by then I had been sleeping. Not a ton, still just 5-6 hours a night, but it was real sleep, the sleep of someone who was settling in, the sleep of a woman who was beginning to surrender and let go. More amazing still, I had begun to dream. For two years, I hadn’t dreamed. All of the sudden I was dreaming every night. That night, something random about my friends Justin and Morgan who were living in my home back in Seattle. The night before, something bizarre about a much younger African American boyfriend whose friends were eating all the food in my fridge. In the dream I laughed at his friends, told them to finish up, and then told the boyfriend “You really should find another lover. I’m going to be gone.”
We woke up the next morning in good spirits. After dining on manchego cheese, serrano ham, and baguette that I had stashed in the min-fridge, we wandered through an open air market. We were relaxed, happy… further gorging ourselves on roasted nuts and empanadas. Melanie convinced me to buy her a tiny 8euro crystal ball, something she had been begging for for a couple of weeks.
Then, we moved on to a Roman amphitheater not far from the hotel. The amphitheater had been built in the 2nd century and was in use until the 4th century for various sporting events – animal hunts and gladiator fights. The gladiators were often prisoners of war, trained specifically for these events. I read the signs and explained to the girls –
“See the big hole in the middle of the arena? The gladiators and animals were held below and were lifted up on a platform to face the crowd and their opponents.”
“Why did they fight, Mama?” Melanie said
“They didn’t have a choice. They were prisoners. People came to watch because they thought it was fun.”
Melanie hardened and said “Mama, death doesn’t sound like good entertainment. That sounds terrible.”
“It was a different time.” I responded softly, taking her hand. “All we can do is learn from the past so we don’t repeat it.”
We wandered from the amphitheater to some other Roman ruins in town. Melanie ran ahead, as was her way. Isabella began to muse.
“I want to become a writer, mama.”
“What do you want to write about?”
“I want to travel everywhere, learn lots of languages, and write about my adventures. Do you think I could print a magazine and sell it in airports?”
“Why don’t you start a blog?” I said.
“How do I do that?”
“I’ll help you.” I smiled. “We can start tonight when we get home.”
Home. Seattle isn’t home any more – Barcelona is.
“ ¡Me acuerdo de ti! ¡Compró todos mis mangos!” He laughed. Meaning – I remember you! You bought all my mangos!
We were back in Barcelona and it was Monday morning. I had left the apartment in a short black skirt I bought on Las Ramblas the week before. Behind me I pulled a tall skinny purple grocery cart on wheels, also recently purchased. Originally I had planned to carry groceries around in my Seattle hiking backpack, but once I arrived I realized – that’s not how the Europeans do it. I had only been to this particular produce shop once before, but still – the burly bearded owner remembered me.
“Mis hijas como mangos muy mucho!” I said – “My daughers like mangos very much.” “Lo siento para los otras personas que quieren mangos!” – “I am sorry for the other people who want mangos!”
He laughed and laughed. “No es una problema!”
I filled up my purple cart and made my way to the meat market. For some reason, most of the butchers in Barcelona seemed to be women. I loved it.
“Tienes algo ecological?” I asked? Do you have anything organic?
She could tell I was struggling with the Spanish and responded kindly in broken English. “This here – pigs from the country. They eat only acorns on the ground. Is good?”
“Si, es bien.” I smiled.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Yo soy de Los Estados Unidos. Pero – ahora, vivo aqui. Vivo in Barcelona.” I am from the United States. But – I live here now. I live in Barcelona.
“Un regalo,” She responded, handing me a bit of hard sausage. A present.
I wheeled my purple cart home, behind my sassy skirt and tall black boots. Again my eyes got wet, but not with sadness, with relief. Something new and right was growing inside of me.
I returned to my apartment, sat down on the couch, and opened “Madame Picasso”, a fictionalized account of Picasso’s love affair with Eva Gouel, spanning the sinking of the Titanic and World War 1. Gouel died of cancer before they were able to marry, further scarring his heart which had already been broken by the death of his young sister, the death of his father, and the suicide of one of his best friends. As I finished the book I felt a kinship with Picasso and admired him anew simply because, well, he survived.
My eyes were heavy as I placed my kindle on the table next to the couch. Not from sadness, but from fatigue. It seemed that, as I began to sleep more, my body felt permission to admit how exhausted it really was. I laid down on the couch and slept easily for two hours, enjoying vivid dreams yet again. How could I have gone two years without dreaming? It doesn’t matter. That time is over.
I woke up, left the apartment, and walked down the street to the bus stop, ready to collect my girls, still groggy.
“How was your day?” One of the other mothers asked.
“I took a wonderful nap.” I said.
They knew of my trauma and smiled kindly. I rambled sleepily –
“Back in Seattle my friends kept asking me – “What will you do while you are in Spain.”” I continued, laughing “I kept telling them – all I want to do is learn to sleep again! I can’t see past that!”
They chuckled and said. “That is what Espana is for! You came to the perfect place.”
We all laughed in agreement as our kids stepped off the bus. For so long, my smiles had been forced – an upturn of the corners of my mouth while the edges of my heart turned down. But that day, my smiles were real and true.
“Shall we take a picnic to the beach?” I said.
“Yes mama, lets!”
Before we left Tarragona, Melanie took out her little crystal ball.
“Would you like me to read your fortune mama?” She said.
“Sure sweetheart, go ahead.” I was amused and happy. We had had such a nice weekend together, our little family of three.
“I see your future, mama. You will be living in Europe in a house, with your two daughters.” She looked right into my eyes and beamed sunshine into my heart.
“Oh really Melanie? That sounds good to me, darling. “
“I love you mama.”
“I love you too, sweetheart.”