The pink jellyfish of Mallorca, Spain

Yikes!

Adrian’s jellyfish stings faded slowly, the tentacle marks blistered and red.  It also took several days for the rocking to subside, even when standing perfectly still. Todd diagnosed “inner ear fatigue,” which makes one feel the motion of the ocean long after stepping off a sailboat. Back in El Puerto de Santa Maria, where Christopher Columbus set sail for the Americas over three centuries ago, the old street lamps tinged the hot Spanish nights yellow. The streets were alive with tourists, tanned teenagers, and soccer fans looking for World Cup action on GOL TV.  At an outdoor bar we watched Germany dismantle Brazil, feeling the gentle sway of the palm fronds overhead deep in our bones.  This was the night I realized how much I finally felt at home in this little port town on the Bay of Cadiz—just in time to leave it.

El Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain

Lovely Little El Puerto

A year in Spain has blown by like a leaf in a windstorm. We’d experienced so much, but not half what we’d hoped, and with our departure date looming, our time with my sister and her family seemed sorrowfully inadequate.  Using the tools of love, laughter, compromise, and tears (and a few arguments), we’d successfully constructed one family out of two, creating a bonded unit closer than a Navy SEAL team. Now, running a hand over the blond silk of my nieces’ hair, nearly as familiar as my sons’, I wondered how my world would feel without them in it every day.

Packing was easy because we didn’t have much.  Important things–the kids’ diplomas from Nuestra Senora de la Merced school, two homemade spa coupons I hadn’t yet cashed, a rainbow drawn by Tia and a silver Christmas tree by Griffin—went into a box. Carefully, I peeled a green Vale That poster off the wall for saving, the one from our band’s very first performance.  Another memory of a year I would never forget.

Vale That, Suzanne Rico's band, playing at TK3 in El Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain

Vale That At Bar TK3

During the three days it took to get ready to leave, I avoided Steph’s eyes, not wanting to see what was there for fear it would break me open. We had already cried once, so I spoke of inconsequential things and smiled a lot, hoping to ignore the mix of anticipation and fear of what I would find back in California, the place where I’d tried to leave behind the rough-edged memories of my mother’s last months.  The place where our plane, coincidentally, would touch down July 11th on what would have been her 77th birthday.

Gabriele Rico, c. 1975

Happy Birthday, Mama

Two nights before our early morning departure, I startled out of a deep sleep.  A dream of my mom, young and with a 1970s hair cut, left me sucking for air in complete panic; it was impossible she wouldn’t be there when I got home. Outside my window, the summer night shimmered with life, drunken shouts from the castle courtyard mixed with the disco music pumping from El Nino Perdio (The Lost Boy), a nightclub across the street. That this scene now felt familiar indicated I was returning to a life I didn’t know anymore. At that moment, I’d never felt so lost.

Stuffed animal inside a suitcase, Spain

Leaving

But traveling for any length of time leaves only one certainty: something is always gained and something always lost every time you pack up: Steph, Todd, and the girls would be exchanged for Grandma, Grandpa, Grandpa Rich, Aunt Simone, and Uncle Chris; the Playa Pontilla for Zuma Beach; the cobblestone walking street of Virgin de los Milagros for the wide, tree-lined asphalt of Santa Monica Boulevard. What I longed for is to be able to throw my arms wide enough to hug it all close.  But life doesn’t work that way and so I put Adrian’s fluffy leopardo—a stuffed-animal handed down from Sasha—into his little suitcase, zipped it, and tried to lean into the change.

Spicy Tuna lettuce cups

Spicy Tuna Lettuce Cups

Our last dinner together was three pounds of sushi-grade tuna Ethan bought at the mercado, seared, sashimi’d, and tartared. At $10/lb. it’s high on the list of what we will miss. Steph made a chocolate cake with one small word written on top—Yay!—which reflected our determination to celebrate a year of living wondrously. A year of playing guitar, of learning Spanish, of healing hearts, and of sharing all the exquisitely mundane intricacies of everyday life.  As we ate, the doorbell kept ringing as the people who’d welcomed us to Spain with open hearts a year ago began dropping by, unannounced, to say adios.

Watching World Cup in El Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain

Watching World Cup

This chapter of the adventure ends with one big, happy group watching Argentina beat Holland at Bar 4 x 4, Ethan’s favorite because of its outdoor television, cold Heineken (one euro!), and genuine Spanish vibe. A breeze carried the musky scent of sherry (the wine for which this region is famous) onto the sidewalk while across the street, the Rio Guadalete flowed patiently into the sea. It seemed we’d known this town—and more importantly, these people–forever.  And when the penalty kicks were over, we promised to come back soon and then walked back to our beautiful old palacio, swaying ever so slightly but on course, for one last sleep.

Suzanne Rico and friends in El Puerto de Santa Maria, Spain

Shedding A Tear