The Days We Remember

There are moments in your life where you can remember your youth incredibly vividly, as though it happened yesterday. Time moves on yet it’s tinged with sadness as you realize that every day that passes is one more day that separates you from that time of innocence. Then without warning, there is a moment where you realize without a doubt, the door to your youth is closed, never to reopen again.

My last remaining grandparent died in September at the age of 101 and with her, she took my youthful days of no responsibilities, never ending fun, and joyful naivety.

There is something that happens deep inside when you lose your last grandparent. It’s like the ties to the past have been ripped off and that’s it, the link to your history has been irrevocably severed.

As Timmy and I were on our way to a close friend’s wedding on September 25, I looked down at my phone and saw 8 missed calls from my dad. I knew then it had happened.

I have had moments over the last month of incredible mood swings, moving from sheer joy to a sadness that feels deep and unsurmountable, like even if I had the will, the tears might never stop.

Three weeks ago, Timmy and I went to a Mark Knopfler concert in Clearwater. Timmy had seen him the night before in Melbourne and wanted to see him again with me, even though I wasn’t really that familiar with his music. These were emotional nights for him as he remembered his father and their bond over his music. We sat down in a theater that hadn’t been updated since probably 1992. Clearly being the youngest in the room, I looked around and made a passing comment to Timmy, “Look at this sea of white hair.”

Within seconds, I felt the rush of sadness move up my spine, into my throat, and out of my eyes. Overwhelmed. Despondent. Inconsolable. I cried for hours, and as the music played, all I could hear was the sadness in the notes, in the voices, in the harmonies.

I of course have lost people before, some suddenly, some with more preparation. I never knew my mother’s father, but I remember when I was around 2 years old, probably one of my first memories, my mother answering the phone and collapsing into tears, my father rushing to hug her. What my mother ended up sharing with Timmy and I before we left to go to Spain for my Yaya’s funeral was that the phone call was from my uncle telling my mother that her father had died days earlier and they had already buried him.

Imagine coming home from your family’s first trip to Disney World and having that be the first call you take. Before cell phones, emails, instant ways to connect. He hadn’t been able to contact my mother and so the family had to move forward with arrangements. I can’t even begin to understand the depths of grief and guilt my mom went to then.

We lost my father’s parents when I was in college, one right after the other, 9 months apart. My Abuelito had been sick for a few years, colon cancer, and I was able to see him over Christmas break my first year at NYU. He remembered me briefly, one of the few moments of clarity for him, and I’ll never forget his smile as he looked up and recognized me.

But I’ll also never forget his frailty, round the clock assistance, diapered and incoherent, looking so infantile and old at the same time. He passed and without reason or explanation, my sister and I missed his funeral.

My Abuelita, who hadn’t been separated from him since she was nearly 14 years old, was damaged after that. Never again to be the Abuelita I remembered growing up, who so doted on me and at every waking moment, tried to fill me with food and love. She moved through the world slowly and painfully, as though the weight of my Abuelito’s passing hung on her like a heavy cloak.

She passed quickly, had a stroke and was gone by the morning. This time, my family went to Panama together to celebrate her life. She had an open casket, which I refused to see as I knew I would never remember her any other way than dead in a coffin. I could do without that visual.

Looking back, I remember being sad at their passing, thinking how fast they both went. But I also remember not feeling the sadness, not grieving,  but instead saying I was sad, saying I was in grief. At the time, thanks to the antidepressant I was on, I was numb to everything and everyone, unable to shed a single tear for anything. For being homesick. For missing my friends. For 9/11.

And now, I was unable to feel anything for my grandparents, the ones who had sat through my dumb dances and performances in the living room before bedtime. The ones who would play dominoes and copas with me, and who would tell their stories about family and love and history. The ones I saw only a few times every 2-3 years because they lived so far away.

I always had the sense that my father was angry with me for a long time afterwards because of my lack of emotion, which I’m sure he and my mother took for apathy at my grandparents. I had assumed that they realized that due to the antidepressants, I simply couldn’t feel. I hope my dad knows in his heart that I miss them greatly, a void in my heart that can never be patched.

I am grieving over my Yaya in a very different way. First of all, I am actually grieving, which is a huge relief to be able to feel anything at all. But it has also felt like a dam breaking, one from which all of the emotions I couldn’t feel for my abuelitos is hitting me all at once.

Sitting there, in that concert hall with Timmy, I felt like I was drowning.

Grief can sometimes feel like a light breeze, swirling around you and reminding you of its presence. Other times, grief can feel like a lead smock, the kind you wear in an x-ray machine, a weight so heavy that it cements you to your seat, cutting off oxygen, and making you immobile.

My Yaya’s funeral started with an open casket viewing, which I wasn’t prepared for after having spent 7.5 hours in the air, straight to my aunt’s to change clothes, straight to the funeral home. I also chose not to see her so that I could remember her the way I always knew her: white hair in rollers, dressed impeccably, nails done, makeup spotless, ready to impress, even if she was staying home to crochet.

She would come stay with us in Atlanta usually 4-6 months at a time while I was growing up. She would be there, cleaning the house, crocheting, or watching Univision when we got home from school. I remember she always said a prayer before sleeping and she never took her wedding band off.

She had the best stories, like the nudist who constantly invited her to a nude beach in Spain, but to whom she always politely declined. Or her gorgeous legs she said garnered her nonstop compliments when she walked to the market. She laughed with us when we poked fun at her, always when she tried to say anything in English, a language she didn’t understand. When Santa Claus came out as “Sando Khan”, or Disney World as “Sidney Gol”, or Michael Jackson as “Mickey Johso”.

I remember the way she danced when Spanish music came on, her smile when she saw our friends running to greet her, the way she couldn’t stop laughing when my father would crack jokes with her, her nightly beer because she didn’t really like wine, her love, her light.

And now I think of her absence all the time, like the flamenco show we saw last night at Columbia Restaurant. Our wedding that she won’t be at. The fiance she never met. My twin nieces she never held.

When the attacks happened in Paris last weekend, I had finished my TEDxUSFSP talk and was coming out of the ballroom on a high. I checked Facebook on my phone and immediately realized something bad had happened. It wasn’t really until the next day when I had time to read about the attacks that the fear and sadness began to overwhelm me.

Timmy and I headed to the airport for the Auburn vs. UGA game bright and early Saturday morning, and although I couldn’t care less about football, I was there to support him. But I shed tears in the stadium, sitting in the shade, sunglasses on. The whole time I struggled to put down my phone, to remain present, to be in the moment instead of far away in despair and grief.

Because although I didn’t know anyone in Paris, it was too familiar, this relationship I have with death now, it’s too close and too much a part of me. I began losing people I care about at 19 and it hasn’t stopped. 9/11, my grandparents, one high school friend, my best friend, another high school friend, three high school friends, four, five, my grandmother…it never ends.

I remember the panic attacks after Lindsay died, my first real brush with unexpected death. The inability to focus and move through the day normally.

Now, there are moments during the day where I am gripped with such an intense fear of losing my parents, I lose my breath. The anxiety holds me still and I can almost hear my own heart stop.

I miss my Yaya. I miss my friends. I miss my Abuelitos. I miss my childhood in a real visceral way, which is how I know that the door is closed.

I can’t go back.

The grieving never stops. The crying, however, does.

♥, VB

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Panama

This last month has been exhausting. There’s been a lot of traveling, a lot of stress, and a lot of heartbreak. There’s also been a lot of joy and hope, so let’s start with the first story and make our way through the rest later.

The weekend after our Bach party (as in 3 days later) we flew to Panama for a friend’s wedding in a remote location off the coast called Bocas del Toro. My father’s side of the family all still lives in Panama City, so imagine my surprise when I ended up being the first in my entire family to visit Bocas. I’m such a world traveler.

On the flight from Atlanta to Panama, we got upgraded to First Class and holy shit I don’t think I can ever go back to being a regular citizen. That was legit. AAAAAANND I totally forgot that my friends’ gelato company, Honeysuckle, is now served on first class flights on Delta, so that was definitely fun and filled me with pride at how cool my friends are.

We sat next to two gentlemen that were THE definition of the odd couple, talking extremely loudly, making each other laugh, and just genuinely becoming friends. It was a much older white man who was super overserved with wine (as we all were) and a SUPER tall black man who, as we learned later on the flight, used to play for the Atlanta Braves in the 70s and was roommates with Dale Murphy. How cool is that??

My cousin picked us up from the airport and drove us to our hotel around 9:30p, which gave us just enough time to shower and fall asleep only to get up at 5 am to make our flight to Bocas. We got into the cab, told the driver Albrook Airport, and took off.

About 30 minutes later, I had the feeling that something wasn’t right. I had purposefully picked our hotel because it was only 15 minutes from the Albrook airport, so I signaled to Timmy to tell our driver, and lo and behold, we were one exit away from the WRONG AIRPORT. So we turned around and proceeded to take one of the most dangerous drives back in order to hopefully make our flight.

I had neglected to tell Timmy about driving in Central and Latin America. It’s really fun when you think about it: lane markers are really just suggestions, traffic lights are there for funsies, pedestrians get dropped off on the side of the highway, including school children, and the emergency lane is really for when you want to go faster. Timmy, bless his heart, almost had a heart attack.

And I just laughed quietly to myself.

We ended up making our flight by about 20 minutes. Thank god it was a small airport and not the international one, because we would’ve been screwed. And I had amped myself up to have a good ole, knock down drag out fight about payment since the driver was the one who messed up, but he charged us fairly and all was good.

We landed in Bocas after about a 45 minute flight and wow. What a cool freaking town. It’s laid back (think: not rich and glamorous resort living), friendly, and cheap. We stay on Isla Colon, the main island, which was about a 15 minute water taxi ride away from Bastimentos, where Jasmin and Todd were getting married. Our hotel was ADORABLE and definitely worth it.

We immediately found OUR spot, a teeny little bar restaurant with a surf/dive shop in the back. This town is clearly a surfer’s town, as everyone was unkempt, sun bleached, and suuuuuuuper laid back (read: high). This place served the BEST FISH TACOS EVER. No, I’m not kidding. They were amazing, and we went back again before we left for a repeat meal.

hell yes

The day of the wedding, we decided to take a day trip to Starfish Beach. We took a $35 cab about 30 minutes through the jungle to the other side of Colon. This was not a fun ride. The streets are “paved” and very very very hilly. It’s a miracle I didn’t get sick.

From our drop off spot, we took a water taxi about 5 minutes to the beach and OMG. This place. Unbelievable. It’s called Starfish Beach because there are starfish EVERYWHERE. You’re not allowed to pick them up but you can touch them underwater. It was just so cool.

We were pretty hungry when we got there but knew that the wedding was a few hours away, so we decided to split a meal at one of the little restaurant/shacks on the beach. There were only about 100 people on this remote beach, with a few spots to get food and drinks. We had brought the beer (which was like 85 cents for pretty delicious beer) and ordered a lobster with creole sauce from a dude who spoke perfect English. Then the coolness started.

We were told to go pick our lobster. Here we are thinking, “Oh from a tank. Cool.” Nope. FROM THE WATER.

Then we’re told to take a seat. Here we are thinking, “Ok, one of these tables.” Nope. THE TABLE IN THE WATER.

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Then he brings out the food. Here we are thinking, “This will probably be pretty good.” Nope. THE BEST LOBSTER I’VE EVER HAD.

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We clearly highly recommend checking this place out.

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The only time we were taken advantage for being tourists was on the water taxi over to Bastimentos to the Red Frog Beach Resort for the wedding. We didn’t get an itinerary in our gift bag, so I was going by the wedding website which said the wedding started at 4:30p. Knowing how long it takes Timmy to get ready (AGES), I said 4, so he’d be ready on time. We boarded the water taxi, paid the driver, and headed out.

First, he lied and said English was his first language even though it clearly wasn’t. Then, we stopped for gas (without telling us first) and asked for more money (which we didn’t give him). Then he dropped us off at the wrong dock at the island even though there were only 2 and I clearly didn’t know which one we were supposed to go to (side note: the resort is the only thing on that island. He clearly should’ve known). Thankfully, he was still close enough to come back and pick us up because at this point, Timmy and I didn’t have any more cash for a new water taxi. Silently and clearly disgruntled, he drove us to the other marina and HAD THE NERVE to tell me it was because my Spanish was so bad that he didn’t know where he was going.

F*%k You, sir. Clearly, you’re an idiot.

Finally we end up getting to the resort, which then entailed a golf cart ride to the actual wedding location, and by the time we arrived, it was 4:17. On time, right? Wrong! Apparently the wedding had been moved up to 4p, so we were late. AND YOU ALL KNOW HOW I FEEL ABOUT BEING LATE.

The Bride and her bridesmaids were already at the top of the stairs and I can’t even explain how bad that feels. We did it once before for a wedding in Beaufort, SC where the church was surrounded by 25 other churches and we got super confused as to which one we were supposed to go to. We ended up running into the church right before the bride, and I do mean, RIGHT before the bride and I’ve never felt so bad in my life.

Cue a second time doing this in Panama. We apologized profusely and explain what our taxi driver did (which apparently happened to a few people at the wedding too), and ran down the stairs only to be seated about 4 minutes before the wedding started.

Whew.

After the ceremony, they served fresh coconuts and I drank that sucker down in record time. We made our way over to the cocktail hour which was in a really cute hut overlooking a spectacular view.

And it was also in direct sunlight with no fans. I’m not going to lie, I don’t think I saw anyone use napkins for anything other than wiping off the profuse amount of sweat torentially downpouring from every inch of skin. Welcome to life on the equator. Thank god we were all wearing white.

The party moved back to the ceremony site where we ate, danced, and caught up with old friends. I heard someone say that I was Todd’s oldest friend present at the wedding, which just made my heart warm. I’ve known that dude since 1st grade, and he’s been solid ever since.

We were able to get back to our hotel much later that night so Timmy could shower. And then in the morning he showered again. And then he showered after breakfast. He took 5 showers in 18 hours. I’ve never laughed so hard at someone being unable to control their bodily perspiration. Did you realize that knees and ankles can sweat?

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We made it back to Panama City where my cousin took us on a whirlwind driving tour of Panama. I hadn’t been back to Panama in over a decade, since my Abuelita’s funeral, and holy shit, this city is insane. It looks like Dubai. The entire downtown looked NOTHING like that the few times I came to visit when I was younger. It’s really incredible.

We got dropped off at our amazingly beautiful Marriott for a quick snooze and another shower for Timmy, and then we were ready to meet the family for dinner. We went to a restaurant in Casco Viejo, which is the oldest part of Panama that they’ve beautifully restored. It looks a lot like Viejo San Juan, with its cobbled streets, white walls, and beautiful architecture and plazas. This was Timmy’s opportunity to meet nearly all of my dad’s side of the family, and I was so happy we were able to fit in a quick visit. It’s been so long since I’ve seen them, and it was so so so fun. And Timmy was a HUGE hit (when isn’t he, really). All in all, it was a fantastic but too quick 4 days.

Thanks and congratulations again to Jasmin and Todd! You gave us a reason to come to Panama to celebrate your love. We both couldn’t believe how gorgeous Jasmin looked (not that it was surprising since she’s already beautiful), I mean really stunning, and Todd couldn’t have been more happy to have all his friends and family in one place. We love you guys! Panama, we’ll be back, don’t you worry.

♥, VB