Belated birthday trip: Madrid

Two years late, my friend and I began to plan our 30th birthday trip. Ten years ago, we had dreams of celebrating in India. Then India morphed into Portugal. And finally, Portugal became Madrid, Pisa, and Florence. And the 30th birthday notion got a bit murky when my sister joined our group and helped plan the trip. After all, why not? None of us are 30 anyway. 

So there were three of us bouncing along in the Almería-Madrid bus. In Madrid, we met up with our airbnb host and attempted to regain our land legs by climbing the steps to the top story of a too-tall apartment building.

We had dinner in an unimpressive restaurant with a flickering fluorescent light. Madrid had to be better than that, we knew.

It was.

The next day:

But our favorite part of Madrid? The street musicians.

Lose your life for my sake: Remembering Grandpa

What does it mean to lose my life for Christ’s sake?

I was sitting on a park bench, feeling the warm sun just under the gentle breeze of a perfect day.

Florence, Italy. My sister, my friend, and I had been planning this trip for months. Flights, buses, trains, shuttles, airbnbs, tourist sites.

But there in the park, I was thinking about losing life. Because while we were still in Madrid, Grandpa had passed from this world to the next.

“Dad, should we cancel our trip?” I would not have been able to travel back for the funeral anyway, but being on a belated 30th birthday trip while my family mourned…

“Absolutely do not cancel your trip!”

So here I sat in Florence, pondering Matthew 10 on the day of Grandpa’s visitation. Have I found life by losing it? This familiar passage wasn’t making sense anymore.

The late cappuccino (we had defied the culture by sipping our cappuccino after 11 a.m.) was still taking effect. Just over the mesh-lined fence, tennis players swung rackets at a yellow ball. I could barely see them, but I heard them. Grunt. Thwack. Grunt. Thwack. “Out!”

Am I worthy of Christ? Do I love Him more than family? Have I taken up my cross?

In Italy—in a world so different from the one I grew up in—it was hard to understand that Grandpa was gone. But I let my mind drift through memories.

Hours and hours of reading “Burn-stin Bear” books and “Dead-Eye Dick.” Patiently teaching us grandchildren (his “coochtie boochties”) to play 42. “Honda” rides. Issuing drivers’ licenses for the golf cart. Constantly wanting to tape record his little grandchildren singing songs. Sketching maps that directed us past where this or that “used to be” as if we had been born in his generation. Chanting “Cumbine coorn and cumbine be-eans,” as we pulled ourselves up to sit with him in the combine. Giving us “bubble gums” from the door pocket of his F-150, the one that had the automatic window buttons in little blue and red bubbles that I would run my fingers over while I waited for my gum.

Letting Grandpa serve you something from the shop was always exciting because it was fascinating to watch him prepare something from his stash of snacks. (Did you know you can make hot chocolate from microwaving chocolate milk? Or a “roastin’ ear” by microwaving an ear of sweet corn wrapped in a wet paper towel?) Sunday night at Grandpa and Grandma’s typically included helping Grandpa get the ice cream out of the “shed” and hiding a pickle or an olive under the heaping scoops in Dad’s ice cream bowl.

And then Grandpa began to get older and frail. Some of his stories came out confused. His tall body began to shrink. His blue eyes got watery. But those watery eyes always brightened when he talked about his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

When I told him goodbye last summer, I wondered if he would remember that I was going back to Spain.

Grandpa had dozed off while Grandma and I were chatting. “Touch his shoulder,” Grandma said.

I touched his shoulder and his blue eyes opened. Instead of watery, his eyes were clear as they stared up at me wordlessly.

“I’m going to go Grandpa. And I wanted to tell you goodbye.”

The clear, blue eyes continued to stare for several long moments. Had he heard me?

And then, “Kiss on the cheek!” So he remembered that my goodbye was longer than a “see you later.” I leaned over to hug him, kiss his cheek, and let him kiss mine.

My voice was still cheerful as I said, “If I don’t see you here again, I’ll see you in a much better place!”

He smiled. I cried. He was silent as I hugged him again.

That goodbye felt like a closed chapter in my life. It was one that I mourned, not only that day but also when Grandma passed away in November. And now again while sitting on that park bench, trying to register the reality of Grandpa’s death.

Death is real. It’s ugly. It hurts.

But what does it mean to lose my life for Christ’s sake? My mingling thoughts that late Florence morning brought me here: It isn’t until you die that the greatest potential for life is set before you.

How do I love her?: North Africa part 2

In December, I spent most of a week in North Africa, visiting friends. My intention is to give you a glimpse of my trip. Please forgive me for omitting certain details and for changing names in order to protect my friends.

I woke up early. If I had known all that the day held, I may have tried harder to fall back asleep.

“Do you have a friend to meet you at the taxi stand?”

It was the normal question taxi drivers asked whenever they took me to Aisha’s neighborhood. And I was a bit nervous about locating the house without wandering up and down the streets of this particular neighborhood.

“Do you want me to walk you to the door?”

Then I saw it. The taxi driver had pulled ahead far enough that I could see the doorway from the taxi stand. “That’s it!” At least I was 90% sure.

At the top of those countless concrete stairs, I found the family at home, bursting with a warm welcome.

But all was not well.

The tension I had felt in their home more than a year ago had only increased. Sporadic and often violent discipline left the children confused, angry, and out of control.

Aisha invited me to sit on the naked couches. She had washed the covers for my visit, she said. She shook her head and clicked her tongue. Someone had slipped over the roof and stolen them off of the line as they dried in the sunshine.

As Aisha cooked (she refused my help, which was fortunate since her kitchen can only fit one person at a time), I slipped out to the rooftop to pray and to watch the world from the 6th story. The neighborhood was a moving I Spy book: a man leans over a roof parapet with a paint roller on a stick, turning dingy white to barn red. He calls to the men on the roof below to move their things so he doesn’t drip paint on them. His daughter swings on the clothesline behind him, laughing in delight as the wire stretches wider and wider. Boys play cards on the street below. Across the way, a woman gathers laundry. Just next door, a teenage girl drapes a blanket over the parapet, stops to watch the world, and spots me doing the same. I am fascinated by the movement—a symphony of together-life, sometimes harmonious, sometimes not.

More family came for a lunch of fried fish. And then we went for a walk. Rivers of mud flowed through the dirty market, splattering our shoes as motorcycles roared by. We came to an open area of crab grass, where families sat on blankets and pieces of cardboard and peeled mandarins while the children ran wild.

Aisha and I peeled mandarins together and had the first meaningful conversation of the day. But something in her expression and words spoke of stale panic.

The explosion came a little later, on our way home. Slaps, a bruised eye, and suddenly wood pieces hurled through the air as mother and daughter screamed at each other. Onlookers interceded, patching the family’s distress with layers of shame.

In the taxi on the way home, I hugged my backpack that now smelled like leftover cigarette smoke. “God, help this family!” I prayed until the words felt worn out. But God knew the layers in those words. How could I– a long-distance friend– initiate the healing of a crushed and bleeding family?

A few days later, we met for a final goodbye, just Aisha and I. We talked about her daughter. After listening to stories of behavior problems and irresponsibility, I begged Aisha to love her daughter.

“How do I love her?” she asked.

How does she show unconditional love when she may have never known it? How can she pass on what has never been passed on to her?

As we parted ways, I tried to scrape together my broken heart and wished I could scrape together hers too.