A Guiri Guide to Having a Baby in Spain: Second Trimester

The start of my second trimester, at 14 weeks, coincided with another big event in my life: Leaving Seville for a job and a new life in Madrid.

After a relatively uneventful first trimester, I found out that being pregnant in Spain – especially when your second trimester coincides with the hot summer months and the ghost town that is Madrid – was not going to be a cake walk (and what the hell is up with my lack of cravings for cake?!).

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I can’t say I have complaints about how I felt during my first third of the pregnancy: no morning sickness, no noticeable weight gain, only nominal sleepiness. But the heat, looking for an apartment and drinking in a new city (and drinking cerveza sin and Nesteas in all of the old man bars we could find) meant afternoon naps and sitting down on benches any chance I got. For many weeks,  I avoided eye contact on the Metro, particularly with old people, because I wasn’t big enough to warrant getting the coveted pregnant lady seat just yet.

Miss the English Guide to Pregnancy in Spain? Just click!

People say that the honeymoon period of any pregnancy falls between weeks 14 and 28, or your second third of the cooking. This is the time to exercise, to travel (we went to Asturias via car and I took a jaunt around Northern Europe for work) or to live life as you would have before the achy joints and doctor visits, to savor the moments before midnight feedings and being covered in baby dribble. Considering I’ve had an easy, low-risk pregnancy so far, my biggest complaints lie in the bureaucratic limbo I’ve been in and not to how my body has reacted to being pregnant.

This side eye goes straight to you, Comunidad de Madrid. But we’ll get there later.

Second Trimester tests and check ups

By the time I was making the transition to Madrid, I was almost ready to take the first apartment I saw because there was something more important in play: finding a doctor and signing up for local healthcare. After we signed a contract on a flat in Chamberí, I googled the nearest public health clinic and was delighted to find it within waddling distance of my house.

Centro Médico Espronceda took care of changing my health care from Andalucía to the Cupo Madrileño, promising a card would be mailed to me within the month (and it was!). In the meantime, they gave me a print off and took care of assigning me a médico de cabecera, or a primary care doctor, and nurse.

spanish-doctors-office

While I was allowed to make my own appointments with the primary care doctor and midwife, I was assigned to another medical center around the corner for by obstetrics appointments. This would be the doctor who refers me for tests required for prenatal care. My plan was to get everything out of the way before beginning my job at an estimated 16 weeks of pregnancy, but it didn’t work out that way…

Being new to the health system in Madrid – remember that every autonomous community in Spain has their own regulations regarding public healthcare – I knew that meant a few more visits than normal. Plus, I was looking for a private doctor and had a few Goldilocks moment: too stern, too aloof… until I found one at Clínica La Luz who was just right.

This second trimester has been marked by a slew of doctor’s appointments, to say the least, and mangled test results. Here are the big tests you’ll need to complete if you’ve got a healthy, low-risk pregnancy:

Analisís del segundo trimestre / second trimester blood and urine analysis: Sometime around the middle of your pregnancy, you’ll be instructed to have blood drawn and a urine sample tested for your sugar, protein and iron, plus toxoplasmosis, rubeola and AIDS. Remember to go en ayunas, or without eating or drinking anything but water.

In the public system in Madrid, test results of this nature are typically ready within three working days as opposed to a week in Seville.

Eco de las 20 semanas / The 20-week scan: Arguably the most beautiful moment of the pregnancy, 20 weeks marks the middle of gestation and the most thorough sonogram you’ll have. A doctor will check to be sure Baby has all its fingers and toes, that most of its organs are fully formed and that he or she is not over or underweight.

In fact, the baby is nearly fully formed at this point, so the last half of your pregnancy will be the time he or she gains weight, sprouts hair on the head, begins growing its lungs and continues to develop brain cells. If you’ve been waiting to find out the gender, you should be able to see the sex organs, too – but remember, be very specific if you prefer to wait! Spaniards tend to want to know as soon as possible, so I had to remind doctors that I was waiting until the 20 week scan so as to avoid mistakes.

Pro tip: I was told to consume a bit of sugar before the scan so that the baby would be active. It must have worked: we got the full frontal, so it was easy to determine the baby’s sex!

Curva de azúcar / glucose test: Also called the test O’Sullivan in Spain, you should have your glucose test between 24 and 28 weeks of your pregnancy. This tests for gestational diabetes and can take several hours to complete, depending on your pregnancy and your immediate test results. I decided to do my test in the public system, which I got done at the same time as my second trimester blood and urine exams.

glucose-test-pregnancy-spain

People often complain about the sugary drink, which tasted like a cracked-out version the McDonalds orange pop that we drank after soccer matches as kids. I jokingly told them woman I’d chug it like a beer, college style, but she ordered me to consume it more slowly, in 5-10 minutes, and then sit. Someone will take blood again at one and two hours of consumption to determine your risk for gestational diabetes, which can provoke an overweight baby or preeclampsia. After the second hour, you’re allowed to have breakfast (what sane person deprives a pregnant lady of food?!) and walk around a bit. Thanks to the Novio feeding me plenty of legumes and fish, my margins were extremely low.

Tósferina / whooping cough shot: If your doctor merits it, you’ll have to also have a whooping cough shot around 28 weeks. I was told to put it off until after my third trimester scan to see if it was actually necessary.

Differences Between Madrid and Andalucía’s healthcare systems 
I fully expected to not have any issues with changes from the cupo andaluz to the madrileño. After all, everything works better in Madrid! There’s an appointment system! The Metro runs on time! You can go grocery shopping on Sunday night!
But, much like moving to Spain in the first place, I ran into a lot of bureaucratic brick walls, head first.
When I first met my gynecologist, an older man who stared at me over his glasses while I pulled out all of my paperwork as if he was late for a delivery, I was not impressed. He continually told me that the Andalusian care system was crap, that he had no access to my records, and that he wouldn’t even see me until I’d done another round of blood tests and a sonogram with another doctor. He tossed my cartilla de embarazada back at me and proceeded to pull out a folder and write my vitals on it. I will remember until the day I die that March 29th, 2016 was the first day of my last menstrual cycle – I have probably recited it 100 times by now.

micro-meets-freddie

Apparently you don’t keep your cartilla de embarazada with you, but at your doctor’s. This wouldn’t have been a big deal had it not been during summer vacation time – but I’ll tell you that story later.

Additionally, my doctor doesn’t make my appointments for me. After getting assigned a test or follow-up, you must make the appointment at the medical center: you can do this by phone or internet, or simply by waiting in line at your assigned center. In the stressful first weeks trying to schedule my 20-week scan, I was jockeyed between medical centers and put on a wait list, finally being called by the public system 30 minutes before an appointment – and I was in Seville for the weekend. My being proactive (as in, calling the sistema madrileño de salud out on their inability to adequately staff a public health clinic during the summer months) succeeded to a point, but even being an “urgente” case did nothing to give me any preference.

Once you do get in to the doctor, be sure to have your appointment print out, called a volante, with you. Rather than being polite and asking what time everyone else’s appointment is, you have to stalk the obstetrics nurse and shove your volante at her when she comes out to call a name. I suppose it’s better than the uncomfortable shuffle of times or cutting an abuelita in line, but I was scolded on more than one occasion for not presenting the paper and being skipped over.

If you don’t have a volante because you called for an appointment, flash a photo ID so that the nurse knows you’ve arrived.

The Autonomous Community conundrum

I was – and have been – optimistic about my pregnancy, and am taking it all in stride as my body stretches, droops and tires. Being proactive, I called my OB-GYN before he called me and made an appointment immediately. It wasn’t that I was concerned, but I wanted to be sure that I had my 20-week sonogram scheduled so that the Novio and I could find out the gender together.

Twenty weeks also coincided with our birthdays, which sweetened the deal.

The doctor ordered me to repeat the tests that he didn’t have access to, which was fine, despite a disorganized system at Hospital San Carlos and a two-hour wait, urine in hand. That afternoon, I went to my local clinic to make an appointment for the results with the hope of scheduling the 20-week scan.

hospital care in Spain

I waltzed up to the appointments counter, flashed my brand-new card and presented the papers from the work up. Without looking up, the man shook his head and said that no one – NOT ONE DOCTOR – was available for the month of August. I laughed, “What do you mean? Every single obstetrician in this medical center has been sent on vacation for all of August?”

Tal y como le digo. You have to go to the Centro de Especialidades Avenida de Portugal in two weeks’ time.” Now, I’m new to Madrid, but generally speaking, a street bearing the name of another country tends to be on the way to that place. I’d been sent to the other side of town to pick up test results, out towards our westernly neighbors!

“Babies usually aren’t born in August.” Again, I laughed, as both of Micro’s parents are August babies, and asked for an hoja de reclamación to make a complaint. I was informed that one could only do that between the hours of 9am and 2pm. Had there been a table, I’d have been tempted to flip it… or at least pound my fists.

I begrudgingly left work after a week of waiting to head to Avenida de Portugal. The young doctor was gracious and apologized for the packed waiting room before folding her hands in her lap and asking what I had come for. I responded that I’d like to get my test results from July 27th, to which she gave me a blank look and informed me that I had nothing on file.

“Well, at the very least, let us weigh you and take your blood pressure since you’re here?”

Public or private?

I’ve long been a proponent of Spain’s public health system. Doctors are well trained and the treatment is free, plus prescriptions are subsidized.

And then I moved to Madrid.

I had absolutely no right to ever gripe about the system in Sevilla, because wait times were half as long and doctors took their time with patients. I felt rushed and unattended in Madrid in the public hospitals, like no one really knew what they were doing or where to send me. Is this how things are in America? Is it really normal to lose three different tests from the same person?

After asking some women at work, I checked out Hospital Clínica La Luz, a private hospital up the road from campus associated with Quirónsalud that accepts my private insurance. Unlike in Andalucía, most people I know choose to go private for healthcare, no matter what it’s for.

I was assigned to Dr. Alvi, a young woman who is specialized in pre-natal care and scans. I briefly explained my situation, and she took a look at the few papers I still had in my possession before performing an ecografía. The service seems more personable here, even if the wait times once you’re in the clinic’s magazine-stocked waiting room are longer.

We’re still undecided whether or not to have the baby in the public or private system, but that’s a tarea for third trimester.

So, does it have a pito or not?

I could tell the Novio was visibly nervous when he arrived at my office the day of our scan. He barely said a word as we quickly ate a menú del día at the nondescript bar next to the hospital.

That morning, I’d gone through the public hospital for my 20-week scan. Despite my previous woes with Hospital San Carlos, I was called just before 9am and shown into a stark room. An intern gave me a quick pelvic scan to measure the height of my cervix before dropping the goo on my stomach.

“For a pregnant lady, you’re very calm,” he said as he spread the jelly around the reaches of my belly, which now domed slightly over my profile.

And I was – this baby has made me mellow.

micro-at-a-wedding

I asked him to turn the screen away so that I could get the surprise (reiterating that I did NOT want to know the sex), but he assured me that the baby was healthy and so was I. Even my worry that I wasn’t gaining enough weight was shot down!

Once I’d wiped the goo off and got dressed, I was instructed to wait in the waiting area. A nurse handed me a few pamphlets and a facts sheets about the baby like how much it weighed and its predicted height.

The private hospital experience was a bit more welcoming. Despite my doctor being away on vacation, Dr. Orozco was pleasant and thorough, explaining every measurement he was taking, showing how the blood was flowing in and out of the ventricles and assuring us that the baby didn’t have Zika (the head was actually a bit bigger than normal – thank you, blue fish).

“What do you prefer?” he asked. I shrugged my shoulders because I had bounced between the gender just about daily, even though I had a feeling our first child would be a boy. The Novio admitted he was hoping for a girl, and the doctor told him to watch the screen.

Between the two wiggling legs was something else, proving that a mother’s instinct is always right (and meaning I didn’t have to stress over choosing a name!).

The 0,0 Smackdown

My body seemed to know I shouldn’t be drinking beer from the time we conceived. In plena Feria de Abril (but seriously, this kid is andaluz through and through), I spent my final day sipping water, followed by cancelling plans for the Patios de Córdoba last minute.

If there’s one thing I miss, it’s beer. The sin alcohol or 0,0 stuff tastes plastic-y and has no gracia, so I’ve been sticking to juices, tonic water and the occasional Fanta when we go out to tomar algo.

which-non-alcoholic-beer-is-best

I’ve been sampling the 0,0 and non-alcoholic beers, much to my dismay. The worst sort? Cruzcampo. I know, Cayetana de Alba, strike me down for this blasphemy, but it is absolute garbage. Amstel has been my favorite thus far, and the Novio even scouted out a German beer bar that boasts a nicht alkoholisch on tap (it’s called Saint Germain at Calle Rios Rosas, 7) with a generous helping of snacks.

I’ve been promised a cold botellín in the puerperio, the recovery period directly after birth. I am holding my husband to that.

Everything that I know about pregnancy is wrong

Admittedly, I was nervous to be pregnant, afraid I’d balloon up like a cow and be unable to keep active. I saw my nine months of carrying a child as the beginning of the end of my freedoms – to travel, to meet friends and to sleep.

Strangely enough, I’m really enjoying it! I lay in bed for 10 minutes every morning – often before my alarm – feeling the baby wiggle around. I haven’t started speaking to him yet, despite having a named picked out and knowing that the earbuds have already developed.

micro-and-his-other-girlfriend

Everything I thought I knew about pregnancy has been utterly wrong. I expected to have the morning sickness, the stretch marks, the discomfort; but I’ve been pretty comfortable all throughout my pregnancy, save a little less spatial awareness. As a heavy eater, I assumed I’d blow up as I gave into cravings and be grazing all day. It’s true that I feel fuller faster, but it’s sometimes a question of blood sugar, and a few nuts or apple slices will suffice.

My biggest complaint is that I can’t eat everything I want. It’s difficult to remember to ask a waiter to skip the jamón in my salmorejo, or to cook the red meat just a little more on each side. I’m trying to eat more blue fish. The biggest surprise is that most of my cravings have been for healthy foods, so I’ve kept my weight under control with very little effort. And from what I hear, breastfeeding is when you really start to feel hungry!

I’ve also been sleeping like a baby, practically falling asleep and staying asleep from the time I shut my eyes until it’s time to stir. Clothes are just beginning to feel tight in the wrong places, as my belly seemed to double in size in the last five weeks of second trimester. My sister finally confessed to my husband, “YES! Cat is finally showing!”

The only complaint? Why isn’t my hair gorgeous and shiny?! The Madrid dryness means that it looks dull and dead; the upside is that my nails are growing.

What’s up in third trimester?

second-trimester-baby-bump-evolution

Apart from getting rounder? Stretch marks? Swollen ankles? I’m beginning to feel pregnant, from having to stand up slowly or feeling my belly descend towards the end of the day. I just bought my first piece of maternity clothing – a dress for a fall wedding – and have dug back out the books to think about the due date and giving birth.

Things we’re still looking into are storing the umbilical cord blood, me eating my placenta (which prompted a, “YOU WON’T EAT GRILLED PIG’S EAR BUT YOU’LL EAT THAT!? from the Novio) and childcare once my 16 weeks of maternity leave end. My OB-GYN switched me to a high-iron pill with folic acid, which I’ll take for two more months so that Micro is getting the nutrients he needs.

One of my biggest question marks still is where to have the baby. All signs point to Seville and a public hospital, and that makes sense – we have a car, the space and one of the best maternity hospitals in Spain. But if Micro comes early, I’ll need a Plan B! And as a planner, I’m remembering that the baby will come when he wants, not when’s convenient to us.

Finally, we’ll begin pre-natal classes with the matrona.

As the due date hurtles towards us, I have a little bit of everything – elation, apprehension, sorrow that it will all end and nothing will be the same. I’m enjoying my pregnancy and the way the Novio and I are savoring our time alone together. I’m sleeping and eating well and still able to take advantage of a new city, traveling for work (Micro hit four countries in one month, and I felt fine but for aching limbs at the end of the day) and feeling like my old self.

I sometimes feel like I’m fumbling for the lights in a dark hallway, bumping into walls and furniture as I try and navigate pregnancy in Madrid and Spain in general. My American friends with kids have admitted a certain degree of jealousy in knowing that I’ve had so many sonograms, but I’m just relieved that Micro is healthy and I’m feeling so good.

Remember: every woman’s body and pregnancy are different – I had very few risk factors in my family and the Novio’s, am at a healthy weight and age for pregnancy, and have not experienced any problems, save a bit of bleeding at the very beginning. I am not a doctor, so this post is a result of my experiences and research. Consult with your health care professional and don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Those of you mamás who have given birth in España: have I missed anything? Any words of wisdom for my readers and me for pregnancy in Spain?

If you missed the first trimester, skip to the first trimester of pregnancy in Spain post!

Grieving as an Expat: A Story About Loss, Life and Last-Minute Bookings

Death is about as taboo a subject as they come. As my cousin Christyn and I tried to mask our fear the last time we talked to Pa, seated on the futon, it was as if the proverbial White Elephant had come and wedged itself in between us.

As my days living in Spain have stretched on to nearly seven years, there has always been a little voice in the back of my head that has reminded me that there are things I’ve given up. While some are trivial, my heart sometimes hurts when I miss weddings, babies and other defining life events.

And believe me, it weighs on my expat mind nearly every day.

Back in November, by dad delivered the news I had been dreading since boarding a Spain-bound plane: my grandparents needed assisted living. My grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and could no longer look after herself or the man she’d cared for during 63 years of marriage. She’d forget to give him his medicine for a weak heart, or not feed him.

I decided to turn down my summer camp position to spend time with my family back in Chicago during my summer holidays. It wasn’t a hard decision in the end – not for money, and not for experience. 

I lost my maternal grandmother to cancer at age 9, my maternal grandfather to a hit-and-run at age 19 and was facing losing my remaining grandparents – one in body and one in mind – at 29.

 —

My grandfather, Don Gaa, Sr., was a man of few words. He loved working with his hands, sitting with his feet up and playing jokes on us. As my dad, who took the same name as his father, summed up a simple man who grew up in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl as he gave the eulogy: “You could tell how much Don loved you by how much he teased you.” His winks and sly smile were words enough.

When I said goodbye to him over the phone about 48 hours before he passed, I could feel his smile through the phone. It’s hard to be serious and tell someone you love them and will always remember them when you burst out laughing every time you think of him and his sly little smile.

Christyn slung her bag on her back and gave me a hug. I reminded her to call her dad that afternoon. Christyn is a nurse in Germany and had explained Pa’s condition, his decision to withdraw care and get hospice care. He was as stubborn as they come, and he wanted to go in peace.

As I unlocked the door to work that day, I got a frantic whatsapp in capital letters from my mother: CALL ME IMMEDIATELY FOR PA. I fumbled with the keys, tears flooding my eyes, as I struggled to tap out a response. “Is it really that bad?”

“Yes. <3 <3 <3”

I paced the corridor of the academy, trying to compose myself before the other teachers arrived. I decided to stay mum, not wanting to cause an avalanche of tears and blubbering and ugly cry onto people with whom I had a professional relationship. But this is life, and life sometimes sucks, and crying makes me feel better.

As soon as my secretary came in, I crawled into her lap and sobbed.

My boss allowed me to take a walk between my classes to clear my head. I had to work up the courage to call my Uncle Bill, who was at the hospital with my grandfather as he waited to be moved. My grandfather has been deaf for as long as I can remember, so I probably looked like a psycho walking around Barrio de la Calzada with sunglasses on and shouting into my cell phone in English. Pa was on a feeding tube and the muscles in his esophagus had all but stopped trying, so I talked at him as I always did as the bubbly granddaughter.

After moving to Spain, he always pretended I was speaking to him in Spanish before I’d give him a nudge and he’d envelop me in a hug. I knew I probably wouldn’t speak to him again, so I told him two important things: that I was fortunate to have him in my life for nearly 29 years and that goodbye is a word that is often replaced with “hasta luego.” It felt final but not final to send him off that way.

“He’s smiling, Catherine. I think he wants to tell you that,” Uncle Bill said before we hung up.

I continued to walk around the neighborhood for 10 minutes before happening upon a donut shop. I forked out a euro to drown my sadness in chocolate and sugar. It made me feel better.

That night, I hardly slept, checking my phone every few hours for an update on Pa. Nothing came. I awoke groggy and grief-stricken, and decided going home would be too much emotional strain on me. I didn’t send any messages to family, inquiring about how the move to the retirement village had gone or how the old man was holding up.

I collapsed into bed that night, right after work, and slept soundly.

The next day was a whole different story. I woke up and checked prices for a Madrid-Chicago trip. I texted my mom to tell her I wanted to come home, if only to see Pa once more and tell him I love him. I asked my boss to ask about a week-long leave of absence. Being a spiritual person, she immediately agreed and offered to take over my classes and speak with lawyers about the legal ramifications of missing four days of work.

Pay deducation or not, I had promised my grandmother I’d be at her funeral, and now that she was on the verge of being a widow, I felt it was my duty. And I wanted to.

My dad called just after midnight. I had already chosen flights and just wanted to run my travel plans by him so I wouldn’t be stuck at Midway with a non-functioning phone and no one to take me for an all-beef hotdog.

“Yeah, Pa just passed away about 45 minutes ago,” were his first words to me. My grandfather had slipped into a coma on Tuesday night, received last rites twice and my grandmother and my father’s two youngest boys were with him when his heart decided that enough was enough.

I was sorry, but at the same time, relieved. When someone whose health is poor suffers and who had lived to nearly 86 dies, there’s always a moment of grief and of loss, but it dissipates quicker than I had imagined it would. My dad had lost his first parent at 62, whereas my mother was an orphan by 47. I cried quietly, but nothing compared to Monday’s bawlfest with MariJo.

Somehow, I pulled it together to book a Delta flight, a train ticket to Madrid and a hotel in Barajas, then planned my classes for the following week. I slept like a zombie, relieved that I wouldn’t be racing against the clock to see Pa before he passed. In fact, I was relieved.

The following morning, the Novio took the day off of work to help me prepare for my trip. Rather than being sad, he told me all of the memories he had of meeting Don, Sr. in Chicago and Arizona. I laughed as we had a morning beer while the other abuelitos around us drank their coffee. 

“Your ‘grampy’ was the funniest man,” he said, recalling a time where he had teased my mother and her sweet tooth with a little wink.

He really was the funniest man.

My sister greeted me at my gate with a beer in hand. She and Pa had always been close, as I was the proclaimed favorite of his wife, and Pa gave everyone else all the love that Grammie gave me. “I wish we were seeing each other under different circumstances, but it’s really freaking good to see you,” she said. There was no culture shock whatsoever (my guess is from frayed nerves, a three-hour delay out of Atlanta and the fact that my trip was so last-minute).

I was beyond tired – both mentally and physically – but happy with the decision to come home.

As I plopped down I my bed, something poked my upper back: a wooden bull that my grandpa had carved for me the summer before. It went straight into suitcase to be carried back to Spain.

On Saturday afternoon, we set off to my grandparents’s house near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The Gaas had moved in to that house on David street just after they married, and before my father was born. To me, it’s the house where many of my childhood memories were formed.

My dad’s brothers and their wives were there, as well as my grandmother, who looked frail but stoically did not cry. My arrival from Spain took center stage (I had not been home in nearly two years), and I suddenly felt elated to be with my family. We pulled out the photo albums my grandmother had kept since her marriage in 1950. There were no tears, just laughter and memories and trying to find the fake poop he’d hid amongst our Christmas presents.

“Do you think you could get married in October? That would be a nice month.” My grandmother held on to me as we passed a picture of her wedding day. I’d told her that we wanted to do a ceremony in the US, and her face changed. She was so happy that the funeral home had done a great job of making Pa look like Pa, and I even said I think he had a slight smirk on his face.

She was as stoic as a widow can be during the wake, and was so delighted to see so many friends come out. My Pa loved little kids, and when all of my second cousins came with their babies at once, Grammie’s mood changed. Keri’s daughter ran up to the casket and poked Pa, then ran away, giggling as if Pa were actually chasing his only great-granddaughter.

For four hours, I played catch up with all of my extended family. The last time I had seen them was for Thomas’s wedding in Boston two years ago, and despite the circumstances, we all laughed and hugged and ate and rejoiced at being together again. “You definitely win the award for furthest traveled!” Uncle Mark quipped.

When we went home that night, I fell asleep, wrecked by a non-stop week of travel and emotional distress and jet lag. The following day, we would bury Pa in Antioch, just a stone’s throw from the house he had lived in with his family.

 —

The funeral was sad, as funerals tend to be. I cried alongside my sister, but was able to read a passage I’d selected from the Book of Wisdom about eternal life without cracking into ugly cry or even a sniffle. My voice echoed in my ears, and the tears came as soon as I’d finished.

At the funeral, we said goodbye to Pa one by one as we touched the casket. I repeated my words: hasta luego.

I walked to lunch with my dad. I’ve only seen him cry twice to date – when my mom’s parents died – and is mind is already switched to ‘Irish Funeral’ setting. Even though my grandfather was German, he played up my grandmother’s love of the motherland, often donning green and marching with us in Irish parades on March 17th. 

Beers in hand, we took turns telling stories about my Pa: his best friend Joe was with him when they picked up two Chicago broads hitchhiking to Wisconsin and ended up married to them, moving next door to one another on David Street. The elation when my cousin Brian, the only male cousin, was finally given the honor of carrying on the family name. The hat collection he kept when he semiretired from owning a grocery store to work as a mechanic at Great America.

My favorite? Pa told my great aunt Anne that he’d wink at her when he was lying in a coffin. But of course he would.

When it was my turn, I kneeled on a barstool and recounted the words the Novio had told me after meeting Pa for the first time. “Your dad is a great man, Puppy, but I want to be just like your grampy.”

“When I die, please have fun remembering me.” Don Gaa, Jr. and I were leaning against the car hood at the Dairy Queen in Mundelein. We were somber, yet I felt better knowing that we’d laughed just as much as we’d cried at the funeral. Even my grandmother seemed determined to start making friends at the retirement home.

I’ve often felt guilt at being so far away from home, and it had never burned so much as in that span of days at home. There was talk about long-term healthcare, of cashing bonds and of who would get what. Most fell to my sister, including being the executor of the will, “only because she lives here.”

I left the US the following morning after a third hot dog lunch with my dad. I suddenly felt this weird urge to get married and start a family so I wouldn’t be depriving anyone of anything. It was a topic that came up countless times in those days, and it really lit the fire under my culo

I don’t think my grandma will take too long to go. After more than six decades with my grandpa, she’s left with ever-fading memories. My heart hurts thinking about the grief she must feel, about how lonely she likely is. But how much would I give up here to be there? Is there any way to still straddle the Charca? To be present in two places?

The truth is, I wouldn’t if I could. I’m too independent, and maybe that makes me selfish. The best I can do is promise to be there when it counts. 

Have you ever dealt with death or loss on your travels?

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