What Happens to Our Love When It’s Filtered Through Grief
Processing 2020 in a cemetery so you don’t have to.
A few weeks after the presidential election was called back in my home country, the United States of Giving-Me-An-Ulcer, I went out to Barcelona’s Poblenou Cemetery looking for a famous statue. It’s called El Petó de la Mort in Catalan, El Beso de la Muerte in Spanish, and The Kiss of Death in English.
I’m somewhat of a cemetery connoisseur and a massive history buff, so this sort of excursion would normally fill me with deferential, if not downright giddy, warmth. Napoleon razed this cemetery to the ground in 1775, for France’s sake. And my country’s been run, for the last four years, by a coked-up Napoleon wanna-be. Très pertinent!
It wasn’t until I entered the grounds that I realized I’d made a huge mistake.
See, what I’d just done is set up the circumstances for a deep-dive into the collective and personal trauma of this past year. This was not at all the lighthearted historical romp I told myself I was setting out to write. I was a writer who’d missed all the foreshadowing.
Only an idiot goes to a cemetery, during a pandemic, after their country’s just been rescued from the brink of fascism, thinking they didn’t come to face their demons and have a good sob.
I was definitely going to cry by the end of the day.
The Poblenou Cemetery is split into sections. You enter through the crematorium, which is a maze of mausoleums with niches stacked 6 families high and several city blocks deep. As you venture further, you find yourself surrounded by individual neo-gothic crypts with intricate iron gates, crying angels, and hooded figures.
This is a strange flex, but I’ve walked through a lot of different types of graveyards, from ancient Egyptian tombs to bone-littered medieval catacombs to endless, unfathomable military cemeteries. I know it sounds fucked up, but they all used to spark joy.
When you grow up in the desert, surrounded by cactus, rocks, and pavement, a cemetery is like the Garden of Eden. It’s the lushest place in town. Fresh-cut grass? Yes, please. Soil instead of dust? God, that’s good. Touchable trees with bark that doesn’t prick you and leaves that provide shade from the relentless sun? Can we live here, please? Cemeteries, to me, were the most sacred, most living places in town. Dead people were the most cared-for.
I didn’t have many opportunities to go to the cemetery when I was a kid, which was or wasn’t fortunate, depending on how you look at it. My high school choir sang there every year on 9/11 to help the community always remember never to forget. Looking back now, after twenty years of war in the Middle East and the daily number of Coronavirus deaths having surpassed the number of people who died on 9/11, I think it’s fair to say our little concerts did diddly-squat.
When we were done singing, my friends and I would find a tree to sit under, take off our shoes, and wiggle our toes in the wet grass. Death had no way of touching us back then. There were no skyscrapers in Tucson.
Here in the Poblenou Cemetery, however, at the age of 30 and in the year 2020, I felt jumpy and anxious. Like something was watching me from the dark interior of one of these crypts. At one point, I thought about turning around and running back to the safety of… I don’t know, really. Home? Is that the only place I felt safe these days?
Where the hell was this damn statue?
The time difference between Spain and the United States meant that I got to call my brother and sister in Hawaii and California, respectively, and wake them up with the news that Joe Biden had won the United States presidential election. “They called it!” I yelled over video and watched them bolt upright in their beds. “We did it!!!” (And by ‘we’, I specifically meant my occasional phone banking efforts for the Democratic party.)
As my brother and I made virtual, non-simultaneous eye contact, he and I both silently agreed to ignore the fact that we hadn’t been on speaking terms for the past few days. This moment was far bigger than that. Life won!!! Trump could go drink bleach!!!
The reason my brother and I weren’t speaking is that he’d started going to the gym again. And any other year, that would be such a ridiculous argument to have, but I made it clear that I thought going to the gym during a pandemic was a spectacularly bad idea.
He insisted he was being careful. He was totally quarantined otherwise because he lived alone and worked from home, the place was well-ventilated and only allowed a few people in at a time, surfaces were being wiped down, masks were being worn, Hawaii had been especially careful, being an island and all, cases there were pretty low, etc.
He tried to tell me how good it felt to be using his body again after almost a year of being cooped up. And I listened (or pretended to listen), then I downed a couple of ibuprofens for the chronic headache I’d had since my grandma, mom, and I got Covid ourselves way back in March and I told him that his body wouldn’t feel so good if he got sick.
I made him feel guilty. I told him he was as bad as the anti-maskers. I questioned how safe his precautions really were. I begged him not to go, for me, for my own peace of mind. “Just wait a few months! Is that so hard? There’s a vaccine coming out. Let Biden do his thing. Run around the block a few times!” …The conversations ended curtly.
My brother wanted to live. I wanted him not to die. Irreconcilable differences in 2020.
Over the next few weeks, my worry for him turned into chronic nightmares. I’d wake up in a sweat from dreams about him in a hospital bed, hooked up to a machine, dying alone. When I told him - desperately, tearfully - that he was driving me crazy, he’d just get quiet for a really long time, then say,
“I don’t know what to tell you, Katie. I need to do this.”
Coming to the center of the cemetery is like coming to the center of a labyrinth. There’s a large memorial that stands taller than anything else around. It says:
“In the year 1821, a cruel disease called yellow fever appeared in this city of Barcelona, which took the existence of many thousands of inhabitants. Their remains were deposited in this holy field. Pray for their souls.”
I found myself struck with the realization that someday, there would be monuments to the people who died of Covid-19. And I guess I’d always sort of hoped I’d make it to old age without the kind of collective trauma my grandparents went through. Now I was picturing myself as an old lady, overcome with emotion at the sight of a Covid memorial while some young whippersnappers fuck around nearby doing whatever it is whippersnappers do. Smoking something that’ll kill their lungs or jumping up on things they could fall off of, most likely.
And if I’m anything like my Nana, who worries that I’ll trip over a computer cord and smash my face or that I’m not wearing enough layers for a beautiful, sunny day, who shouts and clutches at her heart when I drop a spoon or when there’s a strange noise outside… I’ll respond with angry-fear. I won’t just caution against, I’ll reach out and smack the dangerous thing away.
“What the hell are you doing?!” I’ll scream at the whippersnappers, in the shadow of all the death I’ve avoided. “How can you be so disrespectful?!”
I suppose, when I was the whippersnapper, I would have assumed my offense was disrupting the somber mood. Now I realize it’s the cavalier attitude towards the utter, ridiculous, fragility of life.
…And, whoops, that’s trauma knowledge, isn’t it?