In November 2020 I began reading Kirmen Uribe's novel Bilbao New York Bilbao while in Bilbao, Spain with my partner. We were there to care for his father who is suffering through the late stages of dementia and to spend time with his family who he had not seen in a year. Uribe's novel is important to my plague year for many reasons. He talks about the split mind being from Bilbao yet living in New York. My partner is from Bilbao, and the novel helps me understand his mindset. But Uribe also talks about the ways humans remember and carry pain and mark loss. Unlike trees who carry their growth in their rings or fish who mark time through their scales, humans mark time and pain through simply marking time. He notes that fish grow their entire lives, but humans start dying and shrinking from the moment we hit maturity. Growth, it seems is only for the fishes.
My plague year was marked by my entire partner's family getting the virus, a story of gradual family loss, one of borders, and of course a presidential election. The pandemic closed not only schools and bars but also borders and our chances to move between Spain and the U.S. in any straightforward way. When we began planning the trip in the summer of 2020, we came up against all of the travel bans in place. My Spanish partner could get to Spain, but I could not. So, the research began, and I spent more time on Facebook groups than any person should be allowed to. We knew we weren't going to Spain just to have fun. We needed to take care of his father, but it felt like we were doing something wrong. Love, it turns out, knows no national borders, but border agencies certainly do. To get to Spain, he just hopped a plane to Madrid. I had to go through Lisbon, London, and Paris before arriving there. On the way back, I hopped on a plane flying directly to New York. He had to quarantine in Mexico for two weeks.
Our stay there was marked by his father's continued decline but also moments of joy. The picture here captures one of those. As a U.S. citizen, his Spanish family and friends are always asking me about U.S. culture and practices. One of my tasks in Spain was to cook a big American Thanksgiving dinner, which I did with gusto. I made all the things: turkey, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pecan pie. I tried to explain the significance of each dish while realizing how insignificant and somewhat gross Thanksgiving foods are. But we had fun and spent the night after the meal singing "American" songs and discussing art--his cousins are all artists.
That night, one of his friends recommended I read Uribe's novel. So, I ordered it that night. It is a lonely book of loss and thinking about how art marks that loss. I think that is how we marked our time in Spain contemplating everything we had lost in 2020 and everything we were gradually losing. We spent time at the Guggenheim and Fine Arts museums in Bilbao. In fact, we waited for my partner's COVID test while browsing the Fine Arts Museum. It turned out positive, and we separated at the point for two weeks.
But the picture here represents a moment of joy as we said goodnight to my partner's cousins after the Thanksgiving weekend. I hope for all the clichés of going back to normalcy. And we probably will get back to the "before times" given humans' inability to learn from any of their experiences. But I am one of those humans and just want to sit at a bar and talk to strangers again.
When that normalcy returns, I will look back at this picture and remember Uribe's words: "As with the growth rings of fishes, terrible events stay on in our memory, mark our life, until they become a measure of time. Happy days go fast, on the other hand--too fast--and we forget them quickly." Maybe Uribe is wrong, though. I will not be forgetting this day anytime soon.
During the pandemic, I often walk in Brooklyn's historic Green-Wood Cemetery with its rolling hills, lovely views, and fantastic old monuments; it's also where my grandparents are buried. I've always loved the beautiful, timeless melancholy of the place, but during the pandemic, it was also a strange comfort to read the headstones and think of the people buried all around me. Life, sickness, crisis, death are all just part of being human. These dead humans also lived, suffered, died, and now it's just another version of the same thing. The self-portrait included here is based on a photo I took of myself in Green-Wood as I wandered there one day in April 2020, looking to get away from lockdown and to find company among the graves.