A ‘false friend’ is a word that you think you can get away with. You think it’s a ‘cognate,’ and many exist, tying English to the Romance languages. Easy-peasy, Spanish can appear: gol shoots straight, goal, and revocar stays put, to revoke. Embarazada however, has reddened a few cheeks, being very much the word for ‘pregnant’. Not a cognate, it’s a false friend. A backstabber. Be careful. Papel is paper and papelería is a paper store – office and school supplies, actually, to de-mystify a store solely devoted to paper – a laboratorio equals laboratory. So far, so good.
A tanatorio is not a tanning destination. Management stocks sprays and beds of another sort. A tanatorio is a funeral home. Tanatorio Nuestra Sen’ora de Bego’na holds a constant vigil, although Bilbao is hardly a city that never sleeps. It’s open for each and every 24 hours of each and every day. I went, and this is what I saw.
Naves fill the half-scuffed poligono (your ‘true friend,’ polygon, swell gal) industrial subdivision of Bolueta. Naves are ‘ships’ in the most common usage, but these are warehouses used primarily for shipping and distribution. So not far off, and one brain’s memory and language centers thank the other brains in history for tricks like these. Following such clues, we find that the false friend isn’t so false afterall. The word tanatorio honors Thanatos, the personification of Death; he was often referred to in Greek mythology, but rarely appeared in person. Many sources considered Thanatos exclusive to “peaceful death” and for this reason, ‘good death’ falls under the term ‘euthanasia’. The son of Nyx, Night, and Erebos, Darkness, Hesiod writes of Thanatos and his brother Hypnos, Sleep:
“[Hypnos] roams peacefully over the earth and the sea’s broad back and is kindly to men; but the other has a heart of iron, and his spirit is a pitiless as bronze.”
At the rounded end of the block, not 100 meters from a locale named ‘Club Fever’, there’s a ship that travels heaven-bound and seatbelted aboard is the ghost some body just gave up. This nave shoots up and away from terra firma, leaving behind all the asphalt and painted aluminum, all the fading cellophane wrappers and soggy shoeboxes from Saturday’s gitano flea market mercadillo, all the racist graffiti (INMIGRANTES NO with a gun scope’s bullseye) and the anti-Fascists’ edits in red paint (basta ya Nazis, enough already). Thanatos’ dock is flanked on one side by the leaking green tangles of shrubbery always accompanying the Nervión River. On the other, the railroad slips by and an evangelical church stretches out in the shell of an old grocery store, windows boarded up, shutting out the world.
Our charges for the evening in question, Aunts Ana and Claudina*, had come by a crawling train from Barcelona. Their arrival culminated the piecemeal sequence of events, rhythmic phone calls and copy/paste whatsapp messages, ticket purchases and suitcase zippings, that go into motion after every death in a diaspora family. They’d come for their sister Carolina*, and we went for them.
We all caught a cab no earlier than 11:15pm – late train, livestock on the tracks – and we sped along in the hush of oncoming spring rain. My in-laws-in-theory discussed the final weeks of Carolina’s illness and my boyfriend provided the old fashioned kind of status updates on all the 2nd cousins and some opinions twice removed. We arrived, paid and pulled suitcases across a dry parking lot and into the place I had so long wondered about.
I remember now that the place smelled of nothing. No cleaners and no perfumes, no air-conditioning and no potting soil, no roses and no moist styrofoam and no car exhaust and no stale breath. That lack must have spread out in high ceilings of the atrium. Distance meant something faded from animate life, recollections dispersed so they wouldn’t waft or bounce off one another and thus avoid memory’s strongest trigger, the nose. I remember now that the place reminded me of that hospital in Bangkok that too dripped with expense. A doctor studied my double eye infection there, walls awash with uplighting on green granite and a tiled floor of thick beige stone that spread before you in those dim after-hours. In those very same hours, squinting in the honest glare of an ivory floor and darkened windows made into mirrors, we entered to study the departed.
There’s so much white happening. It’s involved. Concentrated in doses of floor wax and glass cleaner, woven into the softness of lace and folded into the coarse tissues that I’ve heard pronounced “glee-NEss” and packed dutifully into purses for use in abused bars and temp toilets during 10 days of jaiak. The gift shop greets you upon entrance and exit, should anyone be lacking the proper utensils: navy ceramic urns, red and white wreathes like the chew toys of Kentucky derby winners and suburban McMansion yuletide decor, a shadow box rosary, silver and gold crosses on thin chains. Sharp in cleanliness, not distracting, hard lines interpreted as respectful in EuroChicSpeak. Maybe, I still can’t tell almost 2 years in.
The receptionist sat, only his scalp visible behind the front desk, consumed in what could have been work. He spoke in the equanimous tones of a hotelier. He stowed the luggage of our two 60-somethings, thrice consoling the frank and constant chatter of Claudina that her purse (a splitting, wrinkled paper shopping bag, one of those with stiff, twisted horseshoe handles) would remain both untouched and in reach of his peripheral vision at all times. She’s a strange one, I’ve been told. She doesn’t spend money, doesn’t go near the bars, I’ve been told. I posit that 30% of the real estate in this country is occupied by bars and cafes the size of walk-in closets. This is an economy completely underwritten by 6 oz beers for a euro and squat, milky espressos for one and a half. She doesn’t dare. Not even for decaf.
Ana, with her tender demeanor and four word sentences, peeped her doubt as Aunt Claudina wondered aloud in the elevator vestibule. Repeating and rewording the questions three and then four times, her nerves engaged with squat pots of palms and ferns and her disorientation focused on the chalky quartzite garden, a dry pond of toddler fist-sized stones.
“You think those are fake plants there?” = You think I can handle the wait for the elevator?
“I can’t believe those are real.” = I fear touching something that is still alive.
“How do you think they keep them looking so nice?” = What am I about to see? What am I about to feel?
Four pairs of sensible shoes squeaked as we crossed the weekly-waxed 2nd floor. Jewel cases at eye level outside each room bore a photo and noted all the first and last names’ of the deceased; four words deep like Juan José Ordoño Ferran and Mari Cristina Extebarrieta Nuñez. Portals stayed shut to the observation quarters, at once ominous for the outsider and reassuringly private for in the insider.
We enter. Couches with thin cream cushions line the room. It’s false leather, easy to clean, but I’m still flabbergasted on a regular basis as to what maintenance expenses people are willing to risk for such class. Spread about are four full boxes of tissues, slightly better than what we got in elementary school for free and must’ve been made of recycled newspapers and telephone books. The good stuff really should’ve been saved for the elderly, too many of them under-presumptive of what they’ve earned. They view. I sit, yielding to the family members I’ve only met a half hour earlier.
It isn’t 20 seconds before I’m waved over by the nephew who has carried his grief with peace, my partner. Está bien, he says with an honest and gentle smile. I don’t expect what I see next.
It’s a portrait of a lady. I’m in an art museum. We are present for the photograph that is both taking place and already mounted and framed. In lieu of flowers, please respect the sandpaper taped to the floor. Do not lean in too far towards the piece. Donations in her honor can be made to any institution that cultivates the arts and the education of women. As a girl, if Carolina was caught reading instead of cleaning, her father would warn her that she’d end up unmarriageable.
It’s a diorama. I’m in a natural history museum. The wall comes up to the waist and then the transparent but crystalline divider between reality continues upward. The stark scene displays what’s left to fuss over when death arrives: light, shadow and salvation. A cold metal bar to lean upon as you study the bygone’s new natural habitat.
It’s a penalty box. The air-conditioning blasts. Easter lilies stand in for a hockey stick. Lace trim laid over her like padding for impacts. The dimensions allow for a wingspan’s width of a person; that’s usually their height. And the length when the body lays down.
We press our pointed fingers to the glass, still producing oil and locomotion, towards a crucifix stood up on a post like a coat hangar. Back-lighting, up-lighting bends, plays with the eye, obscuring the bargain buy giveaways of her casket and the immutability of stilled skin and hardened wrinkles.
Claudina shares her jagged suggestions where the hands should have been posed to hide the steroid-swollen belly and how the lace ought to have been bunched up at Carolina’s collarbones to save her from having to witness suffering’s leftovers, baggy chins. Slipping out of the box in my head – the one where I keep disdain and bilingual cliches to showoff my fluency (or hide my mimicry and voyeurism) – I do not speak, I only think: damn lady, it ain’t your funeral.
I’ve sat like I’m going to be courteous. I’ve observed with utmost precaution. And I’ve nothing to expect except my own compliance with the family’s wishes. Aunt Claudina erupts, “We need to get the hell out of here, I’m done. We’re done.” 4 minutes have elapsed since we entered the room. I swear.
And without any suggestion – no, by declaration – we crawled out of the amazement bouncing off the not-quite-but-nearly-lime green walls. A basket of hard candy sat next to the guest book on the way out. We did not sign our names. The door shut firmly behind 4 souls, we were not to be Claudina’s loose ends.
Every button got pushed (nervousness) and every floor opened to us (further comment on the decor) on the elevator ride down. We collected the bags and headed out into a warm sirimiri where the next taxi waited, where the daytime crowds of old folks usually gather to smoke and catch up. For them, these kinds of reunions are more common than bingo night. Not as often as card games, though; those are much easier to come by.
Carolina would be cremated within 10 hours. And I would be on a plane…under the heavens, above the Atlantic.
* Some names have been changed to protect the living.