Siempre Tienes Casa Aqui: a Story of Love and Grief in Barcelona


I watched Miguel suffer and my heart went out to him. I watched him hope against hope that his wife would not die; not now, not when he was just about to retire and finally able to spend some time with her.

I watched him watch her slip away day-by-day to her cancer and still refuse to believe what had become obvious to everyone else. I watched his heart break. I saw his pain and his profound sadness and loss and my heart went out to him.

And in the days that followed, I did whatever I could to help. I made myself available to listen. I asked him the questions his children could not ask. Not then. Precisely because I had not been part of the story of the family until very recently, I was able to ask right then, right there, in those early days, in the moment when the pain and the rawness were at their worst, I could ask:

“So, when did you meet Dolores? When did you marry? Why did you marry? Did your parents approve? Did hers? Where was she from? How did you meet? Was it love at first sight?”

And on and on like this for days and weeks and months over beers, many beers. And little by little, I drew him out. And he cried. And I cried. And I sat through the long, awkward silences in-between and I accepted them. I sat in the silence with him and after a while I’d hold up my beer glass, as in a toast, because there was nothing else to say or do. And our glasses would clink and we’d talk about the weather.

And it was the tiniest thing ever. It was so very small a thing that I did. And it was probably one of the only really decent things I’ve ever done in my life, helping Miguel. And his pain still touches my heart and through all that listening to his stories, I came to know him a little and I came to love him a lot.

Of course, it didn’t erase his pain or restore his hope and joy. I just gave him someone to share the grief with, to express it to, someone who didn’t have an emotional connection to his story, to their story—as his children had—but someone who had a very recent and tenuous emotional connection with him.

I was his son Mateo’s husband. Up until then Miguel and I barely had any conversations, any real conversations. We mostly talked politics and joked a lot—about me being American and him being Spanish. He didn’t speak English and I barely spoke Spanish yet despite that, we communicated.

I suppose that I cared more for his pain for losing his wife than I did for my husband’s pain over losing his mother. But that’s only because Miguel was willing and able to share his pain, and Mateo was not. Mateo buried his. He wanted to pretend he didn’t have any; whereas Miguel could not deny his pain. It was too great.

Moreover, Miguel was now alone and Mateo was not alone. I was there for Mateo, every day, in the bed next to him; a silent witness to his silent grief. Miguel now had to sleep alone.

I would have done anything for Mateo, but he did not share; could not share. He just buried his emotions, as he had always done.

So, when his mother Dolores died, I offered help where it was needed, not where it was denied and resisted. And I developed a great bond to Miguel and I grew to love him, in a fraternal way, very, very much.

Meanwhile, Mateo grew more distant, unsettled, disquieted, and I think sometimes he resented my relationship with his father and he wanted to get away from it all. Although he never said it—he rarely said anything he truly felt—I think he needed to get away from his father, who only reminded him of his mother’s absence. And there I was forcing him—although I didn’t realize it at the time—forcing him to be closer to his father than he was able to be. Of course, he found a way out. It should not surprise.

I should not be surprised that he came home one day, said he had met someone else, had fallen madly in love and was leaving me right then and there. I should not have been so surprised.

But I was. And it hurt deeply and I fell into my own chasm of pain and separation and disbelief that the world could carry on as if nothing had happened when, as far as I could see, or feel, or touch, the world had completely emptied of all meaning.

My pain was profoundly deep, and long. I was inconsolable—for days, weeks, months; truth be told, years. But there, beside me, in those earliest, worst moments, was this affable Spanish man, Miguel, who, not too many months before, had just lost his wife to cancer and he came to me and he hugged me and he told me he understood my pain. “It’s like a death,” he said. Like his Dolores leaving this world.

And the amazing compassion he showed me only made me love him more. And what a strange life it is where the gay son-in-law who no one expected can show up and turn out to be the only comfort to a lonely, grief-stricken man in those first days and weeks after losing his wife to cancer and then, and then, he would turn around and provide comfort to his now ex-son-in-law because his very own son behaved badly while moving on to a new relationship. What a strange world, indeed.



For me, Dolores was a mystery. I knew her mainly through her children, and, after death, through her husband. While she was alive, I was mostly afraid of her. She was the most important figure in my husband’s life, without a doubt.

Dolores wanted nothing more than for her son to be happy and she was not the sort of interfering mother to tell her son she disapproved of his partner—whether she did or did not. But, of course, I didn’t know that in the beginning and so I was always afraid of her.

There was a bond between Dolores and my husband that was hard to describe, but also hard to miss. It was mother and son, yes, but it was more than that. The two of them could sit and talk and laugh for hours. They had their own private language, their own private humor and when they were together, hardly anyone else existed.

I think maybe it had something to do with Mateo’s tendency toward the silly, counterbalancing Dolores’s tendency to the serious. He was the apple of her eye, to be sure, and she meant more than anything in the world to him.

They say lots of gay boys are close to their mothers. I think maybe his mother protected him and kept his secret all those years, and then continued to protect him when he finally came out.

Dolores and I almost never spoke without an interpreter. She didn’t speak English and my attempts to speak Spanish to her seemed to strain her more than it should, so I rarely attempted it.

For most of the time that I knew her, I really didn’t have a clue what she thought of me. I can think of only three times that she said something to me or about me, which I later heard from Mateo or his sister, Ana, or perhaps, Miguel.

The first was shortly after our arrival in Barcelona from Brussels. We were meeting at Ana’s house for dinner on some occasion, but Mateo was coming from work and me from home. Since we were coming from opposite sides of the city, we agreed just to meet at Ana’s, which meant me taking a train and then a bus by myself to get there.

Mateo told me later that Dolores marveled at how brave I was to find my own way there. I thought that was sweet, though I wasn’t sure if it said more about her or about me.

The second occasion, years later, also took place at Ana’s house. Dolores was in the kitchen and I had been outside on the terrace. When I entered the kitchen, there Dolores was standing all alone, leaning with her back up against the sink and looking pensive. We looked at each other. She gave me a wan smile and threw one arm out wide, inviting me in for a hug. She put just one arm around me and gave me a squeeze. It was then I knew I had made it. She didn’t hate me, after all.

The third occasion was as she lay dying and I don’t remember who it was that told me what she had said. In her last days, as the cancer progressed and she lay in her rented hospital bed in the middle of the living room, Dolores had difficulty eating. I used sometimes to come over after work and cook for the three of them: Miguel, Mateo and Dolores. One of the things she liked in the end, indeed one of her last meals, was my roasted garlic and potato soup. She liked that.

I remember on just one or two occasions, I spoon-fed her the soup myself—I was both terrified and honored at the same time. Terrified, because I wondered how she felt about me feeding her. Was it too personal? Was I overstepping bounds of intimacy and taking a job that should have been left to someone closer to her? Was I assuming too much?

And I felt honored because what could be more intimate, more humbling, more personal and loving than feeding someone on their deathbed who cannot feed themselves. It was an honor.

Sometime afterward, maybe even after she died, I don’t recall, someone told me that she had said to Mateo how nice I was and that she couldn’t imagine his previous boyfriend, who actually was a nurse, helping to take care of her as I had done. I smiled demurely, when it was said to me, and said nothing by way of reply, but inside I was bursting with bittersweet emotions of love and sadness.

Although morbidly shy and difficult to penetrate, Dolores did have at least one quality that I liked very much. She liked beer and could drink men twice her size under the table.

I remember one day she and Miguel and Mateo and I went to a bar café—it was a bit of a walk out of the usual neighborhood, but it apparently was one of Dolores’s favorites. I couldn’t see why, myself. There didn’t seem anything special to me about it at all, but Dolores was particularly fond of their patatas bravas.

I remember that day well because I had just gotten my first smart phone ever and I was annoying everyone with taking photos and videos and selfies and making a general nuisance of myself.

After a while, probably longer than it should have taken, I cottoned on that I was making a nuisance of myself. In retrospect, I’m sure to Dolores most of all, given her shyness and her dislike of having her photo taken, but in truth she showed it the least. She was very kind, Dolores.

But in the course of my “fun,” I managed to snap a photo that became iconic. The four of us were at a table at the bar—I was seated next to his father and Mateo was seated next to his mother. I had urged Mateo to move closer to his mother so that I could snap their picture, and Mateo seized the moment.

Knowing his mother’s unease with having her photo taken, Mateo immediately turned silly, made a joke to make his mother laugh and threw his head onto her lap. She wrapped her arms around him and the two of them were laughing together when I snapped the picture. Dolores was not looking at the camera, but as in a Madonna-and-child pose, down at her son.

We didn’t know then how close she was to dying. It was closer than we knew, and that was probably the last photo to ever catch the two them together—mother and son—sharing a candid, natural moment of love and laughter.

I still have the photo. It is buried among the 18,346 photos marked hidden on my computer hard drive—those are the photos documenting the six years I spent with Mateo.

The photo is sad, in its own right, to see a mother and son so happy and loving and to know that that exchange will never happen again. But I don’t need to look at it to remember it. It’s frozen in my mind.

It is not only the loss of a mother’s love for her son that makes it so evocative or the brilliant way it captured the joi de vivre that naturally existed between those two personalities, mother and son. It is also that, for me, and only for me, both of the people in that photo are gone.

After Mateo left me, when I asked him what files if any he wanted from our shared computer, he said, “No, nothing.” Then he corrected himself: “Only any pictures you have of my mother.”

I knew which picture he meant.



It’s funny the things you remember about people. When it comes to my Spanish family, I remember dinners together, days at the beach, going to a rural house for the weekend, hiking together, playing with the kids; all sorts of fun events, boring things too—rainy days, mid-winter blues, and days when nothing much was happening at all.

But the strongest memories are more nuanced, more emotional, more intuitive. They are not events, per se, but the things that happen in the interstices of events. They become subsumed in the larger events and don’t stand out, but the heart sees and remembers.

These moments are things that are never discussed, never memorialized in any overt way. They never come up when talking about the past. They are subtle things, subtle energies that pass between us and have the power to alter the course of events; to diffuse tensions, to heal wounds. They arise, unplanned, out of specific circumstances, and change things.

The gratitude is always there and always unspoken. Because to speak it would be to acknowledge the great hurt that it assuaged, the tension it diffused, the wound it healed. But the gratitude is there. Sometimes it is the collection of these unspoken gratitudes that truly binds us together in love.

One such moment came with my sister-in-law, Ana. Ana is a strong, fiercely independent woman, who, being the oldest child, had to bear the responsibilities for everything connected with her parents, grandparents and even her younger brother, my husband.

Ana is a beautiful woman, loving and kind, highly intelligent, artistic and, like all of us, carrying around a heart full of wounds and unfulfilled potential and doing her best to carry on. I had grown to love Ana, with all her hidden depths.

I don’t remember whether she asked or I volunteered the information, but I told her one day that one of the foods from home that I missed the most was New York cheesecake, which wasn’t available in Barcelona, or if it was, wasn’t any good.

She decided she was going to find a recipe and try to make it for me. And after Dolores died, after a morning walk in the park one day with Mateo and his dad, Ana, her partner Alex, and their two kids, Diego and Sara, we went back to Ana and Alex’s apartment for lunch and some cheesecake.

While we were waiting for the elevator, Diego had been messing about in the foyer with Mateo and he banged his own head against a fire extinguisher on the wall. He began to cry and blamed the accident on Mateo, but Mateo had nothing to do with it. Diego had done it to himself while goofing around.

Mateo was indignant to be falsely accused and furious. He began screaming at the eight-year-old boy. Then, in an emotional reaction that was every bit as childish in its own way as what Diego had done, Mateo said, “That’s it. I’m leaving.” And turned on his heel to go out the front door. To my amazement, and without any discussion, Miguel instantly turned to go with him.

In that split second, an entire family history was revealed and played out its predictable course. The parents always took Mateo’s side. Mateo was the favorite and Ana was the rebel who made her own way in life. They didn’t always approve of her opinions, her actions, her choices. Mateo was babied; his tantrums shrugged off; she was tolerated.

She wasn’t the middle sister who in death had become deified and she wasn’t the baby who was spoiled and pampered. Those roles were now fixed and she had gotten used to them, but it didn’t mean it didn’t still hurt sometimes.

By this time, the elevator had arrived and there I was having to make a split-second decision about what to do. Do I go? Do I stay? What do I do here?

I asked Mateo, in English, “What the hell’s going on?” He told me about Diego blaming him for hitting his own head on the fire extinguisher. I said, “Okay, that was wrong. He deserves to be told off. You did that. But he’s eight years old, for Christ’s sake, you don’t have to act like an eight-year-old in return and go storming off.”

I looked at Ana, who speaks very good English and had understood everything I said to Mateo, during this time. There was a look on her face of Okay, here we go again, and a smell of betrayal in the air and I saw her eyes. I thought her eyes were going to well up with tears.

But she is also proud and defiant and I knew there was no way in hell she was going to plead with her brother and father to stay; much less show them that she was hurt by this.

It felt like I was being asked to choose: Was I going to betray her too?

I said to Mateo: “Fine, you and your dad leave if you want. I’m going upstairs for some cheesecake.” And with that I walked into the elevator. To my amazement, Mateo and Miguel, who only seconds before were headed for the door, followed me into the elevator.

We all had a lovely lunch together, followed by cheesecake and within moments, it was as if nothing had ever happened.

We have never spoken of it, but I don’t think Ana ever forgot that I chose her in that moment. I know I never regretted it. And I have a feeling that it’s one of the reasons that Ana came to love me; one of those collections of unspoken gratitudes that truly binds us together in love.



Alex was a very serious man. He could be harsh, not unlike his partner Ana, when it came to truth-telling. Neither of them was very prone to sugarcoat the truth or color their opinions just to please the listener.

There was an authenticity and an integrity about the pair of them that on the whole I liked very much, although on some occasions, if I’m honest, wounded my pride.

But the upside is that when they said something to you or did something for you, you never had to doubt their sincerity.

Alex was his Catalan name. His Spanish parents had named him Alejandro. I guess that the assumption of a Catalan name came naturally after Franco died, along with the general Catalanization of the children of Spanish emigrants to Catalonia.

Alex’s parents, like Mateo and Ana’s parents, Miguel and Dolores, were thoroughly Spanish. They had joined the great wave of people who had emigrated in the 50s, 60s and 70s from the poverty-stricken south of Spain to work in the factories of Catalonia, Spain’s autonomous northeastern province.

At that time, under Franco, the Catalan language was forbidden for official usage and most of that generation of Spaniards who emigrated to Barcelona never learned it. Never had to learn it.

But the children did and eventually it became the official language in the schools again. Most people the age of Alex, Ana, and Mateo spoke both languages and fluently switched back and forth between the two—sometimes within the very same sentence.

Alex is handsome and, like so many Spanish men, I found myself attracted to him. Of course, I tried to hide it and the little crush I had on him long ago passed as our friendship grew, but I suspect he must have known it at some point at some level. If he did, he was very kind not to let on.

It could be very awkward, in the beginning, not just with Alex, but with other straight Spanish men that I found attractive—because in Spain, men often kiss as a form of greeting the way Americans shake hands.

A kiss, even a peck on the cheek, is so intimate if you’ve grown up only shaking hands. It’s more intimate even than a hug. Hugs can be formal and cold. They can be made masculine, even macho, with that kind of incomplete hug many straight men will give each other that starts as a hug but the bodies never come fully together and it becomes instead a firm, full-arm pat on the back.

But a kiss, even a cold kiss, means lips to cheek—and even cold lips are intimate. And they don’t do just one cheek, they do both cheeks—as if to prolong the agony.

I remember once meeting for the first time an extremely handsome, very sexy, straight friend of Mateo’s, and, as I stuck out my hand to greet him, he came in for a kiss and I thought I was going to die of embarrassment; possibly even faint. He was very hot.

This was early on in my stay in Spain and I was not yet prepared for the ease with which straight men will kiss you. It was completely foreign to me. Of course, it was my own unease, not theirs, that made these moments fraught with discomfort or embarrassment.

Alex never showed any sign of discomfort or unease. I loved how comfortable he seemed in his own skin—a man, who was not insecure about being a man and could not be threatened by a kiss on the cheek with an open homosexual.

My uneasiness would, I’m sure, seem completely bizarre and irrational to Alex, but it is the lived experience of millions and millions of American men, gay and straight.

So, Alex was my straight male friend who I kind of had a crush on.

Both Alex and Ana were highly intelligent friends, and their sense of humor sometimes reflected that and I guess that’s why I was always so comfortable with them and grew to love and respect them so much.

Alex didn’t smile a lot—not that kind of beaming, ear-to-ear smile that I remember seeing once. Perhaps it was because he was a serious sort of fellow or perhaps it was because the circumstances of life at that time were not terribly conducive to joviality.

Mateo’s mother was dying or had recently died, the financial crisis was starting to bite in Spain and Alex lost his job and was unemployed. There was a lot to be stressed about in those days.

But I will never forget the look on his face—that beaming, smiling face—the day he and Ana told Mateo and I they would loan us the money for a new kitchen. Mateo and I had just bought an old country house at the very top of a hillside village—the kind you might imagine seeing in Italy, Greece, or well, Spain.

It had narrow, winding streets, some of which were too narrow even to allow a car to pass. All the houses had those clay-colored tile roofs. The village had a tiny public square—because all towns have to have a public square—and a restaurant next to the square where the wife, a large generous woman, served regional food cooked on a wood-fired stove, with many of the ingredients coming from the large garden her husband kept at the edge of the village.

Our house had an enormous, outdoor, tiled terrace off the kitchen in the back that had unobstructed and absolutely stunning views of the surrounding mountains. It was truly heavenly.

The kitchen, on the other hand, was functional, but rudimentary. We wanted to put in a new kitchen. I loved cooking and so loved kitchens and I had always wanted a kitchen island. Miguel was going to make one for me. Mateo didn’t love cooking, nor kitchens so far as I knew, but he LOVED Ikea and was dreaming about getting our new kitchen at Ikea.

I had some savings left over after buying the house, and although a new kitchen would be far more fun, I resisted giving into Mateo’s whims, this time, because I wanted to use the money I had left to install a central heating system for the house first and then, depending on what was left, see about the kitchen.

So, there we all were in the country house. It was the first time the family had all stayed there right after Mateo and I bought it. This was after Dolores’s death. We spent time curled up around the large living room fireplace for warmth. The kids played Ping-Pong on our enormous wooden dining room table that we bought used for 60 euros.

Miguel was measuring a space for a kitchen island and making plans of how he would construct it. Mateo and I were talking with Alex and Ana about a dreamy new kitchen. They were sharing in the excitement and then, out of the blue, they said they would loan us the money from their savings to get a new kitchen.

I looked at Ana. I looked at Alex. They were serious. I looked again. Alex’s face was smiling from ear-to-ear, his eyes beaming as if to say: “Yes, we will.”

I’m sure I didn’t handle it well because I never handle such situations well—kindness and generosity make me uncomfortable—but inside my heart was bursting with love. I knew they didn’t have much money and the fact they were willing to loan us money from the little they did have so we could get a new kitchen right away, just touched my heart so deeply.

I knew also that it wasn’t only their brother they were doing this for, but it was also for me. I felt so loved and so in love.

In the end, I declined the money, which turned out to be a good thing, because it was less than three months later that Mateo left me and I was very soon never to see that house again.

Alex was very kind to me after the break-up; as indeed, they all were. But I suppose that there was something special to me about Alex’s kindness. He put his arm around me, took me for coffees, allowed me to cry and be sad. He was a straight man and up until his friendship, straight men for me were only ever sources of disinterest, at best, or abuse, at worst. I think I will always be grateful to Alex for showing me it didn’t have to be that way.



It was behind her back, of course, and said with love, but they called her lechuga cósmica—the cosmic lettuce.

Miguel’s baby sister and Mateo’s aunt, Miranda was the family witch doctor. She believed in spirits and dimensions, essential oils, crystals, meditation. She believed in karma and reincarnation and past lives and just about any other “out there” theory going.

I was, at least notionally, an atheist. And indeed I was atheist, if, by atheist, one meant a person who did not take literally the Christian bible or believe that “god” was some old man in the sky who personally gave a fuck what happened to me.

Atheism was a position I greatly respected and so I fit in very well with my Spanish family—solid atheists all of them, Miranda excepted.

In time I came to see that the atheism of my Spanish family was in large measure a reaction—and a very appropriate one. It’s difficult for an American to understand the degree to which the Catholic Church ruled Spain for centuries. We have no experience even remotely comparable.

It was positively medieval, the power the Catholic Church wielded in Spanish society, keeping people in abject poverty to favor an aristocratic ruling elite, and not coincidentally, its own power.

The Church ruled the Spanish people with an iron fist, determining every aspect of everyone’s life for hundreds of years and it carried on well into the 1970s. And it would continue today, if only it could.

The Church was always in bed with the power structure in Spain. The Church was solidly behind the fascists and supported Franco’s 1930s coup that killed the Spanish Republic and ended the Spanish Revolution.

Miguel tells a story of growing up as a child in rural Spain and having to kiss the ring of the village priest if you passed him in the square.

The murder of priests and the burning of thousands of churches across Spain during the 1930s revolution, especially in Barcelona, was horrifying, but it was also understandable as reaction to centuries of rule by a hypocritical, power-hungry, unforgiving church hierarchy.

At some point in my life, long before I met my Spanish family, I came to realize that my own atheism was reaction also to a patriarchal Church that wanted to keep women in chains and gays like me wholly invisible.

Although I was, and still am, able to imagine with complete equanimity that this life is all there is and that when I die, there is nothing else, I also was open to exploring other possibilities—something in-between the all-encompassing fairy tale story the Church offered and nothing at all.

And so I became very curious about the cosmic lettuce, aunt Miranda.

The problem was, until nearly the end of my time in Spain, my Spanish was practically nonexistent. So, I could not communicate with Miranda in any way without an interpreter in the beginning.

I remember being at a party or social event at the home of a friend of Mateo’s, early on in my time in Spain. My Spanish family was there, including Miranda, and I was dying to talk to her to satisfy my curiosity about the cosmic lettuce. We were outside on the terrace and I pressed Mateo into service to help me chat with her.

He was reluctant, and it was only after a very long conversation that I realized why. Miranda likes to talk. A lot. It’s much easier to get into a conversation with Miranda than it is to get out of one. The thing is I was genuinely interested to learn what she had to say, but it was difficult carrying on a conversation—that kind of a conversation—through an interpreter and I could tell Mateo had long ago become bored. I think it was utter torture for him and it was sweet of him to bear it for me.

For these and other reasons, my relationship with Miranda grew very slowly. She was the last of my Spanish family to become truly part of my life.

Miranda has a heart of gold and is forever and always giving presents, little things, tokens, mostly, but sometimes big things too. Like most of my family in Spain, she has little money, but she is extremely generous.

She could sometimes come across as overbearing, intrusive, or even inappropriate, at times, but you could not question her goodness or her good intentions.

And as someone interested in Buddhism, reincarnation, and other eastern philosophies, I was probably the only one inside the small circle of the family who took her seriously, or at least was open to doing so.

For the most part, my relationship with Miranda came after the break-up with Mateo, by which time my Spanish, although still difficult, was serviceable.

Ironically, Miranda performed the kind of service to me that I had done for Miguel. Just as with Miguel, where I was the only one immediately present who was not too close to the story to sit with him and invite him to talk about Dolores for as long as he wished; so it was with Miranda and me and my story with Mateo. She was the only one not too close to the story to be able to endure my endless need to talk about it. It was her nephew, yes, but it was not her son or her brother.



We had been living with Miguel—Mateo and I—after Dolores died and had spent the better part of that year looking for a cheap country house to buy. I had left my job of 20 years as a journalist and was going to launch my own newsletter business.

We had only just bought the house and had not moved in yet and so, when Mateo left me, we were actually still living with his dad.

I was deeply in love with Mateo and devastated by his sudden departure. As we were legally married, we needed to get legally divorced.

It was Mateo’s deepest desire—expressed to me in anger—that I disappear back to America. I guess that that would have been very convenient for him, but I did not want to prosecute a divorce from another continent and I made a decision that I would stay in Spain, at least until the divorce was final.

But I knew that I could not continue to live with Miguel.

I genuinely think Miguel wanted me to stay. He insisted, and I have no doubt of his sincerity, that I could stay with him as long as I wanted. “Siempre tienes casa aqui”—you always have a home here—he told me many, many times.

But I could not stay. My suffering was causing him to suffer and I loved him too much to put him through seeing me day-in and day-out with tears in my eyes and a broken heart.

I knew it hurt him to see me like that. I knew he was ashamed of his son’s behavior and apart from not wanting to hurt Miguel, I also knew that, however he may have felt about his son’s behavior, it was still his son, and that relationship also needed to heal and my being in his house was not going to help that.

Mateo offered me no support of any kind, I’m afraid, and I had no job but I had some small savings left—the money that I didn’t spend on the new kitchen or the central heating system for the house.

With Miguel’s help, I found a tiny apartment and I calculated that, if I was very careful, my savings would see me through 14 months, by which time I hoped the divorce would be final and I would have time to figure out what to do next with my life.

And thus began a period of my life that, in a paradoxical way, was among the happiest.

Spiritual teachers, ancient and contemporary, say that human grief can be a path to god. A broken heart is an open vessel and when you are completely and utterly broken, as indeed I was, there is no longer any resistance to spirit.

I was devastated by Mateo’s departure, but it wasn’t only Mateo I had lost or was losing. I had recently lost a job of 20 years, I was losing a house that I loved, along with the savings I had invested in it, I was losing my Spanish family and my place in it and I had to give up my beloved dog. I truly had nothing left to lose. I was stripped bare of all the things that make up one’s identity—job, home, family, partner, even my dog. I was empty.

And yet I was never so full.

After I returned to Barcelona, to Miguel’s house, from the country house after Mateo had left me, I went to see Ana and Alex. I have absolutely no memory whatsoever of that visit or what was said by me or to me. I only remember walking home from the station to Miguel’s house afterwards and feeling, I don’t know, mystical?

I felt so alive, so open, like I had never felt in years. I mean I felt utterly exhausted and drained emotionally but at the same time I was in awe, completely overwhelmed and in awe, of the love that Ana and Alex showed to me. I had no idea they loved me that much and I was like a child with a puppy. I felt joy.

It didn’t erase the grief and the sadness, but rather co-existed with it inside my heart. I felt new somehow, different, forever changed by this amazing love that seemed more real than anything I had ever felt before.

And I felt the release of emptiness, as though everything that had ever happened to me before in my life was gone, dissolved, forgotten and there were only two things left—grief over the loss of a love and joy over the gain of love.

All the religious teachings from all the great traditions boil down to Love. With Jesus it was love thy neighbor and thy enemy; with Buddha it was compassion, but it’s the same thing.

So, I thought to myself, almost from the beginning that here was a test, David. Can you love Mateo in the face of his betrayal, lies, cheating, and hurt? Can you love someone who is not returning your love? If you truly love Mateo, as you claim, how can it just die or end? It didn’t make any sense to me that it could just die or end. If you love someone only when they are nice to you, is that really love?

I became obsessed with this idea and I began to see this horrendous event as an opportunity to explore what love really meant; what my love for Mateo really meant. And it was pretty clear, pretty quickly, that sometimes, love means letting go.

But that’s a cliché. How to do it? What does it mean in practice? What does it feel like? And not to put too fine a point on it, what’s in it for me?

I’m not saying that I wasn’t angry with Mateo or that I didn’t also sometimes say hurtful things—but I didn’t do hurtful things and almost from the very beginning I tried to respond to events with love.

His announcement that he had cheated on me and those words that he “couldn’t stop thinking about” this new man, came like a sucker punch to the gut and I doubled over in pain upon hearing them.

We were sitting in the living room of our new house at the moment it came and my first reaction after undoubling my crumpled body was what about the house? What about all my savings that I had just invested in it? But I did not say this.

He swore to me that he was going to get me my money back, all of it, that he would take out a second mortgage if he had to, but I knew immediately it simply wasn’t possible under the specific circumstances that existed. I knew right then and there that it was never going to happen.

And he knew it too, if he had been able to be honest with himself, and so I saw immediately that this thing, this love, that he was in the grip of was something so strong, something he wanted so badly that he was willing even to lie to himself in order to get it and I knew immediately that I could not compete with that.

So I said to him, “Well, if this man means so much to you that you are willing to throw away everything we have and everything we have shared and everything we were planning, well, go to him. Go to him, Mateo.”

I guess it wasn’t the reaction he was expecting for the next thing that happened was that he got out of his chair, went across the room, sat on the floor with his head in his hands and began violently sobbing and repeating over and over and over again: “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

I thought, If he doesn’t know what he’s doing, then maybe there’s a chance he won’t do it. Maybe, even, I could talk him out of it.

It took all the strength I had not to cross that room, sit down beside him, put my arm around him and tell him everything was going to be okay.

But from somewhere unknown, from some depths unseen, I mustered up enough self-respect not to do it. I thought to myself: No. He broke it and he’s the only one who can fix it. This is the one thing I can’t do for him. He must do it himself, of his own accord, or it won’t be real.

And so I stayed in my chair, and after he was done crying, I told him calmly I would take him to the train station in the morning.

The next morning when he came up to the living room where I had spent the night on the sofa, he knelt on the floor and asked me, softly, pathetically, “If I promise never to see him again, can we stay together?”

I replied, equally softly, “I don’t believe that’s a promise you can keep.”

I wanted desperately for him to argue with me, but he didn’t.

And thus began my descent into hell and, paradoxically, what was to be one of the strangest though happiest periods in my life.



Alone in the quiet and solitude of my tiny apartment, I tried to work on my newsletter and website. I had launched it before the breakup and it had gotten off to a good start, but I quickly found it impossible to generate the interest and enthusiasm to continue. Still, I tried for some months to keep it going and I looked for jobs—maybe back in London or even back in Washington, D.C., where I had last lived in the States.

But no jobs came and my grief was too great to continue with the newsletter and so I spent my days crying, taking walks along the river, meditating and thinking about what had happened, and as well as what was happening.

Mateo was refusing all attempts by me to talk about the divorce and what we were going to do about the house. I made some proposals, all of which he rejected, often angrily. He would tell me that the situation was entirely my fault; that I was the one who decided to leave my job in London in order to stay with him in Spain; that I was the one who wanted to buy the house—it had nothing to do with him. It wasn’t his fault. Why didn’t I just go back to America?

It hurt to hear these things. It hurt a lot.

But I understood he was angry more at the situation than at me. He was starting to realize that he was never going to be able to get me my money back and that his plan to simply walk off into the sunset with his new lover was not going to be as simple as he had hoped.

If I thought about it, it could make my blood boil to think that at least he had the consolation of a new lover, whereas I had nothing. So I tried not to think that way.

He was hurt too, by the reaction of his family, which I don’t think he had anticipated. He initially refused all attempts at communication from his family—It’s my life and I can do what I want was his attitude. He rejected all entreaties from his father and sister to talk about it, before it was too late, and then he felt abandoned by his family because they did not immediately and completely support his decision. So, he stayed away from them and then convinced himself that they had abandoned him.

He was a mess. And if I loved him, I had to acknowledge that I was not the only one in pain. I was not the only one suffering.

Sure, his pain was self-inflicted. He had the choice in the matter and I had no choice at all, but pain is pain, whatever its source. And I felt sympathy for him.

Almost immediately after leaving me, he wanted to introduce his new partner to his sister and family and his sister said, “No. Not yet.”

That Ana had more respect for me in those early moments than Mateo did was not ever forgotten by me. She did not turn on her heel and follow Mateo out the door, just because he was having a tantrum. She got into that elevator with me. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

But, in his confusion and ignorance, I think his sister’s rejection hurt Mateo and I truly felt sorry for him. As I wrestled with what love meant and what my love for Mateo meant in these changed circumstances, I seriously contemplated hosting a dinner party at Miguel’s house where Mateo could bring his new lover and introduce him to the family.

I imagined the scenario over and over again in my head and wondered if I was strong enough to endure it. I toyed with the idea for months, and told myself that if I loved him, I wanted him to be happy and maybe I could be a catalyst to easing the family into the transition to the new lover. But, in the end, I never did it.

And I had to admit too that Mateo was at least partly right about the situation being my fault. It was my decision to leave my job to stay in Spain with him. It was my decision also to buy the house. Of course, we made these decisions jointly, after much discussion. And, of course, too, I made these decisions in reliance upon an implicit, if not explicit, promise that we were doing this together. We were married, after all.

But at some level, even if they were joint decisions—I took part in them and therefore, at some level, they were indeed my decisions. I had to accept responsibility for my own contribution to the spot I was now in. It was too easy to blame it all on him.

Still, Mateo continued to be recalcitrant and refused all my proposals for the divorce, refused to discuss it, refused to talk about money and the house. Through his lies and deceit, he had not given me the courtesy of discussing the ending of our relationship and, it seemed, he was not going to allow me even to participate in my own divorce.

And so there was nothing left to do but wait for him to come to some conclusion of his own about the terms of the divorce, and then accept it.

In my angrier moments, and I had them, I contemplated hiring a lawyer and getting nasty, but the truth is I had no money for a lawyer and I had no taste for getting nasty. I was trying very hard to figure out what love meant—what it meant now, under these circumstances—not for Mateo this time, but for me.

I was trying to divine what was the loving response to all this; how to behave with grace and dignity. I was not responsible for Mateo’s behaviors, but I was responsible for my own.


Going Within

And so I went within. Miguel, Ana, Alex, Miranda, they all helped me so, so much, each in their own way, but now I was moving into a new phase. I couldn’t burden them anymore with my continued sadness and since I couldn’t shake my grief, I told them, and it was true, that I just really needed to be alone. They all stayed in touch and kept tabs on me—for which I was grateful—but now I needed to be alone with my grief.

Alone in my apartment, I sat and cried for hours. I took naps. I went to the bakery every day or so for bread and to the local verduría, or fruit and vegetable stand, occasionally to the grocery store.

I practiced gratitude every day. Although it felt like I had lost everything, in fact, not everything and I tried to focus on that, on what I did have and be thankful for it.

I thanked “god” every night for the warm bed I had to sleep in. I prayed thanks over my food before I ate it. I didn’t bother much about what “god” looked like; where he/she/it sat; whether she was Christian or Buddhist or Muslim. I tended to think of “god” as a kind of universal energy/vibration, an intelligence, probably love, from which we all came and to which we all return—animals, plants and rocks alike.

Practically every day I took a walk along the Llobregat river, which was a short walk from my apartment. It wasn’t much of a river to be honest, but it had nature paths on both sides and you could walk for miles — on weekdays, virtually without seeing a soul. And I thanked god for the sunshine and the water and the vegetation.

I looked at the water flowing, at the ducks, at the plants and flowers and trees. I stopped and stared for many minutes at a particularly beautiful tree, to honor it and to wonder at what secret intelligence it contained.

I noticed a teeny-tiny colorful flower on the side of the path that could easily go unnoticed and I bent down to get a closer look.

I tried every day on my walks to find something like that, something that might be easily missed. I stopped and looked at it. Studied it even.

Those were the things I wanted to notice—the things taken for granted, the things rushed by everyday, the things not seen.

There was a walking meditation I had read about and I practiced it. You were meant to walk forward, with your eyes forward, fixed on the distance, though on no particular object in the distance, and focusing on and using your peripheral vision at all times.

If you could hold it, and it wasn’t easy, but if you could hold it, you began to feel like you were watching yourself walking; like instead of you moving toward things, as in normal vision, things were moving towards you and, with your peripheral vision, you watched them as they went past you like you were in a movie, because your field of vision was wider than normal.

This made you feel expansive, like you were melting into, becoming a part of the big, beautiful world outside your head. Rather than a subject, you became just another object in the world—as special as, but no more so, than everything else. It helped to get out of your own head, where we live most of the time.

I passed time reading books, inspirational things like the poetry of Rumi, Emily Dickinson and others and I watched endless spiritual talks on YouTube, things to make me think. And sometimes I just watched movies on my computer.

And so, many months passed like this, day after day, and then one day it happened.

I was watching a movie on my computer and was fairly engrossed in it. I was not conscious that I was thinking about Mateo at all and seemingly out of nowhere this happened.

The movie continued playing and I was perfectly able to follow the movie without missing a thing that was happening in it.

But, at the same time, I noticed a light shooting out of my chest from my heart. Like the cone-shaped projection of light you would see in a movie theatre if you look back at the projector from the front, only over a smaller distance.

And at the end of this projection was Mateo’s face, just his face, floating there in the air like a hologram to the lower left side of my computer in my peripheral vision.

Mind you, the movie continued playing and I continued watching it throughout this event. These things were happening simultaneously and my attention was never diverted from the movie, but I was aware that this other thing was happening.

So there was this holographic head of Mateo floating there in thin air—as in a projection from my heart and I felt the most amazing feeling of love.

What does love feel like? I couldn’t tell you. It was beyond words, but I knew instantly it was love.

It was no ordinary love and I knew instinctively it wasn’t my love. It wasn’t coming from me, but rather through me. And although Mateo’s face was hanging there in the air, it was not love for him, nor for me. It was just love. Universal love. This feeling of love was so pure, so strong, so good, it was not possible that I could be producing it.

It was love of an entirely different dimension. It felt wonderful. It felt pure, absolutely pure love. It was so amazing and I sat with it momentarily.

Time-wise, I have no idea how long it lasted, maybe only a few seconds, maybe a few minutes. The movie continued playing and I watching it, as in a trance, but feeling this amazing love and noticing this projection of light from my heart and Mateo’s face floating there in my peripheral vision and then I thought to myself: What is this? What is happening? How can I stay in this moment? It is so beautiful. I don’t want it to end.

Damn me! Damn me for moving from feeling to thinking. As soon as I started to think about what was happening, instead of just letting it happen, I tried to shift my gaze from the movie toward the hologram in my peripheral vision, to examine it, to understand it. I wanted to know what this was, but the second I looked at it directly, or tried to, the very second I wanted to control it, to understand it, it disappeared.

I sat there for a moment trying to get it back. Okay, I thought, Stop thinking about it. Go back to the movie. Maybe it will come back.

It never did.

I wish I could tell you that this experience changed my life and that nothing was ever the same again.

I’d be lying if I did. Mateo continued to say insensitive, hurtful things. A mutual friend said to me once, in conversation after the break-up: “But David, anyone can see that Mateo is a child. Surely, you knew that.”

Although I had to admit to myself that, emotionally, Mateo was a child, I was taken aback and a little offended by this remark; maybe not because it was false so much, but because it was so reductionist.

Yes, he was, in ways, emotionally immature, but he was more than that too. He could be extremely loving and affectionate, silly, fun, warm, kind and even touching. And that was the man I loved too. We cannot change people. We can only love them as they are or not. The choice is ours. I made mine.

And, yes, now I was paying the price for my choice, but during this period, I also discovered how very much I was loved—and it was much more than I ever knew. During this period, I learned how strong I could be. It didn’t take courage to do what Mateo had done, but it took a lot of courage to respond with dignity and grace.

Mateo’s behavior post-breakup was ugly, cowardly and callous, even monstrous at times, but I didn’t allow him to turn my love into something ugly.

During this period, I had many months wherein I had nothing to do. I had no job, no partner, no responsibilities, no obligations, nowhere I needed to be, no one I needed to report to. I had lost everything and my identity had been shattered. For months, there was nothing to mediate between me and the simple experience of being alive and looking at tiny, colorful flowers on the side of the path.

I was very much in the world, but not of it. To be in the world in this way is not a choice most of us would freely make and I didn’t either. It was grief that took me there.


by David Stellfox


David Stellfox.jpg


David Stellfox is a former journalist. He is back home living in rural Pennsylvania.



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