When I arrive in Cullera, Valencia, I ask my cousin if she can drive me to the cemetery. I know it’s on the outskirts, with a huge sandstone and tile entrance, but I’m not sure how to get there or even if it’s walking distance from where she lives. When she asks why, I just say that there is something that I need to do.
‘Vale’, she replies. ‘Donde tu quieres ir nene, yo te llevo,’ and she doesn’t ask any other questions; she just keeps on driving, and talking to me about our family—the family, she tells me, whose divisions between my dad’s siblings have become so entrenched her own children don’t even know who their cousins are at school.
The next day she drives me to the cemetery. She asks her friend, the groundskeeper, where to find the grave plot I’m looking for, and leaves me to wander around answering questions of her five-year old son Sergi.
Ever since I booked my flights I’d thought about this moment, thought about going to Cullera’s cemetery and standing in front of mi Abuelo’s grave. And I’d thought about what I’d do there: write, pray, cry, think, call, dance, talk—talk to who, talk to myself—listen, laugh. But in a year’s thinking I still hadn’t narrowed it down.
I’d seen the grave once before, coupled with the abuela I’d never met, back when it was just a plot. It was empty then, the first and last time I was here, over a decade ago. That was the last time my dad was in Spain—
My phone rings. The call is from my mum and I know it’s about dinner tonight. She called earlier in the week asking when I’d be over next because a month had passed since I was last home. I told her probably Thursday—today—but I never got back to her. I let the call ring out because if I answer I’ll be bombarded with a thousand questions—with one just as I’m hanging up—and I’m busy at the moment.
But now I have our last conversation in mind.
‘Llama tu padre. Te estraña bastante,’ she said between her goodbyes.
‘No me estraña,’ I said back. ‘Chao, chao. Mama. Chao,’ and I hung up before she could say anything else. I had immediately dismissed her claim that my dad missed me as an attempt to get me home for dinner—a Hail Mary since everything else hadn’t worked.
Ten years ago, when we were leaving for Valencia airport, I remember sitting in the taxi looking out the rear window and seeing my dad and mi Abuelo hugging. The taxi meter was already running but neither would let the other go. And when my dad broke into tears mi Abuelo held him out at arm’s length and gave him three solid pats on his arm and a hard look into his eyes as if to say, Vale ya—that’s enough.
Mis Abuelos’ grave is number nine in a giant wall, slid in lengthways, second from the bottom and somewhere in the middle. Its face is marble brown, with a statue of the Madonna holding a baby Jesus centred above a bunch of fake flowers.
The Valencian summer sun is burning down on my neck, insufferable with all this concrete surrounding me. I move backwards into the shade in the triangular garden of the courtyard. I sit on one of the benches. It’s directly in line with the grave, but I’m too far back to read the few words written in gold inlay above the small individual portraits on either side of the flowers.
I can hear Sergi running around the place, and my cousin telling him to behave himself. He’s not sure what we’re doing here and doesn’t understand why he should leave me alone. I take my folded-up notebook from my back pocket and place it beside me. I have it with me just in case I feel the need to write something. But I’m just looking ahead of me now, elbows on my knees, chin resting in my hands. What do I do here? What do I do now? All I’ve thought about is getting to this moment, but now it’s here I don’t know what to do.
Sergi is at my side before I notice him. The sunlight glistens off the gel fashioning his David Villa-inspired mohawk.
‘Que haces?’ he asks. His voice is inquisitive yet low.
An answer doesn’t come to me straight away but I say, ‘Pensando.’ It’s vague, but it’s the truth.
He keeps a sharp eye on me, waiting for something more. But he gives up and asks what I’m thinking about.
‘De mi Abuelo y mi padre, tu tio Manuel.’
‘Y eso es porque estas llorando?’
His simple question makes me smile and the tear that was forming in my eye is squeezed out. I chuckle and he bursts into laughter. I rough his hair and lift him onto my lap. I can see my cousin in the distance, and I nod to let her know that it’s okay. There’s actually something calming about him being here, about his inquisitiveness, and I now know what it is I’m going to do.
‘Me podras dar dies minutos?’ I ask him.
‘Vale,’ he says, letting his body go limp so that he can slide off my lap. He runs off behind the wall, calling out that I need ten more minutes before we leave.
I walk forward with my phone in hand, thinking of the night my dad got the phone call from one of his brothers, three months after mi Abuelo’s funeral. His screams woke me that night. I was in bed thinking that he and Mum were just having another argument about the mortgage or the money she sent monthly to Peru. They still argued at night even though my sister and I were in our late teens. But then I heard shrieking shouts.
My dad was pacing back and forth on the phone; my mum was sitting at the kitchen table, hands over her mouth, watching his coños, hijos de putas y sus preguntas turn into sobs long before he could finish what he started saying. This time she wasn’t telling him to be mindful of his language. My mum and I could only watch. The next thing I remember is my dad sitting in his chair, face in his hands, trying to hold everything in. That’s when I sat down beside him, my hands together in front of me, looking up at him. I could see that his eyes were closed through the cracks between his fingers. But a sob escaped and that’s when I began to cry. I started without meaning to, without knowing why, and I couldn’t stop. But then my dad began to cry too, and for the next hour we sat together: father and son.
I focus the camera and make sure the whole grave is in the shot. When I have a picture I’m happy with, I attach the file to an email—
I know the email is somewhere. I open up the ‘Sent’ folder and I search for my parents’ address. There it is: Por mi Padre. I open it. For the first time I’m reading over what I wrote.
My eyes are welling up again. I give my head a shake and try to settle back into my chair to keep going but all this writing about my dad, this story and the others I’ve written, have brought me closer to him. They’ve helped me understand who he is, and now I feel like we get each other.
I imagine my dad moseying into my room like he used to when I lived at home and I let the thought entertain me.
‘Que estas haciendo,’ he asks.
He knows I’ve written about him before but I never tell him when. Instead, I say, ‘Estudiando.’
‘Ooooh.’ He strokes his chin with a flutter of his fingers and finishes with a roll onto the balls of his feet. He chuckles but his grin disappears as he starts coughing. His face reddens and the veins around his temples jut out, but then he thumps a fist against his chest—a mannerism I’ve picked up—and the coughing stops.
Que quieres? I ask, wanting to know if there’s a purpose to his entrance this time.
Nada, nada. Continua, he says clearing his throat.
He walks behind me and takes a seat on the sofa, expecting me to continue where I stopped. I can hear the end credits to the Spanish news program he watches the recording of every afternoon; it’s his way of staying in contact with what’s happening at home and in the world.
He’s sitting there. Silent. But I can feel him ogling the screen through his bi-focal lenses, trying to decipher what I’m writing. I don’t hide it because reading is something my dad finds difficult. He’s not illiterate, but he did leave school when he was in grade two to go work on a farm with his father and older brothers. And at fourteen he went to work in construction. That’s where he learnt what he knows.
His hand is dangling over the armrest. It’s a workers hand: scarred, coarse, brutal—it has never used a computer keyboard. And I think I’ll never have his hands. A bit over a month ago he dislocated his index finger while working in the shed. I was supposed to help him when I was next free, but he didn’t want to wait. When he told me he also showed me how he popped it back in its socket. He laughed as if it were nothing. And I knew I’d never have his hands.
They’ve been working for half a century now. They first toiled at home, helping his father provide for his younger brothers and sister, and then for my mum, sister and me. When I was young I was amazed at the things he built—Citylink bridges, a New Zealand naval ship, the industrial powerlines that run across Australia. He was, and still is to my child self, indestructible. When I used to look up at him from the bottom of a ladder I felt that he didn’t need my help; I felt that I was only a hindrance to his way of doing things.
‘Mira y aprende,’ he would say when I asked how I was supposed to learn the skills he knew. Watch and learn, I’d repeat to myself when I was younger, back when I was trying to focus my attention on the task he’d given me. I hated helping in the shed though. I hated it because helping out meant holding something while he did the sawing, nailing, hammering, measuring, gluing, concreting, plumbing or whatever. And because I didn’t think that holding a pipe in place for a couple of hours was really doing anything, I didn’t watch. And I didn’t learn. And nowadays I have to call him and ask for his advice, even if I just want to change a washer in a tap. If I’d only watched and learnt as a kid, I’d know how it was done now.
What eats at me now, though, is that I never helped him learn English or that I didn’t encourage him to learn English. Now when he writes, his letters are angular, misshapen, all in capitals; when he reads, his pronunciation of words is off and he gets defensive if you correct him. So I don’t because reading and writing are my strong points and I should’ve helped him when I was in school. Now it’s too late for him to learn. He doesn’t see the point, and neither do I. He has a job again, and he’s doing well. But I’m still indebted to him, and since writing is what he’s allowed for me to do, I’ll write about him so others know what he has done.
…and I write in Spanish: For my dad, who’s not been able to say goodbye to his father. Hopefully now he can, if even it’s only a little.
My phone rings again. Now I have to answer.
‘Manolo’, I say.
‘Que estas haciendo?’ my dad asks me.
I ask if Mum told him to call. He says no, and asks why he can’t just call me if he wants to? I tell him to forget I asked.
‘Vienes a cenar hoy?’
I can’t say no to him. I ask what time dinner is and where he finishes work today.
‘En la M— Rd,’ he says. ‘Porque?’
‘Because I’ll come meet you and you can drive me home with you.’
‘Vale.’ He tells me to meet him at work in an hour’s time, and not to be late because the traffic will be bad.
‘Vale,’ I say. ‘Chao.’ And he hangs up.
I fumble through a couple hundred words trying to end the story I started this morning. All I’ve got is finding my cousin in the cemetery, telling her that we could leave, because I did what had to be done. I’m not happy with it, but if I want to meet my dad I need to leave now.
I’m looking forward to the drive home, but not dinner. At home he’ll just go sit in his chair and watch the Spanish news because that’s how he unwinds his day, how he rests his back from the pain that he says is crippling. Then dinner will be with the family, and that will be a conversation led by my mum. My dad and I will remain largely silent, unable to speak to each other the way we speak because it is rough, and harsh, and short—all things my mum dislikes in the way we speak.
I didn’t understand him when I was younger, I didn’t get the way he talked to me. Back then I would get angry. I felt I was always in trouble. And then my mum would get between us and it would make me think there was something I did wrong, or he did wrong, when really it was nothing.
On the drive home it will just be us. And he’ll tell me stories of his life, tell me not to get married early or about the time he was working somewhere in country Queensland and how he drove his Ford Cortina with three friends to go party in Sydney for the weekend—the ending is always different. And I will listen to him because I have much to learn from him still. And although I like to think of him as being indestructible, one day I’ll be the one telling his stories. So I have to stop writing now, and go listen. I need to spend more time with him, now that we understand each other.