“Why do you always feel the need to tip the waiters here?”
My girlfriend asked me as I slid my golden silver one Euro coin onto the tiny aluminum tray.
My girlfriend is Spanish. She’s often dumbfounded at the cultural habits I’ve brought with me to Spain from the United States.
We had been dating for six months and I decided to take her on a road trip to Cadiz for her birthday weekend. It’s a quaint fishing city on the southern coast. Lined with palm trees, old Spanish architecture and adobe roofs, it feels more like twentieth-century Cuba than Spain.
We were sitting at wooden table having lunch under one of the many umbrellas lining the cobblestone streets which lure hungry Spaniards and tourists into the shade. We could hear the squawking and chirping of parrots right above us.
After lunch, we were just sitting there relaxing. It was one of those moments when one often takes out his or her phone out of boredom or force of habit. Besides, it was a good moment to review all the pictures I had taken and decide which ones I would post to Instagram.
Only we didn’t take our phones out. We kept talking.
“My grandfather was always a generous tipper,” I explained.
“He always gave more than twenty percent. If I’m a gentleman, it’s because of him. He taught me so many things, like to always look the waiter or waitress in the eye and to say please and…”
I stopped mid-sentence.
My eyes began to well up with tears—completely out of nowhere.
“What is happening to me?” I thought.
My grandfather was like my father. After my parents divorced when I was three years old, my mom moved back in with her parents. My grandfather was the one who filled the void. He would be the one changing my diapers and feeding me in my highchair. From that point on, he would be my father-figure, role-model and all-around hero.
To others he was superman and a local celebrity. At eighty-years-old, he was still waking up at four in the morning to commute into Boston to dig clams on the shores of Winthrop the old fashioned way—with an old iron hand rake. This was grown man’s work. It would fell the strongest of young men eager to make an extra buck. He even went skydiving with me at the ripe age of seventy-eight. We flew up together, but he wanted to be the first one to jump out of the airplane.
He was at every single one of my varsity football games. He became a kind of team mascot and cult sensation amongst the players and coaches. Every Saturday during the season, after film session, he would take the entire team out for breakfast. “Mr. Mac” was the nickname my teammates gave him.
Only now my grandfather was sick. Really sick. He had suffered two major strokes in the past five years which had all but debilitated him. One of which likely would have killed him had he not been brought to the hospital in time. He was also suffering from early onset dementia which was no doubt exacerbated by the strokes.
Due to the irreparable damage to his brain chemistry from the strokes coupled with dementia, he had turned negative, bitter and at times borderline abusive. He would stop eating for long periods of time and had to be put on a feeding tube. He suffered from paranoid episodes where he would be convinced the police were watching him.
Seeing your hero in such a defeated state does something to do. He wasn’t the same person I knew, looked up to and loved; though through no fault of his own.
I didn’t bring my friends who knew him well to visit because I wanted them to remember him as they once knew him. I needed to protect his legacy.
I was embarrassed. Men are afraid to cry. They think it shows weakness. And I had never cried in front of my girlfriend before.
I tried to pull myself together but I just couldn’t.
When I looked up, I couldn’t believe what I saw.
She was crying too.
“I can’t believe this,” I said, trying to avert her gaze.
“Shut up. You need to cry. It’s OK,” she said through her teary eyes and her adorable Spanish accent.
“No, this is so embarrassing. I can’t cry in front of you,” my testosterone implored to no avail.
She got up out of her chair, came over and hugged me.
“Don’t be stupid,” she said as she stood next to my chair with her arms around me.
There we were, sitting outside of a restaurant in the old quarter of Cadiz; crying in the street on a Saturday afternoon.
Perhaps I had never really let myself process the grief of what had happened to him. Though he was still alive, losing him as the father I knew was a death. Maybe if I didn’t face the truth, I could still protect the legacy I had of him.
After we got back to our flat, I realized this was one of the most deep and meaningful moments in our relationship so far. It was an expression of total vulnerability and trust.
My girlfriend and I had only been dating for six months, and it’s mostly been light and fun. The way a new relationship should be. But after that day, somehow it felt as if we took our relationship to the next level. We reached a new level of intimacy.
When we were laying in bed later that night, a curious thought struck me which I just couldn’t shake:
How easy it would have been to miss that moment if both—or even one of us—had our phones out.
I wondered how many magical moments we end up missing because we are glued to our phones.
Maybe it’s not a sublime moment we miss. Maybe we just miss a chance to know another person because our physical body is there, but we are not really there.
I’m glad I never had a cell phone during those years when my grandfather took on the role of being my father. I can’t say if I’m a gentleman or not, but had I been glued to my smart phone during those years, I most certainly would not be the man I am today. I shudder at the thought of my grandfather trying to explain a life lesson to me, and me being too preoccupied with Angry Birds to listen.
I realize that’s the gift my grandfather gave me, the same gift any good parent tries to give their children: unconditional love and undivided attention when we were together.
Love, building meaningful relationships and character—they don’t cost money. The best things in life are free, but they’re not cheap. The price is presence. What we give our time and attention to is what flowers in our lives. The grass isn’t greener on the other side; it’s greener where we water it.
It starts by putting the phone down when we’re with the ones we love. It starts by making ourselves available. The significant is hiding in the insignificant, but until we curtail our obsession with constant stimulation, we won’t have the eyes to see it.
My girlfriend and I text all the time. But when we’re together in person, the phones go away because to me, our face-to-face time is too precious. I’d rather sit with her, be bored for hours and force her to explain to me for the hundredth time how to say a word in Spanish, than mentally check out into the digital abyss.
I’m not a Luddite. I enjoy using social media. Admittedly, when I get a lot of likes or comments on an article or picture I post, it’s a good feeling. I try not to judge. I know some people make their living with these platforms. I think that’s incredible.
But I wouldn’t trade one million likes and all the followers in the world for that one moment my girlfriend and I shared.
Actually, I wouldn’t trade those for any moment we’ve shared.
I remember when I was about fourteen-years-old, my grandfather took me aside after dinner into the hallway. He knelt down, looked me right in the eye and said,
“Cameron, I want you to know something. You are as close to my heart as anyone will ever be.”
His words lodged themselves in me like an arrow.
If I close my eyes and focus on that moment, I can still see the expression on his face.
I can still feel his hand on my arm.
And if it were possible, I would delete every single social media account I have if it meant just a few more moments with my grandfather the way I remember him—as my father.