What Does Our Time On This Earth Add Up To?

By day Lisbon has a naive theatrical quality that enchants and captivates, but by night it is a fairy-tale city, descending over lighted terraces to the sea, like a woman in festive garments going down to meet her lover. 

-Erich Maria Remarque

Sitting in the dark, listening to the rain, I’m reaching back in time to another country, to the place where a piece of my heart remains, and I’m letting myself remember…

The last impression I have of Portugal is also of me engulfed by darkness, holding my child in my arms, drowning in those same feelings I had when I held him at birth. I whisper in his ear, “I love you.” I kiss his cheek, okay, repeatedly. The tears spill down my cheeks, my heart aches, and it takes everything I have to let him go. To turn and watch him walk down the empty street toward a place he now calls home. 

We’ve been to Portugal several times to visit our son Tony and his girlfriend Thalita, so instead of a travel log, I’ll try to capture the moments. And when I say moments, I’m referring to the place where we store our most potent memories, Natalie Goldberg refers to it as a foreign country. I call it home, wherever the people you love happen to be.

We developed a ritual early on, one we participated in every night without fail. If you know anything about me, you know I am a creature of habit, and my days are precariously balanced on these practices. Some bad, some good, but let’s not get distracted. 

Rituals ground me, they are predictable moments I can count on in the midst of a chaotic day, and I cling to them as if they were a liferaft. Not that I’m drowning, but certainly adrift.

Don’t accuse me of being overly dramatic, but I believe our most beloved rituals are what hold us or, better yet, anchor us to this life. Don’t you? When we let go of our rituals, it’s as if we’re letting go of a helium balloon, it allows us to drift from this life to the next. I think that is what the process of dying is all about. For some people, it’s an impossible task, for others, it’s simple. I will be in the former. A ninety-seven-year-old maid sipping expresso martinis, watching reruns of Yellowstone, and hoping Rip will recuse me.

Rip or RIP, whichever comes first.

From the first night to the last, we watched the sunset together at a little establishment (rustic is a generous description) located right on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, not a quarter of a mile from our apartments. They serve beer, wine, and cocktails, along with a small selection of tapas. Oh, and they only take cash (which we learned the hard way). 

Our favorite spot was an outdoor table overlooking the water, where we could watch the surfers and that beautiful symphony of color that marks the end of another day. A delineation of day and night, a countdown, if you will, of our time on this side of the world. 

The day we celebrated Tony’s birth is the day Kelley and Julie arrived, jet-lagged, discombobulated (I’m enamored with that word), and overly excited to be together again. We were going to wait and celebrate his birthday tomorrow at an exclusive restaurant in Lisbon when the kids had settled in and experienced at least one night of sound sleep. But we couldn’t wait.

Gathering at our apartment for some celebratory wine, we toast the birthday boy as the sun sets, and walk to a restaurant Larry and I discovered during our last visit to Portugal. 

The thing I know about Tony is that he is smart, inventive, and I believe the backdrop of his brilliance has to do with the depth of his heart. This is true for all of us. He’s also opinionated, quirky, and known for choosing “the path less traveled” (much to his mother’s chagrin). All I can say is the boy I raised no longer resembles the man standing before me today. He listens deeply when embroiled in a conversation, noticing what’s being withheld, and doles out sane advice. Half the time, I believe he’s channeling my mother. 

We walk a quarter mile to the restaurant that has called us together, and we’re seated at a linen-covered table by a wall of windows overlooking the ocean, now shrouded in darkness. I’ve read somewhere that we use our food as a social lubricant, one that facilitates connection, and somehow in that friction, powerful emotions are felt and memorialized.

Tonight was one of them. Anthony Bourdain says, “The whole concept of ‘the perfect meal’ is ludicrous. I knew already that the best meal in the world, the perfect meal, is very rarely the most sophisticated or expensive one….Context and memory play powerful roles in all the truly great meals in one’s life.”

Savory emotions circle the table, along with an extraordinary cuisine of grilled octopus, succulent lamb, steaks, cod, homemade bread, and fries. I don’t remember the food as much as the sentiment of warmth, the awareness of the rarity of such occasions, the laughter, and adore. 

Walking to Tony’s apartment for the traditional candles and cake that Thalita organized, we felt reacquainted and satiated. As the words of the familiar birthday song float in the air, I can’t help but be brought in communion with all the memories that mingle with, “happy birthday, dear Tony, happy birthday to you…” 

My thoughts travel to next year, and I wonder where we will all be.

One night we enjoyed the best chicken I’ve ever tasted (seriously) from a local joint down the street from our apartment. The next night we’re dining on oxtail soup, cooked octopus, lamb, and bacalhau. The next thing I know, we’re consuming steak, fries, warm bread, wine, and pints of ale in Lisbon. Once in a while, we splurge on plates of cheese, ham, prosciutto, and olives. Often topping off the day with a scoop of creamy gelato. 

What you relish about a meal is more than just the food. It’s about being fully present, surrendering to the moment, and letting the warmth of the candles, the scent of seared meats, and crusty bread expand your soul. Maybe it’s simply the knowledge that you are loved. We all missed Dante.

Bill Bryson says, “I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.” I felt this way as Tony, Larry, and I entered the city of Fatima, where it is claimed that three shepherd children experienced repeated apparitions of the Virgin Mary in a field in 1917. 

The story about the children, the visitations, and the secrets revealed are all intriguing, but even more so are the ideas that the future of our civilization, our freedom, and our very existence are dependent on the requests of a mother long deceased. Listen to your mother takes on a whole new meaning.

World War I is raging, the bubonic plague was about to descend on the United States, and our understanding of the world as a global community will be challenged. Or could it be something else, something even more portentous and earth-shattering than innocent children and their understanding of what is and is not possible? 

Clearly, there is more to this life than meets the eye.

And then it’s game day. This is vitally important to most of us, just not me. We locate a bar in Cascais (about 20 minutes outside of Parede) that is willing to broadcast the game, arriving early so we can compare the chicken in Cascais with the joint in Parede. 

Parede is winner, winner, chicken dinner.

American football is not exactly popular in Portugal, and we were the only ones in the bar. We show up just in time to see Purdy get hurt during their first possession. That was disappointing, to say the least. The game was less compelling after the injury, so we play a game of pool to pass the time. That was more memorable than the competition on television. Although I lost that game too.

After the girls flew home, Tony and Thalita needed to catch up on missed work, so Larry and I decided to rent a car and slip off to the charming city of Porto for one night. It’s an exquisite little town located on the Douro River, known for the port wine produced from the vineyards in the Douro valley. It is a little daunting to travel without someone who speaks the language. Tony has been acting as our translator all week. But today, we are on our own.

After checking into a swanky hotel downtown, we head out to explore the local points of interest. Along the river are all sorts of tasting rooms hawking their particular port, linen shops, ceramic stores, and booths filled with chachi souvenirs. Stopping to enjoy not only a tasting of port wine but we are given a historical overview of the town’s most prominent industry. Everything is charming and old, cobblestone streets, tiled buildings, gorgeous fountains, large inviting squares, open markets, an ancient train station, and hundreds of inviting restaurants. We lingered over every element, promising to return sometime in the near future. 

On the way home, we stopped at the town of Obidos. It is dominated by a storybook castle, reconstructed into a modern hotel, the town is surrounded by stone walls, churches, charming whitewashed cottages with yellow shutters, and winding cobbled streets. We stop in at the famous Bar Ibn Errik Rex, a quirky tavern with only one food option on the menu. They serve flame-grilled linguica sausage at your table, with cheese from the Azores and a basket of homemade bread. The interior is dark, and the decor consists of old dusty wine bottles, dripping wax candles, and taxidermied animals, but you instantly feel like family, welcomed and honored. 

Our final evening in Portugal landed us back at the same shack to watch the sunset and the same restaurant where we started our vacation, and this felt like a proper closure. The huge marketing program Thalita was commissioned to create has been accepted with no edits, Tony’s journaling app has received a tremendous response, and my book just landed on Amazon. We have much to celebrate. 

It takes a lot of mental muscle to ignore the fact that this is my last night in Portugal with these beloved kids. I push down that lump that threatens to form in my throat and stay focused on the present moment. I’m mildly successful. We’re all both elated and exhausted, which results in a generous warmth circling the table. We linger over our beverages, knowing our time is about to expire. 

Writing about a vacation is like writing about a kaleidoscope. You can’t nail it because it keeps changing. The colors, the images, and the scope of our adventure defy words, every person knows something that no one else knows, saw something in a different light, and holds something I will never know. 

On the morning of our departure, I watch the outline of Tony’s silhouette fade into the night as we drive away. I can still feel his warmth in the birth of my arms, and I hug myself in an attempt to capture his charisma, his essence. The ability to trust this young man, to allow him to forge his own path in life, to know he is more than capable of designing a future that is right for him is how we know our work as a parent is done. 

I feel as if I am perched precariously on brink of a large abyss, teetering on the edge of reason, knowing the future is not derivable no matter how tightly I cling to the past. This is how we give our fragile lives meaning, granting each other permission to pursue our dreams, and so what does time on this Earth add up to? I believe it’s those rare occasions when we find ourselves shoulder-to-shoulder around the same table with the ones we love, it’s as close as we get to home, for now…

PS. We walked nearly 20,000 steps every day, wore out our train passes, and tried to stimulate the Portuguese economy one restaurant at a time.

I’m Living in the Gap, holding tight to potent memories, join me in the comments. I’ve missed you so much, bear with me as I catch up on your work, and respond to comments.


Leave a Comment

  1. What am amazing trip you had, and in the context of family, the way you described it, makes my heart hurt. In a good way! 💗

    I feel the deep seated need of the kids to disconnect and fly the coup and you have this family togetherness that warms the heart, in a country that cherishes and celebrates family. I’m very happy for you.

    What a wonderful account and the pictures were scrumptious. 🥰

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good morning Claudette! It was an amazing trip and I’m holding tight to the memories. I hear you. I remember when my kids were at the ages of your children. The constant driving to school, sports, and friends. The food shopping, cooking, cleaning, laundry, scheduling, not to mention the expenses! It was so hectic and busy all the time and then it was gone as if the car in front of me came to a full stop. It throws you. I never wish to go back in time. I like today. All I can tell you is it just keeps getting better and better! Hang in there, very soon your nest will seem too quiet, too big, too empty. Hugs, C

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Crystal, I’ve missed you. I hope you are doing well. I’m heading over to catch up on your life next although I’ve seen glimpses of what you have just finished and I’m praying that the treatments are working. Portugal is a wonderful place but it’s that silhouette that brings me back again and again. You’ll get there and when you do I want you to take a moment to enjoy the sunset, then we’ll both hold the same image of being on the other side of the world, on the edge of the night. Hugs, C


    1. Oh my Pete, that’s about the kindest thing anyone has ever said about my writing. Thank you. And thank you for more than just your words, for trusting me enough to allow those emotions to spill over, to feel something new. Much love to you my friend, C

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful kettle of memories Cheryl! So precious, even more so when we know this as we experience it all. Try as we do, we simply cannot slow down the rotation of the earth, but when we experience so deeply, it can almost seem like time is measured in precious seconds. XXOO

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love that Dorothy, “a wonderful kettle of memories.” You totally get me, we can’t slow time, and as I age I realize how each moment spent with the ones I love is truly the most precious gift. I’m playing with the memories and I refuse to put them away. Love wins…Hugs, C

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Missed you!! Ok….love rituals. I am the queen of rituals because good or bad they hold the keys to our lives. Also, big fan of breaking bread, whether it be fancy or plain, with the ones you love. We are visiting my daughter in dc this coming weekend, and I’m looking forward to sitting at a table, and just talking to her, no phones, no distractions, etc. nice post and welcome back!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you LA, I missed you too! And I believe that is why you are so intriguing to me, we both love ritual, and somehow our lives are precariously balanced on these beloved events. Enjoy your time with your daughter, bring some of your homemade bread! It’s wonderful to visit the kids but it’s also nice to be home. Hugs, C

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow.. . The expression in word of your experiences in your post are simply captivating neighbor!

    Being now three ‘full’ years removed from my and Terrie’s planned “two years” living in Portugal? The experience of absorbing your prose was wonderful. Btw, that word “full” used back in the last sentence could easily be replaced with a ‘different’ seven letter word also starting with ‘fu’. . . sigh, apparently it is just not God’s plan for us to be Portugal yet.

    Ah well, until we get back into a situation where our ‘plans’ can be converted to actions we’ll just have to live vicariously via your writings of Portugal through the caleidoscope of your pilgrimages to Tony, thank you.

    Was especially nice to read you visited Fatima! Many pilgrims make that the point of visiting Portugal. Our Lady’s message there is considered by many to be God’s last call to humanity to get our spiritual sh*t/lives together while here on this spinning rock that the local inhabitants have named ‘earth’: a remedial outpost designed for us inhabitants (souls) to live through experiences designed to prove our character to the Creator of the Universe.

    As such, I have read many stories of people coming away from the mystic experience of walking on what can only be considered the ‘Holy Ground of Fatima’ with a renewed purpose that has absolutely nothing to do with the outcome of football games or any of the other distractions that pull us away from focusing on listening for Gods voice above the din of distraction for our true direction and purpose.

    And how could a visit to such a place as Fatima not change hearts? God’s purpose for us here is sooo much LARGER than the shiny distractions put forth to us all to look away from God’s hope for us all.

    If I never get to Portugal, hopefully, Tony stays, you keep visiting and I keep getting the occasional 1st had accounts, complete with richly deep descriptions of scenes, feelings, and moments, each sentence containing color, humor, humility, and love of life that puts the reader write there, ‘in the moment’ through your uniquely honest and human style of sharing.

    As usual, your musical selection was spot on to the moment. Back in ’97 Terrie and I shuffled around the snooker table, taking turns holding 19-month-old Shannon, and one-month-old Shelby in the ballroom/game room/bar of our home in LG to this melody with the Ridgebacks right on our heels.

    Little known fact: It’s a Gospel song! Yup. Shephany Smith wrote it about Jesus. As I said, the perfect selection!

    Can I get an AMEN? 😉

    Best regards,


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Chris, your words mean a lot to me, as a writer, I’m always trying to convey strong emotions, a new experience, perspective, or a complicated concept such as apparitions. The thing is people have such diverse beliefs, exposure, possibly an atheistic view of life and yet you want to share what you saw and felt. I constantly worry that the words won’t be right or they’ll be confusing or worse just uninteresting. I think having some sort of context is helpful. I hope you and Terrie will have the opportunity to fulfill your dream of living in Portugal someday soon. As you know, it’s a magical place. I had no idea that was originally a gospel song! That’s crazy! And an even better choice. And yes, you can get an Amen! Hugs, C


  5. What a beautiful post – the rituals, the meals. You describe it beautifully. Even though it is “Writing about a vacation is like writing about a kaleidoscope. ”

    And you buried that your book is now on Amazon! I just purchased it and can’t wait for it’s delivery.

    But the thing that really struck me is that your trust of Tony let’s you know that your work as a parent is done. Which is beautiful and feels right – except that we never stop being parents, do we? Somehow we continue to be something long after its done. No wonder reading this makes me feel big things. Sending hugs and love to you, Cheryl!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Wynne, I appreciate your kind words, as you can tell, it’s an emotional act to leave Tony behind, and that seeps into my writing. I agree with you, we never stop being parents, but it changes as they age, mature, and create their own lives. I feel my job as a parent becomes more about validating, listening, and on occasion adding to what their knowledge (if asked). I’m always learning how to be something new. I never expected that one of my kids would live in a different country. It’s a continual adjustment. Appreciating your thoughtfulness and love, hugs, C

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You have me full of emotion! There is nothing on this planet better than being with your kiddos. Love that y’all had so much fun. Rituals are my thing and without them I feel like I’m spiraling out of control.
    I alwys have to pull myself out of a fog when I’m with my kids. I know that goodbye will come and I DREAD IT!
    Congratulations on your book! I’m getting it now!!!!!! So excited for you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Belladonna, you so get me, I feel much the same, there is nothing better then being with my kids! And leaving is the worst. I love how much fun it is when we’re together and I hang on to those precious memories. Thank you for ordering my book, I’m so thankful for your support and encouragement! Means the world to me. Hugs, C

      Liked by 1 person

    1. “Heavenly” is the perfect descriptive for spending time in Portugal. It’s always hard to leave especially when we don’t know when we’ll see each other again. If I have a date I do so much better but this time our next visit is up in the air. Thanks for the encouraging words, hugs, C

      Liked by 1 person

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