In-Between Time


It was a mild but breezy Sunday afternoon on the last day of the year, and I was in Llanes, a town on the coast, two hours from my home. My running partner and I were there for the San Silvestre, an end-of-the-year footrace named for Silvestre I, pope and later saint, who died on December 31 in 335. To make sure of a parking spot, we had arrived early for the five o’clock race, and now we waited. We weren’t alone. At three p.m., a few people strolled down the street past the arch already set up for the race. Others were finishing their afternoon meal, having coffee, or picking up sweets at one of the bakeries still open. It was an in-between time. But the wind seemed to pick up, as if in preparation for the race. Hurry, hurry! And yet, no one, neither the runners beginning to congregate nor passersby, seemed hurried. A Sunday and the last day of the year. Race or no race, what’s to hurry about?

San Silvestre races are typically run on New Year’s Eve but can be held on any day over the course of the last week of the year. This past year, some 40 races were run during the last week of the year, in different towns, villages, and cities in Asturias, most on that Sunday, some in the morning but the majority in the early evening, like our event, where 300 runners ran a 2.8K course through the streets of Llanes. In a different San Silvestre that morning, I had competed with about 20 runners in a 5K circuit in a small village, while in Asturias’s biggest city, Gijón, 6,000 signed up to run a 6.5K. As in Asturias, so all over Spain, for a total of more than 200 races, the oldest being the 10K San Silvestre Vallecana in Madrid. In that race, 42,000 runners took to the streets while untold numbers of spectators cheered them on.

My running partner and I found a nice bench in a spot of sun to wait for our race. It happened to be under the window of a state-run residence for the aged, and after we had sat there for some minutes, a woman came along pushing a walker that had a seat attached to it. She positioned the walker at one end of the bench, next to my running partner, and then sat in it. She was nice-looking, with coiffed white hair, pink cheeks, and spectacles on a blue cord. She wore a knee-length coat with a lively purple pattern, dark trousers, and dainty loafers. I got a good look at her because after she had told us her story, which was of a medical condition that affected her muscles and made it impossible for her to continue to live alone, she showed us that she could still function quite well. She could go out by herself for a stroll, she could walk unaided—and here is where she nimbly rose from her seat, took three small but jaunty steps away from it, swiveled on her toes, took three back, and settled again. Perfectly able, she repeated, sometimes. It was those other times that had precipitated the decision to move into a facility, which she hoped to do very soon. She had no strength in her hands and could not open a jar, or grip a door handle, or even push the buttons on a microwave. We learned that she was living with her son, but he couldn’t be with her all day, every day. Today he was in Oviedo, a couple of hours away, to see his girlfriend. And so here she was, taking a stroll! Such a nice day! But breezy!

Long-distance relationships are tough to maintain, but what’s really tough is the distance of different experiences. Would the girlfriend understand the son’s slight edge all day, as he worried about his mother left alone? Or would the girlfriend be the one whose persistent worrying kept him from enjoying the much-needed break? What, for that matter, I wondered, did he think about his mother’s decision to move into the home? Or was it his decision that she was accepting with such good grace? While undergoing some procedures, she had briefly stayed in a private nursing home, and what she saw there would raise your hair, she confided. The residents all lined up in front of the TV, an attendant smacking them on the side of the head if they slumped in their wheelchairs. I’m not going there, she said. Much better the state-run homes. She gestured over her shoulder. This is where I’ll be.

We learned too that when she’d gone to the health center in town, she’d been put on a waiting list for the tests that she needed. Six months it would take, she’d been told. Las cosas de palacio van despacio, is the saying in Spanish, meaning, “the wheels turn slowly,” or, simply, “these things take time.” As a younger woman, she had lived and worked in Germany, and her daughter was still there, her granddaughter too, and so she had taken a plane, gone to the German health center, and been seen immediately—tests conducted, results available, all in a week. Did you get treatment, I asked from the other side of my partner, who was absorbing the brunt of the woman’s tale, doing the nodding, making the sympathetic sounds. No treatment for her condition, she said.

I looked concerned.

She shrugged. The prognosis was none too good. “At least I didn’t have to wait six months to find out,” she said. She peered around my partner to address me. A daughter is better at these times than a son, she said, but Spain was where she wanted to be, in her own streets among her own people. “Look,” she said, and lifted her voice to call out a greeting to a woman shuffling along on the opposite side of the street, who barely raised her head in response.

Yes, our new acquaintance continued, she was 88 and mentally fine, she assured us again, but she couldn’t be alone. As soon as the papers were signed, she’d have a room in the home. We nodded, but when she wanted to stand up and again show us how nimble she was, we cautioned against it. She resettled. In a moment of silence, we explained that we were there for the race, and that we should be going. A race? She looked around expectantly, and my partner pointed out the inflated arch. The children would run first, yes, right there, just in front of her. “Then I’ll stay right here!” she exclaimed. We took our leave.

Next year will we be back? Will she be here? When we lined up for our race, I glanced ahead toward the residence, no longer sunlit, and the shadowed bench, empty.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Clellan Coe, a writer in Spain, is a contributing editor of the Scholar.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up