The word commune evokes images of free love and fields filled with flower children, not two middle-aged sisters who have blended their families into one. But though our group is small—me, my husband, Ethan, and our two young boys; Stephanie, her husband, Todd, and their two preteen girls—we share interests, possessions, resources, philosophies, and work. And we do it while living together on two crowded floors of a rented, drafty, quaintly crumbling 18th-century palacio in a Spanish port town.
This is not how I'd imagined life in my late 40s. In 2012, my family was living in a five-bedroom house in Los Angeles, where I managed West Coast operations for an Internet company and spent weekends shuttling the kids from soccer games to the beach. Then one brilliant June afternoon the phone rang. It was my 74-year-old mother calling to say she'd been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Her prognosis—two months at worst, two years at best—prompted Stephanie and her daughters to fly back from Spain, where Todd is a surgeon at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Andalusia. Our younger sister, Simone, and her husband, Chris, took leave from their jobs in Seattle. Everyone moved in with us, and for nine brutal months our lives orbited around my mom's weakening star.
We settled into tasks that suited us. I used my local contacts to organize a top-notch team of doctors. Stephanie, a former science teacher, researched alternative treatments to the chemotherapy that kept pushing my mother to the brink of death. Simone and Chris, both gourmet cooks, whipped up healthy meals. Ethan did laundry and drove the kids to playdates while my sisters and I took turns lying next to our mother in bed, running fingers across her parchment white forehead, whispering "I love you"—the words a mantra of hope and despair—until, in the space of one small breath, her bright light blinked out.
My mom's death I had prepared for; end-stage cancer brings the fervent wish for your loved one's suffering to stop. But the idea of our group disbanding unleashed a new fear: How would I bear the weight of this unholy grief without my fellow warriors? As my sisters prepared to head back to their lives, the thought of just my little family at our dinner table felt like an abandonment of the worst kind.
One morning, sitting on my mother's empty bed with Stephanie and sorting clothes into sad heaps of "keep" or "donate," I begged her not to leave. The fierce neediness in my voice was startling, considering our turbulent history. Growing up, my bossy older sister preferred studying to socializing and got straight As, while my hobbies included feathering my Farrah Fawcett hairstyle and chasing boys. Since conflict resolution was not high on our mother's priority list—an English professor working toward her doctorate at night, she had little time to referee—Steph and I settled disagreements with our fists. Once, when she hid the keys to our shared Honda Civic, I yanked out a spark plug, and she knocked me out with one punch.
It wasn't until the wrinkles of middle age appeared that our relationship began to feel more like a choice than an obligation. When my first marriage ended, Stephanie stocked my empty refrigerator and insisted on turning on the lights, even though I preferred to sit in the dark. Too humiliated by this colossal failure to reach out to friends, I took refuge under her wing. Later, after we'd both struggled with infertility, we celebrated the births of her kids—and then the births of mine—in our respective delivery rooms.
Now as my sister hugged my shaking shoulders, I felt her own great need. "Come with us," Stephanie whispered, and amid the painful detritus of our mother's life, the idea of leaving my comfortable, familiar world behind did not seem crazy at all.
Ethan was on board right away. He'd held me as the tears ran down my face in such a rush that I felt like I was underwater, and he knew that physical reminders of my mom—our piano, for example, which she had played on New Year's Eve in a red party dress just ten weeks before she died—would slow my healing. And so, after we'd rented out our house and quit our jobs, Ethan lugged a dozen boxes filled with jeans and T-shirts to the post office for overseas shipping while I lugged a dozen more filled with designer suits to an American Cancer Society thrift shop. On a clear summer night, we took off into our new future, the lights of Southern California fading to black beneath us.
That night, after putting the kids to bed in a small room that doubled as our only closet, Ethan and I banged elbows as we brushed our teeth in our tiny bathroom—and reality began to sink in. "You realize we have no kitchen, no hot water, and only a half bathroom, right?" Ethan asked. We did a little do-si-do so he could grab the dental floss, and I nodded. It was true: To shower, we had to run to my sister's floor.
After a few days spent bouncing, jet-lagged, from tapas bars to fiestas (my sister wanted to immerse us in the culture), we awoke on our first Saturday—at 4:17 A.M., to be exact—to disco music pumping from a nearby nightclub. "We could get our own place," I whispered to Ethan, as we lay awake, a streetlamp casting shadows. "We had our own place," he replied, and I couldn't tell whether he was irritated or amused.
After our positive experience in L.A., we'd decided to split expenses like food, gas, heat, wine, and toilet paper; Ethan and Stephanie met regularly with piles of receipts. But because Todd was the only one with a steady paycheck—Steph had been a full-time mom since moving to Spain; my writing earned a fraction of my former salary; and Ethan, who had flipped houses in L.A., was now investing our savings—we knew we'd need to cut costs. Manicures and dry cleaning became luxuries of the past. Ethan and Todd, both caffeine hounds, began ordering green coffee beans online and roasting them themselves.
We'd also agreed that every adult would have disciplinary power over every kid, and my sister wasted no time flexing that power. When Griffin hit his 5-year-old brother, Adrian, she ordered him to pull 20 weeds in our dusty car park before I could even react. Stephanie also made my boys, with her girls, responsible for three cats, two hamsters, a lovebird named Blueberry, the dinner dishes, and one daily chore each. One night when Griff didn't clean the dinner table to my sister's standards, she said, "Suz, you need to teach him." Her tone with me was flat but firm, the same one she used to reprimand the kids, and as I silently wiped the table myself, I felt my hands shake with anger and shame.
My heart suddenly ached for my mother, for whom pretty good was usually good enough. I slipped into the dark stairway leading up to our floor and sat staring out at the fairy-tale castle and listening to Spanish voices drift up from the street, choked by a homesickness that bordered on despair. When I heard my sister's footsteps, I wanted to hide, sure that she was coming to further scold me. Instead, she knelt beside my chair. "Are you okay?" she asked. The heaviness inside me eased, and I knew deep down that she was right: I often didn't take the time to teach my boys well. I also knew that Steph's naturally intimidating style had been tempered by 25 years of teaching in inner-city schools, where she found that calm consistency helped kids learn.
Before long, she even taught Adrian to clean a bathroom, and while I cringed when he wielded the toilet brush like a sword, I knew that if it weren't for Stephanie's influence, I might be making his bed into his teenage years. Instead, after dinner, as I played guitar outside under our olive tree while the kids cleaned the kitchen, I felt more like a queen than a servant.
What I wanted even more, however, was to catch the first flight out of Spain. When we'd disagreed from separate continents, I could simply hang up the phone and send her an e-mail. But in Spain, regardless of what happened during the day, eight of us would be gathered around the dinner table at night.
From across the net, Ethan caught my eye—my husband, who had dragged kids, cats, and suitcases halfway around the world for the sake of my fresh start. I felt a sudden pang of guilt and knew I owed it to him to stay in the game. So I stopped arguing and repeated, like a silent prayer, the lessons about fighting fair that we were teaching our kids on the commune: Use your words. Be kind. Treat others how you want to be treated. When the match was over, there was no anger left in me.
We soaked the last days of summer on the white beaches of Andalusia and watched Gypsies dance flamenco in the streets. Ethan bought his first jamón ibérico, a leg of an acorn-fed black Iberian pig. Todd cut slices that we paired with glasses of exotic-tasting Spanish sherry.
Then one scorching autumn Friday we piled into our 10-year-old diesel minivan and headed for Portugal's southwestern tip, where sheer cliffs rise from an indigo sea. The Greeks and Romans considered Cape St. Vincent a sacred, magical place, the end of their world and the start of heaven, and as the wind dampened the kids' excited voices, I strongly felt my mother's spirit. She was out there amid the rolling waves and blue sky, smiling, I felt sure, at all this family harmony, pleased that her death had led to something rare and priceless.
Suddenly, I heard a cry. Adrian had fallen near the edge of a cliff. Stephanie got there first and lifted him to his feet, brushing away the dirt and tears. She then handed my son to me. "Todo está bien," she said. As the sun slid toward the glittering sea, I knew she was right.