Defining Purpose In The Wake Of La Rambla

What La Rambla and Omaha Beach Are Still Teaching Me About My Purpose

I want to know everything
I want to be everywhere
I want to know everyone in the world
I want to do something that matters

-Trent Reznor, from I Do Not Want This

Jared Tucker was forty-two years old, and celebrating his first wedding anniversary with his wife Heidi, forty years old, at a street side cafe in Barcelona on August 17, 2017. They paid their check, and while Heidi went to look at some jewelry, Jared went inside to the men’s room.

They were ending their vacation—a delayed honeymoon—in Spain after stops in Paris, France and Venice, Italy.

I remember focusing at the time on what I called similarities.

That Jared and I were the same age. That we shared a name (his first, my middle). That we were both Americans. That we had, in the same span of weeks, been to the same places.

I would later extend the references outside of myself, and note that my own parents celebrated their wedding anniversary in Spain, too. That my grandparents’ dog which I loved was named Heidi.

I imagined all of those reference points as individually folded pieces of paper placed into a bowl, names of people one color, reference points about them another, and the universe shuffling the bowl around and then randomly selecting out of the bowl those pieces of paper.

The colored paper with reference points then paired with the colored paper containing names. 

And the universe deciding who is going to die that day.

While Jared and Heidi were apart for those few minutes, a man driving a van on the heavily congested La Rambla, one of the most famous—if not the most famous—street in Barcelona, rode onto the center pedestrian section beginning at Plaça de Catalunya and continued for 1,800 feet, or the length of five football fields, mowing down anything and anyone in his path.

The avenue is filled daily with newsstands, kiosks, cafes, restaurants, flower shops, street performers, human statues, and an endless stream of tourists.

The driver murdered thirteen people and injured over 130 with his van in those few seconds before the airbags deployed from the multiple impacts shutting down the van’s engine.

Jared was among his victims.

As well as the youngest victim, a three-year old boy on vacation with his family.

Heidi and Jared. The picture was supposed to have been taken moments before the attacks.

It was late Wednesday night, just before 11PM, when I arrived in Barcelona, Spain after driving for over five hours after my final wine tour in Logrono, the capital of the province of La Rioja, where some of my favorite wine, (yes, Rioja) is made.

My host, Pati, who was not in the city, had connected me with someone who was to meet me and give me the key to the apartment I had rented. Her designee and I had been texting via WhatsApp while I attempted to navigate my SUV rental along La Rambla.

I was feeling bad that I was both late and unable to find a place to park, driving around Plaça de Catalunya at least twice before finding a place I thought was ok to leave the car while I looked for “La Rambla 132, in front of the Mango store,” where I was supposed to meet my host’s designee.

“I’m so sorry I am late,” I said to the beautiful young woman who looked a bit impatient where I finally found her standing.

“It’s ok, let me show you the apartment,” she said without hesitation.

We weren’t inside a minute when she was already on her way out. “If you need anything, simply write Pati.”

I was tired from the trip, but wouldn’t have minded a little conversation and company.

And I was starving. La Rambla was alive and vibrant, just like New York City at 11PM, and for a moment I had hoped that maybe she’d want to have something to eat with me at one of the many cafes I saw on the street.

But once she left, any energy I would have summoned for the company drained out of me. I opened the window to hear the city below me, and crashed on the small bed in the studio apartment, and fell asleep.

And that’s where I stayed until around 11AM the next day.

August 17, 2017.

Breaking News: Barcelona Suffers a Terrorist Attack at La Rambla

That Thursday morning I walked the one short block from my apartment to La Rambla, and made a right towards Plaça de Catalunya to find the Apple Store. The iPhone cable I had for my first seven weeks driving in Europe was frayed like a dog’s bone.

New cable in hand, I was walking back down La Rambla by noon and found a street side cafe just outside of the Teatre Poliorama to grab my first meal of the day—an espresso and a croissant—where I remained for about an hour happy to people-watch.

I loved the vibe sitting in the middle of the street, traffic flowing in both directions on either side of a steady flow of tourists enjoying the walk under the summer sky. It was like New York City, but Spanish.

By 1PM I was ready to see more of the city and walked down the length of La Rambla to the Monument a Colom at the marina, and found a harbor cafe.

The drinks were cheap and the food bad, but the view was beautiful. I sat there until 3:15PM when I decided I wanted more of that cafe on La Rambla. I paid the check and stood up.

The excruciating humidity and heat, paired with the bad food and wine, had me feeling light headed on my feet.

So I quickly decided to do the smart thing—I sat back down, ordered another half bottle of wine and some more bad food and decided I would wait out my light-headedness at the marina. I would return to my cafe later on, and see what people-watching was like with an espresso in the evening.

At a little past 4PM my phone buzzed with a BBC alert.

There had been “a terrorist attack in Barcelona, on the popular tourist destination of La Rambla“.

Now despite driving on it the night before, and walking the length of it that morning, until that moment I didn’t actually know that I was on La Rambla. I didn’t know the name. I quickly put it into Google Maps to see where it was, and learned my ignorance was both pronounced and embarrassing.

I paid my check and retreated back in the direction of my apartment. I wanted to be there, oddly.

But for hours the streets surrounding the attack site were closed off as the police were now conducting a manhunt for the escaped driver and his unknown number of accomplices.

Rumors spread of where they were hiding, stories of police raiding a populated restaurant, searching apartments—in those first few hours there was confusion, fear, and unconfirmed stories.

It was after midnight before I was able to return to my apartment, finally convincing a police officer (my third attempt) to let me through the barricades to my Airbnb. This one accepted the address I showed her on my Airbnb app, proving I had reason to be there.

The next day I joined the crowds walking La Rambla in mourning, and saw for the first time each of the spots where the van claimed people’s lives.

The sites were covered with red candles, flowers, and notes of peace and love.

I passed the spot where Jared and Heidi had their final meal together.

And the cafe I spent an hour at the day before—the same cafe I was about to return to at just before 4PM if not for my slight inebriation. 

Memorial on La Rambla where victims were murdered.

No Sacrifice Too Great

Thirteen days earlier, sitting on the shoreline of Omaha Beach, Normandy, France, I read the monument’s inscription: “1st US Infantry Division. No mission too difficult.  No sacrifice too great.  Duty first.  Forced Omaha Beach at dawn. 6 June.” 

And wrote in my journal the following:

The tide looks like it is more than a football field out, with dry sand then damp sand riddled with large tracks of still water.  There are people on the beach.  Kites flying overhead.  A husband and wife set up a tent. Children play in the sand.  Some walk out as far as the tide, shoes and socks in hand so their feet can feel the water.  

I am trying to imagine those men in 1944 storming this beach. 

Those eighteen and nineteen and twenty-year-old boys thousands of miles away from home. It is a vast beach in any direction.  A lot of ground to cover. 

And I am imagining what they must have been thinking as they approached, seeing the steep cliffs ahead and hiding within the German army ready to kill them. Were they afraid? Did they know they were going to die?

There is nothing to hide behind here, and wasn’t seventy-five years ago either. Did they know they weren’t going to live to tell this story, and yet, push forward believing their sacrifice would enable others to tell their own story?

I just cannot comprehend in this moment the idea of believing in something greater than yourself—so much greater that your life is required as payment—and to keep moving forward.  

Yesterday I jumped out of an airplane for the first time, wanting to face one of my fears so that I may know what it feels like to push past it, to have a newfound faith in my ability to achieve all things. 

But today, being here, and thinking about the sacrifice that happened here, my jump feels stupid.  My reason for jumping feels stupid. 

I have been afraid to live a life I have imagined out of some fear of failure or rejection, and on June 6, 1944 thousands of men—boys—gave their lives in order for other men and women the opportunity to simply live any life they desired. 

And they did this for individuals they would never meet, for people not yet born.

How do I honor that by cowering behind the safety and security of an office job I don’t like?  How do I make their sacrifice worth its intended value?  How do I live but an inch of the life they sacrificed on this beach? 

Men died where I am standing so that others may live. As I attempt to figure out what my purpose is, am I to understand that their purpose that day was to die?

To live just eighteen or nineteen years in peace, and then one day arrive at a beach thousands of miles away from where they have spent their entire lives, and just to be murdered by people they have never met and who have never met them?

What is the correct way to understand—and appreciate—purpose in that context?

I revisited that entry multiple times while I was in Barcelona.

Journaling at Omaha Beach

Unanswered Questions Continue Haunting

August 3, 2017. 5:10PM.  The cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, Normandy, France.  Endless rows of crosses, the occasional star.  Most bearing names—some showing who “only god knows.” All of us on a path to the same place—this place. How we each reach this place is what matters, right?  

In a matter of seconds, everything a person has come to trust about life can suddenly no longer be accurate.

Chance seems to play a confounding role in our lives.

To be in one place, at one time, and be safe, and for another to be in the same place at a different time, and be anything but safe. It is that seemingly random chance I continue to struggle understanding, and how, if at all, it affects our ability to define purpose.

Walking La Rambla on August 18, I continued thinking, How close did I come to being at this spot, at the exact wrong time? How did I avoid being here?

A bottle of wine and feeling too drunk and lazy to want to walk back the difference between my being allowed to live and Jared die?

I remember not being able to shake from my mind how when the screaming and chaos started, that Heidi and Jared were separated. I had never met them, but I sobbed that day thinking about how they weren’t together in those last moments filled with terror and confusion.

I thought about Xavier Martínez, the three-year-old boy murdered beside his great uncle who also was killed, seated next to his wife.

What was Xavier’s purpose? Had his purpose already been fulfilled? Could it possibly have been in just three years?

What was Jared’s purpose and could it have already been fulfilled?

Was my selfish purpose any more important or worthy than theirs?

I questioned whether I wanted to accept the prospect that an individual’s purpose may not be to fulfill any of their own dreams, but to enable the opportunity for someone else–someone whom they have never met, someone who may not yet even be born–to fulfill their own purpose.

Was that how I was to understand the WHY behind a three-year-old boy being taken from this world, and in such a way? Is that how I was to understand a moment of shared joy between two people in love with one another, celebrating their marriage, being turned into the most egregious memory for their surviving family? Was that how I was to understand every tragedy in the world, how I explain away every seemingly senseless act by man?

That there must be a grand plan, its full transparency not made known to us?

I departed Barcelona, as I knew others would never. Wanting to fight against every thought I was having about the senselessness of the attack, and my wanting to find some shred of sense in it.

I still haven’t.

Today it’s 2022. My name is Anthony Jared. I’m forty-six years old. I am an American. I live in San Antonio.

The universe shuffles the bowl and selects its colored pieces of paper, pairing reference points to people. 

And decides.

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Published on: May 10, 2022  -  Filed under: Life Lessons, Travel  -  Tagged: , , , ,

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