Once upon a summer, I went to Europe with two of my cousins -- second cousins, actually: Tom and Kathy. Tom was my junior by a year, and we'd been pen pals (because in those far off days, people actually wrote letters). His sister Kathy was finishing up med school and taking a break to visit her folks in Spain.
Have Eurrail Youthpass, will travel -- at least in those days. We hopped trains and sat in the aisle on our suitcases if it was too crowded to get seats. We stayed in youth hostels or rooms let out by families who would meet young people at the train stations to see if they wanted rooms. Sometimes we ate like kings -- like when a family Kathy knew in Milan cooked for us. And sometimes -- like when we arrived in Granada on a three-day weekend and everything was closed down except a bar that sold rolls and a peddler who sold frozen yogurt -- we went hungry.
But Tom and I could speak Spanish and Kathy could speak Italian, and we got by just fine, even in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland (as I'd been there before and could manage the essential words in German).
It was, very possibly, one of the highlights of all of our lives. And the song that played that summer in every country in Europe, on every radio, was Righeira's "Vamos a la Playa."
So, as my Spanish 2 classes sing every day anyway (to hear the beauty of the language outside their grammar exercises), and as the unit we're just starting includes stories about traveling across Europe using youth hostels (and giving vocabulary words on toiletry essentials and packing), I knew the song for us right now was "Vamos a la Playa." The kids, especially the 8th graders, love its annoying synthesized beats, even though I've warned them it'll stay in their heads worse than Rebecca Black's "Friday."
And indeed, this Friday was the day I was to tell them all about my trip with Tom and Kathy across Europe, battling ants in Spain and figuring out the prices on the subway in Munich -- right after we sang, of course.
But late Thursday night, after several months of my not hearing from him, Tom called. It seems that Kathy had finally lost her battle with breast cancer and had passed away last week. Tom had called to let me know.
Choking up a few times, he told me of her last few hours, of how he tried to revive her, of how beautiful her cemetery plot is. Then he tried to be polite and ask how my little corner of the world was going.
I updated him on my family and school. And then I said, "Tom, can you guess what song my Spanish classes are singing this week?"
There was silence on his end for about half a second, then he said, "Vamos a la Playa." It was not a question.
And then Tom laughed.
For another 30 minutes, Tom and I reminisced about that summer -- and he kept laughing.
So, Friday, when I told my 8th grade Spanish class about the trip Tom, Kathy, and I took, I also told them that Kathy had died. They were respectfully quiet for a few seconds, until one boy pointed out that it was a good thing their liking the song had made Tom laugh.
I'm not sure, but I think those kids sang with a little more enthusiasm than usual Friday. It was probably the strangest tribute Kathy could have received. But perhaps it might have made her laugh, too.
"Vamos a la Playa." Not quite the song for a funeral. But certainly for a memory.