In the house lived ten women, one boy, and a man. The women were Tatá, who had been my grandmother’s nanny, who was almost a hundred years old, partially deaf and practically blind; two girls who did the cooking and cleaning—Emma and Teresa—my five sisters: Maryluz, Clara, Eva, Marta, Sol; my mother; and a nun. The boy, me, loved the man, his father, above all things. He loved him more than God. One day I had to choose between God and my dad, and I chose my dad. It was the first theological disagreement of my life and I had it with Sister Josefa, the nun who looked after Sol and me, the two youngest. If I close my eyes I can still hear her harsh, thick voice clashing with my childish one. It was a bright morning and we were out in the sun in the courtyard, watching the hummingbirds doing their rounds of the flowers. Out of the blue, the Sister said to me:
“Your father is going to go to hell.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because he doesn’t attend mass.”
“What about me?”
“You’re going to go to heaven, because you pray with me every night.”
In the evenings, while she got undressed behind the folding screen with the embroidered unicorns, we said Hail Marys and the Lord’s Prayer. At the end, before going to sleep we recited the Creed: “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, and of all things visible and invisible …” She took off her habit behind the screen so we wouldn’t see her hair; she’d warned us that seeing a nun’s hair was a mortal sin. I, who understand things well, but slowly, had spent the whole day imagining myself in heaven without my father (I was leaning out a window in paradise and I could see him down below, pleading for help as he burned in the flames of hell), and that night, when she began to recite the prayers from behind the unicorn screen, I said:
“I’m not going to pray anymore.”
“Oh, no?” she challenged me.
“No. I don’t want to go to heaven anymore. I don’t like heaven if my daddy’s not going to be there. I’d rather go to hell with him.”
Sister Josefa leaned around the screen (it was the only time we saw her without her veil, that is, the only time we committed the mortal sin of seeing her messy, unattractive hair) and shouted: “Hush!” Then she crossed herself.
I loved my father with a love I never felt again until my own children were born. When I had them I recognized it, because it is an equally intense love, although different, and in a certain sense its opposite. I felt that nothing could happen to me if I was with my father. And I feel that nothing can happen to my children if they are with me. That is, I know that I would give up my own life, without a moment’s hesitation, to defend my children. And I know my father would have given his life, without a moment’s hesitation, to defend me. The most unbearable idea in my childhood was imagining that my father might die, and so I had resolved to throw myself into the River Medellín if he died. And I also know there is something that would be much worse than my own death: the death of one of my children. All this is a very primitive, ancestral thing, which one feels in the deepest depths of consciousness, in a place that precedes thought. It is something one does not think, but which simply is, without any mitigating factors, for it is something one knows not with the head but with the gut.
I loved my father with an animal love. I liked his smell, and also the memory of his smell, on the bed, when he was away on a trip, and I would beg the maids and my mother not to change the sheets or the pillowcase. I liked his voice, I liked his hands, his immaculate clothes and the meticulous cleanliness of his body. When I was afraid, during the night, I would go to his bed and he would always make space for me at his side to lie down. He never said no to me. My mother protested, she said he was spoiling me, but my father moved over to the edge of the mattress and let me stay. I felt for my father the same way my friends said they felt about their mothers. I smelled my father’s scent, put an arm across him, stuck my thumb in my mouth, and slept soundly until the sound of horses’ hooves and the jangling of the milk cart announced the dawn.
* * *
Before starting kindergarten, I didn’t like staying home every day with Sol and the nun. When I tired of my solitary little boy’s games (fantasies on the floor, with castles and soldiers), the most entertaining thing Sister Josefa could think of, other than praying, was to go out to the patio and watch the hummingbirds sipping at the flowers, or go for walks around the neighborhood with the stroller where my sister sat and fell asleep as soon as we left, and where I’d ride standing on the bars at the back if I got tired of walking, while the nun pushed the stroller along the streets. Since this daily routine bored me, I would ask my father to take me with him to the office.
He worked at the School of Medicine, beside Saint Vincent de Paul Hospital, in the Department of Public Health and Preventative Medicine. If I couldn’t go with him, because he had too much to do that morning, he would at least take me for a drive around the block. I’d sit on his knees and steer, watched by him. It was a big, old, pale blue, noisy Plymouth, with an automatic clutch, that overheated and started to smoke under the hood at the sight of the first slope. When he could, at least once a week, my father took me to the university. On the way in we went past the amphitheatre, where anatomy classes were taught, and I would beg him to show me the cadavers. He always answered: “No, not yet.” Every week the same thing:
“Daddy, I want to see a dead person.”
“No, not yet.”
Once when he knew there wasn’t a class, or a corpse, we went inside the amphitheatre, which was very old, the kind with stands all around so the students could get a good view of the dissection of the cadavers. In the centre of the room was a marble table, where they put the protagonist of the class, just like in the Rembrandt painting. But that day the amphitheatre was empty of cadavers, students, and anatomy professors. In this emptiness, however, there persisted a smell of death, like an impalpable phantasmal presence that made me become aware, in that very moment, that my heart was beating in my chest.
While my father was teaching, I waited for him sitting at his desk and I would draw pictures, or sit at the typewriter and pretend to write the way he did, with the index finger of each hand. From the distance, Gilma Eusse, the secretary, watched me smiling mischievously. Why she smiled, I do not know. She had a framed photo of her wedding in which she appeared in a bridal gown marrying my father. I asked over and over again why she had married my father, and she explained, smiling, that she’d married a Mexican man, Iván Restrepo, by proxy, and my father had represented him in the church. While she told me of this incomprehensible wedding (as incomprehensible as that of my own parents, who had also been married by proxy, and the only photos of their wedding showed my mother marrying Uncle Bernardo) Gilma Eusse was smiling, smiling, with the most cheerful, friendliest face a person could imagine. She seemed like the happiest woman in the world until one day, she put a gun in her mouth and shot herself, and no one knew why. But in those mornings of my childhood she helped me roll the paper into the typewriter, so I could write. I didn’t know how to write yet, and when my father came back from class I’d show him the result.
“Look what I wrote.”
There were a few lines of gobble-dygook:
“Very good!” said my father with a satisfied chuckle, and he’d congratulate me with a big kiss on the cheek, beside my ear. His kisses, big and resounding, deafened us and rang in our ears, like a happy and painful memory, for a long time afterwards. The next week he set me a task, before he went off to teach: a page of vowels, first the A, then the E, and so on, over the following weeks, more and more consonants, the most frequent to start with, the C, the P, the T, and then all of them, even the X and the H, which although silent and rarely used, was also very important because it was the first letter of our name. That’s why, when I started school, I already knew how to recognize all the letters of the alphabet, not just by name but by sound, and when the first grade teacher, Lydia Ruth Espinosa, taught us to read and write, I learned in a second, and immediately understood the mechanism, as if by magic, as if I’d been born to read.
I think my father understood early that there was one way to prevent me from doing something once and for all: make fun of me. If I even suspected that what I was doing could appear ridiculous, laughable, I would never try it again. Maybe for that reason he celebrated, in my writing, even the meaningless gobbledygook, and taught me very slowly the way the letters represented the sounds, so my early errors wouldn’t provoke laughter. I learned, thanks to his patience, the whole alphabet, numbers, and all the punctuation marks on his typewriter. Maybe that’s why a keyboard—much more than a pencil or pen—is for me the most reliable representation of writing. That way of going along pressing sounds, like on a piano, to convert ideas into letters and words, seemed to me from the start—and still seems to me—one of the most extraordinary acts of magic in the world.
Besides, with that incredible linguistic ability that women have, my sisters never let me speak. As soon as I opened my mouth to try to say something, they’d already said it, in more detail and much better, wittier, and more intelligently than I ever could have. I think I had to learn how to write in order to be able to communicate every once in a while, and from a very early age I wrote letters to my dad, that he celebrated as if they were Seneca’s epistles or masterpieces of literature.
When I notice how limited my writing talent is (I almost never manage to make the words sound as clear as the ideas in my thoughts; what I do strikes me as a poor, clumsy stuttering compared to how my sisters could express it), I remember the confidence my father had in me. Then I lift up my shoulders and on I go. If he even liked my lines of scribbles, what does it matter if what I write doesn’t entirely satisfy me. I think the only reason I’ve been able to keep writing all these years, and to commit my writings to print, is because I know my father would have enjoyed more than anyone reading all these pages of mine that he never lived to read. That he’ll never read. It’s one of the saddest paradoxes of my life: almost everything I’ve ever written I’ve written for someone who cannot read me, and this very book is nothing more than a letter to a shade.
* * *
Elderly, with our wits still about us and surrounded by loved ones. That’s the only death we accept peacefully and with the consolation of memory. Almost all other deaths are odious and the most unacceptable and absurd is that of a child or a young person, or the death caused by the murderous violence of another human being. The consciousness rebels at these, and the pain and rage, at least in my case, does not ease. I never resigned myself to my sister’s death, nor could I ever calmly accept my father’s murder. It’s true that he, in a way, was satisfied with his life, and prepared to die, ready to die if necessary, but he detested that violent death that was obviously being planned for him. That’s the most painful and most unacceptable thing. This book is an attempt to leave a record of that pain, a record at once useless and necessary. Useless because time does not run backwards and events do not change, but necessary at least for me, because my life and its work would lack meaning if I did not write what I feel I have to write, and that in almost 20 years of trying have never been able to write, until now.
On Monday, August 24, 1987, very early, around 6:30 in the morning, a radio station telephoned my father to tell him that his name was on a list of persons under threat in Medellín that said he would be killed. They read him the pertinent paragraph: “Héctor Abad Gómez: President of the Human Rights Committee of Antioquia. Medic to guerrillas, false democrat, dangerous due to popular sympathy in upcoming Medellín mayoral elections. Useful idiot of the Communist Party.” They interviewed my father on air and he asked them to read out some of the other names on the list. They did so. Among them were the journalist Jorge Child, the former Minister of Foreign Relations; Alfredo Vásquez Carrizosa; the columnist Alberto Aguirre; the political leader Jaime Pardo Leal (assassinated a few months later); the writer Patricia Lara; the lawyer Eduardo Umaña Luna; the singer Carlos Vives; and many others. The only thing my father said was that he felt very honored to be in the company of such good and important people, and who did so many things for the country’s benefit. After the interview, off the air, he asked the journalist to please send a photocopy of that list to his office.
A week before, on August 14, the left wing senator, Pedro Luis Valencia had been killed. He was also a doctor and a professor at the university, and my father organized and led a march “for the right to life” on the 19th in protest at his murder. This huge march passed through the streets of Medellín in silence and culminated in Berrío Park, where the only speech was delivered by my father. Many people saw it on television, or saw it pass by from the windows of their offices, and later told us what they’d thought: they’ll kill him too, they’re going to kill him. His penultimate article was about that crime, a denunciation of the paramilitaries. He also gave a lecture in the Pontificia Boliviariana University where he accused the Army and government employees of complicity with the criminals.
That same Monday, August 24, at midday, he telephoned Alberto Aguirre at home (he’d been trying to find him all morning from the office) and convinced him to request a meeting with the mayor, William Jaramillo, to find out a little about the origin of the threats, and maybe to ask for some protection; they arranged to meet on the Wednesday at 11:00, in my father’s office. On the afternoon of the same day, the Human Rights Committee of Antioquia met and, given the gravity of the situation, decided to draft a press release denouncing the death squads and paramilitary groups that were operating in the city and killing people linked to the university. Present at this meeting, among others, were Carlos Gaviria, Leonardo Betancur, and Carlos Gónima. Leonardo and my father were murdered the next day; Carlos Gónima, a few months later, on February 22; Carlos Gaviria escaped with his life by fleeing the country.
* * *
That morning of August 25 my father had spent a while in the School of Medicine, and then in his office on the second floor of the building where my mother had her business on Carrera Chile, next door to the house Alberto Aguirre had grown up in and where his brother still lived. That was the headquarters of the Human Rights Committee of Antioquia. I suppose it was at some point during that morning when my father copied out by hand the Borges sonnet he had in his pocket when they killed him, along with the hit list. The poem is called “Epitaph” and goes like this: “Already we are forgotten as we shall be— / the elemental dust that does not know us, / the dust that once was red Adam and is now / all men, the dust we shall not see. / Already we are the two dates on the headstone, / the beginning and the end. The coffin, / the obscene decay and the shroud, / the death rites and the dirges. / I am not some fool who clings / to the magical sound of his own name. / I think, with hope, of that man / who will never know I walked the earth. / Beneath the blue indifference of heaven, / this thought consoles me.”
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation.