Letter to my father, Rodrigo Escobar Navia
Today, the 6th of November in 2020, you would have turned 86. It is not by chance that I find myself here, in this library, reading Borges. How you loved Borges! So much so that I scattered your ashes on the grave of the celebrated argentine, in Geneva’s cimetière des rois. For two years I kept your ashes at the bottom of my wardrobe. I was terrified that someone would find them. I didn’t know where to lay you to rest. To throw you into the River Rhone was an option; all rivers carry the dead. But one day it occurred to me to place you in Borges’ grave. You’re fine there, and I have a place to bring you a rose. I smile at the thought that those coming to honour the memory of Borges are, unknowingly, visiting you in passing. Sometimes I imagine you looking at them with interest, trying to decipher their stories. Over time you begin to recognize returning visitors, “We have a visitor, Maestro,” you call out to Borges. He’s happy to borrow your eyes, and you narrate the world to him. What enviable conversations you must be enjoying.
Today the fear of forgetting assaulted my mind. That I could forget you. As if memories were water that I struggle to hold in my hands. I refuse to forget the warmth of your smile, your large brown hands, that strange thing you used to do when you scratched your left ear with your right hand, passing your arm all the way over your head, as if looking for the longest route. Or that way of constantly moving your legs under the table that irritated my mother so much. And how about that habit of yours of picking horse dung from the ground, grinding it between your fingers and bringing it to your nose to inhale with fervour, while we watched in disgust. How can I forget you! I tell myself, when I have all these memories in me. I remember statements of yours, so very yours, “Colombia is more territory than state,” “The word ‘person’ means to sound through a mask, per-sonare,” “The origin of the word remember, re-cordare translates literally to pass through the heart again.” You were a teacher, Papa. An honourable, beautiful, lumbering man, made of literature, poetry, music, stories, tales, and history, and also flesh and blood. “Rodrigo is a bank of ideas,” one of your friends used to say. No subject was foreign to you, nothing bored you. Everything interested you. You had something of an elephant, perhaps your size and your memory, and maybe the clumsiness when you stroked your daughters’ heads. You dreamed of a country at peace, “an inclusive Colombia” you said, “where there is room for everyone”. All this, you said long before it became fashionable to talk about inclusion, reconciliation and forgiveness. You were a precursor of so many things.
As a child, when I woke and saw that you had skipped the night, I would tell myself that you worked two shifts, one during the day and the other at night. Perhaps that’s why you left so soon; you didn’t even turn 66. You lived intensely. In your insomnia you read whole libraries, and in the morning, when we got up, you regaled us at the breakfast table with what the Luciérnaga had said in her midnight radio programme, or you recited a poem by Neruda or Candelario Obeso, or you talked about Unamuno, or summarised the press. How I wish I had been more awake, Papa.
I wish you would have known your grandchildren better, and they would have known the marvellous grandfather they come from. I’d like to tell you that Chloé is studying medicine at your university, that Alan looks so much like you that sometimes it moves me, that Camille, la Serenísima, as you called her, is a beautiful and strong woman, making her own path. I want you to know that we have a house in Mompox, El Boga, it’s called. The name, evokes that poem you loved to recite, “Que trite que eta la noche,” “How sad this night is…”, so you named it, in a way. How we would have liked for you to enjoy the house. By the way, your bicycle is there, and when we ride it, I like to think you are riding along.
You left almost twenty years ago but the truth is, you live on in your daughters. You would be happy to see what we have done with our lives, what we have become, Papa. I wouldn’t know where to begin, Melba, Laura, Constanza, me too, we are fine and we are creating things, and getting a little wiser every day, I believe.
At times I recall that song that you liked so much, the Clay Pot, “I want to be buried like my ancestors, in the dark and fresh belly of a clay pot.” How I would like, Papa, to put in a clay pot, impermeable to the elements, everything that I don’t want to forget about you. Perhaps we, your four daughters and your nine grandchildren, are the clay pot. Inside us we shelter the cherished memories of you, just like our descendants will treasure us, in an infinite cycle of earth, clay, dust and flesh.
Ximena Escobar de Nogales