Why A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes Feels so Personal
As children we see our parents as immortals. But while growing up, there comes a moment of realization of the shortness of life and the inevitability of death. The concrete world view of the child who had hitherto believed in the eternal existence of themselves and their parents suddenly falls apart and the mind stumbles into a panic desolation from which it struggles to recover. In retrospect, this struggle can be seen as a composition of major sources of beliefs and values that the child carries within themself all the time. In an interview with The Strand Bookstore, Rodrigo Garcia talks about this tedious cycle of the contradiction and coalition of ideas and values between parents and their children and says that:
“Parents are such a religion, you know. It’s a church that you grow up in, or a cult, or something because the chemistry of a husband and wife creates this world that the children grow up in and to see the high priests gone, or perhaps more than the high priests, the deities gone after you have revered them, been bored by them, rebelled from them, insulted them, come around to them, understood them, loved them again, and finally understand them more than ever, and finally admire them! You know, you go through all that cycle as a child and then there’s the end.”
Rodrigo Garcia bids farewell to his parents, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mercedes Barcha in his 60s. Whereas in his father’s case it was a slow decline (Gabriel Marquez had dementia for a few years before his death), it was very sudden and abrupt in the case of his mother, who died in August 2020 during the onset of the Covid 19 pandemic due to lung complications - a result of sixty five years of smoking and Rodrigo Garcia bid farewell to his mother on the cracked screen of his phone, as he tells us in his memoir. Given this dichotomy of the last moments that were spent with his parents, Roderigo weighs the loss of both the parents as an altogether different experience than the death of only one. He says:
“The death of a second parent is like looking through a telescope one night and no longer finding a planet that has always been there.”
Rodrigo did not want to write a memoir as a son of a famous writer that could be labeled as his attempt to become more famous, and for critics to gorge upon private memories. It was when his mother died, six years after Gabriel Garcia Marquez, that he thought of publishing the memoir as a farewell to both of his parents. In an interview he says:
“I didn’t want to write the book about the famous man dying written by his son. So it wasn’t until my Mom died, which was six years later, that when she died I kind of saw what it was. I would love to write about saying goodbye to both your parents. Because the death of the second parent is a very different emotional experience than the first just because now they are both gone.”
The memoir is not just an account of the last days of a larger than life personality. It is about the common grief that every individual faces when they are gripped by the loss of their parents.
For a long time before his death, Gabriel Garcia Marquez had dementia. The degenerative condition predictably became an obstacle for him to do what he loved most: writing. Rodrigo knew how painful it must be for an author who has written a saga of six generations in One Hundred Years Of Solitude to lose the very tool that was his life force. He writes:
“My father was fully aware of his mind slipping away. He asked for help insistently, repeating time and time again that he was losing his memory. The toll of seeing a person in that state of anxiety and having to tolerate their endless repetitions over and over again is enormous. He would say: ‘I work with my memory. Memory is my tool and my raw material. I cannot work without it. Help me.’”
The first part of the book deals with the early stages - when Gabriel Marquez’s family did not know the end was so near. The intricacy and sensitivity of those moments of swelling anxiety about the approaching death of a parent is recorded with all its nuances. It is not a picture which is morbid and serious; it has its moments of humor and life. The building up of a momentous event such as death seems almost banal when it actually approaches. When Rodrigo tells his mother about the terminal illness of Gabriel and the few months that he has on his hands, her reaction may seem abrupt to us as readers, but that is how many of us deal with such anxieties when they finally arrive.
“But when I get to the bottom line, I try to be brief and precise: it’s very likely lung or liver cancer, or both, and he has only a few months to live. Before her expression betrays anything, her phone rings and she picks it up, which takes me completely by surprise. I observe her, stupefied, while she talks to someone in Spain, and I marvel at this living, breathing, textbook example of avoidance. It is, in its own way, beautiful as well as endearing. For all her strength and resources, she is just like everyone else.”
The death of Gabriel was not simply a private event. He was a figure who belonged to people from all over the world: as friends, relatives, readers, co-workers. He was one of the most acclaimed writers of the twentieth century and received the Nobel Prize in the year 1982 for " his novels and short stories, in which the fantastic and the realistic are combined in a richly composed world of imagination, reflecting a continent's life and conflicts." He was a pioneer in the genre of magical realism with works such as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Owing to his international recognition, the family had to organize their plans well in advance to avoid what Mercedes calls “a zoo” in the memoir. As a son, Rodrigo has always seen his father as a figure with multiple dimensions- as a generous and caring father,a loving husband, a literary giant, activist, and a figure of national and international importance. The lives touched and inspired by Gabriel Marquez were far beyond the confines of the house and family.
The second part of the memoir is close-knit with the experience of the family together. It is highly personal, sharing accounts of behaviors, experiences, and anecdotes of the family. The family had thought that the time left could be measured in months, but his health deteriorated at a fast pace, and in a flash the great writer had less than 24 hours to live. The memoir gives a detailed account of the ordeal of his last days, including intimate moments such as Rodrigo’s conversation with the make-up artist touching up Gabriel Marquez’s face so as for it to look calm and natural, or Rodrigo’s moments alone with his father’s dead body. All these minor details do not represent death as ugly and gruesome, but also natural and peaceful. When Rodrigo becomes aware of this, he writes in his memoir about the moment:
“Life, as old as it is and as many times as it has been lived, continues to be mercifully unpredictable. Death, when it orbits this closely, seldom disappoints.”
In his last few days, Gabriel was brought home, surrounded by his family, nurses, cooks, and doctors. Rodrigo gives vivid descriptions of his room, of the eerie but humane atmosphere preceding his death and how time was moving faster than ever before. He says:
“Standing near the foot of the bed, I look at him, diminished as he is, and I feel like both his son (his little son) and his father. I am acutely aware that I have a unique overview of his eighty-seven years. The beginning, the middle, and the end are all there in front of me, unfolding like an accordion book.”
There are certain sections of the novel in which the reader may completely forget that it is a memoir about a great writer. We see a common human being who is approaching death like any other person, and the emotions that he and his family experience are so similar to ours. Rodrigo Garcia has so beautifully demystified his father, that readers can feel themselves caught in moments that reflect their own experiences so truthfully. When Gabriel’s body is finally to be cremated, he writes about the moment in a moving paragraph:
“The sight of my father’s body entering the cremation chamber is mesmerizing and benumbing. It feels both impossibly pregnant and meaningless. The only thing I can feel with any certainty at that moment is that he is not there at all. It remains the most impenetrable image of my life.”
The last section of the memoir specifically talks about Rodrigo’s farewell to his mother, Mercedes. Throughout the memoir the presence of Mercedes is so strong and towering that her image remains etched in the mind as a spectacular figure in itself. Her resilience, resistance, persistence, is magnetic. Even in her last days, she retained her humour and sarcasm. Rodrigo Garcia tells us that even though she was not a literary giant like her husband, she exerted her influence on people far more accomplished and qualified than her and who often came to her for advice. By the last section of the novel, readers are so familiar with Mercedes that her death feels much more personal than Gabriel’s.
Rodrigo says about his mother that:
“It’s been only three months that my mother died, and I am surprised by how quickly her stature has grown for me. I am unable to walk past a photograph of her without spending a moment looking at it. Her face seems kinder and more beautiful than ever, even in old age.”
The memoir is an attempt to give words to the grief that everyone faces in their lives. The loss of parents makes us all equal, sooner or later. It is so personal to read, so intimate, that it draws out our vulnerabilities and puts them on display. The memoir makes us feel connected to a universal feeling that unites us all irrespective of our differences, and gives strength by telling us that grief is one of the remarkable things that binds us together. It also brings a sense of solace to know that we are not alone in this loss.
Rodrigo Garcia has been successful in doing justice to his memoir, to not let the towering figure of a great writer overshadow simple human experiences and the relations between family and friends.
Arifa Banu is currently doing her Masters in English Literature from Jawaharlal Nehru University. She is a freelance writer, editor, and translator. She is an ardent book reviewer and loves to read and review books across all genres. She has written several research papers on Postcolonialism, Feminism, and Indian Literature. Her research interests are South Asian Literature, Posthumanism, and Dalit Literature.