A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes
Librarian confession: One Hundred Years of Solitude was one of those books that I remember from high school with a shudder, no doubt induced by an earnest teacher's push to have her students search painstakingly for imagery to analyze amidst the magical realism. Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez is hardly the worse off for my feelings, but it wasn't his remarkable legacy that drew me to son Rodrigo García's new memoir, A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes. Perhaps it was that word "farewell" above a collage of the titular couple's silhouettes, thoughtfully designed for the book's cover by artist Alicia Tatone, who sought to use the "delicate process" to "show the tenderness of memory and the depth of loss."
The slim book, dedicated to García's younger brother who helped make up the family "unit, a club of four," focuses on the sudden illness of the world-renowned author, who had already been suffering from dementia, and the rapid progression toward his death in 2014. Begun with a grim prognosis, the memoir serves, in its way, as the chronicle of death foretold. Rodrigo recounts his father's last weeks, the (inevitably public) memorials that follow his death and the quiet moments that characterize the loss of a loved one (a quiet tempered often by García's mother Mercedes' unique feistiness). Peppered with passages from his father's well known works, some of which are eerily prescient (like birds flying into windows before a character's Holy Thursday death, which then occurs on García Márquez's own death on Holy Thursday), the book is composed of brief sections that contain their own episodes and reflections while contributing to the larger story of death. But with the story of death, of course, comes the story of life, of lives.
García's memoir calls to mind Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's recent book-length essay, Notes on Grief (reviewed here on the blog), wherein the author tells of her father's death during the coronavirus pandemic. While the bulk of A Farewell to Gabo and Mercedes focuses on Gabo (García Márquez), it concludes with the loss of the author's mother in 2020, when, as with Adichie and her father, Rodrigo's last interaction with his mother was through a screen. Adichie, however, describes more fierce emotions, allowing a kind of rage at losing her father to enter the work. García's articulation of his memories of his parents' lifetimes and deaths has a milder quality; he shares much that is personal, despite his parents' lifelong notions that the family's business was private, but his tone is quieter and in some ways reserved. The narrative moves forward through time from his father's beginning signs of illness in 2014 to his mother's death in 2020, but it gently slides into memory and reflection throughout, including always an awareness that the death of such a figure as his father would be a worldwide news event, not merely a personal familial devastation.
Some writers would—and have—heaped mountains of words upon their grief in the effort to explain it, but like Adichie, García keeps his personal reckoning fairly brief. He hones on in the difference emotions roused by the various interactions and events that make up a final illness and death. What moments are surreal? Which ones make him feel numb? When does the eternal nature of the loss hit home? There are various moments of particular impact that he recounts, but it is his mother's death that seems to rock him the most: "The death of the second parent is like looking through a telescope one night and no longer finding a planet that has always been there. It has vanished, with its religion, its customs, it's own peculiar habits and rituals, big and small. The echo remains."
Part of what is refreshing about García's account of his feelings concerning his parents is that he admits to rose-colored glasses and acknowledges that his relationship with his father was tempered by the latter's larger-than-life fame. "My feelings about my father, though loving, were complicated by his fame and talent, which made him several people that I've had to work to integrate into one," he shares, acknowledging that "absence makes us grow fonder and more forgiving, and we recognize that our parents were walking on feet of clay like everybody else." He willingly lets his readers know that his relationship with his parents, particularly his father, was far from perfect, yet his tale is one of love and honor. The subject may be famous, but whether or not you are a lover of García Márquez's work, his son's memoir resonates as an open and accessible window into the experience of losing a parent (or two), just over a hundred pages of words and photographs to convey the feeling of looking through a telescope for an absent planet.