Dennis M. Leder

Our parents occupy our lives “in a place that precedes thought.” Something subjective and tribal joins us while we live and allows for objectivity only after a parent’s death.

As children we hope for lasting happiness, but a premonition of our parents’ mortality teaches us that joy is always precariously balanced. When the external forces of violence, ideological struggles and dangerous governments define a society’s structures, happiness becomes all the more ephemeral and death an “impalpable ghostly presence.”

Love and death in an era of political turmoil are the motives behind Hector Abad’s memoir, Oblivion. The title comes from a sonnet by the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges: “Already we are the oblivion we shall be....” The author notes the irony that this favorite poem of his father’s was found in his pocket the day Colombian mercenaries shot and killed him on a street in Medellín. Also in the pocket was the death list on which his father’s name appeared.

Hector Abad Gómez, doctor, loving parent, humanist and “ideological hybrid,” was 67 years old when he was murdered. During the last years of his life (1982-87), he chaired a committee for the defense of human rights and wrote endlessly to government officials, generals in the military, even death squad leaders, condemning torture and murder, listing full names and concrete cases. His was a death foretold in Colombia during those volatile decades, as he launched a crusade against the plague of political violence.

As a doctor, this jovial parent was more an academic than a clinician. His defense of human rights and commitment to preventive medicine caused conflict with colleagues, who saw little value in a doctor’s passion for clean water and latrines. Even though he opened the department of preventive medicine at the University of Antioquia in Medellín and founded the National School of Public Health, his sense of social justice and rejection of ideological extremes confounded and angered adherents on both sides of the political spectrum.

An activist and esteemed university professor might be shielded by his public profile, but political hatred has no scruple when it comes to exterminating intelligence. The bald, friendly “madman” with a resounding voice that delivered his public denunciations was a disturbance to the state and its cohorts. His death sentence for condemning barbarity was almost assured, even if postponed for a time.

While it is not surprising that death is a prevalent theme in Hector Abad’s memoir, love provides an equally strong counterbalance. His father’s presence in family life generated trust, tolerance and a spirit of happiness. Both mother and father inherited a somewhat “dark Catholicism” mixed with confidence in human reason. His mother maintained a proportion of the mystic, while his father’s humanism emphasized reason more than faith. But the father could be brought to tears by poetry, and his mother’s gift for business not only kept the economy of the family stable, but also added a touch of materialism to her devotion. In short, contradictory beliefs somehow contributed to domestic harmony.

Abad recounts the details of life in a household of 10 women, recalling with affection the attention given him by his father, while brilliant and witty older sisters dominated his home life. His father’s acceptance and encouragement were total; he believed that the best form of education was happiness, but not baseless happiness. Lessons learned by the son about racial prejudice, personal cowardice and superficial values were the fruits of his father’s principles.

The family history divided in two when Hector’s nearest older sister, “the star of the family,” died of melanoma at the age of 16. The effect on his father was a boundless sadness, which subtly made the idea of death for a just cause more attractive. From that point onward, his father’s sense of social justice became stronger, with a proportionate lack of attention to precaution and personal security.

The account of his death and the subsequent silence about the case, without arrests or suspects, is a well-known Latin American pattern. Hector Abad was 28 years old at the time, and his only recourse was to keep his father’s bloodstained shirt as a concrete memory and “a promise to avenge his death.”

Abad’s father confided in “the evocative power of words” to denounce injustice. Twenty years after his death, his son assumed the father’s wisdom, unfathomed by those who killed him, “to use words to express the truth, a truth that will last longer than their lie.”

The writing of a memoir can allow a son to objectify the events, personality and influence of a deceased father. It can also serve to rescue a loved parent, at least for a time, from oblivion. Upon completion of his book, Hector Abad had fulfilled a personal project and had come to the conclusion that “the only possibility to forget and to forgive consisted in telling what happened and nothing more.”

Dennis M. Leder, S.J., director of I.C.E./CEFAS, the Central American Institute for Spirituality, writes from Guatemala.