by Phyllis C Koppel
I make up the stories in my head as we move toward the bedroom. The wall of books that line the corridor entertain me with their titles, books from such luminaries such as Mario Vargas Llosa, Paolo Coelho and Carlos Fuentes. Eleven Minutes of Conversation in The Cathedral about The Death of Artemio Cruz, or, The Discreet Hero and The Alchemist, have A Change of Skin. We arrive at the bedroom before I have a chance to make up a new story.
“Soon, I will reach 87—” Something cracks when I crawl into bed.
“Gabe, get in, and watch your knees!”
My sweet wife, always taking the conversation off topic. She has asked me to watch my knees ever since I can remember. "You know what happens when I'm 87, sí?”
She rolls away from me. “C is a musical note, darling. Do go to sleep? You’re English— British—remember? You’re not Spanish, ok?”
“Not Spanish, my dear, Colombian.”
A musical note, she says! Ursula, dainty and perfect in all her ancient proportions, breathes music. She doesn’t play a single note, but she moves like a symphony.
“Sleep con los ángeles, mi amor,” I say, knowing this will be one of the last things I'll say to her. Ursula’s grunt erupts from a chest that seems like the surface of an alien planet, all ripples, rivulets and soft skin reaching toward Earth’s magnetic center in a filigree of slow movement. The sound of her deep breathing wants to rock me to sleep, but I resist. I have many things to say before I reach my 87th birthday, but she will hear none of it; she hasn't listened for the past 38 years. When my hand leaves her folded cheek, her eyes pop open. She says nothing but her eyes say that she knows who I am and I don’t. Her deep-set, dark eyes try to remind me that I do not know Spanish and that perhaps, I have a tad of dementia.
Oh, but I do know Spanish. I speak the language of passion and of unrequited love. The language of poets, of rebels and of visionaries. The language of my ancestors.
Because of them, I am able to speak with ‘el gran Fidel Castro’ to invite him to my 87th. He’ll get such a kick when he sees my good pal Clinton in the midst. That will be my great last laugh. Oh boy, can’t wait for that!
Not for what comes next, but alas, to dust, we must all return.
La celebración has been carefully planned. I’ve been mapping this out in my mind for a decade. All my compadres have agreed to come honour the great, Gabe Gooday on his 87th year of illustrious existence.
I’m not having only good guys at my party. Oh no, sireee! What fun would that be? I’m sprinkling in a few of the meanies too; comandantes, dictadores y asesinos, just for a good laugh.
Problem is, a celebration this big should be in the land where my father died. My land. The land of my ancestors and where my mother rests in peace. I must change the venue of my celebration to Colombia.
My son Gobo, who is named after my grandfather Gabriel, is not going to like it. He’ll come up to me and say, ‘Dad, are you ok? Come, let’s sit you down on the settee and have a little talk.’ He’ll give me a scone and tea, and then he’ll go on about dementia and being bipolar, and I’ll listen to him for a while, but I have to be fair and tell him that I have nothing to do with the demise of the poor polar bears.
Then Clare will come running to my son and plead with her husband to leave me alone, that he is only making things worse but, I know I have to keep Clare on my side. Otherwise, she won't bring my precious granddaughter to visit her abuelito, the person she loves more than anything in this world.
Attacked by a blinding yellow-white light, my eyes retreat further into their sockets.
“Rise and shine, Gabe! Tea’ll be brewed in five.” Ursula waltzes around the bedroom, picking up a trail of dirty clothes I’ve left behind.
“Buenos días, mi amor!” I tell her I’ve decided to move my 87th celebration to Colombia.
“Colombia! You do not speak Spanish, Gabe! Nada! Don’tcha remember? You have nothing and nobody in Colombia!”
“But, I wrote my best books there! Colombia is where my sensibilities were fine-tuned and where my mother is buried. It is where I stared at tyranny in the face and watched compassion dry up.”
A burst of laughter causes Ursula’s spit to land on my face. “Come on you old fool, let’s have a sensible English brekkie, shall we?” As we waddle down the hallway, I hear her mutter, ‘books, can you believe…’ Her head shakes like a madwoman’s.
I imagine what Fidel might tell Bill, when they meet at my 87th, a fiesta to rival all fiestas. I'll fly dignitaries, presidents, charlatans and despots all at once and, in my grand hacienda, we'll make peace, at last, celebrating my birthday by speaking the language of humanitarians.
“A la paz y el amor!” I will toast to peace and love, knowing that soon, to ashes and dust I will become.
A la paz y el amor! My friends will wish, drinking sangrias and margaritas. Conversations between enemies will be cordial, hopeful, and there will be food from all corners of the world. This is how I shall say goodbye to this life.
“Here’s your piping hot tea, luv. Milk’s already in it. Rest is coming up, Gabe.”
I don’t understand why Ursula insists on calling me such a horrendous name. I have long protested in the past to no avail. I even Anglicized my name to keep her happy. Changed it from Buendía to Gooday, Gabriel to Gabe. It takes a whole great deal to make my wife happy.
“I prefer café, darling. Black,” I don’t understand why she keeps forgetting.
“Don’t start with me, Gabe! Not this early in the morning, do you hear? You are having a cuppa tea with ham and eggs. Don’t want to eat too much with Gobo and Clare bringing our granddaughter at teatime.”
“Café negro y tortilla, porfavor.”
Ursula nearly slaps the plate of ham and eggs on my lap.
We sit in silence, silence as cold as the Canadian morning light which seeps through the blinds, still drawn as Ursula reads the newspaper and I stare ahead. I inspect the extensive collection of plates my wife has imprisoned behind glass cupboard doors and at the floral wallpaper that is as old as the house. At the collection of copper frying pans, in all sizes, decorating the top of the mantle and at the small colourful jars on top of the refrigerator. Ursula has always insisted on bringing everything English into our home, and I detest everything in it. The objects, I mean. Not her. Not my son or his nagging wife and certainly not my granddaughter, my pride and joy.
“This is not a good place to grow up,” I insist.
Without taking her eyes off the newspaper, Ursula’s mouth moves but doesn't ask why I have deemed our neighborhood unsuitable.
“I’ve been thinking of moving the family back to Colombia. We can go to the large hacienda and live happily there, away from capitalism and modern day headaches.”
Leaving the newspaper they read, my wife's eyes stab into my retinas. “Gabe. I. Am. Warning you.” She doesn’t say anything else. I take her silence as an invitation to continue sharing my great plan…
“…and we can throw a great grand fiesta, every day if we wish! In Colombia, todo es bueno!”
"Enough!" Ursula's fist nearly bores a hole through the distressed wooden breakfast table. "Enough with this about Colombia! You were born in Lancaster, England, you are Gabe Gooday, and you live in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada. You have never been to Colombia, and you have never tasted a fresh hot chili pepper! Your parents are deceased in the U.K. and you have never been south of Niagara Falls.”
She storms out of the kitchen.
Seeping through the blinds, I watch as the rays snake across the room, east to west.
A great commotion erupts when the doorbell rings. Ursula is a flutter of picking and hiding and last-minute fixing. My head spins when she dashes for the bell.
“Gobo, Clare! Come in, come in! Where is she? Where is my precious little princess?”
The cheers and laughter draw me in, and soon, I join the ruckus, happy to see my little girl. "Grandpa!" She runs and explodes onto my chest with hugs and kisses. "Grandpa!"
“How’s my little girl doing? Have you been good in school?”
“Yes, Grandpa. Except when nasty Josh pulled my hair.”
“Qué horror! Dios Mío. I do hope you walloped him a good one for pulling your hair.”
Over my granddaughters copper curls, I see Ursula and Gobo’s eyes go wide. I know I should have not said to wallop the kid but, she is my precious little girl and nobody should be pulling her beautiful hair.
“No Grandpa. We aren’t allowed to hit back. That gets Mrs. Yamamoto very upset.”
“I bet it does…Mama moto, la máma y la moto!” My granddaughter’s laughter ricochets around the living room.
“Máma moto!” we run around the room shouting, “Máma moto! Máma moto!”
“Stop that! Stop that right now!” I think Clare is speaking, but I cannot tell. When I am with my little girl, it is as if the entire world melts away. It is just she and grandpa. Nobody else. Nothing else.
My son Gobo snatches his daughter midstream the chase and looks at me sternly as if he were about to slap my face.
“Qué pasa? We were just having a little fun!”
“Dad. Enough! I don’t know where you get all this Spanish stuff and crazy ideas from. Mom tells me you are talking about moving to Colombia. You know nobody in Colombia. Maybe we should go see that doctor I was telling you about.”
The insolence! Next thing I know, he’ll want to know if I hear voices. I return to the kitchen and sit where I spent most of the day watching the imprisoned plates and the strangulated frying pans on the wall. Thinking I’ve become like the folklore of my youth, like the quiet man who married a woman who knew all of the Devil’s secrets. Like I have just spent the last one hundred years in solitude.
“Gabe, did you hear that the author you like so much died yesterday?”
The voice dances from the living room into the kitchen circles me but doesn't penetrate. It lingers in the dark air. Strangling me. Suffocating me. I get up to flee its vaporous clutch, but it persists.
Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. Dead. It speaks to me. Dead. Dead. Dead. It hammers.
“—you hear me?” My wife’s voice, sharp, materializes from the gaps. “The article’s in the newspaper, on the kitchen table next to you!”
My eyes dart to The Toronto Star: “Gabriel García Marquez, Nobel-winning author, dead at 87.”
I stare at the picture that is a mirror image of myself. I see a man of character, life imprinted in every fold of his patient face. I see a peppered mustache, just like mine, balancing on a large nose and puppy eyes that have seen both the world of beauty and of evil. Tragedy and love sit comfortably in the face that stares at me from the paper. The author's eyes become mirrors. Glassy. Penetrable. I read the caption: "Born in Aracataca, Colombia. Died in Mexico City, 17 April 2014."
This cannot be. I feel that a part of me has gone with the 87-year-old man. An agitation stirs in my belly. It propels me to pay my respects to the grand maestro. I must. Sí señor! I have no ties! I can move. To México, I must go.
“Tea’s ready, Gabe. We’re eating in the formal dining room today, come!”
Ursula’s melodic voice has always had the ability to bring me right back to this place. To this dreadful house full of English dishes and British wishes. If it weren't for my precious little granddaughter, I'd be in México City en un minuto!
“Gobo and Clare brought food from the Fox and Fiddle! Come join us, Gabe!”
“Fiddle Deedee! Twiddle ‘n griddle!” I join the crowd and twitch my face near my granddaughter who is sitting, uncomfortably, at the large table. She laughs at my nonsensical rhymes. "Dee glee is for you and for me!” I plump myself on the picnic-style bench, right between Gobo and my precious granddaughter.
“Terrible about that writer, isn’t it?” Ursula dishes mashed potatoes and gravy. “Did you read the article? Said he suffered dementia, that the chemo made it worse.”
“Let us not talk of death at the table, please? We all know what will happen on my 87th so let’s be mindful here. Where’s the chili pepper?”
“Gabe. You know that stuff messes with your stomach. Eat your bangers and mash and just hush for once.”
“Ma, if Dad wants hot sauce, let him have it! What’s the matter?”
“It’s not you who’ll be in bed tonight with his stomach!”
Our granddaughter giggles.
"And a fine stomach it is." I tug at my mustache with one hand and rub my protruding belly with the other.
“Quiet!” Clare scolds my granddaughter. “No playing at the table.”
In my granddaughter’s head, I hear her protest…But, it is grandpa who’s playing!
“Yes, mommy,” is what comes out of her mouth.
I must intercede. “Mi linda, never let someone change your words. If you think something, say it!”
She looks at me suspiciously. In her head, she wants to know how I know. “I love you grandpa,” is what comes out.
“Te adoro!" I wrap my large, massive arms around her bouncy copper hair. "Vámos a Colombia! Vámos!”
In her head, she answers, sí, sí, sí, sí! “Where is Colombia?” she asks.
"Ah….it is the land of my ancestors. Of your forefathers. The land of miracles, mysteries, and magic. La tierra de la verdad, the land of truth.”
Ursula smashes more potatoes on my plate. “Eat! And stop filling our granddaughter’s head with nonsense. She understands nothing of what you say.”
In my granddaughter’s head, I hear her say she would love to go to the land where magic is an everyday occurrence. Where witches sip their morning coffee alongside children and unicorns. I hear her say, anywhere but boring Canada. What comes out of her mouth is, “yes grandma, but I do understand what grandpa says, verdad?”
“You are poisoning the child’s mind! Are you teaching her a language you do not speak?”
"Dad. Doctor Rosenthal said he would be glad to see you. He's terrific, really. He's been helpful for me, and I really think we should go to him. He's available on Monday at ten."
“Won’t be here.”
“What do you mean you won’t be here? Where are you going?”
“Ah son, such a philosophical question from one with not the required experience. After my 87th, does anybody know where I will go? Do you? Does the big man in the sky know? I’ll be in Méjico.”
"Mexico!" Ursula storms out of her seat and starts to remove the dishes with the frenzy of a hurricane. "Mexico!" Plates, cutlery, condiments, and napkins disappear from the table. A flurry of arms and hands fly in a blur.
“What happened to Co-lom-bia?”
Had it not been my wife’s melodic voice asking, I would have thought it was our granddaughter asking; the question was cloaked in childish taunting.
“I am paying my respects. I will say goodbye to my physical self before the spiritual evaporates into the miasma of life."
“Wake up Gabe! Cheerio! Morning time’s here!” Ursula rushes around the room picking up from the floor her husband’s dirty clothes. “Tea’ll be piping hot in five!”
Gabe's wife busies herself with the usual preparations. She makes sure the tea is seeped slowly, the old-fashioned way, just like her mother taught her when she was a young child in Lancaster. She takes the English cream out of the fridge to make sure it softens and puts scones into the toaster. It is all a carefully orchestrated ceremony which ensures their morning breakfast is perfect and exactly the same day after day.
“Gabe? Get up! Your tea’ll be ice cold by the time you make it to the table. Gabe?”
Ursula is used to her husband's unresponsive moods. Lately, she really doesn’t know where his mind is, what with him seeming to think he speaks Spanish and that he is some kind of author. It disturbs her to think his mind is deteriorating so quickly. Gabe used to be such an intelligent man. She married him, not for his looks, but for his quick wit. He could cut through mountains with his words and his humour was as dry as the Sahara desert.
She makes sure the scones pop out of the toaster before going to their bedroom to wake her lazy husband. When she opens the door, on his side of the bed, the comforter ruffles into folds and dunes. “Gabe?”
There is nobody under the mounds on the bed. Ursula shouts her husband’s name. The echo of her voice in the corridor is the only response.
“Gobo!” she barks into the receiver. “Your dad is gone!”
“Mum, what do you mean gone? Where?”
“I don’t know! He’s left the house in the middle of the night! While I was asleep. It’s his dementia... it’s got him thinking that he is Colombian or Mexican... I’m confused as to which it is....I don’t know! He’s gone!”
“Mum, calm down. Let’s think this through...”
"Think it through! Did you not hear him yesterday at the table? He thinks he's a writer or a philosopher....oh Gobo, I'm beside myself! Do you believe that we need to alert the RCMP?"
“Don’t do a thing. I’m on my way.”
It’s hard for Ursula to stay put. She has a million things to do around the house and looking for her errant husband is not one of them. One is supposed to have a quiet, simple life when one reaches their sunset years but not with Gabe. Fury rushes through her veins. In her instability, she wonders if her husband might have a Spanish lady friend somewhere but, she brushes that thought away. Gabe can hardly roll into bed. He wouldn’t be entertaining amorous relations at his age, would he?
The bell rings.
Her husband and son know the door’s combination. Panic runs through Ursula’s blood when she opens the door expecting to see the police delivering devastating news. Instead, a lovely young woman, no older than 24, stands erect.
“Is this the residence of Gabriel Buendía?”
Ursula’s fury comes close to a boil. “Might be. Who’s asking?” She eyes the pretty girl’s lithe figure and big dark eyes. Black hair cascades down to her waist.
“Well, it doesn’t matter who I am. I’ve just returned from my homeland and met Gabriel at the airport—”
“Yes. Your husband asked me to tell you he has gone to Mexico City to pay his respects to García Marquez. He’s a bit late. I attended the funeral a few days ago. He saw me clutching one of the maestro’s books and pleaded that I tell you about his journey. I live only two blocks from here.” The young brown girl offers a broad smile of perfectly formed white teeth. “Gabriel said he’d be back in a jiffy. He specifically asked me to say ‘jiffy’.” She giggles.
“M...M...Mexico?” Ursula’s knees buckle.
"Yes, the capital. Although Marquez is Colombian, he lived his later years in my homeland, and that is where he wished to be buried. Your husband told me he was the same age as the greatest author of our times and, mind you, they bear a great resemblance. You ought to be proud of him. Such an acute mind! A great sense of humour as well.”
“D...d...did he say when he’ll be back?”
“I didn’t have time to ask. I thought you would know.” The pretty young girl flaunts her signed copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. “I got this copy years ago. I’m sure it’s worth a pretty penny now.” Laughing, she turns toward the boulevard and walks home.
All that Ursula can think of is, What will our granddaughter think? But, this strikes her as odd. Her 86 going on to 87 year-old husband is missing, possibly gallivanting the dangerous streets of Mexico City, dancing with disaster and all she can think of is how her granddaughter will react? Well, she does love her abuelito.
El Palacio de las Bellas Artes, a building dripped in a magnificent blend of Neoclassical and Art Deco opulence, a building perfect in symmetry and proportion, its arches and curves blossoming like a fresh rose petal, is a perfect spot to hold a funeral.
Even if I am a week late, I can still feel the essence of the ceremony; hundreds of people, possibly thousands, all clutching one or many of the author’s novels, breathing his words, drinking his spirit into their souls, the soggy soil they were standing on as soft as the political situation before the Revolution. The constant afternoon showers do not clear the cloak of smog the city suffocates under, nor do they seem to purify anything in this filthy city. The perfect setting for what I call, a proper farewell. A procession of notables, despicables, and common folk, standing in front of the angel-crowned cupula, celebrating the great man’s life.
I hold my copy of Love in the time of Cholera and look up at the angel.
“Hey there young señorita,” I call out to the statue. “Before you jump off and take flight, I want to tell you that this is the way love ought to be. Passionate. Complicated. Unrequited. Love needs to be all consuming, like my love for our granddaughter. Like my love for Ursula.”
I wobble the complicated cobblestone narrow streets toward Los Pinos, the fine cemetery where my friend and compadre rests in peace. His grave is easy to find amidst the pine trees which are so high they seem to kiss the heavens. Yellow flowers, mountain-high, obscure his headstone. I waver. Do I dare read the maestro’s epitaph? Compare this to what mine might say?
I try to sit on a rock near his grave but, my arthritis is acting up. I look at the gray sky, heavy with moisture; I cannot find a trace of blue in it. Everything is gray, oh so very gray. I find a park bench, also gray, and sit for a while with my thoughts, which are not black and white. My lungs begin to burn. The grayness in the sky is not due to rain. I cough my lungs out. Amidst a man-made pine and eucalyptus forest, I ponder if my life has been for naught. I know the great maestro's destiny and mine are intertwined, for I too shall perish on my 87th birthday—
“What on Earth are you doing sitting in this damp cemetery? I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”
I hear something. Someone talking, far away. The voice seems familiar, and I look up from my thoughts.
“Gobo? Is that you Gobo? What in Heaven’s name are you doing here?”
"Mom sent me. It was either a private investigator or me, and she wishes to keep this quiet.”
“What does she mean by, THIS?”
"Your disappearance. Mom thought you came to Mexico to escape or worse, to commit suicide."
“Why would I commit suicide hours before my 87th?”
My son takes my hand and prods me, like a father trying to convince his three year-old to leave the play park. I look at Marquez’s grave, or the yellow flower mountain, and say adios amigo.
“Mum is beside herself. How could you do this! We are all starting to wonder about you—”
“—and, maybe I should see your good doctor. That is what you were going to say, right? How did you find me?”
“I am not sure how Mum knew you’d be in Mexico City. I took the first flight once she told me where you were. What is it about this author that makes you do such crazy things?”
"Because I am he."
I see a thousand words drown in my son’s throat, waiting to cascade out of his mouth. The words make his stomach churn. They make his head spin but, he remains silent, determined to pull my hand to wherever he wants to take me. He does not realize that the greatest danger lies in walking, not because I might fall, but because it affirms my physicality, my mortality.
“We are going back home, Dad. To the airport and then, straight to Dr. Rosenthal’s. We cannot have you wandering away like this.”
“That will be past my 87th.”
The good Dr. Rosenthal informs my family and me that, under hypnosis, I confessed to learning Spanish as a young baby while listening to a maid speak to her friends. The notion that I am somehow inextricably intertwined with García Marquez, that, he could not pull out of my secretive brain. I am he because I can recite his books by memory. I am he because I know how to hate with love.
I allow Dr. Rosenthal’s psychoanalysis to cover my wife and son’s ears while I study the wall of books in the doctor’s office. I look at large fat tomes, dusty with years of neglect, like forgotten gems in a vault. Like little stories wanting to be set free: Modern Man in Search of a Soul reaches for The Interpretation of Dreams when the Man and His Symbols begins to doubt Civilization and its Discontents so that The Undiscovered Self is riddled by Totems and Taboos—
“Well, Dad…How does that sound? Dad!”
“Gabe! Your son is talking to you!”
“Mr. Gooday…are we in agreement?”
I pause to allow the passing of a self to go with dignity. To quiet the voices that plague me, I sign the papers that are waved in front of me in a hurry: Señor Gabriel Buendía.
“Gabe, sign your name. Your right name!” Ursula doesn’t understand that Gabe Gooday is dead and, that from my 87th on, I am the one and only, Gabriel Buendía, forever. I live both in the world of my ancestors and my loved ones. Singlehandedly, I have saved my family from the bipolar bears. Ha! Imagine that….at my age!