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A Nearly Perfect Father — Even For A Man Who Wasn’t His Son

This article is more than 6 years old.

“A man has only one mother, but his father could be any old son of a bitch.”

So goes a saying from Medellín, as recalled by celebrated Colombian writer Héctor Abad Faciolince in his exquisite 2012 coming-of-age memoir, “Oblivion.” The book is also a meditation on fatherhood and an homage to the author’s own father, Dr. Héctor Abad Gómez, who emerges as the adored antithesis of the SOB stereotype.

A well-traveled World Health Organization official who helped pioneer Colombia’s public-health system, Dr. Abad was among the first to understand that public health, social justice, and human rights were intertwined. His life was dedicated to healing the sick and helping the poor — to some in Colombia that made him a dangerous man. “If they kill me for what I do,” Dr. Abad once said, “would it not be a beautiful death?”

At home, Dr. Abad was an extraordinary father; outside, he was one of those special individuals who single-handedly advances humanity.

I got to know Dr. Abad while supporting him in his role as the head of Medellín’s human rights committee. Over the phone and in his typewritten letters, he was formal and courteous, patient and, yes, paternal. I had lived in Colombia and I had many questions. As we talked, unbeknownst to him, he was imparting to me life-lessons in compassion and courage: His activism and grassroots work in public health were earning him friends, but also enemies in high, reactionary places. I watched anxiously from Boston as he soldiered on.

Through it all, he remained an involved, physically affectionate, and indulgent father, as “Oblivion” (titled “El olvido que seremos” in the original Spanish) wonderfully recounts. In a house full of “Catholicism-afflicted women” — maids, five sisters, a grandma, a mother, a nun — Héctor Jr. (as I will call Faciolince) bonded deeply with his humanist father, whom he “loved more than God.” But this man who loved growing roses, listening to Beethoven, and doting on his family was not without flaws — naiveté about people’s motives, a lack of discipline, a touch of vanity. And one more flaw: as Héctor Jr. observes, “A father as perfect as he was can become unbearable.”

As that Medellín saying caustically affirms, we all have a father who, to different degrees, is incomplete in our eyes. As young men, most of us are restless for more than what any one man can teach us, and a father can only be so much. So when we are trying on “manhood” for size, a father figure can help us find a fit. Dr. Abad did that for me.

In August 1987, Dr. Abad was gunned down in the streets of Medellín by death-squad assassins. Even in a country accustomed to horrific political violence, his death was shocking. Dr. Abad, 65, had long maintained that violence should be treated as a public-health issue. Now he himself had become one of the hundreds of thousands of victims of a slow-motion massacre, begun in the 1940s, that has created in Colombia today the third-largest displaced civilian population in the world.

“If they kill me for what I do,” Dr. Abad once said, “would it not be a beautiful death?”

At home, Dr. Abad was an extraordinary father; outside, he was one of those special individuals who single-handedly advances humanity. But Dr. Abad would have been embarrassed by the label “special” and the attention it draws. Consider the words of this Borges poem, “Epitaph,” that he had hand copied and was carrying in his pocket when he died. It ends with these lines: I am not some fool who clings to the sound of his own name. I think, with hope, of that man who will never know I walked the earth. Beneath the blue indifference of heaven, I find this thought consoling.

This Father’s Day, as I remember my own father, I will also recall the father figures in my life, and in particular, one whose wish for “indifference” I cannot grant — a gentle, brave man who touched more lives than he knew.


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This program aired on June 13, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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