Some time has passed since my father’s untimely death. Since then an epitaph has been chosen to be placed near his resting place deep inside a uniquely beautiful natural area within the Andean mountains of our dear Colombia. Surrounded by the nature he loved, he will surely rest in peace. The epitaph chosen, translated into English reads something like this: ”We will always have you in our hearts.” My mother, who spent most of her life beside him even when separated, approved those words. This alone speaks of their great importance.
Although this is quite a nice and simple epitaph, and in fact shows the importance of remembering the love one carries within for those who depart, I think it has some limitations. Perhaps by looking at its limitations we can become more aware of what an epitaph is for and what are the hidden possibilities within for diverse epitaphs. Maybe then we will be better prepared to engage in the reflective process which is behind the selection of those epitaphs with which we will honor the passing through life of those close to us. Perhaps it will even allow us to set out what epitaph will appear above our very own gravestones someday.
The three limitations to this epitaph are as follows: 1. it speaks more of “us” than the person who has died, namely, our father (it says “we” and “our hearts”, instead of “him” and “his heart”); 2. it is the kind of epitaph that could be placed in many tombs, so that the particularity and uniqueness of my father (and he was quite unique, I tell you!) is quite lost, and finally, 3. it tries to convince us that the aim of an epitaph is to touch our emotions primarily and only secondarily our capacity for reflection and creative imagination which are among the highest faculties we possess as human beings. In contrast, I think an epitaph should: 1. speak primarily about the person him/herself who has died, 2. reveal him or her in a special light using the expressive power of language, and finally, 3. should not primarily focus on the emotions, specially if these have not been articulated in the life of the members of these families, but should point towards reflection and the need we have of such reflection in order to guarantee a certain true and honest legacy of the person who has died. How could one come up with such an epitaph?
First off, by looking at the many famous ones which many others have used to remind us of those who were found to be memorable. One can in turn try to relate some of them to the close loved person who has died. In the case of my father two such realms come to mind. On the one hand, the serious type of epitaphs which are usually used for those who have dedicated their lives to the political or public life. The single most famous example of this type of epitaph can be seen in the words found at Thermopylae, words recently beautifully and powerfully recovered in the movie the 300:
“Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by
that here, obedient to their law, we lie.”
At the very least these soldiers asked of their kin not to forget the sacrifice they endured in order to try to secure the lawful freedom of those intimately close they left behind. Another such powerful example of an epitaph that in its simplicity touches us like few can, is the one found at the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”. It reads: “Here Rests In Honored Glory An American Soldier Known But To God.” Its power lies precisely in that usually we bury those who are known to us, here the words remind us that many die in anonymity. This epitaph stands against the injustice of such anonymous deaths.
A second realm which could apply to my father would be a more ironic and fun-spirited one. Usually it is artists who have the strength to come up with such kinds of epitaphs. Given my father’s unique sense of humor, one could eventually think of an epitaph such as one which Hemingway once proposed and which reads:
“Pardon me for not getting up”
My father would have laughed.
In this respect, by letting ourselves be touched by what others have decided to lay down as their final resting words ——those few limited marks which will attempt to break us free from our mortal demise and now obvious finitude—— we would be more able to decide which words to choose for those we love and even for ourselves upon, better yet, before (!) our departure.
What epitaph would I place in its place? In actuality none. Instead, I will simply provide an accompanying virtual epitaph which will be a kind of next of kin to the physical one which appears in that magical place only few of us know about and which my father loved. But, in contrast to that selection, I will provide a story as to why I selected mine. Only after this will I share the epitaph which I think my father would have liked to be remembered by. This is part of the story.
My father always loved horses. His father also loved horses; probably even more than my father did. Colombia is world famous for its horses. Colombia still has events called cabalgatas where people ride their horses full of pride in the beauty of their animals. Paso fino (elegant stride) is what some of them are called.
But there is another side to horses in Colombia. In Colombia the cruel, savage silencing and torturing paramilitaries say, or rather think, they love horses. They ride their horses as a sign of their intimidating power. My father and his father loved horses in a very different way. In Colombia, I am quite sure, the kidnapping and terrorist leaders of the leftist Guerrilla say, or think, they love horses. They ride their horses as a sign of their intimidating power. My father loved horses in very different way. In Colombia, money-loving and virtue-lacking Narcos (drug- dealers) who purchase and sell horses say, or think, they love horses. They show off their horses as a sign of their intimidating power. In contrast, father loved horses in a very different way. He loved horses as one should love horses. He never sought to assassinate campesinos with them, he never sought to kidnap fellow citizens with them, he never used them to corrupt his family with drugs. And he was also generous with them; never did I hear him say that he would keep the horses all to himself. Was he perfect in his love? Not at all. But without really knowing it —–for many fathers do not truly know how it is they affect their children—– he taught me to love horses.
I still recall today the day I fell in love with horses. Walking along a mountainous path in the Colombian Andes, far in the distance I saw a group of horses which had been set free within my father’s farm called Picachos. Many of these horses had not been broken and therefore moved about nature in all their freedom. Suddenly two stallions, the younger arrogant one and the older experienced one came upon each other. The older stallion, whose name was Centinela (Guardian) was getting much older. The younger was seeking some claims. They engaged in a noble and natural fight which included attempts at biting, pretentious kicking and serious looks. It was all over quickly as Centinela, golden horse of white-socked legs, made it known that though he was old, he was still alive and a good leader. The privileged feeling of being able to watch this event against the background of the Andean forest, high up in a solitary pasture, I will never be able to forget. Because of my father, I was able to be a witness to this. I share it so you can witness along.
Our age seems to love and seems to try to defend animals as no previous age has. In this respect my father was of our age; he also defended his horses. So much so that what is truly astonishing is that he himself rarely rode them. Instead, he saw them as beings of ennobling freedom and elegant beauty. Many times he left them to their spirited-nature. I even think he was not altogether happy at training/breaking them (or more beautifully, gentling them). He truly saw them almost as equals; so much so that he firmly believed that his father’s spirit could be seen in the colts who were born a few years after my grandfather’s death. For my father, and in this he was admirable, the horses were almost ends-in-themselves, not merely a means of utility. In this sense, my father ‘s nobility was quite unique. If only he had transferred this unique knowledge to all areas of his life!
There is nothing like galloping on a horse. So much so that there is an Arabian saying that goes like this: “The wind of heaven is that which blows between a horse’s ears.” For surely to feel the power of the animal below you powering smoothly through space is an unforgettable, almost divine experience. To know of the comradeship required to move along as if suspended in the air, that prepares you for friendship. But I want to recall three very different stories: one with a horse called Noche (Night), another with a horse called Virrey (Vice-Roy) , and a final one, with a horse called La Negra (Black).
The first involves riding Noche up a very steep incline in the Andean mountains when I was very very young. Suddenly, I sensed she could not go on and started moving backwards, sliding a bit. She stood up in her hind-legs and without intending it sent me flying down to earth. I must confess I was both quite scared and excited at feeling alive. The second instance involves Virrey. He had not been ridden for some time (please read, I had not ridden a horse for some time so the horse knew that he was the one doing all the leading) and after going out, he would just stop. There was no power on earth that would make him move. I would get of the saddle, speak to him kindly, gently walk him a few meters, and then get on him once more. He would go on for a few kilometers and, once again, would stop dead. This repeated itself several times. I understood he was playing with me, but I played along and gently told he was a horrible horse! He looked at me in a playful manner. Finally the amazing story of La Negra. She was once left alone in an open pasture. I came up to her and tried to touch her. She was known for really disliking humans touching her. She had not been trained yet. So I came slowly closer and closer, gently moving her way so as to not frighten her. By chance we moved together into an area which was enclosed by two huge rocks. In the middle there was a very slight opening. I said to myself, here is my chance to touch her and connect with her. We humans are funny creatures. As I approached her more and more she became nervous. And I thought to myself, well you have nowhere to go, honey! And then, as if she had grown wings, she jumped through the only opening left. I was stunned to see an animal’s adamant love of her freedom. I think my father was a bit like that. I myself am so, too.
But one need not only recollect personal experiences in order to try to find the best epitaph for a person. There is also literature and art. I have chosen three beautiful examples from literature to showcase the love of horses: one is Xenophon’s famous book the Art of Horsemanship, the second is the fun-loving Swift in his Gulliver’s Travels, and finally Don Quijiote and his love of the strongest most underappreciated horse ever to be born, ugly Rocinante. Together they once again portray the personality of my father, on the one hand quite serious as the “gentlemen” he was brought up to be and which Xenophoon discusses so brilliantly (a designation with which my father struggled all his life) but on the other hand, ironic as Swift and crazy as Don Quijiote.
With the passing years I have come to admire deeply Xenophon. A public man and a good general, he not only wrote a treatise on horses which has been around for over 2000 years and is still admired, but likewise dedicated part of his life to recollecting the memories of Socrates’ unique, astonishing and though-provoking life. In this sense his Memorabilia stands as a very necessary corrective to our view of Socrates as a pure academicist superhero. Moreover, it is in his Economics that Xenophon shines. There he portrays the conversation between a gentleman, the best gentleman of all named Ischomachus, and poor Socrates. The two had very different ideas on the use and final purpose of property. Perhaps this is the conversation which guided my relationship with my father. In this vein, it is also import to recall Socrates always fought on foot, in contrast to gentlemen like Alcibiades who, having the necessary wealth could fight on horses. Let’s just say that Socrates saved Alcibiades’ life, that he gave his medal to him and the Alcibiades eventually became a tyrant and doomed Athens. What can Xenophon help us understand about horses? So many practical things. And always with the political in sight he writes :
“to conclude if a man uses his horses skillfully, feeds them so that they can bear fatigue, and handles them properly in training them for war, in exercising them for the parade and in actual service in the field, what is there to prevent him from making his horses more valuable than when he acquired them, and hence from owning horses that are famous and from becoming famous himself in the art of horsemanship? Nothing except the interposition of some divinity?” (AH, p. 64 Translation, Morris Morgan)
The tyrannical paramilitaries, the tyrannical left-wing guerrilla terrorists and the tyrannical drug-dealers of Colombia should read Xenophon and free their horses to the fame that they so much deserve. But for now, their horses are only their slaves. None of them will ever become famous as a public figure can and should. None, I can also assure you, will ever EVER write a treatise entitled The Art of Horsemanship.
In Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels all of us know that the main character suddenly finds himself in a strange topsy-turvy land where horses rule and humans are their subjects, albeit subjects kindly treated. Swift’s irony reminds me of my father’s own coarse irony; it stung, it was acid, and yet you just had to laugh. I hope we all remember the shock the Houyhnhnms (the name for the horses Swift invents) receive when they see a naked human (a Yahoo). Upon seeing a naked Yahoo the Houyhnhnms are a bit revolted and Swift graphically reports this in such a way that we laugh at ourselves. But more importantly than this, we are told by the narrator about their manner of dying:
“if they can avoid casualties, they die only of old age, and are buried in the obscurest places that can be found, their friends and relations expressing neither joy nor grief at their departure; nor does the dying deliver the least regret that he is leaving the world, any more than if he were returning home from a visit to one of his neighbors ……. they live general to seventy or seventy-fine, very seldom to fourscore. some weeks before their death they feel a gradual decay, but without pain…. and therefore when the dying Houyhnhnms return those visits, they take a solemn leave of their friends as if they were going to some remote part of the country, where they designed to spend the rest of their lives.” (GT, IV, *9, pp. 239-240)
And so my father, who also died near the age of seventy-five, lies in one of those “obscurest places that can be found” which only a few have seen and only a few of us have walked. He lies there near to those places where the horses he loved lived and died. I bet you he can even ride in their spirits.
But my father also really liked books, though at times I truly believe that he enjoyed more having them than reflecting in dialogue about them! However, he was very kind and generous when he gave me a copy of Don Quijote which was published in 18o8. I am holding it right before me as I write this blog. For our lives are like Don Quijote’s to a large extent. But my father’s desire to conquer the giants was unique. He carried with him a book in which he set out all his projects; they were hundreds. And many he did try to achieve. Most of us, when set against even two small tasks we already shudder. But besides, the way one names one’s “properties”, shows much of who one is. My father named many of his horses by using the names of his children and grandchildren. He was generous in that sense. But he never named a horse Socrates, I can assure you. However that may be, so deep is our love for horses in Hispanic America that one cannot but laugh at how Don Quijiote suffers to come up with the name of his ugly but faithful horse Rocinante:
“He next proceeded to inspect his hack, which, with more quartos than a real and more blemishes than the steed of Gonela, that “tantum pellis et ossa fuit,” surpassed in his eyes the Bucephalus of Alexander or the Babieca of the Cid. Four days were spent in thinking what name to give him, because (as he said to himself) it was not right that a horse belonging to a knight so famous, and one with such merits of his own, should be without some distinctive name, and he strove to adapt it so as to indicate what he had been before belonging to a knight-errant, and what he then was; for it was only reasonable that, his master taking a new character, he should take a new name, and that it should be a distinguished and full-sounding one, befitting the new order and calling he was about to follow. And so, after having composed, struck out, rejected, added to, unmade, and remade a multitude of names out of his memory and fancy, he decided upon calling him Rocinante, a name, to his thinking, lofty, sonorous, and significant of his condition as a hack before he became what he now was, the first and foremost of all the hacks in the world.” (Don Quijiote, I, *1 )
Four days thinking through the name! Four days trying to write this epitaph! Rocinante, which should actually mean “the faithful one”! For you see, coming up with an epitaph is also a form, a very serious form, of fidelity. It is the type of faithfulness which Rocinante portrayed in all the crazy adventures his Master set out to in his quest for knightly justice in this mortal world.
Finally my father loved art. So much so that the first books he gave me were a set of art books about the famous museums of the world. He had traveled throughout the world and had actually seen them first-hand. I have never seen them, though I have likewise traveled through time and space as I recover the readings and paintings of my life. I cannot go into the details here, but I will merely point out that some of the most beautiful works on horses are sketches. The beautiful lines provided by horses, as against the lines of hippos or cows (!), make them suitable candidates for artists who seek an ennobling topic. Too many examples abound, in Canada the work of Elise Genest who was born in the very province my father met my mother http://elisegenest.com/fra/galerie3.html and whose work I have placed at the beginning and at the end of this post. But also, more profoundly, in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, where the horse truly takes up center stage as he is torn to pieces.
However, I will simply refer you to a sketch by Da Vinci which will allow me to emphasize that these reflections on epitaphs are themselves only sketches which are intended for us to be able to think more clearly, more deeply and more lovingly about the role of epitaphs in our mortal lives.
For many reasons, including very serious and tough decisions, I have not visited these horses in many many years. Let me just say that I recall today those two stallions I told you about earlier set against the Andean forest in a chilly morning; the one aging, the other growing up. Both fussed and threatened and shouted and pretended to be able to somehow do away with each other and the natural course of affairs. Ironically, although I ceased to be with them for many years, it was their absence that allowed me to fall deeply in love with them from afar. Perhaps now you realize that one does not have to HAVE something to love it, though having it may perhaps allow one to care for it more fully. And perhaps, now you can realize that the dream little boys and girls have for a pony is a dream worth perpetuating among us who have lost much of our ennobling capacities.
To conclude. It is because of all this that I think the epitaph which might better express the fleeting time my father spent with us among the living can be taken up by the simple words of Winston Churchill:
There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.
Words which translated very freely, in horse-like fashion, renders the Spanish version of the final epitaph which could read:
Abuelo, padre y esposo; amigo eterno de caballos.
Father saw the outside of horses so that his inside could move around the world in greater peace. He needed horses like I feel few of us ever will. His spirited and dominant nature needed the calming effect of a spirited-animal who nonetheless lived in freedom and in happiness. Let this virtual epitaph accompany the material one to be laid down in that beautiful spot which is a natural cathedral made of trees and flowers and rocks. Let this epitaph be like the Trojan horse by means of which the memory of my father silently enters the domain of death, surprising it in such a way that his name and his love of horses endures. Mario Alvaro Melo Cortázar,
Abuelo, padre y esposo; amigo eterno de caballos.
May father truly rest in peace.