Leaving Things Behind

I threw away the cologne that he gave me so I could remember him. Every time I open the trash can in the bathroom, I see the cologne's gray top, and I relive the moment he handed me the bottle so quickly and easily, as if he'd done it before. 

The lid is closed and I wrap my robe around me and leave the bathroom to find my dog, Gigi, sitting on the couch with her haunches drawn back and her ears perked up and a look on her face that says, "Well? What now? Is it time to leave? Go outside?" I laugh at her, tell her no, but at least this time it is not because I have to go to work. Now, it's just because I'm tired and I want to stay in. I want to finish my book, I tell her. We'll sit on the couch and just snuggle. Sound good? I say. I have already forgotten about the trash. 

The book I finish was written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, called The General In His Labyrinth, published in 1990. It has been lauded as presenting the South American political leader and liberator, Simon Bolivar, in a more human light. The book is a fictional account of Bolivar's final journey up the Magdalena River, from Santa Fe de Bogota to Santa Marta, a city on the Caribbean Sea, just east of Panama. Marquez, the author, writes in his "My Thanks" note that some of the mistakes he'd made in the writing--having to do with specific dates, encounters between historical figures--might have been better had they been left in. For then, he says, they would "have added a few drops of involuntary - and perhaps desirable - humor to the horror of this book." (274). 

Horror. Horror? He doesn't speak of his lack of skill as a writer. No, that can't be it. He's speaking to the subject, the images of this liberator, "The General," Bolivar, in his last days on earth. Ravaged by illness and the broken memories he's made, Bolivar finally confronts who he has been and comes into fullness of the person he has become. Please read through this opening description of Bolivar, from early on in the narrative: 

“For they were in Santa Fe de Bogota, city of the Holy Faith, two thousand six hundred meters above the level of the distant sea, and the cavernous bedroom with its bare walls, exposed to the icy winds that filtered through ill-fitting windows, was not the most favorable for anyone’s health. Jose Palacios placed the basin of lather on the marble top of the dressing table, along with the red velvet case that held the shaving implements, all of golden metal. He put the small candleholder with its candle on a ledge near the mirror so the General would have enough light, and he brought the brazier to warm his feet. Then he handed him the spectacles with squared lenses and thin silver frames that he always carried for him in his jacket pocket. The General put them on and began to shave, guiding the razor with as much skill in his left hand as in his right, for his ambidexterity was natural to him, and he showed astonishing control of the same wrist that minutes before could not hold a cup. He finished shaving by touch, still walking around the room, for he tried to see himself in the mirror as little as possible so he would not have to look in his own eyes. Then he plucked the hairs in his nose and ears, polished his perfect teeth with charcoal powder on a silver-handled silk brush, trimmed and buffed the nails on his fingers and toes, and at last took off the poncho and poured a large vial of cologne over his entire body, rubbing it with both hands until the flask was empty. That dawn he officiated at the daily mass of his ablutions with more frenetic severity than usual, trying to purge his body and spirit of twenty years of fruitless wars and the disillusionments of power.” (5)

In my pre-writing for this blog post, I scribbled down themes and ideas and overarching patterns that came to me while reading. This book seems to be about legacy-leaving, about trying to forget--but that's only because there's the remembering. Then too, it's obviously about death, and about struggling through pain and realizations of frailty. There are questions of self-importance, and of worth. Questions of Who matters to me? and Do I matter to other people? These are, needless to say, hard questions. But, if I'm correct here, questions that many of ask day by day. I, for one, ask them often. But it's not so good that I do. At least, I've recently come to that conclusion.

In this past month of living in a southernmost state, Louisiana, I've received praise from co-workers and superiors that, frankly, seems unwarranted. I feel loved, wanted, needed. But I've also had come to grips with relationships ending and connections severing--some of my own doing, but others not, with co-workers, bosses, eligible bachelors and new, Southern friends. Do I dwell in these endings? How do I face them? What do I do? 

I'm on the brink of making a journey north--not so unlike Bolivar's journey to the north coast of South America, though he was on his deathbed and I feel that I am up on my toes, running. I feel like I'm just beginning life--ready to find new work and be with friends I haven't seen in a while. Though Bolivar was dying and I'm not at all, there's a similarity in our journeys, our intents: we seek rest, we seek solace, we seek reprieve from the battles we feel we don't need to be fighting anymore. Bolivar's battle was, well, confronting his frailty, sickness, pain, even his memories. What is my battle? Maybe you don't need or even want to know. In any case, it's go to do with hanging too tightly to relationships and people I cling to for affirmation. 

I am learning that there comes a time to let go, to leave what I don't need behind me and move forward. And even though it's hard, I can loosen my grip on memories which burden me instead of draw me closer to God and peace and deep breaths. To confront myself for who I have been, but more importantly, to know who I am today. Maybe I can let that be enough. 


The General In His Labyrinth, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (Knopf, 1990). Buy it here. Amazon.com says about the book, "General Simon Bolivar, 'the Liberator' of five South American countries, takes a last melancholy journey down the Magdalena River, revisiting cities along its shores, and reliving the triumphs, passions, and betrayals of his life."