Yesterday, phew!, I finished one more chapter of Kindness – the Master and His Companions – a novel inspired by the life of Silo. Here’s a piece of it, based on the story of Laura Rodriguez, “Lala” (“Liliana” in the novel), first woman in the world to win a parliamentary seat as a member of the Humanist Party. A wife and mother with a young son, she served as diputada to the Chilean Parliament from 1990 to 1992, when she died from a brain tumor at the age of 35. Here she is being interviewed by a young journalist as she is recovering from brain surgery:
Margarita held Liliana in awe. Just beginning her career as a journalist, she was only too aware of the inequities facing women in Chilean society. She saw Liliana as a role model – not only for herself and her friends, but for all Chileans and for women everywhere.
Of course she was stricken to hear of Liliana’s illness. Deciding she had to take the chance, and hoping she was not being inappropriate, she called Liliana’s office and left a message to see if she might be granted an interview. She was thrilled when Liliana herself called her back and invited her to visit her at her home the following week.
When Margarita rang the doorbell, Liliana’s husband Damien greeted her warmly and showed her into the living room. She set up her taper recorder, and it wasn’t long before Liliana came out to meet her. Walking haltingly, leaning against the wall, her left arm hanging at her side, she made her way to the couch and sat down carefully. Smiling warmly at Margarita, she thanked her for coming and without preamble launched into what she wanted to say.
“The problem,” she said, “is that the central value in this system is money. The importance of money is so deeply engrained in our society that people really believe in it, especially those in power.
“But the whole money thing is really about death. Older societies have always had their myths about death – how to overcome it, how to get to heaven. We have the myth of money, money is our religion!
“We believe money gives us life – the more money you have, the more you can buy and the more alive you feel. Think about it! The banks are our cathedrals, and the tellers are our confessors…” She chuckled. “We go to deposit part of our life, and withdraw part of our life…”
“And what about you?” Margarita asked. “How do you feel about death? Has your illness changed the way you see it?” She could hardly believe she was asking such a blunt question, but Liliana seemed completely at ease.
“Oh yes,” said Liliana. “For one thing, it’s shown me how important it is to talk about death – which we seldom do. Death is a total taboo.
“Imagine – death touches everyone. We are all going to die – not just me, everyone! Yet no one talks about it. And not talking about it generates a lot of fear. We need to talk about death – what our fears are, which of them are real fears, which are imaginary…
“Why am I afraid to die? Why don’t I want to die? Ah, because my husband will be left alone, because my child will be left alone – but that’s all a big lie! Sure, if I die my son will be sad, but he’ll overcome that. My father died when I was three and I’ve lived a full life. Same with my husband, he’ll be sad but he’ll recover, and he’ll go on living. If my death is a problem for anyone, it’s a problem for me and my projects.”
“So what is the real fear about death?”
“On one hand it’s the fear of the unknown.” Liliana spoke reflectively. “On the other there’s a real fear that you won’t be able to carry out your life project.”
“Does that frighten you?”
“I don’t feel frightened at this point. I don’t feel fear. Like I said, what I feel is a greater comprehension of the importance of this topic. How tremendously important it is to talk about death, to discuss it. It’s incredible to me that people don’t talk about it – truly!”
“Why don’t we?” Margarita had never thought about this question. Of course you didn’t talk about death – but now that she was looking at it, she had to wonder – why not?
“Because – for various reasons. We believe death means terrible pain and suffering, that you have to cry a lot when someone dies. Look how absurd that is – someone else dies and you cry! But they’re dead, they don’t feel a thing, so why cry for them? They don’t feel anything – crying for them is a lie, a hallucination. You’re crying for yourself.
And if you’re crying for yourself, if you’re suffering, you can overcome that. So why does death have to be such a big drama?”
“And your son?”
“He’s been fantastic, very helpful. Children are very wise – he sees me at ease, so he’s happy. If I were upset, it would be different. The other day he said this is the best vacation he’s ever had – sure, because a lot of people come to take him places, he has all kinds of friends over, and he feels like he’s helping when he does things like pushing my wheel chair.”
“You don’t feel sorry for yourself?”
“Can you believe it, no!” Liliana spoke with a kind of wonder. “I don’t think I’ve had one moment of self pity. Maybe I’ve been angry – like when you have an accident – I have so much to do and now I have to go through all this!
“But people misunderstand. They think it’s terrible that I can’t move my arm, that they shaved my head. But you see, I’m not my arm or my leg, or my hair – I lose my hair and I keep on being me, they operate on my breast, I’m still me.
“My goal isn’t to overcome the cancer. It’s to overcome death. To strengthen whatever is within me that makes me human, that makes me a being who’s capable of giving, capable of changing the world! If that’s who I am, death is an absurdity – it doesn’t exist.”
Stay tuned – Kindness will be published some time before my own death.