The highway leads us out of the city and into the industrial zones in the near suburbs. They are not pretty. They look as if they were designed by Army engineers at the end of the 2nd World War and left to rust and grime up since then. This is not entirely fair but it is what I think as I stare out the window of the car. I really do not have anything else to do as Marcus speaks no English and I speak only a few words in Portuguese, many of them swear words that Elaine has taught me as an amusement.
Occasionally, Marcus stops to pay a toll. He is the politest toll payer I have ever known. He greets the toll takers by name and when they return his change he politely says “obrigado “and wishes them “Vá com Deus.” Pulling away from the toll area he reaches into the center console of the car and, finding a dispenser of alcohol gel, squirts a large amount onto his glove covered hand and quickly rubs it into both hands. It reassures me that he is so safety conscious. It also makes me nervous and I decide to gel, in an overabundance of caution, every time he does.
The road leads through the hills that surround Rio. They are covered in the rich vegetation of the Atlantic Forest which contain everything from trees that look as if they came from the imagination of Theodor Geisel to the more common place. Some are alight with blooms in shockingly vibrant colors and others with various hues of green. The road itself is steep, full of switchbacks and we often have to slow our journey as trucks can do no better than low gear on the incline. For awhile I am captivated by the rich variety of flora and a view but like a hypnotist swaying watch they eventually lull me into the middle space between wakefulness and sleep where one thought drifts easily from one to another with no rhyme or reason.
I think of my friend Rich, dead less than a week after a long battle with brain cancer. We had been each other’s wingman for 47 years. We were brothers who did not share DNA. It would have been he that I would have backstopped this trip. Asked him whether or not I was making the right decision to return to the United States. He would have given me his unvarnished opinion and I trusted him enough to let it sway me in whatever direction he pointed. Who would I turn to now for counsel and opinion now that as much as I might talk to him it would be unlikely that he would answer. It was he that I would call on this journey to tell him the absurd, funny, ironic or mundane parts of my journey. I would have to find a different way to share my stories, but it would be without the benefit of his wit and slightly askew sense of humor.
I wondered what his take would be on the United States to which I was returning. He and I shared the same view of the Orange Roughian who currently resided in the White House: an incompetent vulgarian who cared not a bit about the constitution, whose only desire was to turn the country into one where he and his cronies could make money without regard if it destroyed the fabric of the country. Even after having a chunk of his brain removed, he had seen the threat he posed for the human values and decency we had been taught our country represented. Rich and I never talked about Covid19. He was already in hospice by the time it had begun its rampage. But he was a businessman. He would have seen the Administration’s response for what it was: political, incompetent, and lacking any semblance of leadership. There is no doubt we would have joked, with gallows humor, about it all. There are others that I will be able to engage with about this ongoing disaster, but his voice will be missed.
We would have talked about the death of George Floyd. Rich had lived for years in Minneapolis. It had been a home and where his youngest son, Sean, had been born. The question we would have asked each other “Is why has the death of this black man in the custody of police sparked so much upheaval and uproar…far more than many others that were equally outrageous and horrifying.” I would have argued that it was a perfect storm. A President who through word and Tweet dog whistles demonstrates his racism daily which has empowered his racist supporters to come out from the woodwork of our country, like cockroaches, to say and do vile things. Combined with a pandemic, turned racial by 45 (the Chinese Virus) that not only sickened millions and killed over a hundred thousand but also infected a huge portion of the United States with cabin fever in addition to widespread incipient anxiety. Added to an underlying condition where communities of colors have felt the bitterness of not being listened to or yelled down when they say anything at all. (Colin Kapernack’s taking a knee to protest against the disparity of justice between communities of color and white and the backlash including his ban from the NFL is the easiest example.) I would have told him adding all those things together is more explosive than adding diesel fuel to ammonium nitrate. I am sure he would have agreed but he also would have added his own spin which sadly, now, I will never know.
The road emerged from the mountains and the forest onto steep hillocks of pasture lands. Here the roads still wound but less acutely and the verdant pastures were stocked with white cattle and the occasional horse or donkey. It was beautiful. It was monotonous and soon the lack of sleep from the night before caught up with me and after a few nods fell asleep.
When I wake, we are on a long straight highway that more closely resembles the interstates in the US. To my left you can see jagged mountains rising out of the plains and to my right industrial areas and pasturelands. I see a convoy of military trucks carrying armored personnel carriers and their troops heading past us in the opposite direction. My first thought is what is Brazil’s military up to? There is a lot of tension between the Bolsonaro government and the military. This has a long history. It was the military that ran the government of Brazil from 1964-1985 and since they relinquished power that have stood in the background ready to take over if they find the country slipping. Many in Brazil would welcome this as life was more predictable under the dictatorship and they have forgotten its excesses and the lack of freedom. But as ominous the convoy looks, I soon realize that there is a far simpler solution. I can tell from what I remember from a previous trip to Sao Paulo we are approaching the Academia Militar das Agulhas Negras, the West Point of Brazil. Elaine’s father’s Alma Mater.
Jose Affonso Vierira Ferreira was a three-star general in the Army and he, like my own father, was responsible for our meeting. Our decision to take the cruise in which we met was in part because we had been both taking care of our fathers, both dying from kidney, and needed a break. We had bonded telling each other stories of our fathers and our love for him. When I had told Elaine a few weeks after we had said goodbye on the docks of Savona, that I was coming to Rio in a few short weeks, I had hoped to meet him. I wanted to meet him and let him meet the man who hoped to love and cherish his daughter. Tragically, he died just one week before I was to arrive in Brazil.
I was so saddened by my inability to meet him that I wrote him a posthumous letter.
Late this afternoon, your daughter wrote to me to tell me of your passing. My hope sir is that your body which has been so tormented of late has freed your soul and that it has found a better place. A place where the vigor of your youth is close at hand…a place where you are at ease and in no pain…a place where you can soak in all the love the universe has to offer.
I am only sorry sir that we did not have a chance to meet. I know we would have much to say to each other.
I think that I would have started our conversation sharing with you the love and admiration that I have for your daughter Elaine. I would have told you that she is a bright star in a dark universe and that her intelligence, charm and beauty make her worthy of her name. That the love I have for her is real and that I will do whatever I can to take special care of her heart, to make sure she never feels alone, and that her happiness is always put before my own.
I would also have wanted to share with you something that I know you already knew; how much your daughter loves you. From the moment I met her she shared with me her joys about the times you spent together. She told me stories of your trip to the World Cup, of sharing a cabin and adventures and of your trip to America with its circuitous path. But it was not the stories that mattered, it was the glow in her eyes as she told the stories that told me all I needed to know of the very special love shared between father and daughter.
I would have complimented you sit on the daughter you raised. I know that one of your regrets in life was that you did not get to spend as much time with your daughter as you would have liked but I think that you more than made up for that with the gifts that you have given her. She is a good soul and possesses a kind heart and that was not created in a vacuum. Those are values you helped give to her. She has the love of the truth and is honest. Those are gifts you shared with her. She is thoughtful and intelligent and those are things you imparted on her. She is beautiful both inside and out and I know those are qualities you fostered in her.
Finally, I would have thanked you sir. Your daughter has been a blessing to me. She has helped me rediscover my heart and my voice. Her love supports me and sustains me. Finding her has been like finding a part of me that I never knew that I had lost. So, thank you sir for giving me the greatest gift of all…love.
Sir, I hope your soul has found its peace and its reward. You are and will be in my thoughts and my prayers.
I salute you.
I think of the letter as we pass the gates to the academy and raise my hand to my brow.
[ Part 4: God Laughs 06/02/20…Today is also the General’s birthday. ]