Wisdom is equanimity in the presence of threatening ideas.”
I never got to meet him. He came from an aristocratic family. Stashed away, somewhere in the space that he reserved for his papers, was a congratulatory letter from the queen, dated in 1815. There were numerous military decorations and awards, plus dozens of photographs of parents, grandparents, and uncles dressed in full gear becoming of their rank. There was a letter that originated in Cuba in 1875, notifying his great uncle of the death, in combat, of his favorite son.
He was the first member of his family in two hundred years to avoid military service. He had been born in Puerto Rico; his father in Cuba; the grandfather in the Philippines… He had asthma, and he developed arthritis at an early age. He was forced to learn a career.
He studied pharmacy. His brother became a doctor. Two chips off the old block veered away from mayhem and dove headfirst into healing. He married a woman that he had grown up with, in the same household. A widower with children married a widow similarly afflicted. Like The Brady Bunch. When she was old enough to marry, she was told that there was no better candidate than the man who had lived with her as a brother. That was the way things were done in the old days.
They had five children. He partnered with another pharmacist; they started a business in a rainy, damp city in northern Spain. They did well.
In those days, pharmacists could mix up several ingredients in the back room and sell them to treat different ailments. None of these dumb rules that we have now, where you actually have to prove that the stuff that you sell works and is safe. Two of his patented mixtures sold well.
In 1918 influenza spread across the world, like a huge blanket that covered the globe and rendered everything dark. The “Spanish” flu actually started in an Army base in Kansas. It got its name because Spain was one of the few countries that allowed the press to say that the country had a serious problem indeed. When our troops were sent to Europe to intervene in the first World War, the green soldiers trained in Kansas carried the virus with them. The consequences were so devastating that there were days that the Allied and German commanders got together to declare a truce, because neither side had enough healthy soldiers to carry on a decent battle.
He fell ill. He knew what the consequences would be, particularly for someone who had asthma and limited mobility. He sat down at his desk. On pharmacy stationery, in his own handwriting, he created the following document, which I have translated.
27 October 1918
Santiago de Compostela
If during the current epidemic I should be gravely ill, it is my wish that I be isolated from everyone in my household, that the following physicians be consulted (he names four); I also wish that you consult with Dr. Gil, but he does not like to practice with the other four, so call him independently; if things deteriorate please call Manolo (his brother) by phone and he will carry out my wishes; do not place any obstacles so that any resource available to science is tried on me as barbaric as it would be; one must keep in mind that it is a matter not only of saving my life but also not to leave my wife and little children abandoned.
If God takes my life, I want my burial to be extremely modest, if this is what one can call it. A black wooden box, the parish priest, a few masses; in short, I do not want social convenience to force sacrifices on those who are left behind.
For you, Julia (his wife) I have no other advice. You have faced adversity at my side; an uncertain future threatens you as I die. Fight; do not give up; trust yourself. God will not abandon those who remember Him.
I leave you my share of the drugstore. My partner can give you the proceeds of an investment we made. We also have an agreement for six monthly stipends, the first month to be granted immediately. I also have a share on the patent for Euphorbiol; it should be worth some money because it sold well.
I wish to die in peace, although my heart is torn apart to see you, Julia, and my dear children left alone and unable to have the future that I always dreamed that I would provide for you, to which ends I worked so hard and sacrificed so much.
Please do not despair. Pray to God so that He will care for all of you.
Remember me in your prayers as you ask for my eternal peace. Julia, please teach our children not to forget me, and to bless their father’s name.
Goodbye. A thousand kisses and my blessing.
This was my grandfather. The one that I never met. My maternal grandfather steered me toward medicine and taught me to love Nature and be kind to strangers. This man somehow leapt from the other side to hold my hand when I pursued a healing profession. I decided to become an arthritis specialist and someone who treated autoimmune conditions before I Knew that he had two of “my” diseases. He was in the middle of the worst pandemic of the 20th century, at a time when safety nets did not exist, and he apologized to his wife for being sick enough to die.
I have the family coat of arms, and the letter from the queen, and a drawer full of precious information that I will never have the time to go over. Yet a copy of this piece of paper in his own handwriting is one of my most treasured possessions. One hundred years later, he continues to look over me; to say hello from the other side.