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I wonder if, in the dead of the night, five, ten, fifteen years after they have killed your husband – when the whole country knew he had been murdered, when the history books told the students he had been murdered, and yet the death certificate bore that hideous substantive, “suicide” – I wonder if you ever said, “I quit”. If you ever decided to give up, or deemed it useless to keep on pushing the government to assume their share of the crime.
I wonder if you cradled your head in your hands and thought of your children – so young when their father was murdered under torture, condemned to live with the shadow of the crime as you were. Of course you thought how would you raise them alone. Even though it is said you were not alone, that you had “all of us” behind you, when push comes to shove you were, of course, alone. All widows are. So much has been said about your husband, and yet he was one of many, too many, who died in cells and makeshift prisons in those days. Not every widow has had her loved one’s body returned for the funeral. Not every widow’s husband’s death caused such outrage as that which moved multitudes to a mass at São Paulo’s cathedral, where a brave priest, a brave rabbi and a brave reverend said in tongues what had been crossing everyone’s mind – do they really think we’re idiots? He had been killed. It wasn’t suicide.
And yet that was the causa mortis on that piece of paper. Officially, he chose his death, and everything else was just wishful thinking. It was the same thing as saying you were insane, that the rabbi that did not bury him in the suicides plot was insane, that we were all insane because we agreed with you.
Courage facing adversity is something that we admire in others, but rather wish we didn’t have to apply to ourselves. We admire those who carry on fighting five, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, thirty-eight years after the fait accompli, but inside we too think, “please quit”. Let the sleeping dogs lie. It was so long ago. It won’t bring him back.
Nothing could bring him back, of course. There isn’t a prayer that can stir the dead. But there are ways to make the dead count, and by God, you found them all. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty, thirty, thirty-eight years later, you found them all. You made the country see him, and hear him, and hear you, and those who suffered with you in their dungeons, in their official hellholes. You let it rip. Revenge? That’s as may be. You were entitled. But it was also the only way to make him live just a little bit more.
I wonder if you remember how you met, how he proposed to you (if it was he who did that and not you). In the dead of night, any given Monday, do you remember that? Or the things that endeared you to him, the things we, the public, would never see? Do you wish you had never accepted that invitation to a date, or that wedding proposal? Clarice, forgive me, but I wonder if you ever wished you hadn’t married him. So that the pain of being his widow, this torch, this lying death certificate, this weight of a thousand smug polite stares from Those in Power, were someone else’s and not yours?
But the pain was yours, is yours. We can weigh it, we can imagine what it is like, but you are the one who lives with it. And it is that pain that never shuts up that pushed you through these nearly four decades. You were lucky, if it can be called ‘luck’, to have had a body to bury. Many of your colleagues in grief never had that consolation: their loved ones’ last resting place is the Atlantic Ocean, or some hole known but to God. You have a death certificate – some closure, officially speaking, was offered. I bet you think about those still waiting for that piece of paper. Those who have to carry on but are chained forever to the moment their loved one was taken away. Not allowed to close a bank account, or ask for their widows’ pension, or even to remarry. They are not here, they will never be here again; they are dead, for God’s sake, but there is no death certificate, no body, no funeral, no pension, no resolution for them.
No future for them but the eternal past continuous, a rerun of the moment they were gone. The closet filled with clothes now too old-fashioned to be worn again, the children that have grown up, moved away and had children of their own. The pictures fading away on the frames, the friends that moved on, the prized possessions gathering dust, turning to scrap. They must look at you and wonder what more do you want.
You wanted those bastards to acknowledge the facts. You wanted the right words in that piece of paper. You wanted what your husband wanted: the truth, nothing but the truth, at least for one day. He was a journalist; he became a legend for generations of journalists. The truth, he would have known, was a wild beast to measure. But some things remain accurate no matter what you choose to measure them with. Water is wet, fire burns, the Sun rises and sets and your husband was murdered. That was it.
And, as the Brazilians like to say, the soft water against the hard stone, drip by drip, will wear the rock away. There’s the word removed from the document. There’s the truth, albeit not all of it, but most of it, printed for the world to see. There’s the fight yet to be fought, all the others yet to be buried, acknowledged, properly mourned. There’s the future calling out, your children grown, democracy safe and still growing in the ashes of your past.
It was just one word. And yet, and yet, you are the only one, Clarice, who can possibly tell them what’s in a name. I can only learn it, and keep it, and in my heart let them all know how it had been – so that we can, here’s hoping, here’s dreaming, crazy dreamers we survivors are, that it will stay there, like a tree, marking the spot of the crime and giving us shade and protection, reminding how painful it was to grow, how unbearable, how impossible. And how the impossible, somehow, bore fruit.
Clarice Herzog’s husband was the Yugoslavian-born journalist Vladimir Herzog (1937-1975), who was killed under torture during Brazil’s military junta (1964-1985). At the time, it was stated he had killed himself inside his cell while waiting for interrogation. The rabbi responsible for his burial was alerted that the hematomas on Herzog’s body did not match the alleged cause of death and thus he was given a proper funeral, instead of being laid to rest at the edge of the cemetery – the treatment for suicides according to the Jewish tradition.
In March 2013, after thirty-eight years of campaigning, Clarice Herzog and her children received a new death certificate for Vladimir. Instead of ‘mechanical asphyxia caused by hanging’ – i.e. suicide – the registered causa mortis now reads ‘lesions and ill treatment’.