Artwork by Claire Kincaid
Then I realized that the hug Cercas gave Millares was like the hug I gave Eva, a hug long awaited and well deserved by a woman who changed my life.
At the end of the book Soldiers of Salamis, the author and narrator, Javier Cercas, meets an old man named Antoni Millares, who lives in a retirement home in France. Initially, Millares is hesitant to talk to Cercas, a journalist, but the two men soon grow close as Millares begins to share memories from his military days, ultimately telling a story that helps Cercas find the missing link for a piece he’s writing.
As Cercas gets ready to leave after their day together, Millares says the following line which I consider to be the grand climax of this award-winning novel:
“It’s been a long time since I’ve hugged somebody.”
The two embrace.
As Cercas takes the train back to Spain, he has a feeling that that was the last time he would see Millares. Then, in a beautiful and poetic vision, Cercas is filled with nostalgia as he thinks of how wonderful it would be to spend the rest of his life living next to his new friend. He dreams of buying an apartment across the street, of sitting on the balcony at night, smoking, waiting until he sees the light go out in Millares’s window before he goes to bed.
Then, in this vision, Cercas decides that this paradise would take place in Stockton, California, a city that held a special place in Millares’s heart.
As I closed the book after reading this final passage, I thought back to my own time living in Stockton two years ago.
The south side of Stockton, which I frequented while living there, is an old, grungy area, with dilapidated houses, weeds growing between the sidewalk cracks, and a general dustiness lining the street curbs.
But amidst all this grunginess, I’ve always seen an overwhelming beauty in Stockton. I walked those old streets for months, and they became part of me. I feel attached to the city, as if the dirt and the paint flakes and the flat tires were all extensions of my being, intertwined in my blood, forever captured in my memory.
Last month, I returned to Stockton to see an old lady, Eva, whom I had met several years ago.
I arrived in the evening when the sun was beginning to set. We talked for a long while, her living room lit by a single lamp, as it gradually darkened outside. She told me the story of how she left Mexico after her daughter died so she could care for her grandchildren and provide them a good education. Once a year, Eva said, she goes back to Mexico to spend a few weeks checking on her empty house, which she still won’t sell because of the memories she has there.
When we finished talking late that night, we got up and I hugged her like I would hug my own grandmother. I told her I loved her and she said the same. Then she opened the door and watched me walk to my car. I don’t remember the last thing she said to me, but it was probably something like “travel safe” or “come back to see me again soon”, and as I walked away on that dark evening where the sun had set and a cool equestrian breeze sifted over the lead mountains, I thought that perhaps, just as Cercas had thought, it would be the last time I would see my old friend.
Then, as I drove away, I dreamed, just like Cercas, that I could live across from Eva too, in a dilapidated apartment, and drive her to church every Sunday, and watch her window in the evenings until the light went out, and then make my way to bed.
And then I realized that this friendship with an old Mexican grandmother who had given up everything to leave her country, was just like Cerca’s friendship with Millares, who didn’t even want to talk to him at first but then opened up and shared memories and love until the two became lifelong friends.
And then I also realized that the hug Cercas gave Millares was like the hug I gave Eva, a hug long awaited and well deserved by a woman who changed my life by giving me an opportunity to serve and to love.
And so, with two hours on the road still ahead of me that dark evening, Robert Frost’s poem came to mind,
The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
and I realized that I had promises to keep to Eva and to Brother Kelly and to Bishop Arnal and to my own father, who had each given me hugs that had changed my life.
Then, in a final round of realization during that drive away from Stockton, I came to understand that the hug the Savior surely gave me before I left Him twenty-two years ago was a hug that also implied a promise, a promise to not forget Him, to always live worthy of His trust, and to love others as He had loved me.
My friends, in a coming day, I believe the Savior will again greet us with a hug, no matter our successes or failures during this life. But in the meantime, it is up to us to share that same love with our neighbors around us.
“And who is my neighbour?” the lawyer asked.
“He that [shows] mercy” (Luke 10:29, 37).
Indeed, the Savior taught us to have charity, and it is His example we must follow if we seek to bring light to a world that is so dusty, but so beautiful, just like Stockton.