Candidate for the Academy

This is the third and final instalment on writing, and the struggle of extracting words to put them upon paper. But this time, instead of an essay, I share a story.

The difficulty of writing is universal, and for that reason, I dedicate this short story to all the people who, for a moment, have experienced the sensation of not knowing what or how to write. It is dedicated to all the students who battle with words: to the elementary kids assigned to write pointless essays about animals; and to the doctoral students, agonizing over their theses in the wee hours.

It’s for the office workers tangled up in drafting a report for their boss; and the journalists racing against the clock to submit their piece before the deadline.

And to the politicians, unsure of how to cram all their promises into their next campaign speech; and to the priests seeking divine inspiration for this week’s sermon.

It’s for my brothers and sisters in the blogosphere, striving to write something that, hopefully, someone will care about. It’s even for those at a loss for words when writing a birthday card to a friend.

It’s for the lovers, who have written page after page, pouring out their heart, yet feel their words still don’t capture the burning passion they feel inside. And it’s for those who have chosen to bid farewell to this life, but in the solitude of their rooms, don’t know how to begin explaining to a blank sheet of paper the reasons behind their actions.

It’s been more than two years since that conversation with my dad. Now, we are in the year of the pandemic; I’ve been stuck for three months in my family’s home in Bogotá, unable to find a way back to London.

The days pass in an overwhelming state of lethargy, dragging on torturously slow. Yet, fortune has once again shown me kindness, allowing me to be with my parents during these bleak times. They bury themselves in their books, lose themselves in the endless hours of television, and on Sundays, they seek solace in the mass broadcast on a Catholic channel. As for me, in my own world of isolation, I confine myself to work, trying by all means to maintain an illusion of normality. I have a workout routine, which I know I’m not doing correctly, but it serves to keep me sane. And as a form of escape therapy, I’ve developed an addiction to travel videos on YouTube, fantasizing about traveling and having adventures in sunny, distant places.

Every day, without fail, the three of us have lunch together in the dining room. It’s an unbreakable ritual, a moment of unity in the chaos. But the air is thick with palpable tension, conversations inevitably turn to the dreaded Covid. We discuss the rising case numbers, the endless rumours about how long the lockdown will last, and our worries for my sister in Spain, who is fighting her own battle against this global scourge. Tragedies that strike those we know sneak into our refuge, casting an even darker shadow over our reality.

And then, an unexpected twist occurs when the most innocuous of Zoom meetings causes the greatest stir. On an ordinary day, my dad logs in to the quarterly meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Academy of Bogotá. Everything goes as usual, so he is caught off guard when the last item on the agenda, “Other Business,” comes up. That’s when they drop a bombshell:

“There is one last issue we need to address,” says the secretary of the Academy with a solemn voice, “Dear Juan Manuel, we have been waiting for your presentation on the evangelization of the Muisca for quite some time. Unfortunately, we can wait no longer. Please, you must present it at our next meeting, otherwise, you will not be able to become a full member of the academy. Presenting it is the last requirement you need to achieve this distinction; we trust you will succeed.”

My father seems to gasp for air, his heart skips a beat, his hands begin to sweat coldly. He has been procrastinating on this assignment for two years, trapped in a labyrinth of books, accumulating mountains of notes upon notes, but without managing to write a single word. Now, the daunting shadow of a three-month deadline looms over him, a deadline that feels more like the wait for a final judgment. Wrapped in a cloak of desperation, familiar to anyone who has faced an impossible deadline, he can’t escape; all eyes are on him. With as much composure as he can muster, he swallows hard and replies with a voice that tries not to break: “Yes, of course, I’ll deliver it.”

In the following days, my dad is inconsolable. My mom and I try to lift his spirits, but it’s futile; he’s well-versed in Einstein’s equations of relativity, knowing full well that nothing we can say will stop time, or even better, turn it back slightly. In clandestine calls, with hushed voices, my sister and I try to concoct some excuse he could use to dodge this fate, but none are convincing, they all sound like poor lies.

Now, during lunch, only my mom and I talk, watching with concern the sad look on my dad’s face, his gaze fixed on the plate, saying nothing. Then, to coax out even a few words from him, my mom asks, “Juanito, your thesis, what’s it about?” My dad takes a sip of Diet Coke, pauses to think. And with the clarity of someone who’s been a professor for forty years, he tells us.

“When the Spaniards arrived in America, they tried to evangelize the indigenous people. But they did very poorly; Catholicism failed to take hold among the natives. After a century of effort, the natives hadn’t really converted, and despite making the Spaniards believe they had embraced the Catholic faith, the reality was they hadn’t abandoned their beliefs and continued to worship their idols, albeit secretly. My work aims to explain the failure of evangelization in the 16th century, focusing on the Muisca, the indigenous people who lived inland.”

“That, exactly what you’ve just said!” I tell him. “That’s perfect. Why don’t you write it down? Sure, it’s just a paragraph, it won’t be the entire presentation you had to write, but at least if you put it on paper, you’ll have the peace of mind that your thoughts are recorded, and surely you’ll feel better.”

My dad looks at me in silence, his brow furrowed, his gaze wary. He shakes his head and resumes eating in silence.

The next morning, I’m in my room working in front of the computer. In the middle of a call, I see my dad enter his study, he sits down on his big dark brown leather sofa, takes a blank sheet, a black ink pen, and begins to write on the wooden side table. I observe the scene and sigh with relief, thinking: ‘Today he is going to write that paragraph, that will bring him some joy. Maybe with a little luck, in a few days, he’ll write another… but no, better not to push him further. One written paragraph is more than enough.’ I return to my meetings and simulations, immersing myself again in my work.

Three hours have passed, and I’m still glued to the computer, trying to decipher a code that won’t run. Suddenly, my dad enters my room, his face radiating happiness. ‘I did what you told me yesterday. I wrote.’ And then joyfully, he extends two handwritten pages, surely at least a thousand words. I’m dumbfounded, mouth agape, I look at the sheets in disbelief: ‘All this, did you just write it?’

‘Yes, I was only going to write that paragraph I told you about yesterday… but when I finished it I couldn’t stop and kept writing.’

Stunned, I look at him, and can only manage to stammer: ‘But then, are you going to write the entire thesis?’

And with a smile from ear to ear, his eyes sparkling with youth, he answers firmly: ‘Yes, of course.’

My dad adopts a strict discipline: every day he gets up at seven o’clock in the morning, showers and dresses, then has breakfast, and at half-past eight he walks past my room, greets me with a smile and continues to his study. He sits on his brown leather sofa, brings the wooden side table closer, and starts to write with his black ink pen. He does not take calls, does not check his cell phone, does not read the newspaper, does not talk to anyone. Only my mom enters the study several times, carrying white porcelain cups full of black, steaming coffee, which he drinks incessantly. At exactly twelve-thirty, he puts the pen down on the paper; it’s time to stop writing for the day. He gets up and heads to the dining room, where the three of us sit down to lunch. The pandemic stops being the topic of conversation; now all we talk about is the progress he’s made on his thesis, the strategies I suggest to improve his writing practice, or some fascinating episode from Colombian history of the 16th century.

Some days I notice he’s determined and decided; on others, it’s obvious that he’s fatigued and has doubts about completing his presentation on time; on some more, he’s contemplative, and I can only guess that his mind is battling with rebellious phrases that resist fitting in.

The days go by with an unusual frenzy, in a countdown loaded with suspense. We are all on tenterhooks, wanting to know if he will complete his manuscript. My mom continues to carry cups of coffee up and down; she must have prepared hectoliters of the drink during this time. And from a distance, my sister encourages him every time she talks to him on the phone. My role is different; I have to find, no matter what, the whereabouts of an old and hefty volume that was published sixty years ago, which my dad insists is an indispensable source for his work: ‘Without that reference,’ he decrees, ‘the thesis will remain incomplete.’ With the city still in lockdown, I spend hours on the phone, calling all the bookstores in the city, in search of ‘Historia Extensa de Colombia, Volume XIII, Tome I’, written by his namesake, Juan Manuel Pacheco. Only after many days of searching Don Félix, the bookseller from the legendary Torre de Babel in downtown Bogotá, find its whereabouts, and quickly sends it to us with his bicycle messenger.

Now, we are only less than a week away from the submission day, my dad redoubles his efforts to finish the last corrections. Once the manuscript is finally ready, it must be typed, all those sheets have been written by hand. For the delicate task, my dad calls again on Mrs. Gladys, who was his faithful secretary for decades. She, now enjoying her retirement, answers the call. She still retains her skill on the keyboard and knows my father’s handwriting well; in just one afternoon, she transmutes with perfect accuracy the ink on paper into digital signals that fly through the internet.

And then, it’s Tuesday, November 19th. The Academy of Ecclesiastical History of Colombia is once again in session. My dad has combed and shaved meticulously, and he wears a very bright orange jacket that my mom has chosen for him to stand out well on camera. I set him up in my room and make sure everything works perfectly: the computer, the microphone, the high-resolution camera, even a ring light so that he is well illuminated. He is nervous but focused. The agenda of the day has his presentation as the third item. It’s his moment to shine.

Off-camera, my mom and I watch with joy as he goes through page after page, for an hour. We listen to the many stories he told us during lunches, stories of archbishops and conquerors, and irreverent indigenous people who resisted the Christian faith. And we listen when it comes time for questions and answers, and when they announce that his presentation has been accepted and that he is now the new member of the academy.

I watch all this in silence. I can only think about these extraordinary months and the lesson in willpower that my dad has imparted to me. And I remember our walk, when he confessed his regret for having let the years pass without putting his words on paper. I don’t know if he still regrets not having written when he was my age, but what I do know is that he does not regret not having written at the age he is today.


  • Angela says:

    Fantástica trilogía! Se la leí en voz alta a mi mamá y ya cuentas con tres fans (incluida mi bebé acá dormida). Esperaremos la siguiente saga. Un abrazo

    • Ricardo Pachon says:

      Angela, mil gracias por ese comentario!!! No te imaginas lo mucho que significa para mi. Gracias por tus palabras y tu apoyo. Un abrazo grande y te deseo a ti y a tu familia un maravilloso 2024.

  • Ivanov says:

    Awesome story Ricardo, and having the privilege of knowing your family, I can see the events unfolding on my mind as you describe what’s happening in those days. Thank you for sharing!

    • Ricardo Pachon says:

      Vanuchis, thanks so much for your comment. Indeed, you know all the characters in the story as you are part of the family 🙂 un abrazo mi hermano.

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