He was generous, even as the demands on him grew. He taught at Harvard, wrote books, helped lead a global health organization, and ministered to patients across the globe. There was always a long queue of people asking him to write introductions for their own books. I had sent him the manuscript of my own book, Santiago’s Children: What I Learned about Life at an Orphanage in Chile, with the same request. In the middle of the night, I later learned, between seeing patients in Lesotho, he wrote a poignant introduction to my book. Paul was then kind enough to be on a panel about it at Harvard. When it was his turn to talk, he asked the moderator if he could invite my daughter, Natasha, to the stage. I’m not sure if the idea of your thirteen-year-old talking about you to a large audience strikes fear into all parents, but it certainly did me. Paul handed Natasha the microphone. She spoke, in a very poised way, concluding with “My dad will probably try to tell some dumb jokes, and they won’t be very funny, but I hope you laugh anyway…and yeah, please clap at the end.” Paul howled with laughter. Long after, he remembered that evening, not for what he or the other panelists said, but what Natasha said. When I told Natasha, now in law school, that I was struggling to write something about Paul, she texted me, “Emphasize his joy and sense of humor…. He saw such awful things all the time but was joyous and funny!”
Whenever Paul visited Notre Dame, he said the university had that “good Catholic social-justice vibe.” Paul’s Catholicism was part of his DNA, though like many things in his life, it was imbued with complexity. One thing is certain, though. He was greatly influenced by the Catholic tradition and his life was, in many ways, organized around the corporal works of mercy.
One of his biggest joys in coming to Notre Dame was seeing Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest, often called “the father of liberation theology,” who at the time spent half the year at Notre Dame and the other half in Peru. Paul had read Gutiérrez as a young man when he was first working in Haiti, and the theologian’s ideas—on structural violence, the preferential option for the poor, accompaniment, and more—stayed with Paul for his whole life and infused the work of PIH. As an adult, Paul developed a deep friendship with Fr. Gustavo, and kept a picture of the two of them on his desk. They knew each other’s work well, and decided to publish a book together, In the Company of the Poor: Conversations with Dr. Paul Farmer and Fr. Gustavo Gutiérrez.
I had the privilege to help launch the book, with Paul and Fr. Gustavo on the stage at Notre Dame. From the speakers’ podium, I read from a longish quote from Desmond Tutu extolling the virtues of the book, skipping parts a few parts along the way. “Rarely have two such distinctive and complementary voices,” I read, “been raised together with more heartwarming and instructive results than here In the Company of the Poor.... The book is erudite, fresh…and witty.”
Paul interrupted, loudly enough for the audience to hear: “I thought he said even at turns, witty.”
I looked over at him, surprised. “Did you write that, Dr. Farmer?” I asked.
“No, but it bothered me that there were turns where it wasn’t witty.”
He turned to Fr. Gustavo and wondered aloud if their common project wasn’t more than just “at turns” witty. Fr. Gustavo beamed.
Yes, Paul was witty. But that wasn’t the first of his qualities to stand out. He had a remarkable ability to connect with everyone, and especially students, probably because he was willing to tackle seemingly unsolvable problems and to approach then in such personal and human terms. He lived a life full of hope and action, and he made a lasting impact.
At the end of an evening’s talk in an overflowing auditorium at Notre Dame in 2016, he took questions from students, and then met with hundreds waiting in line after his talk. Many students brought him things to sign, including his own books or well-worn copies of Kidder’s Mountain Beyond Mountains. One student brought her Notre Dame yearbook, another her statistics textbook. Farmers signed them all. “Don’t spend more than 12.4 percent of your time arguing with people,” he told a student who asked how to make a difference. “Spend the rest of your time doing stuff.” “You’re not the Dominic who wrote me an email are you?” he asked another student. I know this because Dominic, now in medical school, just wrote to me. “I didn’t know Dr. Farmer well at all, but I did have a few email exchanges [with him] while I was at Notre Dame and chatted with him after one of the discussions he led…. I was struck then by him remembering me despite us only having a brief email interaction…. I remember Dr. Farmer as being one of the first people I’d met who I thought ‘my life would be well lived if I live like he’s lived.’”
So many people I know were changed by him and reimagined their own lives after meeting him—or just reading about his life and work. They changed majors, committed their lives to working with the most vulnerable, thought differently about what was and wasn’t possible. He accompanied so many, so well, and connected them with a vision of something larger and better, “the refashioning of our world.” And he did it with imagination, intelligence, and joy. My heart aches for this loss.
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