Tribute to the old man

I thought writing about one’s father would be relatively easy. That’s why I took my time, thinking the process would be quick when the thoughts start flowing freely. It has always been the method that felt natural to me. It’s how my best work comes about.

Then I realized what’s behind my difficulty. It’s easy to tell a few stories about my dad every now and then. But to write an entire piece that sums the man up as you have known him all your life… that’s something totally different… and much longer than I initially planned.  Let’s see how it goes.

As the person alive who had lived with my dad the longest, it would be easy for some to believe that I would be the one who knows him best. But the thing is, it is not as simple as that. We never really talked that much until these last 10 year. It just wasn’t our thing. And I learned more about him in those last 10 years than I ever did 30 years prior.

Like just about everyone who has lived a full and productive life, there are different facets to my dad. He’s been with me all my life. But I’ve only been with him for just a little over half of his. Even before he became Lex the dad, to our family he was a son, a brother, a cousin, an uncle, and of course, a husband to my mother. To the rest of the world, he was first a poor boy living in a remote island on the northern edge of the country post World War II who, with the help of his older brother, somehow made it to UP Los Baños to study and ultimately earn a college degree, and subsequently dedicate his professional life in the academe. And it is this facet that has existed for five decades, which he is best known for – the era where I happen to be intertwined with.

Probably taken in the late 1970s while dad was a PhD student at Indiana University., because while he would wear that matching brown suit anywhere, what other reason would there be for me to be wearing that sweater…

 

From the outside

Everyone who knows him will know Dr. Felix Librero, the career academic, educated at UP Los Baños and Indiana University, reaching the peak of his career as Chancellor of the UP Open University, and going on to sit in the Board of Regents before retiring in 2013. He still teaches as Professor Emeritus with us to this day. You can probably read about his exploits in the academe elsewhere from those who have a better understanding of his work.

But what about Lex, the person and family man?

To the casual passers-by during the 1970s and 1980s, he’d probably be recognized for the IU alumnus ring and belt buckle, the glasses, the patterned shirts and jackets and the custom-made hard-heeled boots whose steps you’d hear from the opposite wing of the now CDC Building at UPLB.

There’s that early 1970s Toyota Corona – our first family car. It was red when he bought it. But until now, I do not know why he had it painted bright orange or why he made the dashboard look like what you’d see on jeepneys. And then he had that thing in the car that loudly played these beeping melodies when you shifted the gear to reverse or hit the signal light lever. It was definitely easy to know whenever he was leaving the office or the house. Thankfully, dad’s tastes became much less gaudy by the time we got our second car, a 1984 Nissan Stanza, back in the early 1990s. But man, that car went through a lot with us, as well.

It’s difficult for me to gauge how my dad was regarded by his students. I’m sure some were intimidated by him. Others probably endlessly wondered how on earth he’s able to be on top of his classes, with stories of him looking like he’s sleeping through a student’s oral recitation, and then suddenly opening his eyes with full knowledge of what just transpired. And as I got older, I always got a kick out of telling his current and former students stories of my dad’s reactions while reading papers submitted to him. I usually stay up late while my dad starts his day really early. So, there were days when by the time I was getting ready to go to bed, he’d have started checking his students’ works. And sometimes, I’d overhear some colorful verbal commentary, then proceed to ask said students when was the last time they were in his class.  I also found it hilarious whenever a student somehow found his or her way to our doorstep neither invited nor expected nor wanted, nervously holding a thick thesis draft. They’d usually receive greetings such as, why am I just getting this now!? or how the hell did you find out where I live!? Student life back then was definitely interesting.

On the other hand, our house was frequented by a lot of students back in the day. Both my parents made it a point to welcome them, particularly the foreigners. Had I not known any better, I’d have thought that my dad was either a father or elder brother figure to the foreign students, many of whom found themselves alone, especially during breaks. That is why, to this day, he is respected and loved by his former students, many of whom are now very successful in their own careers. Even I get to reap his rewards from time to time.

I have no idea how many people my dad has worked with.  There are those, of course, from UPLB’s College of Development and Communication and its earlier incarnations, when it was under the College of Agriculture. By association with his wife, there is the School of Environmental Science and Management. And of course there are those linkages to all the other units under UPLB. It was in these offices where I have the least understanding, as far as his work and dealings went. I was too young to even care. That only changed when I made it to college. I took up BS Agriculture and majored in Animal Science. And to my mild surprise, many of the faculty were people whom I already knew from childhood. The rest, I knew of thanks to both my parents. I did my best to avoid being labeled as Lex’s or Cely’s son, but when I had to acknowledge it, there was no denying that there was a certain weight to it.

Although he spent just as much time at UPLB, it is with the UP Open University where I think he did his most meaningful work.  Somehow, I always knew he’d be Chancellor one day. And while I had UPLB in mind early on, in hindsight, I am glad that it turned out to be UPOU.  He was a hard worker – much more than I’ll ever be. On the other hand, he wanted his work to matter. And matter it did, while at the front lines doing pioneer work for UP and the country suited him. Maybe there were parallels between him fighting for the existence of a campus during its infancy and his personal struggle to live a life better than what he had as a boy in Itbayat, Batanes. Maybe that’s why UPOU suited him well.

 

Relatives

I have no idea how big our extended family is. But there are only a handful of us at the core. And to all of them from my generation, he was their Uncle Lex. We looked up to him, his older brother, our Uncle Flor, and their younger sister,  Auntie Nita.

Our elders shortly before Uncle Flor’s passing.

While they manifest it differently, the two brothers can at times be walking self-contradictions. Two accomplished forward-thinking academics that somehow find themselves clinging to certain bits of tradition. They are both a strange blend of warmth and stoicism.

As young men… Dad on his wedding day with my Uncle Flor back in 1972.

While I won’t pretend to remember most of them, their conversations are always fascinating to listen to, especially when I was a teenager. I smile quietly when a discussion starts to turn into an argument, and then my dad would discreetly acquiesce, just like a younger brother in our family would. And then I would feel sad. There were even a few times when it got bad for me that I’d excuse myself and tear up a bit alone, because I was envious. I would never experience being in a conversation quite like those.

Librero Family, mid-1980s

My Uncle Flor’s recent passing meant the mantle of padre the familia got passed on to him. And this is one of the few parts of this writing that is not retrospective. He highly values how his brother carried that mantle, but he is a different man dealing with different circumstances.  And we look forward to what he has planned for us to do.

Much of what I know of him as a family man, however, are from memories of how he embraced my mother’s side of the family. The Dinulos family is different in many ways. I’m not even sure how I would begin to qualify that. They can be a handful, for sure. And it wasn’t until I got older when I realized how much he loved the family. His affection, patience and generosity practically had no bounds. His nieces and nephews on the Librero side became close to him as adults. But it was in the Dinulos side where he embraced being an uncle to children. That is why to this day, his nephews, nieces and even some second degree grandchildren all grown up with their own families, still ask me where their Tito Felix is when I go to gatherings without him.

Dinulos Family, early 1990s

Even though he has sort of detached himself from the Dinulos family, he will always be regarded with love and respect by those whose lives he’s touched.

 

The Household

From time to time, I still get asked what it was like in the Librero household.  Between that time getting further and further into the past and the clouds of nostalgia and personal biases blurring my perspective, it’s easy for me to give wrong impressions.

I arrived five years into my parents’ marriage – which is quite late for any couple who’s ever wanted kids from the get go. I can imagine them at some point attempting to come to terms with the possibility of ending up childless, like the elder Librero couple, my Uncle Flor and Aunt Aida. However, I would be both their first and last. I also get asked why that is so. The only reason I know is what I’ve been told repeatedly — after I was born, mom was diagnosed with diabetes. Her mother and eldest sister also having the same affliction implied that it may be hereditary. It’s easy to understand that the possibility of passing the disease on to a child along with the overall risk to my mom’s well-being throughout a second pregnancy would be too much to overlook.

However, I don’t remember a time when it was just the three of us in the house. The only time it actually happened was when my dad took up his PhD in Indiana University, and I have next to zero memories from that time. My earliest coherent memories in the Librero household were those with my parents and grandmother – my dad’s mother Jacinta. And then at almost any given point in time, there’d be someone else living with us – cousins, nephews and nieces. There were also housekeepers. With the exception of the older housekeepers who worked for us, my parents’ sent all of them to school. With the relatives, I understood it perfectly. But the housekeepers – I saw no obligation to do so. At least one housekeeper even managed to finish college thanks to my dad’s support. If not for their constant responsibilities in the house, you’d think they were part of the family. I was taught to always treat them with respect and regard them more as relatives rather than servants. That is why I would like to believe that everyone who lived with us was treated well and have fond memories of my family. And they have my dad to thank for that.

 

The Family

Even though my grandmother was an integral part of our family who I owe so much to, for me during my formative years, it was really about me and my parents. And yet, I have never really drawn out a full cohesive thought about us. And this is where my difficulties in articulation lie.

They were two awfully different people with different sensibilities. And looking back now, I’m actually amazed. As a boy growing up, I thought to myself that, damn, my parents have a perfect marriage. I thought they were generally well-liked by the people around us. They always did as many things together as possible. And not once do I ever remember them fighting or having heated arguments. Never. Now, it’s probably silly to even think that it was actually the case. Looking back now, I’m sure there were a lot of arguments between them. But they never let me see any of it.

One of the biggest family goals my parents set out to do was to build their own home. By the time I was in high school, we had lived in six different places that I know of. And they wanted to settle down to a more permanent home. After a series of buying and selling property they chose to build a house relatively near the UPLB campus. Personally, I loved living in-campus and I was sad to leave after the house was completed by the end of 1996. To this day, I have a love-hate relationship with this house. The maintenance has been driving me insane ever since dad turned the house over to me. But after 20 years of living under its protective roof, I have developed an appreciation for it and where my parents were coming from in their sense of urgency to build it.

The Librero house under construction in 1996.

Unfortunately, our move to this house coincided with the series of life challenges that we would have to face for the next several years. From my perspective, there were two great tests of their marriage, and it involved their hearts – literally.

Dad was a heavy smoker back in the day. Back when Seven Stars Lights were sold locally, they had a redemption booth where you could get various items in exchange for empty packs of their cigarettes. For years, we had a LOT of Seven Stars towels and apparel at home. I wouldn’t be surprised if I actually found a towel among our old junk today. At some point he found the willpower to just stop. He also cut down on his alcohol and started taking maintenance meds. Unfortunately, the change in lifestyle ended up being too late. The damage had been done. And of all days, back in 1997, he would have to suffer a heart attack on Christmas Day.

I remember waking up that morning. I was still struggling to get up from bed as a bunch of chores were waiting for me. We were expecting relatives, as we always had a family get-together every Christmas. Dad would have been on the road already to pick up a few of my aunts and cousins. Then suddenly, mom was ushering me to the phone. She said I needed to talk to dad because I need to pick him up. That was confusing. Dad told me that he needed me to get to him because he was in no condition to drive. I immediately launched to walk as fast as I could not even realizing I was just wearing this worn out shirt and small shorts which I slept in (this is probably why to this day, I refuse to sleep in anything I wouldn’t be caught dead in – I now have this habit of trying to be ready to quickly go out in case of any emergency). I found our car parked by Lopez Avenue, close to Collegio de Los Baños and my dad was already seated on the passenger’s side. That’s when I knew it was bad. I was still half hoping that he just needed company. But no, it was actually the first time he asked me to drive for him, and I wish it had been under less grim circumstances.

It’s a bit of a blur to me what happened between getting in the driver’s seat and getting him to the UPLB Infirmary’s emergency room. I don’t remember if we picked mom up before heading to campus or if we went straight to the Infirmary before I headed back home to pick her up. I think it was the former because it wouldn’t make sense to delay his arrival to the Infirmary any further. I know that it’s sort of contrary to my dad’s own account. But hey, who would you believe more in this case?

I had hoped that everything would turn out fine within the day. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Dad would eventually have to undergo bypass surgery at the Philippine Heart Center. He wrote about it at length and has told the story a number of times. I could probably add quite a few pages to that story, but that’s for another time. Without going into the details, it was a long and fairly difficult road to recovery for him.

Mom was there every step of the way. But the disadvantage of a small family became apparent. I was tasked to man the house the whole time, only heading to the hospital if necessary. She had no relief. I wouldn’t have minded trading places with her. But for her, not being in the same building for any extended period was not an option. It also felt like my parents made it a point to shield me from as much of the burden as they possibly could. I don’t know how she would have managed had the people from UPOU and UPLB not lent assistance, and for that we are eternally grateful. Even so, I couldn’t imagine how heavy the weight on her shoulders were as dad lay in the ICU. She held it together incredibly well. But it was heartbreaking when she broke down in tears on my shoulders the moment she saw me finally make it to the Heart Center to visit and help with paperwork. She was exhausted and yet, I could offer no real relief. The best I could do was make it up a bit when dad was finally discharged from the hospital and sent back home. And it was a fairly long road to recovery for him.

I would not be surprised if this was the point where my mom’s own ordeal started.

She herself would suffer a mild stroke not long after dad’s bout. And it was now his turn to tend to her. But instead of looking forward to recovery, what ensued was a gradual decline in health that was painful for all of us to watch. Dad talked to me about it early on, warning me that her path was not going to be the same as his. Even so, that could not have prepared me for the next 3-4 years.

I will not go into the details of what transpired during my mom’s final years. Let’s just say that I don’t find it pretty. But I will tell you about how my dad handled the whole thing. For reasons I don’t completely agree with, he continued to shield me from much of the burdens at hand. Mom had to stop working, leaving dad as the sole breadwinner. I had struggled to get a job after graduating from college, so I resorted to keep studying instead. I was no help in this regard and ended up being one of the drains from the family finances. At the same time, we probably had more people in the household than ever and dad had to take care of all of them. I don’t know how long he had to endure spending more money than he was earning. He was already a Vice Chancellor, and then Chancellor by then, so the income was already quite ok. But if you’re supporting a son, two or three housekeepers and caregivers, two relatives, and a wife with ever increasing medical bills, there’s no way that income would suffice. How he managed that, I will never fathom. And then there was the emotional toll of it all. Yet, outside a few sighs or shrugs of frustration, I never saw him complain. Not even once. And the household stayed very much afloat. Grace under adversity. That’s my dad’s strength of character for you.

Mom sadly passed away in June 2003. Shortly thereafter, at least for a time, it was just me and my dad in the house.

 

Father and Son

Except for a few facial features, my physical attributes came pretty much from my mother’s side. But how I am as a person… by far, I do take to my dad. The only thing I failed to inherit from him is his diligence, which is unfortunate. I can only wonder where I am now if I had his work ethic.

Dad never really knew his own father. He had no real first-hand experience as a father’s son. He had his kuya, but it’s not the same.

It’s fascinating to hear his stories of me and him raising me when I was too young to remember anything. I honestly don’t remember the last time he actually had to take the belt out on behalf of my misbehaving behind. But the fear of it lingers in some form to this day. Even as an adult, I’d spring in attention even with the imagination of him calling my name.

I don’t think I was a bad kid. But I’m sure I had my moments. There was this one time when I tried running away after getting scolded repeatedly by my mom, only to realize I didn’t have it in me. So I resorted to refusing to get back in the house instead. What ensued was a cat and mouse game between me and my dad in the middle of the night that probably lasted an hour, which I find hilarious in hindsight. He didn’t get physical, but I’m sure it took quite a bit of patience to talk me down.

I also had a cute rebellious phase as a teenager, just like everyone else. It was a confusing period because there were times when it felt like they had me in a ball and chain, while there were times when I thought they left me to fend for myself as I struggled with school. It took a long while before I had a better understanding of what my parents were trying to do. had long since realized how much leeway he gave me. The mere fact that he relieved me of the pressure of doing well in high school meant a lot to me. I didn’t do particularly well, as it was the start of my life phase of hating school. He understood that and let me be. It was enough that I just make it through.

Perhaps the first profound lessons he gave me were of responsibility and accountability. There was the time when I was getting to college. I had the unfortunate predicament of losing my admission documents. I left it in the living room, took a nap, and then couldn’t find it anymore afterwards. This was my first registration period. I was already getting an earful from my mom telling me how careless I was. And it was at that moment when he broke his silence.

That’s not carelessness. That’s stupidity.

That cut deep. I couldn’t even speak for the rest of the day. He eventually pulled a few strings at UPLB to help me out so I could proceed with my enrollment. A few days after, my documents actually reappeared… gnawed on by a rat. I’m sure you can imagine the looks I got from the Office of the University Registrar every time I used a rat ate my documents as an excuse. Everything turned out fine in the end. But it was a lesson dad made me learn well. It was my first step towards manhood.

I would continue to make more mistakes throughout college, and while he’d never directly impose, he was always there to save me if he needed to. I was raised to be independent-minded, though sometimes I wish he’d intervened more when I was growing up. Some of you may be surprised to know, but I hardly had any help from him in my studies, particularly with the theses work. He never actually taught me how to write. Perhaps there really is some gene that I inherited from him, which allows me to hold my own if a situation calls for it. But we do have different styles and approaches.

I tried reading his book, and had a hard time understanding it. I’d ask a few questions here and there and get lucky when I get a useful tip. But all that writing was me (with the guidance of my advisers). It felt really strange that the most visible support he gave me while working on my Master’s thesis was delivering food to my panel during my final defense.

At the time, I actually had mixed feelings towards that. It’s difficult to explain, but I will try.

Fellow children of UP faculty would understand and relate this best. I had the strong urge to get out of my parents’ shadow. Even though I eventually chose to study in UPLB, I picked a different field and swore never to be a teacher in UP. Obviously, I failed to keep that vow, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. Little did I know back then that teaching would eventually be my calling.

I also wanted to finally practice the virtue of being responsible for myself and not dragging other people to my own problems. I was raised to value independence and I did not want to fail at it. And I probably went overboard with it once or twice.

I forget the exact year, but I was a Master’s student back then. I got really sick while dad was out of the country, probably Indonesia. The stubborn idiot with a hospital phobia that I am, I waited three days for my fever to subside. But at least I had the mind to ask my dad’s driver, Naldo, to check on me in case I need to be taken to the hospital. And indeed he did. It turned out that I had Dengue fever and I had to be confined. Interestingly enough, it was none other than Dr. Reaño, the same doctor who admitted my dad when we rushed him to the Infirmary when he had a heart attack who had me checked and set up for confinement.

I asked Naldo not to let my dad know, at least not until he picked him up at the airport when he goes back home. I didn’t want him having to cut his trip short on my account. Not once did I think that I was lying on my deathbed in the Infirmary’s isolation ward. Even though it was a horrible ordeal, I didn’t think it was that serious, especially since my blood platelet count remained high enough for me not to need a blood transfusion. All I could think of was this one day some years back…

Dad never got to set foot to Europe. But he had one real chance. He was all set to go to Rome for an engagement and had prepared for it well in advance. Mom was already bed-ridden and emotionally erratic by then. She seemed ok with his trip at first. But on the actual day for him to fly, mom threw a fit and begged him not to go. And he begrudgingly acquiesced. After a while, me being my usual self, getting up late, was surprised to see him in the house and I was like, huh, dy… aren’t you supposed to be on a plane to Italy by now? A heavy sigh was all I got from him. But he was visibly angry.

I didn’t (and still don’t) want to ever do anything remotely similar to him. Never will I let myself be a burden to anyone, let alone my father.

In my devotion to that single-minded goal, I failed to take into account the emotional effect of a parent’s realization of not knowing – in this case not knowing his son got confined to a hospital for the first time in twenty years, being treated for a disease known to result in death. He did not know that my platelet count was holding and while I was in pain, I was in no further danger. After all, how could he? I didn’t want him to know.

He came in the isolation ward mad — really mad. To his credit, he managed to exert a huge amount of restraint. Just by looking at him, I realized my miscalculation. I listened to everything he had to say, but it wasn’t needed. I was wrong. Letting him know, but assuring him I’ll be fine, would have been the right move.

 

Getting Married

His decision to re-marry after a few years of being widowed was something I did not really expect. I did not know Jeanette well enough during that time. It was admittedly an awkward dynamic, especially at first. Never did I believe she was a bad person. But she was so different from my mom. Her company took time to get used to. But I would like to think that everything turned out fine. Nobody I knew deserved to be happy as my dad should be. I wanted to make sure that it happened.

On his 75th birthday

The best thing that Jeanette did for my dad was to teach him to appreciate life more – try new things. I was worried when it suddenly felt like he had withdrawn from my mother’s side of the family. Thankfully, whatever I thought he would miss was compensated by his being accepted by Jeanette’s folks. And I will be forever thankful to her for that.

Dad called my decision to get married myself as being a high point of my life. It certainly took more years and one false alarm too many before it happened. While Vanni and I were making plans, he talked to me one night and gave me a strange apology. He handed me some money (which I didn’t want to accept), and said he was sorry that he can’t be of bigger help with the wedding. It was difficult to process that. All I could do was ask myself this question… what else could I possibly need from the man who has given me everything?

My father-in-law, wife, me and my dad on my wedding day.

He had to carry me for 30 years before I could even begin stand on my own in the face of the world. Along with my mother, everything that’s good about me, I owe to him. That is why, if anything, it was me who needed to give back.

 

The Grandson’s Arrival

When I was young, I had a dream of having the money to buy my parents a pickup truck. They often talked about getting a piece of land and turn it to an orchard. A pickup would have been the perfect vehicle for them. Unfortunately, neither came true.

Dad was always great with kids, from all of my cousins down to Jeanette’s niece. Unfortunately, as time went by and as I grew older, it had gradually become less and likely that he’d have the chance to be with his own real grandkids. On my wedding day, Uncle Flor was quite transparent about expecting  a grandson from me and Vanni, unfortunately piling on some more pressure on my already anxious new wife. I’m sure dad felt the same way, but was gracious enough to keep most of those feelings to himself.

After a year of trying, I was starting to think about the possibility of being childless myself. We Libreros aren’t a prolific family, and it was becoming likely that I would be the last in our bloodline carrying the family name. I don’t think I could wait five years, like my parents did with me. While I figured out how to come to terms with that, I could only imagine how much harder it was on my wife, who believed the problem was on her end (I do not discount the possibility that I also have a problem, myself). I did my best to show that we’ll be fine either way. But this was something she wanted more badly than me. That is why it was such a huge relief for her that we were finally able to conceive, 15 months into our marriage. The child being a boy also gave us a chance to keep the family name alive, much to the happiness of the Librero patriarchs.

With a day-old Aidan.

Dad was the first person I called right after Aidan Kanarem was born on April 18, 2014. He was one of the first to hold the baby outside those of us who were present during the birthing. And it was a great feeling seeing how happy he was that day. And from that time, I have made it a point to make sure he would have as big a role as he wanted in raising the boy. At the very least, Aidan should get to know his lolo and spend as much time with him as he can. It is one of the first important pieces of happiness I can give my boy and possibly last big piece that I owe my dad.

At the beach on Aidan’s 4th birthday

 

So, who is Lex?

Uncle Flor once told me that he saw himself as the measuring stick for his brother. He peaked as a Dean of the College of Human Ecology at UPLB. He expected my dad to match that level. It was his subtle way of saying that he expected me to match that, as well. But at the same time, it was his way of expressing pride seeing his brother match, and then surpass him.

Son, brother, uncle, husband, father, grandfather, colleague, teacher, mentor, leader – Lex Librero is all of those – a life of 75 years well-spent – the embodiment of success with all aspects of life even in the face of adversity. And still have more to look forward to. That is something for his peers to honor and the rest of us to aspire to.

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Lex Librero

2 months ago

Hi King,

This is a great piece of work, King. I understand how it must have taken some effort to put these into writing. I really am absolutely pleased with this narrative. There are many things I did learn from it, too. Thank you for acknowledging my major strengths of character and pointing out some weaknesses, too. For example, I should have tried much harder to be a practicing father to you. I’m an ordinary Dad and Grandfather and can achieve only so much. I must say, however, that being able to play the role of grandfather to Aidan is such a pleasure and unmatched experience. Let me try to continue being a good grandfather to him.

Thank you, again, son. I appreciate this, very much.

Dad

Lex Librero

2 months ago

Dear King,

This is a great piece of writing. I know it wasn’t easy to put it together, but I’m absolutely happy that you acknowledged not only my weaknesses but pointed some of my strengths of character, as a father.

I am thankful that you came to our lives and turned into one that we are certainly proud of. I’m also proud of Aidan, my grandson. I hope to be able to continue trying to be a good grandfather to your son much better than I was a father to you.


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