As imposing a presence my dad can be at times, it may come as a surprise for some people that he actually did not have the last say in matters of the Librero clan. That honor belonged to his elder brother. But that has changed now.
Florentino, Flor, Tino, my uncle, godfather, benefactor of my marriage and patriarch of the Librero family, passed away September 25, 2016 on a Saturday night. My being in Seoul at the time prevented me from being by his side. There were no premonitions, dreams, visions or anything like that -- just my dad's Facebook post the following morning. Yes, I found out just like everyone else outside my family. That could have been upsetting by itself. But what made things even more difficult was that I had to tune it out for at least another day, as there was a conference and a paper presentation that needed my attention. I also didn't want to dampen the spirits of the amazing people around me at the time. But as soon as I got on the plane back to Manila, all I could do was anxiously tap on my phone's screen and write much of what you are reading now.
I didn't feel sad because of his actual passing. All of us in the family knew it was coming. Other things gnawed at me. They still do.
I never really got to know my uncle, at least not as well as I feel I should have. He and my Auntie Aida didn't have their own children. I was his eldest first degree nephew and I carried the name, which mattered to him deeply. But it were my younger cousins who did a far better job in trying to spend more time with him.
Next to my dad, he was perhaps the one whom I was most scared of disappointing. And I probably did.
Uncle Flor, to me, was a man of contradictions. He was a UP Professor, educated in the West and carried a warehouse of progressive ideas in his mind. And yet, he held on to old fashioned patriarchal family values which the rest of us deferred to.
He had rather radical visions for his property in Batangas and invested heavily on it. Unfortunately, I could never have a firm grasp of them. I don't think anybody did, really. Perhaps with enough time and inclination, I would have. But it wasn't to be. Visiting was not easy. The property wasn't near where I lived. And I couldn't stay there for extended periods, as my work required things the place couldn't provide.
It also bothered me that being the only one still able to pass on the family name, people started assuming I'd be inheriting the entire thing. I did not want that responsibility nor did I want the baggage that went with being the subject of that belief. That is why I actively denied it was true. Not once did I entertain the thought of it.
I believe whether or not it was actually true stopped mattering when my uncle realized that I was not inclined to take over when the time came. I remember one of my visits when he shrugged and said, Wala eh... Di ka naman yata interesado... (What can I say? It doesn't seem like you're interested...).
It felt like I failed him there. I never was able to shake off the feeling of guilt.
In another of our one on one talks, he told me of the benchmark he set for my dad. He used himself as measuring stick of what he expected my dad to achieve. He was a former Dean of the College of Human Ecology in UP Los Baños. That was the level my dad needed to reach, he told me. Of course, my dad reached that level and surpassed it by multiple levels. I may have not known my uncle as I had wanted, but I knew him well enough to understand. My dad's achievement wasn't his point. It was part of an implicit point. It was a subtle way of telling what he expected of me. Anything less than a deanship in the academe is a failure. Yes, he had this habit of setting the bar pretty high for a Librero.
I obviously didn't make it within his lifetime. I'm not even sure if I even want to. I just wish he knew how close I am now to being within striking distance of meeting his expectation.
In any case, it would be a while after those conversations before I made things up to him.
It was probably late 2011 or early 2012 when I told him and Auntie Aida I was getting married and asked if we could hold the wedding at his property. They quickly agreed. My uncle then went ahead to tell me as long as we handled everything else, he wouldn't charge me anything. That by itself was generous. But I didn't expect how far he took it. It had been a hot and dry summer. But he made sure the entire landscape looked green and fresh. The day before the wedding, I found him building something. I asked him what he was doing and if he needed help. He said, I'm building a platform here going over a canal. This is where you'll be making your vows tomorrow. And no, I'm fine. Here was a 78 year old man carrying lumber and long steel pipes and was not particularly willing to accept help from the person he's doing it for. I had mixed feelings towards that platform of which I was obviously in no position to turning down. But I will never forget that gesture and that scene where I just stood there and watched. It would also be the last time I would see him the way I want to remember him - a healthy, strong and seemingly ageless man.
He only wanted one thing from me which he made clear enough during the wedding reception. I took it lightly. But the pressure was actually on for the new wife.
It took a few years, but we did it. We were finally able to give him a grandnephew -- the new bearer of the name. Request granted. Mission accomplished. Everyone happy.
For a time, at least.
His health was already in decline by then. No longer able to maintain it, he was forced to give up his property and moved to a smaller house close my aunt's family as she herself had been in poor health for an even longer time.
My heart broke one day when we visited him in the hospital more than a year ago. Aidan was already learning how to play with toys and was curious with his granduncle's squeeze ball. I was about to take a picture of them, but decided against it when I realized this bittersweet moment before my eyes was best left a vivid memory and nothing more. His mind was still remarkably sharp, but his body wasn't even close in keeping up. He couldn't help but tear up while Aidan was beside him on the hospital bed playing with the ball. He knew he'd no longer have the chance to play with the boy and live long enough to see him grow up.
He did not dwell on it, though. Like a true padre de familia, he took it upon himself to do one more task. He made sure his family would be taken care of. Along with my Aunt, he gave me provisions for Aidan's education. In a little twist of irony, the person some people assumed would inherit everything actually got nothing -- at least, not directly. But Aidan's future is more important to me than any other thing in this world. And I am eternally thankful for the new layer of security Uncle Flor gave.
My son will never personally know his granduncle. But he will know of him. He will know of the love, kindness and generosity that we will feel well beyond his passing. He will know of his legacy and be thankful of the privilege it provided him. And he will know of qualities everyone in the family strive to emulate.