Unsung Heroes #5: Felipe (1931 - 2016) (Dad)
You were born five years before the Spanish Civil War that would see your father exiled.
Language came later to you than your little brother Manuel. And you stuttered for a time.
Unlike those who speak incessantly with nothing to say, you were quiet and reserved.
Your mother mistook shyness for dimness, a tragic mistake that scarred you for life.
When your brother Manuel died at the age of three from meningitis, you heard your mom
Exclaim: “God took my bright boy and left me the dull one.” You were four or five.
You never forgot those words. How could you? Yet you loved your mom with all your heart.
But you also withdrew further into a shell, solitude your companion and best friend.
You were, in fact, an exceptional child. Stuttering went away at five or so never to return,
And by the time you were in middle school, your teacher called your mom in for a rare
Conference and told her that yours was a gifted mind, and that you should be prepared
For university study in the sciences, particularly engineering.
She wrote your father exiled in Argentina to tell him the good news, that your teachers
Believed you would easily win a spot in the highly selective public university
Where seats were few, prized and very difficult to attain based on merit-based competitive
Exams. Your father’s response? “Buy him a couple of oxen and let him plow the fields.”
That reply from a highly respected man who was a big fish in a tiny pond in his native
Oleiros is beyond comprehension. He had apparently opted to preserve his own self-
Interest in having his son continue his business and also work the family lands in his
Absence. That scar too was added to those that would never heal in your pure, huge heart.
Left without support for living expenses for college (all it would have required), you moved
On, disappointed, but not angry or bitter; you would simply find another way. You took the
Competitive exams for the two local military training schools that would provide an
Excellent vocational education and pay you a small salary in exchange for military service.
Of hundreds of applicants for the few seats in each of the two institutions, you ironically
Scored first for the toughest of the two and thirteenth for the second. You had your pick.
You chose Fabrica de Armas, the lesser of the two, so that a classmate who applied only to
The better school and just failed to qualify could be admitted. That was you--always noble.
At the military school, you were finally in your element. You were to become a world-class
Machinist there—a profession that would get you well paid work anywhere on earth
For as long as you wanted it. You were truly a mechanical genius who years later would add
Electronics, auto mechanics and specialized welding to his toolkit through formal training.
Given a well-stocked machine shop, you could reverse-engineer every machine there sans
Blueprints and build a duplicate machine shop. You became a gifted master mechanic
And worked in line and supervisory positions at a handful of companies throughout your life in
Argentina and in the U.S., including Westinghouse, Warner-Lambert, and Pepsi Co.
You loved learning, especially in your fields (electronics, mechanics, welding) and expected
Perfection in everything you did. Every difficult job at work was given to you everywhere you
Worked. You would not sleep at night when a problem needed solving. You’d sketch, calculate
And re-sketch solutions and worked even in your dreams with singular passion.
You were more than a match for the academic and physical rigors of military school,
But life was difficult for you in the Franco era when some instructors would
Deprecatingly refer to you as “Roxo”—Galician for “red”-- reflecting your father’s
Support for the failed Republic. Eventually, the abuse was too much for you to bear.
Once while standing at attention in a corridor with the other cadets waiting for
Roll call, you were repeatedly poked in the back surreptitiously. Moving would cause
Demerits and demerits could cause loss of points on your final grade and arrest for
Successive weekends. You took it awhile, then lost your temper.
You turned to the cadet behind you and in a fluid motion grabbed him by his buttoned
Jacket and one-handedly hung him up on a hook above a window where you were standing in
Line. He thrashed about, hanging by the back of his jacket, until he was brought down by
Irate military instructors. You got weekend arrest for months and a 10% grade reduction.
A similar fate befell a co-worker a few years later in Buenos Aires who called you a
Son of a whore. You lifted him one handed by his throat and held him there until
Your co-workers intervened, forcibly persuading you to put him down.
That lesson was learned by all in no uncertain terms: Leave Felipe’s mom alone.
You were incredibly strong, especially in your youth—no doubt in part because of rigorous
Farm work, military school training and competitive sports. As a teenager, you once
Unwisely bent down to pick something up in view of a ram, presenting the animal an
Irresistible target. It butted you and sent you flying into a haystack. It, too, quickly learned.
You dusted yourself off, charged the ram, grabbed it by the horns and twirled it around In
The air, throwing it atop the same haystack. The animal was unhurt, but learned to
Give you a wide berth from that day forward. Overall, you were very slow to anger absent
Head-butting, repeated poking, or disrespectful references to your mom throughout life.
I seldom saw you angry and it was mom, not you, who was the disciplinarian, slipper in
Hand. There were very few slaps from you for me. Mom would smack my behind very often
When I was little, mostly because I could be a real pain, wanting to know/try/do everything
Completely oblivious to the meaning of the word “no” or of my own limitations.
Mom would sometimes insist you give me a proper beating. On one such occasion for a
Forgotten transgression when I was nine, you took me to your bedroom, took off your belt,
Sat next to me and whipped your own arm and hand several times, whispering to me “cry”,
Which I was happy to do unbidden. “Don’t tell mom.” I did not. No doubt she knew.
The prospect of serving in a military that considered you a traitor by blood became
Unbearable, and in the third year of school, one year prior to graduation, you left to join
Your exiled father in Argentina, to start a new life. You left behind a beloved mother and
Two sisters to try your fortune in a new land. Your dog then refused food, dying of grief.
You arrived in Buenos Aires to see a father you had not seen for some 15 years at the age of 17.
You were too young to work legally, but looked older than your years (a shared trait),
So you lied about your age and immediately found work as a Machinist/Mechanic First Class.
That was unheard of and brought jealousy and complaints in the union shop.
The union confronted the general manager about your top-salary and rank. He answered,
“I’ll give the same rank and salary to anyone in the company who can do what Felipe can do.”
The jealousy and grumblings continued for a time. But there were no takers.
And you soon won the group over, becoming their protected “baby-brother” mascot.
Your dad left for Spain a year or so from your arrival when Franco issued a general pardon
To all dissidents who had not spilt blood (non-combatants). He wanted you to return to
Help him reclaim the family business taken over by you and your mom in his absence.
But you refused to give up the high salary, respect and independence denied you at home.
You were18 and alone, living in a single room by a schoolhouse you had shared with Your Dad.
But you had also found a new loving family in your uncle José, one of your dad’s Brothers.
José, and one of his daughters, Nieves, her husband, Emilio, and
Their children, Susana, Oscar (Ruben Gordé), and Osvaldo, became your new family.
You married mom in 1955 and had two failed business ventures in the quickly fading
Post-WW II Argentina of the late 1950s and early 1960s.The first, a machine shop, left
You with a small fortune in unpaid government contract work. The second, a grocery store,
Also failed due to hyperinflation and credit extended too easily to needy customers.
Throughout this, you continued earning an exceptionally good salary. But in the mid 1960’s,
Nearly all of it went to pay back creditors of the failed grocery store. We had some
Really hard times. Someday I may write about those days. Mom went to work as a maid,
Including for wealthy friends, and you left home at 4:00 a.m. and returned late at night.
The only luxury you and mom retained was my Catholic school tuition. There was no other
Extravagance. Not paying bills was never an option for you or mom. It never entered your
Minds. It was not a matter of law or pride, but a matter of honor. There were at least three
Very lean years where you and mom worked hard, earned well but we were truly poor.
You and mom took great pains to hide this from me—and suffered great privations to
Insulate me from the fallout of a shattered economy and your refusal to cut your loses had
Done to your life savings and our once-comfortable middle-class life. We came to the U.S. in
The late 1960s after waiting for more than three years for visas—to a new land of hope.
Your sister and brother-in-law, Marisa and Manuel, made their own sacrifices to help bring
Us here. You had about $1,000 from the down payment on our tiny down-sized house, and
Mom’s pawned jewelry. (Hyperinflation and expenses ate up the remaining payments due).
Other prized possessions were left in a trunk until you could reclaim them. You never did.
Even the airline tickets were paid for by Marisa and Manuel. You insisted upon arriving on
Written terms for repayment including interest. You were hired on the spot on your first
Interview as a mechanic, First Grade, despite not speaking a word of English. Two months
Later, the debt was repaid, mom was working too and we moved into our first apartment.
You worked long hours, including Saturdays and daily overtime, to remake a nest egg.
Declining health forced you to retire at 63 and shortly thereafter you and mom moved out of
Queens, buying a townhouse two hours from my permanent residence upstate NY and for
The next decade were happy, traveling with friends and visiting us often.
Then things started to change. Heart issues (two pacemakers), colon cancer, melanoma,
Liver and kidney disease caused by your many medications, high blood pressure, gout,
Gall bladder surgery, diabetes.... And still you moved forward, like the Energizer Bunny,
Patched up, battered, scarred, bruised but completely unstoppable and unflappable.
Then mom started to show signs of memory loss along with other health issues. She was
Good at hiding her own ailments, and we noticed much later than we should have that
There was a serious problem. Two years ago, her dementia worsening but still functional,
Gall bladder surgery with complications required four separate surgeries in three months.
She never recovered and had to be placed in a nursing home. Several, in fact, as at first she
Refused food and you and I refused to simply let her waste away, which would have been
Kinder, but for the fact that “mientras hay vida, hay esperanza” as Spaniards say. (While
There’s life there’s hope.) There is nothing beyond the power of God. Miracles do happen.
For two years you lived alone, refusing outside help, engendering numerous arguments
About having someone go by several times a week to help clean, cook, do chores. You were
Nothing if not stubborn (yet another shared trait). The last argument on the subject two
Weeks ago ended in your crying. You’d accept no outside help until mom returned home.
You were in great pain because of bulging discs in your spine and walked with one of those
Rolling seats with handlebars that mom and I picked out for you some years ago. You’d sit
As needed when the pain was too much, then continue with little by way of complaints.
Ten Days ago you finally agreed that you needed to get to the hospital to drain abdominal fluid.
Your failing liver produced it and it swelled your abdomen and lower extremities so that
Putting on shoes or clothing proved very difficult, as did breathing. You called me from a
Local store crying that you could not find pants fit you. We talked, long distance, and I
Calmed you down, as always, not allowing you to wallow in self-pity and trying to help.
You went home and found a new pair of stretch pants Alice and I had bought you and you Were
happy. You had two changes of clothes that fit to take to the hospital. No sweat, all Was well.
The procedure was not dangerous and you’d undergone it several times in recent Years.
It would require a day or two in the hospital and I’d see you again on the weekend.
I could not be with you on Monday, February 22 when you had to go to the hospital, as I
Nearly always had, because of work. You were supposed to be admitted the previous Friday,
When I was off, but the date was changed, and I could not be with you until next Friday.
You were unconcerned; this was routine. You’d be fine. I’d see you soon.
We’d go see mom Friday, when you’d be much lighter and feel much better. Perhaps we’d go
Shopping for clothes if the procedure still left you too bloated for your regular clothing size.
You were transported by ambulette. I was concerned, but not too worried.
You called me sometime between five or six p.m. to tell me you were fine, resting.
“Don’t worry. I’m safe here and well cared for.” We talked for a little while about the usual
Things, with my assuring you I’d see you Friday or Saturday. You were tired and wanted to
Sleep and I asked you to call me if you woke up later that night, else we’d speak tomorrow.
I got a call from your cell phone at 10:00 pm and answered in my usual upbeat manner.
“Hey, Papi.” On the other side was a nurse telling me my dad had fallen. I assured her she
Was mistaken, as my dad was there for a procedure to drain abdominal fluid. “You don’t
Understand. He fell from his bed and struck his head on the nightstand and his heart has
Stopped. We’re working on him for 20 minutes and it does not look good.”
“Can you get here?” I could not. I had had two or three glasses of wine shortly before the
Call with dinner. I could not drive the three hours to Middletown. I cried. I prayed.
Fifteen Minutes later I got the call that you were gone. Lost in grief, I called my wife. Shortly
Thereafter came a call from the coroner. An autopsy was required. I could not see you.
Four days later your body was finally released to the funeral director I had selected for his
Experience with the process of interment in Spain. I saw you for the last time to identify
Your body. I kissed my fingers and touched your mangled brow. I’d not even have the
Comfort of an open casket. You wanted cremation. Your body awaits it as I write this.
You were alone, even in death alone. In the hospital as strangers worked on you. In the
Coroner’s office as you awaited the autopsy. In the autopsy table as they poked and
Prodded, further renting your flesh looking for clues that would change nothing and benefit
No one, least of all you. I could not be with you for days, and then only a painful moment.
We will have a memorial service next Friday with your ashes and a mass on Saturday. I will
Never again see you in this life. Alice and I will take you home per your wishes to the
Cemetery in Oleiros, La Coruña, Spain this summer to await the love of your life who could
Not understand my tears or your passing and will join you there in the fullness of time.
There is one blessing to dementia. Mom asks for her mom, and is worried because she has
Not come to visit in some time. She is coming, she assures me whenever I see her. You
Visited her every day except when health absolutely prevented it. You spent this February 10
Apart, your 61st wedding anniversary, too sick to visit her. Nor was I there. First time.
I hope you did not realize you were apart on the 10th but doubt it to be the case. I
Did not mention it, hoping you’d forgotten, and neither did you. You were my link to mom.
She cannot dial or answer a phone, so you would put your cell phone to her ear whenever I
Was not in class or meeting and could speak to her. She always recognized me by phone.
I am three hours from her. I could visit at most once or twice a month. Now even that daily
Phone lifeline is severed. Mom is completely alone, afraid, confused, and I cannot in the
Short term do much about that. You were not supposed to die first. It was my greatest fear,
And yours. But as with so many things we cannot change, I put it in the back of my mind.
It kept me up many nights, but, like you, I still believed—and believe—in miracles. I’d speak
Every night with you, often for an hour, on the way home from work late at night during my
Hour-long commute, or from home on days I worked from home as I cooked dinner. I mostly
Let you talk, trying to give you what comfort and social outlet I could.
You were lonely, sad, stuck in an endless loop of emotional and physical pain. Lately you
Were especially reticent to get off the phone. When mom was still home and still
Relatively well, I’d call every day too but usually spoke to you only a few minutes before you
Transfer the phone to mom, with whom I usually chatted much longer.
For months, you’d had difficulty hanging up. I knew you did not want to go back to the
Couch, to a mindless TV program, or to paying more bills. You’d say good-bye, or
“Enough for today” and immediately begin a new thread, sometimes repeating the cycle five or six
Times. You even told me crying recently, “Just hang up on me or I’ll just keep talking.”
I loved you, dad, with all my heart. We argued, and I’d often scream at you in frustration,
Knowing you would not take it to heart and would usually just ignore me and do exactly as
You pleased. I knew how desperately you needed me, and I tried to be as patient as I could.
But there were days when I was just too tired, too frustrated, too full of other problems.
There were days when I got frustrated with you just staying on the phone for an hour when
I needed to call Alice, to eat my cold dinner, or even to watch a favorite program. I felt guilty
And almost never cut a conversation short, but I was frustrated nonetheless even knowing
How much you needed me, how much I needed you, and how little you asked of me.
How I would love to hear your voice again, even if you wanted to complain about the same
Old things or tell me in minutest detail some unimportant aspect of your day. I thought I’d
Have you a little longer. A year? Two? God only knew, and I could hope. There’d be Time. I
Had so much more to share with you, to learn from you, when life eased up just a bit.
You taught me to fish (it did not take) and to hunt (that took even less) and much of what I
Know about mechanics and electronics. We worked on our cars together for years—brake
Jobs, mufflers, real tune-ups in the days when points, condensers, and timing lights had
Meaning, Rebuilding carburetors, fixing rust and dents, power windows and more.
We were friends, good friends, who went on Sunday drives to favorite restaurants or
Shopping for tools when I was single and lived at home. You taught me everything in life
About all the things that matter. The rest is meaningless paper and window dressing. I
Knew your few faults and your many colossal strengths and knew you to be the better man.
Not even close. I could never do what you did. I could never excel in my fields as you did in
Yours. You were the real deal in every way, from every angle, throughout your life. I did not
Always treat you that way. But I loved you very deeply as anyone who knew us knows. More
Importantly, you knew it. I told you often, unembarrassed in the telling, “I love you, Dad.”
The world was enriched by your journey. You do not leave behind wealth, or a body or work
To outlive you. You never had your fifteen minutes of fame. But you mattered. God knows
Your virtue, your absolute integrity, and the purity of your heart. I will never know a better
Man and will carry you in my heart every day of my life. God bless you, dad.
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish