Out of 7.4 billion people on Earth, I shared my full name with only one other person. (I'll let you do the math. I'm not that good with numbers.)
–"Is your name Vergentino Robles?", they asked my dad once. I was with him. –"Yes. And right now you're looking at the only two human beings in the world with that name!"
There was a palpable sense of pride every time he said that. And it happened often. I have to admit it took me a while to share that pride. What kind of name was that, anyway? I always "joked" that it took me forever to write my name in my exams at school, and because of that I never had the time to answer all of the questions. (I think it really happened. And often.)
My dad was in his mid-forties when I was born. An "old man". Some of my oldest memories are of him returning home late at night, after closing up "his" supermarket. (It was a supermarket chain, but it was "his".) Nothing brings me back to that time like walking around my local store and... stopping and smelling the air in the meat and poultry section. Late at night, dad smelled like... chuck steak.
He "went to war" in his early twenties, during the time of the Korean War. He was never deployed for combat; he stayed stationed in Panama. –"I never killed anyone. Or at least not that I know of. But I was a cook, so... who knows? Maybe I did some serious damage after all."
As a young boy, I used to think my family was odd. That my dad was odd. He was... old. My brothers and I always referred to him as our "friend". Amigo. Not "dad" or "daddy". Just... "friend." There was an incredible amount of respect towards him. Usted. But even with the oddness, it felt OK. It was our normal.
(For the record, I still think my family is odd.)
But really, who was this man that let his sons play inside refrigerated trucks and meat freezers at "his" store, late at night?
Who was this man with the darkest sense of humor, that always told his young sons that there was a lady inside the restaurant's restroom, that helped pulling your pants down? (I never peed in that place. Ever.)
–"What do you mean that bread is old? No, don't throw it away. Look, take this knife, you scrape off the hairy part, and... you have a brand new piece of bread!"
He had a 70s Malibu Classic. It was a moving fortress. There was no need for car seats there. And there was no need to change the radio station either. It was almost always 92.5 FM. Radio Oro.
Some of my other early memories are... tales. Like when he spent a whole afternoon at a party, drinking, and having a lively conversation with a tall gas tank. Rumor has it he did most of the talking.
Or the time when my older brother was still a baby and he put (and left) his bottles on top of the car, shortly before taking off for a road trip. –"Hey, the baby's milk!", people would shout at him along the way. –"Yeah, yeah, he drank it already, thank you!", he would shout back.
I didn't know who that man was. But he was... awesome.
In my eyes, he was always working. Some jobs better than others. Some shittier than others. But he always worked. He always provided. He retired and went back to work shortly after. I think he did that more than once.
Growing up, I don't remember ever playing catch with him. The biggest baseball and New York Yankees fan I've ever met, but we never played catch. Again, he was always... working. Years later, after retiring, he visited me in Boston. I was working by then. We did a tour of Fenway Park. We watched a game after that, seating at the bleachers. We didn't acknowledge it at the time, but we finally did it. That was our playing catch.
He always said he was going to live until he was 128 years old. Why that number, specifically? Who knows. And who cares. We got tired of hearing that and we just believed it. And why not? He survived being a kid in the 1930s. He survived becoming a man faster than all of us, something very common for his generation. He survived prostate cancer and radiation therapy. And although not his first one, he was about to celebrate his 49th wedding anniversary. Talk about resilience. Compared to that, getting to 128 was nothing. Of course he was going to make it. He's a Roble. An oak.
–"Let me check the obituaries in the paper, to see if my name is there... Hmmm. OK, I'm safe for now. Let's play Sudoku."
I can't pinpoint the exact moment when it happened, but I remember making an executive decision about our relationship. I didn't want him to be my amigo anymore. My friend, yes. One of my best friends in the world, if not the best. But I didn't want that strange separation anymore. No more amigo. No more usted. I wanted... Dad. He became mi viejo. Tú.
Without planning it, we started growing closer and closer. I can't say I share his same religious devotion, I really never did, but I did learn from him the true meaning of tolerance and respect. And you don't need a specific label to practice that.
–"I don't care about social media. I don't even know what social media is. I would like to have a tablet; that I want. I've seen people doing a lot of stuff on those things, within seconds. But I want mine without the social media. Eso es una mariconería."
With his actions, he taught me to love. I taught him about YouTube, about finding friends on the "Bookface" and about having your résumé on the "Lindink". He taught me about baseball, and the importance of the WIN column, above all. I taught him (according to him) about common sense. He had a lot of questions for me, specially when my marriage turned upside down. He never asked them. In return, I taught him that if we make a peace sign, and then flip our hands, we had our own "V" gang sign.
I spent quality time with him recently. He saw his youngest granddaughter graduate from Pre-K. We celebrated his birthday. We talked. A lot. Probably like we've never talked before.
Time is a trickster. A few weeks after that I saw him again. Connected to a ventilator. Alert, but unable to communicate. I tried placing a pen in his hand, so he could write instead. The effort was useless. There was no strength in his grip. It was getting late.
He told me everything, only with his eyes. I told him everything, with my eyes and my voice. I spent hours talking, whispering, while he slowly slipped away. I told him about my next races and my training. I told him about my future plans, personal and professional. I talked about our tattoos, about what they really meant. (At least mine.) I told him about my obsession and love for the Moon. I told him about how I learned, mostly from him, to make peace with my own vulnerabilities. I explained to him how the first 26 miles of a marathon are the easiest, but the last .2 are a fucking pain in the ass. I kissed his forehead and told him that he was going to feel better soon. We both knew it was true. We cried.
A few days later he was gone. I couldn't cry. I didn't feel like crying at all. I just wanted to clap, to celebrate his life: His dark sense of humor, his sharp sarcasm, his devotion, his ironclad determination of helping everybody and trying to fix whatever needed to be fixed, his peace. His list of pros overwhelmingly outweighs the cons. His was an awesome, good, long ride.
We are all spectators of each other's life, after all. Once the curtain comes down all we can do is reciprocate accordingly. Seconds after the burial ceremony was over, while the casket was being carried away, everybody had the same response: He got his standing ovation.