Today my father would have been 98 years old.
At his bedside in 1998, twenty years ago, he quietly revealed to my older sister his story of approaching the Golden Gate Bridge on the deck of a ship, she barely old enough to stand at his side as they passed under the monument that signified his entry into America.
“We will have a good life here,” he whispered into her ear.
He was a silent man, of very few words. We three sisters had never heard this story, his last spoken before his last breath 24 hours later in the US Army hospital where I was born.
His entry into the port of San Francisco was gained through his service as a Philippine Scout in World War II, and his survival after escaping from the Bataan Death March. After his escape, he journeyed 60 miles by foot, emaciated with malaria back to his home in the province. Slowly he recovered in a nipa hut, his home, until the liberation in 1945, when he jumped onto the US Army trucks rolling past on the road back to Manila to join the US forces and Mac Arthur in Leyte.
From America he would send stipends to his mother in the province. She proudly had a gate made to the entrance of her home that said, “Sgt. Jesus C. Bermudez, US Army.”
My father was the gatekeeper for others to come to this country, the one who would open the doors decades later as a sponsor for his brother and his family, my mother’s sisters and their families, to pursue the good life that my father dreamed of as he passed under the Golden Gate Bridge: A house. A car. An education.
Over years, decades of waiting for papers, affidavits, job opportunities, these dreams materialized not only for my father but for generations to follow.
Our children set foot on the the shores of our Philippine homeland, the land of my father, for the first time last Christmas. The children and grandchildren and nephews and nieces of my father, their Lolo (grandfather), gathered on the on the island of Boracay to serve on a medical and dental mission to the Ati people, an indigenous tribe in the Philippines.
These first and second generation Filipino Americans of my father are living the American dream he longed for: homes in Malibu, Newport Beach, Seattle, Orlando. Cars he dreamed of: Porsches, Ferraris, Mercedes Benz. Educations to be proud of: USC, Virginia Tech, Texas A&M, Baylor, Ohio State. Careers to make him proud: doctors, dentists, accountants, software engineers, NFL producers.
On the dirt roads of my parents homeland, fifty of us—brothers, sisters, cousins, second cousins, nephews, nieces — gathered under a makeshift shelter and thatched grass huts of a remote village to bring medical and dental care to a people who had been outcast and isolated for the darkness of their skin.
We called it the Kamay Project: Kamay means hand in Tagalog, the Filipino language. Our families were joining hands and resources to help the Ati people. We saw 230 patients that day, giving basic medical and dental care, distributing medicines we had collected, sharing bible stories and balloons with the children, and the biggest draw, playing basketball with the kids.
Shoulder to shoulder,
Hand to hand
Hands extending to extract a tooth, to take a blood pressure reading, to lift a child up on a shoulder, to pass a basketball up for a shot.
Hands extending over generations, language, economics.
Hands reaching out to give out reading glasses, medicines, toys, balloons.
The recipients were not the only ones receiving a gift.
The ones handing out received smiles and hugs
reciprocally greater in exchange.
Kamay is also the word that describes the Filipino tradition of eating by hand. Food is spread out on the table on banana leaves. The great granddaughter of my father’s mother, a rising Filipino chef just honored at the James Beard house in NYC, prepared a traditional meal of fresh dried fish, shrimp, pancit, and rice.
As our family worked together side by side, elbow to elbow to present the food, arranging it artfully atop banana leaves on rickety wooden tables, my cousin, one of the dentists, grabbed my hand. Earlier that day he had extracted and examined teeth for over one hundred patients.
He grinned at me from ear to ear, the way I first remember his smile when he was eight years old and just had arrived from the Philippines. He had the same bright, hopeful look in his eyes as the children gathering all around us. At their age, his mom and his three siblings lived with us for nine months preparing for a new life in America.
“You know we all would not be here it was not for your mom and dad,” he said, nodding towards the tables where our siblings, my cousins, our children, and spouses stood shoulder to shoulder side by side presenting the New Years Eve dinner for the villagers.
Drops of rain pattered on the tin roof of the shelter. Wind blew water through glassless windows. A storm was brewing just off the island. But nothing would dampen that evening of smiles and laughter and feasting and dancing and music as generations and lifestyles and bloodlines merged, a night of celebration.
Today, we honor and celebrate you dad, for it was your hand that opened the gateway for us to give.
In six weeks you will receive your gift, the highest honor paid by this country you love: the Congressional Gold Medal.
You and your comrades will receive a bronze copy of the Congressional Gold Medal recently awarded to Filipino and American soldiers of the Bataan Death March. You will be recognized for your sacrifice for the atrocities you endured to defend this country and the American Flag.
The flag that was draped around your casket and handed to your widow during a 21 gun salute.
The flag that you cheered for with your cancer ridden lungs, shouting “USA! USA!” during your last Winter Olympics in 1998. We watched them as a family from the shores of Hawaii, the closest we could get your homeland. You were too weak to go to the Philippines one more time.
Decades later, we have returned.
For more information on the Kamay Project, an ongoing outreach to the children and families of the Ati village in Boracay, Philippines, please go to kamayproject.org