Anthem….…..a tribute to our Filipino fathers who received the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor

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My father survived the World War II Battaan Death March in the Philippines.

He never spoke of it while he was alive.  I suppose there were no words.

In the community where I grew up in the 1970’s there were other men like him. Filipino soldiers now US citizens living in a neighborhood a stone’s throw from the Army base from where they retired, working as veterans in the community, living their version of the American dream: build a house, build a family, drive an American made car.

Most of them are gone now, but their families continue on, and yesterday our fathers were honored at the Filipino World War II Veterans Congressional Gold Medal of Honor Awards Ceremony, Region 8, in Renton, Washington.

I knew this was the highest honor a civilian could receive. I knew that it was 75 years too late. I knew that many had been fighting for years for our fathers’ recognition for the sacrifice they endured during that pivotal time in history.

What I didn’t expect is to see the faces of my father’s compatriots in this gathering of their sons and daughters.

Cabellon. Crisostimo. Culanag. Felizardo. Irigon. Mocorro. Pancho. Sibonga. Solidarios.

Bermudez. My father’s name emblazoned on the Army jacket his first grandson proudly wears today.

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In this company a rekindling of Pinoy heritage and pride resurfaces, recalling what It meant to grow up in a community born of fathers who had sacrificed their lives to have a better life in America, holding more tightly the truth that our lives and the lives of our children are born out of the suffering and atrocities they endured.

One by one these names are called out and a family member steps forward to receive the medal from US Army Brigadier General Oscar Hillman, a medal that would have been presented years ago had President Truman not rescinded the benefits that should have been awarded to those who made the ultimate sacrifice. As POW’s captured by the Japanese, these men were forced to march 100 miles from Bataan to Manila. Seventy six years after those tragic steps taken on Philippine soil, then a US colony, they were finally acknowledged for their pivotal role in preventing the further expansion of Japanese forces deeper into the Pacific by Congress and President Barack Obama in 2016.

Only one contemporary from my father’s group remains to receive the honor for his brother.

Felix Pancho, in a turtleneck and sport jacket and a movie star smile, is just as I remember him during our Filipino gatherings growing up.

His stride still strong and confident he receives the medal in his brother’s name. He turns around with a smile, waving. I greet him afterwards. He shows me his brother’s photographs from 1950 with his former troop in Manila and his proud stance in the US in 1960 in front of his prized car, a Falcon.  My father has a similar photo in front of his 1958 Buick Special.

My father’s widow is pushed forward in her wheelchair by my sister. She has no recollection of what is happening, but senses this is something solemn. When she asked all the way to the event, where are we going? where are we going? I told her, we are going to a ceremony to honor Daddy.  Her mind grasped the thought. Daddy? She asked. Yes Daddy. She processes the thought for a moment, then acknowledges with a nod.

They announce his name, Jesus Bermudez. She smiles as she receives the bronze copy of the Congressional Gold Medal into her hands by the general. 

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She is resplendent in red, one of the colors of the Philippine flag, the flag that was honored during the color guard ceremony, when the Philippine National anthem was sung out proudly by a Filipino soldier dressed as Philippine Scout. My mother, silent the entire morning, mouths the Tagalog words as he sang.

Buhay ay langit sa piling mo;

Aming ligaya na pag may mangaap

Ang mamatay ng dahil sa iyi

Beautiful land of love

O land of Light

In thine embrace tis rapture to lie

But it is glory ever, when thou art wronged

For us thy sons, to suffer and die

The faces of these sons who suffered years ago, now gone, are mapped in the faces of my compadres, my living brothers gathered around me, whose smile and gesture they bear.

We gather now for a photo, those who are left holding the medals our fathers would have proudly borne, those who are left: sons, daughters, grandsons, granddaughters.

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Widows.

My father’s widow sees another widow left behind, her best friend she has not seen for 10 years. She does not recall her name.  But she recalls her. Their tearful exchange reveals this truth. They reunite silently, exchanging embraces, tears, and smiles. They hold hands quietly. For many years they held each other’s pain. Now they hold each other in silence.  For there are no words.

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Dreamer….one man’s legacy…one family’s purpose…

IMG_2860Today 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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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We hugged.
We cried.

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.

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Decades later, we have returned.

 

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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

 

 

Ina: Generations of Mothers


She raised a generation of daughters. And they in turn are raising another generation of daughters and sons.

The concentric circle extends even father outward, as she was the “Tita”, the aunt to an extended generation of daughters, her nieces, whom she raised as her own and even more significantly, brought them here to the United States. She continues to be the matriarch and mother figure for decades of lifetimes beyond their own, to their children’ children, even as she lies in her hospital bed, the place where her nieces and sister gather around her now. 

The strength of my mother’s love reaches past borders and generation, touching lives even as she lies still, her left side paralyzed, her heart still as full and loving now, smile filling her entire face.

During this gathering of my cousins and aunt we shared a weekend of tears, hugs, laughter, and our favorite Filipino food, Kare Kare (oxtail soup), my aunt’s specialty. When my mother was admitted to hospice several weeks ago I had asked them to come to see her. Her Alzheimers was taking its toll on her memory and she was losing weight rapidly.

“Please come see my mother,” I asked them.

And they did. They travelled from the other coast to be here.  My mother’s only surviving sister of nine siblings, at 87, came to be at her side. My cousins, two the daughters of this sister, and one, the daughter of my mother’s younger beloved sister who passed away two Mother’s Day ago, with Alzheimer’s.

Together we leafed through old black and white photographs. Since they were raised in the Philippines and I was born here, my cousins knew so many details of the family’s life that I did not. Our bedside visit became a story telling session of our family’s past.

We pick up a photo of our grandmother. She is dressed in her best Filipino embroidered gown, a “terno”. Her waistlength grey hair is wrapped in her signature bun on top of her head. On the back of the photo in her very best writing, she writes this:

 Dear Bing and Jessie

 This picture was taken in inside the house with my appliances.

 Your loving mother,

 Filomena C. Bermudez




My cousin Carina explains to me that our grandmother was the queen of the province where she lived in the remote farmland of the Philippines. She was the only one with electricity, with appliances- an electric fan, a refrigerator, a radio, a television. Carina remembers the neighbors peeking into the window of the concrete block house, the biggest one on the street, to get a glimpse of the television working, a novelty back in the 1970’s.

My father would send his mother money to purchase these appliances from his meager salary as a food service worker at the Veteran’s Hospital. He was a veteran himself, 24 years in the US Army, a retired sergeant who had risked his life as Philippine Scout to escape from the Bataan Death March in World War II. My father, an enlisted man who fought on the front lines of the Korean War, would be so proud to know that Carinas’ sons now serve as officers in the US Army and Air Force, one as a major and one as a lieutenant as well as other cousin’s son, one who bears his name, Bermudez, a major in the Army.

These sons of Carina were taught by my mother how to read. They had just come to this country, and I remember my mother, a former third grade teacher, sitting on the couch reading our favorite children’s books, Where the Wild things Are and Curious George to these sons who are now officers serving our country.
Carina leans over the bed to my mother. She whispers, “Thank you, Tita Bing, thank you for teaching my sons to read. Thank you for all you have done for us to have a good life in this country.”


Carina’s sister, Marlene, turns to me. “I don’t like seeing your mom like this,” she cries. “She is the strong one, she is the one who did everything for us. She is the one who would make our favorite food and we would all eat at her house. Her house was the gathering place for us.”

Her mother sits quietly by mom’s beside.  There are no words between them, only a smile and grasping of hands

 
We pick up a photo of our mother’s mother. Veiled and stoic, hosting the same eyes and my mother, she is receiving an award from their priest at their parish.  I know this now because my cousin reads out loud the back of the photograph written in Tagalog in my grandmother’s handwriting.  At the end of the paragraph she signs in script, “Ina”.  


“What does that mean?” I ask Carina.

“Mother.”

Yesterday, the day we celebrate mothers, the great granddaughter of these grandmothers who lived in provinces in a country  10,000 miles away hosted a Mother’s Day Filipino Brunch in honor of these mothers.  She prepared food native to our country in a city, Seattle, known for its foodies. Her heritage menu  was promoted in a local magazine as one of the Nine Best Mother’s Day 2017 Brunches in Seattle.
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As the circle of mothers and daughters extend further out so does the gathering around the table, not only including family, extending to guests.  The tradition of welcoming and gathering with food and laughter ripples out  through the generations.


The center of this outward circle is not forgotten

My cousin Grace leans over to say good bye with tears and words of gratefulness for all my mother has done. 

“Thank you Tita, for bringing my family here, for taking care of us, for giving us the chance fo a new life here.  We love you Tita Bing.”

The cousins gather around her to sing a song, a Filipino love song that was the favorite of my mother and father.  Although the names of my cousins are barely recalled, the words of this beloved song are not forgotten.

“Dahil Sayo”.

Dahil sa’yo (Because of you) Nais kong mabuhay (I want to live)

Dahil sa’yo (Because of you) Hanggan mamatay (for the rest of my life)

Dahil sa’yo (Because of you) Ako’y lumigaya (I’ve become happy)

Ang lahat sa buhay ko’y (Everything in my life is)

Dahil sa’yo (Because of you)

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Message in the Sky


I rise above on metal wings.

Rise above this broken earth
Fractured and shattered. 
The craft moves upward

Away from anger, pain and protest 

Grief, and forgetting, my mother’s disease.
Pulled into the greys of heaven

clouds and mist and vapor.
Behind it trails the dawn

The beginning of a new day

The gradual warming of earth’s tent

From greys to pinks to orange.
We soar along horizon’s line

Away from dawn, westward

from here the daunting now appears 

Insignificant, small.

        

Land recedes, gives way to gulf waters

The blue of waters reflect the blue of skies above

A layer of mist hovering between 
Above the blue

As if a heavenly artist took one stroke

One brush of his hand 

A message

half a heart

In vapor, in white on a blue canvas sea.


What message does this half a heart bear?

Unfinished?

Incomplete?

Or is the remnant of a broken heart? Half empty from grief and pain and sorrow?
The half heart remains floating above the gulf waters.  A message in the sky.

The remaining journey attempts to answer that question.

Half hearted?

Or broken hearted?

He who thinks half-heartedly will not believe in God; but he who really thinks has to believe in God.  Issac Newton


On this journey across the country I see the remnants, the attempts for us to be like God, constructing our own universe, power, the windmills the towns laid out in perfect grids, the farmland, from the sky, perfect circles. The network of connection of roads and highways sometimes singular across a vast nothing, sometimes a puzzle of roadways. All connectors. All looking for connection. The towers reaching to the sky to send signals. The skyscrapers stair stepping upward.  


Beyond the cities and towns, a single peak, snow capped, tapping heaven, then sloping down into a valley that breaks out into a river, then a canyon, then a desert. This vastness that is this land. The land our forefathers traversed at first by foot or horseback centuries ago. The land our forefathers traversed in search of a new life and new horizon. This country of promise.

My father came to this country, decades ago, standing on the deck of a freighter. He earned his entrance into America fighting on foreign soil, a soldier in the Philippine Scouts during WWII. He survived the Bataan Death March. He survived the Korean War.
As he approached the port of entry spanned by the Golden Gate Bridge, he spoke to his young daughter, my sister, of the promise of this land, of the promise of America. “We will have a good life here in America,” he said to her as they crossed underneath the great orange arches.
My plane lands a few hours south of where my father first entered this country, Monterey Bay, where a Filipino taxi driver takes me to my hotel. He is from the same area in the Philippines as my father. He speaks his language. He has been in this country 17 years. He speaks proudly of his daughter, who is going to college. He has my father’s dream, that his children get a degree. He has my father’s name. Jessie.
I see my father’s face in the ones of those who work here at the hotel. My father, who was a laborer after his 24 years of service as a sergeant in the US Army. My father who could could only dream of staying at a seaside resort. My father who labored so his children could dream.
Over the waters the next morning, perhaps one hundred miles south of the port my father first entered this country over sixty years ago a rainbow reaches from end to end. Not just one, but two. A double rainbow over the grey blue pacific waters.

Promise. The rainbow.
These days it can mean so many things

But originally the bow

Was set in the clouds as a promise

That God would never flood the earth again

Despite our turning away.

“And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come.  I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”  Genesis 9:13 

A sign of promise.
A sign of hope.

My father crossed the sea to enter this land just miles from the span of this rainbow.  He came here to hope.  He came here to fulfill promise.
My promise now to him is to care for his widow

The woman he brought here years ago torn from her homeland and mother and family

To start a new life in the land of promise.

I will care for her

And the memories she can no longer recall

Of a life, a home, a car, a family started here in this country.
I will care for my father’s grandchildren
The ones who now live the life he only dreamed of

Who carry degrees from universities and live in cities and towers from coast to coast.

Who  pursue education and the hope of helping others in a world that greatly needs help.

And as my mother fades she too will join him.

And they will live in the legacy of their children and grandchildren

Who live out the promise they began 

Perhaps broken

But not half hearted.

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