Today is my birthday and I’m 68 years old. Ten years ago today, I celebrated the publication of my first book When the de la Cruz Family Danced.* My father, to whom the book was dedicated, never got to read it. He had been dead eighteen years. He died the year I turned forty when I had only just begun to write. He was 68.
At the time of his death, I was enrolled in Rebecca Brown’s evening fiction class in a continuing education program. As I waited at SeaTac for my flight to San Diego for my father’s funeral, I started the assignment Rebecca had given us: write the first chapter of a novel. I had not even considered writing a novel and regarded the assignment as only an exercise.
But over the years, that chapter grew to a book, which after many revisions followed by many rejections found a home with a small press. It seemed appropriate that Signal 8 Press was dedicated to books of Asia-Pacific interest. I wrote about a Filipino man who had immigrated to the U.S. after WW II, and married and raised a family, intent on leaving his old life behind and becoming an American. But the past often intrudes upon the intent of any life and Johnny de la Cruz, for all his outward resolve to leave the Philippines behind is, in his final years, visited by an almost forgotten secret.
The character was inspired by my father whom I believe kept many secrets – not like the one in my novel which involved another woman, but of simple, ordinary things. Games he played as a boy in Las Piñas, his favorite song, what he had dreamed his life might be like in the United States, what he missed or didn’t miss about the Philippines. Not that I often thought to ask him such questions. When I did, he seemed reluctant to answer, perhaps afraid to disappoint me – or himself.
In my book, I set some scenes in the Philippines, imagining the sights and sounds and smells because I had yet to visit my father’s birth country. In 2016, my book made it to the Philippines a year before I finally did. My daughter Natalie took it upon herself to reconnect with the family we had lost contact with after my father’s death. She enlisted the help of James Lazarra, the administrator of a Facebook page called Las Piñas Treasures, to locate my father’s one surviving sibling, Eumelia, along with other family members. When Natalie arrived in the Philippines to meet the family, she placed a copy of my book in the hands of her great-aunt. The following year I made my first trip to the Philippines with Natalie as my guide. I had hoped to meet my Aunt Melia, but she died two months before our scheduled trip. The photo of Melia holding my book is the closest thing I have to that missed experience. It’s also the closest thing I have to my father touching the book I dedicated to him.
I did get to meet two of Melia’s children, my cousins Malou and Chito, as well as Chito’s wife Cha and their children, including Julia, a young teenager at the time. Last month, Julia sent me this message:
I think my father would’ve loved that I finally made it to the Philippines, that his sister held my book, that his great-niece read it. My father never read my book, but I think he would’ve liked it. I think he would’ve loved it.
The message I wrote in the dedication remains true: Wish you were here.
* The publication party for When the de la Cruz Family Danced was also the publication party for Wendy Call’s No Word for Welcome. It was an honor to celebrate our books together. Thanks to all those who celebrated with us. Wish I could include all the photos from that lovely evening.