Unbroken Angel: Happy Birthday, Absent Brother Juan Francisco Urrea

March 1, 2018 | 2 4 min read

Carnal, today is your birthday.  I don’t know where you are now.  But I know you’re somewhere. Many of our intellectual friends would argue that if you’re dead, you are nowhere.  I know you well enough to know you are busy wherever you went.  I am sure—as your family insisted a couple of weeks ago when I sat at your seat at your kitchen table—that you are watching over us.  Perhaps leaving signs and hints and small pranks to let them know you’re still the great man you were.  I suspect you’re living your old science fiction dreams—I imagine you circling Saturn, enjoying the colors of the rings.  When I was a kid, you urged me to do the same thing, even if it was only in my imagination.  You fed my dreams with your old Asimov, Heinlein, Ray Bradbury books.  And you sent me the entire space opera series by E.E. “Doc” Smith.  I smile, still remembering the galloping space warriors on the good ship Skylark.  And in the agonizing months of trying to write a novel inspired by your passing, I sensed you near.  I was constantly startled when a scene I had “invented” turned out to have been a very private moment or conversation you had shared with your wife, or your daughter.  Blanca, Millie, Alma, Juanito—they are feeling you today.  We all are.

I know you remember your special whistle.  That strange sonic signal that you were in the house, or around the corner, or coming home.  The only other person I ever knew with a personal whistle was our father.  I wonder if you got the idea from him.  I wonder if he’s with you out there.  Drinking some ghost coffee.  Are you guys whistling at us?  Millie, your baby girl, just sent me a message.  She just heard that whistle this morning after posting a happy birthday message to you.  Pinche Juan!  For a patriarch, you sure were full of mischief.

I remember, many years ago, when I was pursuing my acting career.  Ha!  That sounds so pretentious!  But hey,  I went to “Ridgemont High.”  We all thought we were going to be famous.  Writing was still wrestling a little with this acting thing—and winning.  But there I was, spending six months with Peter O’Toole.  And you would come to the various sets and take pictures with your fancy camera.  I was still a po’ boy and didn’t understand how people got big fancy cameras.  The whole world seemed like a magical ritual to me.  And we were both away from San Diego.  I was living in my friend Sandy’s North Hollywood apartment, with my bad friends accompanying me in ridiculous all-night shenanigans.  And you were working the computer center for Magic Mountain.  And you had stepped into the father-role in that year after Dad died.  I didn’t even realize you were doing it.

We were filming at Indian Dunes Raceway, near Sylmar.  Scattered around the set (the old M*A*S*H TV show “Korea”) were mock airplanes from “Black Sheep Squadron.”  A boy’s playground.  And you would sometimes come for me and take me into the Magic Mountain computer center.  It was a ’70s sci-fi room full of huge computers with spinning tape reels—so James Bond.  Alive with white noise.  You knew I’d love it.  But you also knew I was a mystical type like you and Dad.  And that I’d hear the voices.

You even told me.  “If you listen, you’ll start to hear the ghosts.”  The whole vast room was like a gargantuan “ghost box” from one of those ghost hunter shows on TV.  It was women at first, then men, then a lot of women and men.  Like a cocktail party in Elysium.  And we stood there laughing as we listened to this hallucination.  With goosebumps.

It was not great shock to me when you started to make yourself known on my laptop as I tried to craft fiction out of your death.

The first anniversary of Dad’s death was a cataclysmically rainy day.  I was in the lone phone booth at Indian Dunes.  It was very cold.  I watched cars crashing on the freeway.  Floods everywhere.  The booth was across a vast parking lot.  Peter came along in his limo, escaping the flooding set.  He rolled down his window and said, “G’bye!” and waved his cigarette in its holder.  What a very sweet man.  I have never been more alone that I was at that moment.  And I called you at your office.  “What’s wrong?” you said.  “Dad,” I said.  You were like Batman.  “Stay right there, I’m coming.”  And you did.  You took me to a diner and fed me.  You let me cry—something our father would not have done.

I admit, writing a novel based on or inspired by such intimate events as your funeral and last birthday party was harrowing.  Every time I go back home to San Diego, I find myself sitting at your kitchen table, leading a creative writing workshop for our family.  I want everyone to know it’s fiction.  I tell them, “It is a movie I make in my mind, and some of you acted in it.  But it’s not about us.”  Your beloved widow, Blanca, is the greatest advocate for the book.  And Millie coached me through some of the hard things.  But I felt you, Carnal.  I think you smiled when I finished it.

So happy birthday.  We are all sad today.  And we know the anniversary of your death is coming in just a few days.  But I also know that you were pretty sure, deep down, even with the pain, even with the fear in your eyes, that death was not larger than you were.  We celebrate you.  And maybe a few strangers will meet your essence in the book.  That is my wish.  I did my best.  Keep whistling out there.  I’m listening.

Image Credits: Wikimedia Commons and the author.

is the author of the novel The House of Broken Angels. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his landmark work of nonfiction The Devil's Highway, he is also the bestselling author of the novels The Hummingbird's Daughter, Into the Beautiful North, and Queen of America, as well as the story collections The Water Museum, a PEN/Faulkner Award finalist. He has won the Lannan Literary Award, an Edgar Award, and a 2017 American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, among many other honors. Born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and American mother, he lives outside of Chicago and teaches at the University of Illinois-Chicago.