River of Shame

By Wilfredo Pascual Jr.
Essay

“We don’t have to leave,” she said. “If your father stopped leaving at night, the monsters wouldn’t come anymore.” —Angelo Serrano, “It Comes At Night”

When I was thirteen, my mother took me to see Dr. Custodio, our family doctor in San Jose, Nueva Ecija, who took care of the Pascuals for three generations. He sat behind his desk at his home clinic. He knew our medical history, our public and private lives well enough. I heard him say something to my mother, something that I would hold on to for the rest of my life. It saved me: “Nasaktan siya. Kailangan ni’yo siyang dalhin sa espesyalista. Dalhin ni’yo na siya sa psychiatrist.”

I was so relieved I wanted to cry. Finally I was going to get help. Somebody was going to listen to me. I was going to get better. I hardly said anything during that consultation. I was so ashamed of myself, which was how I felt most of the time—even with all the medals and awards in grade school.

At home, my parents pinned all my medals to a pair of black vertical banners that hung on the wall, all first place medals and ribbons. I won my first essay writing contest at age eight. I was recognized in art and academic performance. I was best in roller skates, an outstanding pupil every year, the most active, most polite, most talented student. It’s easy to assume that I was goal-driven, even competitive. But I have no memory of it. I only remember having so much to give and how liberating that felt. I remember the storm inside me, this intense energy, a flooding. I had no name for it. It was marvelous, ferocious, joyous, and terrifying. I felt it every time I wrote, made art, performed, and read books. I didn’t care so much about winning. All I wanted was the freedom to live and express that energy.

I was six when I started drawing pictures of girl’s clothes, women’s faces and shoes. I would draw in the living room. One time I looked up and saw my father looking at me. I smiled. He didn’t smile. He didn’t say a word. He just looked at me. Slowly my smile disappeared, and I crumpled my drawing.

I have no memory of what my mother said to Dr. Custodio. We went home that evening not saying a word to each other. We went upstairs straight to our rooms. My door was next to theirs. I couldn’t sleep. Finally somebody was going to help me try to understand what was wrong with me. I was still awake when my mother knocked, and I opened the door. She spoke to me in a low voice. It was a scene straight from Kisapmata.

“Sabi ng Daddy mo, mula ngayon gigisingin kita ’pag hatinggabi. Pupunta ka sa banyo.”

“Pero sabi ni Dr. Custodio, dalhin ni’yo daw ako sa doktor.”

“Makinig ka sa Daddy mo.”

That was all she said, and she went back to her room.

I was crushed. I remember closing the door and hitting myself repeatedly. “Why don’t I just die?” I screamed. Nobody heard me. I had to make sure no sound came out.

For as long as I could remember, waking up to the world had always been preceded by the smell of ammonia. Bedwetting was almost a daily occurrence. It got to a point that I no longer got up. I just pulled down my wet underwear, shorts, and pajamas and moved to a drier spot. Sometimes more than once in one night.

My earliest memory of terror is the sound of my father arriving. In the seventies, he drove a Jeep Renegade—blood red with a white leather top, its hood and sides trimmed in gleaming chrome and black decal stripes. I have vague recollections of his off-road adventures—fleeting images of a cliff, a grassy hillside, wild rivers. Mostly I remember the sense of danger that builds by nightfall, brought about by the curfew enforced during Martial Law. In the middle of the night that silence would be shattered by my young father speeding through empty roads and streets on his way home. I knew he was drunk because he would stay inside the Jeep in the garage and step on the gas pedal and rev up the Jeep relentlessly, a monstrous loudness intent on waking up the entire neighborhood.

I would cover my ears with a pillow and pray to God to please make it stop. Sometimes he would come up to my room—bloodshot eyes and reeking of alcohol—and he would hold me and weep. “But I do love you,” he would say over and over. “I do.” Sometimes he would watch over me while I pretended to be asleep, and then leave quietly. The following morning it would be as if nothing happened. I still feared him, loathed him. He very rarely looked at me, and when he did, I could sense how repulsed he was.

Dinner was an ordeal. One time I started to say grace quietly. He stopped me as I was making the sign of the cross. “Don’t pray,” he said firmly. Another time he glared at me because something made me laugh. When he was around I always blamed myself for making my presence felt. Before leaving my room, I learned to make sure that the hallway was clear. On my way home from school, I would stop at the corner of our street to make sure that my father was not at the gate. If he was, I would turn and walk around the block to the corner on the other side of our street named after my great-grandfather.

My mother had it worse. He would hit her. One time my father pulled out his gun at my mother who was holding me. I was maybe five or six. Another time he took us to the traveling circus in town. My mother and I were riding the caterpillar when I heard the other passengers screaming. The ride wouldn’t stop. I saw my father on the undulating ramp beating up the operator. We would go round and round, and each turn I would see my father pummeling the operator’s face until somebody stopped the ride. One time he took us to the movies to see a comedy. He was drunk. We were seated at the balcony. He stood up in the dark, pulled out his gun, and pointed it at the moviegoers. “Walang tatawa!” he yelled at them. People left the theater quietly. The silencing was just as damaging as the verbal and emotional abuse I suffered.

My father was the mayor’s son. The family had been in power for more than half a century. It was only after he died, actually only a few years ago, that my mother openly acknowledged to me that my father was sick, that he was an alcoholic. “We should have taken him to the doctor,” she said. I didn’t say anything.

She was a cold mother. I never felt any affection from her growing up. I have no memory of my mother asking me how I was doing, or telling me that I did a good job. I have no memory of seeking comfort from her. She was just as oppressed and tired as I was. One time when my father was out my mother and I had a fight. I yelled at my mother across the dining table, “Hindi ako masaya sa bahay na ito!”

“Ako rin!” she yelled back.

“Bakit hindi ka tumakas?”

“Dahil sa inyo.”

She was helpless. She was just as scared as I was, a captive. Always have been. When she was in high school my father invited her to a party. He lied. With the help of his friends, my father took my mother to a hut fifty miles away from our hometown. The first time my mother told me this story was the night after we buried my father.

Shortly after my appointment with the doctor, my father hosted a river picnic and invited dozens of my relatives on both sides of the family. By then the river of my childhood had changed directions. Ferdinand Marcos had built Pantabangan Dam, so the river was much shallower than I remember. I crossed it easily and stood on the other side, the river and my family behind me. I was looking at the old riverbed under the blinding light, the rocks bright as bones when I heard shouting behind me.

“’Yong malaking bato ang kunin ni’yo!”

“Maliit ’yan!”

“Hawakan ni’yo! Aanurin ’yan!”

I heard laughter. Cheering. I didn’t turn around. I knew what was going on. My parents brought my bed mattress to the river. It smelled so bad they had to submerge it in the river to wash it. They held it down with rocks, and when that wasn’t enough, the men held on to it.

I couldn’t look. I was trembling in shame. I squatted and started to pick up rocks and stones. Later, I heard a voice behind me, a relative. I can’t remember who it was. I didn’t even look up when he asked what I was doing.

“Looking for frog’s eggs,” I said.

After a while I turned around, and whoever it was who spoke to me had left. It had gotten quiet on the other side of the river. They had placed enough rocks on the mattress to hold it and keep it from floating away. I watched my family across the river. They looked so happy. It was so beautiful it hurt. I gazed at the river, the second largest in the island, fourth in the entire country. From its headwaters in the mountains it traverses the central plains of Luzon for about 160 miles until it drains into the Manila Bay to where water meets water, the world.

I have survived abuse, bullying, homelessness, addiction, betrayal, physical assault, three nervous breakdowns (ages fourteen, nineteen, and thirty-two); and two suicide attempts (1985, 1987). I am seeing a doctor now, and I have been on medication for the past four years. I am also an essayist and married to a wonderful man. The thing that I am most proud of is being alive.

It took a long time, but when I heard Dr. Custodio tell my mother that I needed help, to me that meant help was out there. If my family couldn’t give it to me, I had to find it on my own. It was 1985, the height of the AIDS crisis. The acronym LGBT didn’t exist yet. And people were about to overthrow the Marcos dictatorship.