Saturday, August 29, 2009

Part 9: The Nightmare

"Nos perituri mortem salutamos, sola resugit vita" ~ Cat Stevens

"And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove!
for then would I fly away, and be at rest."

~ Psalms 55:6

By 1969 my parents' various projects started showing success and then the pace picked up and their work load really increased. Dedicated workaholics, I can remember Mom and Dad working late into the night on reports, sermons and lectures.

My parents took their mission calling very seriously, especially Mom. When we left Iowa in 1964 they sold their home and at her insistance, donated the proceeds to their church. The poverty in the Philippines really bothered her and they worked hard to make a difference. She continued to provide financial aid for college students, (including tuition, room and board, clothing allowance and a little spending money) always trying to squeeze one more student into our budget. Mom branched out, working with mothers, educating them on birth control, health and nutrition.

If some kid needed clothes to go to school she would have Mrs Hinakay make them. If a family needed food, she would give them groceries from our pantry. Then Mom began funding corrective surgery for children with harelips, sending the mother and child to St. Luke's Hospital in Quezon City to get the needed surgery. She sent dozens of kids off to have the procedure done.

For Dad, I think we kids were always a bit of nuisance, a hindrance to his life and work. He never saw the day to day task of raising children as his responsibility. For Mom, it was escaping first from the controls of her mother and then the control of Dad. She had a purpose, she had a job and for the first time in her life she had a sense of self worth. Having Auring and the students relieved them of the duty of child rearing. So you see, what I am trying to tell you is that my parents were doing good works, but sometimes did or let bad things happen. Keith would later charitably say "they were very good parents when they remembered."

While Dad was busy working with farmers and when Mom was working on the floating clinic sometimes we would only see them once or twice a week. Keith and I were in school, the younger two were home with Auring. Even when they were in town they would be gone most of the day. There were the Monday and Thursday night prayer meetings at our Church. Dad was in the Rotary Club. More and more of our time was spent with Auring and the students, especially Tony.
I was traveling less with Dad, he had became moodier, irritable and even more short tempered. Maybe it was because he was so much busier, maybe it was because we were older now, but he certainly was much less tolerant of our childlike ways. He was a proponent of the old adage: "children should be seen and not heard!" and now added to it: "not seen or heard!".
My parents relationship, always loud and volatile, went into holocaust mode. It was hard to tell who was winning one of their shouting matches. Suppertime now was dreaded. We tried to eat quietly and quickly. Any etiquette errors were dealt with quickly and harshly: failure to handle the silverware properly, or promptly pass the butter or the rolls would result in something Keith called "fists of fury" (for years we flinched every time Dad raised his hand), reaching for the potatoes without asking would result in your hand being pinned to the table by a fork. If we were lucky we could get done before the interrogation started. 20 questions was a game we never could win. It would start innocuously enough, "What did you do today?" but there never was a correct answer and soon the trick questions would begin. Again, if we were lucky we could escape with a berating lecture on why we were knuckleheads, imbeciles and morons. More often than not we were very unlucky.

Crying was forbidden. Offenders of this crime were told
"I'll give you something to cry about!"

Then he would reach for the yardstick.
Like the
Sword of Damocles, it was a constant reminder of our impending doom, the stainless steel yard stick which sat behind Dad's chair, it's sole purpose: our betterment. The heavy steel would leave angry bloody welts on our backs, thighs and calves.

My brother was in perpetual competition for our father's favor, always seeking to be the successor to Dad's throne. This was something that could never be won, I learned long before to stop trying. Dad was incapable of praise, no matter how good you did he would point out your mistakes. The closest he came was in giving back handed compliments, the "but" always overshadowing the accomplishment. Still, Keith kept trying to gain recognition and when that didn't work he tormented, bullied and beat the two youngest brothers whom he saw as a threat. This, coupled with his whining and complaining, so successful when he was the youngest, now garnered him beatings and he most often got the worst of Dad's wrath. The yardstick was not the only weapon in Dad's arsenal, there was the belt, the whip and the axe handle. The dull whump of the heavy wood striking soft flesh echoed in the background of my dreams.

Around that time I began having a recurring nightmare.
I am in a low ceiling stone walled room. It is slowly filling with sand. I am feeling about in the darkness searching for a stone, a keystone. I desperately sift my hands through the sand for that stone. While this is happening I can see faces, they are talking rapidly as if the sound was sped up, but I can still understand what they are saying to me: "You're not good enough. You're stupid. You're a failure. You shame the family." But I can't find the stone. The room fills up. I die.

The first time I had the nightmare I was on a trip with Dad. I awoke screaming
I can't find the stone.

I would have this same nightmare many more times over the next nine months. The last time I had it I was home in Tacloban.

was tired and cranky and like every time he got home from a long trip he started yelling as soon as he walked in the door. We got sent to bed early that night. But this time when I awoke from my nightmare, I found myself knocking on my parent's bedroom door. Dad threw open the door and I groggily held out my hand; I had found the keystone! In the palm of my hand was a smooth river stone the size of a quarter, it had a white swirly mark on it. I didn't die this time.
Look, I found it Dad.
"You don't throw rocks!"
My father grabbed me by the collar of my t-shirt, lifting me off the floor. In rapid succession he punched two, three, four times then threw me to the floor. Then he kicked me twice, the second sending me flying across the dining room, my face leaving a bloody smear as I slid down the wall.

I didn't hear Dad leave that morning, I didn't go to school that day or for three days after that either. I remember Auring washing the blood from my face, gently applying ointment to my swollen ribs, eyes, nose and lips. I remember laying in bed listening to them scrub the blood from the wall, the smell of the bleach. I remember Auring spooning me soup, the whispers, the guarded conversations between her and the students. When my eyes were finally able to open on Wednesday she decided that I should stay home till I looked more presentable. On Friday afternoon, we kids were told "Your father is coming home tomorrow, everyone needs to be on their best behavior". But before he arrived home I was taken to the movies by Tony, the other kids sent to visit some friends. I can still feel the dread as we returned home, the strength of Tony's arm as he pulled me behind him when my father appeared suddenly at the door.
"I want to talk to you"
We sat down in his office, my heart pounding and I tried to hide the bruises on my face.
"When I was a kid I swore that I would never be like my father. I found out that I am just like him."

That would be the only apology I would ever get from him.

From now on, whenever Dad returned home from a trip we were removed from the house "on errands". If there was no one to take us away, Auring would hiss
"quickly now, run!"

I would go and hide in the Calamansi orchard or in a field under the cassava (called kamoteng kahoy) plants where I had dug a trench the length of my body. On bad days I would cover my body with the dirt so only my face was uncovered. There I would lay for hours till it was dark, invisible to the world, staring at the stars, praying to die, waking at the sound of Auring's voice softly calling for me.

Some months after that my parents sat me down at the dining room table and told me they were sending me away to Brent.
What's Brent?
A school, I was told.
Where is it? In Baguio.
Where will I sleep, where will I eat?
At the school. You will live at the school.
Why? Tell me what I did wrong? I will be better.
I cried, I promised I would try harder. I could live with friends, I could sleep in the bodega. They wouldn't know I was there.

My father laughed and said
"This won't kill you. It will make you stronger."

My mother said "Don't worry, you will love it".
Two weeks later Dad and I left for Baguio.
Many years later I learned that it was her idea to send me away, which if I had thought about it, made sense as Dad would never willingly part with any money, let alone on something as frivolous as boarding school. Dad was dead set against it and only after many a heated argument did he relent, on the condition that he would not have to pay for it. So, at great personal expense to her pride, she wrote to her mother and asked to use a portion of my trust fund to pay the portion of the boarding school expenses not covered by the Mission Board.

Why she chose to send just me has been the subject of bitter recrimination on the part of my brother. He blames her for all the misery in his life.
I think she saved my life.

"I think it's because I'm clumsy
I try not to talk too loud
Maybe it's because I'm crazy
I try not to act too proud
They only hit until you cry
And after that you don't ask why
You just don't argue anymore
You just don't argue anymore
You just don't argue anymore"

from the song Luka by Suzanne Vega


  1. I cry every time I read this...I'm glad you wrote it and put it out there into the universe. I love you!

  2. Catharsis! Catharsis!

    Isn't it nice to bring things out in the open? To face our demons?

    You are a great writer, Mark.

  3. Mark, surviving a childhood of pain and torture has made you a more introspective, caring father, husband and friend I suspect. I hope writing about it will help you achieve some peace. While I never suffered as you did from physical abuse, the demons of my own childhood still live within. Sending you a huge hug, from a fellow survivor.

  4. My dear Mark, I have no words except to say that you are one brave soul who also happens to be a phenomenal writer.

  5. I was/am not a perfect father or husband. The sins of the father are always passed on to the children. I always strive to be a better husband/parent than my father. When my first grandchild was born, I told my son, remember the things you didn't like about the way I raised you,then don't do them. Be a better father than I was to you. Some cycles were broken: no yardstick in my house.

  6. Difficult to read also but definitely needs to be written AND read. No more secrets. Thanks for your bravery and for trusting us with your stories.

  7. I was stunned after reading. I agree with Anne & others that this needed to be written -- BRAVO! Opening up the dialogue helps break these cycles. It's great that you can talk with your family!
    I'm sure I'm not your only reader who just loves Auring -- but where was your mother in all this -- I know it's complicated. Did she and the other children suffer as well?

    A big hug, and thanks for writing!

  8. thank God for Auring. i need to process and comment with a cooler head later. big hugs Mark. like the others said, thanks for your bravery.

  9. This must have been a very difficult one to write. Bravo, Waldo, for your courage in talking about such a terrible time. It will help others who've been there too. There's so much that goes on underneath the surface of so-called 'normal' families. I hope that writing about the past will help you to release it. And I'm so glad Auring was there for you, your angel in human form.

    You've found your keystone at last, do you see? Your writing is your keystone. You're safe now.

    Un abrazo fuerte! xx M

  10. Mark - as I ready this again, tears rolling down my face, thinking about a small boy being hit by a man - his own father. I can't imagine the pain you went through - the images of blood on the wall paint a vivid, scary and sad picture in my mind.

    I hope you have had time to heal, and that talking and writing about it in some way allows you to get past that painful chapter.
    You are a brave guy Mark and I am glad that I know you.

    And I guess I can forgive you for stealing candy from my footlocker when I was 9!