Half my life without my father

NOV 22 — Tomorrow is 20 years since my dad died. Loss is not a unique human experience, yet its certainty plagues us and no amount of knowing ends the anxiety attached to it.

Half my life has passed since, so I might be a different person today with a different sense of what that day two decades ago means. He was the only person I’ve lost in my immediate family in my living memory — I had an older infant sister die (her twin survived) before me — so the emotive experience was and is considerable. More so because my father and I never spent that much time together. He was either at one of his two jobs, or at home sleeping.

This is what I remember.

Afternoon madness

As a child I was precocious. I’d be making speeches all the time, I’m told. I’m not sure if they made altogether any sense but this loquacious five-year-old self just would not stop. I couldn’t help myself.

A picture of the writer’s father (right) from the Sixties.A picture of the writer’s father (right) from the Sixties.It amused my parents. I recollect standing on my bed yapping animatedly as my parents became my audience. I suppose the many complaints I get from those in my life late on that there are times I can’t stop talking should be directed at my parents.

This also I presume distanced me from my cousins; it might be the common occurrence of staying away from the child freak — which continued to me being a party freak in university.  

There is this secret I shared with my dad. In my second week in my secondary school, I wanted to try out for the school team, and first formers don’t try out generally for the Under-15s. Wanted is the right word, as I lost my nerve minutes before the tryouts. 

I stood and watched the lads from afar. Dad was to pick me up hours later and when he arrived, he saw a dejected lad — and I must have appeared pale — but he said nothing. He must have known I was hurt all over, but he did what was the best he could have at the moment, he said nothing. We went home and we never talked about it. 

Then there are times he felt he had to explain things to me.

I was 15 and dad sat me down and chatted about my political views. Word must have travelled to my dad about how I am always having a go at Barisan Nasional. It was cute when I was below 10, but as adulthood was fast approaching and with the knowledge what a life of being a BN opponent meant, my dad tried to talk me out of my politics.

He explained to me that I had to focus on getting ahead in school and after that a career, and not fill my head with fanciful ideas of revolution. He was worried that in time my conviction would be trouble — and so it was.

My parents were on a “growth” programme, to get their kids several rungs up the social ladder through education. Mom finished three years of schooling in India, and dad had six years in a Tamil school in the old Cheras neighbourhood.

They were hoping the young ones would get much further than them.

The housewife and government driver wanted their children to stay out of trouble and on the way to home and vehicle ownership — the Malaysian dream.

My dad spoke to me, but no ultimatums were made. He wanted me to understand the choice I was making and that he did not approve. It is liberating to know that my dad allowed me to choose, most parents in the ‘80s were not as accommodating.

On the road again

When dad bought a second-hand Datsun 120Y — about the only car whose make I memorised, including the vehicles I went on to own — in 1979, the family’s sense of well-being improved markedly. Not many had cars in our Kampung Pandan settlement.

However, it did get tricky whenever it rained since there was no air-conditioning, the car misted up. Mom, riding shotgun, would be wiping the windshield from the inside as dad relied on experience rather than vision to navigate. The kids at the back sweated it out, without saying “Are we there yet?”

Then there were the rides to school in my secondary school years. I’d be sitting in front, since I was the last drop-off the front spot was consigned to me. But I’d sleep most of the time. 6am is punishment, but that’s when you had to leave to beat the Cheras crawl from Batu 9.

The routine was the same. We’d wake up at 5am. Dad would have been asleep since 3am when he got back from his night shift taxi gig. All of us would get dressed and then mom would wake him.

My dad would drive us to school, the four of us in four different campuses, before he’d head to his day job at the Public Works Department.

And I do my part, by sleeping till the gates of the Victoria Institution were upon us.

The odd memory

I misremember. I had more than enough occasion to speak to my father, it appears not then I did not have the maturity to appreciate the time.

I’m sorry I did not talk enough. For a guy who does a whole bunch of it, I never did enough of it with my own father. And now I have several more decades to consider the opportunities lost.

The only thing my dad’s death did for me was give me an amazing affinity with the word bittersweet.

The last time I saw my dad was two days before his death, as he sat in his hospital bed and held my hand. It struck me as very odd that he was actually holding my hand. You can say that we are not a touchy feely family, and men definitely don’t hold other men’s hands. Well, my dad most certainly did not.

I did not read too much into it. He was recovering after being admitted four days earlier, and he was due for a discharge. I just thought he was wishing me luck for my first-ever debate the next day. I did not even visit him the next day and rather went to the cinema with some friends. The hospital was less than a kilometre away.

Dad had some complications the next day unexpectedly and within half an hour his lungs failed.

The idea that a man’s life is defined by what he has never appealed to me. It is what a man wants for others which impresses me, and in my father I had a man who only lived for others. I do wish I had lived a little bit more for him. Not much, not competing with him, just always ask myself to care more. I fail more than I succeed.

While he was serious, he was warm and funny.

He had a sense of humour; he did not take the mickey out of me when I won nothing in my first school sports at the VI but only managed to rip the styrofoam spanner from the large ant we built as part of the sports house decor. It stayed in a corner of my room, till it stopped being funny, even for me.

Or the time the former secret society member (my dad) grabbed the TV to chuck at me because I came home with a horror haircut courtesy of a friend. Luckily the VCR and other electronic gadgets were tangled up and he never got to inflict the type of injury the haircut really deserved.

Or that he suffered me and never categorised his miscreant son as anything less than amusing.

But it is the memories you live with, holding on to them like a jealous lover. I just wished when he was around I held on to him more often.

So, it’s 20 years tomorrow.

* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.



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