I remember when I was I think maybe nine or 10, I was sitting flipping through an old edition of a National Geographic magazine in the parochial hall of the Holy Redeemer Church in Klang, waiting for my parents to finish up some meeting or other.
I didn’t know it then, but it was a St Vincent de Paul meeting. There were other people there too, waiting for the meeting to be over.
But unlike me, they were waiting for my parents and their friends for another reason – to get food. Bags of rice, salt, sugar, I think Milo, there were cans, I think of condensed milk.
There was an old Indian man sitting just outside the accordian grills, the sort that you can still see in old houses, of the hall, his thin body bent, I didn’t know the word then, but wizened is what comes to mind now. I kept stealing looks at him, wondering why he was there.
When the meeting was over, someone opened those grills, and the old man stood up slowly and, together with a bunch of other people, stood in line to take his portion of food. It was a big bag of rice, and the items were heavy, but he took the items from my father, put them on the ground and then shook my father’s hand before slowly walking away with the food.
I remember wondering why he was being given the food. I asked my father the question much later, as we were returning home, in the car.
He didn’t answer for a while, then he said, “We’re blessed, we have food. We have family. Some people don’t. So we help them.”
For some reason, that stayed with me for a very long time. I eventually forgot it, but now, that scene, and my question, keeps playing in my head. And I realise, that few his words may be but that was the man he was.
Two weeks ago, at his funeral mass, the funeral director asked if I would give the eulogy. I didn’t. Not because I didn’t know what to say but because I was filled with anger.
Anger at the injustice in his life. Anger at the disappointment he faced. Not hot anger but cold anger at his family, his siblings, the people he used to call his friends, how he had managed his life, his decisions and how that had affected his life and ours, that of my brother’s and my mother’s.
I have never heard my father say “I love you” to me. But that was not his way. I don’t think he ever said “I love you” to anyone out loud. But he showed it. He was generous to a fault, helping out friends who needed a hand, giving money to his sister who was then in a bad place, making sure the rest of his siblings were taken care of, being there for them. I remember Christmas parties where everyone received gifts, fellowships at home where food and drink flowed and laughter and singing was loud and enthusiastic.
Then he lost his job. Money was tight. Friends became less. His siblings? The less said the better. The sister he loved, who used to come to the house at night to borrow money, not to be seen at all.
He got another job far away, and commuted, coming home only on weekends. Life became harder. Then one day, he came home and never went back to work. He started a business with his brother. He got cheated.
I grew up watching my parents struggle with money, to put food on the table for us. Money meant for my brother’s and my education overseas was used for business that went bust.
I saw him getting more disappointed, more bitter, more defeated. I saw him growing old before his time, becoming more hermit-like, eventually refusing to leave the house unless he was forced to.
And I distanced myself, because I was angry. Angry that at age 19, 20, 21, I was working to pay my brother’s college fees, that I had help support the household, to man up, so to speak.
And for what? Because he was too generous, that he seemed to put everyone ahead of us, his family. Because when he fell, nobody was there. Not his precious church community leaders, not most of his siblings, not his so-called friends.
And when he fell sick, especially these last few years, precious few of them visited him. And my brother and I turned our backs on his side of the family, and on those condescending, judgemental church leaders whom he had been friends with and carried on with our lives.
As he declined, my brother and I spoke about what we would do, and during one of those times, my brother told me, “He is still our father. He did the best he could when he could, for us. And if nothing else, if anything happens to him, I don’t want to have any regrets.”
That stayed in my head too. And somehow or other, that reached my heart. These last few months have been hard. Not having a regular income, working seven days a week, seeing my brother finally become the man I knew he could be, watching my father decline.
Then, more than two weeks ago, a scheduled appointment to the cardiology unit of University Hospital became a visit and then a vigil at Emergency and then he was warded.
I went to see him on the afternoon of Saturday, July 15. He had refused to eat hospital food, complaining that the porridge was bland and wanted homecooked food. I promised that I would bring him porridge and Nyonya mee siam, which I would cook. And then a call came in just after midnight, in the early hours of July 16, from the ward.
My father was cremated on Monday July 17, on my brother’s 41st birthday, after a funeral mass in the morning. I did not give the eulogy.
So I’m giving him one now. My father never told us he loved us. But he showed it in his actions. My father would do anything for his family, even to his own cost. My father loved his church and his God, despite everything.
My father was no titled rich man. He was just an ordinary man, trying to do the best he could in this life, and he lost everything except his pride.
Thank you dad, for showing me that family is important. Just not your family, please.
Thank you dad, for showing me that building a strong community is important. Not one where people jostle for position but where everyone supports each other for mutual good.
Thank you dad, for teaching me patience and humility, which I had precious little of when I was younger.
I choose to remember my father not as he was these last few years, but as the man who told me, “We are blessed. So we help.”
And I know this comes a little late, but I love you.