Life Lessons from Dad – The Nature of Disappointment

When my father passed away in July last year, he was in his late 70s. He lived his last few years almost a hermit, going out only when necessary with mum, not wanting to meet his old friends, sometimes talking about the good old days, sometimes trying to lecture my brother and I on the state of the world the way he saw it.

We saw him mostly as bitter, angry, defeated, yearning for better times. I personally was disappointed in him, in his life choices, his shutting down when he could have attempted to rectify his mistakes and his pride, which kept him unbending, even when people tried to help him before he got sick.

Before he passed, I spoke to someone I considered a mentor about my disappointment, my anger, my bitterness at how things turned out. Instead of sympathy, he told me this: “Life is about disappointment, especially if you want to choose to believe in people. People will disappoint you. It’s not about whether you are disappointed in them or not. It’s about you asking yourself – are they worth the disappointment?”

His words got me thinking. Hard.

I was disappointed in my father, yes. But he was my father. Do I hold on to the anger and disappointment, or do I let it go and remember the man he was, the man who when I was growing up, was strict yet would move heaven and earth to make sure that I got what I needed, no matter the cost. He was my father and, for a time, my hero. How could he not be worth it?

But it wasn’t just my father who made me angry and disappointed when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s. It was also watching fellow schoolmates getting places in university, scholarships, those who had the means to go overseas to study, and then in the workplace seeing those who curried favour rise when I continued to work my ass off for recognition.

I got angrier inside, blamed everyone, the family I was born in, being the wrong race, the wrong sex, the wrong everything. Leaving was tempting. Then I had to support the family and I couldn’t leave. yet. So I saved to study. Then 1997 happened and my savings became nothing.

I was angry and disappointed. And I carried that anger and disappointment for a long time. It coloured my life. It made me ask – what about me?

My father was of the generation where apologies are Just. Not. Done.

But now, another old man of that generation has stood up and apologised for his mistakes. An old man who could have lived on his past glories, who steered that ship for two decades, who called for perfect Vision, and in many ways helped make us what we are today. An old man, who, if he had not done many things, could have helped all of us be better, stronger. Instead, we are now all angry and disappointed in everything. We got sold down the river. And for what? And whose fault is that?

Now, this old man tells us he wants to rectify his mistakes. He has even climbed into bed, so to speak, with old foes to do so.

Then he goes and starts a party that is STILL based on race, on religion. Exclusivity, still. Right. So, what’s changed?

And I look at the current captain. Yes, there have been disappointments and even betrayals. Yes, the situation looks bad. But there is promise of change, of another vision, for a national transformation.

So, who do we choose to be disappointed by? Who is worth the disappointment this round? Who do we choose to get fooled by, again?

Should we have Hope? Whose promises do we trust this time?

If only we can hold out for a hero…

“We do not work for men. We work for the land and the people. We do not even work for money.”
― Alan PatonCry, the Beloved Country



Life Lessons from Dad – Eulogy

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.


This Last Goodbye…

It has been a tumultuous year both personally and professionally. More so, with all that has happened in the country.

Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families of the crews and passengers of flights MH370, MH 17 and Air Asia QZ8501. Many people have been touched by these tragedies, including my own, and there are no words that can describe the grief in our hearts for those that we have lost.

We are also praying for the 100,000-plus souls who will have to rebuild their homes in the wake of the floods in the East Coast.

The one heartening thing I will say is this – in the face of tragedy, I see Malaysians united. Oh yes, of course, there were painful, shameful and some downright ridiculous incidents (coconuts, bamboo fishtraps and magic carpets come to mind) but overall, it is strangely comforting to see Malaysians come together.

If only we didn’t need grief and tragedy to unite us in our solidarity, in reminding us that we are all Malaysians…

On a more personal note, as I mentioned earlier, it has been a tumultuous year. Ups and downs, changes in career, changes in life direction. My thanks to all who have stood with me, and by me and who have walked along with me. Where the road takes me, I cannot tell but we’re here, so let’s just keep on walking.

As we bid farewell to 2014, it is my hope that the new year brings us more adventures, more joyous experiences and more new friendships.

Many places I have been
Many sorrows I have seen
But I don’t regret
Nor will I forget
All who took that road with me

To these memories I will hold
With your blessing I will go
To turn at last to paths that lead home

And though where the road then takes me,
I cannot tell
We came all this way
But now comes the day
To bid you farewell

Happy New Year to all. See you all in 2015.

p/s: Yes, yes, it’s a little maudlin, but it is the closing of the year and we’re all allowed to be a little introspective and reflective and self indulgent.