Wednesday, June 7

My father’s son

The writer and his father in 1972.

The writer and his father in 1972.

HE had anticipated the long dreary drive back home. Nevertheless, the thought of spending time with family members after being away for several weeks was enough to lift his spirits. What he did not foresee was losing control of the car. By the time he grasped what had happened, he was pinned under the mangled wreck with its weight gradually pressing him into the soft mud.

That stretch of road was dark. There was little traffic at that hour. He had veered off the road and was flung out of the car.

He knew the hope of being rescued before sunrise was dim. It was still many more hours away. He sank deeper each time he struggled to free himself. The yielding ground probably saved him from being crushed when the vehicle landed on top of him.

The only sounds he could hear were his own laboured breathing and the squishing and squashing of the muck that was clamping on to his body.

He could barely lift his head above the foul sludge to breathe. All alone in the middle of nowhere, he wondered if he would still be alive when they found him the next day.

After what seemed like the longest time, he heard the sounds of a truck approaching. It came to a stop nearby. He called out for help but his voice was feeble. The men from the truck shone their flashlights to look around. They found him and somehow managed to lift the wreck just enough to pull him out.

They were soldiers. They asked how he was. Other than being covered in mud, he only sustained some minor cuts and bruises. Considering the circumstances, he had escaped relatively unscathed. The soldiers gave him a ride to the nearest town where he got help and got in touch with his family.

That was one of the many snippets of my father’s life. He would regale me with one from a time long before I was born whenever he was in a reminiscing mood, which was not very often. From the stories he told, it was apparent he had led a life filled with interesting adventures that never failed to fascinate me when I was a kid.

The other stories he liked to tell was how he came face-to-face with a king cobra while trekking up a jungle path alone and how he escaped from being forcibly conscripted by the Imperial Japanese Army to labour at the Death Railway during World War II.

My father was a jack-of-many-trades. The family was poor when he was growing up. He had to supplement the household income by peddling kueh made by his parents around the village. Through the years, he had worked as an amusement park usher, electrical foreman, tin miner, factory manager and finally as an electrical engineer.

He was a self-made man in every sense of the word. He worked his way up. All he ever owned in his life was gained through sheer hard work. He never went to university to get a degree. He worked and studied on his own for an electrical engineering examination, failed twice and nearly gave up before he finally passed at the age of 50.

We were never close as a father and son should be. He left the tasks of bringing me up to my mother and was only involved from an arm’s length. Other than financial support, he provided little else in moral support.

He never praised me when I did well in school. When I fared badly, he would give me a long lecture. In some ways, I resented the chilly distance that separated us.

Thinking back, perhaps that was the same kind of environment he grew up in. Left to his own devices as his parents were too busy to make a living to feed his 12 other siblings, he had learnt to be independent at a very young age. He must have expected me to go through the same learning process.

He was a thrifty man, never splurging on the unnecessary but was generous when it came to feeding the family. I never had go hungry even for a day. For himself, he lived simply. When not working, he lounged around the house wearing loose cotton shorts my mother made for him and white Pagoda brand T-shirts like many Chinese men of his era.

I admired him for his dogged determination. I am thankful for seldom being in need, especially after my accident. Reserved he might have been when it came to showing his affections, he cried openly the day the doctors at the hospital told him I would never walk again. That alone was proof of his love for me which I believed he repressed at other times.

The one thing I regretted most about our relationship was the fall out between the two of us a couple of years before he passed on. The reason for the tiff does not matter any more. It pulled our already detached relationship even further apart. We spoke to each other even less after that incident.

Despite that, I cannot say I do not appreciate him. I truly do. I wished I had known him better and remember more about the stories of his life. I wished we could have reconciled before he passed on. I wished I had been a better son to him. These are wishes I can never fulfil now.

My father would have turned 99 this year if he was still around. Each time I look into the mirror, I see a likeness to him in my own reflection. That is the one link between us that can never be broken no matter what. I am after all a chip off the old block. And I am thankful for that reminder of where I came from every time I brush my teeth or comb my hair.