The last time I saw my father, I was about thirty-five. I haven’t seen him in years. My parents separated when I was three. Heck, I could count with my one hand, the number of times I saw my father in person.
On that evening when I last saw him though, he was wearing a long-sleeved blue shirt, cancer-skinny, tall.
The last piece of memory stored in my brain server was of me, nonchalantly giving him a casual hug. Like how you would hug an acquaintance when you part from a meeting. Nothing to be sentimental about. My father pulled in tighter to hug me back. I still can feel it.
I didn’t know. Because nobody told me. He didn’t either. I didn’t know then, it meant goodbye for good. It wasn’t a get-together dinner but a goodbye dinner. My brain didn’t register that. My paternal family were there, was my mum there? I couldn’t recall.
The arrangement to meet up started with a phone call from my father’s sister in Penang. “Your father has cancer,” she said. “Can you come back?” she urged.
Did she inform me only when he hasn’t got long left to live? Or did she inform me the moment he received the diagnosis? Anyway, it doesn’t matter.
I went back to Penang. About ten of us met over dinner. It was at my aunt’s Nonya restaurant.
Vaguely, I remember seeing him sitting opposite of me, across the big, round dining table. As if we are strangers. Seated together in one table. Yet with enough space between us to observe each other in a cautious distance.
There were no moments, no talks, nothing to fill over twenty years of gap between a father and a daughter. Just—curry chicken, tao eu bak (dark soya sauce pork), and other Nonya delicacies.
I couldn’t recall any of the conversations at the table that night. It was as if, there’s this programming of me being able to automatically detach myself. I don’t know when I was given this superpower curse. I don’t even have to will it. I just detach.
My heart and my mind, what should be one faculty—disconnected—each giving inconsistent instructions to each other. There would be bleeding of pain and trauma within me, but you can’t see it from my facial expression. It’s like my heart saying to my mind, and vice versa, you are on your own now. Don’t give me the feels. Function, damn it, function!
I’ve never known him. It didn’t occur to me that I wanted to. Nobody told me much about my earlier life. Looking back, I could have been sheltered from history. My young brain might not have been able to understand anyway.
But the thing is, decades later, I still haven’t received the much-delayed white paper of my childhood years.
Where is it? Where’s “Melinda Yeoh’s Childhood White Paper”?
What I have is, if you can imagine, bits and pieces of scribbled information on Post-It notes of my earlier life. My father was a mystery; my growing up years was a mystery.
I didn’t ask anyone much. When I could have. I mean, hey adults, look at me, I’m an adult now. I can handle this. Tell me. But, I didn’t ask.
I took in whatever pieces of information given to me, stored it in my brain server. I didn’t process it. I just stored it.
For a person who questions many things and loves to question, I asked little information about my childhood apart from what I’ve been given. Received input. Stored. Done. Move on.
The next time I saw my father a few months later, it was seeing him in a coffin. He died from cancer.
My husband and I arrived at the funeral parlour around 8 pm, having driven four hours from Kuala Lumpur.
I remembered where we parked our car. About 500 metres away from where the parlour was. I got out of the car, the gravel ground felt unstable beneath my feet. It was dark. I squinted at the garish fluorescent light at a distance.
My brain wasn’t thinking. Guess what. Automated mode on.
I walked towards the funeral parlour, to my father’s side of the family, all I hardly knew. Greetings after greetings. Smiles. I peeked at my father in the coffin. More solemn greetings, smiles. And I took a seat at my aunts’ table.
My aunt asked me if I’d like a beer. Sure, of course, I would love a beer. Did I get the liking for beer from my father?
When I finished half the can of Carlsberg, I walked over to my father. Peered down at him, still don’t know much about this dude who’s supposed to be my father.
And of all the things I could have said, without thinking, I said this in my heart, “Well. Cheers to our first and last beer together.”
Then, my automated detachment mode failed.
That’s the instance when my heart and mind stopped going in the opposite direction. They connected; they were one.
I felt my heart’s cry and there’s nothing that my mind can do to act otherwise. My eyes went wet and warm. And I felt the pain. The pain I’ve never knew existed. A loss of something…someone…I’ve never had—a father.
Barely 2 minutes later, the automated mode was quickly repaired and engaged full-on. Stoicism won. I walked back to join my aunts. And finished the remaining half can of beer.
p.s. For those of you who need an ending to a story, or who need the moral of a story, there’s none I know yet for this story. It’s something I’ve allowed to surface from my soul, to allow God to deal with. And to share with you who’s reading this.
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