He made his mark
by Peter Tan. Posted on March 22, 2014, Saturday
WHAT is death? Is it the end? Or is it a new beginning in another place? These are questions we do not normally mull over out of taboo or simply because they are issues that are furthest from our minds. It usually takes the passing of someone close to make us ponder profoundly over our own mortality and the meaning of life.
My father-in-law passed away at a ripe old age of 83 last week. His demise was sudden and unexpected although he had been unwell for a couple of weeks before that. There is always this notion that our parents would live forever even though deep in our minds we know for certain that they would die one day.
I did not know my father-in-law that well. We were separated by the distance of the cities that we lived in and our interactions limited to the few hours spent together during meals whenever we could find time to visit him and my mother-in-law.
On the long drive back for his wake and funeral, my wife Wuan, the second of his three daughters, reminisced about the full life her father had lived. He was a school teacher for over 30 years. He swam competitively, and participated in 10-pin bowling and golf tournaments.
The many trophies and medals proudly displayed in the living room are proof of his athletic talents. Nevertheless, the silverware did not define him as the person he truly was.
Wuan remembers him for teaching her and her sisters swimming and bowling. He was that hands-on when it came to educating them on these activities. During the school holidays, he would pack the family into his green Morris Oxford and took them on road trips to Taiping, Penang and Kuala Lumpur.
He was an accomplished photographer. He developed his own film and printed his own photographs that chronicled the important milestones of his daughters and the family. Each daughter has an album of those important events, which will be even more treasured now than ever.
The son of a Nyonya from Taiping, he was adept at cooking some of the most mouthwatering Peranakan dishes that Wuan still craves for every now and then. Unfortunately, I did not get the opportunity to savour his specialities like perut ikan, otak-otak and tau eu bak, which coincidentally are also my favourites.
In his lifetime, he touched many lives in his vocation as an educator. His former students, now in their 60s and 70s, who went to pay their last respects, remembered him as a kindly teacher who was always patient with them during classes. That alone spoke volumes of him although he had retired from teaching for more than 20 years and had probably taught them 50 years ago.
As for me, I remember him most for what he said to me during our first meeting. I was a nervous wreck then as I was not sure how he would take to me as a son-in-law who is also a wheelchair user. Would he chide me? Would he ignore me? There were a thousand and one questions and doubts swirling in my mind.
All my apprehensions melted away when I heard him say, “Welcome to the family.”
He never judged me. He accepted me for who and what I am. I could not have asked for a better father-in-law and a better family.
The last major decision he made in his life was to get initiated into the Roman Catholic Church a few years ago. He chose Mark as his baptismal name. Incidentally, the house that he lived in for the past 40 years was just across the road from the church but he had never once stepped into it until then.
There were tears and sniffles throughout the wake, especially from my mother-in-law. We grieved. We prayed. We ruminated. Family and friends came to lend a hand to see us through the trying period. They also came to celebrate a life that was well lived. I am certain my father-in-law had no regrets about how his life turned out.
As family members, we have one regret though. We did not get to say our goodbyes to him. He was staying in a nursing home temporarily while the house was in the process of being renovated to accommodate him. None of us were there when he breathed his last. That is our regret.
Having experienced the loss of my parents and now my father-in-law, I have come to see death as a rite of passage that all of us have to go through one time or another. Eventually my time will come, too. It is a process of life. There is no escaping from it.
While I cannot say that I am fully prepared for it, I try to live each day to the fullest. I live as if it could be my last. There is nothing macabre to this. I have lived an interesting life in spite of the circumstances. Every new day I wake up to is a bonus by itself. I am contented.
When I finally go meet my Maker and He asks me, “What have you done with the time I gave you?” I hope I will be able to tell Him that I left the world a little better then when I first came just like what my father-in-law did with his time here.
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