the thing(s) i left behind in order to move on

i have always been somewhat of a weepy human being. when remy the mouse from ratatouille was evicted from his home and was starving in the cartoon stormdrain, i cried in the theater for how forlorn and hungry he must have felt. when my grandmother accidentally cut a bit of her finger off while cleaving chicken, i was bawling and inconsolable for days thinking about the pain she was in. for as long as i can remember, it has always been a life of high highs and low lows, and tears never in short supply – both the happy and despaired kind.

but when my father died, it was like my heart froze over. in the years since, no sadness has even come close to the sadness i felt then. observing myself icing over is quite the experience – empathy feels like something i read in a textbook a long time ago, and nothing ever feels significant enough to move me into an emotional state that is even just one step away. it’s like operating in a very small, very low amplitude of existence. and everything just becomes fucking mundane. you’re crying over your broken relationship or your shitty job? try losing your father and not knowing if he felt alone, or pain, when he died.

this small steel ball of existence – it can feel good. for many years i felt invincible, like nothing could touch me and i could now move through life being so much stronger than i ever was. and truly it felt like every obstacle would move out of my way and i found myself being able to get anything i set my mind on. it was easy, it was ruthless. i was safe from sadness. i gave up the depths of my heart so that i could move on from the image of my dying father on the floor.

it would have been my father’s 58th birthday last month. we went to the temple and cheerful face made him a paper version of our favourite mobile game and favourite instant noodles, for us to burn as a birthday offering. the thoughtfulness of the gift moved me to no end and i secretly cried in the bathroom. the tears didn’t feel good – like a wretched burden of weakness i had to carry with me for days. and yet i cherished the idea of us sharing with my father these little terrestrial things we like so much.

it’s still a journey to find myself again. some days i am not sure i want to. but in the shards of a rare day that holds lovingly made paper gifts, resonant sounds of the bowery, a quietly painful anthology, some great pecan pie – i find myself remembering what it feels like to move on from moving on. and that gives me some solace.

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belonging

the word evokes in me a warm, enveloping sense of happiness. but if i pause to reach deep down, i can’t feel the bottom of the ocean beneath my feet. it’s almost like swimming in a lot of bliss and enjoying the sun on my face, but knowing that i’ll need a line thrown to me eventually. thoughts running through my mind on this malaysia day – what does it even mean to belong in this country? do i still belong? am i belonging less than i used to, or is this a product of cynicism and fatigue? my 18 year old self would never have let this happen, but yet here i am, wondering what tethers me to this identity of being malaysian. 

as i was moving homes and unpacking boxes, i took a peek at my old college admissions essays which on an impulse i decided to save from the recycling bin and take with me amidst old clothes, photos, letters and other flotsam from the past. the paper was old and yellowed, and the words on them brimming and feathery with double-spaced hope. almost every one of them was about what it means to be malaysian. i couldn’t help but marvel at how much has changed since i wrote those essays (how is it possible that tun m is now the darling of the bangsar bubble) and yet so little (can we believe that muhyiddin and hishammudin are still in charge?). 

so much of what coursed through my heart back then was political and civic. now, i think twice about whether to even write these very sentences. i say this a lot but my teenage self would have been truly heartbroken to know what i’ve grown into. it’s the same guilt i feel when i stand overlooking the glittering marina bay at night and wonder for a moment what it would be like to live here. 

belonging, i realise, should not just be about me belonging to something. it should be about the same thing belonging to me. and circumscribing this bond ought to be a profound, searing, forged-from-fire sense of safety and pride. i long for this feeling but worry i won’t feel it ever again. 

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Sultanahmet

there we were, on the roofs, the feeling of terrace-top wood beneath our toes, with our arms flung open as we bellowed the elephant love medley into the evening sky. the blue mosque glittered in the background. some days i wonder if it was all a dream – the summer where my life took a turn for the better. i was learning to trust again. the people around me truly cared for me. the world was at my feet. what was a wardrobe malfunction or two? i aspire to have all of my days and all of my summers feel like that, into eternity.

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Mercy

Through my days I have always found the greatest mercy comes from the relentlessly patient and trudging men and women who drive the cars I sit in to get from place to place. I cry and shed fragments of my heart all over their backseats and in return they give a complete stranger all of their kindness just by being there. For a brief sliver of time there is a person who is devoted entirely to me and is a hundred percent present in the same space as me. I appreciate this so deeply and I wish there was a way to let them know how on so many days they are a lifeline to me.

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August 19

My father would have turned 55 years old on this day. It would have been an important milestone for him, a year when society’s expectations and his own would allow him to finally start letting go of a lifetime of hard work and begin enjoying the rewards of eveything he had laboured so hard to build.

He used to talk about retirement all the time, wondering what he would do, which kopitiams he would go to with Doggie, and what kind of small car he should buy so that he could move easily in and out of traffic. Several years ago I considered briefly what kind of party we would throw him on his 55th birthday to celebrate. Would we go to Ozeki, his favourite Japanese restaurant where he would order “sashumi” and his favourite grilled salmon fish head? Or would we do a house party in our garden that he loved so much, filled with his friends and cold Carlsberg beer, two other things he also loved very much? It did not occur to me then that we would not ever have to plan for his birthday, even as I used to check in on him late at night to see if he was sleeping well and still breathing.

I don’t really like to talk about what happened to my dad. But I figure today is a good day to start being open about it. He died of a heart attack in March 2015, in our home, on his favourite couch which he had been resting on all day from nausea and back pains. It was late in the evening, and minutes ago he had just told us he was going to skip dinner because he wasn’t feeling well. I had sat down next to him and put my hand on his and said, “Not feeling well ah? You rest more lah. We tapau for you.” He muttered, “Ok.”

I was in my room when my mom came running up the stairs screaming that my dad could not breathe. Everything after that was like a whirlwind, the details of which I still remember with piercing granularity. The dog was barking and running in circles. My dad’s favourite MAS in-flight blanket was at his feet and the tempur pillow I bought him at his head. I remember his clothes. I remember my brother arriving home from futsal and shouting at my dad to wake up. I remember the CPR, the effort of which to this day I feel eternal gratitude for even though it not work. I remember all the words I used while screaming at the person on the other end of the emergency hotline to please hurry and running to the guardhouse to wait for the ambulance. Above all of that I remember how I knew the entire time that my father was merely unconscious, and as long as the ambulance came to bring some oxygen he would be fine. Of course it was true, I just knew it was.

But there is nothing quite like having extreme optimism and finding out later how very wrong you were. There have been many difficult things to confront about my dad’s passing, like the regret that he didn’t live long enough to retire and enjoy all of his savings and buy his small car, or how the most inhumane thing that you could make anyone do is identify the body of a loved one. And yet beyond all of that, the hardest thing of all is to think about how lonely and scared he must have been when the heart attack hit. Did he feel pain? Was he frightened? Why didn’t I stay downstairs just a few minutes more so that he wouldn’t have been alone?

Which leads into questions like, why didn’t I recognise the signs of an impending heart attack that he had been exhibiting for days? Why did school make me commit to memory stupid things like useless nilai-nilai moral instead of the visible symptoms of fatal afflictions like heart attacks? Why didn’t I force him to see a doctor? Why did he go to that stupid physiotherapist who did not recognise that his pain was not a muscular problem but a cardiac one? And so on and so forth.

Since my dad’s passing I’ve wanted to learn emergency resuscitation because of how much it meant to me that he was getting help in his final moments. And so when the office recently organised a CPR course for all of the team, I was grateful. Up until then I hadn’t felt truly ready to go through the motions of March ’15 again, and on the morning of the course I was dizzy with anxiety. But the course went very well after I got over myself. I now know CPR and I’m glad I do, because even if it doesn’t bring my father back, it might for someone else. So if you find yourself with the opportunity to learn, do it. Perhaps another day I’ll share the CPR story and why it meant the world to me.

Life for the past two and a half years hasn’t been easy. There have been many low periods as my family and I continue to pick up the pieces of something that broke very unexpectedly. I still cry at every film or book where there is a heart attack or morgue scene, and my friends still have to check all escape rooms we play for props of graveyards or dead bodies. Fathers Days continue to be awful. People say this all gets better with time. I have not found that to be true. People also say that he would have wanted us all to be happy. I suppose that is true but I wish I could ask him myself.

In remembrance of my dad, my family and I went to Ozeki on his birthday. We ordered a lot of ‘sashumi’ and had a really nice time just being with each other. Happy birthday, Pa. Wish you were here and miss you lots. Brain also really likes Ozeki but he’s not old enough to eat all the “leng yeh” yet. You would have liked taking him out in a small car.

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