Friday, 14 September 2007

Retrospection: Personal Encounters With Death (2); 15/10/85. An Eldest Son's Consternation.

My father passed away on 15th October, 1985. He was 54 years young and it was probably due to a massive stroke or heart attack. It was superfluous to find out anyway; it was not as if knowing the cause of death would bring him back. I had lost my best friend.

I can still remember that day so clearly. Jeannie and I had lunch with him and he seemed O.K. After lunch, Jeannie went to settle matters with Avon Cosmetics as she had tendered her resignation a few days earlier. I went back to my office in Bangsar and had hardly got through the door when my uncle phoned to say my father had collapsed and was being rushed to Pantai Hospital. By the time I arrived at the A&E in Pantai he had already passed away. That lunch had become a farewell.

I was 26 years old and still trying to find my feet. Two weeks earlier I was drinking with him at a pub and we were discussing family issues that seemed so compelling then. I remember he was not a happy man at the time; frustrated that his life seemed a dead end street. Some of his children were being exactly as he did not want them to be. His eldest son (me) had just started out in the general insurance industry and seemingly was not about to fly high anytime soon enough. I remember saying to him, "Papa, please give me time" as if in promise that I will soon come to my own and ease things for him; not knowing 2 weeks was all that was left.

By October 1985, I had known Jeannie for more than 6 months and we were already very close. I do not think my parents were ever prepared for a Jeannie! To them, their son was still this small town boy in a big bad city. They were probably expecting me to bring home a girl instead of a woman! And Jeannie was a woman in every sense of the word! She was mature, confident, outspoken and she wasn't born yesterday. Though she did not drink, she smoked and could carry a conversation with the best of them. My parents were apprehensive that she seemed to have so many friends who were men! They missed the trees for the woods and overlooked that she was basically very grounded in traditional Chinese values. I suspect that in their private conversations they must have been worried that their son would be "drowned" in a relationship with a Jeannie! Afterall, she was my first serious relationship that they knew of and in fact she was.

My father had no problems with proudly introducing Jeannie as Keat's girlfriend and indeed they got along very well; he considered Jeannie more as a friend rather than potential daughter-in-law. He used to nick her cigarettes and felt comfortable enough with her to rummage through her handbag for them. They shared a lot of laughs. He even told her she was safe because "Keat thinks anything more than a mouthful is a waste!", referring to the obvious part of the female anatomy. But I think in his heart of hearts, he was not at ease. In character with his often terse disposition, one of his one-liners to Jeannie was, "Try not to bully Keat" and I think that reflected more of what he thought of me than of Jeannie.

The above was the backdrop when my father passed away. His death was the first time I had to face the passing of someone so close to me let alone someone who had been the anchor in my life. The previous experience was when my German Shepard died in my arms after being poisoned and it was only a pet.

I was devastated not so much for having lost my father but more for no longer being able to do all the things I wanted to do for him. That was my consternation and my biggest consolation was that I had Jeannie with me and the emotional support she provided eased much of my pain.

Of all the things in life that we take for granted, the greatest irony must be that death is one of them. Ours was a family that was irreligious sometimes to the point of irreverence. For a Chinese family, we never had an altar at home and though we observed some of the major festivals it was more out of tradition and filial piety rather than religious practice. My father was an athiest but that did not mean he was frivolous about values. He concertedly preached his own brand of morality based mainly on humanist ideals. One of the values he advocated was fair play and tried to instill that sense in his children. He felt that the sense of fair play would keep us on even keel and that it would take care of much of the rest.

However, the thing about that sort of upbringing meant that when my father died suddenly, we (including my mother) were at a lost as to what to do with his body! We could not jolly well just put him in a casket and stick him in the ground! There were no professional undertakers like NV Multi Corporation then and one could imagine the incertitude.

That was why my mother turned to Jeannie and my then brother-in-law, Phang Wai Yeen. Looking back, Jeannie did not have much choice in the matter and to appreciate the magnitude of her beneficence, one had to first look at her very Cantonese upbringing. It is considered taboo for one who is not a part of the immediate family to participate so intimately in funeral rites; the superstition is that it would bring about bad joss for ones own family. Regardless of whether this was common belief, the fact remained that Jeannie was brought up believing. She sought the advice of her mother who told her to go with what her heart told her.

That was how within hours, funeral arrangements for my father were organized by Jeannie who was only my girlfriend and Wai Yeen who was then still married to my eldest sister; both so-called "external" parties. As a Chinese this admission does not make me proud; I have had to live down this shame ever since!

Jeannie as my wife later would not risk history repeating. Her concerted efforts with our children pertaining to the basic Chinese value of "family surname" and J.J. being the future "flag-bearer" has been vindicated. In fact, Jeannie was the reason why we own the domain name "" and her constant drumming to me that she will die a "Cheah" underlined her strong conviction to things "family"! To me, Jeannie was more a Cheah than all my siblings and shame on them! This is one of her legacies that is ingrained in our children.

Though my father had no religious nor spiritual beliefs, the over-riding concern was to at least have some form of rites to mark his farewell. Actions carried out with the best of intentions like having a Buddhist group chant prayers meant to elevate a departing soul, avoiding certain superstitious acts, having proper modes for people to pay their last respects, etc. were the guiding considerations.

Jeannie was the only one with a semblance of any experience in such matters since her own father had passed on a few years before. Of course the major decision to cremate was my mother's to make and Jeannie organized things accordingly. She had to make certain judgement calls with the support of Wai Yeen on matters that none of us could even think of, let alone have any preference about. One such decision made with the best of intentions, was to not have my mother witness the actual cremation. This did not go down well with my sibling/s who took the opportunity to latch on to an issue to snipe, rant and rave about. I am still disgusted today that many who stood by haplessly and unable to contribute much positive inputs, would choose to later criticize and harp on every little contentious issue.

These were people who almost managed to put up an obituary in the papers with the message, "To all my friends, the next time we meet the drinks are on me!" before I forced NST to withdraw it under threat of legal action. That obituary would have tarnished the memory of my father and branded him as nothing more than a drunk. If that was what my father amounted to in their own memories, it was up to them. To me he was a giant of a man; period!

In the end, things that were done with love became twisted by the warped small minds of certain spiteful individuals with their own insidious agenda. The seeds of discord had been sowed that would grow into a wedge between Jeannie and the rest of my family. This would haunt our relationship together even long after we were married.

There is no doubt in my mind that if my father had lived another 10 years, he would have got on famously with Jeannie. She would have endeared herself to him as he had to her from day one. He always had a special place in her heart. I am also sure he would have enriched the lives of his grand children, Krystyn and J.J. through the creation of fond memories. Instead, at the time of his passing he was probably still apprehensive about Jeannie mainly out of misguided concern for me. The unkindest cut would have been that he probably mentioned so to my mother; planting the prejudice that shaped future sentiments and events. C'est la vie.


Unknown said...

Dear KS Cheah

Thank you so much for sharing this so honestly, openly, sincerely and lovingly.

Indeed your love for your family, Jeannie and your parents resound through cyberspace as a model for many to follow.

Thank you for being an inspiration.

God bless you.


KS Cheah said...

Dear MWS,

It was a piece that had to be written. I am sure you know what I mean...

Thank you.