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'Papa, Father and He' by Si Wei Lim

LISP 22 Short Story Finalist, 'Papa, Father and He' by Si Wei Lim

'Papa, Father and He'


Sundays were the best days of the week.

I always looked forward to Sundays. That was when Papa will be at home to play with me. We would have breakfast together in the morning and then play in the living room till noon. Sometimes, we would assemble soldier figurines and imagine that we were at war. Other times, we would build houses out of Lego pieces. Once, I even became a storyteller. I would seat Mama and Papa in front of a folded table, and I would hide behind the table, moving my puppets above the edge of the table and telling stories of my imaginary world.

Papa always cooked on Sundays. Having got tired of eating vegetables prepared by my health-conscious Mama for six days, I would have my favorite chicken wing char kway teow1 for lunch on Sunday. It seemed that Papa only knew how to make that, but I didn't care. I was fine even if I had to eat the same dish for all the Sundays in my life. It was that good. He first marinated the chicken wings and stir-fried the kway teow2 together with the chicken wings, fish cakes and onions in dark soy sauce. Mama and Papa and I would squeeze at a small ellipse table in the kitchen, with barely enough room for all three of us, and enjoy our meal together.

For some reason unknown to me, Papa would always leave the house after lunch.

"Papa, don't go! Play with me!" I exclaimed.

"When I come back, okay?" said Papa every week.

However, when he came home, he seemed like a different person altogether. There was a whiff of strong and unpleasant smell on him. Nevertheless, I would run to him and hug him, but he always shoved me aside roughly. Without saying anything, he would go to his room with an unsteady gait, lie down on his bed, and sleep till the next morning. Sometimes he even shouted at Mama and threatened to hit her.

"Mama, what is he saying?"

"Ah boy, don't listen to him. Those are bad words."

"Why is Papa like that after going out?"

"He went drinking. That's why you should never drink, you hear me?"

I nodded, not knowing what to make sense of it all. How can a drink change a person that much? I felt my Papa slipping away from me, how he didn't care about me anymore. Thinking about the way he pushed me aside, and how he didn't keep his promise to play with me when he came back, tears began to well up in my eyes. Consumed with sorrow, I cried noisily and bawled my heart out.

"Keep quiet! What's there to cry for? Your Papa is a bad man. Why do you want to depend on him? Play by yourself!" shouted Mama.

Every Sunday night, I cried myself to sleep. "Things will be back to normal next Sunday, I know it!" I thought, as if I was living in a time loop. But that had always been the case. The entire episode would repeat itself every Sunday. I would always start my Sundays with a lot of fun and end them in tears.

* * *

"Papa, don't go! Stay and play, please!" I pleaded, pulling Papa's arm and trying to stop him from leaving the house with all my strength. It was the same Sunday scene all over again. I resorted to my last trick.

"Papa, don't you love me anymore?"

It worked. He stopped dead in his tracks, clearly at a loss of what to say. Then, he held my little hand and said, "Come, let's go downstairs, and I would get you a new toy. Shall we?"

I erupted in jubilation. Yes! My idea had worked! Papa was staying to play with me! Skipping behind Papa, I left the house and followed him down to the row of shops below our apartment. Papa is getting me a new toy! What toy should I get? How should we play together? My mind was in a buzz.

"How about this?" Papa pointed to a pack at the front of the toy store. It was a toy with many rubber parts which could be put together to form either a robot or a car. I squealed in excitement. Papa paid for the toy and we headed back to our house.

I could not wait to get my hands on the toy. Tearing apart the packaging, I started laying out all the parts in front of me, trying to figure out what should go where.

Bang! The door closed. Papa had left. My world collapsed in that instant. Why was he leaving? Weren't we supposed to build the robot together? I swung open the door and yelled for Papa to come back but he didn't turn around. Not even once. I cried and cried until my voice became hoarse. In a fit, I threw away the new toy, angry with myself for believing him and falling into his trap.

* * *

I was in Primary two when something special happened.

“Come.”

I was astounded when I heard those words escaped my father’s lips. He had always gone out on trips every weekend, with absolutely no qualms of leaving me behind at home with no one to play with. But here he was, inviting me to go along with him!

My father beckoned to me as he left the house. My mum was against me going with him but I didn’t care. I felt a surge of joy coursing through my veins and to all parts of my body. My dream had come true! I hurriedly put on my shoes and grabbed my bag, leaping behind him. Never mind the fact that I had absolutely no idea where we were headed. I was just content that I could be part of his world for just one day instead of sitting at home and waiting for his return.

We took a bus and soon reached our destination. My father and I crossed the overhead bridge and walked along the line of shophouses. Their dilapidated and derelict state sent a chill down my spine. Afraid of being left behind, I picked up my steps, my little hand tightly clasped in my father’s firm and blister-covered palm. Most of the shops were closed, whether because it was a Sunday or because the shops were abandoned, I had no idea. As we turned the corner, the fragrant aroma of Bah Kut Teh3 and sounds of chopping meat greeted us. To my relief, the coffee shop was open and bustling with people. My father led me over to a table where his friends were.

"Hor boh4?" They greeted each other in Hokkien, a language that I did not understand. He sat me down beside him. The red chair was so huge and the table so high that my nose barely reached the edge of the table while my legs were left hanging in mid-air. I could hardly make out what the things on the table were. There were towering glasses filled with gold-coloured juices and many more tall emerald bottles, all shimmering and sparkly bright. I stared at them in awe, wondering what they were as I had never seen these things in my kitchen before. Then, my father’s friends caught sight of my curious eyes. One uncle began to pour some drops for me and offered them to me in a little saucer. I excitedly drank it all in one gulp.

“Yuck!” It was bitter and had a weird aftertaste. Worse than a bitter melon, something that I had never liked. I was confused why such a wonderful-looking thing could have such a terrible taste. I was even more confused when I saw the smiles of my father and his friends. How could they enjoy such a disgusting drink? And why was there no other food? Soon, I lost interest and started feeling bored. Many a time, I tugged on my father’s shirt, begging to go home. Reluctantly, my father and his friends had to call it a day.

I was sad as I didn’t expect it to turn out to be such an uneventful day. Little did I know that it turned out to be the one and only day out with my father in my whole life.

* * *

As I grew up, I gradually began to stop looking forward to his return from his Sunday trips. Though I could not understand completely what he was thinking, I had learned over the years that he never kept his promise, so there was no point in waiting for him. I had no choice but to abandon the hope of playing with him on Sundays. "Always count on yourself. That's the best choice. Never count on others," Mama would always say.

He and I drifted apart soon after that. We seldom talked, except for the meaningless exchange of "Turn the TV volume down, I'm studying" or "Hurry up, I want to use the toilet". He has never shown any concern, nor contributed any support, financially or emotionally, in my studies, work or life since primary school. To me, he was just another housemate under the same roof, leading an entirely separate life. Sundays were the only days he was at home, so. I loathed staying at home. But at the same time I disliked going out and seeing how affectionate other families were. Sundays had become the worst days of the week.

* * *

"You're going to be okay, don't worry," I said to him. It was the first time I have said so many words to my father in close to thirty years.

"My mind is so confused," he exclaimed, "Where are you taking me?"

"This is where they see patients whose minds are confused," I comforted him.

It all happened a few days back when he came back from work, all flustered and muttering to himself non-stop. Even though Mama and I were not close to him at all, we could tell that something was amiss. We went on with our daily activities, pretending to ignore him. When he started giving out money on the streets and almost got into a fight at the coffee shop, I decided that I had to step in and take action.

As much as I did not want to, I accompanied him to see a doctor at the emergency department in the Institute of Mental Health, the one and only hospital in Singapore that specializes in psychiatry. Alas, the hospital was crowded and the waiting line was long. He was first examined at the triage, where a nurse proceeded to ask me questions to complete the registration.

"May I have his identity card number?" asked the nurse.

"I don't know. Wait, let me ask him," I replied, and translated my father's answer to the nurse in English.

"Ok, may I know his date of birth?" asked the nurse.

"I don't know, too. Hold on." I asked my father again, before relating it to the nurse.

"May I know the patient's contact number?"

"I don't know …" I said, much to the nurse's surprise.

I had to admit, I did not know many things about my father. He had been an invisible figure in my life, so much so that I had never known his personal particulars, much less his favorite food, color or even his hobbies. It was at this time that I suddenly felt a pang of guilt – that I had not cared for him as much as I was supposed to.

We sat down in the waiting lounge and were told that the wait could take up to three hours. I felt awkward. We had never sat so close to each other since the time I sat next to him at the beer table with his friends. It felt more awkward than sitting next to a stranger on the bus. I took out my cell phone and started playing games to pass the time.

Suddenly, out of the blue, he asked me, "How do I play this game?" He pointed to a game on his mobile phone. He was still using the ancient 2G mobile phone that was not touch-screen and had no access to the Internet. I started teaching him how to use the controls, what buttons to press, and how to win the game. Soon, we were conversing like any father and son would, as if the last few decades between us were non-existent. Then, he took me by surprise when he went to a vending machine and bought me a packet of prawn crackers. Clearly, he didn't know what snacks I like. But that was the first thing he bought me since the toy robot.

An incomprehensible mix of emotions surged through me. I was confused on what I was feeling. Was I happy at this small gesture of his? Or was I angry at how long it took for him to care for me again? Or perhaps I was worried at this behavior that was unlike him? I had no answer. Hungry, I tore open the packet and started munching on the crackers.

Three hours came and went, but it was not his turn yet. As it was time for me to go to work, I gave left some instructions for the nurses and left. The doctor's diagnosis came at night. It was a condition known as mania and there was no way to know what might have triggered it. The doctor asked if I wanted him to be admitted or sent home.

I discussed with Mama, and she was afraid that he might turn violent again at home during the time I was out for work. I agreed, and related to the doctor that we wanted him to be admitted out of safety for our family and neighbors. From I heard at a later time, he was pinned down by a few male nurses while he was struggling and screaming, and later strapped to a wheelchair, before transporting him to a mental ward in the hospital.

Life went on as usual at home. Compared to all those years I had treated him like a housemate, it was no different now that he was not physically at home. However, there was an unexplainable sense of void in the house. As I went on my daily activities, I felt an unknown emptiness in my heart, which I could not quite put my finger on. For some reason that even I did not know, I felt sad.

He began calling home. At first, it was once every few days, but gradually it grew to a daily affair. Mama was annoyed at the persistent calls, but I felt comforted that he still remembered home. I started talking to him more; listening to the stories he would regale about his life in the ward.

One day, I decided to visit my father at the ward. The hospital staff told me that they did not get many visitors, so I would certainly be blessed by coming to visit. My father was grinning from end to end. He couldn't stop talking about his life there, and asked me several times to arrange for his discharge as he missed Mama and me. There were still some traits left that were unlike his usual self, and some violent episodes in the ward, so I was told that he had to stay warded for a longer time.

Two days later, I took it upon myself to visit him again. I was surprised at myself at how my idea of him had changed. I made a little card, decorated with stars and stickers, and wrote a message in it.

Papa, please get well soon. I will be waiting for you to come home.

I passed it to him at the end of my visit, asking him not to open it until I had left. I did not think I would be able to deal with his reaction, be it good or bad.

Unfortunately, that was the last visit I could make, as the hospital banned all visits to the ward the next day, due to the spike in the infected cases of the pandemic. The nurses in the ward, being annoyed by his frequent requests to use the telephone in the ward, restricted the frequency and duration of his calls, too.

Unable to reach him, I focused my energy on doing other things to welcome Papa’s return. I went to the paint shop and bought myself some paint, lugging them home on foot. Over the span of three days, I painted the walls of his bedroom and also fixed the broken light on his wall.

The day of Papa’s discharge finally arrived. I went to the hospital to settle the discharge papers and collect his medication. He was so happy to see me that he could not stop smiling. We talked non-stop on the taxi all the way home. He was tremendously pleased to see his room looking brand new, and immediately talked about plans to replace the old dining table and wardrobe in the house.

* * *

Now, I still remember the feeling of being abandoned so vividly like it was yesterday, when Papa left me every Sunday. I still have not completely forgiven him for not playing the role of a father in my years of growing up, when I needed him the most. But despite his little contribution to my life and the few words we speak to each other over the last three decades, I have come to realize that my family would not be complete without him, even though I may not care for him as much as I do for Mama.

Just then, the door opened.

"I'm home!" shouted Papa.

I smiled.


_______________________

1 a dish involving stir-fried flat rice noodles in dark soy sauce with many ingredients such as fish cake, meat and Chinese chives

2 wide, flat fresh rice noodles

3 Bah Kut Teh a pork rib dish cooked in broth, popular in Singapore and Malaysia

4 ‘Are you well?’ in Hokkien, one of the common dialects used in Singapore


Author’s Note

Based on a true story of my father and me, “Papa, father and he” is dedicated to everyone who has grown up in dysfunctional families. I have chosen to capture the interactions between my father and me at different points of my life to show the contrast of my internal feelings towards him. The change in how I address him (from Papa to father, then to he) also shows the gradual loss of significance of him in my heart over the years, until the recent incident of his mental illness. I truly hope that everyone who has grown up in dysfunctional families can be happy and at peace with themselves, no matter how hard life has been.


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