And the three men I admire most…
…They caught the last train for the coast
The day the music died. ~ Don McLean, American Pie
Life is hard. Then you die. I always liked the finality of those two sentences. Six words that made sense. But lately, since I lost my dad at 91 and two close friends at 45, I have started to re-think those words.
My father and my friends Pako and Ravi never seemed to show that life was hard. It may have been hard for the people who loved them especially at the end, but it never seemed that life took a toll on their day-to-day living. Life, in fact, seemed “easy” for them.
They seemed to have discovered the one truth that few people acknowledge. Life is transitory.
You cannot wrestle it to the ground and put a choke hold on it and say, “I’ll say when it’s over, dammit!”.
Life passes you by even when you are too busy working, worrying, getting depressed, crying over losses, ranting and worst of all: WHINING.
I don’t remember my dad, Pako or Ravi whining. For whining about your life or lack of it is the ultimate sin. We do life injustice when we moan about our work, our spouses and kids or opposingly our single life, our material wealth or lack of it, our houses, our cars, our health, our relatives ~ ourselves.
It is a waste of time. It drains you of your energy. It tires you and throws you into a vortex of worthlessness.
Here are three people who floated through life without seemingly a care in the world. They lived for today. They had found a nirvana here on earth that most of us whiners may never realize before we die. We pine and pray for a heaven beyond this earth that doesn’t exist; creating our own hell, awaiting our own grim reaper.
I lost my father and a true friend Ravi in the space of 10 days this year. I lost Pako over five years ago.
There is nothing in the world that can prepare anyone for the loss of people who are dear to you. You feel the slice of a cold blade in your heart but nothing gushes out, just emptiness and pain.
I found myself tearing up when I was behind the wheel in the middle of traffic. There was no solace in bed at night. The words of every song on the radio resonated and tugged me deeper into melancholy.
I would get flashes ~ like tiny movies playing in my mind’s eye, memories that were so vivid, I could clearly hear their voices, see their smiles, feel their presence.
My father was rushed to hospital on Oct 22 after what was believed to be a stroke.
That night, I spent a night by his bedside. They had tied his arms to the bed rails so that he would not pull against the tubes in his arms. My dad was still able to talk but he no longer could control his bowels and had to suffer the indignity of wearing adult diapers and a catheter.
His health had deteriorated over the last years of his life as a result of the hard drinking and heavy smoking, both of which he had quit for over a decade. He had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, causing his breathing to be laboured. He would stay awake all night long, and need reassurance from my mother and eldest sister, who bless their hearts, shouldered the brunt of his constant care.
My paternal grandfather had died in a hospital, apparently, the family story goes, from being given the wrong medication. As a result, my father lived with a real fear of hospitals ever since. When he was persuaded to go, because his symptoms had become so severe, he would often make a “sudden recovery” in front of the attending physician just to get out of a night’s stay there.
My dad was a photolithographer. I never understood what that meant except that it had something to do with maps and dad worked for the government at the Survey Department from his late teenage years until he retired.
When asked by my teachers what my father’s occupation was, I was so proud that at the age 8 or 9, to be able pronounce it, spell it and then differentiate it from a photographer, when the teacher mistakenly tried to correct me. “No, he works on maps at the Survey Department,” I would say adamantly, a fact I knew, because on numerous occasions he took me to the office where I would play for hours near his “enormous” work table.
I wasn’t there that morning
When my Father passed away
I didn’t get to tell him
All the things I had to say ~ Mike & The Mechanics, Living Years
That night, my father awoke repeatedly. He was disoriented and still thought he was at home, shouting out the names “Jane! Jane!” (my mum) and “Irene! Irene!” (my sister) to an open ward of patients. I tried to calm him and say,”Dad you are in hospital,” but it didn’t seem to register.
He didn’t seem like the typical stroke victim either, with paralysis on one side, or slurred speech. I held his hand and he gripped me back – sometimes so tightly it hurt.
This reassured me more, I believe, than it did him. My dad was never the cuddly type. I don’t remember being hugged by him. As I grew older, and when I reached over to hug him during my visits, he would always proffer his hand instead and say, “Bird flu, bird flu”, to avoid the embrace.
Dad adhered to the stiff-upper-lip resoluteness of his Queen’s English upbringing and was a bit of an anglophile, despite being of Ceylonese descent, and having spent only a few short years in Britain.
But dad was such a gregarious person after a little inebriation. He used to use the word “incorrigible” on others, but I now realize it applied to him best – but in a good way, there was a rascally streak in him that we, his children, may have all inherited.
Dad used to sing at all our family gatherings, along with his two younger brothers the late Uncle Douglas and sole surviving male Kanagasabai and incredibly witty Uncle Cyril. They were a riot with their bawdy and teasing songs – the lyrics of which I remember only in snatches “Around the corner and under the tree, a Bengoli maiden made love to me…” and “If I were a bachelor boy and if I were to marry…”
He always had an appreciation for the old standards by Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and the ilk and I remember he also had an odd penchant for Boney M’s Christmas Songs which he would play on endless repeats during the season.
He would often illustrate to anyone who would listen how the music of the present day has devolved by suddenly singing out loud “Who let the dogs out….woof, woof, woof, woof,” barking as we rolled in laughter.
It is late now, most of the patients in the ward are asleep. Dad is gently tapping on my hand with his fingers. There is a machine in the distance going off at regular intervals – theet, theet, theet. Dad’s tapping falls into exact sync with the beeping machine! I imagine that somewhere in his mind music is playing. And he is happy.
At one point in the middle of what I think is sleep, my father suddenly says: “What floor are you on?”
I am caught by surprise, in mid-sleep myself. I know we had told him we had moved to our own apartment, after many long years in rented terrace houses, but he had yet to visit.
“10th floor,” I replied to which the retort came quickly back: “Too high! Too high!” and then he faded off to sleep again.
Later in his hospital stay, my sister related how my father had asked for the wheel chair for the sole purpose of going to the 10th floor. He was on the 9th floor, the top-most floor in Selayang Hospital, so did he mean he wanted to finally come visit or was he ready to go to his maker?
After a fitful night, my mum and eldest sister returned the next morning to the hospital ward to relieve me. I returned home to try to catch up on much needed sleep.
Sometime mid-day on Oct 23rd, I awoke suddenly and checked my phone. There were 4 missed calls. But they were not from my sister but from a friend who was on holiday from Australia.
When I reached him he was in tears. I was told a close mutual friend of ours Ravi, who we called by his petname, Baby, was dead at 45 years old.
It was a shock. Ravi had been to my apartment for his first time only days before and gave his blessing. Now he was gone.
Ravi was the complete opposite of my dad by the fact that he hugged everyone. But Ravi shared my dad’s warmth, friendliness and generosity to anyone, even strangers he met for the first time.
I got to know Ravi after he showed up at the uni his elder brother, Ragu and I were in. Even though he was from a different uni he acted like a freshie asking – mostly women – to be ragged. The ladies adored him.
But I really got to know him when he met a nasty accident and ended up bed-ridden for months in hospital. I dropped by each morning to cheer him up ~ but turns out the happiest guy in hospital was Ravi. He had patients around his bed playing cards or just laughing and sharing jokes, forgetting the dreariness of being cooped up in a hospital ward. Despite his foot looking black and blue and ripe for an amputation, Ravi never showed an iota of concern ~ even though I guessed he must have been hurting inside.
I would sometimes bring him breakfast, before heading off to the drudgery of work, and it turned out Ravi always cheered me up, listening to my whining about my job, instead of me offering a sympathetic ear to his pain.
In the end, Ravi lost half his foot, but it never showed in the fullness of the man he was for the next two decades of his life.
It’s a long, long road
From which there is no return
While we’re on the way to there
Why not share
And the load
Doesn’t weigh me down at all
He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother ~ by Bobby Scott and Bob Russell, popularized by Neil Diamond and the Hollies, He Ain’t Heavy
The party never really started until Ravi showed up. And he always made an effort to show up when I asked him to. He always showed he cared. He hugged me like a lover parting for the last time. Or a friend, perhaps, who knew his time was short and made every effort to acknowledge our closeness.
He called me every year just on the stroke of midnight, the first minute of Jan 22, to wish me happy birthday. I was told I was not the only one accorded the privilege of a Ravi birthday call. He must have made a lot of calls in his life. He had many friends who would’ve filled an entire calendar year. I guess it was part of Ravi’s style to remind us all to be thankful of every year we lived.
My friend and I are driving to his apartment after receiving the shocking news. I get lost trying to recall the route, making instinctive rights and lefts. He is on the phone trying to get directions when I overhear him say the name of a hospital. I turn to my right, and there is the exact hospital he mentions!
We drive to the entrance, park and head to the mortuary. We know some unexplained intervention has brought us here early to greet the body of our friend Ravi.
A police truck pulls up shortly after. Ravi is in a black body bag. The police drag his body off the truck and unceremoniously dump it onto a gurney like they were dragging a sack of rice.
Inside, my friend and I are called in and the black bag is unzipped. Ravi is lying there, in familiar shorts and sleeveless t-shirt, and all our doubts of his mortality are confirmed. We both break down. I cry his name out loud, as if to will him back.
His hands are drawn criss-cross on his chest. There is red ash on his on forehead. He looked as peaceful as a saint, almost a hint of a smile on his lips. I knew then that he was gone.
I met my friend Pako when I thought he would make a good interview subject for a news story. I was in Tioman Island covering the sailing regatta for a magazine and noticed he was the only Egyptian in the field.
Pako was tanned and tall and physically the person you would expect to be a sportsman. But he surprised me by also being articulate and erudite and proceeded to enlighten me on the state of humanity and the environment.
Pako was part Egyptian and Austrian and showed the good looks of a person of mixed parentage. When I met him he was the dive instructor of the resort, but he also seemed to have a chip on his shoulder of not matching the doctorates that both his father and grandfather held.
He had applied to all the Commonwealth countries to do his PhD in English, and only Malaysia replied. He signed on to do his doctorate in history in University Malaya, then asked the taxi driver where the best dive spot in Malaysia was and was told it was Tioman island.
He easily secured a job as a dive guide, given his experience, when he arrived at the resort.
A few months later, after the regatta I met Pako in the city. We struck up a friendship that lasted till the day he left us.
Pako taught me that life was too short to be bemoaning our fate. He was constantly curious, his eyes lighted up like a child at discovering new things and he always showed a hunger for new knowledge, questioning dogmas and iron-clad “truths” ~ debates that took us late into the night, after many a beer.
Pako was a physical man who earned his living by showing hundreds, including us, the wonders and beauty of life from where we came from ~ the depths of the oceans ~ but he was cerebral and constantly thinking of new ideas on land ~ ideas he promised to turn into a book.
In the end, he did write a book, with the help of a friend, on his beloved Tioman, the island he called home for most his life in Malaysia.
Hey, ain’t it good to know that you’ve got a friend?
People can be so cold.
They’ll hurt you and desert you.
Well they’ll take your soul if you let them.
Oh yeah, but don’t you let them.
You just call out my name and you know wherever I am
I’ll come running to see you again ~ Carole King, popularized by James Taylor, You’ve Got A Friend
Pako collapsed one day back in Egypt. His wife, Susanne, told us it was brain cancer. He survived the first bout through an operation and therapy and we got to see him back again in Malaysia and shared some great meals and laughter together.
I never forgave myself for not visiting him in his native land. He spoke so often of wanting to show me his Egypt ~ through his eyes. “I am from the desert, we sleep under the stars!” he said, the first time he was offered the couch of the living room, much to our amusement.
Like my dad and Ravi, Pako never showed anyone that life was hard. Life dealt them some hard blows. But they seemed to roll with the punches and get on with it. There was too little time to bicker and moan and whine.
Few of us understand that truth. We spend too much time on trivialities, obsessing about little things, being anal and inflexible in our ways.
Yes, life needs constants and some consistency, but life also teaches us to enjoy the ride and go with the flow.
The three men in my life taught me life isn’t hard. Life is actually easy. Or, at least, they made it look easy.
Laugh, be curious and be generous with your time with others. And be a little bit crazy. It may be the only antidote you have against the insanity of this world.
Life isn’t hard. Take it easy. Then you live. Really live. And then you die.
Take it easy, take it easy
Don’t let the sound of your own wheels
drive you crazy
Lighten up while you still can
don’t even try to understand
Just find a place to make your stand
and take it easy ~ The Eagles, Take it Easy