When I was a little girl, my father was my superhero.
He wasn’t the tallest or the biggest or the strongest dad. In fact, at barely 5’5, he was comparatively tinier than most of the other dads that came to pick their kids up from kindergarten. But to a four-year old me, he was larger than life.
He would pick me up and sit me on his shoulders where I would bob excitedly, grabbing fistfuls of his then thick, jet black hair and tossing loose strands around like so much confetti.
Thinking back, I was probably the cause of him growing bald at a young age.
He was the original human merry-go-round, even before I knew what an actual merry-go-round was. He would take my hands and spin me in circles till I was breathless with laughter.
As a child, Ah-Ba had a hard life. Coming from a poor family with many siblings to take care of, he was lucky to be born later and get an education. My older aunts and uncles had to give up their studies to support the family. The twelve of them, including my grandparents, huddled in a broken down hut on the grounds of a Siamese temple, or a wat. They were squatters with no land or house titles of their own. Having mattresses to lie on was considered a luxury.
There was no running water or electricity for poor homes back in the 1960s. Plumbing was unheard of. Any business was done in the outhouse. Waste was collected by the ‘ye hiong‘ collection person balancing two steaming buckets of human feces, every few days. If he missed it, the outhouse would raise a palatable stink.
Baths were taken in a nearby well, or when it ran dry, the river.
Ah-Ba would cycle a few miles to school on an old bike everyday, along with my only other schooling uncle. After classes they’d help out with the chores, collecting recycled items to be exchanged for a few cents, doing odd jobs for extra pocket money. Ah-Gong (My grandfather) worked as a cook for an old-folks home. With the meagre salary he earned, he managed to raise ten kids.
Grandma cared for the children and raised chickens and ducks for food. She also did translations for their Siamese neighbour, who was a real witch. No, really. She was a witch from Thailand who practiced black magic. Locals would come to her hut and tell her who they wished to lay a spell on – or a curse. And since the Siamese witch’s Cantonese was not good, my A-Ma would relay her messages to the person seeking help.
They lived a hard life right up til the time the temple monk evicted them as he was renovating the wat and needed land. By then my older aunts and uncles had saved up for a tiny little house. So the whole family moved there. It was much more convenient for my school-going dad. He later attended a missionary school, and college, one of the few siblings who managed to complete a tertiary education.
Which is why my Ah-Ba made sure, no matter how hard it was, to put me through university and get a degree.
When I was growing up, I was a very rebellious teenager. Me, who had always been a daddy’s girl when I was younger, entered awkward teenhood with much pent-up rage on the injustices of being a teenager. I hated the fact that he was so protective over everything. I questioned his curfews, his questions as to who I was going out with.
We had a huge fight when I was fifteen. I said many things I shouldn’t have. And he punched a hole in the wooden door in the heat of our argument. I ran away with only the clothes on my back and not a care if I would get picked up by a psychopath, raped and killed. I later found out from my mother that he was worried sick – spent hours scouring the neighbourhood for me before he found me sitting on those merry-go-round things you have at parks.
Maybe I was unconsciously reliving times when it used to be better between us. When he used to be my merry-go-round.
Now that I am older, things have gotten better. I have mended many things with Ah-Ba. As I mature, I begin to see what it’s like being a parent, although I don’t have any kids of my own yet. I begin to see that what he does is in my best interests, although he may make mistakes sometimes – that’s what being human is all about.
I’m 22 and can no longer sit on his shoulder and laugh as I pull on strands of his hair. The remaining few remnants of his once lustrous mane have faded to a soft grey, the grey of age.
These days he falls asleep on the sofa with the TV on. He can no longer lift heavy objects and complains of joint pains if he walks for long distances. As I walk behind him, I can’t help notice that his shoulders are stooped, like a war-weary hero returned from too many battles.
In my mind, Ah-Ba is still my superhero.
But time is his kryptonite.
I must treasure every moment I have left with him, and all those dear to me.
I never told you this since I grew up and all that mushy stuff became too much to utter, but… I love you Ah-Ba. God bless you with good health.