Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Sweetness in the Bones - Papa's Birthday Story

My family loves chicken. My dad, especially, loves chicken wings - as much as I do. Funny thing is, I never saw him eat chicken wings before. I'd be the one that eats the chicken wings, and he'll eat the neck or some other parts of the chicken.

"Papa, I thought you liked eating the wings?" I once asked when I was much younger. 5 or 6?

"No lar!" He replied even before I finished my sentence, while still chewing on the bones. "Who said?"

"Mummy said one..."

"Any part of the chicken tastes the same.. chicken is chicken.. Eat eat eat!! The meat is getting cold already." I did ask myself then, was Papa lying?

One night before going to bed, my mom boiled a bowl of chicken essence soup for me and my brother. It tasted bitter - horribly bitter - but somehow we managed to swallow the very last drop of it.

"It's the best of the whole chicken," I remembered my mom telling us while we were slurping it down at high speed. "I spent the whole day boiling it. All the nutrients and the proteins and stuff are all in there, so don't waste!" And that smile from my mother. The smile that would convince anything that she's telling the truth.

I was supposed to sleep right after that. And again, you wouldn't really expect a hyperactive boy to sleep at 9.30pm. So I thought of a brilliant excuse to go downstairs again - supper.

Half expecting my parents to yell me to go to bed from their master bedroom opposite my bedroom, they were sitting on the dining table eating some stuff. And I thought to myself, maybe they're having dinner, I might as well just join them for round 2 of makan.

I grabbed a chocolate muffin from the pantry and sat at the table with them. They were eating bread with chicken dipped in sauce. Putting my muffin aside for the chicken then, I took my dad's fork and grabbed a piece of chicken. Lo and behold, the chicken was completely tasteless.

My face must have clearly expressed all my thoughts and taste as my dad said, "This is the chicken Mummy used to boil the essence."

Passing the fork back to my dad, I reached for the muffin when suddenly the thought came to me, If we had the essence of the chicken, then that means both of you are having the leftovers... For dinner?

If my memory still serves me correctly, I never opened the muffin. I think, I quietly got off the chair and went back upstairs, choking with tears. Or maybe I just sat there in front of them and cried, making a fool of myself. But what I clearly remembered was, I felt so bad and so guilty. That whole night, I thought of how my parents would give me the best of everything and end up collecting whatever was left for themselves.

Later in life, there were numerous moments where I asked myself, why must they go through so much for me? Was it worth them giving up all the goodness that they themselves could've enjoyed, just for me and my bro?

Finally, I understood something: that those 'empty' chicken meat they took for dinner, those dried and drained bones that were left after the essence had sweetness that was never meant for the mouth. It's a sweetness that came from within. The sweetness of knowing that their son is happily sleeping upstairs after a nice bowl of essence, the sweetness of knowing that they've given their best for the children, and the sweetness of watching their children growing up.

And I too had my fair share of those sweetness, because from that day onwards, when the sight of my parents eating the 'empty' chicken meat unfolds in my mind, the chicken meat I eat those meals never quite tasted the same, ever.

That's my dad. The dad that would lie to us just to make sure we get everything even if he gets nothing, the dad that would fight with my mom over stuff that me and my bro should have, the dad that would wait for us to sleep before he starts taking up the leftovers with my mom, and the dad that would never admit that he's old enough for a break to make sure there's always good food on the table.

Yup. That's my dad, the man that turned bones into honey. Happy Birthday Papa, I love you.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

When Perspective Changes

Heard the story of the wife who had a husband who'd always hit her? One day then, the husband got into an industrial accident and lost both of his hands. Funny thing was, the wife loved the husband even more from that day onwards.

Here's her reason. "When I loved that man, it wasn't because of what he could do, rather it was him - what he was, his weaknesses and shortcomings - that I loved and accepted. Now that he couldn't hit me anymore, isn't that a reason lesser to be bitter about, and an extra reason to love him even more?"

It's all about the perspective, isn't it?

Here's another story, again. A continuation of Lollipop Men, a different perspective, a different side of the story. And yes, it isn't a short one, yet it has been carefully written and prepared. Do enjoy it, blessed week ahead.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Christmas' Last Candle

When I heard the voices – laughter, excited chatters – from the bend of the stairs, I knew that hope was still alive. The last 30 flights of stairs were, after all, not wasted.

Being my first time carrying such a heavy load of newspapers up the stairs, partly because there was virtually no one left on the lower floors due to the holiday celebrations, my hands were aching terribly, breath loud and throat choking with sweat. Somehow, there was only one thing left at the back of my mind that kept me through those lonely and unforgiving flights of stairs.

Finally arriving at the door, I yanked the handle. Jingle jingle. The laughter died abruptly, some quiet hushes, footsteps, then the door opened. As usual and as ever, it was Uncle Mike at the door.

“Merry Christmas, Uncle Mike!” I forced a weary smile to hide my desperation and weariness.

“Will you please buy a copy?” Please?

Dark, still and quiet. At 5am in the streets of London, even a mouse’s breathing can be heard without trying too hard. I lit the last remaining candle and placed it behind our dark window. As children, back when mom was still alive, me and Sis would watch her light up a candle and place it behind the window when times were really bad. When we had no money to buy breakfast for the next morning, when dad was trying to get a new job, when the district officers were about to chase us out from our shed.

“The candle reminds us that hope is always alive,” she said while huddling us close under the only blanket left in the house, our eyes still glued to the flickering flame. And every time she said that, her eyes would glitter beautifully.

Many people said Sis had my mom’s beautiful eyes. Sparkling, magical eyes.

And those desolate nights when mom lit those candles, miracles happened. Miracles. A random stranger approaching us with a loaf of warm bread. An unexpected job vacancy in the nearby cement factory. A grace period of 1 year to vacate the area.

The night mom was dying, I ran looking for the candles. Placing the candle on the window, I was about to light it when mom stopped me.

“No,” she said, still wearing that lovely smile of hers. “Keep it for yourselves!” Those were her last few breaths. We got the neighbours to help us call the police and the ambulance to take her away, and the local parish was kind enough to conduct a proper funeral for her.

Many months later, while crossing the road, a reckless drunk driver sped, swerved and hit Sis right at the lower limbs. Crushed and left paralyzed waist down. At the hospital, the NHS were pushing for us to pay up, or else Sis would not receive further treatment. In tears, I ran home and lit up another candle. Not only that, in front of the candle, I kneeled and prayed the only prayer I remember.

“Jesus, give us not what we ask for, but grant us what we truly need.” Sobbing, I added, “Please help Sis. Please.”

Satisfied with the candle now flickering dimly, I walked out of the door, burying my hands beneath the torn jacket I picked up from a recycling centre. Sis was quietly working on her handmade flowers, made from disposed cans. Shriveled legs flowing from a rusty old wheelchair, she looked up and our eyes met. Instinctively, I turned away from her gaze. Not for any other reason, but because her eyes reminded me too much of mom. I’m still afraid of those memories.

“Little boy,” she called out. Such sadness in her tone! How I hated it when Sis spoke with so much sorrow and pain. “Do bring something back for dad.”

Through the glass stained with dirt and time, the sight of dad lying under the thickest available cloth, on the floor, coughing slowly and softly, I walked out into the damp streets of London to find the kind uncle from the bookstore with the bronze horse.

That sentimental bronze horse. My first lollipop, broken and in half, but nevertheless a lollipop still. My first horse ride. With Sis while she still could walk perfectly. How could I forget those beautiful moments? Tearing my eyes away from that bronze horse, squeezing out the memories from my brain, I hugged the stack of newspaper and headed slowly to the apartments.

“Kid,” Uncle Mike said regretfully. “We already bought the papers this morning. Besides, it’s Christmas Eve, you shouldn’t be delivering papers…”

Oh no... I wailed silently. Speak of a nightmare come true.

And earlier while walking out from uncle’s bookstore with the stack of papers, I calculated that if I could sell a dozen copies, I could buy dad an egg. Or if I could sell all the papers, maybe I could get a can of his favourite hickory ham. But now, there really isn’t anything left for dad, is there?

Turning around, the tears began to swell.

God, why?

Little candle, where’s the hope that I need?

“But wait!” came the voice from behind. Aunty Mag’s voice. Always warm, always kind, always full of love. “We’ll be having visitors later, maybe we could do with a few more copies of papers,” and turning to Uncle Mike, “What do you think?”

Uncle Mike raised his eyebrows while Aunty Mag pulled him over and whispered something into his ears. Quickly I wiped my tears. Whatever it was, it must have been good as a smile slowly carved at the edges of his lips. Walking back to me, he asked, “How many copies do you have there, kid?”

50, I replied. Just 12, and I can get dad his favourite hickory ham. He has always wanted hickory ham. That would be the best present I could give to him, ever, in his entire life. Is 12 too many Uncle Mike?

Roaring in laughter, “I’ll take all!”

His reply certainly stunned me. That was by far the single largest transaction of newspaper ever made in my 4 years as a paper boy. Still gripping the stack of papers, it took a while before reality sank in. Before I knew it, Aunty Mag was clearing a corner of the hall for me to put down the newspapers.

Still left in a daze at the overwhelming purchase of newspapers, Uncle Mike grabbed my small hands and slapped a 100 pound bill into my hands.

“But I have no change!” I exclaimed meekly.

“You don’t?” He looked surprised, camouflaged beneath a cheeky smile. Bending down into my ears, he whispered, “Then keep it!”

Looking at the bill in my hands, it was as if as I had struck a jackpot. Overwhelmed for the second time, my heart was now so full of happiness and hope. Not only could I buy dad a hickory ham, I could even buy a whole turkey! A comfortable bed, a warm blanket for dad…

We could get more candles…

“Thank you Uncle Mike!” was all I could say. “Thank you so much!”

The 30 flight of stairs, this time, was so light and so easy. This time I didn’t even have to run back to the bookstore. Uncle Henry promised me that since it was Christmas Eve, I’d get to take back every single penny from the papers.

The market!

People were already rushing back home. The evening sun was setting. Pace quickening, bigger steps, deep down I was praying that the market would still have some cans of hickory ham left. Running along the streets, a quick glance into the windows of the brightly lit houses and there was Mother placing a perfectly roasted turkey on the table under the watchful eyes of Dad and little children. If only Christmas would be something like that.

My steps died in bitterness and agony. The market was already closing. An old man was locking up the gates. After all that had happened in the last few hours, after all the running and hope, how could this happen?

I slowly walked up to the uncle and tugged at his coat. “Uncle, could you please sell me a can of hickory ham?” His face was wrinkled with sorry, and his gentle eyes couldn’t cover the fact that there simply wasn’t any hickory ham left. He pulled out a small can of baked beans from his pocket and handed it to me. Refusing the 100 pound bill from me, he smiled and walked away, leaving me stoned outside the locked gates of the London market.

For the second time, the journey was long and draggy. How could I face a dying man, with just a can of baked beans? What good was the 100 pound now? There were simply no more tears left for a 10 year old boy anymore. Simply none at all. Just a broken heart, a contrite spirit, a defeated soul. So much for kindness, so much for hope, and it all ends with that painful blow of reality. The markets simply wouldn’t wait for you. The cans of hickory ham just wouldn’t stay on top of the shelves for you.

London’s Christmas, isn’t really for the poor and needy.

Just another turn, and I would be back at our shed. Straightening my shirt, forcing a convincingly happy smile again, I was about to walk again when a very faint melody caught my ears.

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound!
That saved a wretch like me!

When was the last time I heard an angel singing?

I once was lost, but now am found
Was blind, but now I see!

The voices grew stronger and stronger. Melodious! Sweet choruses! Angelic and heavenly! Dad, oh dad, if only you could hear these voices...

And again the pain struck my heart. Deep and hurting.

“Where is this amazing grace that I need now?” Where is the amazing grace that Dad needs?

Bravely, I picked up from where I stopped and walked home. The corner of the alley was bright and glowing. From afar it looked like our shed was on fire. Strange as it may be, as we had no more candles or sticks left for a fire, our shed was bright again. God knows when was the last time our shed saw light as bright as that.

And the voices, those angelic and beautiful voices, grew stronger at every step I take towards my shed.

Slowly, I realized, there were carolers in our shed. Singing. They must be holding candles.

Uncle Henry was leaning by the wall outside my shed, hands tuck in his pocket. “Hey kid,” he said in his deep husky tone. “Look who’s here.”

I peered inside and saw Uncle Mike and Aunty Mag. Uncle Mike had a roasted turkey in his hands. The same one I saw inside the houses along the streets I was running back from earlier the evening. And Aunty Mag was opening a huge can of hickory ham. There were some other adults that I couldn’t recognize who were fussing over dad. Some gently got him to sit up straight, some wrapped him with warm wool, one even took a bucket of water and washed his hands.

“Hurry!” Uncle Henry said while gently pushing me at the shoulder. “You wouldn’t want to miss the big feast.”

For a while now, with the baked beans in one hand and the 100 pound bill still crumpled in the other, I allowed the unfolding events to dazzle my eyes. How did they know? Was it Uncle Henry? The answers didn't really matter then. There came a very grateful smile, widely curved across my face. The coldness of London’s winter simply couldn’t mask the warmth of the people inside. People I never expected to extend a hand of kindness; people you never thought would come down to the slums to celebrate Christmas with you.

Uncle Mike came out and chattered with Uncle Henry. They would take Dad to the hospital later for treatment. Before my eyes blurred from tears again, before walking up to Uncle Mike and burying myself in his shoulders, I stole a quick glance at the candle I lit this morning. It had died long ago. No longer was it flickering or shining. All that’s left were the now solid tears with the stump right in the middle.

I knew then, that we wouldn’t need candles anymore, not because the shed was now bright, but because from that day onwards, we would no longer need candles to remind us that hope, is always alive.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

My Moonlight Notes

Again it was the panic attack that suddenly woke me up. Sitting up straight in the bed, cold sweat, heart beat. Husband's sleeping like a baby beside me, arms hugging his pillow, head moving slowly, deeper into the pillow.

Seconds later, as usual, I would calm myself down, remind myself that it's all over, there's nothing to be afraid or sad about, and would sleep again.

This night, the light shone straight into my window. Memories came flooding back into my eyes, along with those longing and painful tears, of white papers slowly floating into the room.

Oh, I will always remember that very first time she cried. Her cries were not a shriveling or high-pitched shriek, but the quiet, sobbing, and muffled voice. Only a mother could've picked up that cries. Walking into her room, she was huddling beneath her comforter, eyes red and swollen. That night, was a bright night. Moon light bouncing off her beautiful silky hair, the brownish glow dim in the darkness, her eyes still glittering and sparkling despite the tears, her mouth covered partially beneath the folding of her arms.

"I dreamt that a dog was chasing it but it fell into a river..." she sobbed as I pulled her into my embrace. Stroking her hair gently, cooing her, she continued, "I tried to save the dog, but it drowned..."

It's ok sweetheart.. It's ok...

Tucking her back into her bed, I sang her favourite tune. Somehow, that night, as my memory serves me correctly, she never stirred. Her eyes were wide, not looking at me, but staring out of the windows wide opened. Shadows of the branches and leaves of my backyard tree danced under the white layer of snow that covered portions of her bedroom.

"Mummy," her voice, so sweet, still lingers in my ear till this very day. "Why is the night so bright?"

Crying now as I recalled the answer I said, "It's God's way of reminding little darlings that mummies are His way of lighting up even the darkest nights."

She slept, so did I, and the next morning I woke up before the house was up, only to find a white piece of paper on the floor, under my bedroom door. The scrawny handwriting, the spelling mistakes, and the crumpled piece of paper that still remains hidden in one of the drawers of a locked room,

"Thank you Mummy! I love you. Love, Baby"

My heart melted. It still melts to even think about it. My darling. My 6 year old darling. So thoughtful, so loving, so endearing. How one note from her, from that beautiful bright night, could even put the brightest sunlight into darkness, and cast shadows in the sunniest days. Holding that piece of paper in my hands, I went into her room, bent down and kissed her on her forehead. She stirred, woke up, and smiled.

"Morning Mummy."

All that is left now, are those memories of carrying her down the stairs, into the kitchen to make her favourite cereals of honey and oat. Ocassionally, I'd sit on the piano and her sweet laughters would fill the music room when I close my eyes and hold my breath. Perhaps, on those very fortunate days, when I stroll in the park and watch a frisbee pass by, I'd see images of my little baby running behind our golden retriever, hair and ribbon tied floating in the air in rhythm with her pink skirt, chasing both dog and toy.

I never blamed the teacher for taking her to the National NuclearMedicine Lab back 18 years ago. It wasn't the teacher's fault. Alright, maybe the teacher should have been more watchful. Maybe she shouldn't have ever allowed her to leave her sight. But it happened. It just happened. Her friends said that she wandered into a room with thick doors and a opaque glass.

The door just shut behind her. We could hear her screaming from inside.
We called the teacher. The teacher yelled for help.
The tour guide ran to a room beside.
When the door opened, she was lying unconscious on the floor.
There was a huge green machine. Bright green.
People wearing huge white masks and jackets.
They didn't let us go in. They took her away. To a hospital. Somewhere.

It was 2 days before we finally saw her. Saw her. They didn't allow anyone to come in contact with her. How I wailed and kicked and fought with the hospital guards as I tried to break free, smash the doors and snatch my baby back from them. How I broke down eventually into the arms of my husband, only to see my baby, lying motionless behind the windows.

And how my life changed that day onwards. How the chair outside her room became my bed. The staff toilet became my bathroom. Sometimes I even borrowed a jacket or blanket to keep myself warm when the thermostat was down.

3 months. From the day she finally opened her eyes, jumped out of bed and skipped around the room as I clapped from outside. On many ocassions she'd even press her face to the window as I'd press mine on the other side, sometimes too she'd cry wanting to come outside, and how I struggled to make her smile while deep inside I was breaking and crying too.

And finally, how her beautiful and silky brown hair finally thinned, fell and dropped. That beautiful brown head became white and smooth. Her eyelids blackened, her skin wrinkled, her body shrunk. Watching my very own baby slowly decaying from the effects of plutonium, that sense of helplessness and hopelessness, that painful experience of watching her slowly fade away.

The day came. My pastor, I and my husband, clad in thick white jackets with a mask over our head, walked dreadfully into the room. My baby was beyond recognition. Bundled under a maze of tubes of different colours, her eyes were closed, her breaths laboured in pain and difficulty, her body shrivelled and small.

And as all mother's ask, "How could this happen to my baby?" And I ran out from the room. My husband never did stopped me, though I now wished that he did back then. I cried so hard that my eyes hurt and tears were now dry. I swore I cried my heart out when my husband came out with the pastor, and the group of doctors slowly wheeled the small bed out with a zipped black bag over it.

Yet, amidst those tears, something caught my eyes. On the floor, still, quietly sitting there, under the doors of her room for the last 3 months. A small, white, folded piece of paper. And that stopped the tears immediately.

Standing up with whatever energy left, staggering and bending down, picking up the white paper with trembling hands. The tears flowed again, this time, quietly and peacefully, as the paper unfolded.

"Mummy." A stick lady, holding the stick hand of a smaller stick girl. At the corner of the paper, written, "Baby."

Alone and quiet now. The same tree, the same branches and leaves dancing under the same layer of snow. The same stillness as that night, when my baby asked me why the night is so bright. Oh baby, if only you would write me just one more note. One more, and I'd give up anything, absolutely anything for that note. A note that would melt my heart all over again. A note that would simply make my day. A note that would remind me, that you were God's way of lighting up my darkest nights.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

My Brother's Last Race - Jo Hann's Birthday Gift

Call it inferiority complex, call it brotherly rivalry, or even jealousy. Whatever it was, one thing I knew for sure was, the day I knew that I could run faster and further than my brother was the day my life changed for good.

All these years I have been living in my brother's shadows. He's intelligent, brilliant in his studies, knows his geography at the back of his hand, and is older than me. He gets presents first hand, books brand new, shirts fresh from the bags, and ang pows in larger potions. To simply make matters worse, he gets the attention from relatives and friends, while I'm always left by the side, sulking and wondering what I could do to divert those attentions away from him to myself.

So that morning during the annual school race, I realized I could run and run without stopping. That moment of time when I touch and broke the ribbon with my older brother tailing behind by the laps, that was the very defining moment. An eruptuous cheer, magnificent applaud, standing ovation from the crowd, and a team high in spirits dashing towards me, lifting me in their arms and throwing me into the air like a hero.

I knew then, that if there was anything that would make me shine brighter than him, it would be in a race.

And from that day, I trained very hard. Running, jogging, swimming and skipping. All forms of exercise that would make me stronger, faster, and last longer on the field and road. Every moment of training, the only thing on my mind was this,

"I'll be better than my brother."

Sure and true enough, I would emerge champion tournament after tournament, race after race. Slowly stepping into the limelight, walking up the podium before my brother, standing on a platform higher than his, I finally thought, This is it! I'm finally better than my brother!

My brother is a quiet man. He never held any grudges against me. We were still best of friends, the most ideal wrestling and squabbling partner and the most vulnerable prank target. Fact was, he never joined me for training since my winning streak in races began. Slowly he pulled back into the shadows, as if he was allowing me to bask in the glory of my strength, withdrawing from the crowd that once loved him, and faded into himself alone.

2 years ago, my brother would graduate in 2 months. So happened a tournament flyer fell into my hands and caught my attention. Eager to beat him in one last race, I invited him persistently to participate, and he - knowing my intentions well enough - agreed graciously.

That morning then, the eyes were on 2 men. Brothers, one the older brother, the other, the younger but faster brother. The bellowing of the siren, the raise of flag, and the gunshot. The race officially began.

In a 10 km race, many will fall out and drop out of line. Only a few would remain in the pack trailing the leader, and come 6th km, I was the leader with a single man remaining from the pack.

My brother.

The last 2 km was a traditional victory lap for me. I would stride into the stadium, gloriously raise my hands as I made my last 3 laps in the stadium before I crossed the line. Already the crowd were hysterically cheering me, chanting my name, while my brother quietly and tamely followed from a distance.

Beaming with pride and swelling with ego, I said to myself, This is it! The ultimate victory is mine!

Little did I know, before those words were even completed in my heart, I slipped and fell. It was the weight of my body that crushed my ankle, a grinding sound, then a snap and crackle, and I was lying on the floor, grimacing in pain, and holding my ankle with both hands. Looking up, through the shrunken vision of my half closed eyes, I could see the finishing line just metres away from me.

No!! I yelled to myself. How could this be?

I cried in pain and bitterness, not from the physical injury but from the mental agony. How could I have slipped on my very last occasion of beating my brother?

Initially, there was jeering from the crowd. Boos. Mockery. Laughter.

Then it was a eery silence that followed.

A pair of strong arms that I've never felt before, from below my armpit, lifted me up. In a few speechless moments of mine, he threw my left arm over his shoulder and rested my weight upon his back.

"Let's finish this race," he said through the deep breaths he took, "Together."

Those last few metres, limping down the lane, 3 feet supporting 2 bodies, 2 brothers once divided over a crown now united. Those last few metres were the longest I've ever had since I first ran. And tears of remorse, tears of shame swelled in my eyes and rolled freely. Resting my head on a shoulder that was full of a brother's strength and love, I was both ashamed of my behaviour, and proud of my brother.

He dropped me carefully and slowly into the first aiders hands after crossing the finishing line together. Lying down, while white soldiers were busy wrapping my feet together, my brother came over to me and said to me,

"I don't run against you, I run with you. And to me, you're more than a race champion, you're a brother. My only brother."

He graduated from high school with flying colours. Watching him walk onto the stage in his flowing robe with the square hat over his head, I recalled that last race we ran together. How I wished that I had ran with him more, I thought. How I wished that it wasn't ego and pride that fueled me to run faster. How I wished that every race I ran, I ran by his side and not ahead of him.

Those many races I won, I only obtained a short lived glory stored in a memory database, somewhere. That last race my brother ran, he still didn't win the race, but he won my respect. And till this very day, when asked about him and what he's up to, my reply is always simple,

"He's my brother." With pride and love.

Monday, September 15, 2008

I Believe in You

Mandy had only one thing to say after I ran across the hall to break the good news to her.

"Jo, it's been such a long time since I last saw your eyes sparkle and light up like that."

Indeed, it has.

It really wasn't much of a sacrifice when I decided to make those trips back to Shah Alam. The juniors deserved some sort of training before entering the debate tournament. Besides, I was the one who actually persuaded both of them - and their mums - to allow them to join the debates. More to that, at least I utilized all those time to catch up with my beloved juniors. Betty, Peiling, Stephy, Amanda. Slept and played DOTA in Samuel's room, met his whacky bunch of friends, borrowed his Campbell biology book, slept on his bed while he slept on someone else's.

Then came one special old junior whom I've trained before. Zoe. The extremely special one. The one that I actually wished I'd spent more time with, the one I wished I had paid more attention to, the one that I've tried the hardest to understand... and yet failed at every step of the way for the whole of last year.

And to my surprise, this debate has blessed me more than anyone.

For a long time, I've held back many emotions and many problems. Refusing to allow people to once again meddle into my life and heart, I kept the world locked out to ensure that no one sees the me inside again. Yet one person could make that difference, even without trying. Seeing her made me remember myself when I was in her age. Tough, resilient, ready to take on the world, daring, brave, yet fearful. Fearful of the past, held back by the haunting memories, afraid of making mistakes that have happened before.

Throughout those sessions then, the greatest - and hardest - decision of all, was to choose to do what was right. All the time.

And for once too, I refused to lie to myself, I refused to lie to them. Juniors that may be far away from me in distance, but close to me in my heart. I believed in them, I trusted them, and I did all that I could to never let them down.

They deserved the best I can give.

Those juniors gave me the greatest gift. Not of victory, but of friendship. Not of success, but of trust. Not of another trophy, but truth.

They achieved what I could never have achieved on my own in my time.

Stephy and Pei Ling's sms again placed a smile on my face and in my heart. Somehow, my heart was so full of happiness and joy. It was such an honour to have them paired up in the first place, to see a friendship unfold between 2 initial strangers, how they learned to trust and depend on each other, how they held each other's hands and pray, how they'd very cheekily send me off and gossip and girl-talk, how they hung on, stayed strong for each other, trained hard, and eventually won the whole debate.

Zoe then, showed me that people can change for the better. Drop the word 'better', make it 'change for the best'. She proved me right. I chose to believe that she may be afraid, but she will not back down. I knew that one day, in her own time, in her moment, she will shine and rise above storms of despairs and sail the waves of turbulance. She did it. She may have made me proud, but she can now be proud of herself. Maybe not for what she did, but for realizing what she truly is.

And in a very quiet corner of the hall, was a special girl with a special story to tell. She had a story of sadness, a little tale of a troubled girl, and a little broken heart held in her hands. But I believe that while her hands still hold the shattered pieces, she now knows who she can surrender them to.

"Make sure you give Him every single piece, if not, that broken heart can never be mended"

Sam, Elsha, while I can never deny that I am proud because you won, I am still proud that you have went on to achieve that which you first thought was unattainable. I'm honoured to have your trust and belief from the very beginning, that while you two may have doubted in yourself, you never doubted in me. That you gave me a chance to prove to you that both of you are worth far more than what you think you are, that you allowed me to take a small step into your lives and bring you into experiences after experiences that will make you look at yourselves, never in the same way again.

Above all, Sam, Elsha, I am so happy that you are now not only the best of friends, but you two now have a wonderful and beautiful story of grace, mercy, and second chances.

It's your story, as it is mine. Thank you for sharing that story with me.

And yes Sam. That's the very best thing that has happened to me.

Friday, September 12, 2008

I. Miss U.

Waking up to the calls of the phone alarm, bending over the bed to switch it off, then slowly crawling out of the bed even when the eyes are still not fully opened, or the sun is not fully up. To walk to the desk and turn on the lights, sitting on a chair that provides little comfort when in front of the lecture notes:

I miss the days where my mother would wake me up. With ruffling on the head and a gentle whisper, those moments define the beginning of a beautiful day.

Walking out from a steamy shower hoping that it would keep me awake for the next 2 hours, tightening the buttons over the chest and wrist; knotting the ties before draping the stethoscope over the neck, and walking out of the house with a pen in the pocket and papers in the hand:

I miss the times when my dad would wait for me at the dining table, send me to school, and hearing those assuring words of "I love you" as I step out of the car, those minutes reminded me that I'm a son of a great dad.

Picking up a copy of free newspaper before ascending the 4 flights of stairs to my lecture hall, to open the doors entering an empty theater to be soon filled by people of all colours and ages; sitting down half browsing the papers before quickly turning back to the notes prepared nights before, and patiently waiting for the lecturer to walk in with profound sciences to be taught:

I miss the mornings where teachers amaze me with the simplest of ideas, when maths was so simple yet so fun, when science was so obvious yet so wonderful, when writing was a joy and a pleasure. It's a pity we can never be a child all over again.

Hustling through the narrow shelves searching for the book in a red cover, rushing downstairs again to the photocopy shop to get some articles copied; passing by crowds with occasional greetings of Hi's and Bye's, sometimes even forgetting names and addresses, when a smile is weary and a laughter is fake:

I miss the times when the reason we ran was laughter, and the people we met were people we love. Where laughter was genuine and a smile was from the heart, those days just seem so far away.

What I've learned in the last few weeks of Uni life has taught me, that medicine is a journey of rediscovering yourself by first understanding others. The fear that 'what I do not know could kill a patient' is extremely real. Perhaps it is a necessary fear to keep us on our feet, yet,

"It is not what we know, but what they know that would save a life"

Do they know who's the keeper of the lives? Do they know the source of true joy and laughter? Do they still remember the Giver of those happy days in their life?

IMU, stands for I Miss U. The memories that were graciously given to me, that I've taken for granted over the years; the people I've met and loved, that I've often neglected; the laughter and smiles that I could've given more generously; last but not least, the Reason of my being in IMU, and the Shaper of my future.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

100th Post

When I first started this blog, it was only meant to help distract myself from the various frustrations of situations I faced back that time. Stressed, disturbed and hurting from what was happening, I saw the blog as a way to vent out my frustrations and run away temporarily from my struggles. And since small, my head has always been full of fantasies and ideas, of knights and soldiers, of lovers and parents, of children and teens, running around in the mazes of life, falling and tripping over stones along the way, and finally reaching their various destinations of success, victory, joy and laughter.

It's funny to look back at the first few stories I wrote. Looking back I realized that my writing has went through a momentous period of evolution. From the typical boy-girl love stories to a complicated series of Zanotopian army fightings, and finally coming to the one area ever so close to my heart: family.

Throughout these writings and over the last 2 years, there has only been 1 true theme and purpose of my little stories: Hope. Partly because it is the one thing I yearn and desire for constantly, but more importantly because that is the one reason why I enjoy writing and reading stories. My stories are never the best in the market or in the web, but within my limited vocabulary and with my shamefully confined narrative skills, I do my very best to use people, events, and little things along life's journey to bring out the best from the worst of situations. I promise you, I'm improving by the day, with the help of very meticulous parents that have been my best critiques and the support of close friends like Si Han and many others who help stimulate and encourage me to keep writing and keep growing.

To all who've read and encouraged me along the way, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. It is never easy to write a story, let along post it on a blog. Yes, I stumble and fall, but ultimately this blog is never about myself, it's about us. You and me, we're all the same after all. The same story, the same destination, maybe different paths here and there, but at the end of the day, we would finally meet at one common point after being separated at an earlier junction.

And how would I know that for sure? Coz' beyond the mere words in this blog, the true inspiration and source of these stories is the one Giver of my dreams, and the Great Storyteller, and believe it, He is the one that has prepared this journey for all of us.

Thank you so much for spending a couple of minutes of your life in this webpage. The following story, Lollipop Men, is my 100th story. It ain't short, but it is a carefully and very delicately written story, specially prepared for all of you. Do enjoy it, and have a very blessed week ahead.

Jo aka HeartzOfGold

Lollipop Men

The little bell rang. Jingle jingle. In walked a man. An old man, a hunch on his back, face darkened by patches of dirt, hair that was dry as hay and grey as ash. Some of the buttons on his shirt were chipped, a couple of it missing, one of a different shape, and another, of a different size. The colours of his shirt were worn out and the fabric thinned. Even the stains on his shirt were dull and stale with time.

Slowly walking into the shop, his hand was clenching a 5 dollar bill. “Could I exchange this for coins?”

For a while I was wondering, why would an old man, a beggar perhaps, ask for coins? Keeping the thought to myself, I opened the drawer and retrieved my coin bag and took a dip for the coins. Then the answer came barging through the door.

“Daddy daddy…”

Like her daddy, she had dry hair and a face that would otherwise be fair had it not be for those dirt marks. Pretty blue eyes, a torn ribbon to hold the hay together, and a blackish grey skirt that could once have been white.

Old man hushed the girl, but the girl was evidently very excited about riding the brass horse outside my shop. Taking a peek from where I stood, behind the opaque glass was another little shadow, pressing against the glass, trying to take a sneak at the little commotion unfolding inside the shop.

The girl left as quickly as she came in and joined her younger brother outside. She was probably 8, and the boy, 5? Sentiment and nostalgia has been at every corner of this shop, dormant and asleep, and it took 2 children and an old man to bring them to life again.

“I’m really sorry sir,” I bluffed. “I really don’t have enough coins. Tell you what, just take the shillings. The horse only feeds on 10 cent coins.”

“No no… I’m just here to exchange coins…” It’s true, the words of a forgotten philosopher now ring in my ears: Greater the dignity of a poor man. And I know what those words meant. Every single word.

For I was once poor myself.

His hands were trembling so badly. Was it Parkinson? Was it Alzheimer? He was stammering as he tried to explain: His children just want to have a horse ride, and he came to exchange coins. Perhaps he has tried the other shops beside my book shop, and perhaps too the snobbish owners turned him away.

How could I then, without being snobbish or proud, show him some kindness?

“Sir, I would love to engage with you in such an honourable exchange, but I simply have no such
capacity as I sincerely do not have sufficient coins… but perhaps you would accept these coins as a simple gift from me to your children?”

“It’s Christmas after all…” ironically he was standing under the mistletoe I hung right in front of the fortress – the cashier’s desk – that I faithfully guarded from behind. He let out a sigh. His fingers unfold, revealing the crumpled 5 dollar bill, and upon that very crumpled note I gently dropped the shillings.

“Thank you,” his eyes wandered, not knowing where to look, “And Merry Christmas.”

A string tugged my heart as he turned towards the door. Instinctively my hand dived into the coin bag and familiarly reached for a tiny piece of my heart.

“Sir! Wait,” I hurried up to the door as his hand fastened on the door knob, the bells softly jingling again. “There’s something else.”

That cold morning I was all alone. The orphanage gave me the boot after I fought with the kid again. That useless kid who thought he was so great for having parents that died in Normandy while fighting the Germans.

“You son of a bitch!!” he screamed spitefully after accepting my blow that landed accurately on his left jaw. And he wasn’t swearing. If only I didn’t confide in that Father – whom I thought could be trusted – and if only the adults didn’t talk so loudly while preparing our dinner the week before, the kid wouldn’t have screamed those words.

True, the adults later said. It’s not my fault that I had a bitch for a mother, but it’s my fault that I socked him in the eye, broke his fingers and smashed his shin with the wooden block the kitchen helpers use to chop chicken meat on.

That cold morning, the heavens broke and rain poured. All living creatures, man and beast, scurried into the shelters, leaving me all alone in the streets, with nothing but a hot red butt - from the spanking earlier – and a torn sweater that soaked up the cold rain. For the second time in my 10 years of life, I cried. Huddling up beside anything I could lean on, water kept falling onto my face, mixing with the narrow streams flowing from the swollen corners of my eyes.

Just when I thought no one was hearing and no one knew, the rain stopped falling on my face. Not that the rain really did stop – the sound of rain falling on the zinc roofs could still be heard. Tilting my head up, a huge pair of leather boots was planted in front of my tiny shoes. Looking up even more, a well-built man, carrying an umbrella, and as if it was not enough to keep him dry, had a long woolen overall which I thought was a tad too big for him.

Probably he was the first soul that ever smiled to me, the despicable and hideous little creature that accidentally burst the wombs of a night watcher of the streets. Was I scared? Afraid that he would do something to me, kicked me in the legs, ask me to get up and get moving? Now, I couldn’t really remember what it felt back then when confronted with that huge guy, but I remembered clearly, I stopped crying.

From the deep pockets inside his overall, he pulled out a lollipop. A bright colourful lollipop that had colours swirling in a spiral, the colours fusing into a single dot in the middle of it. Wrapped in a transparent plastic wrapper and sitting on top of a wooden stick. I took it from his hands and clenched it in my fist.

“Come!” he stretched forth his hand. Pulling me by the palm, he pulled me back to my feet. “Care to take a seat?” Looking into the direction of his hand, I realized all this time I was leaning on a little brass horse, with a cloth saddle and a metal handle on its mane. I sat on it obediently, and he pushed a 10 cent coin into the rectangular mouth beside the horse.

The horse galloped slowly, and a melancholic melody hummed from the belly of the horse. He smiled and bade me farewell, and turned off to walk, leaving me alone, on the galloping and singing horse, under the rain again. My eyes fixed on his disappearing figure and became moist again. Quickly wiping the tears away, scared that he would suddenly turn around and catch me crying, a little light shone in my chambers, bringing warmth to the once cold and frozen heart.

Later that cold morning, the rain stopped, along with the bitterness and self-pity in me. I knocked on every restaurant until finally one kind owner paid me 20 cents per day to wash his dishes. From the dirty sink I moved to the fiery wok and kept my earnings in the very same pocket that kept my lollipop. Still nicely in its wrapper. Still sitting on the wooden stick. Still in one complete piece.

Until one night in the workers dorm, a reincarnation of the kid back in the orphanage grabbed my lollipop as I took it out to keep my wages. After a hefty tussle, he dropped the lollipop, splitting the perfect circle into two crooked halves.

“I know it’s broken, and it’s not a new one,” I mumbled to the old man. The old man was reluctant to accept.

“It’s very much a part of me. It’s my childhood. I hope you won’t find it too little for your children.”

I just want them to have what I had.

Warmth. Love. Kindness.

From a man that made me who I am today.

He walked out of the door and squatted in front of his children. Through the tiny opening of the door not shut tight, the little children’s eyes were wide open. Dazzling and sparkling blue eyes. The old man shakingly opened the plastic wrapper and gave each kid one half of the lollipop. Then both the children lurched at the old man, wrapping their arms around his neck, half lollipop still in their small palm, hysteric and happy.

My heart melted at that sight. And 10 years ago, I resented that scoundrel that broke my lollipop.

Then the two children mounted the brass horse, and the horse sprang to life, humming the same tune as it did 20 years ago. The boy had his arms wrapped over his sister’s waist, both trying to hum to the tune of the singing horse. Two happy little children on a horse, under the watchful eyes of their old and sick father.

The old man looked into the store, our eyes met. A small curve broke from the corners of his lips, and his eyes were bright with gratitude. A gentle nod, and I replied in same likeness.

Funny how fate intertwined. After working in the restaurant for 15 years, I decided to open a book shop. Walking down the lonely streets on a chilly autumn, I stopped in front of the brass horse. I smiled as the memories came rushing back into my mind, and I looked around to see if anything has changed.

Nothing has changed, except that the store in front of the brass horse had a cardboard behind the glass door.


Was that coincidence, fate, luck…?

“How much does this book cost?”

I was too engrossed that I failed to realize a customer was patiently waiting in front of my fortress, crossed and ready to invade my tiny castle. I hurried back, apologizing for my distraction, and quickly answered his questions when something lying on the table caught my eyes.

Was it from you? I asked. “No,” said customer. “An old man with a thick coat left it on your table… I think he just walked out from behind…”

I grabbed it and ran to the back of my store. “Merry Christmas! Keep the book!” I shouted without looking back at the bewildered customer. Lurching at the back door, I jumped onto the back alley just in time to see the same disappearing figure, with an umbrella over his head, wearing the same leather boots and the same woolen overall.

The drizzle that fell made me feel small again. 20 years and the memory now were relived in reality. And nothing had changed. Through the moist eyes came a blurry vision of the very same man walking down the street. In my hand was the exact same lollipop with swirling colours in a wrapper on a wooden stick. Standing under the rain again, the same tears of gratitude and joy rolled down both sides of the cheek that eventually mixed with the drizzling rain.

But this time, I wasn’t afraid of letting the tears fall.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Into A Father's Heart - Father's Day post

From the very beginning, son had already planned the perfect day for his dad. He would wake up early, prepare breakfast for mom and dad, send it up to their room and give them breakfast on bed. Then later in the afternoon, he would drive them to the nearby cinema and let dad and mom have a romantic movie together while he would go back and prepare a nice dinner for them. He even looked up the recipes that would make a good dinner.

After all, he thought to himself, it’s Father’s Day!

So that Sunday morning, he got up early and started cooking breakfast. The night before, he had all the eggs laid out on the table and the sausages and ham left in the sink to tore. He turned on the gas stove and started on the sausages.

The sausages and the ham was done swiftly, now all that was left was the eggs. He cracked the eggs carefully at the side of the pan and broke the shell. A shrapnel of the shell fell into the pan together with the egg white and yolk. Unsatisfied, he got a fork and began digging out the piece of shell. Probably, he was too focused on getting the shell out that he forgot that the stove’s flame was still at the highest flame intensity. In a matter of seconds, the egg was already burnt and the piece of shell was still inside.

A tad disappointed, he turned off the stove and flipped the pan to the side to let the egg slide down. Alas, the egg never did. It was too burnt and was stuck to the base. He was about to again dig the egg out when a brilliant idea crossed his mind.

Why not put some oil at the base and heat the stove up again?

Gleaming, he took the oil, poured some back into the pan, and turned on the stove, expecting the oil to start sizzling and he’ll slide the egg out just in time. Weird, the oil never did sizzle. Why isn’t it hot? He looked underneath and saw that the flames were not coming out. Maybe I didn’t turned it on just now, he mumbled. And he turned it on again.


That was when the whole stove exploded, sending him a few feet back from the stove. He was lucky that nothing nearby caught fire, but the whole stove, the whitewashed wall behind the stove, and the gas tubing, was either molten or charcoaled. He sighed at relief at his survival, but the sound woke his parents up. The dad, half awake with a mouth ajar, asked him what happened.

Nothing much… Breakfast, you know… I was preparing it for you guys… when this useless stove… yeah… you know…

The dad sighed. Son, we’re gonna have to clean up that mess. The boy hung his head low.

But hey! The dad said cheerfully , we could do that after the ham and sausages!

Breakfast was warm and nice. Mom said that the sausages were a little burnt, dad suggested that the ham would have went well with butter instead of olive oil, but he loved the fact that his son cooked breakfast for them. Still, nothing they said could rid the boy off that awful feeling deep down in his heart. First part of the day screwed up, he’d better not screw up the movie and dinner.

The wall didn’t take as long as expected, and soon it was time for the movie. Mom and dad got dressed up, cologne and perfume, a tie and a scarf. All got into the car and son slipped comfortably behind the stering wheel, twisted the keys, and rafted the engine.

If he could remember it clearly and accurately, it was first a loud roar – the usual roar when an engine turns to life – then an unexplainable and rather mysterious metal choking sound, then the engine went dead.

Son was sweating in his seat. Maybe it’s the battery, he reassured. I’ll go check it out.

He checked, and it wasn’t. He was sweating even harder. Mom and dad came out of the car. So what’s wrong?

“Come son, let’s check it out.”

Dad took of his tie, rolled up his sleeves and started fiddling around with the car engine. The son was passing him the tools as the dad looked through the parts cautiously.

Dad, I think it could be the conveyer belt.

Dad opened the hud of the engine. You’re right son, it’s the conveyer. Guess we have to call the mechanics in.

But dad, the movie…

“Forget about the movie son, let’s work on this car ok? Call the toll truck and we’ll go over to the mechanics repair shop.” The boy’s heart sunk deep into his guts. Now all his plans are gone. If he went to the mechanics, he would never get home in time to prepare dinner. All his plans for Father’s Day would be ruined.

Throughout the rest of the evening, he remained calm and strong. He was terribly disappointed that things did not turn out the way he wanted it to. Dad drove him to the mechanics in mom’s car, and they watched the mechanics working on the car for a couple of hours. The car’s conveyer belt was fixed, but the mechanics insisted that they leave the car behind for the other mechanics to give the rest of the car a thorough check on Monday. So both of them drove back home.

The boy no longer had much to say. The journey back home was long and quiet. The sun, in the distance, set behind the hills and the day was quickly coming to an end. What a useless day, what a meaningless day! I couldn’t even give my dad a happy moment in his life, the boy thought to himself.


Hmm? What’s up son?

I’m so sorry… for screwing up today… I so wanted to give you a good breakfast, a good movie… but nothing just worked out… I tried…

“Son, don’t feel sorry for yourself,” the dad interjected. “Today has been the best day in my life.” The boy was stupefied and thought that the dad was trying to console him. Dad must have read his mind as he went on to say, “It’s been a very long time since I last spent so much time doing things with you.”

Washing the walls together, fixing the car, driving to the mechanics, waiting at the shop, and now driving home together. Just you and me.

“You see son, you really don’t have to prepare grand events or special activities for me. I don’t need that. All I need, and truly want, is you. Every single day you wake up in the morning and greet me, every single moment you talk to me about your day and friends, every time you ask me for help in your studies and carpentry, every night when you give me a hug before you sleep, those moments are all Father Day’s moments. All these years, every single day you gave me has been a Father’s day.”

Son was moved by the words of his dad. Little did he know that a father’s heart was full of the smallest things he ever did for the dad, and memories stored with those moments of laughter between a father and a son. If only the dad wasn’t driving, he would have bent over and gave him a hug.

Dad, thank you so much.

No son, dad replied. I should thank you instead. It’s because of you, that I become the reason for this very day, and for all those moments of being a dad.

Happy Father’s Day folks.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Photographer 2 - Stop, Look, and Smile

Just a few days ago, I was surprised and completely elated to meet the old photographer. I was amazed that he hasn’t changed much since the last time we met, which was almost a decade ago? And the best part of all, was that he never did forget me.

“Come young man,” he motioned for me to join him for lunch. “I’d better not get too used to calling you little boy, can I?”

Very quickly we exchanged words and caught up a little with each other. Oh you’re now in college? That’s fast.. Haha.. yup.. going to be a doctor.. Why on earth would you want to be a doctor? I thought all this while your only passion was about shooting pretty girls passing by.. Hey! What do you mean by that? Haha..

He took a sip of his black coffee. Putting down the cup gently, he asked, “Could I have a look at some of your photos?”

I so happened to walked back to my hostel with the camera in my hand. Earlier on there was a major function in college that I was covering. Sure! Why not? Do comment and advice me.

He took hold of my camera firmly and familiarly switched it on and looked into the pictures. His eyes screened through the pictures swiftly but carefully. Without missing a single detail about texture and lighting, we discussed the technicalities of the photos I shot. Flash angle wasn’t too good over here young man.. you could have tilted it a little more to avoid the obstruction on the ceiling.. why did you use low aperture and low shuttle speed? Goodness..

The old man was witty and was taking swipes at my photos. Defensively I explained my motives. I wanted to contrast the backdrop of the stage.. there was a lot of alien light from behind, I had to eliminate it with the flash light.. and no, I wasn’t interested in that girl sitting in the front row..


And all of a sudden, I recalled the last time I had such a hearty laugh with him many many years ago. How a small boy, sitting on the lap of a grandfather who was full of stories, and now, sitting opposite each other, laughing again over a cup of coffee and a camera.

The old man continued to flip through the photographs and added comments here and there occasionally. This time however, I noticed that he was more immersed in his own thoughts.

What’s on your mind, old man?

His eyes gazed wearily. Something must have reminded him of a story he once kept. I could tell, that he was digging deep into his memory bank to recollect that story he once heard of, that incident he once encountered.

I was once like you, he finally said after a long pause. Young, brash, aggressive, ready to take on the world. Without much thought and care, I went out with a camera and took good photos. Nature, people, incidents, events…

But as I grew older I realized my photos never did improve much. Year after year, my photos would have the same theme. Trees swaying with falling leaves, ducks on a pond with its clear reflection, bird swooping into the pond to catch a fish.. it became so stale and boring. There was a point of time where I nearly gave up photography.

I was all ears. Then what happened old man?

“I asked myself, what am I doing all this for?” He paused to sip his coffee while I waited eagerly for him to continue his story. Why bother to take photos that I’ve already taken years ago? Why care about the nature when it’s not like anyone else in the world never did see trees with leaves falling down when the wind blew. So really, why do I take photos?

“You see, young man,” his experience and wisdom was now speaking for himself. “There came that point of time when I no longer enjoyed shooting photos. The camera was now a tool, the pictures that came out were just outputs. How could you utilize your camera to its best, or how would your output ever be amazing enough, if you have no idea about what your input is, or where it’s coming from?

He stopped there, and allowed the words to sink into my thoughts. I pondered and wondered, what old man is saying is true.

If you have no idea about what your input is, or where it’s coming from, how would your output ever be good enough?

So, he continued, I decided to give my faithful pal a break, and took a walk in the park without the camera. As I walked, I asked myself, what do I want to see? And I looked around myself. I saw a small boy cycling on his little plastic tricycle with his attentive mother hovering around him. Now if I had my camera with me back then, I would have immediately knelt down and snapped photos of that moment. But without the camera, I just stopped where I was standing, looked, and smiled at the beauty of the moment.

I walked on and saw ducks swimming on the lake. I’ve taken tones of photos of ducks, young man. Trust me. Tones. But that one time I was standing alone without my camera, I noticed that the very same duck I always shoot pictures of would swim alone while the rest of the pack swam on the other side of the pond. I asked myself, why is that duck swimming alone? Is it injured? Disabled? Rejected?

His eyes lit again. As if as a sudden enlightenment dawned upon him. “Then it suddenly came to me, that if I never stop to look, the beauty of the moment, even if captured on film, would be lost. When I was your age, all I wanted to do was to take beautiful pictures. It was all about the output that mattered to me. And it became boring.

“But that very moment, when I stopped to look, I realized where it all begins. Even before the output can come, it is the input that truly matters. To just stop, and look, and smile. That is appreciating the beauty of the moment. It is at that moment where you realize that those photos of ducks feeding or kids running around in the park matters enough, if you’ve been able to appreciate the wonders at how ducks feed and felt the joy of kids running around in the park.”

Notice that every time the camera is in your hands, all that’s on your mind is about the amazing photos that you want to shoot? He added. You no longer focus on what’s going on anymore.

I nodded slowly in agreement. He handed me back my camera. I looked down into the 3 inch digital screen and flipped through the photos. Yes, in my pursuit of capturing spectacular pictures, I, myself, have lost the beauty of the moment.

For so long I’ve always taken photos simply for the sake of taking photos to ‘own nice photos’. The greed in wanting to take many photos in order to never lose a single opportunity to grab a good shot or capture that rare sight pushed me to keep that camera in my hands in front of my eyes all the while. But little did I realize that I too have slowly lost the beauty of moments.

Stop, look, and smile.

“Old man,” the same curiousity in me back when I was little never died after all. “What happened to the kid on the tricycle and the mother?”

He chuckled. You changed little haven’t you? Well, he told me that once he received that enlightenment, he quickly ran home, grabbed his old faithful and dashed back to where the kid and mom was. The mother, he said, was a bit taken aback at his enthusiasm as he explained to her that he was a photographer who was working on some projects, but eventually she agreed to let him take a photo of her with her child.

“That photo, young man, was the most beautiful picture I’ve ever taken. The mother was squatting beside her son on the tricycle. She smiled, and her son never did look at the camera. It wasn’t about the posture or the graphic details, it was about how that particular photo reminded me of the moment I saw him riding his tricycle. I sometimes take out that photo and wonder, what’s going on with him? Is he already working? Does he have a family? Is he married? Is he happy? And then I remember that evening when he was cycling, with his mother beside him, how I felt so warm to feel the love of a mother and the joy of a little child.”

We never did chat for long, although I badly wanted to. The skies were turning dark, and I had to rush back to my hostel to get some work done. But as I stood up to walk away, I suddenly remembered what he said and did. Turning around, I turned my camera on, and politely asked him,

“Could I take a photo of you to remind me of this moment?”

And he smiled. That very familiar smile I could still remember even after 10 years.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

The Piano - A Tribute to My Parents

My parents have made certain investments that I knew of, both in mine and their lives. Cars are one. The few that they bought have served our family for close to decades; education, no doubt..

But there is no one investment they made that could beat the piano that they bought many years ago. It's a Young Chang piano, Korean imported. It would never produce the quality of the tone as fantastic as a Petrof or Yamaha, but it's still a very fine piano alright.

First time I sat on the piano chair, I was 3. All I could remember about those days were how I'd just randomly hit the keys and laugh to myself at the funny and weird sound it made. My legs were way too short back to touch the floor back then, so I'd sit with my whole buttock on the chair and let both legs dangle in mid air. After all, I hadn't much use of the pedals anyway.

The piano was my imagination. After watching Disney cartoons, I'd walk back up to the piano and play the songs I heard. Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and Pocahontas were my favourites. And as I played, I would imagine myself as the prince saving the beautiful princess, or be the little soldier in the movie fighting his way past evil monsters to get to the castle where the sleeping beauty slept.

Growing older, when imaginations of rescuing princesses faded and realities started sinking in, I still imagined myself as a little conductor, orchestrating a masterpiece for the movie makers. Playing on the high-pitched keys were like flutes, trumpets, strings, melodious and sweet; low-pitched notes sounded like trombones, bass, percussions, evil, dark, dangerous. It was a little child's imagination that kept that black shiny piano in my home always working, and it was a simple piano that painted my life with many beautiful colours.

Having such privilege of growing up in the world of music and sounds, I now realized that my piano actually taught me more than just music lessons. For one, the piano made me realize how much my parents mean to me. Back when my dad was still working, he could afford to send me for music lessons and exams. My last exam was the Trinity diploma. On payment day, I was with my mother in my lecturer's office when she took out a wad of cash and counted it in front of my huge eyes as she passed it to the teacher. Driving away from the music school, all that my mom said was, practice hard and don't waste our money, ok?

I was 14 back then. Money was no longer something that was so casual-looking like water or paper. I was old enough to understand how hard it was for my dad to earn every dollar, especially after being in his lab before and seeing what he has to do each day. For the first time in my life, I got serious about what I was doing. It was an examination alright, and I had to do well.

In the months that led to the exam, I would occasionally wake up from nightmares of failing my diploma test. It wasn't a nice feeling, and it was no fun. Dreams have always been something very real to me, and in those few dreams I remembered waking up to, I always woke up with sweat dropping from my temple and eyes moist and red.

God, please don't let me fail. Please.

I could say that it wasn't those nightmares that kept me practicing even when my hands were sore and the blisters popped all over my fingertips. Maybe it was the fear of not passing, but I couldn't fail as long as my parents were paying. I could not allow myself to let them down, neither could I afford to waste the money that they spent on me.

Now as I write, I look back on those many hours spent with the piano. Sacrificing time to myself, effort and energy, I realized all that I did and all that I earned wasn't for my own self. It was an act of love for my parents. As much as they coughed out that colossal sum of money for my exam and classes out of love, it was just the only way I could have showed them that I love them too. No way I could actually repay their love. It sounds ridiculous even to think of paying them back for all the sleepless nights they went through and all the tears and blood poured out for a son who brought so much pain to them.

Eventually, by God's grace, I passed my piano exam. Though I never verbalized it, though they congratulated me and heaped me with praises, the one thing that I wished I told them earlier on before they gave me the credit for working hard, was this:

It's not about me, it's the both of you. It's your credit, it's your achievement.

Once in a while I will still go home when I'm fed-up of life in college. But there too will be the days when I wished I never did go home. Home now reminds me of all that my dad still has to go through to put bread on our table. Now working private, he works odd hours, travelling from state to state in a truck, works overtime and sometimes have to go back to the factory in the middle of the night to load goods off lorries.

And one night, while waiting for my dad to come home, I cried thinking of how he still has to struggle for us. God, why do you let all these still happen to my dad? It's never fair, and life's never going to be fair. It's always my dad that suffers first from the government, and now the private work, how about later?

He came back at 3am, tired, in pain from loading the goods - 15 tonnes of fertilizer bags - and soaked in his own sweat. He went to take a bath, and coming out, while getting ready to sleep, I hugged him as usual.

Papa, I'm sorry, I blurted.

My dad was perplexed. Sorry for what?

And I walked out of the room. I turned away, not because I didn't have an answer, but because I didn't him to see me cry again. I'm sorry for not being able to help you. I'm sorry that I'm the reason why you still have to suffer so much. I'm sorry that I would never be able to take care of you and mummy yet. Just give me a few more years, a few more years and I promise things will change for the better. But for now, I'm so sorry.

Crying myself to sleep, it somehow dawned to me that if only things weren't the way it is now, I would never be able to keep pushing myself to do better, and work harder for a better tomorrow. But I must say, that these love and struggles that I could relate to, all started the very day my parents bought the piano. It was God's magical way of showing me who really matters to me, and led me to understand that all I did was not for myself, but for them. The piano reminded me, that some things in life are just worth investing in. Or should I simply say that my parents never really did invest in a piano, they invested into me and my brother. That's the greatest investment they ever made.