Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Paul Quek, my singular Dad, 80

My dad, popularly known as Chiap Seng, passed away just 6 months short of his 80th birthday, on 20th April 2009. It was relatively quick, quite a shock, but ultimately peaceful. It is heartbreakingly painful to lose so extraordinary a parent, a mentor, an exemplar of quiet unassuming strength.

Fear of Surgery
He had been nursing bilateral groin hernias for some months, quietly, before he complained that they were uncomfortable—that he had some pain and occasional difficulty in walking well. But he was in his own way always terrified about hospitals, never having been admitted for any reason thus far, until recently. In sharp contrast with my chosen profession, and me, he had always had that illogical fear of the sharp distinct smells and surgical chanciness of hospitals.

But two weeks ago, he was finally persuaded to have the repairs done, which went well supposedly without a hitch. He was discharged in 3 days, and was happier that his ageing 'loose' anatomy could be mended. He was cajoled to move and ambulate early, which he did, in his tottering shuffling style that we had grown accustomed to of late. By five days, he was having dinner with all of us at our favourite restaurant, eating as well as he could, since my sister Julia had also returned from London to be with us. There was nothing much to alert us to any possible problem or lurking complication, or what he was going through, within him... Then a few days later, he began to feel unwell, and passed away suddenly.

"But death, too, had the power to awe... that a human being could be alive for years and years, thinking and breathing and eating, full of a million worries and feelings and thoughts, taking up space in the world, and then, in an instant become absent, invisible." ~ Jhumpa Lahiri, in Unaccustomed Earth, Bloomsbury Publishing Inc, London, 2009.
Just last year, when mum was finally persuaded to undergo coronary angiography and finally bypass surgery, he was facing for the first time the prospect of someone he'd loved and lived with for so long, the reality of hospitalisation and separation of his kindred if contrasting soul mate.

He'd wake early to await us transferring him to the hospital to keep vigil, especially when mum was in ICU the first few days post surgery, patiently expectant, silently anticipating perhaps all the gremlins of uncertainty and unfounded ignorance that were the mental fears of most folks.

God knows how much of these months of stress and internal uncertainties had gripped and tortured his gentle fainthearted psyche and soul. Yet he remained his usual quiet unassertive self, with his self-effacing mannerisms. Most of us know that Dad was a rather private person who chose his friends sparingly—he had few really good friends. Recently, his slightly off-vision of his immediate world, would cause him to sometimes miscue objects and people, but he’d often also surprised us with his lucid past recollections of long-forgotten memories...

Lucid Memories...
One time last year when we had one of those increasingly rare moments of contemplative conversation, he reminded me of the stupefying vision of the snow-cloaked Remarkables (and Mount Cook) when we woke up to the chilling morn at the Heritage Hotel in Queenstown, New Zealand, in 1996. That shared vacation is one that we would never forget.

Another time, he remembered my childhood friends with alacrity: Kok Foo, Gek Young, Keng Hon, Hai Chong, Siah Lock, Philip Ng, Peter Leong, John Chia, Derrick DeSouza, Lawrence Loh, Ah Chai, Thomas Wong, and how we'd used to play, pray, sing and study together; my maize project, my ecology pond and report; my immersion in the Voice newsletter of Saint Joseph's School, JB; which he must have been very proud of me to remember...

He asked what had become of them now, and if I was still in contact with at least some of them. His spotty recollections could be so vivid, that they sometimes evoked pinpoint flashbacks only as the result of much concentrated reminiscing on my part! Such was the awesome power of his mind and our shared memories, selective, as they might have been!

Unassuming Stoic Common Sense
He had asked too, if I should be so involved in so many societies and causes, which appear to take up so much of my free time, but never questioned my decisions. In his quiet way, I know that he was proud of the fact that I and his other children had ventured into more extroverted activities, and leadership positions, which he never had the chance or opportunity, in another time, in another world or another generation, to do so.

When I was writing some of my bolder and more outspoken articles against the corruption and excesses of authority and government, he asked if it was 'safe' to do so, requesting that I be more cautious, but did not badger me to stop. Dad’s only reminder to me was not to enter politics!

I suppose I am the further development and embodiment of some of his innermost gut feelings and possibly ethically correct Christian thinking, that in his generation and time, would have been difficult or unthinkable to voice out openly...

Yet, he was always reticent and self-effacing, with a nary a harsh word for anybody, not even some of his more questionable friends and relatives who sometimes tested his patience and sense of right and wrong. His singular tolerance and stoic forbearance was his wondrous touchstone.

One time during a Chinese New reunion dinner, he'd praised my wife Bae Ling, for her butter prawns, which he commended tasted even better than any restaurant's that he had been before! My wife, being an in-law in a very vocal family, had earlier been flustered trying to get the recipe spot on, when the buttermilk refused to thicken quickly enough. Dad had just that touch of simple understanding to diffuse any brewing tension.

He was also quick to dismiss negative thoughts about others, preferring to believe in the better things about them. Sometimes, we fail to understand his choice of stepping back and preferring withdrawal and concession. Often, we had misunderstood this as he being too timid.

Unspoken and quietly among all of us his children, we believed we had taken on more of our mother's domineering traits and genes—almost all of us are fiery and forward, and incidentally also Blood Group A and possibly type A Personalities too!

But that was the way he was, quietly strong in his belief that confrontation might not always be the best approach—that sometimes a timely withdrawal can reap a larger longer-lasting reward or victory—indeed, a very Chinese trait that's only conceivable as a calculated stratagem of the legendary Sun Tzu! Yet, that was not a premeditated stance of dad, he just was that way...

Brief History
Probably unknown to our more privileged children these days, Dad's humble beginnings are not always remembered.

Dad was the youngest of 4 sons to Grandpa Quek Ah Cheng, a first generation Malaysian Chinese, born to migrant Quek Long Kang who hailed from Swatow, China. Together with his brother Long Peng, they built up a business network, which spanned Singapore and Johor Bahru. But their hard-earned wealth was not to last into our following generations, perhaps an enactment of the Buddenbrooks phenomenon.

One wonders what must have gone through Dad’s mind through the years, as he moved from a relatively well-to-do background, to lose almost everything as the Japanese occupation and its aftermath, robbed him and his family, his erstwhile comforts, to stop his schooling, interrupted so near to competing his Senior Cambridge (Form 4).

Almost totally dispossessed, father went on to work as a young man, married mum, and began a family. I remembered our rented tinned-roof one-room house in Tarom, then Kemaman in JB, then to Stulang Laut above a metal foundry shop, by the jetty. It was much later that we moved on to Taman Pelangi and then Taman Perling.

Family Bonds & Challenges
We as a family had gone through a lot, chipping in together to try make ends meet; mum had to take on cleaning jobs with some expats and neighbours; we were all adept at sewing umbrellas, just to earn a few extra cents per piece, Julia was perhaps the fastest and most adept umbrella technician! Above all, we the children were exhorted to study hard and to try and excel, because this was the expectation and hope for us to escape from the poverty trap and cycle.

Anna went on to work to help out immediately after completing her MCE, thereafter venturing into accountancy and taxation. Then we dispersed: Julia for her nursing in UK, and myself to KL to University of Malaya medical school, followed by Lucia into English and Education; with Henry to Business honours at University of Singapore.

Not by choice, Thomas had decided to venture into business, and although it hadn’t always been plain-sailing, there is no doubt that he has done the best, most successfully today, as evidenced by his numerous contacts, friends and business associates—the tremendous support and number of condolence wreaths are testimony to that! As a good friend of Dad, Tan Tek Seng (now a Full Gospel Assembly pastor) used to say, “the University of Hard Knocks” could be the most valuable training ground for a determined, successful person!

But it was not all hard work and suffering, we had our moments of fun, we’d all love to sing with the same battery-operated radio as our only companion, back then—we could not afford the black-and-white TV then. Our earliest fondest memories comprised of Sundays at ‘Lau Ma’ Great Grandma at the Khoos where we enjoyed nyonya food and TV football; or at ‘Ah Pek’ Uncle Chiap Soon’s House off Jalan Ah Siang. Ah, the memories of our peculiar childhood...

As I grow older now and finally perhaps more mature, I find that Dad’s philosophy in life is even the more fulfilling and sane—that quiet strength and dignity of purpose is every bit as good and as meaningful as it gets! I'm learning that the gentler approach even if with a touch of my inherent pugnacious urgency can be a more worthwhile approach to life and its intricacies, its complexities of human interactions and frailties.

Legacy of Self-effacing Love & Spirituality
Even towards the end, Dad had always wanted to trouble as little as possible any of his children, preferring to cope in his own inimical if stoical way. "No, I don't want to bother or trouble you all" was one of his common statements. Both Mum and Dad have always worried about not being a burden to any of their children...

Even when his Parkinson's disease was getting on and slowing his day-to-day activities, he would loathe troubling anyone of us, quietly preferring to choose his own path. He was anguished at having to lose his capacity to drive, his independence to move around to do the things he loved, in his later carefree years with Mum. There were years when Dad and Mum attended early morning mass daily, until his capacity and failing vision and reactions made it difficult to continue.

We all know that as grandparents, they’d loved caring after and chauffeuring Adrian, Jason, and Michelle when they were young in JB and studying in Singapore. This unique bond had made these three young people the closest to their grandparents among that generation: Adrian is now a doctor completing his specialist training in UK, Jason an LSE graduate, and Michelle a lawyer who chooses to work in a Children’s Charity. I know grandpa was tremendously proud of you all, as he was of all his other grandchildren. Perhaps, unfortunately for some of us, there just weren’t ample time or opportunity to connect or bond more closely…

Perhaps, during these past few years we had neglected understanding your needs better, your unspoken fears, your silent screams for understanding, dignity and meaning; for all that please forgive us, your less than clued-in, always busy children. If only we all had so much more time and chances to share, to care, to understand...

Thank you dad, for making sense in an increasingly senseless world, for passing on to all of us, that more polished softer edge in dealing with our complicated lives. That good sense and moral Christian living, and a steadfast conscience, ultimately triumphs over iniquities, with what's right and meaningful in this world.

We the children have all never been very rich materially, but as persons, and spiritually, I believe, we are all the richer because of your edifying selfless way of life, which I am sure had rubbed off on all of us, you have touched. I know we will all miss you sorely, Mum most acutely and painfully—after all, a lifetime together is an eternity...

Goodbye, dad, goodbye to the earthly realm and sojourn of trials and transitory memories. Welcome to your new world of perpetual peace and union with Christ our Lord Jesus, Amen.

“I am the resurrection; whoever believes in me, though he dies, shall live.
Whoever is alive by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)


Palmdoc said...

My condolences David.

Richard said...

Your father was quite obviously a very special person

Please accept our condolences, David.

Richard and Kiran