Family, Health

“It feels better to be loving than to be right”: Redeeming the lost years with my father

By Chan See Ting , 19 June 2020

It’s been a little over a year since Pa has passed. While things are never quite the same anymore, my mum, whom I affectionately call “Mi”, and I have found a new normalcy in our lives.

I have now taken over his bedroom and filled it with my things, and have gotten rid of most of his furniture except for his work table. Mi now gets up earlier than she used to because she has now taken over his house duties.

We no longer hear the sound of his perpetual hacking cough, the click-clacking of his keyboard, or the songs he would hum as he cleaned the house.

Even then, there are still traces of him here. His xiangqi sets, the old dictionaries and grammar books that he used to teach me with. I can still see him in every corner of this 113sqm space: shaving at the sink, standing over the stove, sitting in the living room poring over the morning papers.

I see him when I look at Mi, the woman that convinced him to take another shot at marriage. And I see him when I look into the mirror – the daughter he so loved and cherished.

It’s strange that I would miss Pa so terribly, given that I didn’t always have a good relationship with him. If you knew me 10 years ago, I literally had nothing nice to say about the man.

Pa and Mi had grown apart over the years and because they slept separately. I grew up sharing a room with Mi and was constantly exposed to her unkind narratives about Pa.

He’s useless, she said, you see he never ever asks about your life. Never even contributes to the house. So old already still cannot follow simple instructions that I give to him, always messing things up and refusing to admit his mistakes.

I was too young to recognise that those were simply her narratives and not necessarily true, but they ended up becoming my reality. In my young mind, I had placed Mi on a pedestal, and everything she told me became my absolute truth.

And so I didn’t bother building a relationship with him. I felt that I could do without him, after all, he didn’t really contribute much to my growth anyway.

It didn’t help that he was significantly older (he was 55 when I was born) and the generational gap problem was very real for us, and so we argued a lot over the big and small things.

The tension got worse as I grew older, and on top of that, I was staying on campus during my university days as well, which then further distanced us from each other.

Our relationship back then could largely be described as a hi-bye relationship. We barely spoke and very much left each other to our own devices. And it honestly didn’t bother me that our relationship was civil at best, because really, who needed a dad like that anyway?

But some time in 2015, fresh out of college and just about to enter the working world, I attended a leadership training programme which, very unexpectedly, got me coming face-to-face with this very issue that I have refused to deal with for more than a decade.

I realised that beneath all the aloofness was an aching heart that yearned for intimacy with him, yet the years of disappointment had formed a hard callus – which acted as protection, yes, but also prevented any possibility of tenderness from happening. It kept out pain, but it too kept out love.

It also kept out hope.

You see, hope is truly the only thing that can inspire one to see the possibility of things turning around for good, but to hope for a situation to change after years and years of status quo feels foolish. 

They often say that when we pray for a situation to change, God usually changes us so that we become the very intervention we prayed for. I think that was what happened for me. I reckon it was something that mattered so much to God that in spite of my lack of prayer, He made it happen.

While undergoing the leadership training, one activity that we were instructed to do was to take an interpersonal risk that could be anything and with anyone. Instinctively I knew my person was going to be Pa.

But there was so much inertia, so much fear of what could possibly come out of it. It was decades worth of pain. Of anger. Of sorrow. Of pride.

What if he rejects me? I asked God, there’s so much at stake.

My answer came back to me in a question. But is the alternative of not trying at all something you can live with?

Right at that moment, I had a choice to make. I could either hold onto the past and be righteous about the hurts he had caused, or I could give up my rights and take a leap of faith.

Sometimes the things we desire the most are also the very things we dare not act upon for fear of disappointment. I write this story because I want you to know that it is far less painful to live with the pain of disappointment than the pain of regret.

I did choose to reach out to Pa in spite of my fears, and it was indeed the turning point of our relationship.

It started with a conversation over lunch where I apologised for turning a blind eye to his pain and loneliness throughout the years, and though he responded awkwardly to my apology, that conversation was the beginning of our reconciliation.

In the years to follow up till his death, we grew so much closer that at some point, out of my love for him, I started to reach out to my step-siblings. And in 2016, Pa finally had his first meal with all his children gathered around the table.

It was a miracle, given that my step-siblings and I barely kept any contact prior to this. And an even bigger miracle that it became a yearly birthday tradition for Pa.

I would have never expected this much good to come out of that tiny step of faith. Pa and I started to exchange texts more frequently and became more open with our affections and affirmations. I began to enjoy spending time with him.

When I moved out in 2016 to live with my cousin, the time apart only made me miss him more and treasure our time together. Each time we gathered for his birthday, Pa would have this extreme contentment on his face. I wish you could see it for yourself.

Hope is truly the only thing that can inspire one to see the possibility of things turning around for good.

Even then, while going through my past messages with Pa as I wrote this, I had several meltdowns because suddenly all the hidden regrets started to rear their heads.

In the lead-up to his rather sudden demise from pneumonia complications, I had comforted myself with the story that I had done my best for him. That the best gift I could have given him was reconciliation, not just with me, but also with my step-siblings.

But as I revisited some of our text exchanges, I couldn’t help but wonder, did I really do my best, or did I cling to that narrative so that I could live with myself?

Come home, when free.

I didn’t reply to this text because I didn’t know how to tell him that going home meant heated arguments with Mi and I didn’t want to put myself through that.

I vividly remember having a full-on cry when I saw this text because I recognised it was Pa saying “I miss you” without saying it. But I just didn’t have enough courage to go home.

Maybe I should have gone home more. Or maybe I shouldn’t even have left. Maybe I should have asked him out for meals, or make more calls. Maybe I shouldn’t have missed replying to some of his texts because I got caught up with work.

It is far less painful to live with the pain of disappointment than the pain of regret.

These are “maybes” that I no longer have the opportunity to act on. But perhaps you still do.

If today you find yourself at the same crossroad as I was years ago, I pray that you find the courage to just listen to that still small voice in your heart that speaks the truth of what you truly want. I pray that you silence the voices of fear and doubt in your head, and to just lean into faith.

I pray that you have every opportunity to make things right. And I pray for love to triumph.

I’ve come to learn that reconciliation doesn’t erase or invalidate all the hurts. It merely gives us new eyes to see them and new strength to extend forgiveness.

By God’s grace, I have come to see Pa for the man he was, rather than the man he wasn’t. He was kind and patient, passionate and curious, generous and forbearing.

I began to recall all the times he had shown up for me. How he would stay up if he knew I was returning home that day, even though it was way past his bedtime. I saw that in his own ways he had truly tried his best at loving me, and if he had known any better, he would have done it.

And I realised how, indeed, he was a good father, albeit not the one I envisioned but one that I needed.

A teacher once told me this: you can be righteous or you can be loving, but you cannot be both. When we carry deep hurt, we naturally feel a strong need to defend and be righteous. There really is nothing wrong with that – it’s simply a human response.

But the truth is also that though outwardly we withdraw, deep in our hearts we yearn to be held closely and be comforted. That sometimes means we have to take the first step. That we have to be the bigger person by giving up our right to be right.

It feels good to be right, but what feels better is to be loving. And I hope that is what you will choose too.

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