The Truth And Nothing But The Tooth

The Mrs was feeling anxious all week recently.  A birthday was a great reason for a celebration for much of our lives although when we were little, our birthdays were a non-event. If we were lucky, we would get a plate of long noodles for longevity. It was a wish to extend life, not a party with friends per se. A nothing burger as the Americans will say, no cake to cut and no candles to blow. But, we had games. Everyday we had games, we did not have to wait for a birthday party to play games. Those were the good old days, referred to as such for a very good reason. The days were good, games were plentiful, and we could roam about anywhere we liked with our friends. No questions asked. No guarantees sought by the adults. We were never ever told it was unsafe to play outside. We did not need our mummy to tell us to get back by dinner time, we had our tummy to tell us that.

When we raced past the 60-year milestone, we seemed pleased with our achievements.  But, as we approach the midway point of our 60s, we seem to be hurtling towards the abyss of a new decade. The 70s. The Mrs was in no mood to celebrate. Another birthday, another day to ponder about the meaning of life and how we got to where we are so quickly. As she pondered, so did I. Regrets I have had a few, I bet she does too. Did we choose the right partner? Did we pick the right country to settle down? After all, we had choices. Easy choices. We could have easily returned to Malaysia after our graduation in Sydney. After all, it was home. Our motherland. We could have gone to Singapore. After all, we both had job offers there. When the kids were born, we could have moved to Hong Kong. Shenzhen beckoned like the Wild Wild West to a new arrival – the opportunities in a new frontier felt limitless. Instead, we chose Adelaide. “Boring old Adelaide,” a friend would tell me when he visited a few years later. That remark reassured me in fact, that we had made the right decision. What better place to bring up young kids than a boring old place devoid of distractions?

Our kids are all grownups now. They are grownups without kids, to The Mrs’ constant discontent. Why bring up kids in this bad bad world, I could almost hear them ask. And then, there’s the issue of money. Bringing up kids has always been an expensive task. It could be crippling to anyone’s finances if they have grandiose ideas about giving their child every single opportunity they want. If we were ‘kia-su’ and refused to lose to anybody, then our kids would have grown up without experiencing a childhood. Private tuition would have been a ‘must’ for a bright future. Tennis, soccer, and golf, in case they were well-coordinated in sports. Big money in sports! No? Then, how about piano lessons, violin and cello? Big money as a concert artist. Look at Yo-Yo Ma and Isaac Stern! No? Then, how about science or medicine? Be a dermatologist or orthodontist? Rake in the money, elevate your social status. There’s also the matter of keeping up with the Joneses. Bigger lawn, bigger mansion, bigger wine cellar? Luckily for our kids, we did not care about all that, not that we were careless parents. 

Let kids be kids was always our mantra. Let them have their fun outdoors. We had ours! We played masak-masak and pretended to help the housewives and maids prepare our meals. We harvested lalang grass and weeds and watched them cook dinner in empty condensed milk tins. We lit the fire, of course! We made our own kites, laced the strings with gum and cut glass so that we could cut the strings of the other kites in the sky. Finders keepers losers weepers – there would be the sprints across town, never mind the cars and motorbikes, as long as we retrieved the kites first. We played tops with sharpened nails so that we could aim and destroy the other kids’ toys. We caught the biggest and meanest male spiders with menacing green and black bodies and white round eyes to attack and finish off our friends’ champions. It was a thrill to see the enemy’s prized pets scamper off in defeat.

A generation or two ago, unwanted children were sold or simply given away for free. Free! Just take ‘em. I can understand folks take exception to being sold as slaves but it is just as traumatic if not more, to be sold by your own parents simply because you are surplus to requirement. That psychological baggage is hard to shake. The Mrs has, to some extent. Her baggage has gotten lighter with the passing of her parents a long time ago. Conversations about her family were confusing when I first met her. It felt like reading a Dostoyevsky novel with forgettable names and complicated threads across biological families and adopted ones and with different fathers. She was sold on the ninth day of her life. When children are made to feel unwanted, there would be scars in their psyche. The Mrs hid hers but took decades to finally heal from them.

All you need is love

All you need is love

All you need is love, love

Love is all you need

John Lennon / Paul McCartney

I was lucky. I was never unloved even though my mother tried to ‘finish me off’ when I was still inside her womb. She didn’t want another daughter. Shhhh, please don’t tell my sisters. Luckily, she aborted the abortion attempts. The brownish liquid from a herbalist that went glug-glug-glug down her stomach was too bitter to take.

The first decade of my life was fun, I think, but much of which I do not remember. It wasn’t forgettable or boring, that I must say. My early memory was wiped out by a bad fall from my bicycle. It made my skull swell and soft like tofu. There were snippets during this period that will forever be etched in my memory. One episode was when I was about five or six. I got my dad into trouble when I yelled out, “Pa, Pa!” as I saw his car pass by the front of our shophouse. Ma rushed out of the shop, only to miss seeing the car. So, it was my word against my dad’s. Pa had categorically said no. He was not in the car, and the car was not his. He totally denied it when he returned home a few hours later. Ma had already interrogated me earlier, and I was positively and absolutely sure it was his car. Silly me. How could I have been sure? It was about 7 pm, the road was dimly lit and I had no idea what car my dad had. Was it an Opel? Was it lilac or blue? They had a big row downstairs. A chair was broken. There was yelling, cursing, and screaming. Kids cry when adults yell and scream. The neighbours’ curiosity along the twelve link-houses would have been perked to the max, their ears strained like stethoscopes to catch every word from the couple’s fight. The memory seared into my skull was that of my dad, gently shaking his finger at me as I peeped from under my pillow in bed. Our eyes met. His eyes looked sadder than mine, that I was sure. I am so sorry, Pa. A son should never get his dad in trouble.

时中分校, a Chinese medium school not far from the shophouse where I grew up in. Photo by Francis Koh.

The second decade of my life was fun too. The first half of it was filled with books. I discovered the school library and I was ravenous for Enid Blyton books and books about the American Wild West. Unfortunately, I grew up thinking the ‘Injuns were the baddies. The latter half of my second decade was not about books but boobs. I discovered the opposite sex. My mum’s half-brother taught me to “feed the cockroaches”. He said I should learn to play with my ‘little birdie’ now that it had grown ‘feathers’. He saw my ‘feathers’ because he was a six-footer. Standing on tiptoes, he was tall enough to look over the bathroom door which was at least half a foot lower. Maybe that was how children were taught the fundamentals of sex education in the 60s and 70s. My dad’s workers had a penchant for the night club. They were short men in tall clog shoes and bell-bottomed pants. I was a bad student but I learned how to do the twist and danced the Agogo. I was all agog when their topic was about boobs. So, I learned why girls were so different from boys.

The third decade of my life was fun too. That was when I met The Mrs and married her just after we graduated from uni. She was worried she would be like her adoptive mother – barren. But, I was quick to prove her wrong. With her, I fathered three sons within three and a bit years of marrying her. The first half of the decade was all about nappies and formula milk. The second half was when my career became my focus. I wanted to be somebody who could yield tremendous power in the admin and accounting arm of a sizeable business.

The fourth decade of my life was about conquests and competitions. I had already read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War and I was ready to fight the fight. I had set lofty personal goals and corporate life felt exciting and rewarding. I considered myself a jet-setter even though the frequent flights were merely domestic. It did not matter that some friends were venturing overseas and had become international corporate raiders. I was a big fish in my small pond. I felt I was relevant and important. I was a key contributor to my boss. Wait a minute, I said to myself. Why work for a boss when I can become one? By 34, I had become one. The second half of that decade was all about expanding my business. Building blocks were laid to satisfy the ‘first goal’. One shop was not going to be enough for me to trade away my career as an executive for it. So, the ‘first goal’ was to have three shops within five years. It was about building shops and building a brand. Looking back, it was a missed decade. I missed spending precious time with my sons when they were the cutest; at a time when in their eyes, I was their rock, their mentor, their hero. The eldest was ten going on twenty in no time. His brothers were in a hurry to taste the world too. At 15, they had flown the coop after being awarded a full scholarship by The Queensland Con at The Griffith University.

The fifth and sixth decades of my life were about the lost years. The younger two left home so early. I was not ready for that. After sending them to the airport, I lingered in their bedroom and burst into tears. Perhaps something in me died that day. Not so long ago, all three of them were toddlers. They were cutest when they lost their teeth, speaking with a deliberate lisp and whistling the way only the toothless can. They were a bundle of joy and with them around, my life was complete. The apogee of my happiness was hearing their laughter and listening to their music. They filled the house with love and happiness. Home was warm even in the depths of winter. Success in business on the other hand, was hard yakka. Dealing with the public on the cold face of retail was harsh. Ugly, even. By the middle of this decade, the eldest boy also left home. He was 21. Suddenly, the emptiness hit me. I was too young to be an empty-nester. I started to question the meaning of life. Was all that energy and effort to be successful necessary? The drive to do well in High School. The drive to shine in uni. The drive to be a corporate leader with unquestioned integrity. The drive to be a rich businessman. An empty-nester sees things differently. What was important had become unimportant. What was vital was merely vanity. I should have been critical of what I thought was critical. When the kids left home, I thought they were still kids. I suppose at 15 or 21, they felt differently. They had their own goals to fulfil, their own worlds to conquer. I was 45 when all three sons left home. Sure, a bit of me died. I lost their growing-up years when they were home. I lost their “Why is it, Ba?” questions. I lost the family time watching TV shows and I lost their loud guffaws during favourite comedies such as Seinfeld and The Prince of Bel-Air. I lost the excitement of queueing up to watch blockbuster movies. I remained on my own hamster wheel with a diminished sense of purpose. Was I too young to get off it? Maybe. Was I too afraid to get off it? Probably. Was I too late to get off it? Most certainly.

The biggest loss in my fifth decade was the loss of my dad. I was 49. He was 91 when he died. During the four years in the nursing home, he lost the big things that mattered. First of all, he lost his freedom. It was a ‘High-Care’ facility meaning he could not do and go as he pleased. The door locks are coded to keep them in. Once I could not remember the code, and that kept me out. Very soon after, Pa lost his dignity when he could no longer wipe his own bum and clean himself. A very sad moment was when he lost his leg. He asked if there was any point for him at his age to undergo the operation. The traditional belief of people in his generation was to pass this world with a body that was intact. He did not want to be reborn with a missing limb. The gangrenous limb had to be amputated after a few months of his foot being wrapped up in fresh white crepe bandage. At the time, my worries were soothed by the daily attention given to his foot. After he lost his leg, I was convinced the nursing home staff used the bandages as a cover to hide the truth of his wounds from us. Pa was a brave and generous man; always considerate and reasonable till the end. He was a nice man to many people because he was genuinely interested in what they had to say. During my daily visits at his nursing home, he always showed interest in my life. About my business and about his grandsons. Generally an uncomplaining man, the only times I witnessed him complaining was at the restaurants that were slow in bringing out the food we ordered. There is some truth to the old adage, ‘A hungry man is an angry man’. Pa never hesitated to slam his hands loudly at the table. The courtly man of course gave ample warning to the waiter by drumming his fingers loudly on the table. The poor bloke failed to heed Pa’s warnings but at least he never forgot my father after that.

The sixth decade of my life was also a lost decade. The global financial crisis hit in 2008. I had just turned 50. Losing the franchise business I had built up the decade before was difficult to stomach. One after another, the shops under my domain started closing. The sharemarket crashed. My investments lost their value at an alarming rate. It turned out the shares in so-called blue chip companies were not investments, such is the Ponzi nature of the sharemarket. The fruits from the years of hard grind and slog were meant to be enjoyed during my retirement. I had many years earlier proudly announced to my parents I aimed to retire by 40. My dad smiled and did not say a word. My mum smiled but has not stopped reminding me of my ridiculous delusion. As the shops were closing, the contagion did not stop. Everything was cascading and before the middle of the decade was reached, all sixteen shops had closed. I was an empty-nester with a greatly diminished nest egg.

The seventh decade is about losing. Yes, that means I will continue to lose many things and loved ones from here on. There are many things in the house that are just dust collectors. Surpluses to requirement, they only exist because of past utility. The Mrs is less sentimental; I shall depend on her to lose them. Suddenly, as if by clockwork, I started losing the vigour and energy I used to possess. My eyes tire quickly and the level of focus and attention to detail is not as sharp as before.The Mrs complains that my hair stinks. “Why can’t you wash your hair daily like everyone else does?” she asked. If I was argumentative, I would have said she did not know that as a fact, unless she was a six-footer looking over a 5-foot door of a bathroom. I am beginning to lose hair, lots of it, after every shampoo. So, why do the idiotic thing that only results in more hair loss, right? I am not stupid! I am losing muscle mass too. The curves and bulges of my biceps and triceps have long disappeared. “Use it or lose it,” The Mrs said, echoing some mantra she heard from her yoga teacher years ago. Hmmmm. I had a mind to say that to her about some longish organ of mine which she had shown no interest in using for a long time. Lately, I have been losing sleep too. The Mrs assumed my sleeping pattern was still the same as before. She listens to audiobooks and Youtube channels during the night, with her noise-cancelling headphones. So, she can’t hear me snore or not snore. Oh, I am forgetting. I am also losing my memory. Those were my headphones for when I was travelling but since Covid, I no longer use the convenience of aeroplanes and therefore have no need for noise-cancelling gadgets. I have since fixed the problem of nocturia by regularly adding two hard-boiled eggs to my dinner. There is no scientific explanation that I know of as to why eggs stop the bladder from being overactive. I am just thankful that they do! However, deep sleep doesn’t come till well after the Kookaburras have stopped laughing.

Losing our health and fitness is more worrisome. I swear I can hear my old bones creak with every step I take. In my mind, I was as nimble as a mountain goat not so long ago. The moss rocks are a feature in my garden, used as retaining walls and steps in a tiered garden. These days, I don’t prance up or skip down the rocks anymore. I adopt a more sedate and uncertain action of an elderly person more and more. Of course, I blame that on my failing eyesight. Cataract, glaucoma, and epiretinal membrane tears are common ailments for people of my age. I do not have the first two defects but the third has worried me in recent years. Could that be the reason I am losing my eyesight?

Losing time is probably the most regrettable for me. Still desk-bound for much of the working day, I am beginning to value my time more and more. After all, what is our real worth if not measured by our time? Many of my friends in Penang have retired. They don’t dress well, they aren’t concerned about their grooming. They don’t portray a rich background but hell, they are by far the richest in the time they give to the needy. Their amazing efforts are truly heroic. It is easy to donate money but it is far harder to donate your time. Why do we chase money? Toil for it? Why do we save it when the central banks simply print it? Whereas time cannot be printed or produced. It is limitless to humanity yet limited to the individual. I remind myself not to read unimportant social media or watch silly TikTok video clips or listen to toxic arguments. Our time is precious, don’t flaunt it.

Olive bar, formerly Hot Lips, formerly Popular Dry-Cleaning. The house where I grew up in. Photo by Francis Koh.

Losing relevance is not as scary for me as I imagined. I have been watching my mother lose her relevance over the years. She was the matriarch of my family and she enjoyed wielding that influence over us. No arguments, no discussions. Whatever she said, we did. I reasoned with her many years ago that we didn’t need to sell our shophouse in Penang. Penang is a small island, truly the pearl of the Orient. The shop was situated on Penang Road in the touristy end of town. In fact, just a hundred footsteps from E&O Hotel, a grand monument of the classy and sophisticated era of British colonialism. But, Ma had already persuaded herself that selling it was the only option. Selling it was wrong, selling it cheap was a bigger mistake. But, relevance was important to her, I reasoned, so it’s ok to show her reverence, I told myself. Now, the time has arrived for me to lose my relevance. My family business hardly requires my attention now. My jokes have become corny old dad jokes. My advice is rarely sought, and my attendance in business meetings are no longer required. When I see myself chasing the puppy round and round the coffee table, I see a frail Don Corleone running after his grandson around his tomato plants moments before he collapsed from a fatal heart attack.

What gives me the most anguish in this decade is the thought of losing relatives and friends. Losing loved ones is the most tortuous of all. My Balapai ahyi (Second Aunt) passed away during the height of Covid from cancer. I could not even visit her for a final time even though it was clear she was in palliative care. This year, two school buddies suddenly carked it, one after another. It felt like I ran into a brick wall. As much as we prepare ourselves for the inevitability of it all, I was still shocked by the whimsical nature of life. When we least expect it, death can visit us with a fury. Seldom a week passes these days without news of friends and distant relatives who had a stroke, or a bypass, or another stent replacement, or chronic end-stage diabetes or who passed away.

Life is like a candle in the wind.

Elton John’s tribute to Marilyn Monroe

Earlier this year, The Mrs lost a tooth and that truth was the cause of her recent anxiety. To be precise, a lower central incisor is now missing. She gives a cute appearance nevertheless but of course, if I were to say that to her, she would give me a verbal hiding. Are you trying to be funny again? I can imagine her saying it. I can understand her anxiety. When we lose a tooth, we will start wondering what else we will lose next. Whatever it is, it better not be our legacy. It takes a lifetime for us to build our legacy. By legacy, I do not mean the superficial matter of material wealth or money but rather what we have accomplished in the richness of life and substance of our being over a lifetime. We need to cherish it and defend it with all we got. Let us not destroy our own legacy knowingly or consciously. If the unfortunate event were to happen and dementia or Alzheimers robbed us of our wisdom and common sense, and from that we lose our legacy, then that’s just bad luck.

Losing a milk tooth is cute but it isn’t permanent like losing a permanent tooth.

You know you’re old when TV ads aren’t selling to you.

Wu Yonggang