To The Fore When I’m Sixty-Four

In a few more days, the old man will turn 64. Crikey. Has it been so long since he first sang the Beatles song? He was a teenager then, with so much promise and seemingly limitless potential. He had a thick mop of hair, so stiff and thick they felt more wiry than hairy. No designer style yet it looked decidedly designed in the shape of a coconut. His flatmates took turns to cut it for him. Free labour did not mean labour freely given. His lack of concern about hygiene and looks showed in his face. It was messed up with active pimples that were prone to explode more randomly after greasy or spicy meals. Still, he didn’t care, since he didn’t notice them. Scrawny and bespectacled, he moved like a shadow, following his friend’s moves. They attended uni classes together. They rushed to the library together to secure the books mentioned by their lecturer. They went to the shops together to do their weekly shopping. Did I say ‘together’? Not quite, he was often a step or two behind, just like a shadow. His friend came from a well-to-do family, the father a doctor and the mum a headmistress. Those with a better background tended to start off in life more confident, more comfortable and definitely with more freedom. He was however, a son of a dhobi, not from the lower caste like the Indian laundryman but nevertheless he considered his father was a working-class man. He was wrong about his circumstances – it wasn’t that he was out of touch with reality, his reality was quite spartan and dire. He never had enough to eat – his mother made sure that they lived a rather thrifty lifestyle so that they would not grow up ‘wasting’ money. Every morsel of food was small and inadequate, everything had to be sliced to thin slivers to be shared by many siblings. In uni, he worked three shifts a week in a Chinese restaurant and if he did not go back home to visit his family during the summer vacations, he would find full-time work in a factory or warehouse. In fact, as soon as he arrived in Australia, he found work as a drinks waiter. That first moment of financial independence thrilled him as the pay was enough to cover his food and lodgings. It took him just a few more weeks to save enough to send home some money to his best friend whom he asked to arrange a meal for the gang of about ten school friends he left behind in Penang. It was enough to buy them a good lunch at the Eden, an outlet that served western food. Strangely, only one of the friends wrote to thank him for lunch, but he did not think much of the oddity back then. Such matters did not dwell in his mind, he was simply happy to see a photo of them enjoying a meal together. He was accustomed to being in the background or backstage. Giving speeches and barking instructions in the class was as foreign to him as eating gorgonzola or as impossible as swimming in the desert.

The two friends were so often seen together that the richer one became known as Fat Shadow and the other, Thin Shadow. No one ever asked who’s who, the answer was as clear as night and day. Both of them loved to sing love songs. The old man’s favourite was ‘My Way’ deciding that the words meant something to him, and that he would grow up to live life his way. They sang ‘When I am sixty-four’ often too, not appreciating that life would hurtle so fast that their sixty-fourth birthdays would arrive in the blink of an eye. Fat Shadow was the more outgoing of the two, therefore the more visible and louder. Thin Shadow packed his own lunch and was never seen in the uni cafeteria. His lunch was predictable. IXL’s strawberry jam and peanut butter sandwich. It mattered not if it was spring or autumn.

Three years passed by and uni days ended. The two friends grew apart and without a goodbye, they went their separate way. Thin Shadow stayed on in Australia. Later, he heard Fat Shadow had made his way to Singapore and established a career there. Life’s cycle was pretty much the same for the friends. “You fall in love and marry the girl in your dream,” he said. “Then, you wake up and realise the dream was better and you were a better person there.” Their kids came soon after and life as they knew it ceased forever. “It was about me initially, then ‘us’ for a short while and then ‘them’ very quickly and for a long time after that.” “It became always about them,” he said, finally understanding the gravity of parenthood once he worked out the monthly pay cheque he earned was just enough to cover their living expenses. “We lived and breathed raising our children, and gave them the best opportunities we could muster,” he said.

Happy union with wife and children is like the music of lutes and harps.

Confucius, Book of Poetry

“But, aren’t Confucian teachings about children showing respect and being filial to their parents?” I asked, sensing that he gave much more than he expected to receive.

“It is also true that they didn’t ask to be born and weren’t given a choice,” he said, justifying their belief that they therefore were obligated to take care of them the best way possible.

The old man’s kids left home early. It didn’t seem so long ago that his eldest son was a sweet little boy, no more than three and a half years old. With a chubby face packed full like a big round pork bun, his aunty (伯母 – bó mǔ ) called him Bak-pao-bin or ‘pork bun face’. The toddler was well brought up and was the epitome of a Confucian son. In a restaurant, he would keep to his seat and not run around like a headless chook. With a meticulous habit of not leaving any crumbs at the table, he was distressed when the French waiter kept saying “merci, merci’ to them at the end of the evening. “Mummy, I am not messy,” said the child who was about to break into tears.

An empty nester at the age of 45, the old man was struck by the brevity of their happy times together as a family. Hedonistic as a teenager and as a young man, he was suddenly wrecked emotionally by the sudden emptiness that engulfed him. The music and laughter that permeated the walls of their home evaporated into the air, as if a storm had lashed down on the world and frightened away all the birds and butterflies in the park. Their bluestone Federation-style house, emptied of children, looked abandoned and sinister in the distance. He was traipsing aimlessly on the park across the road when his resolute composure gave way. Feeling weak, he lowered himself to sit on the ground but ended up squatting when he discovered it was soggy and cold. His thoughts turned epicurean, preferring the avoidance of pain in the body and of troubles in the soul rather than seeking pleasure. He raised himself up and felt like a new dawn had arrived. He was ready for the next chapter in his life.

For the next fifteen years, he worked hard in his business and tried to build a retail ’empire’, a goal that he failed to fulfil. At the end of this period of high risks and torturous toil, his plan collapsed in ruins amid the global financial contagion that spread from America. He was not awoken by Elton John’s song about the candle in the wind at Princess Diana’s funeral. He failed to recognise that life is fragile and tomorrow is not promised. Today is the present, literally a gift that should not be taken for granted. But, in recent years, it was the pandemic that stopped him in his tracks and made him reconsider the meaning of life. He was attracted to Friedrich Nietzsche’s leanings to nihilism, a theory that life has no intrinsic meaning and humans have no real purpose. Growing up in a ‘Buddhist’ environment, he had already been exposed to the idea that we ought to tame our desires to reduce suffering, a concept not dis-similar to passive nihilism, or a will to nothingness. However, Nietzsche’s Existential nihilism gave us the way to create our own personal subjective meaning through a combination of free will and awareness of becoming what he called a ‘Higher Man’, a better version of ourselves.

In recent years, his answer to rapid hair-loss was to wash his hair infrequently. This was after discovering a clump of hair trapped on the drain hole cover of their shower cubicle. His normally stolid face winced, aghast at the loss, now held gingerly in his fingers. Despite his Mrs’ incessant nagging about his foul-smelling pillows and the ever-increasing need to free-up the robot’s vacuum main brush from the entanglement of long hair, the ownership of said hair was without dispute since hers was cut, like a bob, he persisted in keeping them unwashed for days. Soon after, he was washing his hair once weekly, believing that his receding hairline would be stemmed. His doctor was on a long vacation leave and he had no one to discuss the merits of taking Finasteride to further combat the loss of hair. “It’s important not to be impotent,” he said to me, after learning that a side effect might be a loss in his libido. I felt like telling him about the many benefits of being celibate and many in fact, celebrate the freedom of having no interest in sex. But, he looked like he was in no mood to listen to me, so I simply walked away.

After much coaxing from his nieces, the old man finally summoned enough courage and stood up from the shadows at the back of the hall where the Burnside Symphony Orchestra held their practice sessions every Tuesday night. He stepped into the fore a few days short of his sixty-fourth birthday and introduced himself to the concertmaster. She welcomed him to join them in the First Violin section but he said he was happy to start at the very back of the Second Violins. Two hours later, he emerged a rejuvenated man who seemingly had multiple shots of happy hormones racing through his body that night, thrilled with the music-making and friendships made, savouring a blissful happiness reminiscent of the fun nights he enjoyed as a 15-year-old student in the Penang Orchestra. “Now I have a lot to look forward to when I am sixty-four,” he said.

When I’m Sixty-Four

When I get older losing my hair

Many fears from now

Will I still be standing on my pedestal

Heyday, meetings, own a gold mine?

If I’d been a flop, work till sixty three

Would you lock the door

Will you still need me, will you still love me

When I’m sixty-four

Our kids will be older too

And if they say they were hurt

That I betrayed you

Could they be happy, ending abuse

When our fights forgone

You can sit with a dreamer by the fireside

Chilly mornings on the way to Ryde

Nothing’s forbidden, smokin’ the weed

Amore or amour

Will you still need me, will you still love me

When I’m sixty-four

Every summer visit the Hermitage in St Petersburg

There’s nothing to fear

There is talk of war

Putin going nuclear

A lunatic’s rave

Dead men on a cart, NATO aligned

Putin’s point of view

Predicate precisely what the US say

Sanctioned dearly, wasting away

Not an inch eastward, yet there they are

Hermits evermore

Will you still need me, will you still love me

When I’m sixty-four

Lyrics by Wu Yonggang, tune by Lennon-McCarthy
With members of Burnside Symphony Orchestra in Oct 2022