Monday 10 December 2012

Yes Dad, you can do it

It can be hard for children to see their ageing parents' longing to stay fully alive
By Rohit Brijnath, The Straits Times, 9 Dec 2012

I want to pack my father in cotton wool. Protect him to the point of suffocation. I'm scared life will molest him. You're too old to drive. Don't climb the staircase to the roof. Watch your diabetes. He just scowls down the phone line.

I need to know, always, if everything's all right with my dad. Till he, approaching 78, took a profound journey and showed me what's wrong with me.

My father's intellect is still formidable, his humanity intact, but he's slower. His walk a shuffle, his memory careless, his balance uncertain, his breakfast a menu of medication. Two Decembers ago he fell down on holiday and it shook him and us. He has no real illness, only the accoutrements of old age.

Except suddenly, last month, he decides to travel from the home he retired to in Dehra Dun, in India's north, to Kolkata in the east where we all grew up.

He wants to travel alone. By train. On a roughly 36-hour journey. The old man's gone crazy.

He'll be sitting alone at stations or racing to catch connections late at night. The crooks, the dirt, the delayed trains, the decrepit waiting rooms. Say he falls? His romance is giving me an ulcer.

My father is an atheist powered by reasoning yet flush with sentimentality. He's going back into his past because he is running out of a future. He is caught - as are so many here in Singapore - by life at an age both tender and fragile. It is a life that is quieter, the rustle of newspaper, babble of TV, the reassuringly familiar notes of a partner.

It is a life of less work. It is a life also of hospital visits, funerals, of friends falling like brittle leaves to the earth. Mortality tip-toes around all of us, but there is a time when it is there, unsettlingly, in your face. My father can feel this.

Singapore's confined geography makes it unfamiliar with the notion of travelling back home within your own nation. In India, like many nations, people move cities because of jobs, marriage, retirement, yet are rarely immune to the pull of the past.

So every now and then, people clamber into cars, or ride trains through wheat fields, returning to where they were born, and lived, and grew up. Returning not just to a place, but sometimes to the very best parts of themselves. "Memory," wrote Stephen King, "is the basis of every journey."

My father was 24 when he settled down in Kolkata. This is where he became a man and then watched his sons struggle their way to adulthood. It was the place of his strongest creativity, as a corporate man, theatre director, head of a wide family and, in his early days, a light-footed dancer at a restaurant whose name perfectly fitted such young men. It was called Princes. It was the richest time for a man at his fullest.

For him to go back to Kolkata was to revitalise a creaky memory. But it was more than that for a man scornful of technology and unable to type or e-mail. Distanced from his friends - as so many become - yet craving them in the loneliness of his 70s, he yearned to renew ties with those who remained.

This journey was urgent for implicit in it was a truth both melancholic and inescapable: he would probably never make this particular journey again and he would possibly never see some of these people again.

And so he went and it isn't the length of the journey, or what it accomplished, it is that he made the journey at all that made me appreciate my father at 77.

Men have climbed mountains in their 70s, run marathons in their 80s, sky-dived in their 90s. But they stand as the exceptions. For the majority, age doesn't just strip away a man's strength, it steals his confidence. The door into my father's compound had become his prison gate of sorts. He went to the grocer, the photocopy man, even further to a library where he works. But how far dared he go? And, crucially, how far dared he go alone? Voyaging with his walking stick not just beyond the borders of his own town, but past his own fears.

Most Asian children - certainly me - fail to adequately grasp this idea of confinement. We begin to love our parents to death. We turn so impatiently anxious - especially if we live at a distance from them - that we can't even see that sheltering a man can subdue his spirit.

Our notion of filial respect does not always include respecting autonomy. The dutiful son must mollycoddle his parents even if he is stealing their right to still be their own person. When a friend took her 80-year-old mother to the doctor, he invariably directed his questions to the daughter. As if her mother was incapable of a coherent answer.

For a while, in Melbourne, the woman next door to me lived alone, tended her garden, made her own life. She was in her 90s.

What's wrong with her family, I asked my wife. How come they don't want her?

I was blind to her independence as I was to my father's. When I told him, "I'll arrange a car for you at the station", I failed to appreciate he wanted to do this himself, show it to himself, prove to himself. As J.R.R. Tolkien wrote: "Not all those who wander are lost." We forget this, we forget that people in their 70s and 80s can be tough and resourceful. My father wants to hold my hand, but I don't always have to lead him. He doesn't need to be preserved, but liberated.

Go, Dad. You can, Dad.

Now I say this. Now, only after my father has returned from Kolkata with his smile widened. On the mornings we spoke when he was there, his happiness hurtled down the phone line. He had met old cousins, wept with them, dined with former colleagues and strolled into familiar restaurants whose every table told him a story.

No journey is perfect, and reality rarely meets anticipation, but he was fulfilled and he felt complete. In a changed, older city, he found parts of his younger self. He had reminded himself there is no end to discovery: of confidence, of the joy of nostalgia, of friendship and of how dirty his nation's trains still are.

This was the gift my father gave himself. And then he gave me one. He told me, and all of us, we need to be grateful for parents who are willing to get up, travel, within cities and beyond. He told me he is still able. A pilgrim still making progress at 77.

On the way back to Dehra Dun from Kolkata, my father got off the train at a city called Kanpur. He wandered the platform, looked for a newspaper, forgot time. The conductor yelled, the train moved, he couldn't get on. Eventually his co-passengers pulled the chain, stopped the train and let this chastised old-timer limp aboard.

But in those seconds as the train drifted away, my nearly abandoned father did not panic. Once he would have. Instead, he just thought: Oh, if it goes without me, there will be other trains. He was no longer the man imprisoned in his house, he was now, temporarily even, the renewed traveller. Alone, grey and unafraid of another journey.

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