This was written a long time ago and I was reminded of it when my brother wrote about not being able to visit our father, who is in a nursing home and suffers dementia. I haven't seen my dad since 2011, when he visited Finland for his 75th birthday.
What makes a life?
What feels like many years ago, I paid my way through university with a job at McDonald's. While working the drive-thru window, a car came through with South Australian number plates and a man in his late forties driving. I commented how far he is from home (some 3000 kilometers) and he paused, looked at me harder a few moments and asked: "Are you Mr KP's son?"
"Yes, I am."
There are many stories to be told, many more that shall remain untold and the uncountable that will inevitably be lost through time but, I thought I would mention a couple briefly here. Stories that stand out in my mind as road signs of a life.
Raised in Malaysia to Indian parents, my father experienced many things. He learned many languages, was a brilliant student, began teaching his first qualified class at sixteen years of age (a class I will mention later) and became quite a renowned, self-taught artist. To get to do these things at all was a miracle in itself and one story that highlights this is a story of chance.
Much of his early childhood in Malacca was lived between battles in the Pacific theater of World War 2. At one point, when he was around 6 or so, the Japanese invaded his town. Scared villagers ran into the surrounding jungle and the invading soldiers were ordered to follow in a walking firing line, shooting all they found. My Grandma, a tiny woman with children in tow, huddled her family under a very large leaf when they could run no farther. She prayed in fear that her children would stay silent and they would survive. Moments passed that I can only guess must have felt eternal until the muzzle of a rifle lifted the leaf under which they hid and the eyes of a young Japanese soldier looked at them. With the sound of gunfire ringing close by, the soldier put his finger to his lips in a be quiet motion and lowered the leaf back down. Surrounded by cruelty and violence, a small kindness by someone choosing not to follow orders, saved a family. My family. Who knows how many similar stories there may be from those times and how many soldiers chose to follow the given orders instead.
During those occupied times, my grandfather, a Post-master, used his access to correspondence to help organize the transport of escaped Prisoners of War out of Malaysia. A very dangerous activity. One day, their Chinese neighbors, who were also part of the underground network, were caught and the town was gathered to watch as the entire family were beheaded as a lesson to prevent others. The following day, my grandfather continued his secret work. I don't think it was defiance or stubbornness that drove him, I think it was because he felt it his duty to do what he felt was the right thing to do. I wonder how many families around the world owe their life to a letter passed through a tiny post office in Malacca and the hands of someone that risked a lot to do the right thing. Many people protect their own, some extend that protection to all and I think that carried through in my father.
Stubbornness does seem to run through the family though. As I said, my father is a self-taught artist. A 'hobby' that my grandfather disapproved of as it was not a proper career and subsequently prohibited my father from doing. As a result, while studying, he practiced in secret and by 12 or so, he and his slightly older brother were making small amounts of money by painting billboard advertisements on theaters for the latest movie releases. To this day, 70 years later, he still teaches art classes. As they say, find something you love.
Although a teacher by profession, it was eventually his art that took him abroad. Due to his continued pursuit of his craft and local success, he was invited to hold an exhibition in Australia which ended up being successful enough that he chose to move permanently to Australia and follow his career. The only problem was that Australia was still in the midst of 'White Only' policy for immigration, making it very difficult for any others to enter the country. However, in the end, he was able to get corporate sponsorship to back his move and he settled in Adelaide where he began teaching art, holding exhibitions and soon after, meeting my mother.
After their marriage in 1966 (which was a story in the Advertiser newspaper because mixed-race marriages were so rare- their's was the second) they moved to a small town and my dad took up an art teaching position at the local high school. I can't imagine life would have been easy at the time in mid-sixties rural Australia, a place not overly known for its ethnic diversity. But it was in this small town north of Adelaide that he and my mother raised 5 children.
It was here that we would be challenged by our father to running races, climbing competitions, kick a football, play cricket and watch him mow a mammoth patch of grass. It was here that we would listen to bedtime stories that he made up each night about fantastical creatures or the misadventures and triumphs of a hundred other characters. It was here I would watch him get ready for work and never miss a day shaving. It was here we would be consoled after hard days at school where children were not always kind. This was a place to be yourself, regardless of the facade the rest of the world saw. It was not always easy, but it was home.
Throughout all of this he would paint. Sitting for thousands upon thousands of hours meticulously working. Mixing colors on old ice cream container lids, washing brushes in old pickle jars and peering at frames he stretched himself while they rested on long gone news sheets. He held exhibitions, around Australia, won several awards for various pieces and our home was filled with an artistic journey that crossed thematic and medium boundaries, spanned continents and if you knew him well-enough, expressed every emotion a life can experience. All the children are artistic in some way yet, he never taught us to paint. I am not sure why but perhaps it is because painting is his love and it is for us to find our own.
I have watched my father give his all to others. And I mean everything. If he felt someone needed something he had, he gave. I think over the years, many people both related and unrelated have taken advantage of his nature. I have watched him give all he had to a near stranger while he struggled to feed himself. I have watched him give all he has to his family and never ask for anything in return. I think my dad views himself as a facilitator. I think he has a sense of duty to leave this world a little better than he found it, even if he doesn't benefit from it directly.
When he got his first teaching position, he used his salaries to buy books, uniforms and shoes for as many children as he could because they couldn't attend without. He was 16 and not much older than those children himself. Many years later in a restaurant in Cairns, I met one of these students, a Malaysian General. He had used his contacts to track my father down and after his retirement from the military, arranged a meeting by letter. It had been over 50 years since he had been in that first class and he still cried when he saw my father. He had been living in poverty when they had first met and credits my dad with saving him from wherever that path would have led. He told many stories of those classroom days that opened my eyes a little more to what a life may be and as he did so, he had the look of a little boy viewing his hero. In the end, he surprised my dad with a trip back to Malacca for a class reunion where more such stories were told about my father. I don't know if my dad remembers all of those students by name and their faces must have seen much more life than when he had seen them last but, they definitely remember him.
Perhaps this is what makes a life. The impacts we have on the environment and the world around us. The people we influence. Small acts of compassion that allow a family to grow. The advancement of skills that become careers and open doors never before imagined. People that hold us back and those that advance us. Those who remember us for how we have helped or saved them or remember how we have hurt them. As we go about our daily life, we constantly shift the paths of our world and influence an unseen future. Our paths cross and move apart but have forever been affected by their proximity to each other.
I think over the years. My dad has played a role in many people's lives. He has given talks at conferences to many thousands, his art viewed by many more. He has helped how he could, when he could and supported countless numbers to find their own way, whatever that may be. I get the impression that there are many out there who have found inspiration through my father and many lives that are a little better for having known him.
At that fast food drive-thru window the driver said:
"I was always rubbish at art but I learned things in your dad's class that have made me a better person today."
I know that feeling. I don't know with certainty what makes a life, but I know that he has lived one.
Today, I turn another year older and perhaps inevitably, thoughts cross my mind about what has preceded. I am not one to dwell on the past or reminisce good times gone but I am not so ignorant as to deny the affects the past has had on me. Each day it seems we face new struggles but looking back, many of them have been faced before. Our failure to effectively overcome past challenges means that they will most likely replicate endlessly into the future even while new challenges manifest.
Like my father, I do not live in the country of my birth, like me, my baby daughter will be the child of an immigrant. Will she face the same prejudices I and my father have faced? Will she be able to move freely to chase her dreams and shift the world in which she lives? Will she be able to help solve the problems we face? Will she make your life better, your child's, your grandchild's?
I have no answers. All I can do is support her to be the most complete she can be, which means being the best I can be. The rest is up to her.
Birthdays used to have more cake and balloons.
[ an original ]