Perhaps its a superstitious, “touch wood” sort of thing to say, but one thing I feel we could improve with Asian culture is being more open about such conversations.
Life is temporary. The only certainty we have in life is death. One day we will die. We will leave this earth. Whether there is something else after dying, to me doesn't matter. I am concerned about the here and now; this one, finite, mortal life.
My dad is turning 70 next year. Statistically, we should expect him to be with us for another 10-15 years (life expectancy for Singaporean men is 81.5), which already isn’t a lot of time.
But he’s spent much of the last decade of his life fighting and beating cancer (yay!), and the ordeal has taken its toll. He’s definitely not as strong, as sharp, as energetic as before (well, he’s never really been the energetic type; more of the stoic, reserved kind of guy, but still).
So, you do the math.
Also, as I’m editing this, the situation my family feared for the past 2 years happened: my dad got Covid. And its not good. I mean, I’m optimistic that he will recover from it, but its quite different if any of the rest of us in the family got it. We could be ‘restored’ to close to 100% vitality, maybe even more. I’m not so sure that’s the case for him.
The thing about our human bodies is that in order to stay strong, you need to push yourself: “use it or lose it.” We are anti-fragile, yet also still fragile. If there are small cracks, mild illnesses, stressors, we will overcome them and emerge stronger. Huge disruptions, like falling off a cliff or getting smacked by a car - we’re screwed.
Anyways, as a retirement hobby, my dad started cycling. It seems to be the new ‘in’ or ‘hip’ thing in Singapore, especially with aunties and uncles, with their Bromptons and Brompton-copycats.
All was going okay, until…
It was such a benign situation.
Low-speed, along the carpark, our house in sight.
And then he fell.
I had no idea this happened until I got home from work and saw it.
The entire side of his thigh was a dark, crimson red.
And this was the second time he’d fallen from the bike in 2 weeks. Previously it happened as he slowed down approaching a traffic junction. It was similarly very benign conditions, and super near our house too.
Tuesday with Morrie
That Tuesday night, after seeing the massive bruise, I sat him down to have a chat. He later shared that he couldn’t even stand up for at least a few hours because his back was still hurting from the fall. He had it checked the day after, and all was well. But hearing him say that he had been and still was immobile for more than half the day just scared me even more.
He walked me through the events leading up to the fall.
The whole time, sitting adjacent from him on our beige, L-shaped sofa, I looked at him.
Actually took a good look. Took it all in.
You know how you just go about life, and things fall into your subconscious, your muscle memory?
I live in the same space as my dad, and sure I see him everyday, but in that moment I realized how long its been since I had properly seen him.
Notice all the small details.
His frame - the way his clothes fall over his bony shoulders, how they are clearly way too big for him now.
His posture - that look of exhaustion, but not the kind you see after a workout, but the deep, heavy kind of fatigue, one that comes with a mental, emotional, possibly spiritual weight. A weight he’s carrying for the family, 5 children, our present and our futures.
I notice more dark pigment spots on his skin, how wrinkled and foldy its gotten, especially on his forearms and wrists.
I see that look in his eyes - of someone who wants to be strong, yet wants to not have to be. Someone who wants to be relieved from it all. Wants to finally rest.
But this is his son, his child, sitting across from him. He’s trying to put up a strong front.
I don’t know how true any of these are. I’ve asked him directly about such ‘emotional’ things many times, more so in recent years, but as my siblings would echo, my dad responds to any such attempts to get him to open up in the same way an emotionless robot would; just the cold, hard facts.
So for now, hopefully the version of the truth that I’m recalling from memory serves as a good approximation.
As I looked at him, the initial thought I had was: “why are you so weak?”
A tinge of disappointment. “You are supposed to be the man of the house. The leader. The Lion.”
Yet here you are, bested by a Brompton bicycle.
I know, it was a terrible thought to have. But I’m not gonna lie. Or sugarcoat this. I don’t have to. I mean, this is my blog after all, right?
The next thought came in: “Shit, Dad is really weak now. If something so simple can have this kind of impact, then things might be worse than I thought.”
Rather than questioning why he wasn’t living up to the ideal father figure I had in my head, the fog cleared and I started seeing reality for what it was.
It was a wake-up call.
A timely reminder.
The thing about cancer is that its a slow burn. Sure, the initial news about getting cancer was a shock, but after a while we got used to living with it - the treatments, the changes in diets, the slow degradation in health, in energy, in sharpness and alertness and ability to keep up. They just became parts of daily life.
Humans are adaptive creatures. Think about those lottery winners who quickly adjust to their newfound fortune, and quickly squander it away.
In some sense, I adjusted to my dad’s condition. I suppose all of us around him did. And what more, the cancer is cured. He ‘lost the lottery’ at first, then overcame it.
Surgery to remove his prostate, followed by radiotherapy to zap the remaining cancer cells away.
Voila! No more cancer!!
“What did it cost?” “Everything.” - Avengers: Infinity War
But at what cost?
With the cancer gone, this part about adjusting to the new norm became even more apparent.
It’s over! We’ve won!
I suppose its a good thing. It meant that we could all move on with our lives, rather than be constantly thinking about how to deal with it, having this ticking doomsday clock-esque thing looming as an undercurrent.
And for a time, I thought that it would stay this way forever. No more cancer. Dad is healthy now. All is well (say it back, fist to your chest. iykyk)
But its episodes like this that snap me out of it.
A reminder of his mortality. How fragile he is.
How fragile we all are.
People come and go. That is a fact of life.
Some people leave and you never see them or talk to them ever again, but you will always remember the times you shared with them. How they impacted you when your paths crossed.
Can I let go of him when the time comes? Should I even be thinking of letting go?
Will I regret not doing certain things with him? Not saying certain things?
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Why Do We Fall?
Up till this point, I hadn’t said a word.
Still looking at him, thoughts running through my mind. Emotions running too.
Then I finally spoke.
And I spoke freely.
“Dad, you need to realize how bad this is. It was so benign, so simple, and it still had this level of impact on you. Its not like you were racing downhill on algae-lined roads. This was a carpark, less than 5km/hr, barely anything going on. So you need to reconsider if you can continue cycling. The way I see it, right now you are physically incapable of doing this activity safely. You’ve got to give it up. Switch to something else.”
“Why do we fall, Master Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.” - Alfred, Batman Begins
He didn’t want to believe it.
Kept insisting that it was due to the unique circumstances of those situations - how he was trying to avoid a hump, or how the brakes were faulty.
Its okay to fall.
Not just from a bike, but also in a broader, more character-buildy way.
But this kind of fall? It really didn’t seem okay.
It was one of those ‘fragile’ falls, rather than the ‘anti-fragile’ ones.
I saw it simply as him living in denial.
I empathize, for sure.
It sucks to admit that the problem lies with you. That you are not strong enough. That you have to give something up because of things beyond your power to change.
Its super painful.
Sitting on the sofa, giving this lecture to my dad, I couldn’t help but project myself ~50 years into the future. How would I feel if I went through something like that? I myself cycle decently long distances semi-actively, and I love the activity (I was doing it before it became colonialized by the oldies, okayy). I love how the bicycle is an extension of me - its a journey, an adventure, and its powered by my own efforts and energy.
If the day ever comes where I have to face the fact that my body can’t do this anymore, its gonna hurt. Will I be able to give it up?
I see that denial, that stubbornness, in me too. I suppose I took after him in this regard.
And it reminded me of a quote from a poem we had to study for our literature module in school nearly 10 years ago. Naturally, I never paid it any proper attention other than preparing for exams. But now its back in my head, so here goes:
“Do not go gentle into that good night; Old age should burn and rave at close of day. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” - Dylan Thomas
Do not succumb to death. Do not get comfortable.
Instead, fight hard and fiercely against death.
Why? Why struggle?
Because in so doing, we realize the importance of being alive. The beauty, the tenacity of the human spirit, to conquer and overcome the odds. Do not consent to death. Challenge it.
Rise up against your death and fate.
Interestingly, when Dylan Thomas wrote this poem, he himself was urging his father to struggle against death, to fight against it even as his health was declining.
Its easy and normal to think: 'the cancer has been defeated. The battle has been won, and now we can finally rest. We can celebrate. The fight is over.'
The thought of just succumbing to fate is tempting: ‘we’ve already been through so much, let’s just let this go.’
But times like this remind us that the fight isn’t over. It shouldn’t be.
And if it means falling a couple more times and seeing more of that crimson red, then so be it. Sure beats a life of staring at the crimson red Netflix logo all day.
In an odd, lowkey twisted way, my dad getting cancer has been the best thing that's ever happened to me.
A kind of living ‘Memento Mori’, if you will.
Its a daily reminder of the impermanence of life.
Its certainly shaped me to be the reflective ‘geniesama’ persona I step into when I journal and write these entries.
It has made me think about loads of things - health, wealth, relationships, meaning in life.
But because this is a health-related episode, my reflections do lean towards that direction.
“How will my own health be like as I approach 70? Will I still be able to do the things I love?”
“If I don't change anything about my life, will I end up like this too? When I am his age, in that state of health, what would I regret, looking back on my life? What would I have wished I’d done sooner? And will I still fight to live the life I want to live?”
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and Wisdom to know the difference.” - The Serenity Prayer
I used to recite this prayer while sitting on the bus on my way to school, in my junior college days, after getting the news of dad's cancer. Around the time I had to study that poem too.
It spoke to me then, as I know it does for loads of people all over the world, facing all kinds of obstacles and challenges and pain.
It definitely helped me face mine. Helped me get through the years in a healthier way.
So I shall leave this with you.
If you’ve made it here to the end, thank you!! This entry was not easy to write, and there were plenty of moments along the way that I wanted to scrap it because it was too vulnerable or too honest with sharing the thoughts I was going through during the episode. I still don’t intend to do an email subscription, so if you enjoyed reading, do follow my socials!