Freedom can wait, I’m staying put for Dad

I had it all worked out for after my graduation ceremony in August. First, no more curfews. Then, short internships overseas, a yearly holiday to Seoul, perhaps even a fulltime job abroad.

Finishing university would be my ticket to independence and freedom. But something I did not expect is happening – my father is growing older.

My friends shrug and ask: ‘What’s the big deal?’ If you’ve lived in the Mokhtar household, I tell them, you would know.

I grew up in a loving but strict home. My parents were quick to discipline if any of their three daughters stepped out of line. On family outings, they would warn us that anyone who misbehaved would face the repercussions once we got back home. We never forgot those warnings, mostly because we never forgot the spankings.

My father, in particular, was my biggest role model and my biggest foe growing up. The owner of a small printing business, he cultivated in me a love for reading, films and Rod Stewart, but was also a rigid disciplinarian.

My odds of winning an argument with him were the same as my odds of beating him at chess or Scrabble – zilch. He was especially strict about my performance in school and as a result, I was a straight-A student throughout most of my teenage years. ‘A is Good, B is bad, C is sad and D is mad’ was the mantra he would chant outside my room as exams drew near.

I had a strict 10pm curfew, and aside from sneaking to Parkway Parade after school, hardly went out till I entered junior college.

My father was a formidable force, full of contradictions: loving but harsh, intellectual but distant. He watched sappy Korean TV dramas but never discussed relationships or boys with my two sisters and me.

With time, there was a growing tension between us over this rigidity, and particularly his insistence that I give up my decade-long involvement in theatre. It was my passion, pride and joy, but he had other ideas on what strengths I should focus on.

So I stopped when I started university, but as an unspoken compromise I refused the usual applications to study medicine or law.

In my second year as a communications student, I went on an exchange programme to Seoul and those five months provided me experiences I had never had back home. When I came back, I longed to leave again.

I would go after graduation, having fulfilled my obligations to my father as a responsible daughter and student, and be free to make my own choices as an adult.

Now, with only months to go, something has changed, and it has to do with my father’s health. I had noticed only glimpses before: a particularly rough flu he took months to recover from two years ago; a slowly deteriorating sense of hearing for an otherwise active 60-year-old fond of nightly walks and trips to the beach. Then, earlier this year, a relapse of excruciating gout.

Even getting dressed is a searing process. I know because for the first time I was helping my father to put on his clothes. He would lift both hands over his head and I would carefully pull his shirt over, careful not to let it touch his stiff, swollen left hand. Many times it did, and his silent grimaces spoke volumes.

Once, we were at a clinic and my father fell to the ground. It is hard to describe how it feels to see your parent fall, like a child.

Today he is much better, but his hearing has declined further and we only recently convinced him to get a hearing aid. He still beats me at Scrabble, but because of his hearing, our conversations are not as often these days, not as fiery and, I have to admit, not as fun.

Now he goes to bed earlier than I do, and I am often the last to lock up at home, a job only he used to do.

I realise I have my freedom, but suddenly I am not taking flight as swiftly as I imagined I would.

My sisters and I have begun switching roles at home with our parents. We buy lunch and dinner. We coordinate who will be home, who will keep track of our father’s progress. We set our own curfews now.

As I prepare to graduate in three months, it is dawning on me that this ticket to freedom comes with an attached ‘responsibility’ voucher and I must weigh both carefully.

These days, my father never declares what I should do with my future, and I know he will not ask me to stay in Singapore. The time for keeping me safe at home has passed.

But perhaps it is now my turn to acknowledge that with freedom comes a duty I owe my old man who gave up his own freedom decades ago to raise three daughters.

And so the overseas plans can wait. For now, I will stay. Because even though I have never been a Daddy’s girl, I am my father’s daughter.


By Maryam Mokhtar

Straits Times, Published on Apr 15, 2012
The writer is a final-year student at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University, and a former intern at The Straits Times.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Reblogged this on Anything & Whatever and commented:
    I have never felt the love of my Dad even till he passed on 15 years ago for he was never there. I’ve always silently wished to have one who will be strict with me, scold me, set curfews for me & of course, bring me to the movies – for these are ways a father shows his love for his kids, no?

    Reply

  2. […] And so the overseas plans can wait. For now, I will stay. Because even though I have never been a Daddy’s girl, I am my father’s daughter. ” [Read the entire article here.] […]

    Reply

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