What You Should Do When I Die

Dear Xander,

I am 34 years old right now. By the time you turn 21, I will be 52, and when you come to be my age right now, I should be 65.

Thankfully, because of the way this country is run right now, by the time you turn 34, I should still have a good 10 years left before I retire. This means not only that I can still probably provide for the family, I can probably also have paid off the family debt and also for my funeral expenses. What I’m bequeathing to you after I die will depend on how far I’ve been able to save by the time I’m about to croak, so I’ll leave that for later.

Right now though, I want to pass down to you my instructions on the more pressing matter how to deal with my passing.

First: The moment I stop breathing, stay calm and compose yourself. No point crying, feeling sad or grieving for at least the next few days, because I got to be honest with you, your dad can’t help you when he’s dead. You need to be strong for the span of time it takes to do what I need you to do. So man up.

Two: find me a casket, and don’t cheap out. I need a good quality box with clean lines (if Apple made caskets, I want that one) and a cushy interior. Depending on whether I look good when I die, get something with a window. If I died after getting hit by something in the face, then don’t bother. Put a clip-on fan in there as well, if they don’t have one installed; I hate being warm. And make sure you put the pillow I sleep on every night to support my head; if I’m going to rest in peace, I need to at least sleep with the smell of my own pillow. If the pillow doesn’t fit into the head of the casket, cut it and remove a bit of the stuffing. I don’t mind, it’s only going to be there a couple of days anyway.

Three: the way the plan goes, I probably won’t be seeing anyone or anything until you’re going into step 4, so be a dear and get my earphones and a long-life music player (or plug it into a charging outlet together with the clip-on fan), load up some songs into it, put the thing on shuffle and plug the phones into my ears. I like Dream Theater, Rage Against the Machine, Daft Punk, Katy Perry and all the songs from Dishwalla’s first album. If you know where I keep my music collection and the music player can handle the storage, better still.

Four: DO NOT give me a funeral wake – no prayers, no incense, no burning of offerings (if it turns out they have an economy where I’m going I’ll e-mail you and let you know). I want a funeral PARTY – with luck, I will have pre-arranged a booking for one night with a restaurant that has a good 8-course menu, a bar, a good collection of beer, liquor and soft drinks and allows us to put a casket with a dead person in it on their premises for one evening, so all you need to do for the party is get balloons for the kids (if helium still exists by then), and prepare appropriately selected goodie bags. Also, make sure you let the guests know to come in their Chow Yun Fatt/Leslie Cheung Shanghai Night best (suits or suspenders for the men, cheongsams for the ladies); it was the theme your mother and I chose when we did our wedding dinner.

If I didn’t manage to pre-book all these things before my passing, put me in a freezer and get everything ironed out before the day. Just remember to thaw me out for a day or two before everything is ready. I don’t want to look like a popsicle during the party.

You might also want to let your guests know to package their ang pows like they do for a wedding; remember we’re doing this in a restaurant, not a bloody void deck.

Five: Try to relax. Feel free to laugh and joke through the night about me, about yourself, about anything and everything; I will leave it to you to freestyle your way through the party, but just make sure it’s fun, okay? My humour was my best asset, and I want people to remember that. Of course, if anyone (including yourself) needs to cry at any point, don’t stop them, but keep it to tears of joy if you can. All I want is for you guys to be happy and have fun.

Six: When everything is over and the last guests have gone, grab yourself a couple of beers and a chair, then come sit next to me. Put one beer on my casket, and have the other beer with me. Talk to me. Whatever you want to say. Anything at all. I know I can’t reply, and I’m sorry. I really really want to, but, you know, me being dead and all. But please, do it anyway. I want to just listen. I just want you to know I will always listen. For as long as you want. For as often as you want. Just talk to me.

Seven: Inevitably, the time will come when my physical carbon-based self will need to be dealt with. Bury me if you can, but if you can’t, cremate me. I won’t ask that you put me at home – that will probably totally freak your visitors out; just put me in a nice place you can always visit. And always visit.

Eight: Now you can grieve. Don’t bother with people who tell you, “He’s gone. Move on.” Grieving is a very important part of emotional wellbeing and must not be slighted. And for your information, you should know better, especially after that talk with me after the funeral party; I am not gone. I will never be gone. You move, I move. That’s the deal I made with you since you were born, and I fully plan to stick to that deal.

Finally, there’s a very good chance your mother will outlive me for another couple of decades, so take good care of her. I’m trusting you with my wife, so don’t screw it up. I will be watching you.

I will always be watching.

Love,

Dad

Never Gonna Give You Up

Mummy: I think you were too harsh on your last couple of blog posts.
Me: Harsh? How?
Mummy: For one, you were really harsh on Andre. Also, you sounded like you were asking Xan to give up.

Dear Xander,

Sometimes, even though a person means well, he or she will inadvertently overstep boundaries, or make mistakes, or push too hard on a piece of advice they think is the only right way to go about doing things.

Sometimes, the person will be stubborn and insist his way is the right way.

Sometimes, the person will realise what he did and deal with the embarrassment with a quick brush of the hand and say, “i didn’t mean it that way. It was an honest mistake. Let’s move on.”

Sometimes, the person will admit he was wrong, and not only apologise, but try to make it right again, no matter how hard making it right might be.

What your mother said about the last two letters made me realise what I did. Bringing another party into a story published on a public platform will always carry risks; sometimes it pays off, everyone has a good laugh or a thoughtful read, and life goes on as planned. Sometimes, you screw up, and then you pay for it. On this occasion, your father screwed up, by passing judgment on a 4-year-old.

Andre is a very bright 4-year-old boy, always smiling, always friendly, socially engaging, and very caring towards the people whom he loves and who love him. He is also an only child; aside from his daily 2-hour interactions with the children from his kindergarten, the only other “sibling” of his age group he has contact with on a regular basis is his 3-year-old cousin – you.

In light of these circumstances, triggered by the sobering reminder your mother gave me, I realise I have absolutely no right to make any assumptions about Andre’s character, attitude or behaviour, much less pass judgment on him based on such assumptions.

Did I mean to pass judgment? Yes, albeit unconsciously. Was I wrong? Undoubtedly. Am I sorry? Yes, I am. Can we move on? No; not until I make amends.

A more drastic mistake your mother made me aware of was that my message to you in my last letter implied that you should give up making friends with a person when it seems like a futile endeavour. The notion is so subtle yet so impactful, it’s even made me rethink the entire premise behind Dear Xander.

My intention behind these letters is to provide you with a resource that your father can impart his knowledge and experience with, using a medium that I was most comfortable with – the written word.

That being said, the knowledge and experience I have with making friends – remembering that I mentioned having taken a lot of hits and earned myself a lot of grief and misery – hardly qualifies me as an expert in the area (for that matter, I am now reconsidering my self-perceived expertise in every area I thought I was an expert on).

Your father didn’t have many friends in his youth. I wasn’t particularly close with most of who I hung out with; I had a handful of very strong friendships, what I felt was a pre-requisite for truly regarding people friends, but at the end of the day, I found I had made more people hate me than like me.

It left me jaded, pushed me into bitterness, and made me cynical for a long time afterward.

These days, I have grown to treasure the few friends I have left from the days of my youth, and thankfully, the ones who hated me are hardly anywhere to be seen.

I really don’t want for you to resort to giving up like I did when frustration got the better of me. There is a way – there is always a way – to get through to people, as long as the kindness of your heart remains strong and your goodwill prevails no matter how people treat you. Understand that good begets good, and as long as you persist in being a good boy with the heart that you have, no one will be able to resist you for long.

For all my imperfections, I am sorry.

Love,

Dad.

My Parents' 10 Unfulfilled Wishes

  1. I never became a doctor.
    My parents had a grand plan for all of us, which quite amazingly, was fulfilled 3/4s of the way. They had envisioned a brood of children who would grow up to work in top-level professions; my eldest sister became a lawyer, so we’d be in good hands if we ever got into any legal trouble. My second sister took home an architect’s degree, so we’d be able to design and build our very own family home. My third sister came back from university with an accountancy degree (and later, an MBA), so we’d have financial counsel. And finally, they wanted a doctor, so our health would be taken care of.It was thus to their utter dismay to find out when I turned 11 that I was afraid of the sight of blood.
  2. I never stayed 12.
    People have varying opinions about when a child starts losing his cuteness and ceases to impress or? amuse them. Some say in the midst of a child’s terrible twos, his incessant tantrums will have begun poking at the patience of those around them. Some go further, till four, when they start stringing complex sentences together and begin talking way too much. Or how about nine, when primary school homework becomes too much for an adult to handle (read a Primary 3 student’s Mathematics workbook and tell me you understand)? I hit twelve, when my parents’ hopes and dreams still hung tightly on me being able to get accepted into a top secondary school (think Raffles, Victoria, Maris Stella, St Joseph’s, Anderson and all those colonial first names people tend to associate with good schools).I listed them all down when I completed my PSLEs, picking only one neighbourhood school (Presbyterian High) in my very last option. Guess which one the Ministry of Education put me in?
  3. I never got into junior college.
    By the time I hit Sec 4, I was streamed into the worst-performing class in the Express stream (no offence to the classmates I still have in Facebook). It was thus of no surprise that I didn’t fare well at all in my O-levels and got a handful of Fs to complement my good English. By this time my father had already given up on me, and my mother was worried sick. They started discussing contingency plans, and sat me down one night to explore the possibility of training as a chef in Indonesian cuisine and setting up a restaurant somewhere in town where we could sell nasi padang.I balked at them during that entire conversation.

    A few weeks later, my dad drove me to Katong to see if he could get me into a Pre-University Centre so that I could at least do my A-levels. Thankfully my English grades pulled me through, though I imagine I can fry up a seriously killer ayam penyet.

  4. I never went to university.
    As my studies continued its bear run, and I continued my teenage shenanigans of losing my homework and chasing skirts, my parents’ last vestige fo hope were ultimately dashed when I was not even able to get myself into the lowest grade requirement degree course (Arts and Social Sciences) in any of the local universities. I was shocked myself; so shocked I decided to try my A-levels again as a private candidate 2 years later, studying through my first year as an army enlistee. My second attempt proved one thing; the army does nothing to improve your intelligence level.

  5. I got into a polytechnic instead. Much later.
    After an initial rejected application from Temasek Polytechnic’s Graphic Design diploma course, I was finally able to enroll into Ngee Ann Polytechnic’s School of film & Media Studies, much to my mother’s dismay. Polytechnics in my parents’ generation were generally seen as upmarket vocational institutes, and graduates would end up in dead-end jobs that only paid marginally better than technicians and clerks. In fact, my mother actually confided in me while I received my rejection letter from Temasek that after I decided to pursue a diploma, she had prayed hard to her Lord Buddha that He bless me with the luck to not get into a polytechnic.
  6. I am not (really) financially independent.
    I was never good with saving money, and my father once told me when I was about 13 that he would stop financing after I had reached 23, which he calculated would be just the age where I would have graduated from university.As per point 4 though, he never did get to alleviate himself from his financial burden for a lot longer. Even though I started working in all manners of jobs (waiting tables, bartending, stage crew work, construction), he still gave me varying amounts of allowance more or less regularly all the way till I was 27.

    What makes me even more guilty was that just before I got married, I still had to get “bailout money” from him to help me clear my debts, which to this day I haven’t finished repaying him.

  7. I spend too much money.
    A point which my mother argues is a trait passed down from my father. My father always had this concept when it came to shopping for anything: “If it’s expensive, it’s good.” In turn, I picked up the habit of making purchases on really expensive toys that fall more in the category of wants than needs. I have acknowledged I have a more-serious-than-not spendthrift problem, but up until recently I never stopped.Did I mention debts?
  8. I never, nor will probably ever, own a Volvo.
    My mother always had this opinion about Volvos being the mark of good status; not as obnoxious as a Mercedes-Benz, and not as aggressive as a BMW, just a reasonable symbol of success.Having driven my sister’s Jaguar for a while, I have decided continental cars are not my cup of tea, nor will I ever hope to actually own one, looking at the sad state of affairs running up from points 1 through 7.

  9. I never, nor will probably ever, own a 4-storey landed home with a basement.
    A few years ago, my mother laid out her dream home on the table in front of me and my sisters. She said she would be content with a landed home that had 4 storeys and a basement, where each one of us (and our respective families) would take on one floor each, and she and my father – being of old age – would take the ground floor so they wouldn’t have top climb the stairs. I assume the basement would be for all the things in her current home that she had hoarded over the last 20 years, but who am I to say anything? All I can offer my mother now is a 30 square metre room in my HDB executive flat, 17 kilometres away from the smack-in-the-middle-of-town penthouse my eldest sister bought for them.

  10. I’m not filial.
    This is perhaps the most damning of all. My mother constantly nags at me for not calling after I moved out and got a place of my own, my dad complains I never respond in a timely manner to all his technological emergencies (mostly involving a spyware-ridden computer with no Internet connection and audio-video connections that got screwed up after he buys a new DVD player or orders a new cable set-top box). The truth is, I do miss living with my parents, but like my dad, I never did develop the proper communication skills needed to interact with people who are close to me. My wife has been continuously chiding me over the same issue, but in truth, I’m not good at showing love.

    At least I think I’m not.

Week 2: Blurry Days, Sleepless Nights

At some point in a new father’s life, one might come to the conclusion that newborn babies are in fact a Samsonian test of strength. Who would think a 4kg bundle of flesh and cuteness could wreak such havoc with his parents’ biological clock to the point where one barely knows what day of the week it is (my wife has already given up keeping track).

It’s the end of Week 2, and Xander’s appetite has increased overnight. What used to be 60ml of milk a feed every 2 hours has shot up to 120ml of milk or more in 3 hours. And if you’re wondering where it all goes, last night I had the answer sitting in my hand after another sleepless night deciphering my baby son’s cries of complaint; at about 5am this morning, I had removed and disposed of what I believe to be the heaviest diaper load in the history of diaper changes. If I weren’t so sleepy, I’d have had it weighed and submitted into the Guinness Book of World Records. Instead all I can do now is open a can of Guinness and celebrate my victory of having learnt to change diapers properly without my son peeing all over himself and me. And I don’t even like Guinness.

You’d think I’d have gotten used to it by now, and I thought so too, but the sudden increase in appetite threw the entire house off-guard, even though I was pre-empted 3 days before the 2-week mark from the instructions printed on our (largely unused) can of S26 that from the second week onwards, baby feed will be increased from 60ml to 120ml, with slightly less frequent feeds per day. Slightly less frequent feeds? It feels like Day 1 after the hospital all over again, except this time, my mother-in-law had trusted me enough to run my own show for the night. Either that, or she was too bushed to wake up from my boy’s screaming.

My wife is also having a hard time keeping up with the total breastfeed program. She is now breastfeeding a lot more often, and pumping out reserves a lot less, because dear little Xander has seemingly inherited the Tay family appetite, and someone must have taught him not to waste a single morsel of food that’s served to him, so he’s sucking my wife dry every time. And when I take over to burp him after a feed, he tries to latch on to my boobs too (kudos to Xander for not discriminating). If he weren’t so darn cute, he’d be a fictional alien offspring with a voracious appetite for nipples in a B-grade bisexual softcore horror movie.

So, on Week 2, I have learned:

  • When newborns cry, it can only mean one of 3 things; either he’s hungry, or he’s soiled his diaper, or he’s in pain. If only adult life were so uncomplicated.
  • I am proficient enough with burping babies to be awarded with a certification. My big hands seem to scare the air out of my son the moment I sit him up and start swinging him around all Indian dance-like (video coming soon). nobody else in the house seems to know how to get him to burp, without lack of trying.
  • Diaper changes require quick thinking and pre-planning. Wet wipes, powder, nappy rash cream on a sterile cotton ball at the ready, and a fresh diaper positioned for optimum switching with soiled one. I haven’t timed it yet, but if I did, I might get a job swapping tires in the F1 pit with the Honda team.
  • Breastmilk poo is greenish-yellow, runny and has curds. I can no longer look at feta cheese the same way again.
  • When baby takes a shit, timing is essential. You got to wait for him to complete the transaction first (usually takes another push or three, and is usually punctuated at the end with a glorious fountain of pee if you’re not careful (a huge warning sign is if his pee-pee goes to 12 o’clock position, but by then it’ll be too late and you’re gonna need another shower).
  • Newborn baby farts are as dangerous, if not more, as fountains of pee.
  • Nappy rash hurts. Just ask Xander.
  • Hiccuping, though disturbing at times, needs to be accepted as a newborn’s routine, so there’s really nothing to worry about, and nothing much you can do. At first we tried everything from burping to feeding water, but now we just stand at his cot and laugh at how cute he is when he’s vibrating.
  • Just when you think you got the hang of it, your kid will pull out new surprises to keep your days a blur and your nights sleepless. Patience is key, and shift duties are essential for the sanity of any newborn’s household.
  • Being there to father your son and husband your wife is the best gift you can give to your family at this time, and especially to yourself. So don’t run away from those diapers and take it like a man. Your child will hiccup to thank you.

Week 1: Searching For The Joy of Parenthood

I’ve been reading through some other blogs on the topic of post-natal confinement, and it seems that while people are lauding over the joys of pregnancy, few people actually speak of the aftermath of giving birth. In fact, the most I’ve gotten about the subject prior to Xander’s birth were either a very sympathetic “Good luck, bro” or a very solemn “Welcome to parenthood. Try to stick with it.”

It really isn’t until you’re in the thick of it that you realise exactly why these responses sound the way they do. And even then, they don’t even begin to describe the ordeal you have to go through, regardless of whether you are the father or mother.

Take my wife (not literally). Having been through the pains of the 3 major types of delivery in one sitting (normal, assisted and C-section), one can only imagine the pain she must be going through during the recovery process. Add breastfeeding (proof that big boobs does not necessarily a happy husband make), a strict regiment of confinement foods (and very little else), perpetual house arrest, an overbearing parent, and of course a baby that cries for milk, a change of diapers or colic relief every hour without fail, and you start to wonder if it’s really hormonal changes that’s affecting her mood or just emotional retaliation to the conditions she has to go through. Whatever the case, from the day Xander was born, my love and respect for her has grown to such a level no words or actions are enough to justify its worth.

The baby, too, seems to be having a tough time. Jaundice is common among newborns, requiring a short stint in the morning sun at a specific time frame so you don’t overcook him. And since he’s only a week old, one cannot expect the kid to tell you he needs to pee or poop, though he has learnt since day 4 (to my knowledge anyway) to make known to the entire household when he’s made a bowel movement or bladder clearing (sometimes he emphasises the point some more by peeing over everything within 2 feet of his cot halfway through a diaper change). Our first night we had to pile on wet wipe after wet wipe over his poo, resulting in a sculptural masterpiece on his soiled diaper that resembled a half-serving of lasagna. And just like any offspring of mine would, he has a voracious appetite, further laying claim that he is my son by loving every minute of his face being immersed in my wife’s bosom (he’s luckier though; he gets to do it at least twice a day, while I get nada). But it is his cry that really gets to you; my wife once quipped with such terms of endearment that his crying carries such sadness with it. I can best describe it as a sudden sucking of air, followed by small whimper that grows a little in volume until it trails off into a high-pitched whisper as his lungs run out of air before he lets out a big blast of a wail that’s guaranteed to wake the other side of the estate. You got to hear it to understand how heart-piercing it is.

Being the new addition to the family, he is also showered with attention by my mother-in-law (commander-in-chief of the Great Confinement Period), her trusty maid (sometimes second-in-command) and me (the blur recruit). At some points during middle-of-the-night diaper changes (and some daytime changes), my son gets molested all over by 6 hands trying to make sense of his soiled buttocks, the diaper his clothing and his swaddle all at the same time. I’ve since learned to back off during this kind of situation. You have to trust your mother-in-law knows what she’s doing; she did bring up your wife, after all.

After all this, I cannot possibly lay claim to having the toughest job of all. over the past week, I have taken on the task of night-time nanny, allowing my wife to rest while I took care of Xander, with some help from Commander-in-Chief and her trusty sidekick and when they wake up to the sounds of Xander’s crying and think he’s complaining about me. The past week I have been clocking 2-4 hours of sleep a night – none of those hours consecutive – forcing me to retreat like a beaten dog back to my Sengkang flat as soon as the night is over to assume the foetal position in my bed and suck my thumb. I am lucky on 2 counts; that it is the holiday season (so most of the time I don’t have to work in the day), and that I got my driving license (so I can get home in 20 minutes as opposed to the 1-hour public transport option).

To all mothers (including my wife, my wife’s mother and my own), I take my hat off. If my hair weren’t so short and ugly right now, I’d take that off too. And if I didn’t need my skullcap to protect my brain, I’d take that off too.

To all new fathers, … Good luck, bro.