A Car Ride

Monday, February 18, 2019

The topic of Marie Kondo came up in one of the rare conversations we have altogether as a family. We were in the car, heading back home after the annual pre-Chinese New Year reunion dinner with the extended family on my maternal side.  

While I can’t quite remember what led us to chat about the gentle and soft-spoken tidying guru from Japan, much of the conversation centered around her famous philosophy of discarding unnecessary possessions simply by asking oneself, “Does it spark joy?”

In jest, I asked, “Mummy, what sparks joy for you in your life?”

“My oppas,” she replied candidly without hesitation, presumably referring to the male stars of the Korean dramas she watches as a nightly ritual before she heads to bed.

Papa, seated behind the steering wheel, hasn’t spoken a word since we started about the viral cleaning icon. A simple man of few words, I wasn’t sure if he was even aware of Marie Kondo’s existence and what she stood for, or if he was simply too engrossed in driving the family back home safely.  

Then again, such a question doesn’t require any context to answer, so I decided not to leave him out.

“Papa, what about you? What sparks joy in you?”

To my surprise, he seemed to have a prepared answer at hand.

“A peace of mind.”

The car halted at the change of colour of the traffic lights. Such precise timing – it seemed to add to the impact of Papa’s answer. His response was a lot more insightful than we were expecting, for a question that was borne out of a nifty decluttering tip, and I personally wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Mummy was the first to break the silence. “Because he doesn’t have a mind to think, so he wants a piece of mind,” she joked.

Ignoring his wife’s very typical comment, Papa started to elaborate.

“You know, in our Serangoon house, I was always filled with anxiety.”

This was news to me, as I never knew that he was ever anxious – he never showed it. And I had a lot of questions. What was he referring to? What caused him anxiety? Was he referencing Marie Kondo and how our previous home had a lot more clutter and useless objects lying around?

Turns out, I’ll never actually know if my dad knows who this Japanese lady is. But what I found out was even more important to me.

He continued, “Making the decision to quit my job to take care of my mum was such a risky decision. Every single day, when I started my business, income was unstable, and I was filled with anxiety.”

It has always been made known to me, through the quarrels my parents had when I was growing up, that my dad sacrificed a lot just to take care of his mother and seemingly “neglected” us. However, I was never quite clear of my family’s finances. We had a roof above our heads, food on the table, and clothes to wear. They weren’t the tastiest meals, nor the fanciest outfits but they were more than enough to keep me comfortable in my cozy flat.

I knew we weren’t rich but my dad’s apparent financial worries were well-hidden from me.

“When Kor Kor got into RI, I was extremely worried.”

Even though my brother (and later, myself) was awarded the scholarship given to students of independent schools, fees for a school like Raffles Institution, even after the Edusave subsidy, would still be five times that of a government school.

“But not going to RI was out of the question, I definitely have to send him there,” Papa said, with a tinge of pride – well-deserved, considering his son is due to become a doctor soon (that is, if he passes his final examinations in about a month’s time – good luck bro).

He continued to reveal a bit more about his struggles providing for the family. The years from 2006 were apparently some of his worst, where he was constantly plagued with fatigue from caring for his ailing mum and the responsibility of feeding the mouths of this family, trying desperately to advertise his business.  

At this point, Mummy, who was riding shotgun, was uncharacteristically silent. I noticed her right hand was a mere few centimetres away from Papa’s left hand, perched atop the gear stick. I knew that she was taken aback by his monologue, and half-expected her to grab hold of his hand.

Then again, in my entire life, I’ve never actually seen my parents have any form of physical contact with one another. Yes, not even hands – so that bit remains a little part of my imagination I inserted into this narrative to add to the atmosphere.

“Life really has its way of working out,” Papa advised.

He related how he managed to build a consistent pool of clients, and how Mummy returning to the workforce when I was in Primary Five also helped ease some of his worries – though he didn’t take a single cent from her earnings.

“Yes, so a peace of mind, something that I have now, is what brings me joy.”

A peace of mind. Something so simple yet so difficult to achieve. Something I surely take for granted. Something that I was able to have at the expense of someone else’s worries.

Something I should really be thankful for.

Two weeks ago, Papa hit the ripe "old" age of sixty. A pretty momentous number I'd say, and while I haven't been the biggest fan of commemorating birthdays since *age is just a number*, recent events have converted me into becoming a new proponent of simply taking every opportunity to celebrate life. My father, despite his habits of not-drinking-enough-water and constantly-repeating-what-someone-else-has-said-5-minutes-ago, is definitely someone very important to me and I can only hope that he'll feel joy in its purest forms, continue to have a peace of mind, and to stay strong and healthy, in his coming years.

Happy 60th birthday, Papa - thanks for being my biggest supporter in every single thing I do.

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