My dad was a tough cookie to the button. He could stay awake for twenty four hours straight. Sometimes, I doubted that he had ever slept. Unfortunately, I could never confirm my suspicion because of this reason—I was an ordinary human, and I needed sleep.
Everyday, when the sun wasn’t even up yet, my dad had already gone to work. After returning home in the middle of the night, he would take a shower and do all the chores. Washing the clothes, hanging them up, doing the dishes, mopping up the floor… he would make everything neat and tidy, without a speck of dust. When it was almost dawn, he would then prepare breakfast, lunch, and dinner for me, put them into containers, and finally store them in the fridge. On the fridge would be a small post-it, reminding me of my daily routine, such as paying management fees, going to the clinic for a follow-up consultation, visiting Grandma in the elderly home to celebrate her birthday…
After doing all the chores, only then would he wind down and enjoy his handmade teh tarik. Having savoured it, he would stretch out his body before heading out for work in high spirits.
‘You have to go out with me to deliver some goods tonight. I won’t take no as an answer.’
I couldn’t help but shudder at the sight of Dad’s message on the fridge. Did I have anything to do? No. But the truth is, I really hated his job. When I was little, I didn’t know the word ‘scary’ and I would go to the tombstone factory to visit Dad. It was only after I’d grown up did I realise that wasn’t any ordinary job. Apart from Dad denying my reasons not to come, I never went to the factory.
It was a boiling night. I arrived at the factory and realised that all other staff had already gone off work. Dad was the only person in the office, sipping his cup of teh tarik. Upon my arrival, his face lit up. ‘I thought you would make up a bunch of excuses not to come.’
‘I am lazy, but not lazy enough to stay in bed.’ I teased him back.
‘I knew you were a good kid! You even came to help me after work! Our hard efforts in bringing you up didn’t end up in vain, did they?’ Relieved, Dad let out a smile.
After carrying several heavy wooden crates onto the van, I sat in the driver’s seat and took Dad to his destination.
‘Have you ever thought of what Mum was like?’ Dad’s face was bright yellow as it was shone on by the street lights. It resembled those of people in old pictures—distant yet close.
‘Yes. When I was younger, I used to treat the statue of Mother Mary at school as Mum. I would pour out my heart to her. But as I grew, I put more faith in fate. Those who have to leave must leave in the end, and nobody can stop it.’ I have never seen Mum. She died while giving birth to me. There weren’t many pictures of her, amounting to barely half an album.
‘That sounds pretty ruthless, but it’s still a good thing. At least you didn’t feel sad.’ Parking the car in front of a traffic light, Dad suppressed his emotions.
‘Can you still not let go of Mum?’ As an observer, I could shrug it off calmly without much effort.
‘I can’t let her go, just as I can’t let her teh tarik go. She was Malaysian and she was good at making it. She even taught me its secret recipe. Too bad I am a master of none. I couldn’t possibly make teh tarik as good as she did.’ Pungent as strong tea and sweet as condensed milk, a bitter smile grew on his face,
‘You don’t have to deliberately let it go or forget it. That’ll only make you hold on to it tighter.’ As profound as it seemed, it was nevertheless far from enticing as a love shared between life and death.
We arrived at our destination. Dad took a rest in the car while I carried the goods towards the cemetery. Dad warned me that I could leave only after I had witnessed the whole process.
The staff were well-skilled. It took less than ten minutes for them to finish the procedure. The urn and headstone from the wooden crate were now placed accordingly. ‘Offer them to your ancestors.’ One of the staff handed me three joss sticks.
I received the sticks and earnestly paid my respects to Mum.
Yes. I knew it from the start that it was Mum’s ashes and gravestone in the box. Still, the moment when the staff opened the crate still sent shivers down my spine.
I was not as open-minded as I thought I would be.
After that night, Dad was no longer a hard case. He would feel tired, and he needed sleep. As a result, he would let me do the chores. He stopped putting messages on the fridge, and he even became forgetful. He couldn’t remember the way to work.
He had no choice but to retire. Everyday, he would sit blankly in that rocking chair to pass time. Repeatedly murmuring to himself, Dad would talk about how he had put himself through the mill when he had fought for his loving wife the right to gain the identity of a Hong Konger, as well as the joy of earning the right for his deceased wife’s burial. Besides this, he called out to his beloved wife to make him teh tarik. Her handmade teh tarik was the best.
According to the secret recipe Dad taught me before he had amnesia, I made a cup of teh tarik every day. I would offer it to him with full respect and say, ‘Mum made this for you.’