Photo by Radek Skrzypczak on Unsplash
I wish I had said, I love you.
I wish I had said, Let me help you.
I wish I had said, I don’t understand, but God does.
Instead, the last words I did say were: “What do you think you are doing?” when, reacting in the horror of seeing him behind a steering wheel, I feared that he would drive off, careen around some bend somewhere, get into a terrible accident and die slumped over that same steering wheel.
Thank God he was only testing out the set of spare keys he had made, trying to see if, on a turn, they would spark the ignition and set the engine aroar.
That was the last spark of initiative I would see in him for, in the turn of events that followed, he was dead less than 24 hours later, and I never got to say anything else beyond those seven accusatory words.
Guinness and pills
In all honesty, though, his spirit had long ago been stilled, killed by a combination of circumstances beyond his control.
My dad was an alcoholic. And because he was sick a lot, he always had prescription medicine to take, no matter if it was morning, noon or night. The Guinness and the pills: They were a potent mix that kept him in a seemingly induced stupor, neither dead nor very much alive, but wasting away within, slowly but steadily.
That was the veneer. At his core, he was a gentle, unassuming man. Loving. Responsible. Broken.
Frankly, we didn’t know how to love him in a way he could have received love.
The eldest son of the second wife, he was born to a traditional patriarch who was similarly tortured by ill health.
A sometime opium smoker, my grandfather was a thin, frail man I knew only as Ah Kong and whom I greeted with Hokkien pleasantries I did not understand. We saw him often but didn’t know enough of the dialect to converse with him.
It was my dad who talked to him all the time and truly engaged. Every morning, the first stop he made was to my grandfather’s house. When Ah Kong died, my father cried so hard it scared me. I was seven years old when I watched it play out before my incredulous eyes.
Seven years later, it would be my turn to cry very hard. My own dad was gone.
Lord of his life
Was it a relief for him? Perhaps. There was little for him to live for. His business had wound down in the early 1970s, and he had taken up trading on the stock market. No matter that he was astute and good at it; net worth on paper wasn’t equal to the brick-and-mortar evidence of a “Pte Ltd company” bearing his name.
And so it was. The erosion of his self-esteem was a downhill slide that led him into a dark pit we now call depression. Alcohol aided the escape from reality, and sleep came quicker and easier with a gulp of the pills.
Slain by the Spirit one night during the Billy Graham crusade. One-to-one Bible study with a kind missionary pastor intent on reaching out. The rare visit to Alcoholics Anonymous – fledgling at the time, and fraught with stigma.
Did things change for him? No.
But for God, and God alone, there would have been no turning back on that dark road for us.
We didn’t know how to help him along. We tried possibly everything we knew how, from taunts and threats, to tours abroad and tender loving care. But frankly, we didn’t know how to love him in a way he could have received love. We plain didn’t understand; we had no comprehension of what was really going on, neither in the physical nor in the spiritual.
When it all ended so abruptly, with him simply not waking up from an afternoon nap, the enormity of the emptiness that had consumed him began to unravel in a messy, painful reckoning. Our entire family was saddled with a burden of guilt we carried years and years into the future, silently and – sadly – separately.
But for God, and God alone, there would have been no turning back on that dark road for us, if it weren’t for the knowledge that one day in his life Dad did say he believed in Jesus and did ask Him to be Lord of his life.
“I will never leave you nor forsake you” is a promise that does not have exclusions. At no point in our sorry existence does God say: “Get it together, dudes”, or “I’m out of here”.
I will see him again. I will be able to say, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry for the life you never got to live. Thank God heaven is truly heaven for people like you.
This Father’s Day, those who have a dad, love him while you may. Seize the opportunities to speak all you’ve been meaning to say, for one day death will no longer be kept at bay, and that one lone flower in his coffin will be all that’s left to lay.
I did that one Monday nearly 40 years ago.
I wish. I still wish.