Faith

How my father got to know his heavenly Father

Salt&Light wishes all dads a Happy Father's Day!

Christine Leow // June 20, 2020, 10:50 pm

Pa - wedding

2013 Los Angeles: My parents waiting for the tea ceremony at my younger sister's wedding. All photos courtesy of the Chung family.

This is the earliest memory I have of my father.

I am five and he is the sun that rises and sets on my little universe. I adore him. He gets a big hug and kiss before he goes to work. When he comes home, I am the first to greet him with more hugs and kisses.

Nine-year-old me would often wonder: What use is a father?

I love my Papa.

This is the only happy memory I have of him growing up.

By the time I am nine, his critical view of his family, his judgemental ways – why do you choose to get 90% when you can get 100%? – had eroded all my affection.

Nine-year-old me would often wonder: What use is a father? If not for the fact that he put food on the table, I felt I had little need or use for a father.

1989, Thailand: On a holiday in Thailand enjoying a traditional meal.

1989, Thailand: Enjoying a traditional meal on holiday.

As I grew older, I became indifferent. My world simply did not include him.

A fatherless boy

My father himself had no such luxury to exclude his father. 

My grandfather, a man whose name I never knew, died during the Japanese Occupation months before my father was born.

My parents at their wedding in 1966.

My parents on their wedding day in 1966.

This was in the early days of the Occupation. All able-bodied men were told to report to designated centres or face imprisonment. Or worse, death.

My grandfather went. He never came home.

My grandmother, then only a teenager, was pregnant with my father.

This is not a unique story. There are probably hundreds of families in Singapore and across Southeast Asia with stories like this. So similar is this tale to Cantonese soaps of the 80s, it would have been darkly comic had it not been so tragic.

My grandfather, a man whose name I never knew, died during the Japanese Occupation months before my father was born.

So, my father never knew his father. 

His brief encounter with a father figure was not a positive one either.

When he was 10, his mother decided to remarry. Well-meaning aunties told my grandmother this was for the best. 

Who would care for you when you grow old? Your son will have his own family. You will be forgotten. That is if you can even raise him on your washer woman pay.

She took their advice and allowed herself to be match-made to a 40-something.

Her new husband had a condition: Move with me to Christmas Island, but leave your son.

The way my mother tells it, my 10-year-old father begged his mother not to leave him. He promised he would take care of her once he was old enough.

She left.

He grew up in the care of his landlady. So poor that he had to borrow from neighbours to pay for his ‘O’ level exams, he quit school after that to work. 

He could have furthered his studies. He was smart enough.

A hardened man

The father I knew growing up was a hard man. He had a dry wit but with his family that wit became searing sarcasm.

He had high demands but he was not around much to help us achieve them.

1988 Perth, Australia: Our family lived quite frugally on my father's single income and this was the first holiday we ever took that required us to take an aeroplane.

1988 Perth, Australia: Our family lived quite frugally on my father’s single income and this was the first holiday we ever took that required us to take a plane.

Everything I knew about him, everything he wanted to say to me or my sister, we heard from my mum in reported speech.

We did not mind. My younger sister and I. Because any time he did speak to us, it was to deliver a scathing comment or a mean putdown.

When I became a Christian, I did not hold out much hope that he could be converted. 

In all honesty, I did not care.

As I matured, though, I did pray for him. Out of filial obligation, out of Christian duty, I am not very sure. 

But I did not have the courage to share the Gospel with him. What could I say? Pa, you’re a sinner in need of forgiveness. Repent and be saved?

Still, I prayed. We prayed. My sister and I. For my father. For my mum.

Jobless but not hopeless

Then, he got retrenched. At the worst of times.

My sister had just gone abroad to study. He had recently withdrawn part of his CPF to send her to America. He was 55 years old.

No degree. With skills that had few takers but for the company that had tossed him out.

We prayed once more. My sister and I. My cell group. I told my mum we were all praying.

Improbably but not impossibly in God’s economy, my father got another job. Not as well-paid but a job in the same industry nonetheless.

We continued to pray but I did not see how he could possibly become a Christian.

Mum, so relieved and grateful, prayed to receive Christ all on her own, following a prayer on the back of a Christian tract that had been slipped underneath her front door.

We thought my father would at least be moved, maybe a little more open to Christianity.  

But he was a hardened man.

The years passed. The grandchildren came. We taught them to ask Ah Gong to be a Christian, hoping maybe their cuteness would move him.

But he was a hardened man. 

He had gotten this far without God. He would go further.

1992, Europe: Only when the children were all grown up did my parents travel more extensively.

1992, Europe: Only when the children were all grown up did my parents travel more extensively.

We continued to pray but I did not see how he could possibly become a Christian.

By then, he had retired. He never went out. He did not have friends. His immediate family were the only Christians in his life and he would not listen to any of us.

An unexpected fall 

Last December, he collapsed in the bathroom.

He had been complaining of a stomachache for a few days. He had lost his appetite.

We rushed him to the hospital. It was hernia. 

Then the story comes out. From mum. He had been afflicted with the condition for 17 years. They thought it was no big deal.

He goes for emergency surgery.

I approach him. Uncertain. Can I pray for you? Yes? Ask Jesus to forgive your sins.  

But before he does, mum tells me: Pray for him. I asked him if he wants to receive Jesus and he said yes. Pray for him.

For nearly a year, we had noticed my father slipping mentally. 

He would take a longer time to string his sentence together. Usually a man of few words by choice, he became a man of few words because words failed him.

He was a little less co-ordinated, a less steady on his feet. Once he walked into a glass wall at a hotel. He did not recognise it was a wall.

The hardened man was gone. He became more compliant, timid even.

So, I approach him. Uncertain. Can I pray for you? Yes? Ask Jesus to forgive your sins and come into your life to be your Lord and Saviour? Yes?

He prays, holding my hand.

I am not sure he understood it all. I of little faith.

A father who says Amen

He returns home, and mum and he begin to read the Bible together.

They say the Lord’s prayer together. It takes them half an hour. She because she can’t remember it all. He because he can’t say it all. But they pray.

He is 78, going on 79. He is a shadow of the father I knew, like a watercolour rendition of a once vibrant photograph.

His mind is slipping. Now his legs are. He can no longer hold himself up. He takes another tumble. Doctors say it is Parkinson’s Disease, on top of the cognitive impairment (one stage before dementia) we had long suspected.

This is the latest memory I have of my father.

Now my father knows my heavenly Father. His heavenly father.

He is a shrunken figure, sitting on his hospital bed. He has become almost like a child. He answers in single words when asked. Haltingly. He does as he is told.

I chat with him. I tell him about his grandsons now 21 and 17. He has always favoured boys. He smiles when I tell him that one of them is taking after him. He is studying Mass Communications and hopes to work in television. Like my father.

I ask to pray for him. He takes my hand and says Amen when we are done.

My father who once mocked me: Only the weak need God.

Filming his youngest grandchild in 2018, making home videos was a hobby my father enjoyed.

Filming his youngest grandchild in 2018, making home videos was a hobby my father enjoyed.

My father who used to make me cower inside even if I never trembled outwardly.

My father who grew up without his father and so did not know how to be a father.

Now my father knows my heavenly Father. His heavenly father.

This is the answer to 30 years of prayer, not all of them in faith or even hope. But God, in His mercy, heard.

Happy Father’s Day, Papa.

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About the author

Christine Leow

Christine believes there is always a story waiting to be told. This led to a career in MediaCorp News scripting and producing news, current affairs programmes and documentaries. Christine is now a Senior Writer at Salt&Light. Her idea of a perfect day has to do with a big mug of tea, a bigger muffin and a good book.

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