On turning 38

My first birthday

On Saturday, amidst the fun and the fanfare that is my nephew’s first birthday, I was asking my aunt (wife of my father’s younger brother) what it was like being a grandmother. It’s always nice starting a conversation that will cause the eyes of the listener to light up, if not explode, in excitement. Life changes for the better most of the time when a young child, usually a grandkid, is added to the clan.

Later that evening, I stood with a cousin and another uncle outside the function room and observed as the crowd sang the “Happy birthday” song in unison while the one-year-old kid revelled (rare for these little humans at their age; but he’s a brave boy) in the attention. However, there were brief moments when he would be distracted, instead, by the huge cake – customised to resemble his favourite cartoon character Spongebob.

His parents blew the candles on his behalf; the flashes from the camera phones flickered in the room.

I smiled and oftentimes, thoughts would be associated and then filled with those photos, yellowed with age, of my own first birthday. Being the eldest grandchild on the paternal side of my family meant that I too experienced loads of attention. I was simply too young to appreciate the effort and the fanfare, but those photos were pleasant reminders of the first party my parents threw for me. In some ways, I am mindful of how there are people who do not have such a privilege.

But coming back to the question I posed to the aunt and still on the subject of birthdays, I believe many people who would care to ask, “What does it feel like being a 38-year-old?” on someone’s 38th birthday.

Given that I’m on the cusp of officially being middle-aged (a couple of years to my fourth decade of existence), I shall attempt to answer the question that few may ask.

Not a million dollars and definitely not a thousand dollars either (although I could do with both).

But birthdays and the New Year are times when people tend to look back – prompted or otherwise – on the year that passed. Especially on social networks, you will come across the musings of those who gripe, complain, moan, whinge or lament (rightfully sometimes) about how another 365 days flew over their heads and they have yet to achieve anything of note. Perhaps it is the human tendency to celebrate achievements (no matter how big or small) when it happens or that sometimes we don’t count our blessings enough to celebrate the small bits of pleasant stuff that life throws at us. Moreover, euphoria dissipates with time.

There are reasons, good ones, for celebrating birthdays. It marks one’s another year of existence (i.e., God has seen it fit to have bestowed me with another year of sojourn on His Earth). It allows one the pleasure of inviting family, loved ones and close friends to meals or some form of gathering where it should warm our hearts that these people care for us and are still with us. By counting our blessings (from the past year) and having the people closest to us around, it allows us to face the year ahead, always unknown, with confidence.

It doesn’t matter if I haven’t achieved anything for the past year; I’ve lived.

It doesn’t matter if I still haven’t found what I am looking for; I’ve loved.

It doesn’t matter if I accumulate more regrets with every passing year; I am wiser*.

Perhaps we’ve been so inundated with the need for achievements, recognition and fame that they have become a yardstick which later evolves to become a stick we beat ourselves with. We believed in the lie about having reasons to exist or believing in reasons to exist.

Our reason to exist (or live) was set on the day of our birth. Think about the hopes and joys that we brought to our parents, extended families, and later, people who care for us, with our birth (and existence). Think about why our first year of existence is (more likely than not) celebrated. Or even if none of them happened (or that we are not aware of), consider the joy, comfort and love we brought to those whom we care about in the course of our lives.

Think about the smile on the child’s face after you’ve given him a sweet or whom you’ve played with.

Think about the smile on the old man’s face after you’ve given up your seat for him.

Think about the hug you gave to someone who was in desperate need of one.

Think about the listening ear you willing gave to a person who needed to vent.

Life is more than just a sum total of a laundry list of achievements, the neverending quest for recognition and the hunger for fame. It’s about who we’ve touched and how we would live on in the hearts of those who love us and whom we love – long after we pass on from this world.

If we have loved, we’ve lived. If we’ve lived, we’ve loved.

* this does not mean that I’m precluded from doing foolish stuff.

A mid summer night’s tempest (Part 2)

Her heart was crying out for love, forgiveness and acceptance. Not too long ago, it was brimming with life, joy and hope. Marrying a man she was madly in love with and that sparkle in her eyes when she mentioned briefly about their honeymoon.

“I have no regrets.”

She muttered; her face was turned away from him. It was as though she was saying it to herself.

He often read and heard those four words. They, and variations of them, seemed to be everyone’s Holy Grail of life. From wizened old men to demure young ladies, they expressed a sense of defiance against or in spite of whatever life threw at them.

He wasn’t usually one who judges people for what they say. It’s just that he’s always inclined to be sceptical.

“I wanted so much to hang on to the marriage, but he never come back… Looking at their happy photos tore me down… physically, mentally and spiritually. I became very bitter, not able to trust anyone nor care for people. I kept asking God why he gave me a husband and took him away.”

“Cos he really loves her. He didn’t care about her past nor how others think of them. Whether she is older or has given birth before… He still know that he wants her.”

Her words appeared on another tempestuous night. It was one where they were separated and there was no way both of them can see the reaction of the other. It might have given them some comfort, just because words on a screen can never exude the warmth from the faintest of facial expressions of empathy.

Love was something he wanted to give her. It stemmed from a desire to put things right for her and allow her to see that there is a happy ending to a wrong turn she took.

Forgiveness was not needed for there were no transgressions made against him.

Acceptance would have been covered twice, thrice or many times over with love. His.

Another chance at life – of joy and hope – would be what he would promise her, if she accepts his gift of love.

Now, he could give none of these. Not even forgiveness.

Yet, he could feel her pain, anguish and hurt. Empathy has always been both a blessing and a curse in his life.

For him now, helpless empathy was far more intense.

The tempest raged on. Surely autumn would come soon. But it mightn’t for her for the rest of her life.

A mid summer night’s tempest (Part 1)

Her eyes glazed over as she looked away. Perhaps it was a human reaction for some privacy when there is the involuntary surge of emotions. He turned away too and focused his attention on the television screen, which showed men tussling with each other over an odd-shaped ball. From the table next to theirs, he could tell on which side its occupants supported by their yelps and grunts.

He didn’t want to stare. He afforded her the space to steel herself for a few moments.

The reaction, though not unexpected, was telling. It must have pushed some buttons, which triggered it. Even before that, he knew that she had an interesting past. For about three years, she lived and worked overseas because she wanted to be as far away as possible from home. Further back and as a student, she spent money on a car just so that she could race them with a gang. And these were only the stories she decided to tell him.

Taking a break from watching the men on the screen and rugby being not something of interest, he glanced at her. Her eyes reflected bits of the images from the screen. The silence might have been awkward, but he knew she needed it.

He took a sip from the mug. Only moments ago, she teased him about asking for sparkling water at a watering hole. Smiles broke on their faces; she being pleased with her tease while he sheepishly looked at the bottle of beer she ordered.

The conversation turned intense when he told her about his views on marriage, divorce and abortions. It all started with her asking if he had signed up with any dating agencies. Abortion wasn’t the discussion which caused that sudden change in the tone of her voice. Divorce was one of the big missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle he was piecing together.

They spent six hours together that night; dinner at a hawker centre, dessert at another (where he observed the delight on her face as the spoonful of gula melaka ignited her taste buds), drinks at a cozy wateringhole and drinks at another. She told him about her marriage and the divorce. He made a mental note about how she has shared none of it with anyone else except for a few women she trusted. He wished he could be as pleased as peach for still having the ability to give people enough trust and space to share with him their stories.

The rain was pelting down as they walked to her car. The umbrella, borrowed from the watering hole, was big enough for two but he tried to shield her from the rain as much as possible. He was guilt-ridden when she blurted, “My shoes are wet!” after they stepped on a puddle of rain. His was too, but it didn’t matter.

As the car zipped through the deserted streets, he observed the random patterns formed as the water from the rain streaming down the car window. Inside of him, his thoughts and emotions met at the same place. They rarely do that and when they do, something exploded inside of him.

He turned and looked at her. She was calmer now. The tempest in her had passed.