Picture Perfect Dad

Five months ago, my beloved father passed away from pancreatic cancer which had metastasised to his liver. I never imagined what it would feel like to lose a parent. You see and hear about other people losing their loved ones but you never think it would happen to you. The weeks leading to his death were so surreal. Doctors told us to be prepared and to accept that he was not going to recover since the cancer had metastasised. None of the therapies or procedures were curative. His time was limited. Hearing this, I knew it was inevitable and that I had to treasure and cherish every moment of those last few weeks. I never expected it would be so soon.

My father was an incredible man. I learned more about him after he passed away than the 31 years of my life with him. I never bothered to ask about what he had done. He never boasted or talked about his work or achievements. He was not interested in fame or recognition. He did everything to serve God. He was the most humble person I know. After he passed away, his friends, colleagues and students shared stories about him with us and it was like getting to know him all over again. There was so much that I had absolutely no idea about. There were people out there who knew my father as a wise, kind, gentle, caring, patient, loving and humble man. There was a side of him that I had never known. I knew he loved me unconditionally, but I never expected that he would love so many others unconditionally as well. His love and kindness was endless and spread far and wide with no walls or barriers. He was also loved by many others. Whenever someone talks about my father, they would mention his smile and how happy he was all the time. But this natural happy smile is not easy to capture on camera. It was a rather difficult task to find a handsome photo of him that showed his real character.

Just before he passed away, I was asked to find a suitable photo of him for the memorial service. Mum asked me to find one a few days earlier and it took me several hours of sifting through old albums and folders on the computer and burned CDs to only find shots of him with awkward smiles posing in front of cakes, that I gave up looking.

On the night of June 23rd, as I held my father’s cold and fragile hand in my left hand, I searched once more for his photo, with my right hand on my laptop. I looked up occasionally from the screen to watch him breathe. His breathing began to slow down and I started counting the seconds between each breath. I was anxious and scared that the next time I looked up, he would no longer be breathing. Just as I had thought this, my aunt walked over and told me to put down my laptop. I looked up and waited for him to take his next breath. I counted the seconds and waited. “Breathe, Dad… Breathe, please!” I had missed his last breath. But I still hadn’t found that perfect photo. I felt so empty in that moment.

We had sat by his bedside all day that day, since we had been called to the hospice at around 10 that morning. I watched him sleep with his eyes and mouth slightly opened. Occasionally he would let out a cry – ‘Aahh!’ I wondered what he wanted to say. With each cry, we comforted him and said, “It’s ok, Dad. We know. We love you. Don’t be scared.” With each cry, my heart ached and tears welled up in my eyes. There was nothing I could do. There was nothing the nurses or doctors could do. We just sat there, helpless, useless, hopeless. Even though we knew this time would come, even though we told ourselves that we needed to be prepared for when the time comes, I never expected that I would have to watch my own father die. I never anticipated what this would feel like. I never thought it would be so soon. Those 12 hours at the hospice, waiting for the inevitable end, were torture. I felt like I was being punished in the cruellest way imaginable. What did I do, what did we do, to deserve this? I watched him go from being healthy and strong, to thin and weak. From being able to walk by himself to being carried in and out of bed within just a few days. I felt his warm hands go cold in my hands. I watched him move around helplessly in bed. I listened to his cries and attempts to speak to us.

I had always been a fan of horror and scary movies, full of bloody murders and gruesome death scenes that I became unfazed by them. But waiting and watching my father slowly fade away in front of me is something I will never forget and something that still haunts my dreams now, months later. I see flashes of him laying on that bed every now and then. I see flashes of him at home, sitting on his bed and holding the plastic pan, vomiting everything he had just eaten or drank until there was nothing left. Every time I see that plastic pan, I see the agony and the pain. I hold the tears back and stop myself from seeing it all over again. I can’t control these flashes and every time, I am reminded of how helpless I was. All I could think to do in those times was get a warm towel to give him to wipe his face. He was in so much pain and the only thing I could think of to do was that. Those flashes are scarier than any horror movie I’d ever seen. The face of my father the night he died is engraved in my mind. I could make out a faint smile on his lips and he actually looked incredibly peaceful. His cries finally stopped and he was taken to heaven. There was no more pain in those eyes.

It was not until after he passed away that I came across this perfect picture. I actually Googled him and found it in Google images. It was used by the Hong Kong Professional Counselling Association. It was the first time I had ever seen this picture of him. With this image, I created a Facebook page and used it as the profile picture. It was sent to the agent to print an enlarged version for the farewell ceremony, the cremation ceremony and the memorial service. This framed picture of him now sits above the shoe cabinet, behind our front door, in front of the dining table. I look at this picture of my father for a few minutes every day. It’s the first thing you see when you walk in the door, and it’s the first thing you see when you walk out of the corridor into the dining room.

The smile on his face is so natural. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile like that before in any of the photos we had taken together. His eyes seem to follow you everywhere, just like the Mona Lisa. Whenever I look at this picture, I wonder how many shots the photographer had taken before choosing this perfect shot. What did he say to my father to get him to smile like that? My father never liked to have his picture taken. He even expressed this many times during our vacations together. Yet, we still managed to get those obligatory birthday, anniversary, Christmas, Mother’s Day and Father’s Day shots. He would smile awkwardly, often requiring a few attempts, sometimes with the help of Mum tickling him!

It is difficult to explain, but every time I look at this picture, I feel a rush of all kinds of emotions at once. I feel pain, guilt, sadness, regret, happiness, and calm. I am reminded of everything that happened that night and the months leading up to that night. I have an urge to talk to him when I see his smile and those bright eyes looking back at me. I wave at him and greet him as if he is really there. Since the memorial, I look at this picture and tell him about my day and what I am thinking about. I share my plans with him and what I want to do in the future.

I keep hoping to wake up from this dream and hold him in my arms again. I think about that last kiss I gave him right before he was taken to the morgue – how cold his cheek felt on my lips. How I wished I could have given him one more hug. Every time when I realise that I can no longer see him, touch him, or talk to him, tears stream down my face. But I would rather feel this pain than nothing. This pain reminds me that he is with God in heaven. It reminds me that he lived a full and meaningful life, without regrets. It reminds me how happy he was and how much he smiled. It reminds me that he did not suffer and that we were all together with him in the end. That pain I feel and will keep on feeling, is love. It will never go away. In fact, I hope it never does. Every day, I will look at this picture for a few minutes to remind me how blessed I am to have such an amazing father.