I was happy to hit the road. As I sang along to my favourite song and thumped the steering wheel to the rhythmic beat, I glanced at my brother who was sitting on the passenger seat. Henry looked forlorn. Sad.
No, let me rephrase that. Henry was happy until it was time to kiss Mother goodbye and he saw tears in her eyes.
Mother seldom cries when we leave. Maybe it was because Henry will always scold her and say “You cry as though I am not coming back.” He knew it was wrong to say such things to an old lady but my brother and I – we both hate sad farewells.
Actually, it is not the farewells that I hated. I can’t wait to leave. Everytime I go home, I feel huge gnarled roots grab me into a suffocating chokehold, bullying me into a cowering heap of filial subservience.
But for Henry, it was the tears he can’t stand. Tears made him feel guilty, he confided, as we lay in our bunk beds in the bedroom of our childhood.
I remembered that conversation well because that was the first time my brother and I had a “real” conversation. Before that, he would usually ignore me or treat me like a child; which I supposed was expected, especially when my brother was a 14 years older than me.
I called Mother as soon as we reached home to say that our baggage, cramped tightly to the hilt at the back of my car with homecooked goodies – chilli crabs, tempoyak, sambal petai, acar rebung and asam laksa – had made the journey unscathed. Then she said, “Come back soon.” And she sounded genuinely sad; surprisingly bereft of that emotional blackmail she doles on us every time.
Something in her tone tugged my heart. But I ignored it. Dying and the dead were something I rather not dwell on at length.
My brother remarked that Father looked his usual happy self. I smirked and commented that Father looked as though he was trying too hard. Putting up a show when we were around. I can see through that game face of his, I insisted.
“They are trying not to squabble in front of us,” I said. I knew they get on each other’s nerves – alot. She with her sharp tongue, dripping with sarcasm; ready to strike and cut Father into a sulking mess, even if the bone of contention was something as ridiculous as getting names mixed up in a conversation over some drama serial on tv.
But my brother begged to differ. He thought that it has a lot to do with money. Mother told us that Father has been giving money to his relatives, specifically, his sick brother. But Mother’s argument was that Uncle’s kids were well-to-do. They should not accept Father’s money.
“They will come up with some sob story and expect your old father to contribute. Why can’t his own children foot the bill?” she gestured wildly. “Have you seen their cars? All the latest models. But hospital bill for one father they cannot afford.”
My brother shushed her because she was getting loud, and he didn’t want Father who was upstairs taking his nap, to hear. We can see that pained expression in his eyes every time Mother brought this topic up.
To me, how Father spends his money was his business. He has his own bank account. She has her own bank account.
Father once told me that he felt happy giving money to people in need. When I reminded him that there have been cases of people taking advantage of his generosity, he would say “It’s ok. They have to live with their conscience. Every time they see me, they will remember what they have done.”
“In fact,” I told my brother, “I suspect that Uncle would purposely get himself admitted into that ridiculously expensive hospital when he felt that none of the relatives and his children were paying him enough attention. At least when the relatives know that he is in hospital, they would feel obliged to visit him. And his children will have to take turns to be at his side, to be at his beck and call, to cater to his every whim when he was in hospital. Otherwise…yunno…relatives.. they.will.talk… if they come visit and find Uncle alone. Quivering and moaning at his bed. Alone.”
My brother laughed softly. He said that I am starting to sound like Mother and I felt strangely pleased although I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a compliment.
“Is that why you were always so combative whenever we go home and Father tells us that we should visit Uncle? Can’t you give Father some respect?” my brother asked.
I bit my tongue.
“It’s true,” I finally admitted. “Unlike you, I can’t pretend. I can’t do stoic. I can’t mask the look of utter disgust no matter how hard I try.” And it always ends badly; with me displaying that thundering glint my eyes can’t hide, that hard look my face can’t disguise, that curtness my voice refuse to conceal.
My brother stared hard at me. I looked away. Because deep down, I was afraid that I’ve disappointed him.