16th May 1976. My father is standing atop a building that was under construction at St George’s Road. The view overlooks May North Primary School, which has now been replaced with a sewage treatment plant. His vintage Ray-bans covers half his face as he smiles widely, looking away from the camera and into the distance. The skies are clear, and the weather is scorching hot. His right hand akimbo while the other, as an afterthought seconds before the photograph was taken, rested undecidedly on his left thigh. My father is wearing a pair of black office pants, and a crisp white shirt. Although it isn’t visible, he remembers clearly that he was wearing his favourite pair of Bata running shoes. His close friend, a fellow architect and running buddy, Borhan, was the one behind the camera. They were on the site of one of the buildings under their supervision, and my father decided to preserve the last few memories of him at work, before retiring several months later. On the very same year, my father and Borhan joined their very first full marathon in Singapore. Their trainings had started years before this photograph was taken, showing my father’s physique at its best.
As I hold the photograph in my hand, I turn around to face my father sitting on the sofa, and brought it up to eye-level. I cannot help but giggle at the stark contrast as I shift my gaze from the man wearing a pair of tight-fitting pants in the sepia-toned photo, to the man in a checkered sarong on the sofa right in front of me. He no longer finds jutting one arm outwards a trendy pose, his beard is now stained a silvery grey, and his flat tummy has now grown into a paunch. Yet, there are some discernible traces that remain of his younger self – his permanently stern expression, the hint of beard growing on his chin, and his firm and solid calves; proof of his life-long passion for running.
My father has always been a proud marathon enthusiast. A major part of his youth was taking part in marathons, and completing long-distance runs with Borhan. One of the longest routes my father has ever taken was from Benjamin Sheares Bridge to the very first Changi Airport Terminal. “Bapak last time used to run all the marathons in this country, you know? I even made friends with some ex-MPs at the marathons like Chan Chee Seng and Othman Wok. From the first ever Singapore Marathon Jog – now they call it Standard Chartered run – to my company runs in Macritchie… you name it, I ran it!”
His certificates and medals line the shelves of our glass display cabinet in the living room. Even at the age of 62, he sticks to his rigid routine of running around the estate every morning before dawn. Some mornings, when I wake up particularly early, I’d join my father in his daily runs at our neighbourhood park, just a five-minute walk away from where we live. I almost always end up traipsing behind him like a tired puppy while my father races past effortlessly, meters ahead of me. I pace my breathing in harmony with my steps, looking down at my shoes as I march to the rhythm of my heart. I look up to see my father, before he disappears deeper into the park. He looks right in his element; baggy trackpants, worn out Reeboks, and ears plugged into the now obsolete Sony Walkman (he still refuses to use the iPod my brothers and I got him on his 55th birthday, he said it’s “too young and hip for an old man”).
No stranger would have guessed that he is an avid runner. I don’t blame them. My father does not have a runner’s physique. His trim figure and well-toned arms are gradually lost over time. But his love for long-distance running remains unflagging. He always tells my brothers and I, why running is the best sport. “You know why? See, you need two or more people to play a proper game of badminton or soccer. You need to find friends who are interested so you can form a team. So leceh. That’s why running is the best. You only need yourself.”
My father is a broad and sturdily-built man. His M-shaped hairline is receding, like a gentle tide, over the years. His deep-seated crow’s feet dance about his eyes whenever he laughs. His hands are weathered like aged leather, from years of building houses, and fixing every faulty appliance that fails us. Children (my niece and nephew in particular), fear him at first sight, but when given enough time, will eventually warm up to him well. He never once raised his voice, or laid a hand on any of us. His booming voice and stern disposition is enough to frighten. There is a heroic air around him which I sometimes see in his eyes. He is meticulous and patient when fixing the clogged sink which can take up days to fix, but carelessly impatient when washing the dishes in it. His plodding footsteps as he makes his way to his room each time he comes back in the evenings from driving all day, signals exhaustion, and hints that he does not wish to be disturbed.
My father was told by his father to quit his job as an architect in HDB, and become a full-time taxi driver just like him. My grandfather is a strict, dominant, and no-nonsense man. My father knew that once his father instructs his children to do something, it means serious business. My father was undeniably upset, but with his wisdom and positive attitude, he took it up with no complains. He willingly listened to his father, and regarded it a basic duty as a son to fulfill his parent’s commands. My father is the only child, out of his seven brothers and sisters, who willingly obeys and respects his father’s wishes.
Sometimes, in conversations with my mother, he would slip in things like “If only I was still an architect…”, or “By now, I think I would’ve earned enough money to buy a bigger house.” But being the optimist that he is, he disguises his sadness by laughing it off each time. I could see his eyes betraying him, casting out the window, as though looking at a distant star in the night sky. A sense of forlorn and broken dreams settled around the room like specks of dusty, unspoken words, crammed in a dark closet for years.
My grandfather was never a runner. Running is something my father picked up on his own. Whenever he’s asked about the reason he runs, he says, “I run because I enjoy it. It makes me fit and feel better. It makes my life feel better. When you run, you don’t think of things. You forget all your troubles. The only thing on your mind is your goal – how many kilometres will you cover today? Two? Three? You just run. You feel free.”
As Haruki Murakami puts it in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, “Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive than in a fog, and I believe running helps you do that.” My father runs to live his life. He enjoys the thrill and accomplishment he gets from running on the road, at the park, and even by the beach. But most of all, he enjoys the solitude it brings. Most of his friends do not share the same passion as he does. Borhan, the only one who did, passed away in a car accident a few years ago. He never spoke of his loss. Since then, my father runs alone. Gradually, he retreats from participating in marathons, and focuses instead on his daily solo runs.
Sometimes when I glance in the mirror, I see a glimpse of my father. For the past 22 years of my life, I am quite convinced that I have, unfortunately, inherited my father’s stern look. Which means extra effort is required to smile, all the time, to prevent the risk of being called ‘unfriendly’. But this physical trait is proof that there is a part of my father in me. I am his shadow, trailing behind him as we run. A chip off the old block. A mirror image.
There is an unspoken rule that exists in our family. We never speak, unless necessary. I talk more to my mother, who acts as a messenger between my father and us siblings. My mother is soft-spoken, gentle, and warm. My parents are polar opposites, but I suppose that’s what makes their 32 years of marriage going.
I recall the day my father kept silent and disapproved my decision to take up a Mass Communications course in polytechnic, warning me that the chances of getting into a local university will be slim, based on “what people say”. I was adamant with my choice and refused to listen to him. I could hear an echo of his younger self, resonating within me. I saw traces of my grandfather, in him. But in the end, although I detected a certain resignation on his face, he signed all my application documents and silently approved it. He supported me in his own way for the whole three years, until the day I graduated.
The morning after I broke the news to my parents that I had gotten a letter of acceptance to NTU, I woke up exceptionally early to run with my father. Usually after we run, we would go straight home. But that day was special. After running, he brought me to the best Roti Prata shop in our neighborhood for breakfast. I treasure moments like this; moments when it is just my father and I, only happen on the rarest days. I think it was my father’s way of saying, “I am proud of you”. I was gathering all my courage to say “Thank you, bapak”. I wanted to say it out loud. But those simple words never found their way out of my mouth. We continue on our way home without a word. The silence fills up the spaces between us. We let the silence speak.
Although my father loves a good conversation and he is the chattiest man I have ever known, he enjoys quiet moments alone when reading his books or the morning papers and during his routine run. It’s his daily meditation; his way of staying sane whilst keeping fit. He recharges his batteries by running, to get through a day of talking with passengers and friends.
I have always believed that my father has a magic touch. He fixes everything with his own hands – lamps, kitchen sinks, washing machines, just to name a few. He is our plumber, technician, and gardener. The pandan leaves, snake grass, and money plants that crowd our corridor would not have grown as beautiful, if not for my father. Besides running, he spends his spare time planting the seeds, watering them, and rearranging their pots so they could reach out to the sun and grow well. He tirelessly cares for the row of potted plants that decorate our corridor, and waits for them to bear their fruits. He enjoys the laborious yet rewarding process that gardening brings, just like how running does for him. His unrelenting discipline and care for gardening, parallels his mentality in long-distance running.
One night, before my father went to bed, I saw him staying up late to fix the sole of his Reeboks which had come off after two years. My father is the type to wear something over and over again, until it becomes completely impossible to be worn. His reading glasses have survived a good ten years, thanks to his creativity in employing an assortment of wires and tapes to piece the broken bridge. I looked on as he hammers a nail through the sole, glued it with the strongest glue he could find, and let it set overnight. The next morning when I trailed him to the park, I noticed his shoe looking as intact as it had been when it was brand new. That was when I thought to myself, there really is nothing that my father can’t fix.
My father has been a taxi driver for 20 over years now. Every day, as he drives down the roads he knows so well like the back of his hand, he steers the wheel, and steers it closer to his dreams – a retiree’s life of gardening, reading, and most importantly, running. He shares his retirement plans with my mother, while we were having breakfast in the kitchen one morning. Even though he was telling this to her, I could sense that he was, in fact, talking to me.
6th September 2013. My brothers and I bought him his favourite durian cake, and a pair of Nike running shoes to replace his old, tired ones. As we sat together at the dining table in our 5-room flat, we reminisce the past. My father, being the story-teller that he is, tells us even more stories; from his glory years of marathon running, to his childhood moments during his idyllic kampong days, and to his strange encounters with his passengers. I look at my mother, the warmth of her smiles illuminating the room. I watch as my brothers try their best to suppress their laughter each time my father talks about a funny encounter. I smile to myself as I look up at my father; his animated hands in mid-story, and his vibrant voice filling up the air. I freeze-frame this exact moment; a developing, almost palpable memory, and store it as a photograph in my mind, a photograph that will last for as long as I can remember. I see in his eyes – worn, nostalgic, and hopeful – as midnight strikes, and my father turns 62. Like a floating memory in a long-forgotten photograph that occasionally surfaces in my mind, the times he had lead the way, and the times he had silently supported me, are the times that I will never forget. As he reminisces his days of helping his mother sell her handmade epok-epok every afternoon after school, his duty in following his father’s footsteps as a taxi driver, I feel it is time to steer the wheel. It is time I help him live the rest of his years; grant him the life he has given me, and the same freedom and satisfaction he gets from running every single day.
It is time I help him chase his dreams.