The view from Springbrook Mountain, Australia, 2019. Photo by me.
“I used to get tired easily, but it’s better now. I can breathe easier,” my dad tells me as we hike up the leafy trails of Springbrook Mountain in Australia.
“Oh, that’s good. How did it get better?” I ask, keeping pace behind him.
“I quit smoking,” my dad announces casually, striding effortlessly over jutting rocks and exposed roots.
“What? That’s great! When did you quit?” I ask, baffled.
“Eh, maybe 6 months now?”
“Wow. How come you didn’t tell us earlier?” I ask, referring to the rest of the family.
“I don’t know. Maybe it didn’t come up.”
I ask him why he stopped smoking, and he cites health reasons. I nod knowingly.
Vacations like these are few and rare. My dad lives in Malaysia, and the rest of us in Singapore, so when we do meet, it’s not unusual for us to catch up with a year’s worth of life updates.
“Wow, this is a very old tree,” he says, stopping by an enormous trunk.
“This tree—must be thousands of years old,” he says, rapping the trunk with his knuckles.
I laugh. “Yeah, it looks super old.”
A small, metal information panel stands at the base of the tree. “The Antarctic beech,” my father reads slowly. “It’s more than 15,000 years old!” he exclaims. “Can you take a photo of me with it?” A glassy veil of wonder clouds his eyes, and I laugh again.
“Of course can,” I say, reaching for my phone and crouching down across from him.
We spend a few minutes taking photos with him switching positions with every shot. At one point, he tries to crawl into a human-sized hole in the trunk, to which I say: “Ayah, later you fall into the tree, how?” He chuckles genially and replies, “No, lah. Just take the picture.”
These pockets of small, enjoyable moments would probably be what defines our relationship as father and daughter. We’re hardly together during major life milestones, and there exists a wealth of details about me that he probably would never learn of (and vice versa).
Sometimes I wonder how differently things might’ve turned out if my father had chosen to move to Singapore and lived with the family.
I used to miss him so much as a toddler. When I turned five (the legal age to fly alone), my mother arranged for me to travel to Malaysia by myself so I could spend a month with him. I have very happy memories of that month.
But when I was six, I wrote an incensed postcard to him. It went something like, “Dear Ayah, why aren’t you here in Singapore? Mummy has to do everything herself. It’s so selfish of you.”
It was never sent, of course. My mum read it and stashed it away from me (and by extension, my father). We only found it again recently when we were clearing out old paraphernalia, and I read it with a blithe indifference. My anger, like much of my prepubescent emotions, had melted away, and in its place was a quiet acceptance—an almost grateful acknowledgement of how things were, and are.
There are probably some stray issues I’ve yet to unpack, but it never feels like a priority (then again, internalised feelings never do). Despite the distance wrought between us over the years, our relationship remained in a stable equilibrium once I proverbially “grew up”. It never fared to extremes. Sometimes, I would watch other fathers filling different roles: the protector, the teacher, the fawning figure who pampers his daughter.
Curiously, I don’t remember yearning for any of that. Despite being so far away, my father was loving in his own way. He was kind and gentle, and now that I’m older, I can see how life in Singapore wouldn’t have been a good fit for him. Our hectic, go-go-go culture would’ve made my carefree, good-humoured father irate, and it would’ve left him a shell of his former self.
As the rest of the family catches up to us at the Best of All Lookout (that’s literally the name of the Springbrook Mountain lookout point), my father and I gaze, unspeaking, at the magnificence of the valley below us. I understood the view would be beautiful, but what I saw was breathtaking. Verdant trees sprawl for miles and the cool air rests on our warm cheeks. A deep amber sunset greets us and beside us, a flock of Australians marvel quietly at the splendour.
Maybe it's the effect of standing atop a mountain, but as I lean into the moment feeling happy and grateful, I understand a little more about how incongruent human emotions can coexist. While I’d recognised that my father not being around during my early years was likely damaging to me as a child, I also know now that it was probably not in his capacity to move to Singapore. And as an adult, I’d learnt to process what I can, and still hold love for who he was, and is.
Perhaps I may never fully unpack my feelings towards my father (and the more obvious question is—do I want to?) these moments, made possible by painstaking planning by everyone in the family, feel enough. It is the lingua franca that binds us all, whether or not we acknowledge it, and they feel concrete enough to cement our relationships.
This piece is part of a writing challenge between me and my friend, Lisa. We've essentially agreed to write around 500 words for seven days each, about randomly picked topics. Today's topic is: "mountains". There are no hard and fast rules—except to have fun, and not worry about our pieces being too polished. To read Lisa's interpretation of the topic, click here.