“A man’s true wealth is the good he does in the world. Beauty is eternity gazing itself in a mirror. But you are beauty and you are the mirror.” – Khalil Gibran
Initially I thought this was the most baffling quote I had ever had the misfortune to come across. Eternity gazing at itself in the mirror? What kind of narcissistic persona was this poet trying to portray? Almost immediately, I pictured a colossal ethereal woman staring at herself in a giant, cosmic mirror, combing her flyaway black hair with a dinglehopper while humming The Little Mermaid‘s ‘Part of You World’.
But of course, I cannot submit a story of a singing entity with long black hair.
This required some thought. So I put my rusty brain to good use, and after much squeaking and shuddering and desperate, derisive snorts I finally recalled something.
As a child I rarely saw my grandfather. As a teen, I barely spoke to him. Instead, I spent most of my time taking surreptitious glances at him while he slept, praying that his chest would rise and fall. He never disappointed. He’d doze in his metal reclining chair, snoring lightly with the television remote control in one hand and a fly swatter in the other, the ceiling fan circling languidly overhead. Sometimes, if I was lucky, I’d see him get up and cook a simple meal, sit down and watch a Cantonese drama while arguing with my grandmother over politics. His life was the epitome of contentment. I remember thinking that such a man must have accomplished everything he’d ever wanted, to be able to live out his old age so peacefully.
My father told me otherwise. I was regularly regaled with tales of how my father’s family suffered in poverty as my grandfather struggled to maintain his furniture company. It wasn’t much – a simple start-up that focused on making furniture that catered to the personal tastes of their customers. But my grandfather – bless his soul – was never a very good businessman.
They say kind men will never be good entrepreneurs. While most of the time I would refute that statement, in my Ah Kong’s case, it could not have been more true. He would lend too much money and make too few deals. He’d expend himself helping out his friends in need and leave his company to the inexperienced contractors.
My grandmother spent most of her life cooped up in the Parliament, relentlessly pushing heavy black buttons at the typing machine. My father and his siblings would walk to school. Their clothes were sewn by my grandmother, or, in a best-case-scenario, hand-me-downs from more affluent cousins. To say that life wasn’t a bed of roses for them would be an understatement. It was more like lying on a carpet of needles, minus the physics law of pressure.
Strangely, though, my father never held anything against Ah Kong. Neither did my aunts and uncle. They faithfully came to visit him each evening, and Chinese New Year was always a merry affair. I remember being very confused. How did one man err so seriously, so many times, and still sleep so soundly even at two-thirty in the afternoon?
That’s what my father told me when I posited the question to him. Ah Kong was not a moneymaking machine for sure, but his heart was as large as it could get (quite literally, too). He was a good father, a good friend, a good husband, and above all, a wonderful individual. His wealth did not manifest as millions stowed away in the bank, or in large shares in multinational companies. His wealth was the successful children he brought up. His wealth was the grandchildren he watched grow up from the size of a loaf of wholemeal bread to the towering Once-ler my cousin is today. His wealth was a house full of noise and the clattering of plates, of screaming and crying of toddlers, and of a loving, grumpy wife with a penchant for nagging. That was my grandfather’s wealth.
That serene look on his sleeping face did not come from years working out million-dollar deals. That look was the product of his absolute certainty that he had lived his life as best as he could, and every little thing about him echoed his mindset. He was Eternity gazing at his imperfect reflection, and it was one of a man of true wealth. He was the Mirror reflecting all he had ever done, good and bad, and he held none accountable but himself.
And at the end of the day, his reflection showed him a wealthy man in all ways that mattered – none too good-looking, but it was a reflection he liked. Satisfied with everything he had done and everyone he was to leave behind, my Ah Kong passed away in the month of March 2013. I was sixteen.
This is just another assignment from my lecturer, and it is a paltry memoir, but this is where I remember you in the virtual mess that is the Internet.
Eternity or not, beautiful or otherwise, your family misses you, Kong, and we thank you for all the blessings you’ve showered upon us.