It’s just taken me two and a half hours to get back from dropping Dad at Changi Airport. I used public transport, and the trip should have taken about 75 minutes, but it wasn’t exactly a normal morning, so that’s not quite how it worked out.
I started at Gate 6 Departures (which is right in the middle of the Terminal 1 building), where we said goodbye and both very admirably did not cry (and I actually only looked back once). I then went from left to right looking for the station exit, failing miserably and trying even harder not to cry and as a result being unable to read any signs. By the time I’d mapped the hall, ant-like, for ten minutes, including dropping down into Arrivals and up again, I found the SkyTrain and took that to Terminal 2 where I hopped on an MRT train and sat dabbing at emerging tears, until it ground to a halt three stops later at Pasir Ris, totally the wrong end of the line. Never mind, from there I popped over the platform, blowing my nose, and stood waiting until a helpful guard pointed out that I might just as well stay on the same train until it went backwards down the route I’d just taken. So I did that, and for the next 45 minutes all was quiet (apart from the sound of rustling tissues and muffled honking), until I had to get off at Buena Vista to change to the yellow line, at which point I did the same backwards trip, going towards Harbour Front instead of Dhoby Ghaut and travelling in the wrong direction (snotty now and hiding behind a big book) to OneNorth so that I had to turn around and go not one stop but two to my final destination. Gah! At Holland Village (a place I know very well indeed, as I live there), I went into a bank for coffee instead of Starbucks, but the rest of the walk home was peaceful enough, apart from the sound of me by now properly sobbing into my Frappucino, mercifully blotted out by traffic hoots.
This is what my brain does when it’s upset, it short circuits. I won’t be surprised if I lose my keys later today, or email the wrong person or try and pay for something with my travelcard. The fact that my brain is upset is silly, because it knows – stupid, stupid brain – that it will see Dad again in three months time, but no matter how many times I tell it off for making me cry on the MRT, it insists on being utterly devastated every time we say goodbye to my father.
The thing about his visits are that they bring a sense of perspective to an otherwise frankly freaky existence. They level us all, reset the status quo. Here in ExpatVille life is lovely, but it’s not real. And it’s not forever. Dad helps us look at what we are doing, in a gentle and silent way. Of course the ten-year-old doesn’t see this and he’s always worse off, because ten-year-olds Don’t Know How Lucky They Are, Aren’t Appreciative and Would Never Get A Life Like This At Home. So a grown-up brain can (once it’s pulled itself together) tell itself that we are living this wonderful life for a short time only, we must make the most of every shiny second, and we must let Grandpa get back to the things and the people he needs to get back to, and in turn get back to our own lives, which are always put on hold (no matter how much we love pressing the Hold button) when anyone comes to town.
SmallMonkey’s brain sees a devastating short-term future of empty spare rooms, utter lack of experiment partners, only one person to read to him at night (me) instead of two (see? doesn’t know he’s born), zero amount of person to play with in swimming pool (when actually, again, there is me, but that’s a young brain for you), loss of forage partner, argument referee, weird plant explainer, patient joke-listener, school bus collector (yup, me again, but I know it’s not the same), partner in crime for leaving damp towels in beds and bits of old croissant in rucksacks, loss of bus, boat and plane buddy – all of the things that my brain agrees, after a stiff talking to, that it’s OK to do without for a while has SM’s brain howling at the moon every night, unable to right itself until Old Father Time works his very slow magic (and, maybe, a cheeky set of Match Attax cards is given at the weekend as a bribe).
It is the ease with which Dad fits into our lives that makes his visits so workable. It’s not simple, fitting into another family’s way of life, no matter how close you are. What we love is how he enriches our days simply by being with us, happily and without fanfare. In his place is nothing. It is not a gap that can be filled. You know, though, it’s not like that film Enchanted, where birds perch on our deck, unfurl ribbons over the kitchen sink, tidy up all the pool towels and make up our beds (yes I know we have someone to do that, but you’re missing the point); it’s not always sugar-coated. Some mornings we’re all tired, some afternoons we’re cranky or busy, but this is daily life for you, and it just highlights my point about the loveliness of having Dad around to mull along with us. His presence makes for a little bit of the year which, for me and SM, feels so much like home.
We talked, during Dad’s trip, about how long our stay will now be. We’re coming to summer, decision-making time; the lease on our apartment is up again; I’ve a new job starting tomorrow; SM’s school is ridiculously good. Where are the exit signs? We love our privileged life but the last thought before I go to bed every single night (apart from deciding whether to switch off the aircon) is for Dad, and my sister, and the rest of my family and friends, and most times it’s about what on earth are we doing out here, and what they are all doing over there, and what timescale does this bonkers existence have? How long? I don’t have an answer.
Mr PartlyCloudy tells me to live in the now, but his brain is different to mine, calculating, planning, measuring and adjusting. Mine throws out streamers, plonks up and down the piano, paints exquisite pictures then rides over them with a ginormous tractor before unfurling a giant rainbow towel on a desert shore with a tall fruity cocktail and a floppy hat, and inventing strange and unpublishable stories for the rest of the daydream. So you can see how we don’t, sometimes, see eye to eye on things. I do like his brain, though, and mine might just have to behave for a bit.
Once, in my twenties, not long after a big relationship had ended, I had trouble getting home after work, spending about half an hour walking between two tube stops on Oxford Street, trying to decide which route to take. This was ridiculous, since I had lived in London all my life and knew the route blind, but it was the result of the same panicky brain. So I’m sorry for my poor brain today and I think I’ll stay at home and give it it the rest of the day off, allowing it to track Dad’s route home, maybe eating a bit of Easter chocolate, until SM comes home from school and needs the Grandpa gaps filled. Sweets instead of healthy snacks today, for sure.