Changing role: From son to head of the house

  • In TheHomeGround Asia’s series about parent-child experiences, writer Tony Goh reflects on how the passing of his father shaped his views on filial piety and his role from son to man of the house.
Visiting River HongBao as a family in 2012. (Photo source: Tony Goh)
Visiting River HongBao as a family in 2012. (Photo source: Tony Goh)

A few months before my father’s death, he held my brother’s and my hands and told us to take good care of our mother, who was the love of his life. 

As cliché as it sounds, I  had always been struck by the enduring love my parents had for each other,  after decades of being together and even in his final moments, she was still top of his mind — and heart. 

As the elder of his two boys, I quickly assured him that I would do exactly as he asked. 

It was something I would have willingly carried out even without him asking. 

A son’s promise

My father developed Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), a persistent inflammatory lung disease that causes obstructed airflow to the lungs.

Two weeks after I made my promise to him, my father suffered an attack of breathlessness caused by his COPD and fell into a coma for the next three and a half months before he died.

At the time, I had just completed my national service and had just started working. The responsibility of assuming my role as man of the house and the responsibility of managing the family had not sunk in. 

My mother had no clue about administrative and financial matters as she does not read or write English and had been a housewife, taking care of us for more than two decades. My father was the one having to handle financial and administrative matters for the family.  

It felt like the weight of the world had suddenly been placed upon my shoulders and I was the glue, keeping everything together. 

Besides settling the medical bills racked up by my father’s illness, I had to start taking responsibility for expenses of the household. 

It wasn’t easy. It still isn’t.

For the first time in my life, I learned that beyond the usual utilities and phone bills, there were also property tax, Service and Conservancy Charges and fire insurance for our residence. 

Apart from money matters, I also had to get my handyman skills up to speed. I had to change faulty light bulbs, locate defective appliances whenever the circuit breaker trips, fix leaky faucets, repair the doorbell, and even unclog a choked toilet.

The changing mother-son relationship

People say that there is nothing like the bond between mother and son. Perhaps it is even more so in an Asian family where the father is strict and the mother loving. 

I have always been closer to my mum than my dad. She was the one I would approach if I wanted to “negotiate” for extra pocket money, or for approval to stay out late. I shared more with her because she was more approachable, and there would be less retribution if I had done something wrong.

With my father gone, I quickly learned that there are differences to caring for your mother as a son and caring for her as the man of the house.

Now that I have become the man of the house, I have to do everything a son should do and more. I have to take her thoughts and feelings into consideration more and be proactive. 

Also, there is this sense of urgency that since I have lost my father before I could be filial to him, I am determined to hold on to my mother and make the most out of my time with her.

It took me a little while to get used to it, but I started making it a daily habit to tell her that I love her and give her hugs. It was clear that it was strange to her and that she had to learn to get used to my new gestures. 

We also spend quality time bonding over food and travel — before the Covid pandemic, that is.

My mum is a foodie and whenever I hear of a nice eating place, I would take her to try out the food. My mum is also a big fan of buffets. I would frequently take her to the buffets and while she enjoys browsing through the array of dishes, she also feels the pinch these outings have on my wallet. 

My mum is also my constant travel companion, especially when I travel to a destination for the first time. And should she have missed out on some of my maiden voyages, I would bring her the second time around. 

Growing up, she thought Santa Claus was real and had always wanted to visit the North Pole where he lives. So, when I went to Finland, I brought her. It was summer when we were there and, of course, we did not see Santa but I am sure she had the time of her life, reliving her childhood wish.

Visiting Helsinki, Finland with my mum and my cousin in 2018. (Photo source: Tony Goh)

Although we spent time abroad, the most memorable ones are our heart-to-heart talks. We openly shared our grief and that was when we learned so much more about each other. We had become closer since dad died. And when my mother said, “I am so blessed because you treat me so well”, I was so touched that my heart ached.

It took a moment for me to reply, “No mum, I am truly blessed because I have the opportunity to treat you right.”

Covid-19 reflections

The Covid-19 pandemic has driven home the fragility of life and the importance of making moments count even more. Stories of people losing their parents while stranded in another country struck me really hard. I deeply feel their pain and hope no one lives to regret not having done enough for their parents.

The pandemic and all its travel restrictions and work-from-home arrangements have also given me a chance to spend more time at home with my mother.

I know if my father is watching and that his son is fulfilling the promise he had made to him, he can be proud.

RELATED: Shopping with mummy dearest

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