I gazed upon my youngest son engrossed with his homework. His hair cut to regulation length, Sin Min’s martial length. Drop by any barbers in town they know that means no longer than 1cm crop, no skin head either. His skin tanned from cycling to school under blazing simmering sun. Pimples aplenty due to hormone gone awry, I guessed. A bit on the skinny side, not muscular, gangly some would say. He is a tad too tall almost 6 footer for my ancestry. He has my eyes though or more precisely his paternal great grandma’s.
Joel was born the smallest of my three boys, 2.75kg at his very first cry. He ballooned almost immediately from his first month. His chin appeared to fuse with his chest that his neck disappeared into the fold. We oft joked that we should have named him “Neckless”. He was a very round baby, pleasant, easy and contented, and he seldom cried, very cuddly. His dimpled toothless smiles were angelic.
When bullied by older brothers, Joshua or Josiah or both, he seldom retaliated. When he did, occasionally, he would hold my index finger tightly for courage and support, dragged me before his brothers to ramble away at them. When he ran out of decibel, he would nose up at them in finality with dad standing beside him. I would wink understandably at my older two. Both would usually play along and pretend to regret apologetically. Once he had made his point he would always trot off ecstatically.
Joel loved to play chess, both Chinese and English. His oblique horse or knight ambushes were quite sudden and deathly. Admittedly, he was quite good for his age. I did allow him to win occasionally to build his confidence. Actually, I love just to watch him dance his victory dance and prance excitedly about bragging to all who care to listen, an epic “David over Goliath” victory, mind you.
Our favorite father-son bonding time would literally be our horizontal meditation time together during his noon power naps. He would lie prone on my chest with his limbs hugging tightly as he would any bolsters or teddy bears. I would pat his back rhythmically to sleep. I too would go to sleep cuddling him into our dreamy “zen” time with a “Do Not Disturb Son Sleeping” sign flashing silently on my sleepy forehead.
He went to SMJK (C) Sin Min, a Chinese medium primary school. In those innocent pre-teen days, he had the audacity to play pranks on me. For his favorite, he would pretend to seek my help with his homework. He would purposely rattle away some questions in Mandarin despite knowing that I knew not the pictographic language. I guessed he loved the puzzled look on my face. He would then pretend to realize my Mandarin illiteracy and momentarily apologize for asking. He would shrug and hastily turn away to seek his mum’s help, most likely to hide from me an ear to ear grin that would definitely spread over his cheeky face. I knew for he is the apple of my eyes. He could do no wrong for he was understandably still in his age of innocence.
I almost lost him when he was 10. He was still sleeping with us then. He refused to sleep alone in his room or with either brother, or maybe he was just too attached to us. He usually slept on his own bed but would somehow magically wake up the following morn on our bed, and me on his. Hmm, I did experience a nightmarish plunge after all during those nights. No Jedi wizardry or Merlin sorcery, he just quietly wriggled between us during the night and slowly nudged me off my bed.
Anyway, we were grateful that he was still sleeping in our room that fateful Saturday night. I remember vividly it was a Saturday night as it was the only night of the week that I slept at home. I was still commuting weekly to and fro Singapore back then. In fact, he went to sleep earlier on my bed but not before placing my pillow onto his bed, declaring his claim and intention crystal clear. Our lovely bedfellow may be my wife but she is foremost his mum. End of discussion.
We were catching up over the latest news and happenings for the week. We were whispering so as not to disturb Joel who was already sleeping contentedly. We had so much to catch up that before we realized it was already late into the night, past midnight. I yawned. My leaden eyelids grew heavier. My spirit was willing but my flesh was dozing off.
I turned to finger the switch to switch off the warm light while my missus sat on her side of our bed. She lay down gently so as not to awake her sleeping son. Immediately, she felt tremors beside her. Automatically, her palm shot out towards Joel. She let out a horrific shriek piercing the room’s darkness and silence. Joel was trembling violently. No, he was convulsing, his body and limbs stiffened in spasm.
My finger was still on the switch that I immediately switched back on the light. I was momentarily petrified by what I saw. Joel was pale in convulsion, his face reeked of pain. He was struggling deliriously to free himself from some unseen bondage. What sort of devilry oppression was my first thought?
Then I saw clear fluid flooding in his slightly open mouth. It immediately dawned on me that Joel was choking, drowning in his own saliva, struggling and jerking violently and spasmodically to breath. It was later that I found out that Joel was asphyxiating from his own vomit or stomach fluid which he had somehow regurgitated at the very moment the light went out.
I sprang into action on reflex after a split second observation and assessment as if I done it a thousand times. I bolted towards Joel but remained rather calm even under such distressing circumstances. I quickly rolled Joel over and shove my index finger into his mouth to clear any blockages, induce vomits and keep the airway open. I kept my finger between his teeth even when he bit down hard. I stifled my screams of pain. Gravity did the rest. He coughed out remaining fluid, gasped for air and soon his convulsion stopped and body relaxed. I carried him to the washroom, woke him up and cleaned away the vomit.
We nearly cried, so relieved when Joel groggily opened his eyes perplexed and muttered, “Papa, why did you wake me up in the washroom?” After making sure he was indeed fine, we gently put him back to bed. We could not sleep that night for which parents could after such a frightful episode. We watched assiduously over him throughout that night. We reminded each other and remained as assiduous over the following fortnight.
We dare not ponder what if Joel had slept on his bed instead, what if we were catching up downstairs instead, what if it happened during the weekdays instead, what if I was stuck in Singapore that weekend instead and what if I did know what to do then. We had no answers but we were most assuredly grateful that I was somehow around at the exact time and night and knew what to do when it happened as if divinely appointed. His guardian angel was definitely watching him that night. Amen.
My youngest, my tallest and my gentlest, Joel would certainly be the apple of any parents. He is rather mild mannered and even tempered. He forgives easily and forgets almost immediately. He doesn’t hold grudges even when wronged. He has a kind soul, innocent and pure. He reminds me very much of my late brother, Tok Hwa, my closest brother, “best-est” friend and dearest confidant. Joel is most certainly the apple of my eyes, my dearly beloved begotten prince.