We regularly attend the Hanoi International Fellowship Sunday morning service at Intercontinental. As part of his sermon series on ‘The Great I Am’, Pastor Jacob, who is of Dutch origin, was recently preaching on John 8:48-58 where Jesus makes one of his ‘I Am’ statements (v58) when he told us about an old Dutch custom.
According to Dutch tradition and custom, when a man turns 50 he is said to have ‘seen’ Abraham. In the same manner a woman has ‘seen’ Sarah (the Patriarch’s wife) when she turns 50. A life-size doll or figure of an old man or woman (representing Abraham/Sarah) is also usually placed on the front yard to announce the fact. The custom stems from verse 57 where the Jews sarcastically tell Jesus, “You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham!”.
I have never been big on birthdays. I don’t specifically remember my 10th, 20th, or even 30th birthdays. I do remember the days leading up to my 40th and thinking that I should put my thoughts to paper on such a momentous occasion. But I never did get round to it and I don’t even specifically remember how I spent that day. Today, as the days, weeks and months creep ever closer to the day, later this year, when I will be ‘meeting’ Abraham, I am again somewhat obsessed with putting my thoughts to paper as it were.
Even as I write these lines, I can hardly believe that I am now about to complete my half century. It seems just yesterday that, after completing my high school and what was then called ‘Pre-University’ in Churachandpur, my hometown, I left the comfort of my family for the first time to pursue further studies in Imphal. As I’ve written in an earlier blog, I only recently realized that the day I left home for higher studies in Imphal was the day I really left ‘home’. I never really came back ‘home’ after that. I realize now that, once I left for college, the ties that bound me to my parents and immediate family had started to stretch and, though they will never break, nevertheless, the process of my becoming an individual separate from my identity as the son of my mother and father which was not so pronounced as a school-going kid had begun in earnest as I tried, in my own clumsy way, to forge a future for myself.
When we were children, all married people were ‘old’. Married people with kids were even older and those with kids in colleges were definitely so old as to be over the hill and practically of not much consequence as far we were concerned. Now I have become one of them with both my kids in college. But, as I told a friend recently, I still listen to the music I grew up with; Deep Purple, CCR, Jim Reeves, etc. – some on cassettes which are older than my son – and in my mind I’m still in my late twenties, or maybe thirties, at the most. I know for a fact that I am now seen as an ‘old man’ with a thinning hairline (to put it mildly) and, perhaps, as someone over the hill or about to go over the hill. But, despite the many stumbles and falls along the way, what a climb it has been!
As I sit here reminiscing, my peaceful childhood and schooldays flash before my eyes in a blur. Those long, lazy summer days spent fishing in the small stream that ran near our village or ‘hunting’ birds in the surrounding hills have now gone forever, never to return. Those were the days when No. 4 was just a number and not the terrifying drug that would forever ruin the lives of so many of our youth and their families. Looking back, I now realize that my childhood and schooldays was a period just before our ‘patriots’ with guns took over our lives and society. It was a blessed time to be a child. It was the lull before the storm that was to soon blow over our beloved land and society.
I remember the first time I landed in Delhi in the summer of 1985 from the cool climes of my beloved hills and how it felt like stepping into a furnace as I stepped out of the plane. I remember the morning rush hours in Delhi, clinging to DTC buses trying to make it to office in time which, when I first joined, was in Chanakyapuri. I remember Chanakya Cinema Hall, next to our office, which, in those days, only showed English movies. For more than a year, I probably watched each and every movie that they screened. For a few hours at least, constant thoughts of my girl and family back home would recede to the background while I lost myself in some Hollywood fantasy.
I remember our first posting in Morocco and that lonely June night more than twenty years ago outside the delivery room of Clinique Tour Hassan in Rabat as I paced alone in the corridor awaiting the arrival of my son. I remember the small boy, all smiles and waving, walking towards his first classroom. I remember him shyly clinging to me as we went through the admission process in his first international school, the American School of Milan. I remember sitting in my car late at night waiting to pick him up from a friend’s house in Maputo, Mozambique as he emerged laughing with his classmates from the Maputo International School, all drenched and wet from a dunk in their swimming pool at their farewell party. I remember how proud I was on his Graduation Day at St. Mary’s in Tokyo, where he played the guitar and sang on stage with his good friend Nigel at the drums.
I remember the day he left us for university, knowing that the time had finally come for him to leave us and reach for his own dreams. As Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors once wrote, “When they leave for college, they never really come back”. I remember the long emails and longer telephone talks from faraway Japan during the first few months as he struggled to fit into his new life. I remember him walking towards us as he got off the plane in Narita on our last summer in Tokyo. Home for the summer holidays, dressed in an all-black outfit, dark glasses with his long hair in a ponytail, I could hardly believe that this fine looking young man was my son as I hugged him. I still remember the book he carried that day. ‘The Stone Boy and Other Stories’, a book written by Thich Nhat Hanh, the famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk, teacher, author, poet and peace activist. In the car, on our way home, he told me it was an interesting book which he’d carried to read on the flight. The first thing that struck me about the book was the author’s nationality. Those were the days when we were awaiting news of where we’d be headed after our stint in Tokyo and, at that moment, with a book about Vietnam written by a Vietnamese in my hands, the first thing that came to my mind was that surely this was a sign that our next port of call could be Hanoi. I mean, out of all the books that are out there, what were the odds that my son, whose favorite authors include Poe, would be reading a book written by a Vietnamese of all people! And, sure enough, a few weeks later, we learned that we would indeed be headed for Hanoi. But that’s another story.
Then I recall the October evening my beautiful daughter was born in Delhi. I remember how, this time surrounded by good friends and relatives, we jumped with joy outside the delivery room in Veeranwali International Hospital leaving the ward boys wondering why we were so happy at the birth of a girl. Little did they know. I recall how blessed I felt, looking at her beautiful sleeping face that October evening when they finally brought her out. I remember how determined and independent-minded she has always been. Never once did we have to remind her about homework and how she simply refused to be tutored, preferring to study and find out everything herself and still always manage to be among the top in all her classes. I have probably learned more from her than she from me.
I remember how she’d never really care how she was dressed till suddenly one day, somewhere along the line, she’d go only for that particular dress or style or that particular pair of shoes, or rather, boots. And suddenly, just like that, I had become the father of this beautiful and extremely talented young woman. Somewhere along the line, without any tutor, she learned to play the guitar and piano all by herself and, as her talents manifested themselves one by one, we learned that she had also become a singer, and a damn good one at that with quite a number of followers on her youtube channel and one of her songs even garnering more than 12,000 ‘hits’. How proud I was attending some of the events in Tokyo where she got invited to sing on stage. I was probably the proudest parent on her Graduation Day at Seisen International School whose alumni include the Empress of Japan.
With her brother gone, we’d dreamt of her being with us till at least she finished her college education but at this moment, my poor baby’s been left adrift with her college in Hanoi suddenly closing down. And I find myself staring at the prospect of her leaving us within the next few months as she also goes off to pursue further studies away from us in our present posting. I console myself that God has other plans for her and for us and that she will finally be able to be independent and free to pursue her own destiny. As I count the days she has left with us and the day of my ‘meeting’ with Abraham draws ever closer, the day also draws nearer when it will be just the two of us again. And, just like that, my mind drifts back to that hot day in June almost twenty three years ago when we made our vows. And here I am, one cycle of life about to be completed, and I find myself standing on the cusp of a new cycle as I count down to the day I will finally meet Abraham.