The Ghost of Grandpa Gan
Of Spirits who Remain with Us
Once, there was a pair of siblings — a boy and a girl — whom everyone mistook for twins. The boy was actually two years older but people they encountered seldom realised so. It could be because the girl’s more sprightly and confident while the boy’s thought to be shy because of his sensitively quiet demeanour.
The children did not know this but they each had a piece of Grandpa Gan in them — in the girl’s boisterous manner, Grandpa Gan’s larger-than-life personality shone through; in the boy’s soulful gaze, Grandpa Gan’s stoic and quiet presence was revealed.
Each child would come to bring much joy and reward to their mother and to the ghost of Grandpa Gan.
One afternoon when they were about three and five, they came home to find a fort standing in the middle of their living room, looking all mighty and infallible. Of course, it was only made of cardboard with holes cut out for a door and two windows but as the children squealed their way into their fort, the little cardboard shack never once wavered or collapsed under their every push and shove.
They made up entire stories on make-belief worlds, rules for every entry and exit through those cut-out doors, and how messages were to be passed only through one window.
The other window was reserved for looking out and spying the elusive: a space kangaroo, a pair of midnight cats, and when they were ever still enough or did look carefully enough, a pirate, Santa Claus, an astronaut, a soldier. Grandpa Gan was a sport — he was happy to be whatever they wanted him to be and as a ghost, he could.
While the kids grew up unclear whether ghosts truly existed — their mother loved to tease them by saying they do, but another adult would always determinedly said they don’t — they knew for a fact that Santa Claus, did not.
And that was why when they had come home from a December-long vacation and opened their door to see presents wrapped in all kinds of shiny, colourful papers waiting beneath their Christmas tree, their faces registered an assortment of emotions.
They turned to look at their parents who were just as shocked.
Nobody was home to do this magic!
Santa Claus isn’t real!
The ghost of Grandpa Gan had struck again.
Sometimes, their mother would walk in on one of the siblings immersed in their own world. The girl’s usually lost in that world with her dolls and drawings. The boy, in his daydreams and fantasies.
Sometimes, she would hear them actually engaged in dialogue, in small, quiet voices as they tried to make sense of some definitive moment they had experienced.
She would sit down with them and she would listen. Together, they would hear the ghost of Grandpa Gan respond.
Sometimes that response was a pair of eyes that quietly observed and understood what was being said and what was being kept in the heart; other times, it was a heart that may not fully comprehend but could always empathise.
The children would be heard. The ghost of Grandpa Gan would be satisfied.
The siblings believed their mother to have special powers. They knew she wasn’t lying to them about having the power of the mind because she could always read theirs — their thoughts, their plots, their fears and anxieties, their hopes and wishes… worst of all, she always knew when they were up to mischief and was always one step ahead of them to stop them in their tracks.
And so, when on one hot Sunday afternoon she had brought out a pack of cards and said she was going to show them magic tricks — “real magic”, she whispered — they knew it was going to get real.
“Magic isn’t real,” the boy had used to say when he was a mere toddler.
“Yea, not weal,” his sister would repeat.
“Who says that magic isn’t real?” their mother would be smiling with the secret of the universe in her soul. “It’s everywhere, it’s all around us. There is magic right here. You just can’t see it. But just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t real.”
“Yeah, like wind!” he would show off.
“Weeen!” his sister would repeat.
“Exactly,” their mother would whisper fiercely.
The children never doubted her again, especially when she proved over and over again that she did indeed read minds.
But on that hot Sunday afternoon where there was no breeze and the world was a silent stillness, the magic had gone wrong.
They were quite certain they had chosen the red Ace of Hearts, not the black jack their mother revealed.
“I just don’t remember how to count the cards,” I groaned to my husband.
“Let’s look it up on Google.”
“I tried but I couldn’t find that same trick.”
“Well, let’s learn a different one then.”
“No.” I glared at him. “It’s not the same. My dad did this one and it was amazing.”
The children have three grandparents — one grandmother who absolutely loves them to bits, one grandfather who’s ever so proud of their little selves but who keeps a safe distance away, and one other grandmother who takes it upon herself to determine what’s right, safe and important for them.
The grandparent they’re missing is the one who would reveal to them the magic in the universe. The one who would build their world from junk, the one who could successfully convince them there is more mystery in this world than they can ever dream of, and the one who would’ve made me say ‘It’s okay, let’s do this’ against all my parenting directive to yell a firm ‘No’.
They say Asian fathers are seldom affectionate and do not display emotions. Well, at least for mine, it was true.
What they don’t say as often is that these same fathers somehow can miraculously become very emotive, crazy-lovin and fun grandfathers. Maybe a lifetime of succumbing to stereotypes does free them when the opportunity arises and they almost always do, when grandkids are in the picture.
My father was a cowboy. In his younger and more reckless days, he raced with random drivers on the streets just because they had crossed his path. He drank himself silly and threw up by the roadside. He was often explosive and impatient. He wasn’t a very attentive husband.
But he also never forced his rules on us. He always pretended to be watching TV while waiting up for me to come home and his programme would always end when I walked through the door. He asked me questions that allowed for me to find clarity within. He seldom gave his opinions but when he did, it would be a permission willingly granted and a blessing freely offered.
Maybe most importantly, he had a kind heart and a generous soul. He tried to be hard but often failed because he was not built that way. He was also a friend, a brother, a comrade, a champion. He wanted so badly to be a good man and he always tried to be one.
He was a survivor until the cancer beat him.
And he died one year before our boy was born. The kids never got to know him.
To them, he would always be a strange picture on a plaque, a man frozen in time, a ghost that they somehow might have inherited memories of.
There are things I can’t do like my father can, like being ever spontaneous, always saying ‘yes’, indulging their every whim and fancy with patience and empathy but there are things I can.
And so cardboard boxes will be lugged home to build forts. Card tricks will be learnt. Presents will be arranged to be left under Christmas trees when we’re away. Children will be listened to. There will be magic.
For the ghost of Grandpa Gan and I, what dreams may come.
Nine years ago on Feb 17, my dad left us. I wish my kids and I had the chance to know the grandfather he would have been, the one who would’ve loved them to bits and whom they would’ve adored to pieces.
This story was first published on P.S. I Love You.