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A Gift of a Lifetime
Colin Cheong
25 Dec 2001, The Straits Times, Life!


My uncle's house stood on a small piece of land screened from the world by a line of old trees that marked the perimeter of his home. He was a public man, perhaps too well known for his liking, and his home, a curious assembly of planes and cubes and texture, was his sanctuary.

I'd been to that house only twice in my childhood and both times, I'd been awed by its beauty and intimidated by its silence. I went there twice again, in my young adulthood, the first time when my uncle gave me the cheque that would pay for my education in England, the second when I returned to show him my treasured but impractical degree in History.

I was not an ungrateful boy - I'd asked to see him in the three years in between, but each time, he merely sent me money and asked me to tour the continent. Just send me postcards, he said. Tell me what you're doing. But only if you have time.

I found time - as much as I could - to write to him from wherever in the world I was doing research. I sent him my papers, the journals in which they were printed, photographs of the historical sites we were digging at, newspaper clippings about my work, the books I wrote. Sometimes, he would send me a card, thanking me for a book or artefact I'd mailed to him. But no more.

It pained me, strangely, that a man who took such an interest in my life, should also keep me at such a distance - and ask so little of me in return. I often wished our relationship could have been less formal, more familiar, if not familial.

The fifth time I saw my reclusive uncle was also the last. I was 40 when he died in the November of his 95th year, and I knew him hardly more than when I was four. So it came as a great surprise to my family, our community and the circles in which my uncle had moved, that his estate should pass to me alone.

Don't let the talk bother you," my mother said. And with more honest regret than I'd ever heard in her voice before, she said: "You were the only one who never asked for anything but his time."

"Which was the one thing he never gave me," I said.

The rest of the world was less kind. I did not need his fortune, or his home. Why had he not given everyone a part of his life? Why pass an estate to another heirless scion? Why was I distributing it to every relation with a claim? His home was not the castle from which he ruled. It was his last defence against the mob.

His household staff were ready for me when I arrived and his valet, a man almost 70, showed me to the room that my uncle had prepared for me. The keys to your uncle's study are by your bed, he said as he left the room.

I had not brought much with me. I'd travelled lightly all my life, and sometimes too lightly to make a deep and lasting impression. History was where I found it and the only keepsake I carried was a small, blurred black and white picture of the woman I'd loved from the time we met.

She'd said then that nothing must happen between us, but that we should be the dearest of friends forever. We were, and every night, I'd whisper a prayer for her and bid her, through her photo, goodnight and sweet dreams.

With her picture by my bedside, I picked up the keys and headed for my uncle's study. I realised then that he hadn't just left me his money and home. He had left me his life.

In his bookcases, I saw the volumes he'd read and written. On the walls were his photographs and paintings. And in a special cabinet, the cans that held the films he'd made. There were letters, diaries, journals - a written record of a life, full and complete, a lifetime of memories for me to share.

He had made me the custodian of his memory, the curator of the museum of his life. And what a life it had been! My heart soared. In his own way, he had finally given me his time - all of it. And a lifetime of getting to know him - though I regretted that he would never know me well.

"Is there anything you would like, Dr Wong?" my uncle's housekeeper asked sometime late in the night as I sat reading at my uncle's desk.

"What did my uncle use to ask for?"

"Warm milk with brandy."

"Then warm milk with brandy it is." She seemed pleased at my answer and left.



And so it went for a few weeks as I settled into the comfortable pattern that had been my uncle's life. I spent most of my time in his study, reading, studying and trying to understand, to grasp the character of a man I'd loved and respected all my life, but had never truly known.

Meanwhile, the discontented relations made their usual demands for a piece of the pie - choice pieces of furniture or antiques (in that single tour of the house that I'd allowed, they had catalogued it) or large cheques for Christmas. I began to understand my uncle's decision to leave it all to me.

That way, his whole life would be kept together, all the little parts of it that depended on the others for context and continuity. And here in his home, through me, his time could live on, remembered exactly as it was, linked and extended through my life.

On Christmas Eve, I asked for the key to his bedroom. The entire household staff - valet, housekeeper, cook, gardener and driver (an ageing workforce, if I ever saw one) - followed me to the door. We said a prayer and made a toast to my uncle's memory and then they left me alone.

I did not expect the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present or Future. But there was a heaviness in his room that I felt nowhere else in his house, a heaviness that pulled down at my heart and spirit.

It was a simple room - just his bed, his wardrobe, a reading chair with a side table, and an escritoire. I sat at the escritoire, hesitated for a moment, then rolled back the cover. The mess caught me by surprise.

Everything else in the house had been cleaned and tidied after my uncle's death, but his escritoire looked as it might have had he still been alive. Writing paper on the desktop, his fountain pen on the right where his hand would have left it, a half-written letter and a small box that must have been half a century old, and in a tiny silver frame, an old black-and-white picture of a beautiful woman.

With a guilty feeling that I was now prying into the most secret area of my uncle's life, I picked up the picture, gazed into that woman's gentle eyes and then read the words on his unfinished letter. He had a graceful hand and his strokes were certain, strong. He had written:

"Would you make a life with me?"

"Beneath the burning shade of angsana trees, we'll dance on a carpet of petals, your hands in mine, with a dewdrop on your finger to say my heart is yours..."

I did not need to wonder what the rest would have been. As I opened the drawers in his escritoire, I found the rest.

Every year at Christmas, he had written the same letter, to the same woman - and never sent them. For 59 years, he'd written these proposals, but never sent them. For 59 years, that dewdrop had sat in the darkness of its little box here on his desk, never to grace the finger of that beautiful woman in the picture.

My heart broke. For my uncle, for that lovely woman who might have been my aunt, for myself and that dear friend who might have been my wife. And I felt the weight of that room begin to lift.

It was early Christmas morning when I'd recovered enough to gift-wrap the letters and the ring, packed an overnight bag and head for the garage. The housekeeper was already up.

"When can we expect you home, Dr Wong?"

"When I've delivered this present. And when I've delivered my heart."

"I'll set the dinner table for two then.'

"Please do. And from now on, always."

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