1am. It was technically the start of a new day, and I was starting it tiredly awake, hunched over my desk like a gremlin, behind on work. My usual.
My father was working in the next room. He was typing on a computer instead of scribbling in a notebook, staring at stocks instead of homework, but we were mirror images of each other.
If anyone was awake at this moment in the dead of night, they would have pointed out our likeness, and my father would’ve been proud. In any other circumstance, I would’ve been proud too. Even as a child, I had been close to my parents-bordering on outright adoration- and my relationship with my parents had sailed through what were supposed to be the turbulent teenage years and come out the other end in relatively good condition.
Through this silence, this strange hang in time where silence is so loud it rings in my ears, I hear a soft sound, a little like a growl being gurgled and huffed out one’s throat at the same time. Putting down my pen, I look around. If my father had been next to me, he would have disapproved.
But though I respect my father, I barely remember him.
I remember bike rides, witty comments muttered in a split second and him listening quietly as I start on my third rant of the day when I barely awoke an hour ago. But mostly when I think of him I picture him working.
Him, staring intently at a bunch of spreadsheets laid out on the floor late at night after he got home from work. Him, with his laptop perched precariously atop his legs with the television blaring as his head droops with the pull of sleep, muttering that he’s fine and that he needs to finish something whenever we tell him to “Just go and sleep.” Him, interrupting our conversations to have an hour long phone call to settle something about work because it was best to ‘get it done as soon as possible’. It was not a small source of contention over the years, and as I grew, I’d resolved not to repeat his mistake.
And yet, there I was, doing work at 1am.
As I am looking for the sound’s source, I come upon my elderly dog of 10 years, deep asleep and curled up in a ball. Back when she was younger, I would have never been able to sneak up on her like this. I had gotten her when she was a year old, but even now as I stare at her, I’m not sure how or when those nine years had snuck past my vision. I’d always thought I had so much time. But here I was, watching my dog sleep her days away as I worked on my homework.
At least this was only a once in a while thing, I justified. At least I knew it was a problem and was guarding against it. I actively tried to sleep early, tried to schedule time for my hobbies and interests. It was only that I had a buildup of work.
But the buildup had started years ago and had no sign of ending. I worked constantly, but I was too slow. Every time I finished a task, I looked up to find two more had been added to my list.
It didn’t seem like it was uncommon, either. In Japan, there is a term specifically coined to suicide from overwork-‘karo-jisatsu’-due to its prevalence in the society. In Singapore, more than 50% of Singaporeans are self-confessed workaholics. Workaholism has grown into a pandemic, with well-known physical and emotional implications.
As I watch my dog, wondering about how time had so quickly slipped from our grasp, she breathes out, and I hear that odd growl again. Was she in discomfort? As the noise comes once more, I am surprised to find that she is snoring. In all those nine years, I’d never heard her snore. I’m not sure if it’s because she never did when she was younger, or if I just never noticed, but I feel like I’m in the presence of something rare and precious, something I have only been allowed to glimpse in this odd imbalance of time, and I want this moment to last for as long as I can.
Somehow, the fact that workaholism seems to be a common problem only makes it easier to excuse it as something that everyone has. Unlike other addictions, workaholism is viewed as respectable, and is sometimes even encouraged by businesses and family. Someone married to their work is commendable, even noble. It is so easy to brush aside family, hobbies… Anything in the name of doing your work.
Work has become a top priority in our society. My father was often praised for being a driven individual, and I am my father’s daughter. Whilst I want to stare at my dog forever, there is a coil that winds tighter in my stomach, ever cognizant of the fact that my essay is waiting for me, uncompleted.
But then I remember my father’s absentminded smiles as he wishes me goodnight, mind already on his computer. I remember the irritation I felt as I watched him fight sleep to stare blankly at his work as those minutes passed into days and those days yawned into years. I remember him laughing about how time had passed too fast and I was already an adult, but I remember the glimmer of sadness in his eyes as he had reminisced. I wonder if this is how it starts, if I will turn back to my essay only to come out of it realizing that more of my time had quietly stolen my keys and slunk out of my life.
So I pad closer as my dog lets out another little wheeze, and I sit by her, letting my fingers run over her furry ears. When she wakes up and blinks blearily, I smile and I speak, of how I’ve missed her and how we’re going to celebrate her birthday (it’s coming up soon).
Work is important. It gives people drive, allows us to put our efforts into something that reaps results. It gives us motivation to learn new things, and each person doing their work is how we move the cogs of society.
But there are other important things too, and as my dog dozes back to sleep and those little wheezes start up once more, I get up and head back to my room. As I do so, I see that the light is on in the room next to mine, and I see the silhouette of my father, bathed in the harsh glow of his laptop.
“Goodnight.” I whisper, and he nods, turning around quietly so as not to wake my mother, who is sprawled across the bed, knowing full well that he will not join her till it is almost time for both of them to leave for work.
“Goodnight, did you finish your stuff?” We are enough alike that he knows I would jump at any chance to sleep, and that the only thing that would keep me away is an urgent enough deadline.
I think of that essay, the way that knot of anxiety is still coiling. The essay is not due tomorrow, but I’d wanted to complete it today, so I could do a few more tasks tomorrow. My to-do list briefly flashes before my eyes, and I feel my hands getting clammy.
But then I remember my dog’s drowsy movements, the way that little sound left her lungs like the wind gently scraping past a little seashell. The tightness leaves my chest, and I smile.
“Yeah, I did.”