I remember the first time I told my mother I no longer wanted to be a lawyer and that I was going to be a freelance journalist.
She blinked at me several times and frowned. “I don’t understand,” she said eventually. “What are you trying to tell me?”
“It means that I don’t want to be a lawyer anymore.”
“But why? Aren’t you earning a lot of money?”
I hesitated. “Well, yes, but money isn’t everything, is it?”
Apparently, when Mother repeated this conversation to her mahjong kaki, the entire table of aunties sucked in their breaths.
“Did he really say that, May-Ling?” her sister, Auntie Wai-Ling, asked.
My mother sniffled delicately into her handkerchief. “It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever heard. I felt like I was having an out of body experience when he said that.”
“‘Money isn’t everything’. Huh,” said Auntie Mabel, testing the words, rolling the syllables around in her mouth and if she could have, she’d have spat them out. “Where on earth did he get that idea from?”
“From studying overseas! Where else?” Auntie Wai-Ling said with firm disapproval.
To this day, my mother still has trouble accepting that her son is no longer a lawyer. Recently, she said to me that someone had asked her what I did for a living, and she was at a complete loss as to what to say. “Because I am sure there’s no such thing as a freelance journalist!” she said over the phone, all the way from St Petersburg where she and my father had gone to see Madonna in concert.
“Sure there is,” I said. “That’s what I am!”
“But there’s no such degree in any of the universities I looked at. It’s not like you get a medical degree and you become a doctor.”
“Well, it’s not a degree career as such…”
“But that’s my point! How will you get any respect if you’re doing something that didn’t require a degree or diploma or something?” The note in her voice was plaintive and I could almost see her worriedly fidgeting with her pearl necklace.
“You must stop fussing. I’ve got a great life. I work from home. I get to travel and stay at great hotels. I meet interesting people. And I’m happy!”
My mother paused. “What’s happiness got to do with anything?”
It was my turn to blink. “Well, if you’re not happy, what’s the point of it all?”
Mother sighed. “You really are a strange child with some very bizarre ideas. I wonder who you get it from. Must be your Daddy.”
I remember when I was still practicing, my firm had an iron clad rule for managing our files. And that was everything had to be kept up to date with detailed notes and current statuses so that if the lawyer ever got run over by a bus, any other lawyer could step in neatly, pick up the file and know exactly what was going on.
Of course, one day it occurred to me that this was all very well for the client who would continue to have his case looked after, but what about the lawyer who got run over the bus? Whatever happened to him?
Which then led me to think, what if that lawyer was me? What if that was me lying on the road with a tyre track rolled messily across my lovely Zegna suit and I was breathing my last breath and all I’d done till that moment was keep files up to date? What was the point of it all? What good was all that money going to do me?
For months, those questions haunted me. As I shot off letters to other lawyers threatening their clients and reading piles of obscure legal judgments in an effort to win my client’s case, I pictured myself doing the exact thing at 65. Or worse, lying on the road, having just been run over by that stupid bus.
What was the point?
And so, one day, I quit. I shut down my computer, packed up my briefcase, said goodbye to my secretary who said cheerfully, without once taking her eye off her typing, “Take care!”, and I walked out the door.
And I never looked back. Not once in the years since.
The other day, Saffy asked me if a bus ran over me now, how I would feel and I said, very honestly, “I’d have no regrets. If I’d stayed in that law firm, I’d have grown old with regret.”
Saffy patted my hand and heaved herself off the sofa. “Come on, let’s go watch a movie.”