Filed under: Family Stories and tributes, How I met your father/helpmate of 31 years, Uncategorized
I came down for tea at the hostel one afternoon and noticed a strange looking chap. He was kinda sloppy, with jeans all torn at the knees and unkempt hair. The most fascinating thing about this guy was that he wore a goatee! What student in his right mind would have a goatee?
He was sitting with my seniors who were members of the Varsity Christian Fellowship. They introduced us, and I was totally amused. Thereafter, I saw him once in a while. He loved our free tea, and one of us would sacrifice our cake for him. All in, he was quite the quirky character.
As exams drew near, I started revising in the library at Bukit Timah Campus. I studied on the mezzanine floor, near the biology section – the favourite haunt of some of my varsity friends. I noticed Alan, for that was his name, there as well. Apparently he was doing a dissertation on algae and paints so he had to come to Bt Timah campus for the biology references. He was a Building Sc Student from Kent Ridge Campus so the Bt Timah Library should otherwise not have been his haunt. Not that he would haunt ANY library. Whenever I saw him, he would have his hands folded over his tummy, book opened on the table, fast asleep.
One evening, I was feeling particularly homesick. For the first time in my life, academia challenged me. I could not fathom how Maths worked any more. I missed my carefree life in Penang, the food and the companionship of my ex-classmates, many of whom rode scooters. I longed for a motorcycle ride, just to get the wind in my face, a feeling of freedom and to a limited extent, perhaps a feeling of being home again. Walking back to the hostel, whom should I see but Alan on his bike. He was talking to two of my hostel friends, Nim Chor and my very protective friend, Ben. I ran up to him and laughingly asked, “Alan, could you give me a ride round the campus”
“Sure!” he answered immediately, to my glee. Of course I did not notice that Ben’s face had gone white. So off we went. Every time he took a bend, he would warn me to be careful. What I did not know was he was trying to frighten me. I just had the fun of my life. I needed that ride to get rid of the feeling of desperation at studies not going well, and a homesickness that would not go away. I thanked him after the ride, adrenaline all rushing. It was only later that I learnt I earned a huge respect from him as the only girl he knew who was not afraid. In fact he told Ben and Nim Chor later that his own knees were shaking.
No, we did not get together then. Ours was a slow build up. It was a relationship built on friendship, but of course the respect I earned on the motor bike helped. Four years later we were married. 31 years come Sept 17.
Alan is not the guy I imagined I would marry. I grew up on books with very English settings. I always imagined marrying a quiet man, sitting contentedly in a wing chair, reading a book and listening to nice, soothing music. I would be reading too. What an idyllic setting! In reality, Alan has to be bribed to read a book! To sit still for hours would be impossible for him. My friends assured me that my so-called ideal guy would have bored me to tears. I know they are right!! God knew better who should be my helpmate!
Marriage to Alan has not always been easy. He is sociable to the max, but I am really a homebody at heart. My parents’ relationship was very poor, and I carried that baggage with me. It is true that we are soul-mates to each other in many ways. Still, there were some very rough times; times that made me contemplate divorce. Here is my word of caution to anyone who is at this stage. Marriage is never about two people alone, (check my previous blog post) and divorce hurts too many people. If the desire to get out of a relationship is out of pride, out of a selfish desire to please oneself, then think again. It may not be worth it.
Anyway it has been 31 years. This last year has been so difficult for both of us. I have been in hospital 5 times. I could have died 4 times. I have been in surgery 3 times this year alone. I am now barely mobile and incontinent. I had seen his worry each time I went into surgery. Alan gave up his job which was based in Myanmar because he could not leave me in Singapore unattended. This is the sort of sacrificial love a man gives to the woman of his life.
Alan has been a barrel of fun, a load of frustration. He has been frivolous when I want to be serious. He keeps silent when I need to talk to resolve disagreements. He has also made me laugh much of our time together. He made me an adventurer during our holidays when all I thought I needed was a quiet retreat. He brought me to way out places, like Rwanda, because his job was there. That was certainly not a work destination for just anybody. For Alan, it was yet another adventure. He enriched my life in so many ways. Most importantly, he has always been there when I needed him. He has cared for me not just because he is my husband and the father of my children. He has cared for me because I am important to him. For someone who has felt rejection so often in the past, his love is a balm of Gilead to my soul.
Right now, I feel I am such a burden to him, financially and physically. He assures me he does not find me a burden at all. He yanks me out to go shopping when all I want to do is to mope. Of course, he has fed me well too, which is a win-win situation seeing how he loves to eat. Without him around these past months, I would probably have been depressed and an emotional wreck.
God does send us the best helpmate we can ever get. The journey together can be heartbreakingly difficult at times. In my mind it is because the devil wants to break a good union – a family which will also ensure a secure next generation. I thank God for my three, wonderfully centred children. I was a broken doll because of the poor relationship between my parents. My children on the other hand, never witnessed such a thing in their lives. That’s the gift Alan and I gave to them. No matter what weapons of destruction come our way, if we stay focussed on God and allow Him to heal and mend, the marital relationship can and will get stronger. Both parties must be willing to put God first and each other second. It will not be a bed of roses, I grant you that. The end result though is something remarkably beautiful.
To quote from 1Cor 13:4-8
4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;[b] 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends.
Love in this passage is more about actions than emotions. To me Alan is almost there.
Alan, it’s been 31 years. I appreciate your love and care. I also want to tell you that I love you and thank God that you noticed me, all thanks to one unforgettable motorbike ride round the campus in the dead of the night.
So I broke my right leg in late October 2012. I was recovering very well until round about April 2013, when my lower left hip was giving me a lot of pain. Without painkillers, I could barely stand straight. A visit to the physiotherapist and both of us came to the conclusion that I was over compensating on the good leg and that my muscles were uneven in strength – hence the pain. It sounded logical and I did not think too much about it, and faithfully exercised as the physiotherapist had suggested.
Round about that time, I also had my scheduled visit to the oncologist. He suggested I did another CT scan, since the last was done about six months back. I am not very good with dates because I have had so many medical appointments that after a while, they’re just a blur. The day of the CT scan came. I was in quite a lot of pain. I could tell from the way the technicians spoke to me thereafter that this CT Scan probably did not yield good results – they were avoiding my eyes and telling me to be careful. This was quite unlike previous visits where they would bid me goodbye cheerily.
My ill feeling bore out the next morning when I received a call from my oncologist – it’s never good news to receive a call from your doctor so soon after any tests. He started by asking how I was and if I were in pain – definitely not good news. Then he said he was on leave that day – even worse news. I could feel fear gripping my heart. Then the real intention of his call:-
“I want you to go to the hospital this morning. I am on leave so I won’t be there. I have arranged for you to see the doctor in the walk-in clinic.”
“Why?” I asked.
“The CT scan showed something in your spinal column. We need to check you out – in fact we may need to ward you, except that tomorrow is a public holiday, and the weekend is just round the corner. There is a risk of paralysis.” Or words to that effect. He hinted that I had a fractured vertebra.
“Eh? How come I do not feel any pain on my spine?” I asked.
He said that it was possible. He also kindly added it was not life – threatening. I love my doctor – he really tries to be positive.
My daughters were in and hurriedly we made our way to the National Cancer Centre. The Medical Officer checked me out – good news, my limbs were in good working order – no sign of paralysis. After consulting with my Oncologist they prescribed me with some steroids to bring down inflammation of the nerves, and arranged for an MRI on April 30th. My oncologist also immediately contacted his colleague – an orthopaedic surgeon specialising in spinal surgery. You must remember that I am a subsidised patient with no right to select doctors. My dear oncologist did me a tremendous favour by selecting him for me.
Wow the steroids did wonders. All pains subsided and I was walking pain free – what a relief. I was sure it was a false alarm.
The minute the MRI was done, I could see everyone panicking. I was hastened back to walk-in Clinic – it was already 5pm. The medical officer was panicking. “Your spinal column is compressed to 50%.” It was clear she was scared. From thence, I was not allowed to walk and was sent by ambulance from NCC to SGH A&E to await a hospital bed so I could be warded.
I must count all blessings, big and small. The first night, I was given an air-conditioned room!! I am a subsidised patient and B2 is all I get- but this one was a former B1 ward recently converted to B2. It was not even orthopaedic ward –it was a haemolytics ward – whatever the spelling. But hey – at least I had air conditioning!
Next day was May 1, Labour Day. My surgeon came to see me in the morning – Public Holiday and all. He said that one of my vertebrae had collapsed and he needed surgery to strengthen my back, and to put in a cage to protect my spinal column. The usual tests confirmed I was not paralysed. He asked if I would be agreeable to surgery.
Did I really have a choice? Of course I agreed. I asked when. He said he could do it that day. So after numerous blood tests and goodness knows what else – he scheduled me for emergency surgery that very evening. I told him I had every confidence – because if not for my scheduled CT Scan, I would not even realise I had a spine problem. God had prepared the diagnosis in the nick of time, and He would not alert me just to let me down. He smiled. He also told me there must be two operations – one from the back and the other from the front. Of course the coward in me asked if he could do both in one sitting. He said he would try, but it would depend on the anaesthetist if I could go under for so long. He estimated at least 6-8 hours for both.
At about 5pm, I was finally wheeled in. My husband was in Mandalay and highly anxious. My girls were harassed by his frequent SMS. One went to a movie to wait the surgery out – no we do not believe in pacing outside the OT to await news like in the Chinese dramas. Imagine a top surgeon operating on a subsidised patient between 6-10 pm on a public holiday. If that is not blessing and favour of the Lord I do not know what is.
At about 11 pm I was awake and well. My girls came into the high dependency ward where I would be kept for the night. They found me smiling and immediately took a picture of me to send to my husband. The only problem was both my legs were in pain – sharp pain. They explained that during surgery some nerves could be inflamed and it would settle. They did though I do still feel pins and needles almost the whole day even now. They said it might take three months to totally settle. Such is the miraculous creations of God – our body is so interlinked that a pain in the foot has its origins in the spine. How accurate when Paul said that we are the body of Christ – if one part hurts, the whole suffers – paraphrased by Sophia. Hehe.
Alas, the second surgery was not done. I had to wait five more days – it was scheduled for May 6. Somehow, the nurses in the ward were quite drawn to me. They could not understand my cheer. One, a student nurse came up to me and said, “You’ve gone through so much but you are always smiling.” My reply, “I am grateful God saved me from paralysis.”
Another – a senior nurse came up to me and said, “You are so positive. I hope to be like you.” My reply, “Well, if I frazzle, everyone in my family will panic. No point. I only know that God protected me, and He would not allow me to know my condition in time, just to abandon me. Besides, this joy or positivity is a gift from God. It would be impossible without the grace of God.”
I put up prayer requests on my facebook status. All over the world good wishes and promises to pray came in. Before my second surgery, I told that to the surgeon.
“It’s ok doc. I am praying for you and me. In fact we are surrounded by prayers from all over the world.”
This very quiet doctor smiled and said, “Yes pray for me.”
Of course the second surgery went smoothly. In the meantime, I had the opportunity to chat with some patients – including the patient on my next bed.
She had some issues with her intestines. The doctors wanted to do a colonoscopy. Then they decided to do an MRI first. They also wanted her to sign her consent form for the colonoscopy, and told her all the inherent dangers. That frightened her so much she was in a panic.
I turned to her and said that I would pray that her MRI results would be so good, she need not do colonoscopy. I also told her to forgive her in-laws who had hurt her tremendously. I told her to harbour that hurt was like taking a poison, and she could damage her health. She agreed.
On the morning of her MRI, as she left the ward, I told her cheerfully I would pray for her. The trouble was breakfast was served and then I was told I would be wheeled out to see the radiation oncologist to check if I needed further treatment, and a host of things happened. I could not remember if I prayed for her. When her MRI results came out, she was in the clear – no need for colonoscopy. She was delighted – and attributed it to my prayers. How to accept the praise when I could not even remember if I prayed? So I said, “Praise the Lord.” In my heart, I hoped it was because God heard my intention even if I did not pray.
It was a long stay in the hospital – 19 days. I am very grateful to the nurses of Ward 76 SGH. So many I wanted to commend, but there is not enough space in the feedback page. The doctors and other allied medical staff were amazing. I am particularly grateful to the Cardiac Thoracic Surgeon .. blast I cannot remember his name ..Dr Soon? He came at 9pm after surgery just to remove a drain from my chest. He said it would take only five minutes, and if he did not do it that night, I would have to stay in hospital one more day. That despite his wife’s many smses to chase him home. I am grateful to you, Mrs Surgeon to share your husband in after work hours with his many patients
How did I spend my time during that long stay? I did cross stitch to the amusement of staff and patients who came around to see the pattern. I also chatted with staff and patients. To their questions on my peace of mind – I told them it was because God was with me. Truly He was.
Today, I can walk unaided – though I can only take small, limping steps. It will take time to get back to normal. I have to wear a brace to stop me from bending. The bone graft needs time to grow. I am in some pain – but barely there. In less than a year, I had undergone 3 surgeries. I think enough is enough.
So on my birthday, on the 24th of May, I asked the Lord for my birthday present.
“No more challenges Lord. I need a sabbatical from the School of Trials and Testing. I must have passed the exams by now – I just need a very uneventful year of peace for myself and my loved ones. No health issues, no career issues for my loved ones, no financial worries – just a time of rest.”
I am sure He has heard my prayers
Oh – and I must add this. I just went to see my oncologist yesterday. I thanked him for what he did and the recommendation to see Dr John Chen. My oncologist – Dr Ooi Wei Seong said he was afraid I would scold him or blame him for my condition. Me, blame the angel who was instrumental in saving me?? I assured him I was grateful. In fact so was my sister-in-law who gave him a bottle of home-made marmalade to show her thanks. He took one look and said, “Wah looks good!” A doctor who loves food and after my own heart! As he stood up to examine me, I saw him pulling up his pants.
“Hey. You’ve lost weight.” You should see the delight in his face. He beamed!
“You noticed! I did so many things to lose weight you know. I jogged, cycled. Then I overdid it – I joined the marathon. Now I might need a brace too. Let me check out yours.”
I love this doctor. Haha … and I had no heart to tell him that he was still a little tubby – and he should remain a little tubby – for that suited him more than being lean and mean.
If there’s anything I’ve learnt through these years of seeing doctors – oncologists in particular – the patient, when she is well, should learn to ask after them, and not expect just to be examined. It makes the doctors feel like a person, and not a prescription delivery auto bot- or worse a harbinger of bad news. The relationship becomes more balanced – and it is two human beings touching base, with the patient in need of medical advice which should be given with sensitivity and care, and the doctor in need of a casual relationship from a patient who knows what it means to be grateful and to show concern for a doctor who is probably overworked and stress.
Filed under: Uncategorized
In my previous post, http://speakspokewritewrote.wordpress.com/2012/11/12/broken-bone-wholesome-spirit/ I wrote about breaking my leg and my subsequent hospitalisation. It was during my stay at Tan Tock Seng Hospital that my awareness of the nursing profession was heightened. It also increased my appreciation of their work
There was this sweet lil’ old lady whose bed was diagonally across mine. When in a good mood, she had this smile that had the power to soften your heart and made you want to go “awwwwww”. Then Mya, a wonderfully cheerful nurse from Myanmar made her approach. “Ah Ma, jiak yeouk” (Granny, time for medicine). Before long, Mya made a hasty retreat.
“What happened, Mya?” I asked.
“She phui at me – see my uniform is so dirty. She also clawed me – see got blood.”
From Ah Ma’s bed, we saw her glare at Mya, and in her forceful yet feeble voice, we heard a string of Hokkien swear words. “CCB, Cb lang….”
Ah Ma is, I believe, suffering from dementia, and we can forgive her aggression. Mya and I just laughed. But many able minded patients are also demanding and lack appreciation. And their demands ain’t funny.
In my ward at Tan Tock Seng hospital, I saw nurses who did not walk. They ran from patient to patient. The call bell never stopped ringing. There was so much to do. I, for instance, had to have my vital signs checked every hour. I was immobile, so they had to come with bed pans every so often, and had to clean me up. I could not move, so even when I needed a drink of water, they had to help get me the glass. Then there was the checking of the drip, sponging me, taking blood for tests…ad infinitum. Multiply that by 6 patients in the ward and further multiply by 3 since two nurses look after a minimum of 3 wards per shift and you can imagine the amount of work they had to do.
I have huge respect for their professionalism. Most served me with a smile. I made it a point to thank them, to know them by name, to apologise for calling them. I tried to wait until they were in my ward before I signalled them for whatever I needed rather than reach for the call bell at the drop of a hat. I felt humbled that they cleaned me up with so much grace. I admired their skill at finding my elusive vein every time they had to prick me with the needle. Their skills range from the menial – cleaning the patient after their pee and poo, to the mundane like taking blood pressure, to what is highly skilled like inserting the drip needle . No matter the work, they have to serve without complaining.
Sometimes they are at the receiving end of complaints. Family members can be very curt. In the case of the old lady, a family member complained that the bed sheet was not changed. The old lady was so antagonistic at one point, the nurse put off the changing of sheets til later and probably forgot in the busyness of the day. There was no protest from her – she just got clean sheets and proceeded to change the sheets as was demanded of her. Talk about longsuffering.
I came into contact with many nurses during my 11 day stay. It was a mini United Nations in the ward. The nurses came from Malaysia, India, China, Philippines, Myanmar…There were very few Singaporeans.
One evening, when my husband visited, I remarked, “We do not recognise the professionalism of the nurses enough. In defining meritocracy in academic terms, in some ways we have forgotten our hands-on workers, workers like nurses.” He agreed.
Given the choice, a student with stellar results would prefer to be an engineer than a nurse. The system and concerned parents would have convinced them that nursing is “dirty” work. “Must clean backsides one you know. You still want to be a nurse?” For many years, the salary was also not attractive. In our short-sightedness, we forget that nursing is an integral part of healthcare. We had so few institutions that trained nurses. Perhaps that is the reason for the disproportionate no. of foreign to local nurses in my ward.
This goes beyond nursing. Those who are athletic and are also academically inclined must be able to choose between the two without feeling that athletics is way down the meritocratic ladder. Likewise for plumbers, electricians or chefs. We need to redefine what falls within the meritocratic umbrella or else what we deem to be blue collared workers will never have the salary that commensurate with their skills, and parents will be willing to go to the poorhouse just to ensure their children make it to better recognised professions – never mind what their interests are. It also means that we will have to perpetually rely on foreign workers for less prestigious jobs while many of our Singaporeans become unemployed because there are not enough white collared positions available.
Apart from passion, what incentivises us to stay in our careers? Is it not recognition from society that our jobs are meaningful, coupled with a salary that gives us a decent livelihood? How do we get these? We need to redefine meritocracy and let it be more inclusive.
As for me, the nurses have done a wonderful job and they deserve praise for their work. Thank you nurses of Tan Tock Seng Hospital, Ward 12C. I’d like to quote a conversation I had with Mya.
Mya came in looking a little frustrated but still smiling.
“I miss this ward.” She was assigned to a different ward – a male ward with several very demanding patients.
Me: Mya why are you always smiling?
Mya: If I don’t smile, how can I help my patients to smile?
Mya is not the only nurse like that. It’s difficult to smile, still they do it for the sake of their patients. Thank God for nurses like them.
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So I had a whisky infused cake in one hand and a cup of coffee on the other. The right leg had been giving me trouble lately – 3 days to be exact. I was going to call the doctor the next day. The day of the unfortunate event was Hari Raya Haji and a public holiday, so I could not make an appointment.
Alan had taken the dog for his pee-poo and I was alone in the house. The minute I took the small step from kitchen to living room, I knew I was in trouble. To this day, I had no full recollection of what happened. I sort of floated in the air, my right thigh looked kinda spongy, and then I was on the floor staring at the ceiling.
I suppose I must have shrieked – I don’t remember. But apart from being totally angry at myself for the foolishness of taking a step unsupported, given the weak and aching right leg, I really do not recall my reaction. All I knew was I stared at the ceiling, taking note that there were coffee stains there. I knew Alan would be home in just a few minutes, so I sort of composed myself to the wait. I do not even know whether I was in pain or not – I suppose everything had gone numb.
Alan got home, taking his time through the door. One look at me and he said, “Oh no! You’ve broken your leg.” Thank God for his calm. “I have to call an ambulance.”
Now the dog was a major disappointment. I had been reading about ultra sensitive dogs – dogs who would comfort the owners?? Not so with Indie. He headed straight for the cake and gobbled it up before ambling over to check me out. What a dog!
While waiting for the ambulance, the thought in my head which I vocalised was, “Can I walk again?” Alan on the other hand was not worried about that. Instead he kept asking me if I wanted to wear a bra on the outside of my home dress – err yes. I believe in freedom of the breast at home. I thought his concern rather funny – as if I cared about modesty at that stage!
Anita – the neighbour who baked the whisky laden cake, popped her head in.
“What happened?” she asked in alarm.
“It’s your cake,” I answered feebly. Whereupon we both laughed – she convinced I was intoxicated hence the fall. I was told her daughter later scolded her for laughing.
“It’s no laughing matter, mum. Auntie Sophia must have been in great pain,” she admonished her mum.
“But Auntie Sophia started it first,” Anita protested – which was true.
That was the start of a ten-day hospital stay. My bone broke – a pathological break – meaning cancer had weakened that bone and it finally gave way.
I will not bore you with the details, safe to say that prior to the surgery on Tuesday morning, I was in great pain. There were times when I teared from the sheer agony – especially when they shifted me for the MRI. There were times of fear – wondering if my compromised bones would be suitable for surgery at all. Definitely there were periods of abject self-pity. However, instead of constantly worrying and focussing on the pain, I found ways to cope.
First and foremost, I have God and His grace to thank as I lay there coping. He really strengthened my spirits and because He was and still is constantly by my side, I was able to keep calm and cheerful.
Secondly, I always try to remember that Prov 17:22: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.
I thought of things to be grateful for. For a start, I was in New York recently. I was sooooo grateful this did not happen while I was in the States. I was grateful I was not alone when it happened. I was grateful for the super-efficient paramedic team and the wonderful doctors and nurses who attended to me.
I was not trying to trivialise matters when I joked with Anita. It was an attempt to laugh to encourage the production of endorphins – the body’s natural pain killer.
While in the hospital, I made it a point to smile at the nurses, to thank them constantly, to greet the doctors brightly. I like to be embraced by their smiles and good spirits. These medical professions see patient after patient – mostly in some form of depression or other. I do not want this sombre mood to surround me – I want the sunshine rays of good cheer. And cheerfulness, I noticed, is highly infectious – they always smile back and even when giving me my medical reports, they do so in good cheer and with encouragement.
Well, I am now back home and recuperating. No weight on my right leg for another 4 weeks. Then there will be physiotherapy to learn to walk again. Stability on right leg will only be possible after ten weeks.
I feel well. I feel blessed. My neighbours cook for me occasionally. They pop by to check on me ever so often. My daughters uncomplainingly assist me, even waking up several times in the night to take me to toilet. My husband tirelessly made ramps for the kitchen and the toilet, assembled a bed and did so many things to make sure I am safe at home. There are many people praying for my recovery.
By the way, people’s care and concern is a privilege, not an entitlement. So even for my daughters, I thank them for their assistance. I want a gracious environment around me, and I recognise it starts with me.
I cannot end without mentioning this bit. When I was admitted, I was examined for other injuries – after all I did fall. They checked my head, my back, my collarbones. There was nothing. I did not even remember any part of my body that was hurt. On reflection, it was as if an angel cushioned my fall, and probably administered some form of divine anaesthetic to ease the pain. How I wish that anaesthetic effect lasted the days before the surgery!
Still I praise the Lord and thank Him for His goodness toward me.
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Me and my Ma Ma
Most children I know consider their mothers to be the centre of their tiny universe. To them, mother is the most beautiful woman in the world. I had no such thoughts about my mum.
Growing up, I thought my mother to be quite ugly and old. I could not feel any love for this lady, and did not feel her affection for me either. I held her in mild disdain, thinking her ways obsolete and really quite ridiculous. Seeing that she was educated – something so rare for girls in her generation, I wish she could be more happening, more hip and more fun,
There were reasons for the way I felt. Being an adopted child, I struggled constantly with rejection. Since mum adopted me when she was in her forties, she was much older than many parents of my friends. For a young person, I suppose it was hard to see beauty in someone old.
The fact that I was adopted was a poorly kept secret. Mum desperately wanted it to be a secret, but the world around her was not cooperative. One way or another, I found out the fact way before I started school, and my little world crumbled at my feet. Part of me condemned myself for not being good enough for my natural family. Yet another part of me condemned my mother. It was an offensive-defensive mechanism – an effort to make me feel better about myself. It got so bad that I often made my mother cry. It did not make me a happier person. In fact, it made me feel lousy about myself. Still, I could not stop being mean.
When I was in my teens, I was allowed to go to KL alone to spend my holidays with my cousins. Those trips were crucial in helping me change my mind about my mum.
My 6th aunt lived in KL. She was the most astute of my aunts and most willing to talk to her teenaged nieces. She was quite a rebel in her own time. I understand she ran away from home and stayed away for years. That alone was enough to earn my respect! I was a gutless rebel, and I knew I would never have done what she did.
She spent a lot of time talking to me about my mum.
“Your mum was a selfless daughter and sister.”
“She was very beautiful, and many rich young men sought her hand.”
“She loved you very much.”
Piecing her story together, it appeared that mum was very pretty when she was young. Many young men sent their go-betweens to ask her hand. Unfortunately, just about then, my grandfather died. Most of her older sisters were married by then. So she became a teacher and helped support her mother and younger siblings. She rejected marriage, according to my aunt, because of her sense of responsibility. She wanted to help shoulder the financial woes that had befallen the family. She finally got married after all her siblings had grown. By which time, having children was a problem – hence my adoption.
I’d like to say that these conversations with my aunt changed me, and I was a loving and sweet daughter. Not so. I was still as prickly as the durian, and probably as foul smelling. I simply could not talk to her without getting jumpy and irritable. I still made her cry.
After I got married and lived inSingapore, I would invite her to come to stay with me. I looked forward to her visits, yet was filled with trepidation. Without fail, we would quarrel every time she came.
“Your maid stole my shoes.”
“Stole your shoes? What on earth for? First they would not fit her, and second, they are ugly!”
She would ask my opinion for most things and then do the opposite of what I suggested. She drove me wild.
Then she died. Life was not easy. There were stages in my life that were so difficult. While I would probably not have burdened her with my struggles, knowing she was there would have helped. She was not, and she would never be there again.
I looked at her old photos and finally saw what rejection had blinded me from – her beauty. There was much gentleness in her eyes. Her face was lined with wrinkles, each wrinkle representing worries. She was a worry wart, but she mainly worried for those she loved.
Somehow looking at her photo reminded me how skillful she was with her hands. She knitted beautifully, and to this day, the cardigans she made for my cousin when she went toVancouverto study are still remembered with hushed tones of admiration. She was also a great handyman, and if anything was in need of repair, she would be the one fixing it.
Mum loved but did not know how to show it. I only knew how much she loved me when she bought me a diamond pendant with an entire month’s pay. This was particularly significant since it was her last salary.
She had a hard life, but I hardly heard her complain. She was no gossip and even though I tried to dig, she would not talk. Even when she fell out with her sisters, I never heard her telling anyone anything bad about any of them. She was fiercely loyal. If she had any fault, it was that she never trusted anyone outside of the family. She gave dad a hard time, never considering him truly family, but an outsider that one had to be mindful of.
I miss her very much. I felt I never showed her enough appreciation when she was alive. Too late to regret, but not too late to love and to show it, to those still living, mothers, children, warts and all.
Happy Mother’s Day, y’ all.
One of my favourite childhood memories must surely be that of the dining table at No 10 Loh Boon Siew Rd– Grandma’s house. Ever so often, mum would visit No 10. After all, her sense of filial piety was extremely strong, and her loyalty to family was what made her life meaningful. We usually visited over the weekends. Two of my aunties would invariably be busy in the kitchen, while my first uncle would be in the living room, reading.
I love that old kitchen. It had a terracotta red cemented stove. There were at least 3 to 4 charcoal stoves. It was fascinating watching my aunts manage so many stoves simultaneously. In order not to get in the way, mum and I would sit at the dining table, gossiping with the aunts. Sometimes we would be helping by cutting up vegetables, peeling shallots or shelling prawns.
When grandma was alive, she too would join us. Grandma, to my young eyes, really looked old. Her skin was paper thin, mottled brown and crinkly. But she had a kindly face. I really wished she would pay more attention to me. Beyond the usual pat on the head, however, she would usually just ignore me. What more could I expect? She had 13 children and countless grandchildren. I doubt if she could remember many of our names! Anyway, the aunts all adored grandma, and amazingly for such a stoic Chinese family, showed their affection openly Grandma on the other hand was reticent. She had kindly eyes and exuded a sort of detached warmth. But she hardly spoke. The one time she did speak was when my senile aunt got her incensed. Senile third aunt was being her usual vicious and caustic self, relentlessly scolding 1st aunt and her daughter. Grandma lost her cool and for the first time – and possibly the last, I saw her fury as she berated third aunt. It was quite a shock for me.
Anyway, back to the dining table. It was a nondescript wooden table. On one side was a blackwood bench. That was where grandma usually sat. Stools were placed on all other sides. It was a large table, and could easily seat 10 people. On festive occasions, a huge wooden table top would be placed on it, and then all my uncles and aunts would be seated there for the family meal. It was quite amazing really. Considering the size of the family, sometimes as many as 18 people or more, if all could make it home, would be seated at that table.
I loved that table because it invoked so many memories. It was at that table that I discovered many family secrets. Of all the sisters, mum was possibly the best one at keeping secrets. She certainly believed that dirty linen should not be exposed, EVER. Hence it was only at that dining table, especially when other aunts or older cousins turned up that I would get to hear the juiciest of stories. Stories like how second uncle ended up with 2 wives, mum’s old suitors and more. If cousins were around, there were even more stories – stories of the decadent world. Cousins from 4th Aunt had seen a bit of the world. I think it was Ah Kuen Jie who told us about tiger shows fromThailand .At that time I really did not understand what she meant – especially the part when she described how this Rose could smoke a cigarette under there. No matter how I tried, I could not picture where she could be smoking from! And what did that have to do with tigers? Through all the conversations, Grandma would either just nod, or kept quiet. Yet, it was that sense of being together as a family that infused me with warmth,
Years later, when I was married and living inSingapore, I appreciated yet another dining table – my mother-in-law’s. Every Saturday, my husband and I would try to make it home for lunch. Dad would have driven toKandahar Streetto buy Nasi Padang from Sabar Menanti. Dad certainly hated to menanti (wait in Malay) and would never have been sabar (patient) about it. So it was a special sacrifice for him to make that pilgrimage for the family lunch. On top of that, he would buy lots of limes and lovingly made the best lime juice in the world. It was a meal that the entire family looked forward to – a time to catch up and to spend time together.
Things changed, and after dad passed on, mum did not quite have the same energy to keep Saturday lunches going. While we were still close as a family, we usually ate out when we did get together. It was no longer as regular as before. Then mum got quite ill. We decided that what made mum happiest was when her entire brood, grandchildren and all, could gather for a meal. Since she found it difficult to leave the house, dinner was served back at her home. That started our Sunday potluck dinners. We were not brilliant cooks, but somehow the meals tasted wonderful, just because we were having it together.
Alas, mum passed on in October last year. Still we decided that the family dinners must continue. So many times, once the elders were gone, the family ties got loosened. We were determined to make an effort to still have our meals together. The venue changed. The family home has been sold, and it was time to move on.
Nowadays, Sunday dinners are held either at my home or at my brother-in-law, Ken’s. As we sit and eat, what is memorable is not the food – though our culinary skills have improved! It is just the easy camaraderie we have. Sometimes we get all het up when we talk about politics. Other times, we will be laughing at some our past boo-boos. Then there are the sharing of memories of mum’s and dad’s exploits, or the escapades of Alan, Ken and Jef.
I wonder if that will have to change in the near future. Currently, Ken and I still have dining tables and homes large enough to host everybody. We are both thinking of downgrading. Our children, when their turn comes to buy homes, will probably buy 4 room flats at best – how to afford anything else? Will we still be able to find that all important “dining table”?
As we get older, people in my generation are likely to, as the Minister of Finance suggested, downgrade to studio apartments or 3 room flats. Will this very integral part of the Chinese family life – the family dinner, be rendered a thing of the past? Restaurant food is expensive, and if the meal could not be had at home, then family dinners may well be reduced to the annual Chinese New Year Reunion dinner only.
That will be a sad day indeed.
No one can quite prepare for the pronouncement.
“The biopsy shows the tumour is malignant.”
Sitting there, a million thoughts raced through my mind, or at least I assumed they did. I cannot even remember if I thought ahead and worried about a whole host of things, or I just sat there, bewildered and so traumatized my mind was a blank.
I was 42. To all intents and purposes, I should not be diagnosed with cancer. I had done all the right things – I was not on the pill, except for a few months right at the beginning of the marriage, I had children young, the youngest child was born when I was only 31, I breast fed all my children, I ate reasonably well, was mildly overweight – but that was about it. I did have a very stressful time in the year 2000. Surely that was not enough to cause this “sudden” tumour? Just in 1 year?
The “whys” and “how comes” soon gave way to thoughts of the children. My son was going to do his A levels the year after and my youngest should be preparing for her PSLE. Important exams and they certainly should not have to worry about mum on top of all that. What could I do to minimize their worries and their fears? In the midst of all that, I remember thinking it was a good thing I got married and had children young. Imagine if they were still toddlers!
After a harrowing time in the hospital, getting registered and signing forms so as to be ready for an almost immediate warding for surgery, it was time to go home to break the news to the children. That must surely be one of the most difficult things I had ever done in my life.
By the time we got back, it was almost dinner time. My husband and I forced ourselves to eat. After dinner, we sat the children down and told them the news. I was careful to mention people who had cancer and still lived to a ripe old age. Still, the silence that ensued was so uncomfortable and so unnatural. My husband was uncharacteristically quiet. The patient had to do something to alleviate the tension.
“It’s okay.” I chirped with a cheerfulness I really did not feel. “I have no intention of dying and leaving you to your father. I cannot trust him to feed you properly. He will only give you junk food, and you know I will not have that.”
Uneasy giggles and a mock protest from the husband followed. I could not bear the tension, so I said, “Now, let us go shopping.”
We went to the malls, a normal family on an evening out. It was the quietest shopping trip I had ever made, but it was better than moping at home. In any case, for the youngest one at least, it reinforced the idea that cancer was just an illness and one that could be controlled, if not totally cured. Besides we had God on our side.
Did I panic, did I cry? Of course I did. I did that when I was alone in the mornings. I prayed and complained to God. I verbalized all my fears.
It was not easy. I had to come to terms with death. I had to accept that possibility and to check my spirit if I really believed what I had been professing – that I believed in eternal life and salvation through Christ Jesus. I also had to surrender my children to the only parents I could trust them to – my God, and with His guidance, my husband. I had to convince myself that without me, their lives could still be amazing. It was immensely difficult, and there were upswings and downturns. By the grace of God, there were more ups than downs, and I found peace slowly being more dominant than fear.
With that settled, I began to fight to live. You see, I could only fight when the most negative outcome – death – had lost its sting, and when the most crippling emotion – fear, was replaced with calm.
I was not afraid of death, but I was not going to be cheated of life. I was not afraid of death, but I refused to allow my children to be deprived of a mother, if I could help it.
The fight continues today, ten years after the first pronouncement. How to fight? The most important battle is in the mind and in the emotions. I refuse to allow cancer to occupy my every thought. I refuse it to control how I feel. Sure a good medical report uplifts the spirit and a poor one can throw me into depression. I try though not to wallow in the emotions. I allow some time to work the issues out, but I have learnt not to allow negative emotions to dominate my life.
I have a life to live – and cancer is just an obstacle along the way. There are many other challenges in life, and some of these, especially when they involve the children and the husband must take precedence over needless anxieties and fears.
Many cancer survivors/patients talk about how cancer taught them to live life more fully. I have never felt that way. Cancer or not, I live life the way I would have lived life – in my own laid back manner. I do not give cancer any credit for the way I live, nor do I blame it for the not so positive aspects of my life. Yes I do have an issue with the medications I have been on – they really made me weightier! And yes it has made me more aware of healthcare and its attending costs. Nonetheless, cancer is just what it is – one of the ailments that afflict human beings, a nuisance we need to learn to live with until it can be eradicated for good.
I do feel immense sympathy for those cancer patients who suffer much pain and agony. I am by no means downplaying their suffering. But for those whose life is still fairly normal, and life can be almost perfectly normal, do not allow cancer to control you. Avoid moping. Acknowledge its annoying presence. Embrace the joys that surround you, if you will only open your eyes to see them.
And live on.
This was first published by publichouse.