Oct 2, 2011
[A column by the Panda's Daughter, from 2011, a year after the passing of Mrs Lee.]
Emotional ties don't come to an end with the passing away of a loved one
By Lee Wei Ling
My friend Balaji Sadasivan passed away on Sept 27 last year. In the obituaries section of The Straits Times last Tuesday, exactly one year after his death, there was a sonnet by Balaji himself: 'But even in gloom, one truth is fundamental, from time immemorial, love springs eternal.'
A week after Balaji died, on Oct 2, my mother passed away peacefully at home. 'Love springs eternal' - but what comfort is that to the one who has departed and can no longer reciprocate our love?
This thought slipped randomly in and out of my mind as I was exercising last week. Then my Blackberry buzzed. I read the incoming e-mail. It was from my father - brief, concise, a mere statement of fact, yet what was unsaid but obvious was his love and concern for us, his children.
I suddenly realised that love does spring eternal. Papa, my brothers Hsien Loong and Hsien Yang, and my sisters-in-law Ho Ching and Suet Fern, and I are still bound by our love for Mama and will continue to be for many more years.
For the first few weeks after her devastating stroke on May 12, 2008, my family and the doctors met often to discuss how best to minimise her suffering and perhaps enable her to recover to some extent.
The physiotherapists, occupational therapists and speech therapists all did their best, but Mama did not improve. The May 12 stroke was more extensive, and involved more brain regions controlling movement than her first stroke on Oct 25, 2003.
But Papa remembered how well she had recovered from that first stroke, which had occurred while my parents were visiting London. By the end of that year, we were celebrating Mama's 83rd birthday on Dec 21 in a private room at Goodwood Hotel in Singapore.
Now, in October 2008, Papa knew that if Mama survived she would never be able to walk independently. But he felt that so long as she knew she was an important part of his life, she would still find life worth living.
He told her: 'We have been together for most of our lives. You cannot leave me alone now. I will make your life worth living in spite of your physical handicap.'
She replied: 'That is a big promise.'
Papa said: 'Have I ever let you down?'
Mama tried her best to cooperate with the therapists. But it seemed a useless struggle. Even swallowing a teaspoon of semi-solid food was a huge effort. Then more bleeds occurred and her condition deteriorated. We, her family, decided that no further active treatment should be sought. We arranged to bring her home and nurse her there.
Before we brought her home for the final time, Papa arranged for her to stop at the Istana, to see her favourite spots in the grounds. We wheeled her to where she had planted sweet-smelling flowers such as the Sukudangan and the Chempaka. Then we wheeled her to the swimming pool, where she had swum daily.
We showed her the colourful little 'windmills' she had arranged around the pool. She also saw the colourful wetsuits that Papa had arranged to be made for her to keep her warm in the water.
He and I had been convinced that she had to exercise to remain fit. So come rain or shine, she would don a wetsuit and swim. Even when travelling, she would swim in the hotel pool.
On one trip, Mama said to Papa: 'Today is a public holiday in Singapore. Can I take a break from swimming.'
Papa replied: 'No, have a swim. You will feel better after that.'
As a neurologist, I knew that after the first bleed in 2003, a second was likely. But I did not want to burden Papa or Mama with this knowledge.
Still, unknown to me, Papa had sensed that she could easily rebleed. He told us later that they had both discussed death. They had concluded that the one who died first would be the lucky one. The one remaining would suffer loneliness and grief.
Mama deteriorated further after she returned home. Finally, she reached a stage when she could not even speak and seemed unaware of her surroundings. But she was always aware of Papa's presence.
When Papa travelled, she would stay awake at night waiting for his phone call. When I began travelling with him, he usually would tell her on the phone: 'Bye dear, I am passing the phone to Ling.' Those were the times when I could hear her actively trying to vocalise.
When Mama passed away, I was at her bedside, watching her fade as her respiration became more shallow and feeble until it finally stopped. I did not try cardiopulmonary resuscitation. It would have been futile to have done so and cruel.
I called to ask my family physician to sign the death certificate, then returned to my room in a daze. Papa waited until the people from the Singapore Casket Company arrived. He showed them the jacket he wished Mama to wear and asked them to do their best to make her look attractive.
The wake lasted for three days. Hsien Loong and Hsien Yang, together with their wives, took turns to stand by the coffin and greet well-wishers.
I was tired and rested at home, only attending the wake on the first evening to greet my friends and colleagues. I hoped that by resting I would recover by the day of the funeral.
Most of the time, my mind was blank. I thought I had my emotions under control. It was only at the funeral, when it was my turn to deliver the eulogy, that the finality of Mama's passing hit me. I managed to control my tears but my voice was strained with emotion.
Three days after the cremation, the urn containing my mother's ashes was delivered to our home. We all stood and bowed as the urn was brought into the dining room.
A few days later, I noticed that Papa had moved from his usual place at the dining table so as to face a wall, on which were placed photographs of Mama and himself in their old age. He tried various arrangements of the photos for a week before he was satisfied.
He also moved back to the bedroom he had shared with Mama for decades before her final illness. At the foot of his bed were another three photographs of Mama and himself.
The health of men often deteriorates after they lose their wives. The security officers and I watched Papa getting more frail every day. His facial features were grim, perhaps to mask his sadness and grief. I took one day at a time and persuaded him not to undertake any arduous trips to America or Europe. China and Japan were near enough and manageable. I was pleased to get him out of the house.
By July this year, Papa's health had stabilised and even begun to improve gradually. I reminded myself of the analogy I used for him - titanium. Titanium is light but strong. It can bend a little, but it will not snap unless it is under overwhelming force.
Physically, we all eventually succumb. Papa is also mortal. But he is psychologically stronger than most people. Life has to carry on, and he will keep going so long as he can contribute to Singapore.
As I was halfway through writing this article, I went out of my room for a drink of water and saw a note from Papa addressed to all three of his children. It read:
'For reasons of sentiment, I would like part of my ashes to be mixed up with Mama's, and both her ashes and mine put side by side in the columbarium. We were joined in life and I would like our ashes to be joined after this life.'
The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.