My Mum was the closest kin I had, by millions of miles.
If my Mum were still alive, we would be celebrating her 54th birthday today. If only.
She had passed away 6 years ago, after a one year struggle with ovarian cancer.
My Mum was one of the kindest and most responsible person I know and she sought to instil those qualities in her children. No matter what happened, she would never blow her temper at low-paid service staff because she had worked those positions before and could empathise with their difficulties. And whenever I borrow anything from anyone, I will be able to remember her mantra “Always return it in the same, if not better condition”.
She was an introverted housewife who liked to spend time at home keeping things clean, tidy and in order. If I were to observe myself from afar, it would appear that I have inherited a large part of her temperament. Unlike the majority of humanity, I have no trouble sitting quietly in a room alone, just like my Mum.
Because of her, I grew up in a largely protected environment, comfortable in the knowledge that she would always have my back, even to the point of defying societal norms. (Example here.) When I came of age in my late teens, she became both friend and family.
On hindsight, her biggest mistake in life was marrying the wrong man. She had to stay in an unhappy marriage and relationship just to ensure her children had the the bare financial support. In my honest opinion, she had lived a relatively short and hard life, with minimal luxuries and enjoyment. Her children and their love for her was probably her main source of comfort.
And at 46 years old, little did she know that her world was coming to an end when she experienced acute pain in her stomach and had to be admitted to the hospital in the wee hours of the night.
My One Year Experience Taking Care Of Her
Rather unfortunately, I was unable to be beside her during the diagnosis. I was overseas on an exchange program and was only able to come back about a month later. By that time, she had already gone through a major operation to remove her ovaries and was already recuperating at home, bracing herself for future chemotherapy sessions.
Even though this is a sort of a tribute to her, I will not hide the fact that she was a somewhat difficult patient. She refused my suggestion to hire a domestic helper initially and insisted the care-giving duties to be divided among her children. As my brother was preparing for his O Levels and I still had three semesters before graduating, my sister had to leave her job temporarily to assume primary care-giving duties.
Taking care of her in the night was the most tiring as she often needed help and support to visit the washroom once every two hours. After about two months trying to be on top of housework and looking after her, she saw how weary we were and finally relented and allowed us to hire a helper to lighten our load.
Over the next year, I skipped most of my lectures and even tutorials to take care and spend more time with my Mum, especially during the immediate aftermath of her chemotherapy sessions. She exhibited most of the side effects of the treatment and it was (excruciatingly) heart-wrenching to see her suffering.
During the first half of the year, she was pretty optimistic about her chances of recovery. Her tumor markers had steadily dropped during the first few sessions of chemotherapy and she was also turning to alternative medicines for help. (Since this is a personal finance blog, I will reveal that the costs of hiring the domestic helper and the fees for the alternative medicines were the main sources of financial strain. I had to increase my tuition load then to make ends meet.) However, after her tumour markers suddenly increased after the 4th chemotherapy session, I could sense the fight totally drained from her.
The psychological impact was damning. I found it astonishing that within a short span of a few days to a week, all the progress she made in her strength and mobility had seemed to reverse completely. Subsequently, her mood also considerably darkened by a few shades.
The Straw That Broke The Camel’s Back
Things got so bad that in October that year, she had to be admitted to the hospital for several weeks. It was a particularly trying time as the helper had left by then and both my brother and I were preparing for our examinations. Somehow, we almost always made sure that one of us would be with her in the hospital.
One of my Mum’s biggest dreads was dying at the hospital and she made that known to the doctors. Not surprisingly, when she had a pre-death rally, the kind doctors obliged, discharged her and allowed her to go back home.
She was already on morphine at this stage and was literally bed-ridden so we had to rent a hospital bed to ensure a smooth transition from hospital to home. Even though this was the most trying period, my siblings and I gave it our all as we knew our Mum likely only had weeks of life left.
On 26 Nov 2010, I had an examination in the morning. I had the usual 5 modules that semester and it was already my 4th paper. I was looking forward to the end of my examinations and the holidays so that I could spare a bit more time taking care of my Mum. She was already drifting in and out and her lucid moments were rarer with each passing day.
That morning, I whispered in her ears that I was going to school to take an examination and she gave me a slight nod and told me to come back home earlier if possible. Little did I know that this was going to be our last interaction.
When the exam ended and I switched on my phone, my heart sank when I saw the amount of missed calls from my sister. A quick phone call back confirmed my worst fears and I took a cab and rushed home.
I was extremely upset that I was unable to stand vigil by her side on that particular day and there was no way I was going to miss her cremation, which happened to fall on the day of my last examination paper.
The university’s reply to my email was nothing short of disappointing. They advised me to sit for the examination or risk repeating the module next semester. With my interests at heart, some of my friends also urged me to sit for that 2 hour paper before rushing back for the procession but I simply could not be bothered.
I was bitter but prepared to accept any consequences.
And apparently, 9 times out of 10, I would have had to repeat the module. It turned out that my professor lost both his parents to cancer at a very young age and he could fully empathise with my situation. Even though he was a visiting professor from Taiwan, he went out of the way to arrange for a make-up exam one week later.
I was very grateful, but at the same time, this episode also left an indelible mark on me that my choices were so constrained. I had little wriggle room as I was a “slave to a designed default lifestyle“. The expectation was that my role as a student had to take precedence over my duties as a son. And I have never stopped rebelling against absurd and ridiculous expectations ever since.
Coming To Terms With The Loss And Silver Linings
I did not take my mum’s death well. For a long time.
There was actually a period of two weeks in Dec 2010 when a serious bout of insomnia hit me. I was unable to sleep for more than a couple of hours each day and even cough syrups could not do the trick. On hindsight, guilt and grief were the culprits.
I kept harping on the things that I “failed to do”. I told myself that I would bring my Mum to Taiwan once I had accumulated $10,000 but it was postponed when I needed that money for my overseas exchange. And in the end, the trip never materialised. This was just one of many destructive “what-ifs”.
The guilt and grief were constantly eating me. Whenever the Mrs (then-girlfriend) lamented that I had not spent enough time with her, I would bring up the fact that I regret spending more time with her instead of accompanying my Mum during that one year period. Such unreasonable behaviour from me was the source of many of our quarrels for the next few years.
Thankfully, with the passing of time, the grief has become much more manageable. The “what-ifs” also died down as they did not change the fact that my mother has passed away.
And these days, instead of ruminating over the “failures”, I focus more on the positives. The times we spent watching her favourite Hong Kong dramas, having affordable fried chicken treats at KFC, playing Bomberman together on PSP, taking the effort to massage her to sleep even when I was tired from school and tuition, and skipping school to bring her to her checkups.
Not to mention living up to the promise of taking care of my younger siblings. The Mrs and I have ensured them a pleasant and comfortable roof over their heads for the past 4 years. I have also provided reasonable returns on the money left behind for them by my Mum.
Other silver linings include the changed outlook on life. It is now so much more apparent to me that life is so fragile. I can also fully appreciate how short our lives might be these days.
The above have actually influenced many of my recent “choices and achievements”.
The start of this blog, garnering the courage to quit an unhappy but well-paid job, a renewed focus on my health and fitness, and of course, the leap of faith to break free of a default lifestyle and fully take charge of my time and design a preferred lifestyle.
Thanks Ma. Happy Birthday and I truly miss you. I hope you are proud of me, Mr 15HWW.
Addendum: I am surprised by the outpouring of comments for this post but quite glad that it has struck a chord with many readers. I have made some small amendments to bring across some messages clearer but I feel it cannot beat reading and understanding how most of us are already at the tail end with respect to spending time with our parents.
Instead of just bringing tears and stirring emotions, I hope my Mum and I can inspire some concrete and positive actions at the end of the day.