15HWW Origins: Illness And The Passing Of My Mum

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

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. 

Image result for happy 54th birthday mom

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.


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53 thoughts on “15HWW Origins: Illness And The Passing Of My Mum

  1. Finance Smiths

    This is a very powerful story and I’m sorry to hear about the tragic passing of your mum years ago. It’s the things that we go through that shape much of our outlook and approach in life. And most times it’s the bad stuff that have the most impact. You have managed to move on in a positive manner and I can’t imagine how difficult that process must have been. Take care and keep going!

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi FS,

      Yes, you are right. My experiences form my worldview and I am sure mine is different from most.

      It wasn’t easy but I am sure there are many that had it much worse. I guess we often underestimate how much we can “tahan” for something meaningful and precious to us.

  2. An9elfire

    Thank you for sharing your story. I am deeply empathetic cos I also lost my mum when she was relatively young. She had a difficult life but gave her children her everything. For the next few years after she left, I could not think of her without feeling sad. It has been 14 years. I am better now. But your sharing just made me think of my mum again.

    You are doing well and that’s what your mum would have wanted. We live the legacy of our parents. Live a good life and it will be good enough for mum. Cheers

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi An9elfire,

      Yes, similar experience here. For the first few years, I couldn’t think of her without feeling sad and losing sleep. These days, I am in better control of my thoughts and emotions. And it’s good to be able to recall the happier moments once in a while. Hope I managed to trigger that in you.

      I guess my Mum’s blessings have helped to make my life relatively easy for the past couple of years. Things are going much better than I expected.

      Enjoy your trip to Melbourne!

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Elessar,

      Thanks for your comment and glad that it struck a chord with you.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Ricky,

      It’s true that tough times don’t last but tough people do. Still in the process of making myself tougher.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Frederick,

      I come from a typical Chinese family so there’s no such thing as a speech to thank her during the funeral. I found the ang moh way more meaningful and classy, actually. Just that I found it really difficult to pen a piece about her until a few days ago.

  3. Edwin

    Reading this post almost left me crying….I lost my dad to cancer almost 2 years ago in less than 3 months…and I stilll cannot get over.

    Knowing that there’s someone else who loves his mom that much is comforting.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Edwin,

      I know it’s difficult but we just have to learn to let go as the alternative is too destructive.

      Time is your best friend in this instance and even if you continue to lament, gripe or complain occasionally about the unfairness, don’t be too hard on yourself.

      I am glad the post has given you much comfort because it also did so for me.

  4. Createwealth8888

    Good reminder to many of us to live the Present and the next few days and NOT to fix on maximizing the Endpoint of the Future.

    Life is fragile. Unexpectedly Doctor may bring us bad news may be even Today or Tomorrow when we thought it is nothing serious.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Uncle Jacob,

      It’s quite obvious I am not a person fixated on maximising the endpoint. Just look at me now.

      Looking forward to jio-ing you for a JB trip in end May (just before school holidays). Need to book appointment first? =p

  5. Alvin

    Read this with a heavy heart. I have witnessed a few of my friends having to go through this and it is definitely felt unfair that life dealt a bad card all of a sudden. Glad that you were able to see the silver linings and I believe more will come your way.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Alvin,

      Well, life is indeed unfair.

      But mainly because most tend to dwell too much when they get the shorter end of a stick and fail to notice or celebrate when Fortune smiles their way.

      I still remember what you told me about your family background the first time we met about three years ago. You also didn’t have it easy and look at where you are now. So hamsum and successful! Life is indeed unfair.

  6. Tleaves

    Thank you very much for sharing such a personal and poignant part of your life with us, And for reminding us, that at the end of the day, what are some of the most important things that matters more, when our LOrd calls us home.

    Your mom has left an indelible impact in your life and I am sure she would be proud of you, no matter wat the future holds. Take heart to know she is suffering no more and is surely in a better place.

    Continue to treasure and guard the relationships that matter, and once again, thank you for all the sharing 15HWW. GOd bless.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Tleaves,

      Thanks for your comforting words. Yes, all of us need a reminder from time to time about our priorities and what matters most.

  7. hyom

    Hi 15HWW,

    This is a touching and sad story. I think as long as you and your siblings gave your very best to care for her during her last days, there is no need to feel guilty about “not being there”. If you are feeling guilty that you spent too much time with your girlfriend (now wife) instead of your mum then, don’t. Somehow, I get the feeling that your mom is not going to blame you if she knew how well you married.

    I have read some of your blog posts. You quitted a well-paying job in the civil service in your late 20s to pursue your financial freedom dreams. I am not sure if the reasons were justified as an outsider. However, I am pretty sure you have got to have a very supportive, understanding and loving wife to stand behind you when you made this momentous decision. Most wives will give their husbands hell if the husbands go ahead with this kind of decision. If your mom were still alive, I am confident she will be very happy over how lucky her son is to have married a virtuous wife given that she did not seem to marry well herself. At this point, I cannot help but comment that your father should have been around when your mother was sick to share the burden of care during her last days.

    I am a father with very young sons now. The biggest worry I have is that they marry poorly. Even if they attain success on the financial side, it is hard to be happy if one marries poorly. In fact, the probability is higher for a person to be happy if he marries well and is not poor compared to another who is rich but married poorly. So, don’t feel guilty. Your late mom will be feeling very happy for you if she were still alive. The time spent with the girlfriend was well-spent indeed.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi hyom,

      Thanks for taking the effort for such a long comment.

      I guess the guilt came from a “never enough” mentality. But like what you mentioned, realistically, we really did what we could based on the situation then.

      Your analysis is pretty spot on. My mother approved of the Mrs and I am sure one of her biggest regrets was not being able to attend our ROM and wedding. The Mrs knew how upset and bitter I was about not being able to stand vigil by my Mum’s side and how much it impacted my thinking. But still, you are right that if she wasn’t supportive, understanding and loving, I would either still be working in the same job or our marriage would have been in tatters.

      My father barely lifted a finger to help, in terms of effort, time and finances. Monthly allowances remained the same, which was definitely inadequate for the additional needs. He already had another woman and my Mum’s passing actually made it more convenient for him to remarry. I only see him once a year when I visit my Grandma during Chinese New Year.

      Well, no point worrying so far ahead of time? You appear to be a very insightful, wise and measured man. I am sure your sons will benefit from your parenting and guidance and more likely than not, will marry well.

      1. hyom

        Hi 15HWW,

        Thanks for your compliments. It is highly uncertain if my children or yours can marry well because marrying well is very much a matter of luck. Of course, it is to your credit that you married well. You want her doesn’t mean that she wants you. I am confident you yourself was a fine gentleman. Otherwise, would your Mrs accept you? Go check with her:)

        I think it is easier to achieve financial freedom than to find the right wife. You have already achieved the more difficult task. All the best in your journey towards the “easier” task. In the mean time, treasure the treasure in your hand today 🙂

        1. My 15 HWW Post author

          Hi hyom,

          This is an interesting exchange with you.

          As with most important things in life, there is an element of luck involved. But to deserve a good person, you have to be “good” too.

          I am sure if your boys grow up “good”, the odds of marrying a “good” person would increase too.

          The journey towards FI is chugging along fine. Thanks for your well wishes!

  8. SM

    It was certainly not easy to manage the household as a Yr 3 undergrad and to take care of two younger siblings. Not easy for Mrs too, to be with someone with such a huge responsibility. Live well 🙂

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi SM,

      Yes, the real heroine of the story is the Mrs! But truth be told, I am really not that bad a catch 8 years ago. =p

  9. Kate

    A beautiful tribute to your mother. Sorry to hear about your loss but I am sure that she will be proud of who you are today.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Kate,

      Thanks for your kind comments. I really hope she would be because her opinions definitely matter to me!

  10. wb

    Mr 15HWW, thank your sharing your story. I am very touched and it made me reflect on myself. I am sure your mum will feel very proud that you dared to go against societal norm and are living a fulfilling life in your own terms.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi wb,

      I hope besides reflecting, you can take some concrete and positive actions to appreciate your loved ones more!

  11. Yi Kai

    Sorry to hear about your loss! A very fitting tribute to your mother.

    Having seen a few friends beaten down when they lost one of their beloved, I am glad you managed to get out of it and emerged stronger!

    I am sure your mother will be proud of you from wherever she may be and her legacy will live on in the stories you tell your kids and grand kids.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Yi Kai,

      I am sure at some stage, your friends will also realise that the milk is already spilt and no use crying over it beyond a certain point.

      Thanks for dropping by and your kind and encouraging note!

  12. Yeh

    You this thread make me think of my deceased Father.
    We didn’t send him to hospital as we knew that he preferred to pass away at home.
    I feel great that I have chance take care of him, help him clean his poo etc.
    This is the little thing I can do for him before he left this world.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Yeh,

      Yes, I do seek solace in the fact that on some of those nights when I was already very tired, I still took the initiative to massage my sick Mum, hoping to give her a better sleep that night.

  13. Mrs Spoon

    Hi 15HWW, this made me cry… and i am sitting in my office so i do look rather silly with tears pooling in my eyes and a red nose. I dunno if this resonated more with me as i am a mum with two young boys, and i feel very touched that you love your mum so much. I hope my boys grow up with that much love for me even though i am a FTWM.

    This certainly sheds some light into why you gave up a high paying job to pursue what you want. It is only when we realise how transient life is and how fragile life is, that we focus more on the things that really matter.

    Thank you for your sharing. I know your mum loves you a lot and is very proud of you. Every mum feels the same towards their children, all the more one that was so filial to her.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Mrs Spoon,

      Sorry for making you look silly!

      I am pretty sure when your kids grow up, they will understand your difficulties and sacrifices as a FTWM too. I am sure your love for them will be reciprocated.

      Few people can or will be willing to understand why I gave up a career as a scholar in the public service to pursue something as “unambitious” as a home tutor. But well, the latter just floats my boat better.

  14. Jared - SMOL


    You have shared, and I’ve heard the quiet roar of your heart.

    Honour your mom; and cherish the woman who stood by you all this time.

    Without whom, all your recent “choices and achievements” would be for naught.


    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Jared,

      Sound advice from you, as usual.

      Both my Mum and the Mrs are my best friends.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi SG Physiotherapist,

      Thanks for your kind comments. I enjoyed writing an authentic origin post like this and I am surprised by the positive response from many readers including you.

  15. SGYI

    It must have been a tough period for you. I read this and felt a lot of compassion. Losing a love one is never easy. This is indeed a reminder for all to treasure our loved ones. Your mum will surely be proud of you 🙂

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi SGYI,

      Thanks for your kind words. Tough times don’t last and life is pretty good now!

  16. Jes

    Hi 15HWW,

    Sorry to hear that but beautiful tribute to your mum. I am sure you and your family have become stronger because of her. Double salute for pulling yourself up and accumulating a sizeable portfolio now. Keep it up, you are a role model to many, including me 🙂

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Jes,

      Thanks for the kind words! Will be trying your nuts soon after I am done with my current batch.

  17. Cs

    My wife mom passed away at a young age as well, when my wife was just a secondary school kid. While my wife is always as positive as she is, and seldom talk about the difficult period she been through, I can sensed that she had always miss her lots and wish that my MIL is still around.

    I seldom asked her about her relationship with her mom, for fear that it will bring back the sad memories in her. But reading your story was like reliving her sorrow back then, sort of gave me a glimpse into the hard period she had. And this made my eyes moist.

    And it is definitely an inspiring story, a timely reminder to really cherish the loved ones around us, and not be blinded by other life pursuits be it career, material wealth or FIRE.

    Thanks for this impactful sharing.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Cs,

      All I can say is that your wife must be really lucky to have you. One who is so considerate and perceptive.

      All the best in your marriage and financial journey!

  18. A

    Very sorry to hear about the demise of your Mum.

    Inspired by your insight ‘not to be slave to a designed lifestyle’ and realisation how absurd it is that the expectation of being a student superceded the responsibility of being a son.

    Makes me think about other absurd societal expectations.

    Take Care. Your blog is good, and always worth the read.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi A,

      Thanks for your kind words. Glad you find the blog worth a read, even though it appears so “15HWW centric” at times. =p

  19. Billy Bobs

    Hey 15HWW,

    I’ve been following your blog but never thought there’s such a deeper meaning to it. Kudos to you, stay strong.

    I could relate a lot not because either of my parents are sick, but because I recently fell sick (nothing serious). The unconditional love from my mom during this short period reminded me that I ought to be a much more filial son, when I can still afford to. Bringing my parents on a trip overseas is a good idea, thanks for that.

    Continue to be a good human being, your mom will be proud of you 🙂


    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi Billy Bobs,

      There are many things in life that we would not really “appreciate” until we have lost it. The trick is to “simulate” losing them so we can cherish them better.

      All the best for your family trip!

  20. D

    I teared when I read this post. I’m glad you have managed to find peace with all that has happened. My dad passed when I was 14 after a few years of struggling with cancer, and he was one of those who didn’t believe in insurance despite being in the finance industry so those were tough times indeed. I am somewhat estranged from the rest of my family including my mother today, so your post struck a chord with me. Although slightly off-topic, I think the experience has made me more inclined to over-insure today rather than to under-insure haha. Thank you for writing this, I personally don’t know anyone else who has been through this experience so it was somewhat cathartic to read this.

    1. My 15 HWW Post author

      Hi D,

      Glad the post provided struck a chord and provided some comfort for you. I hope you are doing well. From your writing, I would figure that that is likely despite the episode you had in your teens.

      And as long as you are insuring yourself for a good reason, i.e. you have dependants and would like to prevent yourself from becoming a burden, and can afford it, why not?

  21. Lee

    I can relate how your journey. My mum also passed away suddenly 9 years ago. It has sort of change my personnel priority in live. Live is fragile and short. Work hard and play hard.