PERSPECTIVE: William Phuan is the Executive Director of the Singapore Book Council, a non-profit dedicated to developing and promoting Singapore’s books and writers.
Here, we reproduce his letter from Letter to my Mother, a book edited by Felix Cheong and published by Marshall Cavendish.
In his letter, Phuan reflects on how he feared his mother's death since young, and how he eventually took after her in many ways.
Phuan also writes about his mother's struggles after her brain aneurysm and how he was inspired by her determination to persevere despite its toll.
You can get a copy of the book here.
By William Phuan
Your heart stopped beating at 10:01pm on February 9, 2015. I had just stepped into the hospital room, and the whole family was already there.
Sis turned to me and said you were gone. It then became a blur of activity, with nurses and doctors going in and out of the room, asking questions and unplugging medical equipment.
The night before, I had kept vigil in your room. You had already slipped into your morphine-induced state of unconsciousness, slowly, peacefully drifting away. I had fitful moments of sleep, as I constantly got up to check that you were still breathing – still alive, still with us.
I have always had a fear of your death
For as long as I could remember, I was always haunted by the spectre of your death. You had many near-death moments ever since your aneurysm 20 years ago, but you always pulled through by your sheer willpower.
When I was eight, you were rushed to A&E for a sudden bout of appendicitis. I remember that you were in so much pain that I thought you were going to die. For a few days, Sis and I were left at home with Grandpa, while you and Pa were in the hospital. I thought I would never see you again.
When we finally visited you, the expression on your face – a mix of relief, pain, fear, worry – was forever seared in my mind as you lay lifeless on the hospital bed. The fear of hospital, illness, and losing you was locked forever in my psyche since.
Another moment triggered that fear again when I was 12. You received a frantic call from our aunt in Kuala Lumpur, who broke the news that your youngest sister had just died in a freak electrocution accident at home. You went into the room and bawled, and did not come out for a long time.
I thought you had fainted inside. You quickly packed your bags, made a few arrangements for us, and took the train to KL the next day to tend to your sister’s family. I was gripped with fear that something could happen to you during the trip, or that you could be electrocuted too.
While nothing untoward happened in the end, in my young childish mind though, you never seemed to be that far from the snares of death.
As I watched over you in the hospital room while you drew in deep, soothing breaths, I realised that I had never told you how proud I was to be your son. I am my mother’s son, through and through.
My calm and gentle demeanour – that is you. My quiet strength and determination – that is you too. My love of fashion and my vanity – that is totally you.
I will never forget the sight of you in hospital following your aneurysm
The next health scare came in 1994 and it altered all our lives for good. It was May 8, Mother’s Day. I remember being woken up by Pa, who found you lying semi-conscious on the floor. You were already all dressed up to go to church, but you were moaning and groaning that you had a terrible headache. I held your hand and it was stone cold. We called the ambulance, which immediately took you to Tan Tock Seng Hospital. My worst fear of you dying came rushing up again.
They found that you had a brain aneurysm and had to quickly operate on you. The operation went on forever. You were not out of the operation room until the next day. Waiting in the endlessly long hospital corridor, breathing in the arid antiseptic air made me feel even more desperate and forlorn.
We finally saw you in the ICU after your operation. It looked like a surreal scene from a sci-fi movie. There were all kind of tubes running through your body and wires attached to different machines, each monitoring a function of your organs. It was as if they had pieced you back
together, limb by limb, after an accident, a la Robocop.
I had often pondered if you were conscious of your state then: Was your soul hovering above your body, and wondering if you should go back in, or leave forever?
But you were not out of the woods yet. The doctors told us that you had a massive rupture, which left you paralysed from the waist down and severely damaged the nerves of your hands.
You would be an invalid for the rest of your life. We prayed fervently for your recovery, but we were also worn out by the endless waiting and the bleak situation.
Yet you amazed and surprised us with your strength and life force. You showed us that you were a fighter. The meek and gentle disposition belied a woman of remarkable determination and stoicism. You woke up, and you came back into our world. I held your hand and thanked you for coming back.
Your recovery was extremely challenging but you pulled through
It was a long and hard six months of recovery, filled with tears, setbacks and frustrations. But you endured all of it and pulled yourself up, time and again, even when you were on the verge of giving up endless times. I could not understand fully the pain and anguish that you were going through then, until I read your diary recently.
You suffered from enormous physical toll, but what tortured you most was feeling useless and that you were a burden to all of us. But you also wrote about the grace of God, who kept you alive and made you feel alive. You wrote about being grateful.
You pushed yourself through physiotherapy to learn how to sit up, how to turn your body, how to hold a spoon – all the basic actions that you had to relearn as if you were a child. You wanted to get well desperately because you wanted to take care of us again. You showed me the length a mother would go for the love of her children and family.
It hurt me to see you so helpless at times, but I also knew, deep down, that you were a survivor. My survival skills – they are all yours too.
For the next 20 years, you learnt how to navigate the world and live your life wheelchair-bound.
Initially, you did not want to go out as you were conscious of how people were looking at you. You refused to go to church, the market, the hawker centre, the shopping malls. Not anywhere. Nowhere.
You just wanted to stay at home. It took some urging, baiting, admonishing and even bribing. Then you realised that you still had a life ahead of you – your children and grandchildren wanted you to be fully in their lives – that you finally took a roll outside.
You were also an immense source of comfort for me
I have never told you this, but when I was living in New York, I looked forward to your phone call every day. You would call me every night, around 10pm or 11pm, and we would chat about our day. You would tell me about what was going on at home, what the grandkids were up to, what the weather was like in Singapore. All the mundane things, yet they were balm to my homesick heart.
Your calls were like the lullaby before my sleep, luring me with sweet thoughts of home and family. Sometimes, when I was sick, especially during the flu season in winter, I would call you to get some long-distance pampering – the good old nagging from you telling me to take my
medication and drink lots of soup.
I loved sending you and the family all kinds of cards: Christmas, birthday, Chinese New Year. And I loved receiving them too. Your unsteady handwriting brought me so much joy that it made up for the distance that kept us apart.
When you died, I was genuinely happy and comforted that you were finally freed from your suffering. But I was also overcome with regret and guilt at not being a good son to you during your last years. I had been carrying this guilt with me all this while.
But you had never held it against me. I remember the four days of wake that were held after your death. Every night was filled with people – your friends from church, neighbours, all our cousins and friends.
Every night was a celebration of your life and the mark you made on all our lives. I do not know if you had felt it then, but it was a joyful time.
Everyone remarked how serene and contented you looked, dressed in the white blouse that you had previously picked out yourself. I do think that you were basking in all the affection and joy during those nights. It made me so grateful and happy to be your son. God has blessed me with you as my mother.
I am my mother’s son. I am proud to be your son.
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All photos courtesy of William Phuan