SINGAPORE – It has been two years and four months since his wife of six decades was bed-bound by a series of strokes, unable to speak.
“What to do? What else can I do? I can’t break down. Life has got to go on,” said Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, in an unusually personal and reflective interview with The New York Times, in which he spoke at length on religion, meditation and caring for Mdm Kwa Geok Choo, 89.
Describing her as “inert but still cognitive”, Mr Lee said: “She understands when I talk to her, which I do every night. She keeps awake for me; I tell her about my day’s work, read her favourite poems.”
These include Shakespeare’s sonnets and anthologies of poetry where she had flagged her favourite pieces. Recently, he ticked off a list of audio books he thought his wife, an English literature major, would find interesting.
“She was into literature, from Alice in Wonderland, to Adventures with a Looking Glass, to Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility. Jane Austen was her favourite writer … Also Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.”
Mr Lee added: “I try to busy myself but from time to time in idle moments, my mind goes back to the happy days we were up and about together.”
When he looked at old photographs, he said: “I thought how lucky I was. I had 61 years of happiness.”
An agnostic, Mr Lee said: “I’m not sure who’s going first, whether she or me. So I told her, I’ve been looking at the marriage vows of the Christians.
“The best I read was: ‘To love, to hold and to cherish, in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, till death do us part.’ I told her I would try and keep you company for as long as I can. She understood.”
At home, he sleeps in the next room and hears her groans when she’s uncomfortable from a dry throat. He described how the nurses had to suck the phlegm out. “It’s very distressing but that’s life,” he said – a phrase he repeats several times.
“How do I comfort myself? Well, I say life is just like that.”
He compared the stress of her condition to the political stress he faced when Singapore was kicked out of Malaysia. “That’s intense stress and it’s over but this is stress which goes on.”
He finds a measure of solace through meditation which he learnt from a friend whose wife later died from cancer.
His views on the afterlife? “Well, what is next, I do not know. Nobody ever came back.”