Difficult to accept a loved one’s suffering

Aug 29, 2010

Feeling compassion with a detachment is wise, but tough when it comes to Mama
By Lee Wei Ling

I awoke with a start, a while ago, from a dream. I looked at my watch. It was 4am.

It was a dream worth remembering, so I decided to write it down immediately. If I had not done so, I would not have been able to remember it later.

In my dream, I seemed to be simultaneously at home and outdoors at some unfamiliar place. Suddenly, a monster appeared and attacked me. I struggled with the monster but it matched me strength for strength. I did not utter a sound, nor was I frightened. Instead, I wrestled silently with it.

Suddenly my mother appeared. She walked towards us, but did not say anything either. Instead, she made a dismissive gesture and the monster turned tail and ran away.

That would be Mama’s way of tackling problems, I thought: no need for unnecessary words or actions; just do things quietly and effectively.

At that point, I woke up. I got up from the floor where I was sleeping and went into my mother’s room to see how she was doing. She was sleeping peacefully. I am now back in my room recording what I can still remember of my dream – for a ‘dream’ indeed it was, as it cannot be classified as a nightmare.

For two years and three months already, my mother has been too weak to get out of bed. But in that brief moment in my dream, I saw her again as she had been – physically normal.

I wished I could have dreamt on, and after some time, together with Mama, vanquished the monster in the dream and then walked off together.

In dreams, everything seems possible. That my mother appeared magically in my dream did not surprise me – either while I was dreaming or when I awoke. This is because between Mama and me, there was always some form of telepathy.

Once, when I was staying with my brother Hsien Loong, my toothbrush was worn out and needed to be replaced. I hardly ever shop, so I did what I had always done before: I told Mama I needed a new toothbrush.

Since we were in different houses and I did not want to wake her if she was sleeping by calling her on the telephone, I e-mailed her: ‘Ma, I need a toothbrush.’

She e-mailed back: ‘I am telepathic. I just got a toothbrush for you. But one day, the commissariat will not be around. If you don’t know the word ‘commissariat’ go look it up in the dictionary.’

She was correct: I did not know what the word meant. And since I did not know where the dictionary was kept in my brother’s house, that evening at dinner, I asked him what the word meant.

He knew, of course. ‘Commissariat’, he explained, is a department in the army charged with providing provisions to soldiers.

Now Mama is no longer in a position to be my commissariat. Worse yet, she is bedbound and no longer able to read – a favourite activity of hers.

Mama had wide interests. She knew things that even many highly educated people would not know or be interested in, as would be obvious if one rummaged through her bookshelves, as I did recently.

There were several books on the flora and fauna of Singapore. There was a hardcover book of children’s nursery rhymes, which she had used to read to her grandchildren. Of all her grandchildren, my albino nephew enjoyed reading the nursery rhymes with her the most.

There were several books on Buddhism and Hinduism. There was a King James version of the Bible printed in a large font so that she could read it even without her reading glasses. There were many books on the Indian caste system, and a book describing the ancient city of Harappa in the Indus valley. The city dates back about 4,600 years ago, and was an important trade centre in the ancient world.

Mama was interested in the Silk Route long before it became a fashionable subject of interest. She had a book chronicling the travels of a Victorian lady on the Silk Route.

There were six Malay kamus, or dictionaries. There was a book on Chinese customs and symbols. And of course, there were many books of poetry, including a collection of Rudyard Kipling’s poems.

There were also books relating to the early days of Singapore, including The Battle For Merger, a collection of radio talks my father delivered in 1961, detailing the early history of the People’s Action Party’s struggles with the communists. It is now out of print.

There were many books, too, written by others about my father, including Lee Kuan Yew In His Own Words, excerpts of his speeches from 1959 to 1970, edited by S.J. Rodringuez.

Mama also had the kinds of books one would expect to find on the bookshelves of someone so cultured: among other things, The Tale Of Genji, Ruth Benedict’s The Chrysanthemum And The Sword, Etsu Inagaki Sugimoto’s The Daughter Of A Samurai, the novels of Jane Austen, and a book I enjoyed tremendously as a child, Anne Of Green Gables.

Mama didn’t just collect these books, she read them.

It is now 5.30am. I popped into her room again a while ago and she was still sleeping. I comforted myself that at least when she was sleeping, she was unaware of her unfortunate situation.

Now I am trying to go back to sleep myself, but I cannot do so – not because of the dream but because of Mama’s unhappy predicament. It is acutely felt by her three children, my two sisters-in-law, and my cousin Kwa Kim Li, who is my mother’s favourite niece. But the one who has been hurting the most, and is yet carrying on stoically, is my father.

It is easy when thinking in the abstract, to conclude that being born, growing old, falling sick and eventually dying is what happens to all of us. I accept these facts with no resentment that life is unkind. I have had more than my fair share of bad luck, but I never resented it, for I think suffering built up my resilience.

But I find it difficult to accept my mother’s suffering. The Buddhist principle of feeling compassion but with detachment is wise, but it is not an attitude that I find humanly possible to adopt when it comes to Mama. I cannot see her suffering with detachment.

But there is nothing I can do to get her back to where she was before she suffered a massive stroke on May 12, 2008. She has been suffering since then, and so has my father. But that is life, and we all plod on, fulfilling our duties as best we can. Indeed by focusing my mind on my duties, I manage to temporarily block Mama’s suffering from my consciousness.

The writer is director of the National Neuroscience Institute.