Mourning my mother

Source: The Sunday Times, Oct 31, 2010

When it comes to our mother-daughter bond, emotion triumphs over logic
By Lee Wei Ling

My mother Kwa Geok Choo was born on Dec 21, 1920. She came from a family with genes for longevity. Her father died at 89 years old and her mother at 87. Her eldest sister is still alive at 95.

My mother, or Mama as I called her, was always health-conscious. She was strict with her diet, eating mainly fish, tofu, vegetables, fruits and unpolished rice. Her cholesterol level was low and her blood pressure was normal. She exercised almost daily, swimming and sometimes taking walks.

Sept 16, 2003 was my father Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s 80th birthday. It was a joyous occasion, with no storm clouds in sight. But five weeks later, while accompanying my father to London, Mama had a stroke on Oct 25. It was caused by bleeding into the brain because her blood vessels had become fragile with age.

Fortunately, the bleed occurred on the right side of her brain so her speech was unaffected. But she could not see what was in her left visual field. She was flown back to Singapore on Oct 31.

As it so happened, my father had already planned to have a prostate operation in November. So they were both admitted to Singapore General Hospital in adjacent rooms, with a sliding door between them so they could keep each other company.

The day after she was admitted, the late Dr Balaji Sadasivan, then still practising medicine, dropped by to discuss her case with my father. Papa asked Dr Balaji: ‘Will she be able to attend social functions as well as travel with me? If she cannot, her life would be miserable.’

The discussion was supposed to have been between Dr Balaji and Papa. But a group of doctors who had just seen my father were nearby and listened to the discussion intently. They got a lesson on marital life that I hoped they would always remember.

My father was then 80 years old and my mother 82. Their hair was all white and they looked very different from the handsome couple they once were. But they continued to love each other, through sickness and in health, richer or poorer, for better or worse, so long as they both lived.

Mama’s rehabilitation programme was intensive, and there were times when she felt tired and disheartened. But the therapists soon found a way to get her to try harder. When they told her that my father was coming to see her do her exercises, she would immediately put in more effort.

Both my parents were discharged from hospital on Nov 26. Mama’s only residual disability was the tendency to neglect the left side of her body. So Papa would sit on her left side at the dining table so as to be able to prompt her to eat the food on the left side of her plate.

Though she recovered well from her 2003 stroke, her doctors and I knew that the blood vessels in her brain were fragile and there was a high chance of another bleed. We decided not to tell my parents about this as it would only cause them worry and there was nothing we could do to prevent another bleed. We felt they should enjoy life rather than worry about something none of us could control.

They continued to travel. Prior to her stroke, she would pack his things for him. Now, he tried to pack his things himself. But he would find it difficult to close his luggage bag after he had done packing. In the end, his security officers helped him pack.

Prior to the stroke, she would never leave the hotel until he had left for his appointments. She did this in case he needed a particular tie or shirt. In fact, she had always set out what was appropriate for him to wear.

After the stroke, she was unable to do this. Still, he wanted her to travel with him. This was because after a hard day’s work he could talk to her about his day. The bond between them was as close as ever.

Mama was a voracious reader before the stroke. Now, her left visual field defect made reading difficult. But she persisted, using rulers to help her keep her place on the page.

Papa was convinced that exercise would be good for her. But after the stroke, she seemed sensitive to cold. So we had several wetsuits tailor-made for her in bright, cheerful colours. When they travelled, Papa would always choose hotels with swimming pools.

On one occasion, she wanted to rest rather than swim. ‘Today is a public holiday in Singapore,’ she said to him. ‘Can’t I take a rest from swimming?’ But he persuaded her to go for her swim.

As they both aged, their fitness and agility deteriorated, and aches and pains became part of their daily life. But they both put up with the difficulties stoically, grateful to have each other’s company.

On May 12, 2008, I was on medical leave and napping in my room at home. A security officer came to call me because Mama had fallen from her chair as she was having breakfast. I took one look at her and realised that the left side of her body was paralysed.

Without waiting for an ambulance, we drove her to the National Neuroscience Institute at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. I was hoping the stroke was due to an occlusion of a blood vessel, in which case a clot buster could be used and she could recover. Unfortunately, the CT scan showed a bleed into her right brain.

I called Papa and my brothers to come to the hospital. I knew there was no chance of a good outcome, but I wanted my family to hear it from the doctors.

From then till her death earlier this month, I watched my mother suffer. By last year, she did not seem aware of the people around her. She responded almost exclusively to my father’s voice and would keep awake for him to come talk to her late at night.

After seeing her suffer despite the best nursing care we could give her, my logical mind told me that death would be kinder than the life she was living. So I was confident I could control my emotions when she actually passed away.

But when it came to my turn to speak at her funeral, my voice broke and at one point I had to cover my face as it was twisted with anguish.

I was ashamed of myself. Emotion had supplanted logic as I remembered Mama.

Over the last week, two natural disasters occurred in Indonesia, killing thousands and making many more homeless. I read about the disasters in the newspaper and thought to myself that these people suffered more than I did.

But still, my mother, who had enjoyed 87 years of happy life, remained the dominant thought in my mind.

I am totally illogical and much too emotional. I had thought I could face any misfortune or tragedy, but I was wrong. The mother- daughter bond is too strong and it goes beyond logic.