When death is part of life


Recent events have made me think about life and death, especially since I am a caregiver to my parents

The problem with being an atheist is you believe in only one life.

No going to heaven after you die; no rebirth conditioned by your karma; no transmigration of your soul.

Life and death, then, is viewed through very different lens.

It's like going on a holiday knowing you will never return to the same country again. There is that urgency to cramp in the sights, soak up all the adventures and maximise your limited time. Yet, because our lives run on for so much longer than a typical holiday, you forget to enjoy yourself on your journey. Instead, you cuss at the touts who fleeced you, you whine about losing your passport, and you blame your bad luck for getting caught in a typhoon.

Because you believe you have only one shot at life, death, too, takes on a sombre character. At the end of your tenure, all that's left of you is some white powdery substance sitting in an urn, covered in cobwebs residing in a columbarium which could in a few years make way for HDB flats.

That's why it's especially difficult to let go of someone close to you. There's no comfort in knowing that this person has "gone to a better place".

I think about life and death often, possibly because I'm at that juncture in my life where my friends are starting families while those of my parents' generation - uncles, aunts, family friends - are kicking the bucket one by one.

But in the past few weeks, life and death have collided in an uncanny fashion within my small inner circle of friends.

It started with one of them asking me to be the executor of his mother's will. Having turned 78, she is making plans for what to do with her estate when she goes and she wanted someone she and the rest of the family could trust.

I've grown close to this friend's mother over the years, and I was touched that she trusted me, so I said yes.

About a week later, another close friend of ours lost his mother, quite unexpectedly. She was 82, had been hale and hearty until three weeks ago, when she complained of discomfort in her stomach. Doctors at the hospital found a tumour there, an operation was too risky. The tumour acted up so quickly that within days, doctors were telling the family to say their goodbyes.

As my friend texted me from the hospital with the grim news, another close friend was texting me with another piece of bad news. She had just done an ultrasound which suggested she might have had a miscarriage for the third time.

My heart sank. I know she desperately wanted children and has been trying since the day she got married eight years ago; it seemed even more "unfair" when I know how wonderful she would be as a mother.

But just as there was death, there was life too, and as the bad news were sinking in, good news quickly came along.

Two friends who have been trying for a child for years hit the jackpot. One found out unexpectedly that she was pregnant, and despite being in the high-risk age group, is doing well at 17 weeks. The other adopted an adorable girl and has been busy changing diapers and posting pictures on Facebook of her new parenting adventures.

Some people say those born with legs first will have a hard life because they don't want to come into this world. I was a breech baby. I was yanked out of my mother's womb by my legs because my mother refused to have a caesarian section. Thankfully, up until now, I've managed to prove the naysayers wrong. I haven't displayed any signs of brain damage so far either. I think.

But it goes without saying, that whether you come out head, bottom or legs first, you're lucky you've made it into this world.

I don't have kids of my own, but it's not lost on me how precious it is to be able to nurture and care for a child. It constantly amazes me how quickly my three-year-old nephew builds his vocabulary and how he already speaks like an adult sometimes.

I survived the footling breech delivery and now plays caregiver to my mother in her twilight years.

She suffered a massive stroke 16 years ago which left her impaired on the right side of her body. Over the years, she continued to suffer smaller strokes which debilitated her progressively.

She's unable to wash or change herself and can just about feed herself. She also needs help getting around, and in and out of bed.

Every day, I would notice how she's walking a little slower, dragging her feet a little more, her speech a little less decipherable.

Some days, I fight to keep my cool when she insists on doing things her way, chides you for keeping her waiting when she summons you with the bell or gets emotional when you don't keep her in the loop about things.

But every day, I also wonder how much time I have left with her.

For so many years, the family's focus has been on our sick mother, that I didn't realise my father, pushing 75, was getting frail.

I didn't realise until I saw him walking slowly to the kitchen the other day. His back was bent, his hair all white, his face shrivelled. He stopped, put his hand on the kitchen table and shut his eyes. I asked him if he was okay and he said he has been having severe back pain for months.

It was so bad he couldn't sleep and has lost his appetite. But he didn't breathe a word to anybody, because that's just how my stoic dad is.

Children often find themselves wedged between guilt and frustration when it comes to caring for aged parents. Guilt, because as you selfishly pursue a rewarding life for yourself - a good job, great social life, interesting hobbies - your parents are quietly slipping away; and you don't even notice.

Frustration, when that sense of duty gets into a tussle with your sense of self.

I often think about how I would react when one or both of them go. In my younger days, that was the most terrifying thought imaginable. I simply couldn't fathom life without them. I'm a lot more prepared and accepting now, but I know when the time comes, it would still crush me.

It would help if I believed they would be going to a better place when life in this realm ends. But since I don't believe in life after death, I'll have to make sure that whatever time they have left here will be as happy, meaningful and comfortable as it possibly can.


Sumiko Tan is away