Finding closure

He went to Sentosa, ate durians and had an early birthday celebration. Mr Tay Cheng Tian, who was dying of terminal cancer, lived the last days of his life to the fullest.
Mr Tay Cheng Tian in his four-room flat in Choa Chu Kang during a visit home in October. On the windows hang artwork done by his niece.
Mr Tay Cheng Tian in his four-room flat in Choa Chu Kang during a visit home in October. On the windows hang artwork done by his niece.ST PHOTO: NEO XIAOBIN

Now that Mr Tay Cheng Tian had had his last wishes like having a durian party, what else did he want?

"How about a bottle of poison?" he asked, grinning.

"Really?" this reporter replied.

"I don't know," was the soft comeback.

By then, Mr Tay had told the medical team that he had decided on a Do-Not-Resuscitate order. That meant that if his heart stopped or if he stopped breathing, the doctors would let him have a natural death.

"Chang tong bu ru duan tong," he said, citing the Chinese saying on how it is better to quickly get the pain over with.

Mr Tay had always insisted he was not afraid of death, but it was clear he continued to cling on to life and hope for a miracle. Fear and anger overcame him when he saw signs of his deterioration and impending mortality. Two weeks before his death, huge blisters appeared on his feet. He kept looking at his swollen hands and feet, muttering: "Gek sim (Hokkien for a hurting heart)."

 
 
 

Desperate, he at times urged volunteers to take him to a traditional Chinese medicine physician, hoping for a cure. After seeing an advertisement on a nutritious brand of milk in the papers, he asked his sister to get a tin. But at the back of his mind, he knew the inevitable would come.

When asked if he missed his parents, he said: "I should miss myself, it's my turn now to die. My mother died at 80, my father when he was 77. I am only in my 50s, I should have a good 10 more years."

There were still many things he wanted to do, he said, like visiting China or Thailand, and seeing snow.

If he could live his life differently, he would have chosen to do more charity work for the elderly.

And why did he allow journalists to follow him around? "It's like an advertisement for myself and the volunteers," he said jokingly.

"I often read in the papers about people dying alone in their flats and they are discovered only when their bodies rot. There is no dignity. I hope there will be more volunteers reaching out to these people just like there are volunteers who spend time with me here," he said.

In his last days, Mr Tay did not pray much. He also did not have much contact with his relatives and had no desire to reconcile with his brother. There was only one thing he did not want to leave unsaid.

"Mum, I do love you," said Mr Tay in Mandarin.

"This is the first time I am saying it out loud. She always tells me if I don't talk to her, there will come a day when I won't have the chance to do so. Yet even at her funeral, no family member said anything and I didn't have the courage to speak up," he said, his voice soft but firm.

"When I am dying, it is good to have more volunteers by my bedside. They play getai songs, also can," he added.

He has already made a will to give his savings to his sister. She secured a niche for him at Nirvana Memorial Garden, where his parents' and uncle's urns are also housed.

Towards the end of October, a staff nurse wheeled him downstairs for fresh air. When he returned, the bed next to his was empty.

"Has he died?" Mr Tay asked medical social worker Samantha Soh.

"Yes," she said. "Are you scared?"

"No, like that lor," he replied, looking helplessly at his swollen limbs.

The next day, he asked Ms Soh if they could buy four-leaf clover pendants sold near a temple to give to people at the hospice.

But he was in no condition to go out by then.

The next morning, two days before his death, he became agitated, crying out in Mandarin: "Da kai, da kai, wo yao xian zai zou (Open up, open up, I want to go now)."

This could be symbolic language, commonly used by the dying, to signal knowledge of imminent death, said Ms Jaki Fisher, who runs the No One Dies Alone programme at Assisi Hospice.

TOMORROW

•A FINAL VIGIL AND GOODBYE

•PORTRAITS OF THE VOLUNTEERS

•COMMENTARY BY JANICE TAI

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Finding closure'. Print Edition | Subscribe