SINGAPORE - In a span of five months, Luo Tianze lost both his parents to cancer.
Their deaths, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, came at the end of a seven-year ordeal for the 31-year-old and his family.
They will not be there to witness their son's graduation from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and fulfil his long-standing dream of becoming a professional musician.
"The grief that comes from a loss like this is hard to describe. My parents were always around to greet me when I returned home after a long day of classes or a performance. They started this journey with me but I am finishing it on my own," said Mr Luo.
In 2013, his mother, Madam Chia Kui Lian, a former sales promoter, was diagnosed with a rare condition called Neuromyelitis Optica (NMO), a central nervous system disorder that primarily affects the eye nerves and spinal cord.
What began as numbness in her limbs deteriorated to irreversible nerve damage that rendered her wheelchair-bound in later years.
In 2016, she was diagnosed with second-stage lymphoma, a cancer that attacks infection-fighting white blood cells.
The family suffered another blow when Mr Luo's father, Mr Low Boo Kwan, a retired lab officer, found out he had fourth-stage pancreatic cancer in January this year.
As hospital visits became more frequent and the household faced financial strain through the years, it was Mr Luo's passion for music that gave him the strength to cope and the purpose to push ahead.
Music has been an integral part of Mr Luo's life since he joined the concert band at Riverside Secondary School and began playing the saxophone. But the same passion did not extend to his academic subjects.
"Out of the three children, I was the one who was playful and did not pay attention to my grades. Like any traditional Asian family, my parents wanted to see me succeed," he said.
His younger sister, aged 30, is a civil servant while his elder brother, 34, is a computer programmer.
While helping a friend coach students for the Singapore Youth Festival in 2012, Mr Luo discovered he liked teaching music and performing. In 2016, following national service and a work stint, he enrolled in Nafa for a diploma in music.
But he soon found himself skipping classes to care for his mum as she got sicker, and then sneaking back to school at night to practise.
"I would stay with her till about 9pm and then come back to school to rehearse alone. My music healed me and kept me distracted from pondering over the next day. It was cathartic," he said.
When the guilt of being truant got to him, he opened up to some lecturers, and was "surprised and humbled" by how understanding and helpful they were.
"Nafa has been my safe space. When I practise and I teach, I feel happy because these are the things that I love. I am not an expressive person by nature, so music helped me to find closure with the circumstances at home, balance my emotions and find peace," he said.
Going into the last year of his diploma, Mr Luo found himself at a crossroads, torn between continuing towards a degree and going back to work to ease the family's financial burden. By that time, his father had suffered a stroke.
"I felt selfish for wanting to join the degree programme," he said.
His siblings, however, were supportive.
"While we had financial struggles, we realised the ultimate goal was for him to have a degree which would serve him well in the long run," said his brother, Dezhang. "While I was initially sceptical about his opportunities as an artist in Singapore, it is comforting to see his career path is progressing. Where he could not contribute financially, he tried to give his time and care to our parents."
Mr Luo's hard work paid off, winning him admission into the Royal College of Music (RCM)-Nafa degree programme as well as the San San Music Merit Award and Higher Education Bursary, which he said covered half of the year's tuition fees.
But his joy was cut short by his father's sudden cancer diagnosis in January.
"I remember watching him sitting in his hospital bed during Chinese New Year and I knew he was scared; he was terrified about the future. I knew I had to stay mature, and keep pushing because becoming overly emotional was not going to solve anything," said Mr Luo.
With both his siblings working full-time, much of the caregiving responsibilities fell on him.
He cancelled his teaching sessions and restricted himself from leaving the house as much as possible to prevent a risk of Covid-19 infection to his parents. He went out only for groceries or medicine.
Madam Chia's condition took a turn for the worse and she fell into a coma. As it was during the circuit breaker, the family was only able to visit her two at a time and say their final goodbyes on May 11. She was 64.
Barely a month after her death, Mr Luo clinched the RCM Musical Excellence Award, awarded annually to an exceptional student in the programme based on academic performance, and financial needs.
"I was numb. I remember feeling surprise that I had received the award, and sharing the news with my siblings. But when I saw my mother's empty bed every morning, I knew that the award did not make up for her absence," he said.
The siblings' father, who was 68, died a few months later on Sept 3, with the three by his bedside.
Despite his grief, there was relief that his parents no longer had to suffer. To honour their last wishes, the siblings cremated their parents and spread their ashes in the sea.
Mr Luo said he missed his parents' constant presence in the house, but is holding fast to his dream of teaching and helping others discover music as he did in school.
"I learnt compassion and above all, patience, during this period. I know I will be able to apply this as an instructor in a classroom," he said. "In the past, when I played music, a sad song was simply sad or a happy song was just happy. But now, I understand the nuances. I can relate to the composer's melodies or the change in notes. The loss of a loved one helps me relate to the songs beyond a generic negative or positive feeling, and it brought maturity to my music."
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