TAY CHENG TIAN, 53 / Nov 8, 1963 - Nov 4, 2017

Last mile: Volunteers' last hours with cancer patient Tay Cheng Tian

In this second and final part of our feature on hospice volunteers who keep vigil with dying patients who have few or no family members, Social Affairs Correspondent Janice Tai looks at how they walked the last mile with the late Mr Tay Cheng Tian

Thunder rumbled across the overcast sky as a group of people sat around a table in a funeral parlour in Sin Ming Drive for a wake.

They were the only visitors that Saturday, apart from Mr Tay Cheng Tian's sister and her husband.

The odd-job labourer had died that morning, Nov 4, aged 53.

The entries in the bai jin (funeral contributions) book bore five names: three volunteers, one hospice staff member and a journalist.

His brother-in-law spoke of his transformation in the last months of his life. "He used to be stubborn, quiet and had a temper. But in the two months at the hospice, he became much happier and chattier," he said in Mandarin.

The volunteers shared memories.

No One Dies Alone (Noda) volunteer and coordinator Jaki Fisher showed Mr Tay's sister photos of a recent cable car trip. The last time Mr Tay had been in one, he was in Primary 6 and the cable car stations had just started operating.

She also had pictures of the disco party that volunteers had organised for his birthday in October, where everyone got in a line and danced, including Mr Tay.

Tears came to volunteer Shirley Yap's eyes as she recounted how he had opened his to look at her while she held his hand during the previous day's vigil.

Ms Fisher then reminded the others that a ritual of remembrance could help them find closure. For instance, she had taken a walk with her husband earlier that afternoon in memory of Mr Tay. As he had liked to gamble, she brought along a dice and asked the departed Mr Tay to guide their walk, rolling the dice at every street intersection.

An odd number meant they turned left and an even one, right. The number shown would be the number of streets they would walk.

She thought of him with each step. They started where they lived in Bedok North, walked through Opera Estate and strangely, were led back home.

More volunteers gathered two days later for Mr Tay's cremation in Mandai. On the afternoon of Nov 6, 15 people including volunteers, hospice staff, family members and an old friend filed into a hall for a simple memorial service. His estranged younger brother came too.

Some shed silent tears. Mourners hugged and comforted each other.

Ms Fisher suggested a "closure meeting" in memory of Mr Tay. So they met at a cafe in a park in Yishun and ordered a tower of Singha beer, his favourite beverage.

After a round of yam seng, with half a glass of beer in the middle of the table for Mr Tay, Ms Fisher asked the volunteers to close their eyes and think of the people they had journeyed with in the past month who had since died.

As the sharing went on, the volunteers talked about how it pained them to see Mr Tay restless and struggling in the days before he died.

 
 
 

It was clear that he had endeared himself to the volunteers and left a mark on their lives.

Volunteer Lydia Tan said she was in so much inner turmoil witnessing his suffering that she went home after her vigil on his last Friday to pray, asking God why he had to suffer so much.

She could not sleep that night and awoke with a heavy heart at 8am to write him a note. As she finished writing, the screen on her phone lit up with a message informing the volunteer group that Mr Tay had died.

"I couldn't believe that he was connecting with me in that way," said Ms Tan.

As the sun set that evening, Ms Fisher urged the volunteers to take a break and care for themselves. "This work is important for the world, but we need to take care of ourselves to keep doing it," she said.

"It's a weird thing we are doing - give them all the love and they go. But they also become part of us and that is a measure of their legacy."

In a confluence of lives, 20 dying residents at Assisi Hospice - including Mr Tay - received the love of strangers before they left the world this year, their presence a simple but profound gift.


Bedside Angels

Mr Tay Cheng Tian, 53, who had oesophageal cancer, died in Assisi Hospice on Nov 4. None of his family members was by his side when he breathed his last, but he did not die alone. In the last weeks of his life, a group of strangers had befriended him and committed to spending time with him till the end. 

No One Dies Alone (Noda) is a programme in which volunteers provide companionship to dying patients who have few or no family members or friends. They usually befriend patients weeks before the body begins its final process of breaking down - and take turns to sit by their beds when death draws near. 

Assisi Hospice began the Noda programme for its residents in 2014. The team of 40 volunteers have since kept vigil for for 41 patients. For Mr Tay, 10 volunteers signed up for daytime or overnight shifts when the vigil was started on Nov 2. They held his hands, whispered to him, and played his favourite songs to let him know that someone was there with him. The following are examples of some of their experiences. 

Mr Tay died at 8.30am on Saturday, Nov 4. 

Photojournalist Neo Xiaobin meets some of the Noda volunteers who were with Mr Tay during the last hours of his life.


He taught me to embrace life

Lydia Tan, 63

Retired former executive assistant

Shift: 3pm-7pm, Nov 2

"Seeing Mr Tay struggle during the initial hours when the vigil was activated was very painful for me. Seeing him in a confused state and having difficulty breathing was also a struggle for me. Mr Tay was a fighter and never one to give up... so full of life. He taught me to embrace life. My faith in God and people like Mother Teresa helps me and my family to talk about death and dying. I thank him for allowing me to be part of his journey."


Words of comfort

Karen Sng, 63

Counsellor

Shift: 3pm-7pm, Nov 2

"It was very sad especially when Mr Tay tried to pull off his oxygen tube. It was obvious he was uncomfortable. I took the tube out and guided his hand to his nose to scratch the itch before inserting the tube again. The last of our senses to go is our hearing. So although Mr Tay was unresponsive, we continued to hold his hands and talk to him to assure him that he was loved and not alone, and that we knew he loved his sister and she was on her way to see him."


Missed opportunities

Juliana Chia, 44

Personal assistant

Shift: 7pm-10pm, Nov 2

"It's a pity I didn't get to know Mr Tay well before he fell very sick. I heard from the other Noda volunteers that he treated them like family. I understand that he loved the group unconditionally and never took advantage of them. I've always thought that dying patients are hot-tempered, unreasonable or impatient due to their pain or anxiety. But Mr Tay showed that this need not be the case and dying patients can be approachable."


Lessons on living well

Jeanette Wee, 63

Former kindergarten teacher

Shift: 3pm-6pm, Nov 3

"Mr Tay taught me not to waste time worrying about illness. He kept himself busy reading newspapers, singing and interacting with everyone. He managed to tick off all the items on his 'bucket list'. I pray that he can let go of all his burdens and be at peace. Since joining Noda, I no longer fear dying and accept that death comes to everyone eventually. I believe in living life to the fullest. Do what you can for yourself and others."


Power of music

Daphne Lim, 45

Corporate trainer

Shift: 1am-6am, Nov 3

"My time with Mr Tay during the vigil taught me that music has the power to bring peace. When he got restless, I played some Buddhist chants. Being a Roman Catholic, I did not understand the words but found the tune beautiful. Mr Tay calmed down when he heard the chants, which showed his hearing was still strong and the chants had connected with him. Life is short, from the perspective of eternity. One day we will all have to go, so make this life count."


Spreading inner peace

Angela Sho, 43

Speech therapist

Shift: 6am-9am, Nov 4 (Mr Tay died at 8.30am)

"I often approach the vigils by calming myself. I feel that with my own inner peace and calm, I can bring peace and calm to the dying person, and stay present in that moment. I did visualisation with Mr Tay, asking him to imagine going to a place where he wanted to go and meeting people whom he wanted to meet and saying whatever he wanted to. I spoke to him about the 'here and now' - who is here, what they are doing or going to do."


Small gesture made him smile

Samantha Lim, 37

School teacher

Shift: 3pm-6pm, Nov 3

"Mr Tay came across a newspaper advertisement and saw that milk and bananas were on discount. He said banana milk was nice but he could not find it in supermarkets. I told him I'll bring some for him. The following week, I brought him a packet of banana milk. He wasn't looking happy that day as his neck was aching. But he grinned when I showed him the milk. After a sip, he smiled brightly. I was happy that a simple gesture could bring a smile to him."


The importance of presence

Jaki Fisher, 39

English teacher who runs the Noda programme at Assisi

Shift: 10pm-1am, Nov 2-3

"I was in a Buddhist chaplaincy programme in the US in 2014 and my classmate told me about the Noda programme. I thought it was amazing, and came back and pestered Assisi to start one. Presence is important and the concept of being with someone touched me. People don't want to be alone. There are times in my life when I felt lonely and I don't want others to feel like that, especially when they are dying."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2017, with the headline 'Last mile'. Print Edition | Subscribe