SINGAPORE - “I, take you to be my wife, to have and to hold, from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” Fifty-three years ago, a young Mr Poh Kuat, now 78, made this promise to Madam Kang Ngo Hwee, now 79.
Married in 1964, the couple’s life was not exactly smooth sailing. Despite all the hardship, Mr Poh and Madam Kang, who have three children together, led happy lives.
Little did they know that fate will eventually put their vows to the test.
It began when Madam Kang confused sugar with salt, which they dismissed as part of aging. One day, she went missing. Fortunately, Mr Poh managed to find her and brought her to see a doctor. It was only then that they discovered she has dementia.
Madam Kang was diagnosed with dementia in 2003. The news crushed their world. Madam Kang was devastated.
She used to be likened to super hero Wonder Woman by all at home - she was super mum and outstanding hawker chef. But now, even the most trivial of tasks seemed impossible without help from others.
She felt hopeless and helpless. Angry at herself, Madam Kang did the unthinkable - she resorted to self-mutilation.
Hurting herself with needles not only failed to relieve her psychological pain, it also broke Mr Poh’s heart. She was his wife, his pillar of support for over five decades and yet, there was absolutely nothing he could do to help her.
As the exact causes of dementia are unclear, it remains incurable till today. For the past 14 years, the couple have done everything they could to relieve the symptoms or delay the onset through treatment.
But today, Madam Kang no longer recognises the man she loves, at least not until Mr Poh speaks, for she remembers only his voice.
“When she first started losing her mobility, sometimes after I have changed her diapers, we would hug and cry in each other’s arms,” recalls Mr Poh. “It is a terrible yet unspeakable feeling.”
As the days went by, not only did Madam Kang lose her ability to speak, she could no longer recognise the love of her life.
Just when life seemed to have reached rock bottom for Mr Poh, he was diagnosed with stage 2 lung cancer. Instead of worrying for his health, what mattered more to him was his wife’s well-being.
As Mr Poh had to begin his daily chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatments, he could no longer take care of his wife round the clock. Left with no other choice, he admitted Madam Kang into a nursing home.
“Why not seek help from your children?” asks host Ken Low. “It is easy to leave her with our children, but what would happen to their lives? They have their own financial burdens because they have kids to raise as well. So I will take care of her until I am unable to do so. Taking care of your wife is the responsibility of every husband,” Mr Poh replies calmly.
To make sure that his wife would receive the best care, Mr Poh dragged his sick body to visit and monitor how several nursing homes operated. Some did not provide ample care to the patients and left him worried.
Even though Mr Poh approves of the standard of care provided by the current nursing home Madam Kang resides in, he still takes care of her meticulously every day. When asked for a reason, Mr Poh answers: “It is not that I don’t trust the nurses, but she has some habits only I know of. Sometimes, I just look at her and I know what she wants, without having her to voice out her requests.”
“It has been so long, I don’t remember if she proposed to me or I proposed to her!” Mr Poh exclaims cheekily.
His love for his wife has not faltered despite her memory loss. He visits Madam Kang more than five times a day at the nursing home, occasionally holding a special bouquet in his hands.
Mr Poh explains: “The ‘Hwee’ in her name means flower in Chinese, so she loves flowers a lot. She is starting to not recognise me but I still tease her with flowers. Flowers make her smile and seeing her smile makes me smile.”
Although they have been married for over five decades, Mr Poh still blushed like a young boy meeting his lover for the first time when he presented the flowers to his wife.
Applying moisturiser for his wife has also become part of Mr Poh’s daily routine after she lost the ability to take care of herself. Despite the fact that Madam Kang’s personal hygiene has already been well taken care of by the nurses, Mr Poh will still painstakingly remove her dentures and brush her teeth again. “I wear dentures myself too, so I know how difficult it is to clean them properly. If not, later on, there may be cavities in her teeth.”
“Aren’t you sad when your wife does not respond to you or treat you coldly?” asks host Ken Low.
“There are times I fight back my tears because I don’t want to cry. Crying upsets her; I cannot bear to see her cry,” Mr Poh says.
“Ultimately, she is my wife. From the day she gave me her hand in marriage, I promised to take care of her forever. This is my responsibility and this is what marriage is all about. You are supposed to take care of each other till the end. Even if she does not recognise my voice in future, I will still take care of her forever.”
“Even though I know it is impossible, my dream is for her to recover,” says Mr Poh. “I know her illness is incurable. I feel so terrible about it.”
Mr Poh also wishes to take a trip down memory lane with Madam Kang and revisit places special to them. He hopes that by doing so, it can help bring back some memories to his wife.
As Madam Kang is wheelchair-bound, the places they visit need to be wheelchair-friendly. A special vehicle is also required to transport Madam Kang’s wheelchair around. Details of the trip need to be planned thoroughly, so that significant parts of the journey can be highlighted to Madam Kang to help jog her memory.
Although the team and Mr Poh know that reviving memories will not lead to a cure for dementia patients, they are still willing to embark on this mission as long as there is a possibility it will lead to some improvement in Madam Kang's condition, no matter how remote.
Three years ago, Mr Poh wanted to surprise Madam Kang by taking her somewhere special to commemorate their 50-year union. He eventually dismissed the idea of celebrating their golden wedding anniversary due to financial constraints.
Never could Mr Poh guess the surprise that was in store for him and his wife - a wedding photoshoot.
Through the makeover, an excited Madam Kang kept biting her lips. “She feels very touched. But she is unable to express herself in words,” Mr Poh explains, with tears in his eyes.
Throughout the photoshoot, Madam Kang was beaming. Although one cannot say for certain whether she remembers her wedding 53 years ago, but one can definitely see the happiness in her eyes.
“A photograph... captures beautiful moments and freezes them eternally.” Unfortunately, Madam Kang will forget everything one day. Hopefully, these photographs can help her relive fond memories and provide Mr Poh with the strength to continue in life's journey.
Watch the video to witness their undying love.
For more stories on “Live Your Dream”, please visit: www.zaobao.com/zvideos/live-your-dream
About "Live Your Dream"
"Live Your Dream"（完成一个梦） is one of 10 SPH-produced short-form digital video series as part of a pilot Public Service Broadcast initiative. In this 13-episode series, host Ken Low Yong Kian (Digital Content Producer, Chinese Media Group Digital) will try his best to fulfil people's dreams no matter how challenging it may be. All episodes come with English subtitles.
This series is also available on zaobao.sg website, as well as the mobile app.