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Mrs Ong’s Inspiring Journey as a Stalwart Sun for a Fading Father
05 January 2016

What is this life if, full of advanced care, We have no time to stand and stare, and stop to smell the flour….

By Andrew Ng

The bell rings and summons the early morning sun to the entrance. A woman opens the door, welcoming us with a smile on her face, radiating warmth and light and life. She might as well have opened a portal to another world, I think to myself as I walk along the corridor that leads to the living room. Sunlight gently caresses the flowering tendrils that twirl around and cling to a row of ornately decorated grilles on my left, and on my right, an abundantly spacious and pristine-looking living room facing the verdant park that sits snugly on top of a grassy hill just beyond the row of grilles. Our host makes her way to the kitchen to pour us two drinks and my eyes flit to a pin-up board that hangs on a wall. I catch a glimpse of pictures of Mrs Ong, her family and her father, for whom she was the sole caregiver. At that moment, I realise why the living room area appears so empty; her father’s bed is not where it used to be.

I listened intently as Mrs Ong told us about how “untrained, unready and unwilling” the maid was and how she gave her only a bare minimum workload while she herself took on the main duties of taking care of the baby: washing, feeding him milk and medication and changing his dressing. She’s talking about her dad, her father’s the ‘baby’.

For over a decade, Mrs Ong has been her father’s main caregiver. When he was diagnosed with lung cancer, she was the one who broke the news to him about his condition. At first, she had travelled all the way to Johor to bring over his pastor, thinking that the bad news would be softened coming from a man of God whom he had known for many years. He refused to talk to the pastor.

“After the first time I told him, I had to keep telling him and reminding him of his condition. After the stroke, he always had a problem with his memory. The next day, he would ask “So…I have stomach cancer?” or “I have liver cancer, right?” and I would break the news to him…all over again. That first night, I found him crying in his bed but there was little I could do to comfort him then and there.”

In the years that followed, Mrs Ong went above and beyond what would have been expected of a daughter in this situation, considering she had two older brothers and a fit and spry mother who, for various reasons, couldn’t help to take care of her father.

The morning sun rises…

Firstly, she centered her life on her father.

“He’s number one in this household. The children are second, my husband, then…” “You?” “No, the maid…I’m the last one I think about and take into consideration when I make decisions.”

She went on to talk about the decision to move here to her flat in Marsiling so that she could be nearer to Johor. Her father was Malaysian and in the early days, there were periods of time when his condition still allowed him to remain at home in Johor.

“If there were emergencies and I needed to speed across the causeway, it would be so much quicker for me. I’m his personal 24-hour ambulance driver, all the way from his house in Malaysia to A & E in Singapore.”

Her meandering quest for the perfect home for her father only ended when she finally found a living room with enough space for a hospital bed and enough sunlight and air and a view of the park for her father who loved flowers and Nature.

“This is Marsiling branch hospice, you know?” she joked, downplaying what she had done for her father.

The midday sun shines on…

Secondly, she tried to maintain a sense of normalcy for her father.

“When he was still able to walk, we would go for walks at the park. Being mobile is a blessing and I wanted him to walk as much as he could when he could still walk; even if it was slow-going, I would be with him, every step of the way. When he became wheelchair bound, I would still bring him out to buy groceries when I knew I was going to be out for a longer period of time. It was good for him to get out of the house and I was also worried about leaving him at home alone with the maid (who wouldn’t know how to react in times of an emergency) if I was out for more than an hour.”

Mrs Ong, being the skillful and accomplished cook and baker that she is, designed special menus for her father when he was still able to take in solid food. Taking into consideration his personal preferences and his nutritional requirements, she made meals that made his eyes light up and a smile spread across his face.

“Of course, there were times when the food wasn’t to his liking and the disappointed look on his face was plain for all to see and he took just a few mouthfuls instead of his usual amount.”

The late afternoon sun, comforting heat…

Thirdly, she minimized his suffering.

“One of the first things I always considered was his level of comfort. Changing the dressing was part of our daily routine and I decided to let him wear singlets so that it was cool and easy to remove (because I had cut open one side of each singlet). I knew when morphine syrup should be given so that he experienced the least pain possible when I was changing his dressing. I tried to observe every change in his facial expression as I cleaned his wounds so that I could take note of his current level of pain and discomfort and adjust my actions accordingly.”

It has never been all smooth-sailing and a bed of roses. She recalls the first time she changed her father’s diaper and how flustered and clumsy they all were; with the maid repeating in an increasingly high-pitched voice like a broken recorder, “How, mum? How?”, and Mrs Ong, on the verge of tears, scrambling for whatever newspapers and pieces of cloth she could find around the house.

As the days went by, she figured out little tricks and strategies to make things easier for everyone involved.

“It’s a learning process. I’m still learning on a day-to-day basis.”

Over the past ten years of caring for her father who has accumulated an assortment of ailments, she has accumulated quite an impressive store of medical knowledge.

“I remember there was once when my father was admitted to A & E with a terrible pain in his upper thigh area. The doctor insisted it was a bone fracture but I knew that it couldn’t be because I’ve always treated him with care and gentleness, cherishing him like a baby. And when the specialist came and had a look, he confirmed my suspicions that it wasn’t a bone fracture but rather another symptom of the cancer.”

The sun sets on another good day…

Lastly, she tried her very best to give him the priceless gift of “another good day”.

“Every day is a gift, it should never be taken for granted because life is so fragile and uncertain.”

The sudden passing of her daughter’s classmate and her husband’s young friend only served to remind her of what she already knew to be true.

“I told my son and daughter to give me one day, just one day from their hectic schedule and I gathered the family and we brought dad to Gardens by The Bay because he’s always loved flowers, particularly the hibiscus. We had a wonderful day out, all of us together, just enjoying the scenery and each other’s company. Another good day. At the end of the day, isn’t that the greatest gift of all?”

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Mrs Ong’s father is still alive at the time when this article is being written.

“His last wish is to return home. I have to fulfill that wish even though I’m uncertain as to whether this decision would ultimately benefit him or make this last leg of his journey even harder and more difficult. When my mother and aunt asked casually (they came to Singapore to visit him) whether he wanted to return home, my father took it very seriously. The moment my dad’s condition deteriorated, I had a discussion with my family and we were all ready and more than willing to be with my dad during what could be his final days. However, one week after my mother’s visit, he was still asking “When am I going home?” I had no choice but to give in to his final request.”

A sullen cloud of worry and longing drifts across her face, obscuring that warm, gentle smile for but a brief moment. Since her father was brought back home to Johor, she has been making weekly spot-checks, to make sure the private nurse the family hired is fulfilling her professional duties and that her father is well taken care of.

Caregiver, daughter, wife, mother, volunteer, “hospice” manager, “ambulance” driver, “nurse”, home maker: How can a lady who wears as many hats as she does ever find time to don a baker’s hat? And yet bake she does, the warmth of her personality kneaded into the folds of the dough, amplified by the heat in the oven, radiates from the bright, vibrant colours of her finished works of culinary art. She bakes for relatives, friends, neighbours, nurses and doctors; all the people in her life who have touched her or helped her in one way or another and this is her way of returning the love with a marzipan dove and the many favours with many flavours.

A nurse’s daughter, her daughter’s classmate, the doctors and nurses at HCA Hospice Care like Nicole and Doctor Chong are but a few of the recipients of her baked goodies. On that day, she had prepared a whole basket of lovely cake pops and a gorgeous rainbow cake for my colleague to bring back to HCA HQ. She said, “Each grain of chocolate rice represents a patient; past, present and future. Thanks for that little extra bit of colour and sweetness that you brought into their lives.” A talented baker and a budding poet.

We salute all caregivers for the strength and courage as they persevere through the journey with their loved ones. You may wish to drop a word of encouragement to Mrs Ong, caregiver of late Mr Kang at communications@hcahospicecare.org.sg. We conduct a 5-hour palliative caregivers training weekly to support and equip our caregivers as they care for their loved ones, visit https://www.hca.org.sg/hospice/services/palliative-caregivers-programme to find out more!