My mother - a nurturer of life

A mother’s love lives on in the hearts of her children, even after she is long gone.

MY mother was a simple woman. She grew up in the backwaters of Balik Pulau in Penang. She was a teenager when the Japanese occupied Malaya during World War II. Life was hard then. She had to stop schooling. Food was scarce and rationed. Tapioca became the staple together with whatever that could be cultivated.

She took on various jobs after the war, first as a domestic helper and then a cook, among others. The difficult times during the Japanese Occupation taught her to be frugal, but not to the extent of being miserly. She worked hard and eventually saved enough to put herself through a tailoring course.

She had me in her early-forties. The saying that “a mother’s work is never done” couldn’t be more true for my mother. She not only diligently brought me up to young adulthood but devoted the remaining 19 years of her life to caring for me after I became paralysed in a swimming pool accident when I was 18.

With Mother’s Day just round the corner, my thoughts go to my mother and all the mothers who are looking after their disabled children. The job of being a carer is a life-long commitment for them. Many mothers had to give up their careers to do it full-time. It is undoubtedly an arduous challenge only mothers can live up to.

My mother spent three months at the hospital with me. It was there that I sustained two chronic wounds: a bedsore on the tailbone and an infected scrotum that required an incision to drain away the pus. After I was discharged from the hospital, my mother continued to clean and dress the wounds until they were fully healed.

Spinal cord injury robbed me of more than the ability to walk and use my hands. I also lost the sense of touch and temperature below my chest, and voluntary bodily functions like urination and defecation. I lost the ability to look after myself. My mother stepped in to become my hands and legs, and more.

She fed me. She cleaned me up after I moved my bowels. She emptied my urine bag. She turned me every four hours to prevent another bedsore from developing. There was always something that she had to do throughout the day. She lost her independence in that way as she had to be around me all the time.

One day, she wanted to visit a relative and asked my father to look after me for a few hours. While he was very supportive of my rehabilitation, he was not hands-on when it comes to care-giving. They had an argument over that. I heard my mother crying for a long time in her room afterwards.

She had not gone out even once since we came back from the hospital. Looking after me was not only tedious but stressful as well. There were very few people that she could talk to about her fears regarding my condition.

There was no rest day for her. The exhaustion of having to be there for me day and night was immeasurable. It was slowly but surely wearing her out. She was not young any more. At 60, many other women were already retired and leading a leisurely life. But not my mother.

All she wanted then was just a respite from taking care of me. My father, on the other hand, feared that he would not know what to do if something unexpected needed to be done. Months of pent-up frustrations between them due to the anxiety and uncertainty of whether I would recover fully finally culminated in the argument. It was a long time before my father was confident enough to be left alone in the house to look after me.

Apart from going for follow-up treatments at the hospital, my parents also consulted Chinese physicians and even mediums in the hope of finding a cure for me. They often came back with packets of herbs wrapped in pink paper.

My mother would then labour over a charcoal stove with the barks, roots and other whatnots simmering in a claypot to concoct thick awful-tasting brews for me to imbibe. These were supposed to make me better. Truth be told, the herbal brew did nothing more than to increase my tolerance for them.

I drank them anyway. It would be blatantly ungrateful of me to refuse, especially when my mother had put in so much effort and time in preparing the soups. She had to constantly ensure that the fire was just the right temperature and the soup did not dry out.

My mother suffered a pinched nerve when she was in her late sixties. It caused pain and weakness to her right leg. After massages and traditional treatments failed, she reluctantly went under the doctor’s scalpel. The pain went away after the surgery but she never recovered the full use of that leg and walked with a limp since. Still, that did not stop her from tending to me right after she recovered.

The diagnosis of Stage 4 leukaemia a few years later also did not slow her down. She busied herself with sewing and gardening. She had green fingers. Everything that she planted flourished. She enjoyed being busy. I had became more independent by then but she continued to help me with tasks that I could not manage by myself.

She became bedridden when her leukaemia took a turn for the worst. Wuan, my girlfriend then, would frequently travel from Kuala Lumpur to Penang to help me look after her. She would sponge her down, feed her, change her diapers and, at the same time, help me with housework.

We were asleep early one morning when we heard my mother calling out to us. She was shivering uncontrollably when we got to her room. Her lips had turned a dark shade of purple. Wuan did her best in keeping my mother warm and comfortable throughout. That harrowing episode lasted half an hour but it felt like forever. I thought my mother would die there and then. I was glad that Wuan was around. I would not have known what to do had I been alone with my mother when that happened.

The sight of her suffering like that was very hard for me to bear. The woman who had looked after me my entire life was now lying helpless and there was not a thing I could do to make her well again. I quickly thought up a ruse to cheer her up and roped Wuan in on it. I wanted to give her something positive to look forward to.

I told her that Wuan and I were planning to get married and asked for her blessings. It was a lie, of course, but that was the only thing I could think of to lift her spirit. Her tired eyes brightened upon hearing that. She was fond of Wuan but had not expected us to tie the knot so soon. Seeing the change in her demeanour was like seeing the sun peering out from behind dark clouds after a long spell of stormy weather. That smile on her face was priceless.

She was immensely happy the whole week that Wuan was around. The fact that Wuan had taken good care of her also gave her the assurance that I would be in capable hands should anything happen to her. The day Wuan had to go back to Kuala Lumpur, my mother covered her face and wept silently. I did not ask her why. Perhaps she had a premonition.

When she lapsed into a coma, I would place the phone over her ear each time Wuan called. Wuan assured her that she would take good care of me. Wuan urged her not to worry about me any more, and that she should find her own peace. My mother passed away in my arms a few days later without regaining consciousness.

All those years of my mother looking after me selflessly had put me on a firmer footing to continue with my life. If it was not for her never giving up on me, I would not have survived the ordeal after the accident.

I realised that I could never reciprocate the devotion that my mother had showered on me even if I had wanted to. How does one pay back the blood, sweat and tears of a mother’s love? The only thing I can do is to live life fruitfully in her honour. She would have wanted that.

In my work with disabled people now, I am privileged to witness mothers all over the world doing the same for their disabled children, like what my mother did for me. These mothers single-heartedly dedicate their lives to ensure their children’s well-being, sacrificing much and asking for nothing in return.

We are fortunate to have mothers like them. Indeed, they are our pillars of strength. They continue to be even after they are long gone. Their determination in supporting us unconditionally makes our lives as disabled persons so much more meaningful.

To all mothers who are carers of their disabled son or daughter, I salute you. You are God’s greatest gift to us.

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