Pumpkin Mei-Mei looked into the starry night and when she found the biggest, brightest of the stars, she closed her teary eyes and whispered into the night, “Ah Ma, I really miss you, thanks for taking care of me and Koko. You are gone now but I know you will always be up there watching over us and God will take good care of you from now on.” With that, we all echoed, “Good bye, Ah Ma!” into the stars as a form of closure for all of us. Slowly, Daddy Joe drove out of the parking next to the playground we have driven to earlier for stargazing.
The rest of that night sometime in October 2008 was as silent as the grave as we rode in the car heading home, each lost in his or her own long trail of thoughts of what had been the worst 3 months we had experienced for which the word loss existed. For weeks, I couldn’t look into Daddy Joe’s eyes without feeling the sorrow that was present all over his entire presence as he lost his dear mother to the cruelty of the big C.
My late mother-in-law or Ah Ma, as Cheeky Koko and Pumpkin Mei-Mei used to call her affectionately as grandma in Hokkien, lost her battle to colorectal cancer at the age of 69, all within a short three months from diagnosis to her last breath in 2008.
It has been five years now whereby by God’s grace, we have moved on in life with a remarkable addition and the joy of the family Baby B, who would never get to know her as the doting grandma that she was, and we have also moved on in bringing closure to that chapter by moving to a newer, though smaller place across town that we now happily call home. I guess a big part of us wanted the fresh new start after dealing with the losses we felt at that point of our lives and moving on signified a promise fulfilled to my late mother-in-law who knew that we would soldier on our lives victoriously, for God, for her and for ourselves.
Just like her own children, my mother-in-law was a woman who hardly talked about anything – not what she had just bought at the wet market, not the conversations she had with her siblings during her trip back to her hometown in Kota Bharu, nor anything about those worrying signs of ill health she was experiencing even though she was staying with us.
When several distressing signs started to show up outwardly, such as when she started getting very angry and agitated easily or becoming more and more forgetful, we thought it was all part of a natural aging process. After all, this drastic outward deterioration didn’t take place very rampantly and wasn’t obvious to anyone, not even us. She was still a doting grandmother to the kids and she still cooked together with me on the weekend and somewhere in our messy kitchen, we shared many warm exchanges of our favourite family recipes and caring words with one another.
After one too many times of helping her to recover her misplaced wallet in the fridge and in her own cupboard, we decided that we would take her to see a doctor to diagnose for suspected dementia and to check if her high blood pressure were the culprits of her change in her personality. Before we could do that, one afternoon when I was away for my part-time work, our helper called me from home to inform that mother-in-law who had been having three days of fever had tripped in our living hall and could not get herself up from the floor. Daddy Joe and I rushed home from work and sent her to the hospital when we were told that her X-Ray test was showing what seemed to be cancerous cells in her bones. A few more lab tests and diagnosis later we were informed that she was having a 4th stage colorectal cancer that had spread into her bones and brain, which explained the sudden change in her mood and personality.
It was during this critical time that our helper went back to her home country in Indonesia and much of the caregiving job of mother-in-law were shouldered by Daddy Joe and me. Being a mother as well as having a mom who was once a nurse did prepare me well enough to care for an ailing person but I was not prepared for her emotional dependence on me during her down days when she would weep and at times got angry over her own disease. Somehow I managed to crack some jokes with her and comforted her as I took on the primary caregiver role of feeding, bathing and changing her daily and somehow in that short journey, we made up some lost time and our bond grew stronger, connected by the same love we have for her son, Daddy Joe. With Daddy Joe and his brother’s help, we managed to wheel her between the dining room, bathroom and her bedroom as a way for her to enjoy the company of her grandchildren. We really tried to make every effort to make her feel normal, much as the disease nor the eventual death were not normal in every sense of the word.
Her pain came in swiftly and unbearably furious at that stage of discovery. Looking back, we are glad that it didn’t last that long for her because not being able to do anything except for giving her our support, care and love as the cancer swiftly took away her body defence and bodily function in stages rendered us a sense of helplessness and sorrow that was extremely hard to bear. In the next three months or so, she was in and out of the government hospital for more assessment and eventually a final surgery was arranged to remove part of her colon as chemotherapy and radio therapy was really not an option anymore.
She never really got well after the surgery because the surgical wound could not heal and slowly we sensed she was giving up on fighting as she slipped into partial coma about a week after the surgery. We had her moved back to our home in early October so that she could have the comfort of being surrounded by her loved ones as she made the final passage to the last stretch of her life. One night just shortly after I sang her some prayer songs and whispered to her that we all loved her and that she had nothing more to worry about because her children have all grown up, she nodded slowly and fell into a deep sleep. Few hours later, she woke up to take a good last look at all of us once more, especially her sons, and left peacefully into eternity.
That night Daddy Joe endured yet another painful departure of someone so dear to him to cancer. 20 years ago when he and I were in college, we also lost his sister aged 15 then to a relapse of childhood leukemia.
Much as sad memories such as the death of a loved one leave much pain in life, they also teach us to appreciate life more and be less critical of all the imperfections and flaws of life. Cancer also is the ultimate test of one’s personal strength in that I was privileged to have come to discover that my late mother-in-law though was silent, was a strong and resilient fighter through her last journey in life.
As for us, the big C was a painful memory and rob us of those we loved but we had to learn to move on and live stronger and help those who may be undergoing the same journey. Daddy Joe and I have since been able to bless others by praying along with them and sharing about what we know about living well, alternative cancer treatment as well as our own experience of caring and supporting our loved ones whom we lost to cancer with the help of organisations such as NCSM, AXA AFFIN and Hospis Malaysia.
Not everyone is fortunate enough to have the means of treating their cancers in the private hospitals, and this is where help is needed that can be provided by some of these organizations. AXA AFFIN for example, runs a cancer outreach campaign in collaboration with National Cancer Society Malaysia (NCSM) to support cancer patients currently undergoing chemotherapy. By signing up the AXA 110 Cancer Care, AXA AFFIN offers early pay-out upon cancer diagnosis and 10 years of coverage in the event of cancer for the insured. The best part is that it will also help fund the chemotherapy daycare usage for those who can’t afford the expensive chemotherapy fight off the disease. Doing good while protecting yourself never came in a better package.
Hospis Malaysia, on the other hand, is a charitable organisation that offers professional Palliative Care to patients who are suffering from life-limiting illness, and who live within Klang Valley. Palliative care provides relief to patients suffering from a life-limiting illness, primarily through pain management and other symptom management. The goal is not to cure, but to provide comfort and maintain the highest possible quality of life for as long as life remains.
I realize that everyone’s life is a line that goes on in one direction that ends in the same eventuality of meeting our Maker one day. Sometimes the journey is a bed of roses and sometimes it’s a thorny path. But life can also teach us many things when we know how to care, love and support those we came to cross paths with. In loving memory of my late mother-in-law, I pray that as you read this, you will be blessed with a life well lived, and one that always seeks to love, help and forgive others. Last but not least, if you are battling a cancer right now, do know that there is a fighter in all of us and that God loves us enough that His mercy and grace will be more than sufficient as we trust in His healing from inside out.
Love and cheers to life.