IN MEMORY OF MADAM KOH CHIEW KIM (1915 -2012)
Thursday, 23 May will be the first anniversary of my mother’s transition. Since the beginning of this month, incidents of our time with her, especially during her last days, have been at the forefront of our minds.
We went through mother’s personal papers a few months after her funeral, and were amazed at how independent and capable she was after my father’s death 45 years earlier. Her correspondence, financial statements, and bills were neatly filed, going back to the 1960s. Even my father’s papers were still preserved in a separate folder.
She lost her own father while she was a child, and had arrived in Singapore from China, with her mother and siblings in tow, to be with my grandmother’s family. Growing up as a young woman, she witnessed the atrocities of war and suffered the indignity of being shuffled around under cover of darkness, from house to house, to escape marauding Japanese soldiers looking for young women, during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore (1942-45). After the war, being the eldest, she became the main breadwinner for her four brothers and sisters, and mother. Then, she began picking up English on her own.
In her early fifties, bereft of my father, she uprooted whenever her younger sister’s family moved, to be near them. My aunt was a typical nomad, unable to stay in a new home for more than a few years at a time. Altogether, mother moved four times, and almost single-handedly took charge of these upheavals, while she was still on a full teaching load at a Methodist secondary school. Quite remarkable! I was in the UK then, while my younger brother was in the Navy, most of the time on board a ship. My newly married older sister was uninvolved in my mother’s life.
In 1992, we moved my mother in with us, when we discovered she was unable to find her way home from time-to-time, whenever she went out. Although I knew my mother to be quite a feisty lady who did not tolerate nonsense lightly during my younger days, she never once complained since the day we took her in. I can never be sure whether the early stages of dementia had begun to take away her gutsy temperament, or she just chose to accept her loss of self-reliance, and adjusted to our environment.
After a couple of years, she made fewer and fewer calls, as she no longer knew how to use the phone consistently. She still took calls, and it was around this time that we began receiving feedback from her friends that we had not been feeding her and had taken her money. It took us a while before we accepted the inevitability of what was transpiring, and thereafter it made living with her much easier. However, her memory worsened progressively through the ensuing years.
We are sure the gradual loss of memories and mobile functions for such an active person was frustrating, whenever her self-consciousness returned. In her heyday, mother was into metal tooling and carpentry, embroidery and knitting, tatting and crochet, ikebana flower arranging and orchid growing, painting and leather craft, jewelry craft and Italian mosaic designing, sewing her own clothes and patchwork, puppet making and teddy bear crafting. To slowly loose her skills, and to look at her creations and not recognize them, as she would quizzically stare at her teddy bears, her last endeavours, was painful for us to watch. But, she had simply forgotten!
An older church couple visited one day, and shared the Good News with mother. To our surprise, she made a profession of faith. She was always very defensive of her own faith in a Hindu cult prophet, and that made us wonder whether she was sufficiently lucid then. Several weeks later, we decide to test that, and asked what she wanted to do with her prophet’s photo that was next to her bed. “Throw it away, as I now believe in Jesus.” Astounding.
When her dementia was at an advanced stage, in the final 6 years of her life, we were prepared to put most of our personal goals aside to serve her and make life for her as comfortable as we know how, as she could no longer do anything for herself. We loved her and talked to her at a very simple level, never knowing whether she did understand us at all, as her ability to converse had ceased.
During the last couple of months, we smiled a lot at one another whenever our eyes met. We shall not forget mother’s responsive smiles, perhaps indicative of a level of recognition. Holding her hands, as she sometimes reached out for ours, became more frequent during her final weeks, even though she eventually lost her grasp. We were able to say our goodbyes, and were present to release her back to God, with no regrets having watched over her during the twilight years of her life, as she passed on peacefully at home.
We still miss mother very much. We look forward to meet her again one day. I am very thankful to God for my mother’s love and sacrificial commitment to us, her children. Our God is so gracious and faithful.