Farewell To “Rose”

Tonight I went to the wake of my friend “Rose”.

I can’t name her because I haven’t asked her family for permission. But maybe when I do I can change her name here and add a photo. Which I really want to, because Rose was one of the most astounding-looking women I’d ever seen. Tall, slender, with that perfect haircut that Mia Farrow made famous in Rosemary’s Baby, and green-grey eyes, she kind of “killed” you even before she opened her mouth. And then, when she did, that commanding flow of perfect English—the very sign of a convent girl upbringing, further polished in the US and UK—rendered you speechless. Mostly because suddenly, you became very conscious of your singsong Singaporean English.

Rose and I discovered our cancers in the same year—she a few months earlier than I. She had an inoperable tumour on her pancreas. I had a large mass in my breast that necessitated a mastectomy. When I first saw her after my surgery she chided me for being all bent.

“Your brain tells you you can’t stand up straight, but you can,” she said to me. “I went through that abdominal surgery and I thought I couldn’t but you know, I just decided to sit up straight, and I could!”

That was Rose — no nonsense, no self-pity.

We were never very close but she supported the social causes that I championed through my women’s group. And she always had a witty comeback every time we spoke. She loved fine wines, fast cars, and Michelin-starred cuisine—always an interesting topic to me.

But when we were struck the same year, a bond was forged. When she began chemo, I was home, recovering from my surgery. I visited her one day with a basket of organic honey and fruit, and we chatted and prayed, and before I left she hugged me tight and kissed me on the cheek. It was the greatest show of affection I had ever seen from her.

We text-messaged each other occasionally, just keeping tabs on each other. She sent me delicious recipes which contained some anti-cancer ingredients (but more importantly, were yummy), and we discussed cooking over emails.

The day she came to my place with a basket of goodies after her chemo had proven resoundingly successful and she was well enough to eat, go out and pretty much be herself, I sadly wasn’t home.

She was well for a good 10 months before things began to unravel. I was, admittedly, devastated to hear that her cancer markers were up and she was feeling quite despondent.

It became quite hard to get hold of her, as she got sicker and sicker and the simplest forms of communication—phone calls, SMSes—proved difficult for her. I got used to getting a reply two days after my last text message.

Finally I got to see her, with our friend Ros. She looked a shadow of what she used to be. At that point, she was pretty depressed. She said she told her doctor, no more chemo. But the pain was getting to her, and she was concerned that she wouldn’t get the care she needed at home, as her helper also had her nonagenarian mother to look after. We located places she could have gone to stay, but for some reason, she remained at home. We took her for a short “stroll” in her wheelchair, and sat amidst the greenery at the bottom of her block and listened to her dream about all the food she wanted a final taste of: babi pongteh, a perfectly grilled lobster, marron (she pronounced it like a French word, without the “r”s), the perfect wine…

As we both worshiped at City Harvest Church, and she was in my zone, I told my zone leader about her condition. He arranged for Pastor Kong Hee to visit her that weekend, and went along with him. Knowing how crowded it would be if there were so many visitors, I stayed home and SMSed her to arrange the time and check that she was okay for the visit.

Rose was most excited to have Pastor visit her. It seemed to me that having seen him, having had him pray with her and encourage her, lifted her spirits tremendously.

After he had left, I SMSed her to ask, “How did it go with Pastor? Are you feeling okay?”

She SMSed back immediately, “It was wonderful. He’s yummy!”

I laughed out loud. That was good old Rose and her sparkling wit—I hadn’t seen that Rose in a while.

She had learned of a doctor in the US who had, through a radical program, helped another pancreatic cancer patient to go into remission. I helped her send her scans and reports to this doctor, and after two weeks, I received a positive reply that suggested that she fly there—the doctor believed he could help her.

That’s when things got worrisome. I couldn’t reach her. My SMSes, emails and calls were met with deafening silence. In my paranoid moments, I thought she might have gone to a hospice and not told me. Finally, after nearly a week I got an SMS from her helper to say she had fallen down but she’s okay, that she was very tired and we shouldn’t visit yet.

After that, another stretch of radio silence. Ros got as worried as I did, and tried to call. Finally she said, “let’s just show up at the door and tell her we need to pray for her.”

Hating to impose, but grateful that Ros had the nerve to suggest this imposition that Rose would surely not appreciate, we went and knocked on her door. The first hint I got was the absence of her wheelchair. Rose’s mother opened the door, and said, “Rose has gone to hospital.”

By God’s grace, her mom had the number of Rose’s brother, who had accompanied her to the hospital. Finally, another human being we could call, someone who knew what was going on. When he picked up the phone and talked to Ros, he explained that she had not been able to eat without vomiting, and that she was in a lot of pain, hence the hospital stay. Ros then heard him asking Rose if we could come and see her, and she heard Rose say no, she was too tired.

In my heart, I knew things weren’t good. I had watched my mom being unable to hold down even one sip of water–it was an indication that the cancer had progressed. It became even more urgent for us to see her, to pray with her, to comfort her. But it seemed she was pushing us away.

In desperation, I contacted my zone leader, who was traveling. He—being the superhero he has always been—immediately contacted Pastor Kong, who immediately said he wanted to see Rose the next day.

I couldn’t reach Rose directly, but her brother had given us his son W’s number. W was helping to keep his aunt company while she was in hospital, and so I arranged for Pastor and I to visit Rose. Of course, Rose was delighted to see her favourite pastor again.

When we walked into her room, I took one look at Rose’s now-jaundiced face and memories of my mother flooded over me. She looked just like my mother when she was in her final days, sitting in her hospital bed, waiting for me to massage her feet. The rush of emotion was unexpected and overwhelming.

Rose couldn’t stop grinning. It was wonderful to see. She had her full wits about her, and she was even flirty with Pastor.

“It’s so good to see you smile,” he said.

“Your smile is so infectious, Pastor,” she drawled. “I can’t help but smile looking at you.”

W and I laughed, listening to them banter.

As Pastor read Psalm 23 to her, she completed the verses. “I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,” she said. Tears came to my eyes. I pretended to yawn.

She had such a fighting spirit to live, and Pastor encouraged her. I felt ashamed of my dread and certainty that, humanly, she did not have long to live. I guess my experience with my mother has “fixed” me this way. Where was my mustard seed of faith?

I shared with her the US doctor’s emails, and she became excited at the possibility of a cure. She sent me off to find out how much the flight would cost, and I left the printouts for her to show her oncologist and get the green light to fly.

Four days later, just as I was discussing with my zone leader who might accompany Rose to the US if the doctor allowed her to fly, I received a call from W.

“The doctor says aunty only has 30 minutes more. Can you and Pastor come?”

I dropped everything, grabbed my wallet and ran to the cab stand and arrived at the hospital in 20 minutes — but I was still five minutes too late. Rose had left us.

I stood and gazed at her face, so peaceful, like she was sleeping—she had gone in exactly the same way my mother did. Heartbeat slowing, then irregular, then stopping. She had floated into the arms of Jesus, to a place that knows no pain, to an everlasting body, to her reward in heaven.

Pastor arrived after me, having also dashed out of a meeting and rushed to the hospital. As we gathered around Rose’s body and prayed, tears defied me and trickled down my face. She had gone through such pain, but her faith was so astonishing. She held on to her dignity, her calm and cool collectedness, all the way to the end, trusting God.

Tonight I listened to her friend talk about their days in convent school, that her final meal request was babi pongteh, that her faith in the Lord carried her and filled her with joy toward the end.

And I think, our lives are given us to make full use of. Do I spend it loving God? Preparing myself for eternal life? Or am I running through my days just trying to “survive”, worrying about the everyday matters?

I made a promise to God to write my book. I didn’t want to blog about it before because, to be honest, I wasn’t sure when I was going to finish it. I’ve started, but it’s taking much more out of me than I initially imagined. But now, knowing Rose fought the good fight, and finished her race, I have to run my race and part of the obstacle course is this book.

There I’ve put it out there. Now I have to keep my word, and make it happen. For God and for Rose, who set me a brilliant example.

I miss you my friend. See you in heaven.


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Sarah Teo
    Jan 13, 2012 @ 17:27:59

    theresa:) i will be the first at the bookstore to GRAB your book 🙂 your writings never fail to touch me deeply..not mentioning putting me to tears 🙂

    so inspired reading about your friend’s life..pancreatic cancer is really brutal..my grandmother had it..and it was so fast, it didnt give me time to react, to reconcile, to “ease” myself into it..brings back many memories..

    thanks theresa:) for encouraging me once again to live life to the fullest!:) grateful for u!


  2. PCMY
    Jan 14, 2012 @ 01:23:27

    People talk about feeling guilty about getting to live while someone else in the same circumstances die.

    i kind of think that matters are somewhat random. My uncle and i got cancer around the same time – actually he got it 1 year after me. I was all alone in the US and had difficulties getting medical treatment, and he had the support of his family and employers in Singapore. I remember going to hospital to visit him when I flew back to Singapore and telling him that he is not alone. But 2 years later, he died and I’m still surviving, dealing with the aftermath and planning for more medical treatment and for more ways to live a normal life.

    Take care.


  3. Pekyin
    Jan 14, 2012 @ 06:36:31

    Thank you Theresa. For many of us who did not manage to see her, you filled up the gap with your love and care. And arranging for what mattered to her in her last days, lifting up her spirit. Thanks once again for a memorable account of a beautifully spirited and sophisticated astounding lady. She lives up to every bit of it in our memory of her.


  4. stargazing28
    Jan 14, 2012 @ 11:57:25

    reading this post brought tears to me honestly, and i know what it means, having my mum’s life taken away also by the same “C”. Thank you for sharing… it brings hope and courage. and yes, awaiting your book.


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