Happy Women’s Day! (aka The Women Who’ve Changed My Life)

I could not let 8 March pass (it’s 11.10pm when I begin writing this) without a salute to the women who have really made International Women’s Day worth celebrating!

That there even is a Women’s Day is both a great thing and a sad thing. Obviously it was founded because women weren’t being appreciated enough for all that they did! But it’s also wonderful because for one day (in fact, one month) in the calendar year, we girls get to really relish what being female is all about.

(I write this in the midst of one of the worst pre-menstrual storms to hit me, by the way. The irony.)

I’ve been thinking all day about the many women who have helped shaped me into the person I am today. There are so, so many! But here are the top 5 who have impacted me in greater ways than they’ll ever know.

1. My mother Ann Phua
I’ve written an ode to my mother last year on this blog. My mom was not a fuzzy-huggy-kissy mother. She was a tough-love mother. When I failed my Grade 6 piano exam, my father looked at me and knew I was not having fun any more, and suggested that I quit. (I was, of course, very happy.) My mother on the other hand, would not hear of it. “You wanted the piano, you have to go all the way.” Her reason back then was that I might (seeing that I was such a poor student) have a backup plan as a piano teacher. But I had no such intention (and today I am still the world’s worst trained pianist). BUT what she did teach me was perseverance. There was satisfaction when I finally got my Grade 8 results and it wasn’t a “barely passed” for once. But I have to admit I was glad to end all lessons!
My mother and I had legendary fights (involving pulling hair and kicking and all that). She made the Tiger Mom look like a pussycat. But she instilled in me
a) a fear of God: “God is always watching even if I am not!”
b) the importance of filial piety: “If you don’t treat your parents well your children won’t treat you well.” (True. Biblical.)
c) the wisdom of marrying a man who truly loved me (actually, her words were, “Better to marry someone who loves you more than you love him” but I couldn’t. So I married the man who loved me as much as I loved him.)

2. My best friend Karen Tan
Karen and I have such a strange relationship. One day I’m sure our tale will be some British film. We were schoolmates in secondary school — she was popular, I was invisible. We became friends when she dated a boy who was friends with a boy I dated, who was always terrible to her. I spent countless days (and some nights) listening to her sob, wondering aloud when this diabolical relationship would let go of her. Thank God, it did. She met and married the most wonderful doctor in the world, Quek Swee Chong. I remember he proposed when they were both on the Nile (okay I forget if it was on a boat in the Nile, or looking at the Nile, but the Nile was involved).

Karen on her part watched me fall to pieces when the boy I liked so much left (you know how emotions are 1000% sharper when you are a teenager), and she wrote me a card bearing the verses Ephesians 3:16-19:
“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

This card was pinned to the board above my desk for more than 20 years — I finally took it down when I was cleaning out my parents’ place after they passed on. Those verses gave me immeasurable comfort even though I had yet to know God — but they were planted in my heart, and my soul knew there was a Christ who had this incredible love for me. It was only a matter of time (18 years from the year Karen gave me that card) that I got to know Him and His love.

Karen has truly been God’s gift in my life—we have had great times together, survived motherhood, overcome all kinds of illnesses—and she continues to be the person I run to first (after my husband) when I have a crisis. I pray I am the same for her, always.

Nanz and her beautiful baby Zoe, born 2 weeks before my Little B!

3. My inspiration Nanz Chong-Komo
Nanz is one person that I hold in such high regard because she is a rare specimen who walks the talk, and her heart is so incredibly big, I think it’s the reason she’s so tall. Since I met her in the late 90s when One.99 Shop was a roaring success and I interviewed her for a series for Female magazine, I have had the great fortune to get to know and to work with her over the last 8 years. When I met her again at a Christian business meeting, she had the most incredible glow. She was pregnant with Christian, her second child, and Zara was just a few months old. Being a new Christian, I naturally gravitated into her cell group. And I can tell you it is a great privilege to be in Nanz Chong’s cell group because it girds you daily just to know she is praying for you.

If you have ever heard and watched Nanz pray, you’ll know what I mean. “Storming heaven” is a suitable phrase.

Because of Nanz, I grew in my walk with the Lord. Because of Nanz, I prayed, fasted and believed for God to do a miracle in my husband — and watched in amazement as God did it! Nanz was there throughout to cheer us on. Because of Nanz, I discovered I really did enjoy being a writer and editor even though I thought it was something I was going to leave behind forever — I had the great privilege of helping to edit her first book One Business, 99 Lessons.

Three years ago Nanz and I embarked on an ambitious new media business called Nanzinc.Com. It was hard work but as with all things that Nanz touches, it was exciting and a great learning journey. Sadly for me, my cancer took more out of me than I initially thought. It was the hardest thing for me to tell Nanz I could not continue with Nanzinc — I was letting down the person I admire the most in this world after my husband. (I didn’t even do it right, but I’m too embarrassed to give details).

My prayer is one day I will be wholly well in my body. I will have learned to manage my stress. And I will have the chance, if she will let me, to do something meaningful with Nanz, the woman who taught me that nothing is impossible.

4. My editor Agatha Koh
Aggie was my second boss at my first writing job. She was editor of 8 Days magazine and I was her Arts writer. Her late husband, David Brazil, was a controversial (and endlessly entertaining) author and nightlife writer who for some reason, decided I could be groomed to write better. So Aggie would bring me his critiques week after week, addressed to “Bluestocking”, paperclipped to a well-thumbed issue of last week’s 8 Days. Aggie, on her part, would mock me mercilessly for being too Singaporean in my syntax and lexicon choices. Together, they made me a much better writer than I would have been had I continued to believe I was the Best Darn Writer 8 Days Had (we all thought that about ourselves, really).

Aggie left after two years, and then offered me a job at a new magazine called ETC. It was a fortnightly entertainment magazine, and she doubled my pay. I became the music editor and was paid to go on trips to cover things like the MTV Awards and concerts all over the place (highlights included trailing Pearl Jam and Nirvana, meeting Dave Grohl, having tea with Slash…exciting stuff). From that experience I grew to be a tough-as-nails reporter — no star left unturned!

After ETC I left, and was soon swept up in the surreal world of women’s magazines (Female, then ELLE… and later, Vanilla). But Aggie’s standards and regiments (okay okay, maybe 70% of them) stuck with me. She used to howl at us to read the papers (not just the Straits Times, which was, in her eyes, not really a newspaper, but International Herald Tribune, Asian Wall Street Journal before it was banned, and her favourite: the London Times weekend edition). From her I learned that you can’t let a shoddy page go to print if you can help it. Even if you can’t help it, you have to take it back and make it better. Printers have stopped production for her. Distributors have made their truckdrivers work OT for her. Such is the magic of Agatha Koh.

Today, Aggie is the Group Editor for custom titles at MediaCorp. She is still as sharp as nails and as mercilessly sticky as a Persian cat that’s taken a fancy to your Gucci suede jacket. I would do anything for Aggie — God knows she has trained me to!

5. My angel Ho Yeow Sun
Like many people, I read about Sun way before I met her. But unlike most people, I thought her Armani dress was not sexy enough. Sun and I met around 2002 when I interviewed her for a cover story for DARE magazine (another of Aggie’s brilliant products which sadly died). We met again when I founded my women’s group Women Make a Difference. I wanted to make these pink T-shirts (they were meant to be kitschy and cute so women would wear them as an insider joke during IWD) and then have celebrities wear them on an ad campaign. My cause was the fight against sex trafficking of women and children. The other women were my friends Karen Tan, Kit Chan, Nanz Chong, Beatrice Chia, Eunice Olsen Tan Kheng Hua and Denise Keller. I wanted someone who was a mother and an international name, and at that time, Sun had just gone to the US and released some amazing chart-toppers.

I sent her some material via her office, and was surprised when I got a call — she had gone to the websites I sent info on, done her homework, cried (like me) and shown it to her husband. She not only agreed to be one of my 8 women, she said she wanted to personally give our cause $10,000, together with some anonymous friends.

Sun — for all her immense talent and public persona — is not a person of that many words, but she chooses each one carefully. That makes her seem reserved sometimes, but she is always warm. And I can always trust that she says exactly what she means—a lost art today, especially in entertainment.

I only started attending City Harvest late in the year after Sun endorsed WMD. I admit that her approach to my cause opened my heart up a lot—it’s not often, when I ask people to endorse something, that they actually do the research. Most will say yes or no based on our relationship, which isn’t a bad thing, but I feel all the more supported when a friend feels what I feel. Karen and Nanz also both delved into the sex trafficking horror I introduced them too — they became impassioned spokespeople against this atrocity during WMD events.

Sun has become one person I call on when I am most down, and when I have to make really hard decisions (because her words are constantly seasoned with salt—wisdom like I’ve never known). She’s one person I can talk to completely honestly, knowing she will know what I mean or get to the root of what is bugging me. She’s like an older sister to me, a gentle guide who never, ever judges. I’m constantly amazed at how she does it. She puts others first, even when she’s not feeling so great, or when her own troubles seem insurmountable. When I grow up, I want to be like Sun.

There are so many other women who have touched my life — my mother-in-law, my daughters, Elim Chew who is a constant rock and a reminder that with God all things are possible; Mary Loh whose generosity and constant prayer intercession has moved me in the right direction… My oldest and dearest pals Grace Lee and Clara Goh and Judith Tan… So many of my awesome friends at church, at work… All those great women in the volunteer or fundraising circles (Saleemah Ismail, Melissa Kwee, Darryl Loh, Adeline Yeo, Celeste Basapa). My children’s teachers. My former colleagues. So many I could write a book or two.

Thank you for being the best woman you were created to be. This world needs you!

In Remembrance Of My Mom, Ann Phua (4 Oct 1939-2 Nov 2003)

My mother with Big B, 1999. Her hair was just growing back from chemo after her 2nd mastectomy.

This is my favourite photo of my mother, Ann Phua. She was really terrible at having her photo taken, so it was the candid shots that were the nice ones. Here, my father had captured her laughing with my son, her absolute favouritest little person in the world — he was about 8 months old then.

My mom passed away 2 November 2003. She had been in a coma for five days before she finally gave up the ghost, on All Souls Day which is celebrated by Catholics to mark the “departing of the faithful”, just as the sun came up.

She died of metastasis of her second breast cancer. She had had two mastectomies by then, and even with no breasts left, the cancer came back and developed in her lung. Refusing chemo injections (she had had them twice already) she opted first for oral chemo, then as the cancer only raged harder and faster, she chose pain management and to spend her last months with me in my home.

My mother discovered her first lump at the age of 49. Even back then, that was considered very young — breast cancer was and still is more of a disease that strikes women 55 and above. I remember the fear that gripped my heart like an icy hand when my father paged me with a “999” message. It was the day my mother had to go back to the doctor for the diagnosis after her biopsy. I had never, up to that point in my 19 years, heard my father sound so vulnerable as he told me “Your mother has breast cancer. Can you come home now?”

I was terrified. I had seen cancer take the life of my uncle, my mother’s brother, only a few years before. It was so swift and brutal — he had retired and was exercising and staying fit when boom! The cancer hit and within months, he was gone.

I wasn’t prepared for my mom to die. I was in my second year at university and my brother was still in secondary school. I mean, yes, I could cook and clean and do the laundry, but I wanted my Mommy to see me graduate, to be there when I got married, to carry her grandchildren. I didn’t want to be robbed of all that.

The biopsy showed Stage 1 cancer. When my mother had her operation a month later, the histology showed Stage 2, and her lymph nodes were affected. She had a mastectomy and lymph node removal, followed by chemotherapy and radiation.

I remember the day I saw my mom’s mastectomy scar. It really scarred me for life, pardon the pun. Because of her lymph node removal she had problems lifting her arms and getting her shirt off. I helped her and when I lifted up her shirt, the left side of her chest was flat, with a scar diagonally across it. I did all I could to help her wash up, tuck her into bed and kiss her goodnight — then I went to my room, shut the door and cried for hours. It felt to me like my mother’s womanhood had been destroyed by this horrible cancer, and it was so painful and unfair for her to endure this.

The operation wasn’t the worst of it. The chemo and radiation started a few weeks later. I watched my mother turn from her pink-cheeked elfin self to an exhausted figure whose skin turned darker shades of grey by the week. Her nails turned black and brittle. Her beautiful head of hair started to shed — clumps of hair would fall off. That broke her heart the most. Finally when nearly all of it had dropped off, I remember one Saturday morning trimming off the few longish rogue strands that remained as if to mock the memory of her former beauty.

She had a special bra in which she could fit a prosthetic breast. It used to make me sweat just watching her put it on because golly, that bra was warm. On some days, when it was too hot and humid and Mom had been fidgeting, her prosthetic would pop out of place. She also had a wig — my hairdresser Ashley Lim created a fabulous one for her when he heard she had cancer — which she wore religiously. I think, if I had had to have chemo and my hair fell out, I would wear a cool bandana and be done with it (actually I already planned for it when my doctors and I were discussing the possibility of a lumpectomy). The wig too, would tilt in all kind of funny angles when it got too warm and Mom wiped off her sweat. It was terrible. I was so happy when her hair started growing out after the chemo.

Chemo changed my mom’s tastebuds forever, she said (okay, she was given to exaggerating but I have to say it’s true that she never quite enjoyed her durians after that). She said everything tasted like cardboard. Water was the worst thing – she couldn’t even drink a mouthful without wanting to vomit. So I made her Ribena and Milo round the clock. She hated the thought of eating, especially those first few weeks of chemo. But she would get terrible hunger pangs and then be yelping for me to quick make her something. My first meal for my mother during chemo was mee sua with prawns and an egg. I remember she gave me a tired smile and said, “At last, you have to cook for me.”

Radiation brought its own set of pains. The “sunburn” feeling was so acute some times Mom found it hard to sleep at all. We bought an aloe vera plant and I would cut off the sheaths and put them in a plastic bag in the fridge. Every day I would cut off about an inch or two of the cold sheath and scrape out the pulp and mash it up to apply over my mother’s scorched skin. It helped to relieve the pain.

I also learned to boil bird’s nest for her. Every day I would put 7 pieces of whole bird’s nest in the crock pot fill with water, along with a few pieces of rock sugar. By the time I came back from campus 5, 6 hours later, it would be ready for her. The bird’s nest seemed to help a lot — the chemo effects seemed to wear out faster and faster by the week.

My mother’s cancer brought our family close together. We were eager to see her get better. My dad really rose up as the head of the household and every night we gathered together to pray.

It was the cancer that also revealed to me the depth of my father’s love for my mother. He would come home on the dot at 5.30pm and she would be lying on the couch, exhausted or in pain, and he would scoop her up in his arms and carry her up to their room.

Once, a few years after my mom’s first cancer was over, she told me that after her operation my father would make love to her, and always told her she was beautiful and how much he loved her. I believe it was his love and unconditional support that made her determined to get well. And it made me determined to marry someone who was going to love me like that (I did! Thank God!).

My mother took about a year to recover from her cancer. She went back to work but requested for lighter duty — she had been a very hands-on nurse at SGH. She was posted to the old (haunted) Changi Hospital for a while, and then later, to Changi Women’s Prisons (many exciting and depressing stories from that posting that we don’t have space for here).

Mom was cancer-free for 10 years. She had been given a clean bill of health. She was eating healthily, drinking a lot of green tea, and exercising regularly.

She discovered the second cancer — this time in her right breast — when I just became pregnant with my first child in 1998. I was editor of Female then, and it nearly killed me having to deal with a high stress job, my first pregnancy and a mother in hospital. But the good thing was that Mom, knowing that her first grandchild was on the way, was determined to make it. She dreaded the chemo, but she didn’t put make a fuss. She endured it all, focusing on the vision of carrying her grandchild in her arms. In fact, she was most worried that after her operation she wouldn’t be well enough to hold him, but boy, she was determined!

Many times I felt pangs of guilt at now not being able to fuss over her and cook for her and boil bird’s nest for her, now that I had moved out of my parents’ home, was married and (extremely) busy with work. But Mom really didn’t complain. She just focused on getting well.

On the day I had to go into hospital to have my emergency C-section to get Big B out (yes, stress will cause your placenta to malfunction. Be warned. The liquor level in my amniotic sac had dropped to 2 — the norm is 12), my mother was in the same hospital seeing her oncologist, who had told her she was recovering well. Husband and I bumped into her as we were rushing to go home to pack and come back for surgery — I recall the rush of relief when I saw my mother, and the excitement of telling her “Baby’s coming out today, Mom!”

My mother was rewarded with the best grandchild ever (her words). Big B was a cheerful bouncy bundle of joy that ate everything Mama put in his mouth (or hand). Over the next three and a half years, my son grew up in my parents’ home (I would attempt to finish work by 6.30 and pick him up, just in time for his bath, bedtime story and lights-out). I often think my mom was responsible for Big B being the bright boy he is — she read to him and he started recognising words at 11 months (“exit” was his first word). They sang together, they counted, they chased each other at the airport where she would bring him to watch planes take off and land.

In November 2002, three months after I quit my job at ELLE, my mother collapsed on the MRT. Good thing she was with my brother, who dramatically carried her out of the train like it was a Bruce Willis movie. She had been telling me for months that she felt the cancer was back again. I told her she was being silly, but if she was so worried, to go for tests. She had CT scans, X-rays, blood tests — nothing showed any signs of cancer. But when my brother rushed her to the hospital this time, they found her right lung was filled with fluid (always a bad sign).

There was no mass but her cancer had come back as little dots all over her right lung. Her doctor at Johns Hopkins did all he could — he suggested chemo again and she flat out said no. So she went on oral chemo but that did nothing much.

I guess we all knew this was the end. I didn’t want to know it, but there it was in my face. She told me, “I just want to go Home.” I wasn’t a Christian then (born a Catholic but long story…), so I had no idea what she was babbling about Jesus coming to receive her when she died. I just thought it was morbid. I moved my mother in to live with me – I could not bear the thought of leaving her at home. My father was by then also in late stages of Parkinson’s Disease and could not even go to the toilet by himself or feed himself. I was forced to put him in a nursing home near my place, while I looked after Mom at home. It was far from ideal, but I knew I couldn’t look after them both.

Plus, they fought ALL THE TIME towards the end.
Dad: You mustn’t die and leave me.
Mom: Stop talking rubbish and eat your kway teow.
Dad: You are so bad you know – how can you leave me? How can I live without you?
Mom: I’m not dead yet okay? Eat your kway teow! Now!

Dinner on Sundays (I would go to the home and wheel my dad over to my place) was both emotionally and physically exhausting. But still, I could not bear for my parents not to have time with each other. Though, I have to say, as the months wore on, my mom wanted to see my father less and less, thinking (rightly or wrongly, I can’t tell) that the less he saw her, the easier it would be when she finally passed away.

Having Mama in the house was a treat for Big B. I would find the two of them sitting on her bed singing “How Great Thou Art”. He was four then, but in his bright little mind, he already knew Mama was going to go to Heaven to be with Jesus. There was one night, I woke up to check on him and Middle B, but couldn’t find him in his bed. Finally, I discovered him curled up, asleep under Mama’s bed. I burst into tears.

Mom’s condition got worse by the week. We had some palliative support — they brought her oxygen tanks and masks for the nights she felt as if she couldn’t breathe. A nurse would come and check on her pain levels. She had to take more and more morphine, which sucked, because it would make her hallucinate. Okay, there were funny moments from the hallucinations. Once, I walked into her room and she said, “Why did you keep ringing the doorbell, don’t you know I’m bathing the baby?” And then, she snapped out of it and said, “Oh! I’m awake! The dream was like real you know!”

The day Big B got chicken pox was the beginning of the end. Mom couldn’t be in the house with him, because chicken pox could kill her. At the same time, she had developed a chest infection. That year – 2003 – was the year of SARS. I brought Mom to hospital and had to queue six hours to get her registered. She collapsed after the third hour and I had to scream at somebody for a bed to lie her down on — all very drama! Anyway, Mom eventually ended up staying in hospital for nearly a month. It was exhausting for me as now I had to travel to see her every day (queue, take temperature, put on sticker) and then after I left her, I had to go and see my father.

Just as Mom got better, I was looking forward to having her back in the house again, she told me she had got the social worker to get her a bed at Assisi Hospice. We fought over this so much — if she hadn’t had cancer I would have fought much harder, but I didn’t want her to get too upset.

“I cannot die in your house, do you understand?” I didn’t, but you don’t argue with a dying woman.

Assisi turned out to be the best thing that happened to Mom in her last days. She had her own room in the lush compound — Assisi is located next to Mount Alvernia and the whole place just smells greener and lusher than other parts of Singapore. There was a nun who would visit her every day and pray with her, and that Sister must have had some kind of super anointing because my mother would be so cheered up and joyful it was as if she wasn’t even sick at all.

The doctors and nurses at Assisi were also so caring and concerned for me and the family. They would tell me funny stories of what my mom got up to, and I could confide in them that it was hard for me that my brother lived and worked in Melbourne so I pretty much had to care for both parents.

This whole journey with my mother having cancer led me to seek God with all my heart. He arranged it so that I met someone who met someone who could answer that one question that stood between me and Jesus Christ. On 6 October 2003, two days after my mother celebrated her 64th birthday, I received Christ.

The final week of October, I was preparing to bring Mom home. She was so fine on Friday that the doctor called me and said, “I think you can come and get your mother on Monday, we’ll pack all her things and get her ready.” Then on Sunday night, they called me and said, “Her breathing and heartbeat have become irregular. I think it’s time to get your brother home.”

On Monday I called my brother in Melbourne and said, “It looks bad with Mom.” He was in a dilemma because he had applied for his green card and if he left Melbourne now, he would not get it. But God really started revealing Himself in our lives — when my brother called his lawyer to see how he could leave Australia on compassionate grounds, the lawyer said, “Oh! I forgot to call you! You citizenship was approved on Friday!”

By Tuesday morning he was back and we went to see our mother together first thing in the morning. She made us join hands and promise we were going to look out for one another always, and never to fight. We did it. And by Tuesday afternoon she slipped into a coma and never woke up again.

The doctor took her off all the supports and fluids, but she lasted all the way till Sunday morning. My Catholic aunties quipped that Mom wanted to die on All Souls Day so that in the event we forgot her death anniversary at least some people at a Catholic church somewhere would be praying for all the faithful departed like her.

But I haven’t forgotten — I never will. I thank God for my mother, who bravely battled cancer three times. I thank Him for the woman who stood me in front of a mirror and taught me how to do my breast self-exam and who always told me to take my health seriously. I thank Him for my late father, who demonstrated what a Godly husband truly is, who loves his wife as Christ loves the church. And just as my mother fought, I will also fight the good fight against this terrible disease.

Love you Mom. I miss you.