A stroke and COVID-19 didn’t stop them marrying at 80. Here’s a lesson in love
Tom Iljas and Liong May Swan had to cancel their original wedding ceremony owing to COVID-19. So they held the solemnisation in a hospital where the bride was warded for a stroke. This, after a decade-long courtship.
SINGAPORE: When 78-year-old Liong May Swan tied the knot with her sweetheart, 81-year-old Tom Iljas, her wedding accessories included a wheelchair with a strap around her waist, and a green wrist-band stating she was a “fall risk”.
As the bride recited her vows before an intimate crowd on Mar 28, her speech was punctuated by pauses and stutters. These were not wedding nerves — they were side effects of the stroke she suffered 12 days before the wedding.
Their solemniser paired his formal shirt with a face mask, while their handful of guests gathered in a nondescript room in Alexandra Hospital — where Liong had been warded since March 25, when she was transferred from the National University Hospital.
Owing to the COVID-19 safety measures, the couple had to cancel their original wedding ceremony at a restaurant in Dempsey, but they insisted on proceeding with the solemnisation. They were not going to wait for the global pandemic to pass.
In January, Iljas, a Swedish national, started to suspect “there was something wrong with (Liong’s) head”. No longer would she call him three to four times a day, but every 10 minutes. She would even phone at 4am.
There were also instances when she left her phone in a shop, lost her identity card and left her house door open, realising she had forgotten to lock it only upon returning home.
“I sensed her health was worsening. My plan was to marry her and take her back to Sweden to care for her. We can’t travel back and forth when one of us is sick,” says Iljas, who discovered she had suffered a stroke only after they did a scan.
“We didn’t know if there’ll be another stroke when we’re in Sweden. It was a race against time. I didn’t want to be separated without our relationship being legitimised.”
Their wedding was hardly normal, but then again, their relationship had never been run-of-the-mill.
A CHANCE ENCOUNTER
A decade ago, in their late 60s and early 70s respectively, Liong and Iljas started chatting online. After three years of online communication, the Singaporean writer met her future husband in person for the first time — by accident.
A few of her friends in Europe, including Iljas, were organising her book launch in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Before flying in to Germany on her way there, she planned to contact another friend to receive her at Frankfurt Airport.
Instead, she called Iljas because his name also began with ‘T’.
Despite living in Sweden, he agreed to meet her, and arrived in Frankfurt the day before her flight. When she landed, he was waiting for her with a red rose and a car, ready to drive her to Amsterdam.
The gesture might appear straight from a film, but their feelings for each other already had three years to slowly blossom.
The elderly couple knew their friendship had turned romantic when they realised they felt obliged to inform each other of their daily activities.
“She’d become part of my life, to the point where I reported everything that I did to her, even though we weren’t a couple yet. These acts were reciprocated by May Swan,” says Iljas.
“Then she called me ‘darling’ for the first time. I was shocked. Wah! This was before we met.”
LESS A ROMANTIC, MORE A REALIST
Maintaining a long-term online relationship in one’s 70s is one thing, but family and friends of the couple might have been surprised at Iljas’ change of mind about marriage too.
He did not see a need to bring in a “third party” to affirm one’s relationship; as long as a couple loved each other, it did not matter whether they cohabitated or got married.
On the other hand, Liong considers the institution of marriage a milestone in a relationship.
Although the couple are open about their conflicting opinions on marriage, Iljas admits he has come to accept her views over time. Two months ago, his daughter even chided him for “being very foolish”.
“She said, ‘Why’s the relationship like that, such that you have to make trips to Singapore? Father, you’re already old; why don’t you ask May Swan to live with you here?” he recounts.
“I was startled. Come to think of it, flying for 13 hours is tiring. In the end, I decided we should get married.”
His new wife might be a fan of marriage, but she also believes romance is overrated — a concept invented by writers. For her, love does not hinge on trivial actions, like how often her husband kisses her.
“If he kisses me thrice a day, that means he loves me; if he does it only once a day, he doesn’t love me so much. This is bullshit,” she says.
At her age, what she looks for is “a sense of commitment” and “maturity of the mind”.
“You can fall in love in five minutes and then fall out of love in 10 minutes, but love is more profound. It’s a commitment and willingness to accept each other for what he or she is,” she adds.
“When you marry somebody, you expect the other party to make you happy, but you can only make yourself happy. It doesn’t mean my husband will make me happy or your wife will make you happy.”
LOVE BEGAN WITH COMMON GROUND
Neither of them were planning on falling in love, much less getting into a decade-long courtship, after their respective partners had died in their old age.
Iljas was happy living the rest of his life with his circle of friends, while Liong did not want to find anyone because she had married her first husband when she was 18, and lived a “very, very protected life”.
They both grew up in Indonesia, but Liong moved to Singapore in 1959, while Iljas sought political asylum in Sweden in 1973, after finding himself unable to return home from China. He had just completed his studies when the 1965 coup in Indonesia happened.
When the pair first talked online, they were simply looking for meaningful conversation, which they found in their shared interest in Indonesia’s political situation. Their decision to remain together since has been much more deliberate.
WATCH: Newlywed at 78: Lessons in love, in the time of COVID-19 (6:47)
It starts with embracing each other’s quirks, which enables the couple to fight well.
For example, Iljas thinks his wife can be “really sensitive” because she “always analyses so deeply into things, and sometimes it makes (him) annoyed”. As a result, small arguments tend to occur.
Liong, however, is the first to initiate conversation when there is tension between them. Although she might get angry and say things that hurt, she does not hold grudges.
“After we quarrel, we don’t speak for about one to two hours. Then a text message will come to me when I’m here and she’s there with the phone. She’ll say, ‘I’m sorry, I apologise.’ This is very romantic,” says Iljas.
Seeking common ground also means accepting that there are friends in each other’s network whom the other party dislikes. At first, this was an uncomfortable issue, but the pair eventually let it go since these were long-time friends.
Beyond the bigger issues, compromise exists in their everyday actions too. For example, when Liong has cooked for the whole day, Iljas would do the dishes.
SENSE OF TOUCH STILL IMPORTANT
When the couple are together, Liong likes to place her feet on his leg, while he automatically reaches out to rub them for her — a sign of the physical affection between them.
They also enjoy holding hands, although the gesture has become second nature to Iljas that he does not think about why he does it.
Liong feels an added sense of security and calm with him by her side since her stroke, although he had made a habit of holding her hand on the bus and train even before the incident.
Sexual attraction is still significant to them, but it has been long since it resembled the fleeting infatuation one experiences as a teenager.
Liong, who recalls her fascination with a schoolmate in her teens that lasted only a week, has realised over the decades that love and being in love are two different things.
“Love’s a long process. It doesn’t stop and start, like start at 1pm and stop at 4pm. It’s not like that,” she says.
“People have the idea that having sex is just boom, boom, boom, boom. It’s not just that. It’s the act of caring for the other’s feelings. Surely you don’t expect me to tell you in detail?”
For her, sex is more than the physical aspect; intimacy is about the mind too.
MORE THAN WORDS
Having penned more than 10 novels, Liong describes herself as “more verbal”, while her husband is “more into action”.
“He keeps saying, ‘You know, whatever I feel for you, I’ve shown it in my action.’ But I’m a writer — words are important to me. To him, words are almost nothing,” she says.
Her husband might have told her that he loves her, but “not often enough”.
He says: “I’ve never heard either of my parents say ‘I love you’. This is possibly why I don’t have the phrase in my dictionary. But there’s the word ‘commitment’. Whatever I say, I prove it and make it real.”
Nonetheless, Liong has got used to his lack of verbal affection. Sometimes, she adds, men might have a sweet tongue but are not necessarily committed.
In contrast, Iljas’ commitment is readily displayed. Since she was warded, he has visited her from noon to 8pm every day.
Once, he brought a bean-paste ball from Old Chang Kee, and held the wrapper under her chin to catch the crumbs as she chewed on her snack. Six small cakes sat on the chair at the corner of the ward.
He handed her a cup of water, before proceeding to tease out the knots in her hair with a comb. After that, he accompanied her on her walk along the hospital corridors as part of her daily exercise.
Later in the day, as she lay in bed, he bent over her and dabbed cream on her lip that had been injured in the fall from her stroke.
Wendy Yue, the advanced practice nurse at the specialised rehabilitation ward, shares that Iljas has been trained to accompany his wife on walks. And his desire to participate in her recovery process motivates her to get well.
“I just don’t want him to get burned out. He’s so dedicated to taking care of her, but we also want to remind him to take care of himself,” says Yue.
SPECIAL WEDDING VENUE
When Liong was admitted to Alexandra Hospital on a Wednesday, she immediately made a request to have four visitors on the coming Saturday, even though the hospital allowed only one visitor during visiting hours.
After probing further, Yue discovered that the couple were planning to conduct their solemnisation in the hospital.
“I thought, it’s such a special day, how can we do it at the bedside? So my colleagues and I explored (whether) we could decorate another room and how we could facilitate the session,” she says.
“We didn’t view it as any trouble. We just wanted to help her. I mean, she’s the main star.”
For the staff, the ceremony was even more special because it was in a hospital, complete with stark walls.
Stripped of the typical wedding frills, the sterile environment highlighted the common refrain in wedding vows — “in sickness and in health” — while reinforcing the couple’s love for each other.
On her wedding day, Liong put on a blue tunic with an ornate collar. She got light make-up done and requested that her fringe be pushed up into a pouf. It was a special hairstyle for a special day.
Her 57-year-old son, Teo Choo Chuan, could not find the words to describe his mother’s happiness. “How do I describe (their relationship)? Look at them. Just look at them. I think that answers it,” he said.
After the hour-long ceremony, Liong returned to her ward for lunch. Around her right wrist was the hospital band, but her left hand now sported a wedding band. Iljas wheeled her from behind, continuing to have her back.