SINGAPORE: Every morning he wakes up, listens to the radio and has a glass of milk. There is more variety in the afternoon, with either a bowl of soup or some fruit juice, ingested via a long, thin plastic tube punched under the waxen skin of his belly.
Sundays are special: The only chance for his lanky, feeble frame to be wheeled out of the Tampines flat shared with his mother and helper, and taken to church.
Clement Lee, 38, cannot move nor make a sound. When he attempts to do so, he ends up coughing - and that’s him trying to say or ask for something, according to his mother Leong Poh Yin.
“Sometimes he also puts on very pained facial expressions, like he’s vaguely conscious of his surroundings,” said the 71-year-old in Mandarin.
The last time her youngest son was fully aware and fully in control of his faculties, he was hurtling through the air, milliseconds away from landing head-first on a car’s windscreen - an impact that would crack his helmet and severely damage his brain.
It was November 1999 and Mr Lee, a budding fighter pilot and Anglo-Chinese alumnus from primary school through to junior college, was riding a newly purchased motorbike when the car barrelled into his rear, putting him on an emergency surgery table.
A part of his skull was carved out to treat a blood clot in his brain, which underwent massive swelling over the next few days. Then his liver and kidneys shut down, and the family was asked to consider removing life support.
But Mr Lee survived and went home in October 2000. The doctor said he wouldn’t “be able to do anything”, and had five more years at best.
“It’s been 18 years now - 13 more than he’s supposed to live,” said Mdm Leong.
“WE STILL CAN GET BY”
There was compensation of “a few hundred thousand dollars” from the driver of the car who hit Mr Lee, though the topic appeared to ignite a spark of fury in the otherwise soft-spoken Mdm Leong.
“At first he wasn’t willing to pay up. He even claimed it was Clement’s fault for crashing into him head-on,” she recalled. “So we had to get a forensic report on how the front of Clement’s bike was unspoilt, but the back - the exhaust pipe was bent upwards from the impact.”
Mdm Leong was equally riled by the memory of the first helper she employed upon Mr Lee’s discharge from hospital.
“She was with us for nine years, and seemed to be taking care of him very well, but during her last days here she told the new (incoming) helper she’d been brewing soup and blending fruits for herself and not Clement,” said Mdm Leong.
“She said ‘Give him soup and fruit juice, he will get better meh?’”
Then there was the helper who showed up, saw Mr Lee and said she was “scared” to look after him.
If she cannot trust someone else to look after her son, why not retire and stay home? “I’m not strong enough to carry him,” said Mdm Leong, who is divorced. “And I feel I need to go out and work.”
There was a tinge of embarrassment here, which quickly dissipated when the mum to two other older children - and granny to four - proudly shared how her salary as a long-time supermarket meat promoter was recently raised from S$1,000 to S$1,100 in October this year.
“We still can get by,” said Mdm Leong, pointing out that Mr Lee’s father, brother and sister chip in to help out with the helper’s wages, while his medical bills have been covered by both insurance payouts and the compensation.
ROOM FOR ALTRUISM
A year before her son’s calamity, Mdm Leong was watching a TV programme on child sponsorship by humanitarian organisation World Vision. It didn’t take much convincing for her to sign up - and even now, she still sends S$45 a month to Nardrudee Jaiping, an 18-year-old student in Thailand.
The daughter to farmers in a rural province has had access to transport, clean water, food, healthcare, education and other essentials, thanks to Mdm Leong’s self-professed “small amount” of money.
“When I was young, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to study,” said Mdm Leong, who was brought up to be a bondmaid after her financially strapped birth parents gave her up for adoption.
“So if I can help these kids have a chance to go to school, I should. Studies are so important, and you really lose out a lot without an education.”
Mdm Leong was also a member of Lions Befrienders - a welfare agency providing friendship to senior citizens - for over a decade, and continues to volunteer frequently at church.
Pressing her to explain the motivation behind these endeavours proved futile - if only because it is truly plain, simple, intrinsic to her: “There are people who need help. If I can, just help.”
LIVING DAY TO DAY
Yet it seems to be out of Mdm Leong’s hands when it comes to the one person she wants to help most of all - and this is something she embraces and resists at the same time.
Mr Lee’s condition has vacillated over the years. In the beginning he could yawn and stretch, and his lower limbs still reacted to being tapped on the kneecap.
Then under the previous maid’s negligence, he would constantly fall ill and be in and out of hospital, said Mdm Leong.
While the last six to seven years have seen slight improvements, Mdm Leong herself is getting on in age - she used to also moonlight as a seamstress working from home, until her eyesight started deteriorating.
“I’ve not thought about these things,” she said. “I just want to be able to look after myself, not be bedridden, and still active so I can look after Clement too.”
“If I’m to suddenly leave this world ... His brother and sister still care for him, and I hope they will continue.”
“But what I desire the most … What I often pray for ...” Mdm Leong’s voice quivered. “Is to have him one day get up, walk around, talk, live a normal life."
(Photos: Justin Ong)