Ah Kang, born in 1966, is a Singaporean who lived in Toa Payoh.
Toa Payoh, built in 1968, is Singapore’s second satellite town. Some of the older housing at the edge of the old town centre has been selected for upgrading a few years ago. Huge trees provide shade in this part of the old town. Public housing in this area, with long, deserted and eerily silent corridors, provides one- or two- bedroom rental apartments for lower income households.
The half-century-old town is a quiet one. Even on a Saturday morning, one can only spot a few elderly enjoying their morning coffee at the hawker centre.
Ah Kang stirred from his sleep in his two-bedroom apartment opposite the hawker centre. Noticing that his mother on the adjacent bed has also woken up, he hurriedly washed himself up.
The first thing Ah Kang does every morning is to clean his mother. Due to her immobility, she needs a few changes of diapers daily.
Ah Kang spread open the diaper and sprinkled a layer of talcum powder. “My mum’s skin tends to get rashes due to long hours of diaper wear, the talcum powder helps keep her skin dry. Just like how we care for babies,” Ah Kang said lovingly.
His mother, who was already reticent, talks even less after her stroke. But one would find that words are unnecessary between the mother and son. The two communicate wordlessly and understand each other with just a glance or a motion.
Forever grateful to mother’s love
In the afternoon, Ah Kang would pack lunch from nearby coffee shops or hawker centre because “Mother likes to eat rice”. And after lunch, he would prepare her medication for her.
Ah Kang and his mother have been staying in their 1-bedroom, 1-living room rental apartment for close to 20 years. His 80-year-old father is often on his own and no one knows his whereabouts. Being the youngest of his family, Ah Kang has two elder sisters and two elder brothers who are all married and have moved into their own homes, leaving Ah Kang and his mother in the apartment.
His mother is 80 years old and was paralyzed after a stroke two years ago. After the incident, with no means to engage a helper, the then 44-year-old son naturally took on the task of caring for his mother.
Ah Kang has to help with everything including her mother’s personal hygiene, diaper changing, bathing, etc. When asked if he ever feels awkward about it, he replied, “Why should I? My mum also took care of us when we were younger, just like what I am doing now.”
Ensuring that household chores and a sick family member are well taken care of is not a simple task to a healthy person, let alone a patient like Ah Kang. He has immunodeficiency and suffers from skin cancer, with symptoms surfacing repeatedly over the years. Ah Kang has long-term ulceration bleeding with wounds that cannot be healed. This is especially prominent in the head and limbs, resulting in hard and atrophy of limb joints affecting his mobility. Despite these, the thought of sending his mother to a nursing home has never crossed his mind.
“She would not know anyone in the nursing home,” the filial son reasoned, “it is better for family to care for her.”
Ah Kang remembered when he was hospitalized ten years ago. “I felt so lonely back then because nobody took care of me when I was sick. Now that mother is ill, I want to take care of her.”
Striving to be independent
In the younger days, both his parents sold clams in the market. He dropped out of primary school and started to do odd jobs as eggs deliveryman, bicycle technician etc. Perhaps being the youngest child, Ah Kang led a carefree life with not a care or worry about the future. He even won the sweepstakes once but lost his fortune quickly with his indulgent lifestyle.
In 1995, he was exempted from National Service when his medical test results revealed that he has immunodeficiency disease. He had to depend on long-term medication to keep the disease under control. This was fine until his condition deteriorated and rashes started to appear on his skin. It is a daunting sight when the condition was severe. His outer skin will fall like snowflakes and both arms will be red. Ah Kang was unable to work and frequented the hospitals. Although his siblings assist with a part of his living expenses, the increasing medical expenses remains a constant worry.
Faced with expensive medical bills and no one to depend on, Ah Kang did feel like giving up at times. Fortunately, in 1999, he was referred by the hospital to be a Tzu Chi care recipient. And the medical subsidy provided to him was very substantial given his severe illness.
“I was very worried initially. In the most expensive month, medical bills can cost more than $1700. Every month I will worry if Tzu Chi will continue to help me in the following month…”
With the assistance from Tzu Chi, Ah Kang gradually came to terms and accepted his disease and the expected development in the later stages. “Before getting in touch with Tzu Chi volunteers, I have no friends. Seeing how they have sincerely cared about me, I feel a bond with them from our very first meeting.”
Though his health had been poor with repeated outbreak of his illness, Ah Kang strongly desired to be independent. He actively looked for jobs like cleaners or night shift security to pay for his daily expense, as long as his body was able.
“Actually I am not reliant. If I can work, I will definitely work,” said the care recipient. Finally in 2009, his illness went under control and he found a more stable job. Voluntarily, he requested for Tzu Chi’s medical subsidy to be discontinued.
Looking back at the past 10 years with Tzu Chi’s financial assistance and care, Ah Kang reminisced, “Had it not been for Tzu Chi, I might have been gone.”
Generosity and responsibility
In 2010, Ah Kang had to be hospitalized for treatment when his disease took a turn for the worse. Sores and ulcers appeared all over his limbs and head. Due to his lack of immunity, his wounds took two months to recover, during which his left footplate was infected and the doctor predicted a below knee amputation for worst-case scenario. This was a blow to Ah Kang who worried about not being able to care for himself and his mother if the amputation was performed. It was a relief to him when he was told that he only had to have his toe and left footplate amputated.
Despite the amputation, he carried on with the responsibility to care for his mother. Every evening before he goes to work and every morning when he comes back from work, Ah Kang will buy food for his mother, feed her, change her diapers, wash her etc. Even during his treatment, when antibiotics and medical injections affected his mobility, he never shirked from his duty to care for his mother.
“Some families do not take care of their elderly. My elder brother took care of my grandmother in our home till she passed away. He once said that we should be filial when our elders are around instead of having to regret when they are gone,” he said to the volunteers.
Ah Kang had a lot of interaction with Tzu Chi over these past 13 years and had attended the Foundation’s befriending sessions and distribution events frequently. “I feel very moved each time I see Master Cheng Yen and listen to her dharma teachings (through the recorded speech). It is really wonderful that she can help so many people. I feel fortunate having my limbs after watching videos of other people who have lost their legs and are in a worse situation than me.”
Tzu Chi volunteers encouraged Ah Kang to take the first step to help others and presented him with a Tzu Chi bamboo bank. He resolved to make a daily deposit to the bank, think good thoughts and wished that he could continue to care for his mother for the rest of her life.
Teaching by example
Tzu Chi volunteer Jennifer Tan walked into Ah Kang’s life in 2007. She admitted that she was full of apprehension before her first visit. However, that dissipated when she found Ah Kang to be easygoing. His filial piety to his mother too left a deep impression on her.
Once, Ah Kang wanted to bring his mother to attend a Tzu Chi event with the intention of giving her some fresh air after staying at home for such long periods. However, it was not an easy task as his mother was slow and immobile. Tzu Chi volunteers promptly provided them with transport after coming to know about his well intentions.
“From the exchange of their glances and the close bonding between mother and son, we can tell that the mother really wanted to attend the event and was very happy. I was very touched by Ah Kang’s filial piety,” recalled Sister Tan emotionally.
Brother Ang Leck Kang, who is also a successful businessman, came to know Ah Kang in February 2011 and was very moved when he witnessed his respect and abidingness to his mother. “It is truly a feat for a middle-aged man with poor health and financial capability to be able to attend to his mother’s every need in such a situation.”
Brother Ang’s mother broke her spinal cord after her fall in 2010. Due to her old age and osteoporosis, doctors were unable to perform surgery on her. Brother Ang then moved his mother to live with him and employed two maids to attend to her.
“I am in a better financial and physical condition than Ah Kang. Yet, my filial piety pales in comparison to him,” said the volunteer.
Coming from an extended family with a mother of strong personality, Brother Ang sometimes reflected upon himself, “Why am I unable to communicate properly with my mother when I can do so with other care recipients?” Following that, he started to treat his mother like a living Buddha at his home, empathizing with her suffering, avoiding harsh words and trying not to create worries for her.
On 5 April 2012, Ah Kang quietly passed away at the age of 46. During the past 13 years, Tzu Chi had opened and closed his case twice, before converting him to a self-reliant case. As long as he was able to, the strong-willed care recipient had chosen to leave the aid to people who need it more than him.
Thirteen years of friendship and ties between Tzu Chi and Ah Kang ran long and deep, and has also left an indelible lesson in the heart of Brother Ang. “Although Ah Kang talks little, I have learnt a lot from him.”
In the Sutra of Innumerable Meanings, there is a passage that describes how a ferryman, despite his own illness still delivers others in his solid boat to the other shore (譬如船师身有病，若有坚舟犹度人). Indeed, the little raft in the ocean can only travel far and wide if it is not afraid of the waves and doesn’t mind its own meagre strength. In the spirit of the courageous ferryman, let us treasure every second of our life and make a difference to others.