I did not include this story in my collection Good Grief! because I didn’t know what became of Cheng, the patient mentioned at the end. After the book went to print I learnt that he is still alive and well, and his doctor is hoping to link us up. The years I spent doing HIV volunteer work with patients at the Communicable Disease Centre of Tan Tock Seng Hospital and helping out at the anonymous testing clinic run by Action for AIDS remains a special experience for me. By the time I became a volunteer, numerous others had stepped forward in the 1980s and early 1990s to work with people living with HIV and AIDS in those days when infection was a death sentence and there was so much mystery, ignorance, rejection and stigma. I hope to update this story after I catch up again with my friend Cheng.
This column appeared in The Sunday Times on April 18 2004
NOWADAYS death announcements come by SMS. That’s how I found out one recent morning that Molly Wijeysingha had passed away.
She was 66 and had lost a long battle with cancer.
I remember Molly first from the mid-1980s and she was quite a character, with her tinted spectacles and hair tied up in a big bun.
She worked for an airline at the time, was a fixture at the Carriage Bar of the York Hotel, and would invite journalists for drinks and bites.
She always had a cigarette in one hand, a beer in the other, and moved to the music of the resident band if the song was right.
She was a single working woman in her 40s, always a little mysterious. She could be so guarded about revealing details about herself I swore she was something of a secret agent.
Molly actually had a story of how she risked life and limb to track down an international syndicate that stole a huge number of airline tickets. It ended happily and she told that yarn with gusto.
Did she refer to herself as Rambling Rose, or did she just like that old Nat King Cole song? I forget now.
We lost contact for several years afterwards, the shame of it being that we lived five minutes from one another all that time.
Then, in the late 1990s, I came across Molly’s name in a newsletter about a Catholic Aids support group and contacted her.
I was interested in joining, but she wasn’t about to let me visit the patients at the Communicable Disease Centre right away.
She interviewed me, probed my motives and I quickly discovered that unlike the Molly I knew from the 1980s, here was someone who was fiercely pious.
She’d tell you to your face that there was no point visiting the sick if you were only doing it to work out your own issues, to score points Upstairs or earn glory.
‘You’ve got to put God at the centre,’ she’d say. ‘If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t do this work.’
That explains how she went about being an extraordinary minister to the sick, unwanted and dying, even through years when she herself was seriously ill.
It would be dishonest to pretend now that working with Molly was a sweet and gentle stroll with a saint. She was tough, had awfully high expectations and exercised such strict control over group members that people bristled.
When it came time to part company, she didn’t waste time bickering or looking back. She simply formed a new group to carry on the work she knew had to be done.
By the time she died on April 5, Molly had loved people with Aids, the sick and dying for close to 15 years.
She could be reckless in her fearlessness, and there’s a story about the time she had her volunteer’s pass confiscated because she insisted on seeing infectious patients without taking necessary precautions.
‘God will protect me,’ she announced, but the hospital wasn’t taking chances.
She was soon back in action, and became religious about insisting that volunteers wear their gloves or masks when required.
Everyone called her ‘Sister Molly’ and there was nothing she would not do – bathe the sick, clip their fingernails and toenails, shave them, celebrate their birthdays, take them for outings…
Sometimes, when there was nothing to say, she knew it was enough to simply sit in silence with a desperately sick man or woman.
In an interview with The New Paper three years ago, she said: ‘We don’t do big things, we do small things. With extraordinary love.’
That explains the way she persevered with even the most delinquent of dying men. David drove everyone nuts in the hospital and could make my blood pressure rise in five minutes flat.
He would be fingering his rosary beads and muttering his prayers one minute, and the next, he’d be berating everyone around him loudly, hurling the wildest accusations at the nurses and amahs.
When he vanished, Molly tracked him down and found him surviving in dire conditions in a most unsavoury part of town. When he needed a priest, she found one who would accompany her to him. She remained this unlovable man’s friend until he died.
She was moved most by the rejection endured by so many people with Aids, especially those driven to living in open spaces, public toilets or quiet corners of disused buildings.
Some of these guys were simply bad news. But Molly was not only drawn to them, she managed to provide shelter for some, allowing them to live out their days with dignity.
She said in a newspaper interview that it was hard to watch the people she cared for die, but in the end, she received from them too: ‘Their love, affection and concern is so amazing, you wouldn’t believe it.’
I was never close to Molly, but she will always be someone who made a lasting impact.
The morning of her funeral I looked up Cheng, whom I hadn’t seen in several months.
When we first met in 1998, he was a handsome, well-built young man in his 30s and bewildered from having just learnt he was infected with HIV, the Aids virus.
He poured out his life story to me that day, and what a tale it was.
Now, at the bottom of his Housing Board block, he shows me how his blue jeans are so loose, his arms and legs so thin and darkened unhealthily. He is wasting away.
He has stopped taking his HIV medicines and if that doesn’t change, he’ll go sooner, not later.
But he is cheerful, tells me about this old neighbourhood and the couple of friends who still look him up.
He insists on buying me a coffee from the kopitiam, because this is his territory, and he has tea. As we catch up, we watch a group of elderly women gossip, and a man walks over to scrounge a cigarette off Cheng shamelessly.
I know he’s enjoyed my dropping by as much as I have, when he says he won’t mind if I come again.
The visit is a small thing. And yes, as Molly knew, it feels good.