After 35 years as a newsman I found myself recently in the unfamiliar role of newsmaker after the book Good Grief! was launched and I was interviewed for stories in the newspaper. There was a videoshoot as well, for a three-minute clip to accompany Wong Kim Hoh’s profile in The Sunday Times on February 6 2016. The three young photojournalists were interviewing me in the library at News Centre when they asked me about my experience as a volunteer and I told them first about being a telephone helpline counsellor in the 1970s and early 1980s before moving on to describe the years I’d spent as a HIV and AIDS volunteer at Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Action for AIDS’ anonymous testing clinic. I stopped being a HIV/AIDS volunteer a decade ago and yet, when I started to talk about it, I began to tear and then I found myself suddenly overwhelmed.
Shawn, Edward and Sor Luan were taken aback, and so was I, because I did not know where these tears were coming from, or why, after so long. I had just begun talking about Mr Teo LJ, a patient I befriended after a doctor suggested I see him because he had no visitors. At the time I was a new volunteer with Care, the Catholic AIDS Response Effort. Many brave pioneers had stepped forward as HIV/AIDS volunteers from the 1980s and I certainly wasn’t among the first. But even then, in the 1990s, a HIV diagnosis was a death sentence for most. Mr Teo died a few months after we met. Thankfully, much has changed since, with the availability of drugs that allow HIV-positive people to live long, healthy lives. Mr Teo was the only patient I knew well who died, and I talked about him when I spoke at an AIDS Day mass at the Novena Church in 1998. I reproduce what I said here, in his memory and in thankfulness for tears of remembrance 18 years after.
There are many AIDS volunteers in church tonight, some have been doing good work for several years, others have been drawn to this only recently. I am a rookie, having joined Care only a year ago, and like the others in this group, much of what I do involves the men and women admitted to the AIDS ward of the Communicable Disease Centre of Tan Tock Seng Hospital. Volunteers visit them, talk to them, check what they feel like eating and bring it to them. Sometimes we get to know their families, or we get close enough to miss them deeply after they are gone. We befriend not only the dying, but also people with HIV who still have a lot of living to do.
One man took me into the deep end of caring for people with AIDS in my first year as a volunteer, and I would like to tell you about him. On one of my visits to the AIDS ward, a doctor said: “Come and meet this man. Nobody ever visits him.” And then I was in his room, there was no escaping. He looked a sight, his body was wasted, and he lay curled up in bed. But he was surprisingly cheerful and talkative, we hit it off, and I became his regular visitor on Saturdays, seeing him two to three hours each time.
He was married with grown children, but his family visited him rarely. We would talk about anything – his army days, how he courted his wife and went dancing in discos in the 1970s, his various businesses and how they failed. Or he would ask me about me, my job, my family.
What do you want, I asked. “I want to go home. I want to get well. I want to get a job.” Once he wanted to get a job as a driver. Another time, he asked me to pray for him to get well so that he could try for a job as a newspaper photographer. Well, if you saw that man, withered as he was, you too might have laughed as I did. You have to give God a break, I said.
I asked him one day how he got sick. He replied quite plainly that he had gone to prostitutes in Singapore and in Malaysia through the 1980s. It was the reason why his wife was angry with him for being sick, he said. We did not dwell on it, except that that gave me an idea why his family stayed away.
One Saturday, I almost did not make it to see him. I had gone to Kuala Lumpur early that morning and returned the same day, so it was around 7pm when I got to his room, much later than usual.
“I thought you were not going to come. I waited the whole day,” he said.
So I stayed, and massaged his bony back and warmed his cool hands in mine. Perhaps it was the time of day but we were quieter than usual and his aloneness hit me. He had been in hospital for three months, and almost never left his room.
I asked him: “What do you think about when you lie here?”
He said: “Sometimes I just cry, the tears just roll down.”
“I think about all the things I did wrong in my life, I wasn’t a good husband, I wasn’t a good father. I was arrogant, short-tempered, proud.”
It was painful to hear him say that, painful to see the tears on his face now. It was difficult to fathom the terrible physical, emotional and mental punishment this man bore for the wrong he’d done in his life. I could only tell him to try and put the past behind him.
I asked him if he ever told his wife what he felt, or apologised to her. He said it would be no use, she would just get angry with him all over again.
That was a special visit, for me. It was the first time I understood how unloved and unwanted this man felt. And how alone he was in this room, waiting every week for the wife and children who never came.
How unworthy I was, because I knew too little about caring for a man with AIDS, I knew too little about God to comfort this little-bit-Buddhist, little-bit-Taoist man who did not mind if I held his hand and prayed a Jesus prayer, or if I took the Buddhist book someone had left for him and read him a page from it. I knew too little about what you say to a dying man who felt unforgiven for his sins.
But I realised that night that I had to let this man know that he was not alone and not unloved on his final journey. I’ll pray for your peace of mind and peace of heart, I said. He didn’t say anything, but after that, it was my prayer for him. Lord, grant him peace of mind, peace of heart to let go of the regrets and pains of his life.
I told him that I cared for him deeply, that I thought about him every day, and that I looked forward to our time together. It was all true. I made him sit up in bed, and held him and told him I loved him. I can just see his face, with a big happy grin on it. “We are brothers,” he said.
Three weeks later he died, and odd as this may sound, his death was sudden. Sudden for me. I would have been happy to continue seeing him, spending time with him. I met his wife and children in his last days, and I was able to tell them what he had told me.
I saw him in death, and was shocked because he’d been zippered into a strong plastic bodybag. His shirt was crumpled and his hair was unkempt and that crushed me because my friend deserved better. He had a speedy funeral – there was no wake and the body went directly from the hospital to the crematorium.
I had written his birthday in my diary for November and hoped to do something special with him. Instead, I am here today remembering my friend Teo.
I know he would have been happy to be here tonight, and I would have asked him. He probably is here tonight. I miss him, deeply, but I know he is in a better place.
This mass is not a memorial service for the dead. HIV and AIDS are very much about the living, and it is those of us who are still around who need love, support and prayers the most.
So tonight and whenever you pray, pray for the men who stray, the sons and brothers, husbands, fathers and grandfathers too, who do the unforgiveable and then pay a terrible price.
Pray for the people closest to them, the wives and children who cannot forgive, the wives and children who get infected too .
Pray for the doctors, nurses and staff of the CDC, who devote their working days to AIDS, and many go well beyond the call of duty. There are better ways to earn a living.
Pray for the volunteers, called to this for a variety of reasons. There are no Mother Teresa wannabes in our midst, we are sinners all. Or maybe I should just speak for myself.
And pray, always, for those who feel that people with HIV and AIDS deserve their fate because they have done wrong. Nobody sins enough to deserve what AIDS brings.