Madam Ah Chee is a welcoming, motherly figure – how apt it is that she used to be a kindergarten teacher. She speaks warmly about her work and family, recounting stories from her teaching days. Occasionally, she pauses, her face showing signs of slight discomfort from the pain that her illness brings. It is during one of these pauses that she catches a glimpse of a giggling toddler in the hallway. Her eyes light up, spirits visibly lifted by this sight.
A few moments later, the sound of tiny feet shuffling across the floor distracts Madam Ah Chee. This lovely toddler, with her fringe framing her tiny face, is Madam Ah Chee’s granddaughter. She deftly uses the walking stick Madam Ah Chee was resting her arms on as a prop and hoists herself up on to her grandmother’s seat, promptly inserting herself into the conversation.
Madam Ah Chee explains that her son lives within walking distance, and brings the baby over every weekday before going to work. “I cannot go a day without seeing her, even on the weekends when she is with her parents I will either walk over to the house or call to see my granddaughter.”
Babysitting her granddaughter has had a therapeutic effect on Madam Ah Chee.“I keep myself occupied with her, I am teaching her to read and write,” says Madam Ah Chee as she strokes her granddaughter’s hair affectionately. They are each other’s favourite playmate and companion.
“It was disappointing that they could only detect my breast cancer at Stage 4. I had been to many doctors and hospitals over and over again before I was finally diagnosed,” reflects Ah Chee on the first time she heard about her condition. “I was referred to Hospis Malaysia and it has helped me manage my symptoms – pain, fatigue, nausea, difficulty sleeping, so many things! The palliative care nurse came over to the house and explained ways to cope with all this. The nurse also counselled me and the family at the beginning when I was still coming to terms with my diagnosis,” she says gratefully.
At this point, Madam Ah Chee’s granddaughter, who wandered away mid-conversation, interrupts to offer her grandmother some tea she made in her mini-kitchen in one corner of the living room. She hands a small plastic cup to Madam Ah Chee, who laughs and thanks her, pretending to take a sip. They look at each other and smile before Madam Ah Chee picks up where she left off.
“It has become increasingly difficult for me to get around these days. The pain is crippling at times,” she says. However, her smile betrays no sign of weakness. “My husband is incredibly supportive and helps me with anything I ask him,” she adds. Although her support system is strong, Madam Ah Chee knows she has to accept her loss of independence, no matter how reluctantly.
The presence of her granddaughter liberates Madam Ah Chee from dwelling in thoughts of death and pain. Looking after her day after day has given Madam Ah Chee a sense of independence, a purpose to live the rest of her days on a positive note.