Life without Bernard
Bessie Yap shares about her husband whom she lost in 2013 to cancer, and her life after.
BY: Eleanor Yap
“I still miss him,” said 80-year-old Bessie Yap, as she spoke about her husband, Bernard, who passed away in 2013. The mother of two shared how the two first met: “I was introduced to him in 1957. His cousin was working with me in the British Royal Air Force doing administration work. Maybe it was love at first sight for him but for me it wasn’t!”
She said that her parents were old-fashioned and they wouldn’t allow her to go out with him and her father would ask him to come over to the house. However, they could go out to the movies, but the stipulation was that they had to be back by 6pm.
After several years of courtship, the two got engaged in 1960 and then got married in 1962. “He was very caring but sometimes, he can be hot-tempered. We stayed at home most of the time; he liked music and reading. When we went out, it was mostly to go to church or any other invitations. He was very homely and didn’t like me going out,” she shared. She was at the time working for an American service company providing service and labour to rigs, while Bernard was a senior draftsman at a rig building company called Bethlehem Singapore.
Their lives were uneventful, until in 2011 when he was diagnosed with lymphoma. “We didn’t know until we found that his whole body was swollen. We sent him to SGH where they scanned him but they couldn’t tell us what was the cause of the swelling so my daughter decided to seek a second opinion,” said Bessie. They took him to see a doctor at Mount Elizabeth Hospital and he shared that it was cancer and it was Stage 3 or 4. The doctor there did a further scan and some other tests to confirm that it was cancer.
Bernard quickly started on treatment, which was at the National Cancer Centre where he received two chemotherapies in one month. He received chemotherapy treatment for one year and 10 months. After the chemotherapy, Bessie said he was well and managed to go about his daily life until sometime in August 2013 when he caught the flu virus from the hospital when he went for his chemotherapy treatment. He then became very weak, losing appetite and weight, and he couldn’t continue his next chemotherapy treatment. “The chemotherapy treatment killed all the cells including the good ones,” said Bessie, who stayed with him during the treatment and was the sole caregiver when he got sick.
Sharing about the ups and downs, she said that before the flu, her husband was improving but the flu “brought him right down”. “Once he got infected, it was hard to cure.” He would be cared at home and a nurse from the hospital’s hospice side would visit him regularly as his doctor recommended he be treated at home as he was too weak to go to the hospital. Bessie continued that he wasn’t bedridden and was quite mobile but stayed home-bound and took his cancer medication. When his appetite also got affected, Bessie had to administer morphine to him to keep his pain at bay.
All this time, she had no helper, and she took on the role as the dutiful wife caring for him day in and day out. “I had to keep a close eye on him and even bathed him when he ended up couldn’t doing it by himself.”
Bessie said, “I didn’t know what to do if he passed away.” One day, she was encouraged to talk to him about death such as what clothes he wanted to wear, etc, and she called it one of the toughest days. “He told me the set of clothes [he wanted to wear] and l took it out from the cupboard and washed them and placed them aside,” she added.
Things were touch-and-go for the Bernard. “Before he passed away in 2013, he got worse and the doctor told me he wasn’t going to get better. I didn’t want him to think I wanted him to go. I felt I couldn’t do anything for him and I felt hopeless. I felt I didn’t want to lose him and I wanted to make it better. I prayed that I would surrender him to the Lord and he could go peacefully. I had to take one day at a time praying and hoping for the best but l didn’t want him to suffer.”
She said that Bernard starting having breathing problems in 2013 and had to use an oxygen unit for three months. “It was 24/7 for me from the beginning. I had to send him to see the doctor and make sure he didn’t fall or get a cold.” Talking about the last week with him, she shared, “He still could talk but on the last week he was very quiet. He didn’t want to talk or answer me when l talked to him.”
When he passed away, Bessie’s world was turned upside-down. “I felt very lost without him. I would cook and go to the market and church, but I rarely socialised. I just took care of my three grandchildren,” she said. “I depended on him; everywhere we went, he would lead. I didn’t know how to get around. That is why I am learning now.”
After one year, her friends kept “pestering” her to join a volunteer group. At first, she was only keen on doing ad-hoc volunteering and would help at the Siglap Community Centre (CC), which was near her home, in whatever they needed such as helping with the breakfast with the MP at different blocks in the Siglap area. However, her friends then encouraged her to do more so she decided why not.
“l was thinking why not help others when l can manage. I was thinking maybe some day I might need help and other people might need to help me,” she explained.
In 2014, she registered and got training to become a member of the Senior Citizen Executive Committee at Siglap CC. She got accepted into the committee and started being a part of organising events for seniors and bringing them out every three months in the mornings to places of interest such as Gardens by the Bay and Botanic Gardens. She would also help with events registration, which took up her time every week. Today, she still continues doing this, and also she has added another volunteering opportunity.
That same year, she was asked to be a befriender for Changi General Hospital’s Eastern Health Alliance and went for the training. With a partner, they currently befriend a woman who has chronic mental illness once a week for two hours. “If she is admitted to hospital, we will see her more often.” Bessie’s schedule is fixed – on Mondays, she is at home; Tuesdays, she is befriending; Wednesdays she goes over to her daughter’s house to oversee the cleaners; Thursdays and Fridays, she helps with registration of events at Siglap CC; Saturdays is attending church and Sundays, she teaches a Rummy-o (a version of rummy that is played with tiles instead of a deck of cards) to the seniors at Siglap CC.
Speaking about her life after Bernard, she said: “Life must go on and we have to let go a little by little. I do miss going out with Bernard, talking to him and sharing conversations with him.”
In the darkness, she has found some light, finding meaning helping others. “I feel happy helping people who are in need. That is the only thing I can do; I can’t help them financially but I can do work with my hands. If you have the time, it is good to volunteer and help those who need your help. l feel very happy and bless to be able to continue helping others at my age. I thank God for giving me this opportunity to do what l can.”