On empathy

by | November 7, 2016

While volunteering for the Home Nursing Foundation, photographer Kelvin Lim set out last year to gift the patients a nice portrait of themselves. He shares his thoughts on his project at the last National Council of Social Service’s Integrated Eldercare Network.


kelvinlim-04This is the true story of a young couple, Shabbeer and Meharun. They lived with their five little children in a small HDB flat. This happened more than 40 years ago. Shabbeer and Meharun were very poor. The husband worked two jobs. In the day, he worked as a cleaner, sweeping the roads and clearing rubbish bins. At night, he worked in the petrol station as a pump attendant.

On the other hand, Meharun worked three jobs. At 6am, she would clean the stairs and corridors of HDB flats, from the top floor to the bottom. She would also clear the trash at the ground floor rubbish chutes. Cockroaches would rush out and crawl all over her arms and body. Nothing could get rid of the smell.

In the afternoon, she would return home to cook and to care for her old mother-in-law. She would teach her five-year-old daughter how to cook nasi lemak, do housework, and care for her little brothers. Meharun herself barely had time to eat.

Then, she would continue working, cleaning the homes of other families – up to eight homes every day, until late into the evening. At night, when everyone was asleep, she would start her overnight shift as a factory worker.

The couple worked very, very hard. But they earned so little; they couldn’t even afford their children’s textbooks and school fees. They don’t have enough to eat, and never had enough sleep. But they were very, very kind. When their own siblings needed help, they offered food and shelter. At one time, more than 30 people were living in the same little flat.

Despite their kindness, life was cruel. Shabbeer’s mother was against their marriage, because she wanted him to marry another woman. Whenever he was away at work, she would vent her anger on Meharun and her little children. It was horrible. For nine years, the old lady scolded Meharun, beat her, stepped on her children, poured urine on them, and even tried to kill them. For nine years, she suffered abuse, insults, and hideous lies of adultery.

Every day, Meharun cried. Shabbeer understood everything, and always stood by his wife. But they continued to take care of the old lady, because no one else wanted to. The couple just couldn’t bear to leave her alone, and homeless. The abuse never stopped.

One day, when the old lady tried to strangle their baby son, the poor wife couldn’t take it anymore. Depressed and broken, she ran to the toilet, and drank a large bottle of chorine. She survived. In the hospital, she told the police that she was too stressed taking care of the children. But she never blamed anyone for the life she suffered.

After Meharun was discharged from hospital, she continued caring for the old lady. As the years passed, the old lady became weaker and weaker.

One afternoon, when Meharun came home from work, she saw her mother-in-law lying down, covered in her own faeces and blood. As Meharun was cleaning up and bathing her, the old lady reached out, wrapped her hands around Meharun’s ankles, and said, “Please forgive me.” Two days later, she passed away.

When I met this beautiful couple last year, Shabbeer was already 76 years old, too old and weak to work anymore. Meharun has Parkinson’s disease – her hands and body were shaking, and she couldn’t speak clearly.

Siti, their daughter, was also there. She remembered that day when mum nearly died. She was only 13, and she and her brothers were crying in the toilet. When mum was in hospital, she carried her baby brother on her back, sold curry puff to make money, and cooked nasi lemak for the family.

Siti will always remember the day when mum came back from hospital, and told her, “I came back because of you, my children.”

As I was sitting there like a little kid, listening to Shabbeer and Meharun tell their story, Siti cooked nasi lemak for me, the same nasi lemak she cooked for her family 40 years ago, when her mum was fighting for her life. It was the best nasi lemak I’ve ever tasted.

I wasn’t there because I already knew Shabbeer and Meharun. I had never met them before. I was there because I was working on a project with Home Nursing Foundation (HNF), and all I needed to do was to take a nice photo of them, for their memories. I ended up sitting there for four hours, listening to their story.

Now, you know their story, too. What do you think Shabbeer and Meharun look like? If you were there, what kind of photos would you take?

If you think Shabbeer and Meharun are old, weary, and sad-looking people, you will be surprised.

Meharun – with Parkinson’s disease, slurred speech, nine years of hardship and torture – has the warmest smile I have seen throughout the entire project, and possibly the warmest smile I have ever photographed. Shabbeer is a very funny man, and very playful, too! He laughed, cuddled and rocked his wife, and squeezed her cheeks like a baby.

I have photographed weddings for almost 15 years, but I’ve never seen a man kiss his wife so many times.

kelvinlim-02When you look at their photos, you see love, happiness and life. But you don’t see their pain. You don’t see how frightened and how brave the family was. And it is impossible for any of us to fully appreciate how much we can learn from them.

Their incredible patience. The kindness they showed to the woman who gave them hell. Even when she tried to kill their baby, they told their children, over and over again, “One day, she will accept us”. This is the first time in my life that I’ve met someone so forgiving.

Today, Shabbeer and Meharun have 18 grandchildren. Siti has five children of her own. To this day, Siti tells her children that no matter how much you suffer in life, never hold a grudge against anyone, else, you will never find peace.


The many stories

In total, I photographed 48 patients for HNF. To be very honest, even before the project started, I thought it would be easy. I thought I could make the patients very happy, just like how I made so many of my paying customers laugh. I wanted to show them how beautiful they are through my pictures.

I was feeling so confident, I started to believe my work could make a difference to their lives. In fact, I was even beginning to think quite highly of myself. Shame on me. This was never about what I wanted.

The first patient we visited was so burdened and troubled with age, sickness and family problems, she never smiled a single smile.

Another patient told us, “Sorry, my friend couldn’t make it, because he just jumped down from the building.”

Somewhere in Ang Mo Kio, a woman gave up her daughter to a richer family, so the child could have a better life. For more than 60 years, she never stopped thinking about her only child, but she never told anyone, and lived every day in pain and sorrow.

A 37-year-old gentleman lying on the bed. He has been lying on this same bed for 16 years, after a traffic accident. He may never wake up again, and even the doctors lost all hope in him. But his ageing parents spend their remaining years by his side. They refuse to give up. This is how the mother spends time with her son … she touches his face and talks to him, as if the accident never happened.

kelvinlim-06A 75-year-old man wakes up everyday not knowing whether it’ll be a happy day, or a sad one. His wife can’t remember him anymore, even though they’ve been married for 59 years. On good days, everything will be calm. On bad days, she can say things that hurt so much; her husband wondered if he should go before her. But he loves her very much. He once took a picture of her when she was only 17, and until today, he still keeps this small, monochrome portrait in his wallet.

There are many other stories, and some are so sad, I struggle to express them in words. Let alone with photographs.


A life not worthless

As a Singaporean, I’m very proud of our effort to recognise our pioneers, and the wonderful policies we are building for successful ageing. But there’s a very human side to ageing that cannot be address by policies alone.

All over the island, there are thousands of registered seniors in low-income estates, but how many actually join the activities we organise for them? How do we reach out to those who are isolated?

Our seniors live in a very different world, and very often, a lonely world. For the elderly, being alone is a scary thing. And the saddest thing for a lonely person is having no one to talk to. No one to share their pride, their joy, their burden and their regrets.

kelvinlim-07It is not enough for us to do home visits, clean houses, give food and give money. We recognise the urgent need to have more befrienders to reach out to isolated seniors – already, our VWOs are struggling to cope. How are we going to get more befrienders if everyone else in the city is rushing like mad? How can our efforts to bring the old and the young together ever work, if we don’t empathise?


Taking stock

In April, we had an exhibition featuring our seniors, and brought in a few photographers to teach our seniors some basic photography skills. The seniors were bored, and couldn’t wait for the session to end. The photographers simply went through the motions. There was absolutely no empathy, and no desire to connect.

If we want our action plans to last, we have to learn how to join their world, instead of expecting them to join ours. We have to learn how to slow down, and listen. There are people who’ll live till their last days, and no one would have known about them. They are all around us, they could even be right beside us. Many people won’t even give them a second glance.

But they are somebody. They breathe the same air, share the same piece of land, and left a footprint, just like you and I. They made a difference, even if it’s too small for anyone to notice. Deep down, they want someone to know that their life wasn’t worthless.

Early this year, just before the Lunar New Year, I tried to visit very single patient to give them their photograph. I saw many happy faces. Most of them remember me. Some don’t, because they have dementia. One man reminded me, repeatedly, “You never come for more than 10 years!”

Many patients looked at their portrait for a long time, with a smile on their faces. It felt good. I didn’t do anything very special, except to spend time with them, listening to them. They taught me many things, and one thing they tell me, the one thing, which I still find so difficult to reconcile, is that life can turn against you without warning. Of the 48 patients, four have already passed on, all in just a few months. Another one had turned so blind, he couldn’t see the happiness in his picture. There was nothing in the house; the walls were completely bare. Even as I’m speaking now, I can remember so clearly the sight of the man, sitting alone beside the door, no expression on his face, eyes looking at nothing.

kelvinlim-12The last person to receive his portrait was an elderly man who was abandoned by his family. When he saw the portrait of himself, he broke down, and said, “If I can be so happy on my last day, I’ll be satisfied.”

I hope we can stop running for a while, and learn how to walk beside them.

One day, we will grow old, and come face-to-face with death. But we’re still young. We spend so much of our youth chasing success, but as a people, we have never, ever, tried to maximize our capacity to feel. None of us can look at ourselves in the mirror right now, and say, with all honesty – we are a gracious society. Please give ourselves a chance to love those we do not understand. Put aside our differences, our pride and our desire to be rewarded. Only then can we truly connect with the less privileged.

kelvinlim-13We can never solve all their problems. But if we care enough to listen, we can show them a brighter, happier place.



** To find out more about Portraits of Love, go to: www.portraitsoflove.sg.






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