[The first dinner must have been painful for him because it was less than a month before that he and Ming Yang were at a similar dinner, and at times,I saw his face drawn with pain and his eyes filled with tears.]

Source: The Sunday Times Apr 24, 2011

By Lee Wei Ling My elder brother Hsien Loong’s son Yipeng was born on Oct 7, 1982. The baby had albinism, which means he had no pigment on his skin and eyes, and his vision would be impaired. Hsien Loong phoned our father to tell him about the baby’s condition, and added: ‘He will not be able to do national service.’Loong’s late wife Ming Yang died of a heart attack three weeks after delivering the baby. I had just returned to Boston then after passing my MRCP (UK) examination, when my father phoned me to tell me that Ming Yang had died.I flew home immediately, and stayed for a month. Then I returned to Boston to continue my training in paediatric neurology.

Recently, while clearing some papers, I came across old letters exchanged between my mother and me from that period. They speak of a sad time in our family, of persisting despite everything, of keeping faith with the fundamentals.Below I reproduce a letter from my mother to me, dated Nov 25, 1982, and my reply, dated Dec 7, 1982.


My dear Ling,

Your letter of 14/11 arrived a few days ago.We (Pa and Ma) were barely stirring, about to wake, when the SOs (security officers) put through your call. We were both glad to hear your voice. You sounded more like your usual self.I was fearful you would be down and depressed and very vulnerable then to ‘falling in love’. Papa always assures me that when he ‘fell in love’ with me, it was a very carefully considered decision. He wanted someone intelligent so he could talk to her; someone healthy to bear healthy children, and someone tall and big because he wanted tall big children.The fact that I am two and a half years older than he is, was also carefully considered!

He did not discuss me with his parents, though he was very close to his mother. I hope you have inherited Papa’s approach to this very important decision, and will not allow yourself to fall in love with the wrong person, and that you will make as happy a choice as your father did. Loong has brought Yipeng to Mount Elizabeth medical centre. Dr KCY, an ophthalmologist, arranged for a British specialist, Dr MR, to see Yipeng. 

Dr MR did not tell us much that Loong did not already know. He examined Yipeng’s eyes in a darkened room with an ophthalmoscope and made what Loong cynically described as ‘comforting sounds’. He said that the pigment will probably develop when the child is between 12 and 15 years old, but he was just making a general statement, not forecasting anything for Yipeng.

We invited Loong to a poolside barbecue, and he said he would (come) and did bring Xiuqi to this second poolside barbecue. The first dinner must have been painful for him because it was less than a month before that he and Ming Yang were at a similar dinner, and at times, I saw his face drawn with pain and his eyes filled with tears.

The second dinner, he was a little more composed. He must and will get over it. But it’s so painful.

Mary Thatcher (the widow of W.S. Thatcher, my father’s former tutor at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University), to whom Loong had sent the two cards (one to announce Yipeng’s birth and the other Ming Yang’s death), wrote a letter to him and one to me.

She was very perceptive, and wrote that I must be grieving to see my son grieve, and that is true.

I don’t want to make you sad, Ling, but I must get it off my chest. I went to see Dr LYK and Dr CBL for a thorough check because I still have heartache. They made me do the treadmill test and took some ultrasound pictures of my heart. They said everything was fine and I quite believe them, and know it is just psychological heartache.

Look after yourself and write home.

Love,
Mama

Dear Pa, Ma & Family,

This past weekend was the first weekend since returning from Singapore when I did not have to carry my beeper, because my colleague is back from vacation.Saturday was an exceptionally warm day. I went for a long walk at Mount Auburn Cemetery. I have walked there many times before, especially last fall and this past spring and summer. The last time I walked there I was depressed over failing the MRCP exam and anxious about trying the exam again.

I remember Ming Yang wrote me a comforting letter soon after I arrived back in Boston (after failing the first MRCP exam). This time Ming Yang is gone. I felt very, very sad as I walked in the cemetery.

But cemeteries always have a calming effect on me and put life in its correct perspective. When I see graves of whole families with members dying at all ages, from babyhood to their 90s, I remember what we all know but purposely try to forget: how transient and unpredictable life is.

Ma, if you could send me at least US$3,000, I want to open a ‘First Rate Account’. I am enclosing a letter from the bank. You can see the conditions and let me know whether I am wise. I can start the account any time after 14/12/82. My current account is running low again because I have been buying quite a lot of books.

Ma, stop fretting about my falling for an American. I can’t give any 100 per cent guarantees, but have always let reason override passion in this particular matter. Besides, I am not even sure I want ever to get married.

Love,
Ling

It is now April 2011. Yipeng is a polite, gentle and determined young man of 29, a graduate of the National University of Singapore. He is still undecided about what career he wants to take on. He assures me that he does not want a routine job but one where he can contribute to society.Hsien Loong got over his grief and married Ho Ching, who has two sons, both now studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has been a kind and sensible mother to Ming Yang’s two children as well as to her own. She has been a filial daughter-in-law and a kind and very considerate sister- in-law. And I have remained happily single, and now support my father in his old age.Life is an obstacle course. Neither moaning nor surrendering to depression can change things for the better. We have to roll with the punches, grit our teeth and carry on with life.

As a character in the Samuel Beckett novel, The Unnamable, puts it: ‘You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’

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