“Keep Calm and Be a Carer”

Almost a quarter of century ago, I returned to Malaysia after 11 years of studying and working in the
US. Returning into traditional Malay culture, a close knit family provided me the support system for
my young children and aging parents. Therefore, against this backdrop my story as a sandwich
carer unfolds and highlights the turning points of my special child and my elderly mother.

 

When my children were growing up, my mother and in-laws would often come to the house and
spend time taking care of them. However, my mother noticed that my second son, Wafi was
boisterous and hyperactive and had an influence on his younger brother. When they were toddlers,
they climbed the grill from floor to ceiling, hung on the heavy porch gates and ran around until
exhausted or fought with each other. Wafi was a late talker and did not start talking until he was
about six. In kindergarten, he used to climb trees and one day he scared his caretakers when he
turned blue after climbing a tree as he was also asthmatic.

 

Otherwise, he is a happy-go- lucky, lovable, good tempered boy with high level of curiosity and
creativity. He is passionate about creating things especially using Lego for hours. He would arrange
hotwheel cars or anything else in a long row. Our favorite pastime was to go to the Butterworth train
station and watch the train cars “shunting” or “coupling” before the night train leaves.


Wafi’s first week in his first year of school was filled with excitement, for him and for me. As
standard one was in afternoon session, he would line up besides the class and enter together with
the other eager pupils. But as the teacher was doing roll-call, Wafi would be sweeping the floor in
the back of the class or sneaked out of class chasing sparrows all over the school yard. I ended up
spending my afternoons in the school for a week after sending him in case he decided to go bird
sighting again. It was not until he was in standard four that we were able to get him diagnosed as
mild ADHD by NASOM and started him on a regime of Efalex and Ritalin to calm his hyperactivity.
That explained why his thoughts, behavior and emotions were sometimes out of sync, which led to
hilarious and at time embarrassing moments. Back then, Wafi reminded me of the character young
Jim Hawkins in Disney’s 2002 animated movie “Treasure Planet”. The lyrics of John Rzeznik’s song
“I’m Still here (Jim’s Theme)” describes Wafi well and how he felt most of the time, “I am a question
to the world, Not an answer to be heard, Or a moment that’s held in your arms…” [1].

The first turning point was when he was twelve; he finally “matched” emotion and action,
specifically why the family members were crying when they “minta maaf” or seek forgiveness with
the elders during Hari Raya morning. He used to think it was funny and laughed when he went
around seeking forgiveness, much to the disdain of the elders when everyone was emotional and
crying with remorse. At that moment, it was as though the “emotional switch” turned on inside him
and he started crying in earnest. When asked why he was crying, he said “I’m sad”. From then on,
he became sensitive to, and more importantly caring of other people’s emotion.

During the first morning of the UPSR examination, the school headmaster called and asked me to
come to the school urgently. Wafi was throwing pencils into the ceiling after finishing his first UPSR
paper because he was nervous. Therefore, I spent three days in the school canteen with a group of
mothers so that Wafi could see me from where he was seated on the third floor. He may not have
gotten straight As in UPSR and PT3, but when he was transferred to a technical school in form four,
he excelled in technical papers such as science, mathematics and air-conditioning compared to
languages. Hence, I observed Wafi’s second turning point: once he found his strength in technical
areas, his “academic switch” turned on. After SPM, Wafi continued with Diploma in Mechatronics
and recently graduated with the Dean’s list. He started work as a technician and now waiting for
UPU results to get into the Bachelor in Mechatronics program in a local university.

Of late, I observed that Wafi has an interest in girls like any other boys. His idea of the ideal
girl/woman is somewhat influenced by his love for anime, so the girl/woman of his dream must have
Eastern characteristics as evidenced in Cosplay. I think Wafi’s “relationship switch” has not switched
on as the way he thinks what a girl/woman should be and reality still does not match.


On the other hand, I watch how my mother—an independent, active lifelong nurse—becoming frail
but growing old gracefully over the years. Mummy took an early retirement from nursing in 1989
and became active in the Malaysian Netball Association, St. John’s Ambulance, American Foreign
Service, Commonwealth Games and other voluntary work. Her biggest pleasure post-retirement
was being a “sun chaser”. Together with our retired neighbours the “Aunties” or “Golden Girls”, they
raced every morning to do laundry and hung clothes to catch the sun. Another of her favorite
pastimes is pottering around the house be it rearranging, dusting, sowing, mending, gardening,
washing and washing some more. She keeps her mind active through mandatory reading of the
newspaper in the morning and reciting the Quranic verses at night. As a carer, my role was to make
sure all her daily needs, groceries and bills are taken care of. Recently, she lived with me while I was still working and she was active doing the laundry, ironing, cooking and was still able to go for
Tarawih prayers and iftar.

Alas, over the last 10 years, her health took a toll after recovering from bouts of thyroid,
hypertension and deep vein thrombosis (DVT) and the onset of loss of hearing, macular
degeneration of her eye and other health matters that limit her mobility. You could see her
frustration as she tries to cope with this turning point in her life, that is to become dependent on
someone else for things she has taken pride in doing by herself. However, she adopts a positive
attitude, switching from frustration to be more accepting of her conditions. Mummy always reminds
herself and me that “dependency switch” means “the mind is willing, but the body is not” and
calling herself “an old Mercedes Benz, looks good on the outside, but needs overhaul inside”.

 

As she celebrates her 80 th birthday this year, our favorite pastime is to spend mornings or afternoons every month attending one of the six clinics in Hospital Kuala Lumpur for her appointments. I took early retirement in 2015 so that I could escort her on clinic days for ENT, ophthalmology, dermatology, vascular, orthopedic, and general physician. She has refused any invasive treatment, for example replacement knee or eye surgery and maintains that she wants to preserve her quality of life. This “self-preservation switch” is reinforced by keeping a strict regiment of lifelong medication for hypertension and other ailments as prescribed by her physicians and a battery of supplements since her younger days.

During her 33 years of nursing service, Mummy was a strict Matron and her nurses used to call her the “Blue Tiger”. They could hear her footsteps from miles away when she did her ward rounds. When I was younger before going to the US, I used to follow her during night rounds and scout ahead to see the nurses scrambling getting ready for inspection. Nowadays, both of us retirees amuse ourselves observing nurses at work while humming Mummy’s favorite Andy Williams’ 1967 song “Music to Watched Girls (Nurses) Go By” [2]. Hence, as a lifelong nurse her third turning point is to stay calm and not to get agitated anymore when she sees the nurses not performing as what she expected like in the “good old days”. This “calming switch” seems to put her at peace with herself and the Malay word “pasrah” or acceptance seems to be apropos here.


What then, “gives me joy or makes me happy as a carer?” to quote Lisa Surihani in the orange juice advertisement. Firstly, as any parent of a special child would appreciate is seeing that your child has progressively achieve certain milestones which are the turning points in his life. In Wafi’s case, to see that his “emotional switch” and “academic switch” turned on were the greatest gifts from Allah SWT in answer to my prayers. I watch in anticipation how his development and maturity in the first quarter of his life will take him to the next stage like any other young man. I wait anxiously for the “relationship switch” to turn on.

Secondly, watching Mummy all these years gives me hope of how I will be like if I am lucky to reach three quarters of a century like her. I may have missed many turning points in her life when I was abroad, but over the last 25 years I have observed her go through several turning points which are living lessons for me. An independent woman overcoming many emotional, physical and physiological odds, Mummy has gracefully turn on her “dependency switch” without loss of dignity or ability (she still refuse to use a walking stick). Her “self-preservation switch” keeps her maintaining her quality of life at 80 with medications and supplements and keeping her mind alert through reading newspapers and reciting the Al Quran. Looking at Mummy, I’m reminded of Meghan Trainor’s lyric in “All about the Bass” wishing that “every inch of you is perfect, from the bottom (legs and knees) to the top (eyes and ears)” [3]. Lastly, my greatest joy as a sandwich carer is Mummy’s “calming switch”, which come what may, she will keep calm and enjoy life like an 80-year old retiree is supposed to do. That makes my job as a carer more meaningful, so I enjoy “Keep Calm and Be a Carer”. In conclusion, I see these turning points and switches bear some similarity to what I went through when I was Wafi’s age and seeing Mummy going through her turning points and switches give me a preview of what I may be facing soon.