Umi, the story of my mother

Umi – The Story of My Mother, Rogayah Binti Shikh Ahmad


Rogayah Binti Shikh Ahmad, affectionately called Umi (“my mother” in Arabic), was the eldest daughter amongst five siblings. She was adopted by her maternal aunt who was childless. When Umi turned five, her father passed away and his relatives returned Umi to her mother so that she could be reunited with her siblings.

With the passing of Umi’s father, Grandma struggled to make ends meet. She could not afford to have all her children at school. Rogayah had to stay at home and helped with house hold chores and in Grandma’s small business selling Malay cakes and simple food dishes. Umi wanted very much to go to school. Alas, she was not given the privilege as being the eldest daughter, she had to make way for her younger sister, Zaharah, and her three brothers. She vowed that, one day, if she had her own children, every single one of them would be given the opportunity to have a good education.

Marriage & Motherhood

When Umi turned 20, she was asked to marry my father. She was not keen on the marriage but being an obedient daughter, she consented. Father had only primary schooling. Although hardworking, his labourer pay was barely enough to feed the family. To supplementhis income, he sold popular magazines at the five-foot walkway in Geylang Serai in the evenings. He would leave home very early in the morning for his day job and return late at night after closing up his part-time magazine business.

I hardly saw, let alone interact, with Father during my growing-up years. Mother brought us up – two boys and five girls. Two of the children died when very little – Sa’id at six months from a febrile illness and Noorhuda at age three from pneumonia. Perhaps this was why Umi was particularly vigilant when any one of us developed a fever. She would not waste any time taking us to the doctor.

Mother multi-tasked all the time for the sake of the family. She cooked, cleaned, shopped for groceries, sew our clothes, took us to the doctor and was particular about our schooling. She ensured we learnt to recite the Quran and to pray (although she herself was illiterate).

She carried a small 555 booklet and in it the grocery store owner would jot down how much she owed him for purchases. Usually, she did not have enough cash to pay for purchases and relied a lot on credit. I used to accompany Umi to the wet market and she would go from stall to stall, looking and bargaining for the cheapest items. She was a great cook and with what little she could afford she still managed to cook us delicious and nutritious meals. There was once no food in the kitchen and she had to buy some food from an Indian stall. We shared it. She cried. Looking back at my old photographs – how thin we all were! Luckily for me, when I was in primary school, a scheme was in place to provide undernourished pupils with free milk at recess time – and I was one of those who benefitted.

Umi was a disciplinarian and pragmatic. Her own mother was very strict with her. The fact that we were poor meant that Umi could not afford to pamper us. She made sure we never missed our five daily prayers. She never forced us to work hard at our studies though.  She told her daughters very matter-of-factly – “It’s up to you. If you work hard and do well in school, you can be somebody but if you are not interested in your studies, then just wait for a good husband and be stuck in the kitchen.”

Like most Asian mothers of her day, Umi did not show her love by physical touch. We all felt her love nonetheless as she always put us before herself. She would make sure we all ate before she did. When my eldest sister, Faridah, fell ill with schizophrenia, Umi brought her to Woodbridge Hospital for treatment. Whenever Faridah was hospitalised, Umi would take two buses to visit her almost daily to ensure she got to eat her delicious meals instead of the bland hospital food.

Mother- Daughter Relationship

I had a stormy relationship with Umi during my teenage years. Being headstrong, I always argued with her and got scolded often for it. I hated her even and wondered why I had such a strict mother. It was not easy for her to handle such a stubborn teenager. Thankfully, by the time I was 16, our relationship improved as I had learnt how to hold my tongue and not to argue with her over petty matters.

Umi appreciated my help around the house, was rather happy that I did well in school and trusted me more than my younger sister. Each time I asked to be out late or to attend a school camp, she would not hesitate in giving her permission and simply reminded me to be careful.

By the time I reached adulthood, our relationship became more cordial but lacked warmth. I felt envious that she loved one of our brothers and our youngest sister the most. Hence, when I decided to migrate to Australia at 24, I was not missing her much. I did not think she would miss me at all, too. Two years later, she came to Australia at the invitation of my sister in Melbourne. She looked very old and sad. Tears welled up in my eyes when it finally struck me that Umi was missing me, her ‘most difficult’ daughter all this while. After spending 10 years in Australia studying and working, I uprooted myself and returned to be with Mother and ‘nasi lemak’.

Looking After Umi

I had the privilege of looking after Mother upon returning home here in Singapore. My siblings were already married with their own families. Umi preferred to stay with her unmarried daughter in her own house.

I realised that Mother was a very generous person. She hardly spent on herself. Most of the cash that she had received from her children was given away to charity. Whenever we were at a petrol kiosk, Umi would remind me to tip the attendant. She could be humorous in her old age. Once, a brother rang while we were having dinner and I answered the call. Mother asked,“What does he want? Does he want breast milk?” We had a very good laugh.

At the age of 85, Umi developed dementia. It was no longer safe for me to leave her alone at home most of the time. I then started to share the responsibility of caring for her with my sister who resided in Mersing, Malaysia. Umi would stay three weeks in Mersing and one week in Singapore. This sister has eight children whom Mother simply adored, and they in turn adored her. This arrangement was fine.

Umi’s behaviour had been ‘cranky’ for quite some time. It struck me though that Umi might also be having depression. I decided to try prescribing her a small dose of anti-depressant. In addition to her hypertension and diabetes medications, I managed to persuade her to take another pill. She readily did so when I told her it was ‘brain medicine’. Within a week, Umi’smood lifted. Everyone was amazed at her transformation from a cranky old lady to a cheerful,joke-cracking grandma. In retrospect, she must had had depression for a long time but, unfortunately, I missed detecting it.

Stage Four Liver Cancer

On 11 September 2014, I received a message from my sister’s Indonesian maid, Resmi, in Mersing. “Come quick! Babah has had a fall”. My sister and her husband had gone off to perform the Haj, leaving their children in the good care of their uncle and aunt, and Resmi.

Immediately, I drove to Mersing. Umi had slipped and fallen on the concrete floor and sustained a cut and bruises on her scalp. The children’s uncle, Rashid, had applied first aid and the bleeding had stopped. Tears came to my eyes at the sight of her looking frail, helpless and unwell. I drove her back to Singapore and wanted to admit her straight into the Emergency Department but she refused, not wanting to trouble anyone. “I’ll be alright,” she insisted.

I contacted my elder brothers and asked for their help to persuade Umi to go to the hospital. Early the next day, my brother, Fauzi, and his son, Omar, came and together they managed to persuade Umi and we called the ambulance. She was hospitalised. After a battery of tests, it was discovered that her liver enzymes were abnormal. A CT scan revealed a large mass in her liver and other masses in the surrounding lymph nodes. Stage four liver cancer was diagnosed.

I was devastated. It explained why she had been losing appetite and weight the past one year. All this while, she had liver cancer, and, if not for her fall, it would have gone on undetected. We assumed that she was getting on and that was why she ate less.

After discussing with the hospital doctor, I decided to bring her home and give her comfort care there as she was too weak to withstand surgery or chemotherapy. We withheld the diagnosis from Umi as we did not want her to become depressed.

Our caregiving for Umi was challenging as we had not employed a maid. My siblings in Singapore were looking after their own families and were not able to help me care for Umi at home. They, however, offered to look after her for short periods whenever I needed to step out of the house.

I needed more substantive support and contacted my sister, Faizah, who lived in Melbourne. Could she come to Singapore and help me look after Umi? I was fortunate. Faizah agreed and took a long leave from her work and came to help. With Faizah’s help, Umi improved slowly, and, at the end of five weeks, I suggested to Faizah for her to return to Australia and to go back to work because staying in Singapore any longer could result in her losing her job. Faizah left but not before assuring me that she would drop everything and come again if necessary.

I persevered, and, on occasions, I had to leave Umi at home alone. Mother was truly great. She would shoo me off by saying, “It’s ok. Allah will take care of me.”

A Miracle

Then a miracle happened. My sister, Jamilah, in Mersing announced that her family no longer needed a maid as she and her husband had decided that, without a maid, their children would learn to be more helpful around the house and independent. “It’s ok. We’ll manage”, said my sister. Seizing the moment, I resolved to ask Resmi to become our domestic helper to help me care for Umi. Resmi was holidaying in Indonesia at the time. Jamilah had Resmi’s Malaysian work permit cancelled. I messaged Resmi. “Resmi, would you like to come work for me and Umi in Singapore?” Resmi was like family to us. She had been with my sister for nine years, and she knew Umi very well. She had even learnt to cook local dishes from Umi. Resmi agreed in an instant and arrived in Singapore on 18 February 2015.

The Flickering Candle

It was really challenging for me to care for Umi by myself. Umi was incontinent often and would wake up in the middle of the night needing to go to the toilet. I refused to use diapers on her as they would be bad for the skin.

We tried to lessen the discomfort for her as much as possible. With suggestions from the nurse and doctor from Agape Hospice Care, we tried to boost her nutrition intake with Ensure beverages. She developed a mild pressure sore over her buttock area and we took care of that. We also got in home oxygen as Umi became more and more breathless. The cancer kept growing and with her distended abdomen, she had difficulty breathing.

I sensed that Umi knew she had cancer. Her mother, aunt and brother had all succumbed to cancer. She accepted her condition gracefully. She was ready to leave this world. I was thankful that she did not complain of much pain and so there was no need to prescribe analgesics. She ate very little, weakening and gradually slipping away from us.

Eight months after being diagnosed, Umi passed away peacefully at home on 6 May 2015, surrounded by her children and grandchildren.

My prayer was for Umi to enter Paradise in the hereafter.

Aameen. Yaa rabbal aalameen.

By Dr Radiah Salim, in her early 50s, President of Club Heal

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