They have been married for 72 years. She has dementia and forgets many things, but she remembers him and the Hainanese chicken rice he makes. However, he was diagnosed with leukaemia and his deteriorating condition made it difficult for him to care for her. With the help of Assisi Hospice’s care team, they stayed together till he passed away peacefully
93-year-old Mr Phua Gee Moh and 92-year-old Mdm Han Fong Tin got married in 1947. When asked how they fell in love, Mr Phua said, “There was no pak-toring (dating) in those times. Our parents asked us to get married, so we did.”
Mr Phua came to Singapore from Hainan in China in his teens. When he was 21, he went back to Hainan to marry Mdm Han, who was then 20, through an arranged marriage.
They were blessed with a son immediately after marriage. However, Mr Phua came back to Singapore alone to work to support the family, while Mdm Han stayed in Hainan to take care of his elderly mother and their son. They lived separately in Singapore and China for over 10 years. Mr Phua brought them to Singapore when his financial situation improved; but as he was working as a sailor, they still had to be live apart frequently.
Yet, distance did not affect the love and commitment they had for each other. Being a chef on board the ship, he would cook for his wife Hainanese Chicken Rice whenever he came home.
He was grateful to her for taking care of the family when he was often away. He said, “She’s very hardworking, and keeps the house very clean. Husband and wife should work together to build the home. Of course, we have our quarrels, but we let it go after quarrelling. For us, marriage is for a lifetime, divorce is never on our minds.”
When Mr Phua was 54, he stopped sailing. The couple could finally spend more time together. Mr Phua started his new job as a housekeeper in a hotel, while Mdm Han worked as a waitress in a restaurant. They enjoyed marketing, cooking and visiting their friends during their leisure time.
However, about three years ago when Mdm Han turned 89, Mr Phua noticed that she started to be rather forgetful. She was diagnosed with dementia and her memory gradually declined. Eventually, she could only recognise Mr Phua and could be tearful and emotional at times. Despite getting on in years himself, Mr Phua took over the management of the household, continuing to care for her lovingly.
In December 2018, Mr Phua was dealt another blow. He was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow. His condition deteriorated quickly, and he could no longer take care of Mdm Han. Their only son and daughter-in-law are both in their 70s and are suffering from chronic illnesses.
On 9 January 2019, Mr Phua was admitted to Assisi Hospice. However, he looked very unsettled and kept requesting to go home. Our palliative care team was puzzled and spoke with him; only then we understood his home circumstance and that he had been the sole caregiver for his wife. He expressed that he needed to rush back to care for Mdm Han who was alone at home. The next day on 10 January, we arranged for her to be admitted together with him and converted a double room into their space.
The quiet joy in their eyes when Madam Han walked into the room spoke volumes of their love. Many of the hospice staff were in tears witnessing their reliance and faithfulness to each other. So for the next two weeks, this couple in the double room in Assisi’s St Anthony’s ward became the staff’s love story of the year. Mr Phua passed away peacefully on 22 January 2019, with Mdm Han by his bedside. We were also able to help with Madam Han’s care needs as our social worker arranged for her to receive continued care at a nursing home.
It was our privilege to witness the enduring love between Mr Phua and Mdm Han. Their 72-year-old story of selfless love from the heart inspires us to continue to do what we do – to honour every single patient who comes into our care because everyone has a story and is part of the community we live in.