Learning to Stop and Stare

My name is Siew Cheong and I am seventy one years old. I have lost usage of the right side of my body and also ninety nine percent of my speech. Most days, I travel around with my red mobility scooter or my family pushes me in a wheelchair.

But please do not feel sorry for me.

My life is very full and happy. In my mind, I have many memories, hymns and jokes. In my heart, I am joyful, thankful and prayerful.

I have learnt how to stop and stare.

People are so busy. I see city workers rushing up and down in the city. I see tourists with their children carrying bags of shopping and taking pictures of the sights. Everyone hurries around with their faces stressed.

They look ahead, they look at the ground but they never look up.

They just keep going and going and going. If they were to lift their heads up they would see the beautiful clouds with their funny shapes and forms, the thousands of rustling green leaves at the very top of the trees, the red robin chirping and the squirrel balancing off the tree with his back two legs while crunching on a nut.

In life, you have to focus on the simple things. When your body breaks down you focus on the happy things not the sad. What used to matter – work, money, power does not matter any more. Little things are what matters the most. Each little joy becomes a gift – eating some nice durians, going along the river Thames with my wife, seeing the colours of new flowers in bloom, plucking the red goji berries from my patio.

Often when you are very sick, you get a warning. It may be a pain in your stomach or a lump in your chest. You have a little bit of time to process what is going on. You may never accept it but at least you know that something in your body is definitely wrong.

For me there was no warning.

In 2007, I woke up, played badminton, went to sleep and when I opened my eyes my whole world had changed. Words that I had spoken my whole life had disappeared. Physically, I looked normal – I could walk and eat and watch TV. However, when my wife asked “What time is it?” I could not answer. Later, when they brought me to see the doctor, he asked me who the prime minister was, all I could answer was, “I know, I know.” When the doctor asked me my full name, my words were gone and I said, “I know, I know.” This is when my family knew something was very wrong.

The doctor arranged for me to go to the A&E ward. Since I was walking, functioning and eating fine I was not put as a priority case. For over an hour, I walked up and down the waiting room not knowing what was wrong with me. It was a very scary and strange experience. I could only pray. When it was finally my turn, the doctors did some scans and tests. They told my family and I that I had suffered from a stroke; my speech was affected but the worst was over. Before that day, my family never guessed I would be the sort of person that would get a stroke. I was the one who made them drink carrot juice and eat wholemeal rice. We thought strokes were for elderly, overweight people, who smoked and did not exercise. As you can see, strokes can affect anyone. It is the silent illness that comes without warning and can hit anyone from a seventy-year-old smoker to a fit thirty-year-old.

I had always been healthy. As a child I enjoyed running and playing in my father’s factory with my many dogs and cats. I was born in Singapore in 1942 during the war. My mother had struggled to find me milk. She would grind rice into a paste and mix it with water. Yet, despite the lack of nutrition I still turned out fit and well. I loved sports and up until today I love watching any kind of sports – football, tennis, badminton, snooker, formula one, table tennis, rugby and golf. My favourite is badminton and until my stroke, I was playing badminton three times a week. It would make me smile when I could beat people half my age on the badminton courts.

After my stroke, I worked hard with the speech therapist and did mild exercise. The competitive sporting side of me took over and I was determined to improve. Over time, I went from not knowing my name to regaining 80% of my speech. Apart from feeling a little more tired and losing my temper a bit more, I was fine. I was even starting to play a bit of light badminton. Two of my children got married and I was able to give a father of the bride speech at my daughter’s wedding. I jumbled up the words but spoke from my heart. There were lots of tears. Life was starting to become normal again.

That was until my second stroke.

I don’t remember a lot about what happened, but my wife said one minute I was eating breakfast and the next minute the breakfast was dripping down my face. When the ambulance arrived, my breakfast had left a mess on the floor.

My second stroke was a lot more serious. So serious, the doctors said that I would not walk or function normally again. They put me on a drip and I had a tube through my nose. I did not eat any solid foods for three weeks. I was in the hospital for five months, but I was determined not to give up. My wife supported me every step of the way. Even when the doctors were unsure if I would ever regain what I lost, I was sure. My faith in God carried me through when everyone was telling me that I would not walk again. I would hum along to hymns like Amazing Grace. My words were gone but the song in my spirit was still there.

Today, I have gone from having no movement in both legs to being able to walk for short periods of time with my stick. I still can’t use my right side but I was always left handed anyway. My family have been very supportive and are determined that I have a normal life. My wife especially has been my greatest help. She and I have travelled the world and yes, I have spent many happy hours stopping and staring. You will often find me in situations that people might not expect.

In 2010 I fulfilled my dream of visiting The Great Wall of China. I didn’t have my mobility scooter then so it is good my wife is a strong woman. She is only five foot two inches! Later, in 2012, I went to Ephesus to see the Greek ruins. It was a hot, dusty and an extremely jagged path. I was the only person out of thousands of visitors in a mobility scooter. There were some challenging moments where my scooter got a bit stuck but I was able to see the ruins. Lots of people stared and pointed. Some people told my family off for bringing me there, “You should not have brought HIM here.” But I don’t think that just because I am not as able-bodied I should miss out or ever give up. Just because it is not as easy does not mean that it is impossible. If I believed that I would stay at home and never leave the house.

After Ephesus, I travelled to Israel and zoomed around Jerusalem. I remember the day when I had to spend four straight hours on the narrow cobbled streets. We went up and down the winding roads of the Via Dolorosa. My scooter broke down for a little while but it started up again just before we reached The Wailing Wall. My family and I had a good laugh about it afterwards. It is good to laugh at life. I like to joke – I can’t tell jokes but I point
out funny things with my walking stick. You have to be quiet sometimes to notice the little funny things in the world. They are all around if you look.


However, Ephesus was not as challenging as visiting the Greek Island of Santorini. For people with two able legs, it is a beautiful island with wonderful food. But for me, the steep cobbled steps and narrow passages made it my Everest. I was determined to see the view at the top so I climbed hundreds of steps. My eyes did not leave the ground until I reached the top. One step at a time. It was tiring but most of the best things in life need perseverance.

When I visited Hong Kong, I travelled around a busy part of town in my scooter. Later, a security guard unlocked a special gate for my scooter to be lifted up two steps – a small crowd gathered to watch. Some even took pictures. My family was annoyed but I don’t mind because I am glad that people got to see that disabled people don’t need to hide away from crowds. It is good to go out and to experience life. There is a big world out there for you to explore.

People always try and rush me along or want me to move quicker. But if I moved quicker I would miss out on all the tiny, beautiful things of the world. I would not see the drops of rain on the leaves, the ants as they carry bits of food and the cats digging in the garden. I like to tell people to “Calm down,” that is one of the few words I can say. I often say “Calm down,” because I want them to know that it’s ok to be slower than the rest of the world, it is ok to be silent, it is ok to take your time to stop and stare.

I would like to share my favourite poem…

William Henry Davies

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.