Limbs lost but she finds new hope

As the rain hisses down on a soporific Sunday afternoon, inside a shadowy three-room HDB flat in Bedok, a fast-talking, wide-smiling, un-self-conscious single mother of two fine sons, tells you she doesn't want much.

Aishah Samad, 40, just wants her arms.

One day her helper is at the market and she is thirsty. There is a glass on the table, just there, within reach, almost taunting her. She can only stare at it, she can't pick it up.

She doesn't have her arms.

Life doesn't give you notice when it comes to tragedy. Its brutality lies in its very suddenness - a holiday, an illness, a quadruple amputation. Life for this former national shooter alters almost as swiftly as a bullet spitting out of her accurate rifle. Life was once stand, lift, aim, fire, life was once simple and yet now the simplest act is replete with complication.

Without self-pity, she recites: "I can't bathe, I can't wash, I can't brush my teeth, I can't put on my legs." At night, her sons, Muhammad Syafiq Jafni, 20, and Muhammad Syaril Jazli, 17, pick her up and carry her to bed. Syafiq, voice occasionally wavering, leaning against a wall in the kitchen, is now his mother's support. Just 10 months ago, bewildered, his life rearranged by an invisible bacteria eating up his mother, he asks himself: How can this happen? Now, 20, he is caught in a reversal of roles that occurs with most children with their parents, except his has come too early, too fast, too young.

"I do for her what she did for me as a baby," he says.

In a way, he is his mother's arms.

Few sights are as incongruous as the athlete - even if a retired one - stilled, all that adrenaline with nowhere to go, all that adventure locked up in an unresponsive body. But perhaps it is sport which is partly her ally for any champion, at any level, must find discipline and fight frustration. As she says: "Sport helps you shut out the negatives."

Of course, she must have hard days. Of course, she, a Cisco auxiliary officer, trained to protect and now requiring it herself, must have depressing days. But even so her energy fills the room and her smile illuminates it. "You can sit anywhere, just not there (near a cushion)," she laughs as we enter her home. "That's my throne."

She shows off a wide wristband around the stump of her right arm from which a small stylus protrudes. With it, she demonstrates, she can make calls, send texts, play video games, get on Facebook. In this tiny flat, to no applause, adversity is being fought one tiny, vital act at a time.

When Aishah first went out into the sunlight and the street, she, no arms, no legs, would be assaulted by stares and she found this scrutiny "embarrassing and humiliating". She would ask gawkers, "What are you looking at?", but says gently that she understands it is just curiosity.

Most importantly, an altered woman figured out that she had to "learn to accept this is who I am". Intact in spirit, incomplete in body.

Aishah is briefly silent, then her smile returns. As the photographer focuses and she poses, her friend shouts from across the room, "Stomach in". She obeys, sucks in her breath and laughs: "I am more vain than before."

She is standing up, the stumps of her arms helping her keep balance, resting on legs her helper has had to fit onto her. "I really want those arms," she says, even though she knows they are prohibitively expensive at $80,000. She will need donations, but it is fitting that it is her tribe, of athletes, which is banding together to help raise some funds.

The arms, if she gets them, will allow her to pick up that glass of water. To coach kids again in shooting as she once did. And to do one more thing that her sons says she often did.

She can use her new, mechanical arms to reach around her sons and perform again that simplest and yet most profound of human acts.

The hug.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


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