My dad, my caregiver

My dad, my caregiver
(Standing from left) Marylyn Foo Kailin, 16 and Jarenn Foo Ce Heng, 17. (Front from left) Maria Lim Keng Keng, 47 and Zaric Foo Heng Jiunn, 49.

In Mr Zaric Foo's family, their bedtime chats can cover topics such as sex and death.

The 49-year-old businessman says he and his wife, accounts manager Maria Lim, would field questions from their two teenaged children - Jarenn, 17, and Marylyn, 16 - such as, "What does it mean for a boy and girl to sleep together?" and "What will your funeral be like?".

The funeral topic turned out to be a poignant discussion when Jarenn fell ill with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in August 2009, just before sitting his Primary School Leaving Examination.

Jarenn, who took the examination in the KK Women's and Children's Hospital, scored 174 points and is now an N-level student at Junyuan Secondary.

During his 21/2-year battle with the illness, he suffered the side effects of drug treatments such as lung infections, and long hospital stays were the norm.

Mr Foo, who hired another person to run his brochure distribution business so he could care for his elder child full time, would pack a suitcase each for himself and his son each time Jarenn had to be admitted.

For his devotion, Mr Foo was one of 33 recipients of the Singapore Health Inspirational Patient and Caregiver Award given out last Friday.

The annual award, which began in 2010, is given to people who have shown resilience in illness.

Recalling their days in the hospital, Jarenn says he felt proud whenever he saw his father "talking to other parents to encourage them".

Mr Foo says they "lived in fear" when they first found out that Jarenn was ill, after a blood test showed his white blood cell count was 10 times higher than normal. But learning from doctors that the disease was treatable gave them hope.

He says: "So you feel better each day and help the new parents whose children are sick to not feel so bad."

How did the main caregiver role fall on you instead of your wife?

Mr Foo: I'm the decision-maker most of the time. Being self-employed, I had the flexibility to handle my business and take care of Jarenn at the same time.

Ms Lim: I did my best to cook or buy Jarenn his favourite food.

Jarenn: When I was in hospital, food was really important to me. So I would ask mum to go Novena Square to buy Texas Chicken, Old Town White Coffee nasi lemak and wonton noodles.

Mr Foo: Also, Jarenn weighed more than 50kg during his illness. After treatment, which made him weak, I had to carry him up to our four-room flat in Bedok, which is on the third storey.

How did you prepare Jarenn for the seriousness of his illness?

Mr Foo: We had prepared him for the worst from the day he was diagnosed.

Marylyn, how did you feel about the attention given to Jarenn then?

Marylyn: I was around 11 then. I found the house very lonely and quiet. I used to tell my tutor that I felt my brother was important to my parents and I wasn't.

Ms Lim: Initially, I took two to three weeks' leave to be with Jarenn and my husband at the hospital.

My daughter stayed at home with the maid - we employed one till my husband stopped work. When we didn't have the maid, my daughter waited alone at home. I felt bad for her.

Her private tutor told us how she felt, which we didn't realise at first.

Mr Foo: She also told me she was tired of answering the phone when relatives called because they asked only after kor-kor (Chinese dialect for older brother).

Marylyn: Once, I told kor-kor, "I want to have cancer and switch places with you". I didn't understand the attention given to him.

Jarenn: I said if I could switch places with her, I would because I didn't want to suffer anymore.

Mr Foo: After we realised Marylyn's feelings, we told our relatives to ask after her first if she answered the phone.

How do you discuss sensitive topics such as sex with your children?

Mr Foo:I tell them the facts and teach them that if the couple are underage and the girl gets pregnant, they will have problems because they have no jobs and are not financially secure.

We also talk about death and we've made funeral arrangements. For me, it's down to the colour of my coffin.

Ms Lim: I'd like my children to sing for me. And no crying.

Marylyn: It's okay for parents to talk to their kids about death, once they are 12. I tell my parents, when they die, don't return to find me.

Jarenn: I'd like them to play songs by Christina Perri, Kenny G and Andrea Bocelli. But, really, when I'm dead, I won't care because I won't be around. Marylyn:Rather than getting teased for talking to my parents about such things, my friends find them cool. Being close to your parents is weird only if parents don't spend quality time with their children and children then hang out with friends.

Jarenn: My friends find it really interesting that I can talk to my parents about puberty and boy-girl relationships.

Who is stricter: mum or dad?

Jarenn: Although dad is like our friend, he raises his voice and gets really angry when we misbehave. He canes too.

Mr Foo: I don't cane for poor marks. I won't do that because I sat the Primary School Leaving Examination three times before I finally made it to Secondary 1.

Marylyn: He caned only when we are rude. Once I threw a basketball at a maid we had when I was nine because I was angry she wouldn't play with us.

Mr Foo: I caned her in front of the maid. It's usually one stroke, unless they tried to get away, then they got more.

Ms Lim:I didn't cane the children but I didn't interfere. The caning stopped when Jarenn was about 11.

Jarenn: He told me he stopped because we were grown up.

If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you do differently?

Jarenn: If I were my father, I wouldn't do anything differently because he's a good father.

Mr Foo: I would like to be as positive as Jarenn - he never once complained during his illness.

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