A meeting of paths
Meet Miss Jane Peters, 99-years old, and Mr Peter Suppiah Lawrence, 71. Jane has been living in the home for the past 10 years while Peter has been there for 7. Their lives were remarkably different before coming to the home, but have since been intertwined through their friendship.
Peter, an Indian Catholic, had worked in the Civil Service before joining the shipping industry and working his way up to become Chief Shipping Steward. He recalls fondly his time travelling the world. Once married with a family, he has since lost contact with his ex-wife and three children following their divorce. “She left me about 40 years ago,” he says, “so now the kids are all grown up and they don’t know who you are.”
Jane, of Portuguese-Eurasian and Ceylonese descent, never married and had 9 siblings, all of whom have since passed away. When her parents died, Jane, along with her sister, was sent to live in an orphanage in St Theresa’s Convent by her aunt. There she learned to cook and sew and she lived there for many years before coming to live in St Vincent at age 88.
Theirs was a meeting of compassion. Peter and Jane did not speak to each other at first and their conversations were limited to the casual “Hi” and “Bye” when their paths crossed. However, their friendship blossomed when Jane started becoming more withdrawn. Peter recalls offering to help her with her chores.
“She is the oldest among the people here and she was helpless so I take care of her,” Peter says, “preparing her breakfast, hanging the clothes outside for her, folding the clothes. I prepare everything for her – I don’t let her do anything. I am just afraid that she might fall. She had so many falls (before) because her legs are weak.”
In Jane, Peter remembers his own mother, and their friendship is a way he feels that he can make amends for his behavior in the past.
“Something keeps telling me, I didn’t take care of my mum just because she didn’t like my wife. I held a grudge against her. And after that, I neglected her completely because she had so many children; let them look after her, why should I look after her? So I left her alone. And when she died, I didn’t attend her funeral. But that was the past. I thought to myself, I couldn’t do much for my mother so at least I can do something for [Jane]. In Malay we call this cuci dosa .”
"I am her tongkat"
His devotion to Jane is evident. He wakes at 5am each day to prepare breakfast for her. While the Home provides essential items for breakfast for its residents like coffee, tea and bread, he provides her with all the additions such as her favorite jam and her own loaf of bread. In addition, he buys her lunch and dinner from the coffee shop nearby. Jane enjoys eating Chinese food.
On hearing this, Jane giggles and says that sometimes the supervisors in the Home tease her, saying that she behaves “like a madam” and that Peter is doing all the work for her.
Her devotion to him is much the same. Jane relies on Peter for both physical and emotional support and often looks at him across the table for reassurance. “I tell him, you don’t leave me ah. I like you. I love you. I think you do a lot for me. Sometimes when he scolds me, I cry. I tell him, if you love me, tell me. Don’t leave me.”
She turns to me and says, “How can I not like him? He has done a lot for me – sometimes he brings my clothes in from the rain. He is so nice. I cannot leave him.”
Peter playfully reaches over the table to brush her cheek and chuckles, “At my age of 71, I need a tongkat . But she (pointing at Jane), she has a tongkat, but she doesn’t use it. I am the tongkat for her. She holds me tightly (when she needs to walk) and everyone in the Catholic Welfare Centre and the Home knows about it.”
Their friendship meant that they knew all the stories about each other and are a part of each other’s lives. She knows all about his past and his strained relationship with his family.
When Peter’s brother passed away, she accompanied him to the funeral in church for moral support, much to the surprise of his family members there.
He, in turn, sat by her bedside when she was hospitalized after a fall. He also visited her every day in the hospital to keep her company.
"God might call me..."
“In some ways Jane has taught me to be very patient and not to quarrel with people,” Peter says. “She has also taught me not to go out so much. She prefers me to be always there beside her. “
Companionship. That is the key to their happiness. That, and a healthy dose of good humour to carry them through the golden years of their lives.
Jane will be celebrating her 100th birthday on the 1st of June. When asked about her wishes for her birthday, she says, “Ah? I don’t know. Maybe I go off like that (flicking her wrist).”
When I looked at her in disbelief, she continued, “Cannot say. God might call me up to see my parents.”
Peter visits the nearby St Joseph’s Church at times. “I pray for good health and peace for her and myself and for my children,” he says.
By Adra Anthoney
*Cuci dosa is a Malay phrase translated as atoning for one’s sins.
*Tongkat is a Malay word used to describe a walking stick.