Strokes, cancer amid pandemic: 'Slow ember' love of elderly couple endures

·Assistant News Editor
·5 min read
Married for just over a year, Tom Iljas, 81, and his wife Liong May Swan, 79, pose for a photo on Tuesday, 4 May 2021. (PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore)
Married for just over a year, Tom Iljas, 81, and his wife Liong May Swan, 79, pose for a photo on Tuesday, 4 May 2021. (PHOTO: Nicholas Yong/Yahoo News Singapore)

SINGAPORE — The love story of Swedish national Tom Iljas, 82, and Singaporean Liong May Swan, 79, could well have been scripted for a movie, traversing across continents and the online realm through to the present day, as the recently married couple coped with huge challenges amid a pandemic. 

More than a year ago, the couple were wed at a clinic in Alexandra Hospital, after Liong suffered a debilitating stroke 12 days before. The couple, who first met in an online community 10 years ago and often travelled long distances to meet, had originally planned to hold a restaurant ceremony at Dempsey Hill. But Liong's condition and social distancing measures in the wake of the pandemic meant it was no longer possible.

At the couple's request, hospital staff planned and organised the ceremony within three days, opening one of the clinics – which are closed on Saturdays – specially for the couple. “Now, our relationship has been cemented as husband and wife. I hope that we will be together for eternity,” said Iljas in Bahasa Indonesia as the couple, who are both originally from Jakarta, exchanged vows.

Asked how their romance blossomed, Liong had eplied, “It was a slow ember kind of thing. It came to a realisation that the other person is the one that you want to spend the rest of your life with.”

But just as they were planning to embark on their initial journey of wedded bliss, they faced further medical crises. 

Liong suffered another stroke, just a month after the first. And last November, a 3.5kg sarcoma - a malignant tumour - was accidentally discovered in her abdomen during a medical check up. The sarcoma has since been removed, with Liong completing a course of radiotherapy as well, but this torpedoed the couple's plans to move to Stockholm to begin their new life together. 

And since Liong's flat had been sold off in anticipation of the move, they were forced to rent a service apartment in the Stevens Road area, where they are currently based. Iljas, who is in Singapore on a social visit pass, has also had to continually renew his pass. 

Iljas is now his wife's primary caregiver, as her mobility has been severely affected - she is effectively blind in one eye, and has left-sided weakness. Bladder issues also mean that Liong needs to relieve herself every 30 minutes, and she cannot make it to the washroom on her own. 

Speaking to Yahoo News Singapore at their home in early May, the couple, whose previous spouses died years ago, were asked: are you afraid that there may not be much time left together? 

"I was not thinking that way. I was thinking, I feel sorry for him. I don't want to become a burden. But what I want, and what is happening, are two different things," said Liong, who has a 53-year-old son. She added, "And it's also no fun if you're so dependent. For every little thing, you need help."

It is history repeating itself for Iljas, who nursed his first wife for 10 years after she suffered a stroke. He lamented that his wife can no longer drive or use a laptop or a phone. "I'm very sorry to see her like this."

Together at last

But it is hardly doom and gloom for the couple, who have an easy familiarity with each other. Liong addressed Iljas as "darling", while he chuckled at her lament that he likes to stick to a set routine for meals, unlike his wife who prefers to eat whenever she wants. She even teased him for being a caregiver again to another wife who suffered a stroke, “After me, no one will marry you.”

Liong and Iljas are like any other married couple, adjusting to life together after separately living by themselves for many years. She praised him for being "cool and collected" even under provocation, while he said that she remains angry for "only three minutes". Asked what her son thinks of their union, Liong replied, "He kept saying, 'Tom is very good to (you)', so I should show more appreciation."

Liong, a former translator at the Ministry of Defence, has written historical fiction novels set in Southeast Asia, while Iljas, who has three children and six grandchildren, previously worked in the logistics industry. The latter has become a "secretary" to Liong, helping her to write her latest novel as she dictates. 

If all goes as planned, the couple will move to Stockholm at the end of May, where Liong will have the benefit of state-sponsored healthcare. Asked if she is looking forward to the move, Liong freely admitted that Sweden is not her favourite place, partly due to the cold weather. She grumbled, "Should you go to Sweden or anywhere near there, do not go to a Chinese restaurant. You will be disappointed. 'Not very good' is putting it mildly."  

But while her health issues do concern her, Liong said, "At the same time because my husband is with me, he does make a world of difference."

What does love mean?

Tom Iljas, 81, and Liong May Swan, 78 exchanging vows at a clinic in Alexandra Hospital on Saturda, 28 March 2020. PHOTO: Kong Chong Yew
Tom Iljas, 81, and Liong May Swan, 78 exchanging vows at a clinic in Alexandra Hospital on Saturda, 28 March 2020. PHOTO: Kong Chong Yew

On the day of her nuptials, Liong had told Iljas, “To me, the word ‘fall in love’ is overrated, but love is more profound and everlasting. Love means a sense of commitment." Asked if she still believes in it, she readily affirmed it. 

But when asked for his perspective on love, Iljas did not respond with eloquent words. Instead, he talked about the need to watch over his wife's health. "She has only one chance more. I got to watch her. If I (am) careless, I lost her."

Asked if she has any advice for young couples looking to settle down, Liong demurred, "Each person's situation is different. And you have to take things as it is.

"But in any case, you just have to take one day at a time. Don't plan too far ahead, because there's no forever in real life. Everything is always changing."

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