October 15, 2020
Photos by: Bryan van der Beek | Words by: Tan Jean Hann

(Photo above) Madam Amy Lee, 71, is a two-time breast cancer survivor. Working through the pain and discomfort of chemotherapy that immobilised her at points, she sought help getting cloth delivered to her for mask sewing, and found a community that showers her with well wishes, food, and concern about her health.

Madam Amy Lee has sewn several thousands of them — so many, in fact, she’s lost count. 

The 71-year-old retiree has been making reusable cloth masks since she signed up to be a Masks Sewn With Love sewist on April 21, during the Circuit Breaker. Sitting at her machine from 6am to 10pm daily, over six months, she’s served the group’s beneficiaries: vulnerable groups islandwide.

Madam Lee shares a three-room flat at Tanglin Halt with her husband, son and his family. Her “sewing workshop” is her bedroom, which contains a work table parked by the door, loaded with bundles of cloth and thread. A growing stack of completed masks lies next to her sewing machine, waiting to be delivered to the next group of beneficiaries.

“Many people tell me that I have helped Masks Sewn With Love. In truth, it is Masks Sewn With Love that has helped me instead.”

Her most recent contribution: 60 child-sized cloth masks to two preschools — just in time for Children’s Day. 

You could say she’s a one-woman factory. But she sees it differently. 

“Many people tell me that I have helped Masks Sewn With Love. In truth, it is Masks Sewn With Love that has helped me instead,” she said, speaking in Mandarin.

Sewing through the pain of chemotherapy
For Madam Lee, this project became more than a way to pass the time. It was a purposeful distraction from the discomfort and pain of her weekly chemotherapy sessions.

The retired seamstress, a mother of three and grandmother of six, said her last tailoring “job” was making clothes for her grandchildren. When she spotted Masks Sewn With Love through a friend’s Facebook post, she was drawn to the grassroots initiative because it was interesting and meaningful. 

The entire process too was easy and convenient. Most importantly, it was an activity she could participate in without leaving home. It didn’t take her long to complete her first 50, finishing her personal supply of cloth. 

By then, the side effects from her chemotherapy had taken a turn for the worse. 

In addition to lethargy and appetite loss, she had started to feel a persistent, icy numbness in her hands, arms, legs and feet. 

Moving at all was a challenge, as she put it, like “constantly walking on rough and uneven sand.” 

As it became impossible for her to go out and buy more cloth, she wrote to the project organisers, seeking their assistance to deliver material to her. But instead of idly waiting for the drop, she took matters into her own hands.

The power of community

Sitting at her sewing machine from 6am to 10pm daily, Madam Amy Lee, often just called “Aunty Amy”, has produced several thousands of reusable cloth masks. “I am happy to be able to help others through these masks. I have always received much from others, like the Masks Sewn With Love community. So while I still have the ability and energy to give back to society, I will do it.”

(Above) Sitting at her sewing machine from 6am to 10pm daily, Madam Amy Lee, often just called “Aunty Amy”, has produced several thousands of reusable cloth masks for Masks Sewn With Love.

Madam Lee turned to the Masks Sewn With Love Community Facebook Page and shared her story and her condition, asking if anyone else might be interested and willing to donate material to her. 

Very quickly, her Facebook post gained traction. 

Multiple donors responded by sending her cloth, along with an outpouring of well wishes and encouraging messages. 

In fact, her supply of cloth — and emotional support — has not run out since. 

To sustain her, several volunteers also began personally delivering soup and gifts to her home. Many continue to ask after her health, encouraging and thanking her for being an inspiration via Facebook: 

“Praying for your speedy recovery! Do remember to get some rest too. Aunty Amy, Jiayou!” 

“You’re such a blessing! Thank you Aunty Amy!”

“Wishing you good health and happiness each day!” 

When Madam Lee takes a break from sewing, she’s typing away, replying to each of these messages.

As the group became her community, she found a friend in Ms Kok Xiao Wei, another volunteer like herself who is in her thirties. In recent weeks, with the easing of social distancing measures and Madam Lee’s improving condition, both of them have been meeting for meals. They have also visited People’s Park Centre together to buy cloth and other materials for the masks. 

“Aunty Amy”, as she is affectionately known among the Masks Sewn With Love tribe, is very thankful and touched by all the generosity, care and concern shown.

“Joining the project has made me so happy, and brought so much comfort during this difficult time. The community has become a second family to me.”

The way of the warrior
With each cycle of chemotherapy, Madam Lee’s physical discomfort continued to increase. Family and friends, concerned she was overexerting herself, suggested she withdraw entirely from the project.

Sewing has been tiring and strenuous, especially with the persisting numbness in her hands and arms. But whenever she feels like giving up, she reminds herself: “Nothing is ever too difficult, nor too impossible to achieve. If I put my mind to it, I can surely do it.”

“I am happy to be able to help others through these masks. I have always received much from others, like the Masks Sewn With Love community. So while I still have the ability and energy to give back to society, I will do it.”

Despite having to slow down, she never thinks of quitting.

“I am happy to be able to help others with these masks. I have always received much from others, like the Masks Sewn With Love community. So while I still have the ability and energy to give back to society, I will do it.”

Since she completed her final radiation treatment last month, she’s even added a new activity to her daily routine: going for an hour-long walk. 

This two-time breast cancer survivor was always a quiet, determined fighter. 

At 50, she taught herself to write Chinese. 

When she had scored a zero on her first test for a three-year-long Dharma course conducted by the Singapore Buddhist Federation, she realised her Primary 4 level education would not get her far on written exams. 

At the prospect of failing its remaining 11 tests, she asked herself: “Do I want to continue getting zero marks for the next three years?”  

So, each week, she selected five words from the Chinese dictionary, practising them over and over. “I thought to myself, if I can learn five words a week, in a month, I would have learnt 20, and in a year, 240 words. That is doable!”

“Life is filled with choices. You can choose to be happy, or sad. You can choose to be at peace or constantly frustrated with your situation and surroundings. The choice is all up to you.”

To improve her handwriting, she took up Chinese calligraphy, writing so much she strained her arm. (And was compelled by her doctor to cut down practice time.) Yet so significant was her improvement on subsequent tests, her shifu (master teacher in Mandarin) invited her to speak at several seminars about her learning experience, to encourage others.

“Life is filled with choices. You can choose to be happy, or sad,” she mused. “You can choose to be at peace, or constantly frustrated with your situation and surroundings. That choice is up to you.”

She intends to carry on volunteering with Masks Sewn With Love till it comes to a close. Though her doctor has told her that the discomfort and numbness in her limbs may not subside, she remains in good spirits. 

Her guiding philosophy is simple: “While you may not be able to change your current situation, you can certainly change your attitude and mindset, and learn to accept the situation as what it is.”


 

The Storytellers

  • Bryan is still trying to figure a way to combine his three main loves. Can anyone help him figure out how to balance his whole family on a motorbike while riding and taking photographs?

  • Jean Hann misses the days when she had the energy to wake up at 7am to bake a loaf of sourdough bread and finish a mystery novel by noon.

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