“God is tangible”: Despite the heartache, Elliot Soh’s mother knows Who holds her hand
Emilyn Tan // March 28, 2020, 12:34 am
Grace treasures the memory of her son Elliot’s head resting in her arms or on her chest. During his memorial service, it was shared that "it’s a position they found themselves in in good times and bad, sometimes he rested on her and other times her on him". All screengrabs from videos shared by Grace Teng, unless otherwise stated.
“God will make a way” was the song Elliot Soh would sing when life turned up its twists and turns.
It was a truth he believed in as a floundering child, a tenet he clung onto as a faith-filled teen, and a principle he experienced all through his young adult life unto the last breath he drew on September 28, 2019.
Just 25 years old when he died, he was the victim of a ruthless sarcoma that first presented as a 5cm by 9cm by 11cm tumour around his right adrenal gland.
The shocking size of that soft-tissue abnormality was nothing, however, when compared to the amazing magnitude of his relentless victory in God.
“I can genuinely say most of my negative thoughts of cancer were easily removed because of my faith in Jesus,” he wrote in his final testimony. “I did not worry about anything. There was no stress from whether the cancer was gonna kill me anytime or whether chemo was going to be effective or not.
“But all I did was put my trust in God and remind myself that He is in control of everything in my life.”
Grace Teng, 61, smiles through tears as she shares this anecdote of her son: “He told me, ‘You know, Mama, when we get to heaven, I don’t call you Mama anymore. We’re all the same’.” Quietly, she adds: “So, he knew what it was about.”
And she knew what it was about for herself: She was going to lose a son.
She acknowledges that she has asked God: Wouldn’t it have been better if Elliot had been healed and lived to tell about it?
She knows it’s a question that will go unanswered until she sees God face-to-face.
Meanwhile, her present and continuous view is that God is fully in charge of manifesting His own glory and is doing so in His distinctly unfathomable way.
“Because God is sovereign, it’s okay,” she says. “He is God.”
The first gift: grace
Grace’s own beginnings with God were unremarkable. More than once, she put up her hand to say the sinners’ prayer but always wondered if she was truly saved.
The first time was in 1973. Then as a Secondary Two student in Methodist Girls’ School (MGS), she heard the Word daily during school assembly, as well as at the weekly meetings of the Girls’ Brigade, which was her co-curricular activity (CCA).
“I put up my hand again because I wanted to receive Christ. I had no assurance. But I knew what I wanted.”
Speakers sharing the Gospel would echo her sense of having an existential “hole” that needed to be filled: “As girls you think, ‘I have a boyfriend, career, property’, but you find that after you get all this you are not happy, because the ‘hole’ is meant for Christ only.”
All of it resonated. “As a teenager, I was very uncertain about the goals in life, what I wanted,” Grace says, describing the feeling as 空觉感 (kōng jué gǎn – “emptiness”). “I put up my hand. But after that I didn’t change.”
While at Hwa Chong Junior College, she went with Christian friends to fellowships and “I also put up my hand again because I wanted to receive Christ. I had no assurance. But I knew what I wanted”.
It was only in 1977, while on a train ride to class at the University of Sydney, that a girl from Campus Crusade shared the Four Spiritual Laws and invited her to join her Bible study.
“They taught me about assurance of salvation, the Holy Spirit-filled life, and that’s when I started to grow.”
She didn’t have to put up her hand again.
The first love: God
In 1982, a traffic accident and setbacks in her post-graduate studies shook Grace.
“This God is a faithful God who helped me through these hard times.”
Prayer support from friends and her parents, who had emigrated to Australia, plus her involvement with The Navigators, saw her through.
“At the end of it, I stood up in front of the whole Nav group to let them know that this God is a faithful God who helped me through these hard times. That was my first struggle, and God was tangible.”
Her decision to leave that comfort zone and return to Singapore was not made lightly. But walking by faith and not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7) paved the way for her to meet her engineer husband, Soh Seng Siong, when they both served as counsellors in the 1986 Luis Palau rally at the National Stadium.
Their first child, Ruth, was born in 1989. By this time, Grace had given up her job as a junior college Chemistry teacher to be a stay-home mum.
In spite of the struggles of being far from family and having no domestic help, she has no regrets. “I had to do everything myself. It was a big change for me. And He proved Himself faithful again.
“He takes me by the hand. I know this God has a track record.”
“Always, He takes me by the hand. I know this God has a track record.” Her conclusion is spoken in the present tense: “It’s good.”
Ernest came in 1991 and Elliot, 1993. When the children were each about seven years old, Grace shared Christ with them individually and led them in the sinner’s prayer.
Throughout their 32 years of marriage, Grace and Seng Siong have undergirded their family with prayer. “We wanted a Christ-centred home, so one thing we always did, even when we were dating, was to pray together. At night before we sleep we’ve been praying together all these years. And we read the Bible together.”
If the children were scared or could not sleep at night, and before exams, she would take out the Psalms and read with them (Psalm 91 is a favourite). They were taught from a young age that “we always trust God”.
A triumph of small things
As a toddler, Elliot would sit contentedly in his stroller, curiously watching and patiently waiting. At two, he watched as Grace helped with the MGS reading programme on Fridays when Ruth was in Primary One and Two.
He waited on his family doctor to stitch a cut above his eyebrow sustained after rough play with his siblings. “He never cried and kept very still,” Grace recalls. “He was a very good and obedient patient from a very young age, never fearful. Doctors and nurses found him so cooperative.”
In kindergarten, Elliot played with his shoelaces while waiting for lessons to end. His teacher complained that, even when she punished him by making him sit in front of the class, he wasn’t bothered.
Grace laughs. “He was often self-absorbed, doing his own thing in his own little world. If you gave him a pencil, he could play with it all day!”
She often wondered what he was thinking, especially as he didn’t start talking until he was three years old. This silence was broken when speech therapy forced him to verbalise his thoughts. No longer allowed to point and stutter, he had to learn, for instance, to ask for food.
“It’s not one big thing that makes you realise, ‘Oh there is a God.’ It’s the small things every day in life.”
At eight, he was failing in school and diagnosed to have Central Auditory Processing Disorder (CAPD). Professional therapy encompassed his home experience and Grace was given a list of things to do to help him.
She took it in her stride. “He gets confused if you have a lot of instructions for him in one go. So, we had to break it down.”
He earned an aggregate of 179 out of a possible 300 for his Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) at Anglo-Chinese School (Junior). The ‘C’ he scored for Chinese was a breakthrough and Grace wept for the joy of knowing her son had overcome odds vehemently stacked against him.
In full view of other parents anticipating ‘A’s and 250+ scores, his Chinese teacher exclaimed: “Wow! En Wei passed! I am so happy!”
By Grace’s own admission, it was only after his secondary school years in the Normal Academic stream at Anglo-Chinese School (Barker Road) that Elliot “started to peak”. She credits his principal, Peter Tan, and teachers in Secondary One and Two, Seow Kian Yong and John Wu, for being godly mentors.
Encouraged by Seow, Elliot joined the Boys’ Brigade for his CCA. Its programme was formative during his teenage years, framing the nurturing he received from Newton Life Church (NLC), which the family attended.
“It’s not one big thing that makes you realise, ‘Oh there is a God.’ It’s the small things every day in life,” Grace reflects. “When I think back, I look at his Primary Six result and how he got into ACS Barker – I think it’s really that God made a way.”
Baptised at 14, the self-taught guitarist served on the NLC worship team and attended ad hoc workshops and seminars. In particular, the Kairos course on global missions changed his world view.
“He caught that vision that it’s not just about me and ‘I got salvation!’ It’s about other people – God is reaching out to the world,” Grace says. “That’s why he’s so evangelical.”
Once it was clear salvation’s truth had gripped his heart, Grace no longer worried about him. He graduated from Ngee Ann Polytechnic with a diploma in Early Childhood Education in 2014 and was enlisted in the Naval Diving Unit (NDU) for National Service.
“Actually, I was very proud that he could make it,” Grace says of the notoriously rigorous NDU.
“Elliot is always like that – ‘Don’t worry, God will take care.’”
Once commissioned, “he’ll go to places that he’ll say, ‘I cannot tell you where I’m going, what I’m doing, it’s like secret.’ ”
On how she got through those and other hushed episodes, she says: “Pray lah … I mean, God will take care of him.
“That’s his attitude. Elliot is always like that – ‘Don’t worry, God will take care.’
“Even when he was dying, he said: ‘Why worry? God is in charge.’ That’s what he keeps telling us.”
The gift of trials
It was a lesson she had inadvertently taught him. Her own brush with thyroid cancer in 2012 involved two rounds of surgery, and she had to go on oral iodine treatment thereafter.
She was 53 that year, and her children, between 23 and 19. “I guess that came as a bit of a shock for the family, you know, that your mum has cancer.”
It prepared the ground for the greater shock to come six years later. On Christmas eve of 2018, the first signs of Elliot’s sarcoma became evident. (See sidebar)
By then, he was in his final years of studies at University of College London (UCL), where he was reading psychology. His plan was to eventually work with children – a dream nurtured by his regular mission trips with his church to 云花村 (yún huācūn – “cloud flower village”), its adopted village in North Thailand.
“He would teach the kindy kids in Chinese. His Chinese is very bad, but he will still rehearse his lesson and try to get it down. He liked kids, and they would swarm all over him and play with him.
“He got rooted in the Word of God and it changed him.”
“If he had been healed he would have gone on to do post-grad in child psychology. That was what he would have liked to do.”
Nonetheless, his undergraduate years were not marked primarily by ambitions, but by deep spiritual maturing. “He got rooted in the Word of God and it changed him,” Grace says, attributing the growth spurt largely to his community of Christian friends.
In London, he was part of the International Growth Group (IGG), a Christian fellowship, and attended St Helens Church, which practises one-to-one Bible reading. “Even when he was going through chemo, a pastor will come and read with him, or his friends will read with him.”
Elliot too was reading with others. As late as April 2019, when he was well enough, he would keep his reading appointments. A man of his word, he would tell his parents, who were visiting: “Oh, at certain-certain time I have to go back and read with somebody,” Grace shares.
Good, acceptable and perfect
It was in April that he began experiencing pain intense enough for emergency hospitalisation overnight. Still, he would come out the next day “behaving normally” and go out to lunch. “He didn’t want us to know that he’s in difficulty and in pain. He’s quite a cheerful person, that’s what he’s like. He’s always been.”
A few months later, determined to persevere, he sat for his final year exams in his hospital room over five consecutive days, finishing the papers in spite of acute breathlessness.
He was awarded a Bachelor degree in Psychology posthumously, much to the awe of his friends and family. Not only were Grace and Seng Siong proud, his siblings too recorded their admiration in eulogies spoken at his memorials on October 4, 2019, in London and October 28, 2019, in Singapore.
“The whole time he carried more than I could; now I’ll carry his ashes and, more importantly, his love.”
At the memorials, Elliot’s brother Ernest said: “I will always carry the memory of my baby brother through the act of carrying – carrying his bag to primary school, or carrying him back to my parents after he ran off crying (sometimes because of me).
“In worse times, I would carry his things that I had broken during fights and in better times we’d be carrying our backpacks, snowboards, chopsticks or whisky glasses together.
“About nine months ago, I carried his belongings back to the hotel on Christmas eve.
“A while later I carried his chemo infusions along with anything I could to make him feel better.
“The whole time he carried more than I could; now I’ll carry his ashes and, more importantly, his love.”
When Elliot started his studies in London, Ernest was already in UCL studying medicine.
The brothers often bumped into each other at the supermarket. Ernest might be bending down to pick up something from a low shelf when he would hear, “gor gor” (哥哥 – “older brother”) and find Elliot bounding up to him. The memory of them walking home together is still heart-wrenching.
“I know Who holds my hand. He’s seen me through all these years, so He’ll see me through the future.”
Ruth said: “Life will never be the same without Elliot. I will miss hanging out with him, looking for good food together and travelling with him. He was an awesome adventurous travel buddy and he used to protect me and look after me when we went on solo trips together.
“The days before he passed, he looked deeply into my eyes, thanked me for coming up (to London) to spend time with him, even tried to massage my shoulders after I massaged him.
“We had a couple of private conversations which I treasure dearly in my heart. I’ve never felt heartbreak like this before. But I am comforted with Christ’s peace and knowing where Elliot is now. His cancer did not go to waste and his life reminds me to live a life for Christ and not for myself.”
Seng Siong, who used to take long drives with Elliot when it was time for him to book in to camp on Sundays evenings, shared a love for sushi, bak kut teh (pork rib tea) and Hainanese curry rice with his younger son. His comfort is a stanza from “Perfect Wisdom of Our God”:
Each strand of sorrow has a place
Within this tapestry of grace;
So through the trials I choose to say:
Your perfect will in Your perfect way.
Grace’s own take on the family’s loss is a quote from the missionary Jim Elliot, after whom Elliot was named: “The will of God is always a bigger thing than we bargain for, but we must believe that whatever it involves, it is good, acceptable and perfect.”
She speaks of God’s arms not only being everlasting (Deuteronomy 33:27), but extending deeply beneath her to hold her in her pain.
“I know Who holds my hand. He’s seen me through all these years, so He’ll see me through in the future, whatever comes.”