“Till we meet again, Harold boy”
This Good Friday-Resurrection Sunday, Salt&Light brings you stories of faith, hope and love, unexpectedly born out of the ashes of death. Young Harold's story is one of Life in Death.
Emilyn Tan // April 19, 2019, 1:15 am
Unforgettable: Against all odds, young Harold Tan lived life to the full with a smile on his face and a song in his heart. Photo from rememberingharold.org.
January 17, 1997, to June 13, 2018.
Dates set out like this have a way of bringing on a shroud of holy silence. The first marks birth; the second, death – a sombre reminder that where there’s a beginning, there’s an end.
For one Harold Tan, the in-between was an all-too-short span of 21 years. But as gloriously as he came into the world, he made a triumphant exit, leaving the pulse of his faith beating steadily forth in a life all its own.
I knew him because he was a classmate of my son’s in Primary 1 – a boy with hair that sometimes stood on end, his grin as toothy and cheeky as ever it could be at age seven, the gleam in his eyes bright and bursting with laughter.
Their friendship grew as they did, and when, as young adults, they met on Christmas Day 2017 before my son set off on a five-month overseas trip, Harold knew the goodbye might well be their last.
My son – and the rest of us praying with him – was rather more hopeful.
Harold’s diagnosis of osteo-sarcoma had come two years and four months before, when he was in his final year of International Baccalaureate (IB) studies at Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) (ACSI).
As Singapore marked SG50 with jubilant celebrations on August 9, 2015, he and his parents, Thomas and Alene, found themselves swept up in an altogether different flurry of activity.
Harold had endured pain in his back all through the first half of that year and had put it down to muscular strain. He was, after all, a stellar sportsman – water-polo player of the highest calibre, swimmer, and captain of ACSI’s Oldham house.
Physiotherapy, tui-na, even enforced rest – nothing seemed to help. When he developed numbness in his abdomen, fingers and feet that would not go away, he asked to see a doctor.
The series of coincidences that filled those days could only point to the hand of God, severe though His mercies would turn out to be.
At a church meeting on Saturday night, Thomas bumped into a doctor friend, Heng Kim Boon, who arranged for Harold to see a neurosurgeon the upcoming Tuesday, August 11 – National Day 2015 being a Sunday, and the next day, a public holiday-in-lieu.
The series of coincidences that filled those days could only point to the hand of God.
Harold saw the neurosurgeon, James Tan, in the morning. In the afternoon, he was back in Gleneagles hospital – warded, because the MRI scan had picked up a tumour pressing on his C7 vertebra.
Arrangements were hastily made for urgent surgery, which would eventually reveal an ominous growth 13cm in circumference. But no one knew that just yet.
Harold hurried to finish one of his written papers as shocked classmates streamed in and out of his hospital room that evening. One of them was – unknowingly – the son of the cardio-thoracic surgeon called to be on standby for the operation.
He called his dad for a lift home, and thereby was a God-established connection uncovered: The surgeon discovered that his soon-to-be patient on the operating table was a boy like his son, and a friend.
Faith takes flight
Two days later, Harold was wheeled into the operating theatre mid-morning.
The waiting room felt as cold as the fear did, especially when, after eight hours, word came that surgery had to be aborted because Harold had lost a dangerous amount of blood. Only the 5cm back portion of the tumour had been removed.
“My biggest lesson from Harold is that we cannot crumble in the face of extreme adversity because we worship a God who is far greater.”
A second operation was scheduled for Saturday afternoon. The estimated eight hours stretched into 16, and the surgeon emerged with grim news that the last 1% of the remaining tumour was stuck onto the vertebral artery, which needed to be clamped for him to proceed with removing it. This carried a 5% chance of Harold suffering a stroke.
It was touch-and-go. Harold survived.
Few realised it then, but the fighter in him was already emerging, his life in the deft hands of a Father God who would pilot the long haul of his difficult journey with full control.
Harold’s own dream was to become a fighter pilot with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF). He’d passed all the medical tests and it was only a matter of clearing his IB exams before he would enlist for National Service and become a career soldier.
It was not to be. While his cohort was frantically studying for the November exams, Harold was undergoing physiotherapy to learn to walk again. After being bed-bound for three weeks, he had lost 10kg of muscle mass.
“Cancer may devastate the body but it does nothing to the spirit centred on God.”
There were 16 screws and two metal plates in his neck where the cancer had eaten into bone, and he was told he would not realise his dream, nor would he ever play a contact sport again.
“It was really hard to take that in, since I’d been playing water-polo for about six years and I’d been a swimmer since I was five years old,” he told crutch4sarcoma in an April 2017 interview.
Seven cycles of chemotherapy and 28 radiotherapy sessions later, he was declared to be in remission on May 30, 2016.
Savouring the relief from hair loss, nausea, headaches, restlessness and nagging throat ulcers, he began working for his IB diploma with the help of school teachers who were gripped by a tenacity as fierce as his own.
“My biggest lesson from Harold is that we cannot crumble in the face of extreme adversity because we worship a God who is far greater,” says his Math teacher, Azmi Azeman.
“Cancer may devastate the body but it does nothing to the spirit centred on God. I have a lot to thank Harold for, bringing this lesson home through his remarkable life.
“We made the best of the limited time we had to get him ready for the Math exams. He gave his best, never once complained and was eager to learn. We shared many light moments when we were together.”
A heart of service
His score of 39 points earned him a place in King’s College in the UK. Meanwhile, he was living out his days with as much normalcy as he could muster. Though often weak and in pain, he returned to his alma mater and helped to coach the ‘A’ division girls’ water-polo team.
He also gamed competitively and became fast friends with a team of non-Christian guys he met online, amazing them with his skill and perseverance – because he never once meandered off faith’s flight path, even when it became clear his reprieve was short-lived.
A PET scan revealed new nodules in his lungs, and Harold reluctantly underwent another two cycles of chemotherapy, as well as three operations between September and October 2017. After the first operation, he had to endure a series of lung exercises designed to rehabilitate his right lung and increase its capacity before the left could be operated on. The pain was debilitating and the rigour, defeating.
“Harold never lost his heart of service despite his arduous journey.”
The greater agony was the realisation that the sarcoma was back with a vengeance. Treatment options were exhausted, with the exception of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and immunotherapy. Both were long shots.
In one of her darkest moments, Alene shared: “It’s a struggle for Thomas and I, pondering the struggle Harold goes through every day. It has become our everyday routine to ask him how is he doing, every time when we see him in the morning, after work and before sleep. He is relying so much on painkillers to eradicate the excruciating pain each day.”
Still, the uncertainty of his future did not stop Harold from enrolling in Trackers, The Methodist Church in Singapore’s annual discipleship training programme for youths.
He volunteered to be the leader for his group’s trip to Timor Leste – and went, against the advice of his oncologist and parents, because he was continually in pain and just recovering from a fever.
“Harold never lost his heart of service despite his arduous journey,” says Rev Byron Teo, his mentor on the programme. “He never let his struggles affect the rest, though the rest of us were more than willing to help him shoulder whatever burdens we were able to help him with.
“I remain humbled and encouraged. Journeying with Harold showed me that I was able to learn a lot from his spiritual tenacity even as I sought to help him along.
“We laughed, we smiled, we prayed with hope for one another.”
The love letter
After his return, Harold finally asked his oncologist, Dr Khoo Kei Siong, for his prognosis and was told he had less than six months to live. He was calm; it was confirmation of his own recognition that his life was ebbing away.
“I continue to remind myself Who is with me when I navigate through this storm in life.”
Ironically, “our conversation became easier”, Thomas says. “We spoke about options and different courses of action we could take. We grew deeper in our relationship each day. We did devotion together daily.”
Invited by ACSI, Harold boldly gave his testimony during chapel in school in mid-May, declaring: “I continue to remind myself that this is not about asking why this is happening to me but about keeping my faith in Him, and reminding myself Who is with me when I navigate through this storm in life.”
He encouraged the rapt audience to trust God’s timing, citing Proverbs 16:9, and to seek His presence. He said: “I did not go through this suffering alone. God offers us His loving presence. He joins us in our pain. The Spirit of God is said to intercede for us ‘with groans that words cannot express’ (Romans 8:26).
“As the chief physician Himself, God reassures us that He is with us by sending different angels to encourage and help us day after day. And many of you have played a significant part in this journey with me.”
Vouching also for the importance of prayer, he quoted: “I love the Lord because He hears my voice and my prayer for mercy. Because He bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath!” (Psalm 116:1-2), and shared that he felt very blessed that God had “congregated many faithful servants to pray for my family and me”.
On the night of May 22, he shared a love letter he had written his parents during the Trackers programme. It was yet more tangible proof that the largest part of his big heart was reserved for them.
Thomas, 50, is wistful: “He thanked us for being his parents, bringing him up and giving him all the love he needs. He apologised to us for not meeting the targets he set for himself academically, and yet we did not reprimand him.”
Alene, also 50, remembers: “He read the letter to us despite his pain and having to catch his breath. He told us he loved us very much and was very grateful for all we had done for him – enrolling him in ACS, travelling, taking care of him when he was sick.
“He wanted to end everything because the pain and discomfort were just too much for him. He felt that he was very lost and nothing seemed to work, and God seemed to be quiet.”
Harold had known for some time that there was no earthly cure for his condition. He also knew that this world was not his home and in death, he would be returning to his heavenly Father.
Nonetheless, he submitted to undergoing immunotherapy, which did nothing to minimise the lumps growing on his right thigh, left ankle and left thigh. In fact, a lump underneath his right eyelid started to become more obvious and he felt uncomfortable whenever he blinked.
At the end of May, Harold had increasing difficulty breathing, and x-rays seemed to indicate that his right lung was filled with water. A procedure was begun to drain the fluid but it was quickly suspended: It was not water but dense mass. The nodule that was there had grown large enough to compress his lung.
The following days passed in a blur. On June 7, friends from Ang Mo Kio Methodist Church gave him a jar of thanksgiving, and Harold deposited his final piece of writing: “Thank you, Lord, for making me feel better after a difficult morning and all the visitations, prayers and fellowships.”
“That night,” Thomas says, “we played two games of X-Box – FIFA World Cup 19. Like before, Harold beat me using his favourite England and Spain teams. That was the last time we played together.”
“He requested that we allow him to make a decision for himself one last time.”
The next day, he was in such difficulty that Dr Khoo advised hospitalisation but Harold insisted on returning home. By 3am on June 9, there was no relief to be had in spite of hourly doses of morphine, and he was admitted into the hospital.
The memory is difficult for Thomas. “He requested that we allow him to make a decision for himself one last time. He asked that he would like to put himself on sedation to reduce his pain and discomfort.
“It was not an easy decision for us but we respected and supported him. We are also thankful as this approach allowed him to have some quality time to bid farewell to family and friends.”
The finish line
Harold also gave his parents some final instructions:
- Decide on what to do with his belongings.
- Visit the children at St Paul Methodist School in East Timor.
- Visit King’s College London on his behalf.
- Inform all his friends that he loved them.
The sedation process that was to lead him to his eternal rest took longer than Harold expected. But, sustained by morphine, he continued to wait for the end.
Thomas wrote in a family reflection: “My last prayer with Harold was on June 12 (Tuesday). I read some chapters from the Psalms to him and took the courage to renounce my responsibilities as his earthly father, to return Harold to the heavenly Father; experiencing God’s words coming alive and appreciated the pain which Abraham went through when he sacrificed Isaac as an offering.
“We concluded: ‘We can make our plans but the Lord determines our steps.’ (Proverbs 16:9)
“He is in a better place now – affirmed by the dreams and prophecies we have received from many of you.”
“In God’s perfect timing, Harold passed on peacefully on June 13 (Wednesday). Alene last saw him at 4am when she adjusted his pillow. When she got back to her bed and closed her eyes, she could feel that a shadow was walking past her.
“It was assessed that Harold took his last breath between 0410 to 0420am. Alene and his cousins, Terrence, Brenda and Shannon, were with him.
“Kim Boon was on duty that night. He was (there at the) start in 2015. In God’s timing, he came back to work between his vacations and was the doctor to certify Harold’s passing.
“We miss him badly; so do many of you and others in church, teachers and friends. He is in a better place now – affirmed by the dreams and prophecies we have received from many of you. Some said he has completed the tasks God has given him.
“I dreamt he was free of burdens in his heart and others remarked he was the seed to produce many seeds and God will glorify again.
“We grieve, we weep, we rejoice. We love you, Harold boy.”
After Harold’s passing on June 13, 2018 a few of his friends from ACSI decided to get together and reflect on how he had been an inspiration to them. Their efforts culminated in the website, rememberingharold.org.
They wrote: “There were many lessons that Harold taught us in his spirited life. Harold’s last message for us is that he loves all of us. In the same light, we hope to pass the love on. We hope that in browsing the site, you will find inspiration from Harold’s life, fighting against the odds.”
On July 11, 2018, schoolmate Richard Chan hiked 400km from Yosemite to Mount Whitney (which reaches a height of 4450m and is the highest mountain in the contiguous US) and dedicated the effort to Harold.
His friend Chua Yun Da took part in the Singtel-Singapore Cancer Society Race Against Cancer on July 22, 2018, raising nearly $9,000 for the Singapore Cancer Society.
“No matter how painful the journey, Harold always knew that he was blessed.”
He said: “No matter how painful the journey, Harold always knew that he was blessed and took heart in trying to help others. That spirit of optimism is a refreshing balm in an ever increasingly impersonal world.”
A family friend, Tan Tee Joo, participated in an Ironman race in Bintan on August 19, 2018: “No personal best and the time I wanted but … I gave it everything I had, nothing left in the tank. This is for you, Harold! We miss you terribly still but we know you’re in a better place.”
Another fundraising effort was launched this year by Harold’s cousin, Shannon Lim, who gathered his friends, teachers, church mates and relatives for the Talk Med Relay for Life 2019, organised by Singtel and the Singapore Cancer Society.
They clocked a total distance of 120.4km, beginning at 6pm on March 2 and finishing on the morning of March 3, Thomas and Alene’s 24th wedding anniversary. They exceeded their goal of $10,000 by almost 10%.