Wesley Wee, 38, goes to Orchard Road to sell tissue paper almost every day. When they see him, some people linger long enough to drop him a few dollars. He thanks them but most people cannot make out his slurred speech.
Mr Wee, who has cerebral palsy, endures the mind-numbing routine of sitting under the hot sun to hawk his wares because he has big dreams.
When he returns home at night, he uses his big right toe to painstakingly type out each letter that would slowly form the contents of a new book.
Five years in the making, the book titled “Finding Happiness against the odds” will be published this month. It traces his unlikely journey of battling extreme abuse and neglect from his family, who rejected him due to his disability, and surviving to live a full life.
“With my story, I want to tell others with disability not to give up hope. If I had given up hope, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Mr Wee, who had attempted suicide several times during the lowest points of his life. His wife helped to interpret his speech for this interview.
Being born with cerebral palsy, caused by oxygen deprivation to the brain during birth, meant that he is unable to control most of the muscles in his body. Beyond having slurred speech, he is unable to eat, dress, walk or bathe on his own. His fingers are tightly clenched together and he needs a wheelchair to get around.
His family was embarrassed by his condition and spent very little time attending to his needs. Often left to his own devices, there were times when his mother would come home to find him lying on the floor covered in urine and faeces as he could not walk to the toilet.
Frustrated, she took it out on him and hit him all over his body. “You good for nothing, si geena (dead child in Hokkien), it is better you die,” was her constant refrain. At other times, she would stomp on his head, bang his head against the wall or strangle him with a leather belt.
But the worst punishment he received was reserved for the occasions when he did not meet their expectations about his capacity to walk.
His father was a military man and was determined to make his son walk. Every night after he returned from work, he would start the walking training at 10pm. Mr Wee was forced to use a walking frame to make ten rounds around the living room.
This was a monumental task for Mr Wee.
“I couldn’t control my hands to hold on to and move the walker. I also had great difficulty bearing weight on my legs so moving even a metre or two forward was arduous and painful,” he said.
Yet he was not allowed to go to bed or have his dinner until he finished those ten rounds. There were times when Mr Wee could only finish these exercises at 2 to 3am and at other times, he simply could not complete them.
When that happened, his furious father would drag him into the bathroom, lift him upside down and dunk his head into a pail of water as he struggled.
“Whenever I failed to satisfy my father in performing the walking regime, the water torture would happen,” said Mr Wee, who to this day sometimes still wakes up crying in his sleep at 2 to 3am as that is the hour the incidents used to happen.
Fortunately, he had a grandmother who loved him and cared for him in the weekdays. She made sure he attended school in the form of the Spastic Children’s Association even though his parents thought any education would be wasted on him. Later on, when his parents refused to pay his school fees, he would rely on the kindness of strangers to fund his way through.
Despite such hardship, Mr Wee is able to see the humour in every situation. He recounted the time when he was left at home to fend for himself when his mother went for a holiday. He had been struggling to open a bag of bread and all of it scattered on the floor. Before he could get down from his wheelchair to get to it, the dog beat him to it.
“The dog ended up full while I remained hungry — dog 1, Wesley 0,” he said wryly.
“His old neighbour said she frequently hears Wesley crying and his parents shouting and beating him. The whole neighbourhood seem to remember him because of certain incidents,” said Ms Felicia Lee, 25, a teacher who accompanied Mr Wee back to his old home in Toa Payoh recently to talk to old neighbours.
But there were days that even Mr Wee could not bear. In 2007, he slit his wrists and overdosed on Panadol in four attempts to kill himself. He failed and was hospitalised instead.
During those years, he sought solace in a God he barely knew yet found comfort in. With the help of friends, he also attended computer courses at SPD, an organisation which serves those with disabilities, to learn how to use email and surf the Internet.
Through SPD, he managed to land a job for a few months as a demonstrator for an assistive device. Job opportunities hardly came by after that as no one wanted to hire a person who cannot even go to the toilet himself. So Mr Wee applied for a permit and started selling tissue paper on the streets.
Seven years ago, he got to know a Filipino woman online. They had a mutual friend and Ms Lorena Buan, 47, initiated contact after hearing about all the suffering he went through from the friend. Mr Wee used his money from the tissue paper sales to buy phone cards to talk to her every night. With the help of the mutual friend, he even went to the Philippines to find her.
“She was very hard to get,” said Mr Wee with a cheeky grin. She followed him back and they got married five years ago.
Her mother cried and asked her why she wanted to commit to a lifetime of caregiving by marrying a disabled man. Friends of Mr Wee were skeptical of her intentions.
“I thought she was using him to get into Singapore. I couldn’t understand how someone would want to do that for another person but now I have no reservation. I have seen how she cares deeply for him and I think she sees it as a calling from God,” said Ms Kim Nicolson, 51, who got to know Mr Wee from Spastic Children’s Association where she once worked as a occupational therapist. For years, she paid for his school and day care fees and continues to pay for his handphone bills today.
“Why am I with Wesley? Because I feel compassion for him and more importantly, I love him. I felt God was preparing me for him in my life,” said Ms Buan, a staunch Christian. She is here on a long term visit pass and is trying to get permanent residency.
Mr Wee refuses to apply for any government aid because he feels that those may compromise his wife’s application for permanent residency.
He earns about $1,000 a month from selling tissue paper and puts half of it into his CPF account. He and his wife live in a rented flat in Ang Mo Kio now but he has a BTO flat that will be ready in three years.
“I have many dreams. I am getting my book ready, my flat is coming and I hope to run my own business selling shoes and adopt a child in future,” said Mr Wee. He is forking out $1,000 to publish his book and is relying on donations to cover the rest of the cost.
“When people read it, I hope they see that unconditional love is something every child with disabilities needs, as much as any other child,” said Mr Wee, who has found it in himself to forgive his family four months ago. After he returned from the trip to Philippines, he lost contact with his family because they did not want to meet him.
“And if you have not given that love yet, there is something special about your child that you need to discover.”
The book launch is at 6pm on Aug 23 at Google Singapore’s office, 70 Pasir Panjang Road. You can buy/donate a book over at http://wesleycan.com/book/
Share this post using the social media button below to help spread the words on Wesley’s book launch. Proceeds will go toward his living expenses. For more inspirational stories, enter your email below and follow my official Facebook page. Special thanks once again to Janice Tai and Samuel Ruby for contributing the story and video.