You may see him at MRT stations selling tissue paper and take pity on him, but Wesley Wee is more than any superficial generalisation about those like him
His life was a struggle through one long, dark tunnel where the light at the end never seemed to arrive.
What was more heartbreaking – his tormentors were his own parents.
It all started in March 1979 when Wesley Wee was born on what should have been a joyous occasion. Instead, to his parents, Wesley’s arrival in their world was the worst nightmare imaginable. Their son was born with cerebral palsy, a debilitating disorder which impairs his motor functions.
“The doctor told my mother that I was a ‘blue baby’,” Wesley says, describing the colour of a person deprived of oxygen, believed to be a cause for cerebral palsy.
His father, a Naval officer, and mother, a housewife, could not accept a disabled child, and “in their hearts they rejected me”, Wesley says.
Throughout the better part of his life, their three-bedroom flat never felt like a home to him.
“I remember it as a place that was filled with pain,” the now 37-year old says.
Because of his condition, Wesley is unable to do most physical tasks such as eating on his own, or to control his bodily functions. He also cannot speak like a normal child and can only manage slurred speech, unintelligible to most. These limitations had severe consequences for the young boy.
Regarded as an outcast by his family, sometimes he would be left alone at home. Unable to walk, and with no one to depend on, simple tasks can be insurmountable. When he needs to use the bathroom, for example, he had to drag himself there, oftentimes failing in his effort. His mother would return to find him covered in urine and feces.
“On such occasions, [my mother] would get so angry that she would hit me all over my body, including my face,” Wesley recalls. “The pain would be so bad that I couldn’t even cry; I [would gasp] for air.”
If only Wesley could walk, his parents thought, he would not be such a burden. So, they started a daily regime of forcing him to do so, an exercise of excruciating pain for the then young boy.
Wesley was required to stand and walk the 6-feet length of the living room 10 rounds each night, a struggle for someone whose body refused to obey his will.
“I would start crying after about 6 rounds because it was so painful and my legs would be shaking,” Wesley says.
When such exercises finally finished for the day, he would be completely exhausted.
“I still had to crawl back to my room and struggle up on to my bed,” he says. “I would feel immense shame at these times, knowing that I had failed [my father] again.”
The ill-treatment over the years was unrelenting. He was nothing more than a pariah whom his parents would rather see dead.
Life became a little more bearable when he moved in with his grandmother, after she rescued him from his mother’s plans to abandon him to a woman from Malaysia.
Those times he lived with his grandmother, whom he loved dearly, were some of the happiest he had.
“We lived a simple life but I was happy when I was with her,” he says.
But after two years, he was returned to his parents who wanted him to undergo surgery on his legs, thinking that it will enable him to walk. Wesley, 7-years old then, was terrified of the prospects of going under the knife but there was little he could do about it.
The surgery failed, and made things worse – he now could not walk at all, when before he could at least manage a few steps. He was now an even bigger burden. So, the mistreatment worsened.
“They whipped my back and kept on hurting me many times because I cannot do what they wanted me to do,” Wesley says.
One night, his father stormed into his room, grabbed him by the legs, and dragged him across the floor to the toilet.
“He grabbed me tightly around the ankle and lifted me off the floor until I was upside-down,” Wesley says. “I remember struggling in his hands. He held me above the tub and lowered me head first into it using his other hand to hold my head under the water as I struggled.”
This was the terror of the “water torture” which Wesley would experience several more times.
His mother witnessed these incidents but did nothing to stop them. Instead, she would frequently scold him for being worthless.
“Memories of these forced walking and drowning experiences terrify me to this day,” says Wesley.
He attempted suicide 4 times in 2007, once by slitting his wrist.
“I feel very very… I don’t know what to say,” he sighed when asked about it.
There were many nights that he cried in bed and felt all alone in the world, battered and bruised by his own parents, trying to understand why those who gave life to him hated him so intensely.
Respite came when his father’s health deteriorated from liver problems, and he was physically too weak to inflict any more pain on his son.
The relationship between the two got better, at least for a little while. His father apologised to him for the way he had treated Wesley, and had also taken more interest in his son’s well-being.
“For that I am grateful,” Wesley says.
Soon after, his father passed away.
But life for Wesley had to go on.
He did well in school at the Spastic Children’s Association, and graduated with good grades and received positive testimonials from his teachers.
“I felt a great sense of achievements,” Wesley says, years later. “This reinforced my desire to someday become even more independent in spite of my disability.”
But obstacles stood in his way at every turn.
For example, when he applied for a licence to sell tissue paper, something which would give him some financial freedom, his application was repeatedly rejected, and he had to fight hard for it.
“I am handicapped, I can’t get work, what do you want me to do?” he told the authorities. It was only with some help from his Member of Parliament that a permit was granted to him to sell tissue paper – but only in designated locations such as Ang Mo Kio.
Hard as his life have been, he is fiercely independent and refuses to allow himself to be helpless, holding on to that belief that things will be better – and that he is the main mover to achieve that goal.
“I never stopped believing that someday the suffering would end and that my dream of having someone in my life and a family of my own would be fulfilled one day,” he says.
5 years ago, he met his wife, Malorena, through a friend. They had chatted and kept in touch through the phone, and eventually Wesley went to the Philippines to meet her. Later, they married and have been together ever since.
Malorena is now his constant companion in Singapore and assists Wesley in all his tasks.
His Christian faith plays a big part in giving him the strength to get through life, and to understand his past experiences.
“I want to share that there is a God who is merciful and loving, who always protects, gives hope and has a plan for each of our lives,” says Wesley.
And for those who think having cerebral palsy means he is also intellectually stunted, well he has written a book. It took him 5 years to complete, typing each letter with his toes. It is ready for launch in August.
Selling tissue paper is not something he hopes to do all his life, and he strives for more. The book is a start, and he hopes to sell all copies of the first print when it is launched.
“Many people who have cerebral palsy are very mentally able,” he says. “We are often smart, funny, creative, and loving just like anyone else. The only difference is that we are trapped inside bodies that we have little control over.”
When asked if he is bitter about the cards life has dealt him, he says simply, “I feel blessed. Because God made me like this, I have to live like this.”
“My life has been incredibly painful and I have been in despair many times but it has also been a wonderful journey. I believe that without the dark times, I would not have been able to truly appreciate the good times. Through all my sufferings, I have learnt to not give up hope and always be grateful for what I have.”
** A year ago, some NUS students made a short documentary about his story. Watch the touching video here:
**Wesley will be launching his book on 23 August 2017. You can pre-order the book here: http://wesleycan.com .
Be his Facebook friend here.