It Changed My Life: How a mother lost her 11-year-old son to depression
The three notebooks are filled with doodles, comic strips, riddles and little stories, rendered and written in pencil.
One quirky drawing has a parrot mouthing its response to the poser: What do you get when you cross a centipede with a chicken? Answer: Drumsticks for everyone.
The illustrations spring from the fertile imagination of Evan, the eldest of Doreen Kho’s four children.
The 43-year-old businesswoman says her son once asked her: “Mom, do you know why I started to draw comics? Because my comics will make people smile and laugh.”
Ironically, Evan himself wrestled with depression and was often teary. The condition led the 11-year-old to hurl himself from the 16th floor of a condominium in central Singapore last November.
His heartbroken mother says: “It’s difficult to say he’s in a better place. Not when he often told me how much he loved me and how his best place was with me, and nowhere else.”
After much wrestling, Ms Kho, who has also been diagnosed with depression, decided to go public with her story. “I don’t want him to have died in vain. I want to justify his life, it was too short.
“I want people to be aware of depression, which is still a stigma. I want them to know it is nothing to be ashamed of because depression is as much an illness as cancer… I hope by talking about Evan’s death, more people can be saved.”
Her voice turns soft as she adds: “I’ve always thought I can do everything but I couldn’t save my son.”
By any yardstick, Ms Kho is an accomplished woman. Despite family circumstances which forced her to shoulder heavy responsibilities from a young age, she went on to become a successful entrepreneur.
She secured the Singapore franchise for well-known Korean cosmetic and skincare business The Face Shop in the mid 2000s. As its chief executive, she built and expanded it from one to more than 20 stores in under 10 years. She sold the chain, together with two other skincare ventures Belif and VDL, to South Korean conglomerate LG three years ago.
The elder of two daughters of a teacher and his factory supervisor wife, Ms Kho grew up in a household which was far from typical.
Their Ang Mo Kio home was shared with her paternal grandmother, uncle and aunt.
Her uncle suffered from lupus, a chronic auto-immune disease, and did not leave his room during the day for more than 10 years because he thought he was contagious.
Her aunt survived meningitis as a child and became intellectually disabled as a result.
When Ms Kho was 14, her mother died of stomach cancer leaving her husband, a stern and aloof man, withdrawn and depressed. Many a night, Ms Kho would find him sitting in the living room, sobbing quietly with a towel around his head.
Although the former student of Cedar Girls’ Secondary and Serangoon Junior College got into the National University of Singapore to read geography and theatre studies, she dropped out after six months. “I wanted to be independent. I did not find purpose in what I was learning,” says the articulate woman who cut her professional teeth in an events management company.
Over the next few years, Ms Kho, who married an army regular when she was 22, had stints in different professions including insurance and advertising.
Meanwhile, developments at home tested her resilience and strength of character. Within a short span of time, both her father and grandmother were felled by strokes. To make matters worse, the latter also had dementia.
“It was a trying period. I had to bathe and feed her, change her diapers. But our bond grew.”
When she was 26, Ms Kho and her sister, then working as an interior designer, decided that they couldn’t hold down a regular job and look after the two elders as well as their aunt at the same time.
They opened an interior design firm so that it would give them the flexibility they needed. The going was tough but they did well enough to soon hire three employees.
After three years, Ms Kho and her sister decided on another venture. They succeeded, after tough negotiations, in securing the Singapore franchise rights for The Face Shop.
Ms Kho says: “All we had was the insurance money left to us by our mother. We had two other partners. Our first shop opened in Bugis in 2005. It was do or die. If it failed, we’d have lost everything.”
Fortunately, it took off – and in a big way.
In 2006, 10 years after she got married, Evan came along. By then, Ms Kho’s father and grandmother had died. It was a difficult pregnancy and lumbered her with a host of medical problems including a bloated kidney. At 24 weeks, her water bag leaked.
“The doctor told me if I gave birth then, my child would be dead. It was too early,” recalls Ms Kho, who was then put under observation. “I remember having meetings in the delivery suite because I had more than 10 outlets by then.”
Three weeks later, an extremely premature Evan was born. A normal pregnancy is about 40 weeks.
“I didn’t even get to hold him. I heard the doctor say ’10 fingers and 10 toes’ and they just pushed him into the intensive care unit. His lungs were in danger of collapsing and the doctor warned that he might have problems with his hearing, speech and sight.”
Evan was in the ICU for a month, and the high dependency ward for another.
“He was a fighter. When he came home, we were all so happy.”
Evan, says his mother, was the “prince” not just of the family but at The Face Shop.
“I’d take him to the office every day,” says Ms Kho who went on to have three more children, now aged between six and 10.
When her second child arrived, she set up a crib in the office. “I raised them there. It was a family environment. Everyone was an auntie or a jie jie,” she says, using the Mandarin word for sister.
Evan was an affectionate and precocious child. However, he related better to adults than to other children. Although extremely intelligent, he also sometimes appeared to have a delayed reaction to situations and other people.
Still, Ms Kho did not suspect anything was amiss.
The business grew. But juggling work with motherhood was often stressful. An extremely driven person, she also had very high expectations of herself.
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