Friday, February 28, 2014

The Redemption Broth - Jeremiah Tan

"My biggest regret in life is that my mother never got to see that I have turned over a new leaf."

Jeremiah Tan's voice was almost breaking as he uttered those words in the middle of our conversation.

The wrinkles on his face are very revealing, detailing a life of disappointment and years that have been lost to a wayward life that had torn him apart from his family and loved ones.

Now, 60 years old, Jeremiah is working as a staffer at Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh at Simpang Bedok, and life is simpler today for the ex-offender turned waiter and helper.

To him, the simplicity of able to work as a free man, and having a solace in his faith has brought him much redemption from the past.

"The toughest part when you come out from prison is just finding people to talk and engage with."

Before he turned 20, Jeremiah quit what was then pre-university to work as a mechanic in the 70s. Before long, he was able to find a relatively good job working as a limousine chauffeur and life would have been just fine, if not for a fateful encounter with a passenger who was a horse jockey.

That turned out to be the turning point towards a life of gambling and vice. Through a lucky hand at horse betting, Jeremiah managed to win more than a hundred thousand dollars, which was a lot of money in those days. That led him to a path of extravagant indulgence and excess.

When he needed more cash to fuel his outlandish expenses, he turned to gambling and then, a life of criminal activities, including smuggling, forgery, and aiding in prostitution, among other vices. Before long, he was arrested and was sent to prison for the first time. His son was only 5 when he was first incarcerated. 

Despite having a tough first few months behind bars, Jeremiah found it hard to change. When he was released, it was almost too easy for his old gang members and cohorts to tempt him back to the old ways of crime. If you do not have genuine friends to depend on, it's always hard to get out of this life.

Jeremiah was to be jailed for another 2 times in his life, and it was not until the 3rd time that he eventually realised that he had to do something about his life or he would end up in prison for life. But by then, his wife had divorced him and had taken his son away from him.

His family, which includes his mum and his 11 sisters had all severed ties with him and he had no real friends left. It was the lowest point in his life, and that almost drove him mad during his last prison stay.

"I found a way out through my God."

He was fortunate to have inmates which rallied around him, and they gave him support and encouragement and through the faith of God, gave Jeremiah the strength to find hope out of his darkest hour.

Thankfully, Jeremiah came around and regained his sanity and was finally able to see the way out. He resolved to turn his back on his old criminal ways and change his life around for good.

It was also during his half way house stay, that he met Jabez, the owner of Soon Huat who was to have an impact on Jeremiah later on.

His newfound faith also galvanised Jeremiah to help others, and it was because of this that he decided to go to Bosnia on a missionary trip with his fellow Christians. However, it almost proved to be a fatal decision as well.

"The ambulance was literally at the airport tarmac as my plane landed."

It was during this Bosnia trip, that Jeremiah fell ill. He did not realise that he had developed kidney problems. It was perhaps ironic, that when he was finally doing positive things that such a bad turn of events would befall Jeremiah.

On the way back, he was drifting in and out of consciousness, and he even feared that he would not make it all the way home. His condition was so serious that an ambulance was already waiting for him at the airport to take him straight to the hospital. Mercifully, he pulled through.

Today, the visible lumps on his left hand are evidence of his kidney dialysis treatment that he has to go through 3 or 4 times a week, each session lasting 4 hours or more. It is not easy at all, and not many of us can ever appreciate what a dialysis patient has to go through.

"When I opened my eyes for the first time, I saw all my sisters and family for the first time in 17 years. I have never felt more happy in my life."

Ever since his last term in prison, he had lost all contact with his family for 17 years. During this time, his mum had also passed away. I could see it in his eyes, how much that had affected him, and how it still continues to haunt him to this day.

It was only after his family got news that he was doing missionary work and seriously ill, that they finally realised that Jeremiah had turned a corner. When the family reunited with Jeremiah in hospital, they were able to forgive their lost brother. It was the best moment of Jeremiah's life.

Jeremiah was touched and moved, and remorseful all at once. He found great joy in that his family had forgiven him, but sad that his mum was not there to see this moment. His late mother never got to see that he has finally changed for the better.

"My mum has always doted on me the most. I let her down."

Soon after the Bosnia incident, he managed to find a job as a security guard and was doing well. Unfortunately, due to his dialysis schedule he had to leave even though he had an understanding boss then.

As one door closes, another one opens. Jeremiah was soon to be reunited with Jabez as Jabez was starting his own fledgling bak kut teh stall at that time. Today, at the Soon Huat stall in Bedok, Jeremiah can be seen working in good spirits with Jabez and his other fellow colleagues, most of whom have had a similar chequered past like Jeremiah.

Together, they find support in each other and encourage one another on. These days, it's not just about making tons of money to spend on lavish things. It is just the hope that they can live each day as well as they can.

But, as I have learned from Jeremiah, even if you have only one more day to live, it is never too late to change. He may be in his twilight years, and while most men his age are looking forward to retire, Jeremiah continues to work long hours every day.

Despite this, he is always smiling and engaging his customers with a warmth and amiableness that most well trained waiters are incapable of. Jeremiah tells me he is only living day to day, but still, he is grateful for this new lease of life. Grateful to open his eyes everyday with a renewed purpose in life.

As I was finishing my conversation, I asked him what is his biggest wish or hope today. His answer was simple. He told me that material things and status no longer matter to him.

"My greatest wish is to reunite with my family, especially my son, Leonard."

He has missed his son's entire childhood. Yet, when he spoke, he sounded so proud of the son he never knew. Somehow, he felt that his son is doing well and believed that his ex-wife would have taught him the right way in life.

Leonard would be 34 today, he recounted. "Will he be able to recognise his dad?", I asked. "I doubt so, it's been so many years." It's evident that Jeremiah misses his son. He has tried to search for him through some agencies, but without success thus far.

Well Leonard, if you happen to be reading this, I sincerely hope you can make a trip to Simpang Bedok to look for your dad. He has clearly renounced his past and dearly wants to see his son again.

I asked Jeremiah what is the first thing he would say to Leonard if he can meet him today.

"I just want my son to forgive me. And I want him to be lead a good and righteous life."

That, in a nutshell, is what most past offenders seek. Forgiveness. There are things in life we do that we can never take back. And sometimes, it is too late to realise that we have gone down the wrong path. There is nothing more important to Jeremiah now than to regain some of the years he has lost with his son.

Whether or not there will be a happy conclusion to Jeremiah' story, I don't know. All I know is that I will take heart from Jeremiah's own words to cherish your loved ones today, and stay true to those who have been by your side all this time.

When life is this short, quoting from "Hitch", it's not about the number of breaths you take, but the moments that take your breath away that count.

So make each breath count today.

Click here to read about Jabez and Soon Huat Bak Kut Teh.

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