updated 31 Mar 2014, 05:12
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Tue, Mar 25, 2014
The Straits Times
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She lost baby, then she lost hubby
by Wong Kim Hoh

Joanne Lim waltzed through the first 25 years of her life.

Her parents pampered her, she was not in want and she married the first boy she dated.

But things changed suddenly, in quick succession.

Her first baby was born with Down syndrome. Her second was stillborn. Barely a year after she gave birth to a healthy third child, her husband died suddenly, aged just 32.

The big guy upstairs must have been making up for the placidity of her early life, she says.

"In the last 15 years, God has given me enough pain and sadness to last several lifetimes," says Ms Lim, 41, who grappled with depression and a destructive relationship after she was widowed.

To forget her problems, she left her daughters with her sisters and took on jobs in countries as diverse as China and El Salvador.

But four years ago, a Skype conversation with her younger daughter jolted her.

"She made me realise how preoccupied I had been with myself, how I had become so irrational in my grief," she says. "I'd neglected them; I was a bad mother. I told myself I had to live for them, they were counting on me."

She returned to Singapore, bought over an ailing boutique called dress culture, turned it around and did so well that in the last two years she opened two more outlets.

"I'm so glad my daughters have come back to me. We are very close now, but the guilt I feel at having neglected them will always haunt me," she says.

Immaculately turned out in a smart beige outfit which flatters her trim frame, Ms Lim has a firm handshake and a confident bearing which belies the hard knocks she has taken in life.

She is the second youngest of five children; her parents run a business supplying vegetables to restaurants and hotels.

"I was clingy and spoilt, and my parents and siblings gave in to me a lot," says the former student of Elling South Primary and Bedok Town Secondary.

She hit a rebellious phase in her early teens. "I became an Ah Lian," she says, using the local term for girls who are crude and partial to loud, gaudy dressing. "I dyed my hair, wore my skirts really short, smoked, played truant or turned up late for school. On weekends, I would stay out till the wee hours. My parents were really exasperated."

Despite her shenanigans, she passed all her exams, even scoring an A for History in the O levels. "I just wanted to prove my History teacher wrong. She always picked on me, and once told me I irritated her," she says.

Overall though, her results were not good enough to get her into junior college or a polytechnic course of her choice.

Her father, wanting to keep an eye on her, got her to work for him. "My father thought if he allowed this Ah Lian to go out and work, sure gone case," she says, laughing and lapsing into Singlish.

For more than a year, she was holed up in his vegetable supply store in Pasir Panjang Wholesale Centre packing vegetables, doing invoicing and accounting.

It took some cajoling but she persuaded her folks to dole out $24,000 for her to attend a two-year fashion merchandising course at LaSalle International.

Candidly, she confesses she is not particularly artistic.

"The course also sounded glamorous but really I was just trying to get out of working for my father. I had to promise that I would complete the course. I did," says Ms Lim, whose senior at LaSalle was Fann Wong.

Her career in fashion after graduation took off smoothly. She cut her teeth as a merchandiser for a small garment trading outfit but by the time she was 23, she was already an operations manager for a local fashion company.

At 24, she married Musvin Lim, a vegetable wholesaler she started dating when they were both students at Bedok Town Secondary.

One year later, baby Chloe arrived. Ms Lim says she suspected something was amiss when she heard the nurses whispering shortly after the delivery. "Then I saw my sisters; their eyes were red but no one told me what was wrong," she recalls.

The doctor finally told her the infant very likely had Down syndrome, which was confirmed later. The genetic disorder is associated with physical and cognitive impairments.

The new mother was inconsolable. "I cried every day, I couldn't eat or sleep and I had to be sedated. I didn't want to carry her. It wasn't hate; I just didn't know how to accept her. I kept asking myself what I had done to deserve this," she recalls.

She quit her job, and cut herself off from friends.

"I had a silly thought. I thought I could change my baby. Every day I would take her to different forms of therapy." It took another year before she accepted Chloe and showed her to her friends.

"My husband was a rock; he kept encouraging me. He said we had to accept Chloe; she was our baby," she says.

Not long after, she went back to work. After a brief stint at Ossia, she became a merchandiser for Polo Ralph Lauren's sourcing office here.

Three years after Chloe's birth, she became pregnant again. When she was five months pregnant, she did a test to check that the baby was healthy.

The report was all-clear. Then came the shock at her next visit to the gynaecologist. "They could not detect the baby's heartbeat," she recalls, eyes reddening.

She went through induced labour to deliver the stillborn. The grief, she says, was searing.

"My husband wanted a boy, and it was a boy. I thought God was never going to give me another baby."

But she conceived again three months later. Her gynaecologist told her she was carrying three embryos but two did not survive.

The pregnancy was an extremely difficult one but Ms Lim gave birth to Cladys in November 2002.

The worst seemed to be over. Her husband's business was humming along; her job at Ralph Lauren was going well and Chloe and Cladys were growing up nicely.

But in the wee hours of July 25, 2004, Ms Lim was roused from slumber by a scream from her husband who had been asleep next to her.

"He just jumped out of bed, screamed and fell face down on the floor," she says. She could feel his body turning cold as she frantically tried to rouse him. An autopsy found rice particles in his lungs; doctors told her he probably died from asphyxiation.

The next few days passed in a blur for the young widow.

"After the first day, I couldn't cry. But two weeks later when I returned to the office, I picked up the phone during lunch-time, dialled my husband's number and asked him what time he was going to pick me up after work. A voice on the other end said the line was no longer in use. I just broke down," she says.

To cope with her grief, she started drinking.

"I was trying to numb myself. I picked up smoking again. Every day, I would get drunk. If I was not drunk, I would not go home," she says. "I didn't spend much time with the kids. In fact, I was scared to see them."

Her second sister came to the rescue. Together with her husband, she moved in with Ms Lim and helped to take care of Chloe and Cladys.

The stupor lasted nearly two years, during which she got involved with one of her late husband's business associates.

As the relationship was a difficult one, she decided to take up a job offer with a garment factory in China.

"Ironically, the relationship improved when I was in Shanghai," she says. She returned a year later and set up not only a home, but also a trading business with the man, a divorcee with two children.

But within two years, the relationship went south.

They split up and she sold her business. She went into a deep funk again, and had to be prescribed anti-depressants and sleeping pills.

"I decided I needed to go away again," she says.

She applied for a Cambodia-based position with a local fashion company, but was offered a position handling business development and merchandising in El Salvador instead.

Her family could not persuade her to stay.

The gravity of her decision sank in while she was in transit at the airport in Los Angeles en route to Central America.

"I was scared. El Salvador was a 48-hour flight away from Singapore. I didn't know what sort of country it was. I didn't know if I was going to die there. I just started crying. I couldn't stop," she says.

"A lot of people at the airport asked me what was wrong and if I needed help. I just said, 'I need to cry.'"

Life in El Salvador was hard.

"I woke up at 5am, the car would pick me up at 6am, and I would reach the factory at 7.30am and work until midnight," she says.

The crime rate in the country was high, and she was driven everywhere she went, escorted by guards with guns.

Nine months later she had a Skype session with Cladys that would change things again.

"She was asking me if I would remarry so I asked how she would feel if I remarried. She said, 'Okay but you must promise me that you will get a very nice man.'"

It made her realise she had been running away from her problems and that her daughters were growing up without her.

Three days later, she handed in her resignation.

After returning home in 2010, she tried looking for a job but found nothing that she liked.

She decided it was time to strike out on her own.

With $100,000 of her savings, she bought over dress culture in Tampines Mall.

She changed the direction of the business, targeting working women between 25 and 40 instead of girls between 16 and 21.

Her experience stood her in good stead. Not only did she come up with her own designs, but she also sourced for her own suppliers in Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea.

"I had to beg some of the suppliers because my orders were small. But I told them, 'If I grow, you will grow too'."

One year later, she opened another shop in Raffles Place, and earlier this year, one more in Westgate in Jurong East.

Running a business and being a mother to two young girls, she says, is difficult.

"I'm still not good but I'm trying. I don't think I'm spending enough time with them but whatever time I have, I make sure it's quality time. I'm trying to make up for the things I did not do for them in the past."

She harbours no more dreams for herself, she says, just for her children.

"I want Chloe to grow up happily, and my greatest wish is society can accept her and help her lead an independent life. And for Cladys, my hopes are simple: that she will have a good career, a good husband and a great family of her own."

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