I pleaded with brother to hold on, says national sepak takraw player
National sepak takraw player quits sport, three weeks after accident that killed brother and left him with serious injuries
Three weeks have passed since a horrific accident killed his younger brother and left him fighting for his life.
But time has hardly healed the mental wounds of national sepak takraw player Azreen Sairudin, who is still struggling to shake off memories of that fateful night.
He remembers the accident down to every last excruciating detail.
Azreen, 25, told The New Paper last Wednesday: "I can still hear my brother's voice in my head.
"We were both lying on the ground and he told me, 'Azreen, I'm in so much pain'.
"Those were his last words."
His younger brother Aqil Sairudin, 21, had been riding pillion on Azreen's motorcycle when the brothers got involved in a collision with a car along Seletar Expressway in the wee hours of June 7.
Azreen had left Copthorne King's Hotel, where the sepak takraw team was staying for the SEA Games, to go home to attend to a family matter.
He was giving his brother a lift downtown when the accident happened.
"We were flung off the bike and landed 2m away from each other.
"I tried to move towards Aqil, but I couldn't so I kept telling him, 'Please be strong, please hold on for me.' I could tell that he was in really bad shape. He was struggling to breathe."
Aqil died in hospital from his injuries that same day.
"When my father told me Aqil was gone, I thought he was joking.
I kept thinking to myself, 'Why is this happening?' It's like a bad nightmare that I can't wake up from."
After a 13-day stay in Tan Tock Seng Hospital, of which three were spent in the intensive care unit, Azreen was discharged on June 19 and is now on the road to recovery.
He rattled off his long list of injuries: "Serious abrasions, fractured arm, broken pinky, bruises everywhere."
Azreen also underwent vein and skin graft operations, with skin taken from his left thigh.
When TNP visited him at his three-room HDB flat in Woodlands last week, Azreen was a shadow of his former athletic self as he limped gingerly towards the sofa for this interview.
"I'm feeling better now," he insisted, even though his weak voice betrayed his condition.
Heavy bandages covered almost the entire left side of his body and his left arm was in a cast.
But the real wound lies deep inside his heart.
Not a day goes by without Azreen breaking down whenever he is flooded with memories of his late brother, who was a part-time delivery worker at a fast food chain.
"I still cry every day when I think of him."
For now, Azreen is confined to his bedroom, where he is slowly recuperating.
Yet, it is also where painful reminders of Aqil greet him at every turn.
The brothers had shared the room for the past 12 years.
"His clothes and things are still lying everywhere. I can't bear to clear them away."
Aqil was the youngest of three brothers and Azreen was especially close to him as they slept in the same queen-sized bed.Their oldest brother, Azhar, is 29.
"We used to chat until we fall asleep.
"Now, when I wake up every morning, there's no one beside me."
His death was a double blow to Azreen, who was scheduled to compete in the SEA Games the day after the accident.
He had intended for it to be his last hurrah before retiring from competitive sepak takraw. It would have been his second SEA Games.
"I caught a few matches on TV while I was lying in the hospital. It was hard to watch, knowing that I should have been there for my team and my accident really affected them.
"That was the darkest period of my life."
Although a fairy tale ending eluded the final chapter of his sepak takraw career, Azreen has closed the book on the sport he loves, much to the dismay of the local sepak takraw community.
Azreen, who has already secured an aerospace engineering job, said: "I just want to recover quickly and start working. I won't be taking part in the next SEA Games.
"I taught Aqil how to play sepak takraw and he was always my biggest cheerleader," said Azreen, adding that he and his brother had been members of a youth sepak takraw team in Woodlands when they were younger.
"Now, it's too painful to continue."
We used to chat until we fall asleep. Now, when I wake up every morning, there's no one beside me.
- Azreen Sairudin
I can still hear my brother's voice in my head. We were both lying on the ground and he told me, 'Azreen, I'm in so much pain'. Those were his last words.
- National sepak takraw player Azreen Sairudin
FATHER: EMPTY CHAIR WHEN FAMILY BREAKS FAST
At six in the morning, he was woken by a call informing him that two of his sons were in Tan Tock Seng Hospital.
Mr Sairudin Sani, 52, a security guard who works at the National University of Singapore, told The New Paper: "I thought it wasn't serious. I thought they were going to be fine."
They were not.
His youngest son Aqil died from his injuries while his second son Azreen's life was hanging in the balance.
"When the doctor told me Aqil was dead, I just broke down and cried. I can't even describe the pain I felt inside."
But Mr Sairudin, who had to break the bad news to Azreen, allowed himself only a brief moment of vulnerability.
"I cried for a few minutes, but then had to pick myself up to tell Azreen that his brother was gone.
"That was the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
As Azreen spent three agonising days in the intensive care unit, uncertainty ate away at Mr Sairudin.
He said: "I've already lost a son. I can't lose another. I prayed every day for Azreen to get better and for my family to get through this."
Azreen did slowly recover and was discharged on June 19.
Mr Sairudin is now trying to piece his life back together, but the Ramadan period has been an emotionally trying time.
He said: "When the family breaks fast and sits around the dining table, there's an empty chair.
"Dinners are a lot quieter without Aqil. He was always the loud and funny one."
When asked what he missed most about Aqil, Mr Sairudin replied "everything" before pausing to collect himself.
Throughout the interview, he was close to breaking down, but fought back tears - the same way he has been putting up a brave front for Azreen.
"I cannot cry. I'm the head of the family. I have to be strong for Azreen."
He confessed to crying when alone in his room.
"I just lost my father in August last year and now, Aqil is gone. But I tell myself that it's fate and it was his turn."
Aqil's last gift to his father was a Manchester United jersey, which he had bought for Mr Sairudin's birthday in December.
Father and son used to spend their nights on the couch in front of the TV, watching their favourite team play. Mr Sairudin dons the jersey whenever he misses his youngest son.
He said: "When I wear the jersey, I feel closer to Aqil."
'Huge loss' for sepak takraw team
SQUAD: Members of the national sepak takraw team visiting Azreen (seated, centre) when he was in hospital. PHOTO: RAIHAN ALLADIN
Losing Azreen would mean losing the team's playmaker, said Mr Farhan Aman, captain of the national sepak takraw team.
"He was the most versatile player on the team and could fit into any role that we needed.
"Azreen was also the only one who used a top spin serve, which gets us off to a good start."
Farhan, who has been Azreen's close friend for 10 years, believes his presence would have improved the team's performance at the recent SEA Games. The sepak takraw team medalled in all eight men's events, winning one silver and seven bronze.
He said: "If he was able to play with us, I think our results would have been very different.
"When Azreen plays, he acts as a mentor to his teammates and guides them on what to do. Without him, the difference is significant."
Azreen's impact extended beyond the court as well.
Mr Abdul Halim Kader, secretary-general of the Singapore Sepak Takraw Federation (Perses), described Azreen as a role model off the court.
Mr Halim said: "His humility, discipline and dedication are what makes him an example for his teammates to look up to.
"Azreen's retirement is a huge loss for Perses because he is such a talented player.
"Regardless of what he decides, Perses is fully committed to support him in his choice."
Mr Halim added that even though Azreen is no longer playing with the team, he is still regarded as part of the Perses family.
"There will always be a spot for him here if he ever chooses to come back.
"We would be happy to welcome Azreen back as a coach."