Mara Tuiletufuga Willis
June 19, 2017
Mother’ Day Call
I am standing in my neatly organized linen closet waiting for an international connection to Samoa so I can talk to my mom. It’s Mother’s Day and I squeeze into this tiny room to use our mediocre multifunction phone/fax/printer/copy machine with the short twelve inch spiral phone cord attached fits on a single shelf next to four rows of towels. Redialing a second time, I take stock of the twenty beige towels, ten matching hand towels and wash cloths, six sets of white sheets, four floral duvets and two white down blankets neatly folded in place.
My son winks and walks by me on his way to his basket ball court in the back yard, “Mommy, I am getting my shots up like Steph Curry.”
”Ok sweetheart. I’ll come out in a bit when I’m done talking to grandma.”
I miss my mom and our daily calls that always seem to start with something both casual and urgent. My mom avoids any formality of hello or small talk. “Mara, I can’t find my current emails”. Exhaling with a smile, I roll my eyes. I have been working on a rough design sketch of a network with AT&T services managing the security firewall for a new growing company called Netflix. I think I can help my mom sort and locate her emails.
As my next call redials and I wait for the connection, I remember being six, standing in line at the bank holding two blue deposit envelopes filled with some larger bills but mostly checks and credit card payments. I would sneak a peak at my mom speaking so calm and thoughtful behind the office glass windows overlooking the bank tellers. Everyone liked being around her. I did, too.
Still on hold, the next three attempted redials, drop. My thoughts drift back, I am ten again, playing golf at Jr World in San Diego, California. Even though I have told my mom that I don’t mind seeing her on the golf course, she insists on “not distracting me” during the tournament. So, she hides behind trees and small buildings at Presidio Hills Golf Course. I am always aware of her skipping from one tree or shrub to another. Her muffled gasps break through my thoughts when I miss a short putt for par or my shot leaves the fairway. My mom made it possible for me to follow my dreams, to travel across the world to play golf and to compete in America. I cannot remember a specific time my mom ever said she loved me or that she was proud of me, but I always knew. She modeled a calm sense that whatever I put my time and attention to I could achieve.
I straighten the beige hand towels in my linen closet, a stream of loud busy beeps prompting another end call and redial. I remember me at eighteen, a sophomore in college studying International Business. Finance and Economics with a focus on Japanese language and culture. I am unloading a bag of groceries with her and as she closes the refrigerator door, I clear my throat, “Mom, Kent and I found a cute apartment nearby. We are going to live together.” I continue to rush through all my points. I don’t want to worry her and I can not change my plans. “You know we’ve been friends for a few years and dating for the last two years.” She is quiet staring at me blankly, “Mom, I also do not want to play golf on the Players’ West or the LPGA Tour. I applied for the PGA program to be Teaching and Club Professional while going to college at night. You know how much I love working at the golf course. The golfers and my friends are family to me.” “Mom, please say something.” Her silence stretches out uncomfortably as I square my shoulders to continue. “I just can’t live out of a suitcase on tour. It is not the life I want to live and I am ready to make my own life choices.” I pause, to catch my breath, giving her a chance to say something. My ears are ringing and I can’t slow the throbbing pace of my heart. I take in the strain of her widening eyes holding onto tears, yet to drop. Her jawline tightens and I hear the faintest sound of teeth grinding. She, too, is holding her breath.
I continue to defend my choice to move out. “Mom, I bought my own car in high school and I am working to pay my way through college. You know I can take care of myself. Please, please say something.”
My mom’ lips press into a thin line as her slow draw of breath whistles past her lips and the line between her brows deepen. Her tightly held tears roll down her checks forming a strain across her face. I will not understand the pained look in her eyes until I have a child 20 years later.
My mom refused to speak to me for almost a year. I give her space and we have silence between us. We keep ourselves too busy to call each other, or catch a movie together. I missed her in that very long year just as I miss her now.
Redialing again, I stand and shift my weight, tightly gripping the phone. There is dust on the linen closet floor corners I need to remember to clean out. My thoughts take me back, to a difficult time in my life. I am twenty five, my mom comes quietly into the darkness of my apartment bedroom and offers me a bowl of cantaloupe — her favorite fruit and my least favorite food. I catch a look I have never seen on her — there is a desperate helplessness in her eyes. Kent died in a car crash this morning. I sat listening to the surgeon who tried to save his life while holding Kent’ hand in his last hours on life support. At noon I signed documents donating his healthy twenty nine year old organs, kissed him on the forehead and walked out of the ICU. My mom was right beside me.
I feel empty, despair holds me against my will. My mom holds her breath as she extends the bowl of fruit toward me with an unsteady hand. I reach out, the bowl slips through the tips of my fingers into a crash, shattering to the floor. My mom leaves the broken shards in place and sits with me quietly for hours, days, weeks, months pass.
Reaching into a corners, I scrape out the dust with index finger while balancing the phone receiver between my neck and right shoulder. Ten years later, I am thirty five sitting across from her doctor, holding his clip board. In the room across the hall, my mom is waiting at the edge of her seat sitting upright with a pleasant smile on her face. She looks put together wearing a coral collared shirt and khaki capris ready to play golf after her doctor’s appointment. We had just gotten our hair, pedicures and manicures done earlier that day.
Dr Ko looks up from his clip board, “Mara, thank you for flying in from California, right? I am glad we got all the paperwork to discuss your mother’ medical reports. I wanted to speak to you alone before we proceed with your mom’ cognitive and memory test.”
”Yes, of course, thank you. As I mentioned since her surgery six months ago my mom hasn’t called me as often, she has been more forgetful and confused. I was concerned the loss of one of her kidneys and her medications was impacting her memory.”
A confused look crosses Dr Ko’ face before blurting “Oh, I am sorry Mara, she hasn’t told you. She came in fifteen months ago for her first memory and cognitive benchmark for Alzheimer’s Disease. Her kidney function is doing fine and her recovery has been steady. But her cognitive and memory have declined substantially in the last year. “
”I’m sorry, did you say Alzheimer’s? I don’t understand.” I glimpse past him to catch my mom’ eyes looking nervously around for me. How did I miss this? Why didn’t she tell me? How much time do we have left? How can I protect her?
Earlier that year, I had started playing in a community tennis league thinking I could work on my tennis game to try to keep up with my mom on the court. I was going to work with her on her golf swing. I needed her to be with me more than ever. My husband Zach had been diagnosed with a pituitary brain tumor. I felt his symptoms to be overwhelming, lonely and at times unsafe for me. I wanted so much to have more time with my mom. She had built a comfortable retirement in Hawaii while managing her rental properties in Samoa. I was managing my rental property in Santa Cruz and teach golf to kids at DeLaveaga Golf Course. I had been teasing her that my siblings were going to need to step up their game to have our mom live with them. She would split her time in Hawaii and California because my husband Zach and I wanted children soon. I would buy her a city golf club membership and a car while in California. We would play doubles in the community tennis league. And she would pass on all the love she held for me, to my children and my family. I thought for sure my mom and I would have more time together. I felt the crushing weight that none of our plans were going to happen. Just as our lives created more space, she began her journey into Alzheimer’s Disease. Her daily calls eventually stopped. While I was on bed rest at Stanford Medical during my pregnancy, I would call her just to hear her voice. I had stopped reminding her that I was pregnant and never mentioned I had been in the hospital for the last nine weeks. I didn’t want that worry for me, to loop into her broken memory and cause her any more stress. Each passing day and year, more of her spirit would disappear into shadows and at times, out of no where she was herself again. That is the cruelty and blessing of Alzheimer’s.
The phone is ringing and it brings me back to making my mother’ day call. A calm voice answers, my mom’ caregiver. We never speak English and I quickly adjust to my childhood language. She lets me know, it is a good day for my mom. I am relieved. My mom has good moments, difficult days that are frustrating and frightening for her. I want so much to protect her and reassure her but I cannot. The most I can do, is to let go and be present to her.
My mom’ caregiver’s voice is kind, never a hint of judgment that I do not call often enough. She sets the phone down, speaking softly in a room thousands of miles away. “Ve’a, Mara is on the line.” I listen, hearing silence, than a quiet acknowledging whisper that is my mother’s voice. I, smile, she must know it is me.
The phone line crackles. I tighten my grip on the receiver trying to hear every part of my mother’s voice. She starts from a whisper and begins abruptly to sing in Samoan as if forcing herself out from an empty dark silence. Despite all that Alzheimer’s disease has stolen from my mom, she fights through it to share her love in a song. The calming, soothing voice that I have always known is dry, her words forced, tumbling into each other. My mom fills my world with her song. I know this song. It is old and about the simple beauty of island life, loving commitment and the longing sadness of time passing between the ones we love. Mothers sing it to their children, knowing that children will grow up and move across oceans to create their own lives. Leaving spaces filled with love and longing, in the hearts of mothers.
I quietly whisper the words in the chorus with her. Her voice flows in a rhythm then abruptly slows with the struggle to sing with me. My mother pauses briefly before she sings again with a rasping roughness in her voice; she struggles to piece together the words. I am no longer lost in the comfort of knowing this lullaby, living deep in my love for her. I can feel her vibrant spirit slipping away. Her mind is lost again into the shadows of vacancy, the words flow but they are monotone and empty. My mother’s voice trails off into a low visceral growl with laboring breaths.
A series of moments pass, before she continues to sing but it is no longer the song, I know. Her suffering fills me. There is nothing I can do but witness her. My mom is singing her words, unpredictably whispering and screaming. She whispers and screams repeating “Fea oe”, where are you. She begins demanding my return “sau nei” then her screaming cries in agony, “i le malamalamaga a’u”, she does not understand. Her rhythmic continuous pleading haunt me. I cannot find a breath, in the choking tightness of my chest. I can be with her, in the rawness of this confusion and suffering. I repeat in gentle waves, whispering “alofa atu ia oe”, ‘I love you’ until her mind quiets, then shifts and fades again into the laboring breaths of emptiness.
I have lost her again, and again, and again. I am holding on to glimpses of her vibrant spirit while in my mind repeating my mantra: peace, peace, peace, love, love, peace, love, peace, breathe, breathe.
A long moment passes and she pauses, to hear me. She settles back into another place in time and continues to sing, loud at first before drifting into a dry, slow whisper, a children’s song in Samoan. For now, she is young, she is free again.
My mom’ caregiver assures me “e fiafia mai i lou tina i lou fa’atalanoaga Mara”, my mother is happy to hear my voice. We speak briefly and say goodbye.
Sitting quietly cradling my face, shaking my head and leaning against the door frame of my organized white and beige linen closet. I wanted and needed more time with my mom. But then slowly. disappeared into Alzheimer’s and there was nothing that could bring her back. We had plans. We were going to have more time together. She was going to love my son like she loved me and be the adoring grandmother she had been to my nieces and nephews. But, that was not how life turned out. Soon my mom would forget me. She would forget everyone she ever loved. Her memories, her thoughts would be lost. My arms reach around my trembling limbs trying to comfort myself, comfort my mom. I close my eyes, stinging with tears chasing one after the other down my checks and salty across my lips. I rock myself to keep us safe until my breathing slows its pace and the urge to stretch and slowly stand moves me out of the linen closet.
I go outside to the back yard for Manu. Although it’s only been ten minutes, I left him getting his shots up on his basketball court. I find his face in his hands and he is crying on the sidelines of his court.
“Are you hurt?” I lovingly scoop him up into my arms. He blinks out his tears, “I feel sadness, are you sad Mommy? I was playing but then I felt your sadness.”
Hugging and holding my intuitive, empathic, clairvoyant child, I whisper into his forehead, “I am sad, its okay for us to be sad sometimes. I talked to grandma, and I just miss my mom.” I feel an exhale from him, as I whisper, “I love you Manu.” He jumps up, turns and shows me his quick release from the 3 point line.
My heart warms, humbled, at the reminder, despite oceans and time apart, just how powerful this connection between mother and child can be. I am passing on my mother’ great love to my son. The most I can give to honor her is to offer the depth of her love for me, to him. I want my mom to know, she lives on. Her life and love live on in me, and in my son.
At times, I question- Is it enough? It must be enough. And so just today, it is enough.