COVID-19 Message from our resident Fofola le Fala blog author:
The COVID-19 Pandemic has had devastating effects on the Pasifika / Pacific Islander community. I will never forget the overwhelming waves of death at the end of 2020 when the pandemic was at its peak. Somehow, someone you knew or had a connection with had died of COVID. With new COVID variants emerging almost daily, we are seeing the number of deaths in our community continue to rise at alarming rates, especially among the unvaccinated. For this extended edition of Fofola le Fala, we will be focusing on stories of loved ones lost to this virus and survivors of this dreadful pandemic. It is our hope to shed light on the grim ordeal faced by those affected by COVID in our community and fight back against the stigma of silence surrounding one of the deadliest viruses in modern history.
Our mom Mae Reed Mageo was the first COVID death to be flown back to American Samoa for services and burial. As the pandemic spread globally, the American Samoan government began lockdown for the island in March of 2020, all commercial flights to the territory were suspended. When our mom passed in January of 2021, our wishes were for her to be buried at home in American Samoa. In was in the new year that a new administration had taken over and we were unsure if any of the COVID restrictions would be lifted. The new Governor Lemanu Peleti Mauga organized a COVID task force and the department of health had authorized the arrival of our mother’s body with the exception that her casket would remain closed during the process. The stigma around COVID still lingered, leaving some of our family members to question their safety and well-being at our mother’s funeral. These feelings are to be expected, but instead of addressing it with any of us, they just whispered among themselves.
When our mom was dying, only two of us were allowed to see her. My brother Nathan and I agreed to face this reality together. We had to wait in the lobby for what seemed like forever until a chaplain came to escort us to the third floor of the hospital. This was where they kept COVID patients in critical condition. The entire walk there was wrapped in a deafening silence. Before entering the COVID-unit we were given protective gear to wear; as we made our way into another hallway, eerie sounds of respirator machines echoed back and forth. I had prepared myself as best I could for what to expect as we entered her room, but my brother Nathan hadn’t and he completely broke down when he saw our mom. I was, however, in absolute shock to see her extremely thin state. They had her wearing an air-tight mask, the mask was the only thing keeping her alive; her oxygen levels depleted without it.
Our mom caught COVID-19 while being hospitalized. She went in a week before Christmas after bleeding during her weekly dialysis treatment. None of us were there when it happened because most health facilities at the time had enforced strict restrictions. My mom had non-alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver and was awaiting both a kidney and liver transplant. On Valentine’s Day of 2020, she collapsed at home after suffering septic shock. After two months in the hospital, she spent another two months in a rehab facility. We almost lost her during her rehab stay, but she was always a fighter, and so she miraculously came back to us. It was an emotional rollercoaster ride of constant health problems and hospital stays. As sick as she was, she continued putting others and their needs before her own, that side of her never went away. At times, we find ourselves bickering because we wanted her to focus on her health, but our mom was stubborn and difficult. She always preferred things her way.
She was able to witness the birth of her granddaughter Tepatasi, and she spent her 60th birthday and Thanksgiving with us. The day before she was hospitalized for the last time, she spent her entire savings on Christmas shopping for her grandchildren. All in one week, the physical therapist had released her from therapy and the wound nurse also cleared her; an open wound I was caring for had healed completely. I watched our mom become stronger than she ever was. She became even more determined after her doctors approved her kidney and liver transplant, so it was only a waiting process. I will never forget that day and the radiance on her face, it was as if she were a little kid again excited about her life. At the same time, my mind worried about what other problems lay ahead for her. During her entire ordeal, the COVID-19 pandemic was ravaging the rest of the world. We kept ourselves updated and were cautious every time we took our mom to her medical appointments. That December, they said the pandemic would spread like wildfire because of the winter season. Our worst fears came a week after she was hospitalized, when our mom tested positive for COVID-19.
Those weeks were the most depressing moments I have ever experienced. She would call us from the hospital with the mask still on, it pushed air into her lungs to keep them from collapsing. She was willing to fight it, but there were days when the hospital called telling us that she was not cooperating. She had to wear that thing 24/7, so I can imagine the pain and discomfort she was going through. On Christmas day when my mom knew my brother Rommel was visiting, she lost it and begged us to come pick her up. We had to call our dad to help calm her. It hurt me so much that none of us were allowed to care for her in the hospital. I spent days and nights crying, wishing I could hold her hand and comfort her. Every time I talked to her on the phone, I pretended I was strong for her, when silently I was breaking apart. I researched and read up on all of the information I could find on COVID online. There was a day by day chart I had found and it said that by the 14th day, COVID patients with underlying health problems they would most likely be admitted to the ICU. I counted those days for my mom and like the chart predicted, on the 14th day she was admitted into the ICU. The very next day, she told the doctors she no longer wanted to be on the oxygen machine and that wished to come home. She made that decision on her own.
I had to know my mom’s state of mind and not what they were telling us. When Nathan and I went to see her, we were only allowed 15 minutes. I pleaded with her four times that once the oxygen support was removed, she would no longer live. The mother we all knew so well, said “No, ouke lē koe maga’o ai (No, I don’t want it anymore), let’s go home.” She did not even want us there and acted like she was strong and ready to go home. We called our dad and other family through FaceTime so they could say their goodbyes, her reaction to everyone was the same: no tears, just blow kisses and goodnight. As Nathan and I stood at her bedside, she signaled to me to give her my hand, she placed it on her cheeks and hugged it. In that moment, I knew she understood her situation and that this was her way of saying goodbye. The hardest decision I ever had to make was signing the papers to release our mom to hospice care. I cried and cried asking God to be with me. The following day the hospital chaplain called us one last time, and by then our mom was no longer responding. It was only my brother Elijah and I during that video call, we were both in tears as we said our final goodbyes; afterwards, we asked the Chaplin to pray with us. Our mom’s nurse called around 6pm later that day to notify us of her time of death.
Our mom died before the vaccinations started rolling out nationwide. With all the new variants we have now, I question if she would have been able to survive. I do know that when she was initially hospitalized in February 2020, there was no question in my mind that I had to be here to care for her. It is hard as we go about our everyday lives realizing that our mothers and fathers are also not getting any younger. When you love someone deeply, you want and wish for them to have the strength they once had, and we would sacrifice everything to help them regain that health back. During the last few months with my mom, nothing was left unsaid. We made peace with our past and we were both able to heal from the torment that bound us.
Birthdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas were always celebrated in our home. Even on her own birthday, she would stuff all six of us in a taxi to enjoy a night out celebrating the occasion. Our simple childhood pleasures are the memories I cherish most. Always being excited when she finally got out of work because she would bring treats or on movie night Fridays when we would camp around the TV. Our mom’s marriage to our dad was not smooth sailing, they divorced and remarried after 10 years apart. All of his children from a previous marriage and other relationships, she treated each one as her own. Even though she was educated and strong willed, our mom gave up her own career to support our dad and his calling as a minster. She carried the cross for him through all of the good and ugly, she endured and sacrificed so much for us to live a good life.
Who can find a virtuous woman for her price is far above rubies.Proverbs 31:10
From the first moment I embraced being a Fa’afafine, my relationship with my mom became a difficult one. I used to run away from home a lot because I felt that she could not love me. When I was teenager my mom joined a prayer group for women and it was then that her attitude towards me was at its worst. Anything and everything I did was wrong; she would throw bible scriptures at my face and tell me I was an abomination. Our sister, Francessca, was killed in a car accident in 2005 the same year my dad was incarcerated for a federal crime. My relationship with my mom deteriorated after all of that and we barely ever spoke. My mom was both a nightmare and pure heaven. In spite of it all, no matter how far I was from home, I yearned for her love and acceptance. The moment of redemption came when I visited home in 2017. She had become so loving and embracing of me, we realized that we had wasted years resenting one another and it took being separated to know how much we missed each other. Impossible to fathom, the power of a mother’s love.
In February of 2020, when my mom was hospitalized, the doctors asked if she recognized who this person (me) was by her bedside. My mom softly responded, “that’s my daughter Noni”, and for the first time in my life, I heard my mom call me her daughter. After thirty-plus years, I thought of how selfish I was to not realize how difficult it must have been for a mother who gave birth and raised a son to finally accept her as her daughter. As if all my struggles and pain were lifted, no words were spoken, I just sat there in silence… it was enough for me to understand how much my mom loved me.
As our mom fought for her life in the hospital, she only ever asked for us to pray. There is a Samoan belief that goes “tatalo ma le maligi o o’u loimata” (I prayed with tears in my eyes). I never knew how that felt until I experienced the pain of losing our mom. As if my life with her came full circle, the one thing that made me run away from her, I am now finding comfort to cope with her absence. The pain of separation is great, but God will reunite those who love each other.
Mom, I love you always.