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Ailing mom's Christmas generosity humbles son

By Michael Tsai


By chance, were you at Ala Moana Center on Christmas Eve 2009?

If so, I wonder: Did you see my mother?

She would have been bent over a walker, scraping along in her white Velcro-top sneakers a few feet at a time, perhaps grimacing at the effort, no doubt flashing one of those "Whaddaya gonna do?" smiles if she caught you gawking.

You wouldn't have had to look long to tell she wasn't a well woman. A ruptured disc and a half-dozen ineffective back surgeries had rendered her in constant pain for 25 years, and the scores of cortisone shots used to treat her discomfort contributed to osteoporosis that left her stooped like a lowercase "r."

Less apparent would have been the slow-welling panic she felt amid the end-of-season crowd, a consequence of the social anxiety she'd developed over years of suffering quietly indoors. Less apparent would have been the constant choking sensation that had set in just that season, a symptom of the scleroderma that was slowly hardening her tissues and organs.

You would have known she was struggling. You would not necessarily have realized she was dying.

I don't suppose I did. Not really.

We had been to the mall earlier in the week to get presents for my siblings, nieces and nephew. The shopping itself didn't take long — my mother's Social Security check rarely lasted the month — but just walking from department to department, store to store, took the better part of an afternoon.

My mother would walk 10 or 20 yards, slump over her walker, wipe her brow on her shoulder, grip her handholds a little tighter and walk a few yards more. It was painstaking stuff, and the jostling from impatient shoppers around her didn't help matters. Neither, I'm sure, did the sulky, put-upon carriage of her youngest child.

By late afternoon my mother had accumulated a couple of bags of inexpensive but thoughtfully selected gifts. What was left in her wallet would barely cover her drug co-pays and Handi-Van rides until the next check arrived, but she wanted to make one more stop. I refused.

"Don't get me anything," I said, a little more petulantly than I had intended.

"Who said it's for you?"

"I don't want anything," I huffed. "Let's go."

I was in a humbler if not brighter mood when I arrived at her retirement apartment late Christmas Eve to drink a little tea and open presents once the clock hit midnight — a ritual we'd maintained since I was a child.

We'd have just one more Christmas Eve like this before she died, but I didn't know that then.

At some point, after all of the other presents from family and friends had been opened, my mother wobbled over to her makeshift closet and took out a large, carefully wrapped box. And in that moment I realized why she looked so tired that evening, why she hadn't picked up the phone that afternoon.

She handed me the gift, gave me a hug and pretended to dust something off her blouse while I swallowed the lump in my throat.

"Merry Christmas."

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@staradvertiser.com.

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KailuaMom wrote:
Thank you for sharing this beautiful story, Michael. I hope it reminds everyone to take the time and be in the moment. Those special, memorable moments slip away way too soon. May your Mom's beautiful spirit brighten the days to come.
on December 22,2012 | 05:22AM
hoopono wrote:
Well said, KailuaMom. Prayers to you, Michael for a very Merry Christmas. Thank you so much for a beautiful story of your beautiful Mom. For all our Mom's in Heaven, our Love and our prayers, and a very Merry Christmas.
on December 22,2012 | 07:15AM
momotaro53 wrote:
Mahalo Michael. Such a heartfelt story that brings back memories of my own Mom. During the last months of Mom's life she still embodied the loving generosity for what she was always known. No pity for herself - others always came first and foremost. After she was gone, I realized that the people around you are in fact your life's existence. Her spirit lives on, yet there is still that tinge of emptiness that lies within. Appreciate your family and friends now; " bum-by" is too late.
on December 22,2012 | 09:41AM
kcfu wrote:
Thank you for sharing your beautiful and poignant story. It brought back memories of my own mom. A wonderful reminder of the true spirit of Christmas, which your mom embodied.
on December 22,2012 | 11:08AM
tishjacobs wrote:
Thank you for sharing your story Michael. It brought tears to my eyes as it reminded me of my own mom. This is the first Christmas without her on this earth to hug, but it is comforting to know that she is with my dad in heaven. Not a day goes by that I don't think of her. Merry Christmas !
on December 22,2012 | 01:19PM
cocobean wrote:
Very moving story. Can't help but to think about my mom this time of year. She was born on 12/23 I was her Christmas present born on 12/25. Her physical condition was very much like your Mom in her final years. Back operations, hip and knee replacements, walker to wheelchair. Never once bemoaning her condition. It really hit home when you said your remark came out little more petulantly than you intended. Once things are said it's hard to take back.
on December 22,2012 | 07:37PM
livepono wrote:
You always write stories about other people and for you to share this very personal story about your mom is very touching. The fact that even in her condition she still wanted to be able to choose special gifts for her loved ones goes to show what a determined and brave person she was. Your mom demonstrated the true meaning of the Christmas spirit. God bless you, Michael.
on December 23,2012 | 02:54AM
autumnrose wrote:
so, Michael... what was in the "large carefully wrapped box"? Was it store-bought or home made? Do you still have the present and cherish it? No fair with the suspense. Merry Xmas!
on December 23,2012 | 03:59PM
asahi wrote:
thanks mike for sharing this. i realized how painful it was to even recall these events and yet it was something you felt compelled to retell for the good of mankind. thank you for bringing us back to reality that life, often passes too fast while all the good stuff still remains under our noses. i am glad that today i spent some time with my 91 year old mother. ...nuff said asahi a.k.a. al
on December 24,2012 | 01:16AM
twosense wrote:
Thank you for sharing a very personal experience. Your story brought tears to my eyes when remembering my own mom, whose joy also evolved around making other people happy. Just remember that you DID make your mom happy by her present to you.
on December 26,2012 | 02:47PM
nrm808 wrote:
Thank you for a wonderful story, to help everyone remember the really important stuff in life. This story brought tears to my eyes - makes me be thankful for the family in my life, especially on those rough days. I enjoy your stories about real people, but especially this one about your mom! Thank you for sharing!
on January 8,2013 | 06:58AM
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