POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 22, 2012
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.
Reach Michael Tsai at firstname.lastname@example.org.