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Wednesday, April 16, 2014         

INCIDENTAL LIVES


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Family caretaker's next nurturing role a joyous one

By Michael Tsai

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Darlene Wong remembers it all -- the good and bad times, days of courage and moments of weakness, the final words, the final breaths.

At an age when many of her cohorts are happily immersed in the everyday madness of marriage and babies and career, the 33-year-old Hilo Hattie sales manager carries with her the indelible memories of having cared for several of her closest family members through their dying days.

"It definitely means a lot to be able to care for them," she says. "But it also takes a lot out of you. You see the good and bad in them and it gets really emotional when you start to see them go downhill."

As a teenager, Wong helped her father take care of a dying uncle who came to live with them. Bedridden, the uncle rang a bell whenever he needed help. And thus Wong learned that love could be measured in the accumulation of tiny increments of time and attention.

A few years later, Wong joined other family members in caring for her maternal grandparents, who suffered debilitating strokes within a year of each other. She visited every day, running errands and tending to hundreds of small but important tasks until both eventually died.

Wong would assume an even bigger caretaker role when her father was stricken with prostate and colon cancer.

Wong's father had children from a previous marriage, but they weren't close. He and Wong's mother had divorced when Wong was a toddler, though the two remained friends. Thus it fell to Wong to see her aging father through brutal rounds of radiation and chemotherapy.

Like many family caregivers, Wong sees as a blessing the opportunity to care for those who once cared for them. But sometimes love isn't measured in small kindnesses and comforts -- rather, in singular, devastating decisions.

Some five years after his last cancer screening turned up clean, Wong's father called to say he wasn't feeling well. Wong drove him to the hospital, where doctors confirmed that he was having a heart attack. Tests revealed major blockage of his arteries that needed to be addressed via triple bypass.

But during the surgery, Wong's father's heart stopped some 30 times and he emerged unable to function without life support. Two agonizing days later, Wong made the call to let him go.

"He raised me like a single dad," Wong says. "It was always just the two of us. I knew the choice I had to make."

The caregiving, and its attendant inevitable sadness, have only continued. Most recently, Wong and her mother cared for her aunt -- "my second mom" -- until she died of cancer this summer.

So much love. So much loss. What could possibly be next?

Despite -- perhaps because of -- all that she's been through in her yet-young life, Wong is eagerly awaiting her next and most challenging caregiving job, one that will likely take her to the end of her days.

She and fiance Jason Kaku are expecting their first child early next year.

Reach Michael Tsai at mtsai@staradvertiser.com.






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