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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 14, 2002

A T-shirt, a gift and so much more

By Barbara Pidot-Guffey

On a spring weekend in 1997 I returned to Moloka'i to visit my grandmother, Ellen Kaauamo Baybayan, at the hospital's long-term care unit. I quietly observed her for a few minutes before entering the room. She was bedridden from a previous stroke. Her left hand and leg were rigid and contracted. She had Parkinson's tremors in her right hand. It shook uncontrollably as she wiped her eyes.

The call button was fastened to her pillow. She chose not to use it or call for assistance. Instead, she focused on the simple task of grooming herself. Apo, as we called her, often lectured that complaining was synonymous with whining. I willed myself to be still and allow her to "paddle her own canoe."

I remembered how she used to routinely wipe the hana bata from our noses, stoop to help the keiki wash their feet, and prepare endless loads of laundry and meals. Most important, I remembered the quiet presence that always embraced us as she would pule, or pray, for everyone.

I had prepared myself for a time when Apo would perhaps forget my name. Dementia was one of her medical diagnoses. Her short-term memory was severely impaired. She was legally blind but her hearing remained intact.

I reached for her hands and whispered her name: "Apo Lady."

She turned her head. Minutes passed. She tenderly stroked my face. I searched her eyes for the slightest hint of familiarity.

The child within me burst into tears as Apo's eyes beamed sudden recognition. "Baby!" she cried. It was her pet name for me, her eldest mo'opuna, or grandchild, and a grandmother as well.

On October 11, 1998, we gently bathed Apo and meticulously washed her feet. Food was withheld because she couldn't safely swallow. Another stroke had limited her speaking to only one word, "Ha," the Hawaiian word for breath.

As we tried to decide what Apo should wear that morning, the door to her wardrobe closet mysteriously opened. Her favorite T-shirt fell from the top shelf onto the floor. Printed on the front of the shirt were the words, "Ke ola hou ... Restore to life." It was a keepsake from a November 1991 tree-planting project coordinated by Moloka'i Ranch to help return the island to its former forested splendor. While the 'ohana spirit of kokua was not dampened by the rain that day, Apo had reluctantly stayed home to nurse a cold while her mo'opuna and great-grandchildren donned plastic trashbags in place of raincoats.

The October morning her T-shirt fell from the wardrobe, I interpreted the shirt's message as, "Restore to everlasting life."

Less than 24 hours later she went to our Father's House with a pure heart — and clean feet. Her eyes reflected the light that lovingly guided her Home.

In 1999, my cousin Chad earned his master's degree in Hawaiian studies. I wanted to acknowledge Chad's accomplishments in a meaningful manner, without too much fanfare. Like our grandmother, Chad inspires others with his quiet strength and humility.

I asked myself: "What would be an appropriate gift? What would Apo Lady choose?" Hanging in my closet was the extra T-shirt I had received on that day in 1991. It was identical to my grandmother's favorite one. My cousin received it in the spirit it was given, with heartfelt pride and aloha.

Barbara Pidot-Guffey lives in Kane'ohe.

Hawai'i Ways, Hawai'i Days is a column of essays by readers on what makes Hawai'i unique. Send your article of 500-600 words with your address and daytime phone number, and address it to Hawai'i Ways, Hawai'i Days. You may e-mail islandlife@honoluluadvertiser.com; fax 525-8055; or mail to The Honolulu Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802. Sending a head shot of yourself is optional. Articles and photos submitted to The Advertiser may be published or distributed in print, electronic or other forms.