IMR: Entries: 2004: May: 13 — Thursday, May 13, 2004


As grandmothers go, Tutu was way cool.

Solo trucker. Longtime Texan. Thrice-married tough cookie with a warm, gooey center. Hardy, hard-headed, no-nonsense Hawaiian mom, grandmother, and great grandmother. The steady heart of my mother's sometimes scattered family.

Her story is so great, so colorful, so wonderful, I could never do it justice.

Her first husband, my mom's father, died when my mom — the youngest of three kids — was only three years old. She raised them on her own, holding her family together in the tiny town of Kapa`au at the northernmost tip of the Big Island.

How'd she do it? She sold the family business and bought a truck, and launched a tough and incredible career as a then-unheard-of independent woman trucker. She drove the long, sometimes rough roads delivering freight for the Kohala Sugar Company as well as other businesses and stores around the island, easily traveling hundreds of miles a day, holding her own in a business dominated by larger companies and burlier drivers.

Famous were the stories of her battles with other truckers. How they would sometimes steal her loads, and how she would chase them down, pull them over, and make them transfer the freight from their trucks to hers. Despite being the target of the occasional dirty trick, though, she earned everyone's respect. On the wall at my mom's house is a yellowed newspaper clipping profiling her, the "Queen of the Hamakua Highway."

She put all three of her kids through school, sending them to Honolulu to attend Mid-Pacific Institute, and working her fingers to the bone until each one graduated from college. Somewhere around this time there was even a mystery chapter of her life that I didn't even know about until a few years ago — a very brief, very tumultous marriage to a second husband who eventually took off for the West Coast in a whirlwind of melodrama.

She later followed one of her sons to Virginia, where she met and eventually wed Tom Henderson, a retired veteran. They lived there for a while, then moved to San Antonio. We visited them there, and I could tell the spirit of the Lone Star State definitely agreed with her: the cowboy hats, the giant belt buckles, the tough-talking southern swagger, the giant portrait of Oliver North on the wall... I remember her taking us around in her trusty Subaru, speeding along Loop 410, visiting the Alamo, and taking a boat ride down the Riverwalk.

A few years later, they moved back to North Kohala.

In 1988, my mom had a heart attack at work. I was twelve, and my brother was nine, and we had only the faintest idea of what was going on. We were put onto an airplane, all by ourselves, and went to live with them for several weeks while my mom recovered. Some of my most vivid memories are from this time: riding in the back of grandma's pickup truck as she made her way through rolling green hills and past cattle ranches, helping her tend her garden (at least, we thought we were helping), trying (and failing) to develop a taste for fresh avocado... playing with their ragtag bunch of dogs.

We came home soon enough, and life went on. I didn't see much of them for a while. My parents divorced and my brother and I stayed with my mom, who moved to Mililani. I graduated, started college, and took off for Hilo.

Tom's health deteriorated, though, and after a while he and grandma came to live with my mom. Grandma worked hard to take care of her husband, which was no easy feat in a townhouse with upstairs bedrooms. And more than a few times Tom got out of the house and wandered off, sending grandma and mom on frantic, neighborhood-wide searches. He almost reliably and inexplicably headed for the freeway, and they'd usually catch him en route. Though sometimes the police brought him back, having spotted him on the Kipapa Gulch bridge halfway to Waipio.

My uncle Al started overhauling his home to accommodate Tom, with special gates and fixtures... but he eventually passed away. It was just grandma and my mom after that.

I came back to Honolulu, eventually, and brought Jen with me. Soon enough, we had a family. Grandma became Tutu. Weekend visits up to Mililani have been a tradition for years now, and as Katie grew up, I loved that she got to know and love her great grandmother. And while Zac's still very young, I know grandma loved seeing him, and he learned quickly how to charm and tease her. Tutu's spot on the couch by the TV became the first and last stops during every weekly visit. Without fail, Katie and Zac would charge up, wave, and pile on her in a kid-sized hug. Grandma was always there.

But she's not anymore. She died this morning.

Grandma hasn't been well for a while. For over a year now, she'd have occasional bouts of pneumonia, or dehydration, and would end up in the hospital. Of course, she was a stubborn and fierce patient, and I'm pretty sure the hospital staff came to resent her being there as much as she did. After returning home, it was avoiding another hospital stay that motivated her most to eat, or drink, or get out once in a while.

At 85, she could still surprise you. Every now and then, she'd walk to the Mililani post office for exercise. And even I wouldn't want to walk that far.

Still, the ups and downs of her health became more down than up. It was a struggle for my mom to get anything more than a few grapes, or half a piece of toast, into grandma's stomach. She was very tired, very weak. A few months ago, she stopped going upstairs entirely, spending day after day on the living room couch. She took more trips to the hospital.

Mom and her brothers started talking a lot, after years of sometimes only polite contact. It was clear to the doctors that any direct treatment could be just as damaging or dangerous as the condition itself. My mom and uncles waded through an impossible spiderweb of paperwork, meanwhile struggling to do what was best, to keep grandma comfortable.

Only three weeks ago, it was her 86th birthday. My uncles descended on my mom's house like a tornado, determined to put on what was definitely an unforgettable, somewhat surreal birthday party, complete with streamers, balloons, and noisemakers. With grandma fading in and out, it was clear who the party was really for. It was sad, plainly human, and strangely beautiful.

Only two weeks ago, they'd finally arranged for home care... a wonderful woman would come and stay with her every day, all day, feeding her, massaging her, even picking up around the house. But she suddenly lost a lot of weight, and started losing blood. She was back in the hospital last week. And the doctor's judgement was stark: there was nothing they could do.

Sunday morning, she was admitted into hospice at St. Francis in Ewa.

Last night, I went with my mom to visit her, bringing Katie along. My cousin Jennifer and her two kids Trevor and Alyssa were already there. Grandma was struggling to breathe, and moving only slightly, as if restless. It had been hours since Jennifer had seen her open her eyes. We all took turns holding her hand and talking to her, even Katie. I know grandma responded to her voice.

While Alyssa and Katie talked calmly of God and heaven, Trevor — only a few months older than Katie — was crying. Despite his age, he seemed to have a firm grasp of what was happening, and a soft heart that eventually got my tears flowing too.

When it was time to go, we all said goodbye. I waited for everyone else to head out of the room. I leaned in close, kissed her forehead, and while fumbling for words, found my voice and said, "We love you. We owe so much to you. Thank you, grandma. Goodbye."

Perhaps five or six hours later, she was gone.

I'm still trying to wrap my mind around that basic, simple fact. I know when I next drive up to Mililani and walk into my mom's house, I will wholly expect to see grandma stretched out on the couch as always, watching bad TV with the volume up too far. Life seems horribly normal — I got the news at work, and after a sniffle or two, I dove back into my spreadsheet. Part of the calm comes from my mom, who — in part because she's been so close to grandma these past few weeks and in part because it's just the way she is — is seemingly calm and at peace with it all. When coworkers and friends started calling to offer their condolences, I was wondering if I sounded sad enough. I was worrying more about the Miss Manners aspects of a loved one's death, it seemed, than anything else.

But... I also already feel something deeper and darker than perhaps I've ever felt. It's like I'm just trying to gauge the sorrow just beneath the surface now, naively wondering what it'll feel like when I finally fall in. I know losing a grandparent, or a parent, comes for just about everyone. Grieving is something I imagine you eventually learn to do. But this is my first time, and I'm a little scared.

My grandma was, by any measure, a great person. I wanted her to see her kids, her grandkids, her great grandkids grow and make her proud, to become great people themselves. We still will, I hope. But right now I feel like it will mean just a little bit less without her.


Ryan, condolences to you and your family.
Sun (May 14, 2004 3:31 AM)

Sorry to hear about your loss. You and your family are in my thoughts.
Joy (May 14, 2004 3:42 AM)

My condolences and many hugs. You brought tears to my eyes with your beautiful prose.
Claire (May 14, 2004 9:23 AM)

I'm so sorry for your loss. I hope that your wonderful memories of Tutu will be a comfort in this difficult time.
lisa (May 14, 2004 9:30 AM)

Ryan and Family- I am so very, very sorry to read your eulogy. Her gift, through your gift, became precious to me. Take care of yourself, your spouse, and your little ones.
Mike Shiroma (May 14, 2004 5:42 PM)

What a lovely memorial to a beloved woman. My sympathies to you all, I know that all of your memories will be a comfort.
Dreama (May 15, 2004 7:21 PM)

What beautiful words for a beautiful woman. Many condolences on your loss.
Rozane (May 16, 2004 6:27 AM)

So sorry for your loss. Your grandmother sounds like someone to be admired and very special.
Carol (May 16, 2004 3:39 PM)

Sorry about the loss of your grandmother.
Helen (May 20, 2004 10:48 PM)

Thank you for sharing your grandmother's life story. She sounds like the sort ofwoman I always admire--full of fight, but with a world of kindness bouying up everything. I'm sorry for your loss, but happy for you in that you did have a lifetime of havingthis wonderful woman as your grandmother. You have some great memories by which to cherish her.
Michelle (June 2, 2004 1:13 AM)

Ryan, Thinking of you and your family during this time. Tutu sounds like an incredible woman! Our thoughts and prayers are with you all. Best, Wendy
Wendy (June 3, 2004 7:57 PM)

Very belated condolences to you and your family, Ryan. What a beautiful tribute to your grandmother. Grief happens in it's own time and in it's own way. It tends to come in waves, when you least expect it. It's a necessary part of the process.
Tutu Sue (July 8, 2004 11:59 PM)

Mahalo for your mana'o from the heart brah. It touched me. My mom passed away 3 years ago .. it still is like yesterday. I will be sitting at her grave site up Mililani in a couple weeks during my yearly journey home. We will have soft conversations, albiet one way ..but somehow I think she will hear me.
Kamaka (July 23, 2004 2:34 PM)

I lost my Nanna earlier this year too, and I'm sorry for your loss Ryan. Nannas and Grandmothers are the very best people.
Amanda Page (August 5, 2004 2:13 PM)

E kala mai! Comments have been disabled due to overwhelming abuse by spammers. Please click through to any of the video hosting services linked above to leave a public response, or feel free to send an e-mail. Mahalo!

© 1997-2008 Ryan Kawailani Ozawa · E-Mail: [ PGP ] · Created: 13 November 1997 · Last Modified: 14 January 2008