Friday, April 4, 2014

Ofa Atu Means I Love You

The Vakautakakala Family, 2011
Meet the Vakautakakala family! Don't let the long Tongan name intimidate you; it's pronounceable, if you practice long enough. (vah'-kah-oo-tah-kah-kah'-lah) Jodi and Tevita have a big family full of love. "Ofa atu" means "I love you," in Tongan, and they say it all of the time.

It was late summer in 2011, and another school year was off to a good start. I was teaching fifth grade, and it was my honor to be the inclusion teacher that year. That meant that the special needs children of that grade were included in my homeroom, and I would have an assistant. By the luck of the draw, Jodi was my assistant assigned to me that year. 

The name Vakautakakala was a challenge for me; I was worried I would never be able say it or spell it correctly. One of her third grade students, Adam, could spell her name, so I was determined I would master it, too. Most of my kids called her "Mrs. V." Jodi says her own dad calls them the Coca Colas. The boys on her son's middle school football team told me they call him Braxton ABC because he practically has the whole alphabet in his name. Spelling her name correctly became a class challenge, and one that I took seriously. That turned out to be a good thing.

Jodi, or Mrs. V, as the kids called her, became a good friend to our class, and to me. One day I received word she would not be coming to school. Her middle daughter, Sipola, had been taken to the emergency room, and then had been sent to see the specialists at Primary Children's Hospital. That's never good news. I texted her that we would handle things at school; she could just focus on getting her little girl well. 

"Ofa atu," I texted.

We all know how harrowing a hospital stay can be when children are involved; the endless days, and sleepless nights. It is hard not to worry. 

Sipola was there for days that turned into weeks, enduring tests, experiencing blood clots, having setbacks, and her doctors were discussing mortality rates for children in her condition. It was not looking good, and our community rallied around the family, offering prayers and support.

Jodi was over two hours away from home and her other children. Tevita was working all week, and driving up each weekend to be with Jodi and Pola. Jodi was not sleeping much in that cramped hospital room. Her only concern was getting her little girl well, and she wasn't taking care of herself. Meals were skipped; nights were spent watching over her little Pola Bear, and the days dragged on. 

When it became apparent Pola wasn't coming home as soon as everyone hoped, I was determined to stop at Primary Children's Hospital on my way to the Ogden area the next weekend. Salt Lake City is 175 miles from Monroe; I didn't want to go empty-handed. Nothing I could bring would make much of a difference; I knew that, and yet, I knew they would appreciate the thought. The teachers at school had donated money to help with the family's expenses, and to make sure they had money for meals while they were staying at the hospital. I put that in an envelope to take. Into a gift bag, I tucked some snacks for Jodi and Tevita, some money for the cafeteria, some magazines to read, and some Bath and Body Lotion. It wasn't much, but it was something.

When I arrived at the check-in desk Friday afternoon, September 11, 2011, the security guard asked me who I was there to see. 

"Sipola Vakautakakala." His mouth dropped open a little, and his eyes went wide.

"Can you spell that?" Oh, man. I'd been practicing, but I kept putting Cs where the Ks needed to go. 

"Is this a test?" I teased him. "You know, if it's a requirement to spell that name before visiting Sipola, she might miss out on some good visitors!"

I asked for a pencil and paper, and managed to spell it correctly. After I showed him my driver's license, he printed out a visitor's badge for me. I was a little nervous as I rode the elevator up to the correct floor. Somehow I wanted to be of service, but what could I possibly do that would make a difference? I said a silent prayer, hoping for some inspiration.

When I was shown to Pola's room, I found her in a lot of pain and discomfort. There were tubes and wires everywhere. Her little body was so swollen from the medications they had given her. Monitors took up a lot of the space in the small room. 

Jodi was standing by her bed, trying anything that would give her comfort; offering her sips of a drink, helping her find a more comfortable position, and anything else she might request. Mama looked exhausted, and  I waited for an opportunity to relieve her for a moment. 

"Hey, Pola. Your friends at school want you to know they miss you, and hope you get better soon." She gave me a weak smile. 

"Mom, it hurts!" she whimpered. She was taking short, shallow breaths, her face in a tight grimace. Jodi looked at me helplessly. I thought if I could distract her, it would take her mind off of her discomfort. I gave Jodi the gift bag, and moved to the other side of the bed. I moved some wires out of the way, and sat down. Leaning in to Sipola's ear, I began to whisper.

"Pola, whenever I feel scared or hurt, I try to take slow, deep breaths. You are breathing so fast right now, it's hard for you to feel comfortable. Will you try it with me?" She nodded in agreement, and closed her eyes. "Take a long, slow breath in...and now let it out. Good; just like that. Do it more time..." Her eyes were no longer squished tightly shut. Pola's breathing was deeper. I looked over at Jodi; she was crying silently. Something special was taking place, and I couldn't take any credit for it.

I don't remember everything I said that day, but I felt peace settle over us as we began to breathe together. The tension was leaving the room, and Sipola began to relax. Her breathing returned to normal. I let her know that whenever she started to feel worried or hurt, she could forget about everything else, and just concentrate on her breathing. I knew I had been led to say these things. My prayers had been answered, and so had Jodi's.

"Pola, I brought some special lotion for you. Do you mind if I rub it on your feet?" She nodded her approval, and offered her foot from under the sheets. We talked about school, and the pictures she had painted in the hospital while I massaged her feet and legs, and then worked on her swollen hands and arms.  

Our visit ended on a much higher note than when I had arrived, and before I left, I asked if I could say a prayer. It just seemed like the thing to do. We all felt so much better afterwards. 

"Ofa atu, Pola." 

"Ofa atu, Mrs. Jackson." After we all hugged goodbye, I headed down to the hospital's parking lot. Tears brimmed my eyelids. I knew we had been touched by the spirit that day. 
Two days later: a much happier Pola.

I'm happy to report that Sipola is a happy, healthy middle schooler these days. Medication has kept her condition stable, and she is busy dancing, and playing volleyball and basketball. Miracles still happen, and I am grateful to have been a part of a small one that day in Sipola's room. Tender mercies are God's way of telling us, "Ofa atu."
A proud Tevita with his girl at the clogging competition, March 2014.

It is interesting to read about yourself from someone else's perspective. I was surprised to see that Jodi had written about my experience with Sipola in her own blog. You can see that here: Jodi's Blog.


  1. Tears. What a beautiful story! So amazing that you could be there for her when she really needed you!

    1. Thank you, Iris. I am so glad I was there; what a special moment to share with them.

  2. Beautiful. It brought back memories of similar moments I have had the privilege to witness.

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  4. Denise, that was beautiful. Wish you are here to read this aloud to a group.

    1. One day, I would love to attend another writer's conference. I'm glad your experience has surprised you in a positive way!


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