In remembrance of my “Older Brother,” Pastor Wichep, who succumbed to cancer recently—half a world away from his island home, Lukunor. And, in honor of the countless people who have lost their lives to cancer.
Somewhere on the outskirts of Charlottesville, Virginia, lies what remains of a young immigrant from the island of Lukunor, our family atoll on the eastern-most edge of the Mortlock islands in the Federated States of Micronesia. He was the firstborn boy—“Ate Fon” (loosely translated “The Special Son”)—to my father’s only sister. He was 46 years old and father to five half-Virginian kids, the youngest still being in third grade and the oldest already of college age.
Over 10 years had passed since I last saw him, but we spoke briefly over the phone about a month before his untimely demise—the family had tasked me with asking the painful, end-of-life questions. Most notably, “Where do you want your final resting place to be?”
“I’ve been fighting this for over a year now, so I’m kind of in a hurry to move on (my translation to English), but I think my heart is too strong,” he said with a genuine though labored chuckle. “My body is of no use anymore—they took out my stomach and now they want to cut my liver. I fall asleep every night thinking it’s my last, but then I still keep waking up. My heart just won’t give up.”
It was the summer of 1988. I was returning to Charlottesville for my sophomore year at a local prep/boarding school, privileged beyond my worth. Four of my Mortlockese cousins and childhood playmates—each of who had never, prior to this trip, left the ocean-locked islands of Micronesia—had taken the trip with me in search of the “American Dream.”
The mad rush to find jobs and a place to stay began almost immediately—not as simple as it sounds for a bunch of teenage foreigners with very limited English skills and zero jobhunting experience. Long story short, we negotiated for and put some money down on a decrepit, two-bedroom house within walking distance of the University of Virginia and three of my cousins (the fourth would opt to return home) were offered jobs in the distribution warehouse of the Daily Progress, the town’s local newspaper. Each would be paid $3.75 an hour (if my memory serves me right)…far more money than any of us had ever been paid for anything to that point in our lives. For a time, I too would work with them (as a part-time weekend warrior) on the graveyard shift to supplement some of our mutual expenses.
At the onset of our move to Charlottesville, school was the primary goal for all of us; in fact, each of my cousins would enroll for classes at the local community college. But, sometime between the long, night-time hours at work (necessary just to afford rent, food, etc.) and the suffocating cycle of remedial English classes needed to advance into credited courses, life took hold, school faded away like a dream at dawn and my cousins took their respective places in the footholds of Charlottesville’s rank and file.
For two of them, Pastor and Gabe (the closest of friends since our childhood days of running around naked on the shores of our home islands), the Daily Progress would be their bread, butter and home for the subsequent 20-plus years; in fact, Gabe retains his job there still.
His answer was pretty clear-cut. “Am I supposed to get on the plane as I’m looking back at these kids? That’s torture, Man. I believe it would be easier for everyone if I just stay here… There’s a place along the highway, so I can wave anytime our family drives past,” he said with what I imagined to be a big smile on the other end of the phone.
He would later apologize to his mother (who made her first trip to America to be at his side) that he could not accompany her back home because he needed to stay where his children could visit him.
After 25-plus years (since a few days of arriving in Charlottesville) of working multiple jobs, his last days were spent in the home he bought with and for his family—the American Dream realized—surrounded by various members of our family who came in from all corners of the United States and some from as far back as our home islands.
His coffin would be lowered into the ground of a cold Virginia cemetery at the hands of three generations of direct descendants from our Grandmother’s line.
Somewhere outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, lies the strong heart of our Special Son. He stays for the love of his kids, his greatest heart’s desire. There also takes root a new breed of immigrant sons and daughters to the Virginia Commonwealth. May God bless his soul and may God bless the United States of America.
For more, please feel free to contact NMPASI at (670) 235-7273/4 [voice] / 235-7275 [fax/tty] or on-line at www.nmpasi.org. Also, feel free to contact the Commonwealth Cancer Association at (670) 682-0050 or www.ccamarianas.org/email: firstname.lastname@example.org—please support our March Against Cancer in recognition of March as Cancer Awareness Month.