Samoan Cowboys: Suau'u Pe'a, Phoebe Taggart and Dad

This photo (left) of my dad (Tagomoa L. Matua) with his palagi mother Phoebe Taggart and Suau’upaia Pe’a was taken in Star Valley, WY in the late 1950’s. Have you ever looked at old photos and wondered what they were thinking just as the photo was snapped? Could they have been thinking about what challenges lie ahead or what goals they wished to accomplish? Were their minds filled with a jumble of mundane thoughts, was there substance, speculations on life or a mish-mash of what to wear and where to go?

Staring at this photo of my dad brings back memories of a man I recall as robust, eager-to-tackle-the-world and ruggedly handsome with a quiet, commanding presence on the outside; unflappable, thoughtful, persistent and for the most part, reasonable on the inside. He had a dry sense of humor and a knack for saying profound things that often left people wondering his true meaning. His friends in Star Valley, Afton, Jackson Hole and in the surrounding communities say that he was a great athlete. I remember him as the guy who always frustrated me on the basketball court with that awkward, mid-range, left-handed hook that somehow always found the bottom of the basket and his out-of-the-park home-run’s that were always preceded by a taunt, followed by a stream of friendly jabs as he rounded the bases. He was the original Polynesian smack talker.

As his children we idolized and cheered for our dad. As youths and young adults we despised and feared our dad. As adults we cherish and revere the man he was, while living with the man who has replaced him. Dad, has Alzheimer’s.

Dad suffered a stroke on September 10, 2002. I remember it vividly because we were watching the events of 9-11 unfold in a hospital room the following day. During that hospital stay, a number of ailments were uncovered and led to his slow decline. A few years later, he began to suffer bouts of forgetfulness, and severe mood swings. He was  officially diagnosed with Alzheimers in late-2005. Since then, his memories have become increasingly jumbled or they have disappeared completely. Look into his eyes and you see a man who is struggling to remember your name; a man who is eager to tell you about his love of Samoa and his wife and children, of teaching and serving. But you will also see a man who is too frustrated and confused by the scattered, patchwork of his past to find a pattern to the madness or to formulate a logical sentence. So instead, he spends his time weeding the garden, reading a book or watching my sister Annette’s dog “Oscar” dart back and forth on the front lawn.

As his children it is incomprehensible that a man who, with our mother, taught us a love for music, mentored us spiritually and provided for all our needs become a mere shell of his former self. Even for a lowly writer, I can hardly put into words what its like to hear your dad ask you repeatedly, “Who is that boy there?” And your voice catches as you reply, “That’s your grandson.”

There are still occasional moments of clarity. They are always a surprise. They are fewer and fewer as time passes by, but when they happen, they are a blessing. Our entire family, including his grandchildren have learned to cope with the irratic behavior and odd questions, his sudden outbursts and random conversations. But when we are blessed
with a moment to see and hear our dad speak as he once did, we cheer and shed tears, surprised by our own mixed emotions.

Hiking with dad 2009

Yes its tough and I’m grateful to my sisters for their love and care of our father during these difficult times, but we have come to learn that we love our dad more now than we ever have before. He may not be the same man he was in stature, mind or in spirit, but we have our memories and we have our photos and we have an opportunity to love him
now, as he is.

Visit alz.org for more information about this dreadful disease including the 10 Warning Signs of Alzheimers.

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