In loving memory of Ma Sue

In mid-September I spent a bittersweet week in Hawaii with family—Hubby, his mom, his siblings and their spouses.

The journey actually started in July. All three of my husband’s grown sons were home to honor Youngest’s marriage the previous December. Unbeknownst to me, my mother-in-law—everyone calls her Ma Sue—had a mission for that July weekend—a mission that she failed to accomplish.

We realized this when she showed up the following week with a personalized, handmade quilt a friend of hers had made for Middle Son’s firstborn, our first grandchild, her first great-grand. She’d been so thrilled when she had learned the baby’s middle name would be Herb, in memory of her husband who’d died last year.

Ma Sue’s intention had been to give the quilt to them while they were home from Hawaii—Middle Son is a Marine stationed there—but the quilt wasn’t finished in time. She’d have to mail it instead and miss seeing the looks on their faces. We could see the disappointment on hers.

It hurt our hearts, as we knew this was the only great-grandchild Ma Sue would ever know. She had been diagnosed with cancer last year. It was an aggressive form and the prognosis was grim. In June, she’d begun radiation for what we’d hoped was an isolated reoccurrence—turned out it wasn’t. The treatment worked on the intended spot…but it had spread further and she elected not to undergo any more radiation or chemotherapy. The doctors said the results probably wouldn’t be much different if she had. She decided to live her remaining days to the fullest: quality over quantity.

So, back to the quilt…Hubby and I talked it over and decided why mail it if she could take it to them? She’d never been to Hawaii. It was on her bucket list. Could we make it happen? She was still pretty spry. Would she feel like making the long trip from Tennessee if we went with her?

We broached the subject the following weekend and she said she’d “think about it,” her standard answer when surprised by a question. Me? I tend to give a gut response. One of many lessons I could learn from her. Anyway, she decided not only was this a good idea, but she’d like for her other two children (Hubby’s brother and sister) and their spouses to also go. AND…she’d inherited a little money from her parents who died in their 90’s a few years ago. She thought they’d approve of her financing the trip for all of us. What? That wasn’t the plan; but plans change. When coordinating the schedules of ten people (the seven of us travelers plus the three in Hawaii) plans definitely change.

First, we checked with Middle Son to determine when he’d be on the island. He’s subject to off-island maneuvers, so his schedule was the first to pin down. With his availability in hand, and knowing we had to do this sooner rather than later, we found a five bedroom/four and a half bath house with a pool that sat atop a hill overlooking Kailua Bay, only minutes from the Marine base. It was reasonably priced by Hawaii standards and, more importantly, available the second week of September. We booked the air, the rental van, the travel insurance (a must in this situation) and the wait was on.

In the weeks leading up to the trip we watched Ma Sue’s strength decline. It became more and more difficult for her to eat solid foods and her energy visibly waned. Her two doctors, an internist and a palliative medicine specialist, wholeheartedly supported this trip and, if possible, were as excited about it as she. They vowed to do everything possible to make it happen.

She’d become so weak and tired in the days leading up to our Saturday departure, that on Wednesday of that same week, the internist put her in the hospital for two days and gave her an iron infusion and two units of blood to “put some pep in her step.” It certainly helped and she made the nine hours of in-the-air-flight-time without incident. By the end of the trip, the flight attendants had adopted her and asked what our return flights were as they hoped they’d be with us when we returned home. That was pretty much everyone’s reaction to her.

While in Hawaii, she gave Great-Grandson his handmade quit which he immediately initiated with his slobber. She did a helicopter tour and visited the Dole Pineapple Plantation. At Pearl Harbor, the first person she met was a World War II survivor named Herb. She introduced him to her great-grandson with the same name.  Of course the baby and his family visited with us frequently during our stay and we had a lot of quality time. We played cards in the card room (with a great view), ate on the patio, and spent lots of time enjoying the scenery. But mostly, we were a family—a family soon to lose its matriarch.

I’ll cherish many memories from that trip. I’ll remember how she enjoyed the view from her spot on the patio where she sat and watched us splash around in the pool and hot tub, doing yoga by the pool, or simply lying in the sun. She didn’t read a page while we were there because she wanted to take in everything around her. I’ll remember surreptitiously observing her and her three children (all in their fifties) standing at the edge of the property, with the bay in the background (picture below) waiting for the sun to rise above the hills. I’ll remember catching her napping on the plane, in the car, on the sofa, on the patio…wherever she happened to be when her energy just ran out. I loved that she was so relaxed and felt so safe she could fall asleep so easily. I’ll remember what a card shark she was—of course I already knew that! I’ll remember her holding her great-grandson, hugging her grandson, loving her children and their spouses. I’ll remember…so very, very much.

It was such a special trip—a trip of a lifetime. How fortunate we are as a family that we got to experience this week together. How fortunate we are to have had our “Ma Sue.”



Sue Jean Blythe Elam Smith

February 8, 1936 – December 15, 2012

The unveiling of the quilt



My grandson started crawling during our visit — on his new quilt from his great grandmother, no less!



Ma Sue and her three children at dawn our first morning in Hawaii




Ma Sue with Herb Weatherwax, WWII Veteran, at Pearl Harbor


Four Generations






Our last day — The view from our rental home





















With love and great memories of my mother-in-law,