Less than a month ago, on January 18, we gathered in a church in Kaneohe, Hawaii, to be with Taka Alphons and Pat Billington as they solemnized their marriage after 30 years of life together. It was clearly a touching moment for them, with joy radiating from their faces, and for all of their friends who were there to cheer them on. We already knew that Taka and Pat would leave Hawaii two days later for California where Taka was scheduled to have a heart transplant.
All of us who were there were confident there was nothing wrong with the inner workings of Taka?s heart, but the mechanics was another matter altogether. Over the past several years Taka had bypass surgery, valve replacements, insertion of a monitor, and he seemed headed for a new Micronesian record in cardiological procedures. During it all, he had experienced a couple very close calls when he had been whisked to the hospital just in time.
Taka didn?t make it this time. He flew to California for the heart transplant, but it seems that from the start his body had difficulty adapting to the replacement. Just a day or two after the transplant, on February 11, he passed away with his wife at his side.
Sorrow was never a big part of Taka?s life, so let?s dispense with that here and celebrate the man he was. I met him first as a student at Xavier in 1963–he was something of a prodigy in math and well able to see how badly I struggled to teach the physics class that one of the older Jesuits dumped on me that year. I?ll never forget the hike around the entire island of Pohnpei that he and another Pohnpeian student took with me one of those summers. I can still hear their laughter as I tottered on the single coconut tree log that served as a bridge over so many of those island streams. He showed me how to fire a .22 rifle and bring down the pigeons that served as our dinner on more than one evening.
Later we were together again when he returned to Xavier to teach during the 1970s. The rest of the world might be dancing to disco music. But we faculty members were listening to Taka play John Denver songs on his guitar as he sipped from whatever we offered him. His good spirits were irrepressible, and they were contagious as well. Maybe that?s why so many of us looked back on those days so fondly. We may have had our faults, Taka as well as the rest of us, but we were family to one another. No small thing for a school that has always prided itself on fostering unity.
Taka moved on to Pohnpei to work there for a while in youth programs, but he kept in touch with his old friends. He was still the same happy soul he had always been. There he met Pat and became even happier. The two of them moved on to Hawaii as Taka?s health concerns became more serious, but both kept their jobs and entertained–although more often with Pohnpeian sakau than spirits or wine.
Is it sentimental slop to think that I hear Taka?s heart still beating? Not the fleshly one that gave out on him long before it should have, but the spirit he shared with those close to him–an exhilarating? spirit of love of life, and of his friends.