Easter in the Ili household in Long Beach is usually a well-choreographed parade of activity. In years past Lina Ili would put on music early in the morning while she, her husband Junior, and their four children got ready for church. At St. Cornelius, those six Ilis would be surrounded by around 80 other members of their extended family as part of the church’s congregation. The names are well-known to Long Beach sports fans; in addition to the Ilis, their cousins the Iosias, the Mikaeles, the Tuilomas would be in attendance.
“Basically everybody,” said Pele Ili, 25 years old, Junior and Lina’s oldest son.
After the service, the families would retreat to their separate houses to gather food and finish cooking.
“Then everyone’s bringing food to the feast at whoever’s hosting the Easter after-party and barbecue,” said Pele. “We all commune there as a family, play games, catch up on the previous week, because we all saw each other the previous Sunday. Then we’d leave and go to see my mom’s family. We’re around all these people, probably 150 family members just on that day.”
This year was a completely different story. Pele and his youngest brother, 12 years old, celebrated Easter alone in the family’s home, watching mass on a televised stream. Their sister was sheltering in place in another location. Their brother was quarantined in the back bedroom, having come home from the hospital a few days earlier. Both parents were in the hospital receiving treatment for the COVID-19 virus.
“It was so quiet,” said Pele. “Usually there’s music, talking–the quietness was what I didn’t like. Mass ended and it was just me and my brother again, it was very emotional.”
The Ilis are like many Polynesian families in Long Beach. They spend a lot of time gathering with relatives when they’re not working–Pele said he worries that family culture is making it easy for the COVID-19 virus to spread in households like his, where both his parents and his brother were hospitalized.
“I have cousins in families of 10-12 people in one household, and a lot of them are still essential workers,” he said. “You can’t socially distance in a Polynesian household, and it’s making us vulnerable. I’m hoping that awareness has raised, it’s even touching our home country in Samoa, where the prime minister is telling everyone about it. But it’s hard for my aunties or uncles to say, ‘You can’t come over’ to me or my cousins. That’s never been said in our family, that’s a sign of disrespect in our culture to say someone isn’t welcome.”
In the week since Easter, things have taken a positive turn for the Ili family. That led Pele to make a Facebook post about the family’s trials, in hopes of encouraging others in his family and community to take social distancing guidelines seriously, no matter how hard that is.
“Easter week was really rough for my family because it was bad news after bad news,” said Pele.
The family went to the emergency because Junior and Lina were having trouble breathing. Lina, Junior, and their middle son were all admitted and tested positive for COVID-19, with Lina immediately being admitted into the ICU and put on a ventilator.
“My mom couldn’t even breathe on her own, and she had so much fluid in her lungs that they were really worried about her, it was up in the air,” said Pele.
While his parents remained in the hospital, Pele’s brother came home a few days later and has been recovering in a room by himself.
After Easter, the news began to turn for Pele’s parents. His father was discharged and came home at 3 a.m. Tuesday night, along with a medical assistant who trained Pele on how to give his father oxygen when needed.
“They were training me in the middle of the night because they’re trying to get people out of the hospital so they can admit more people,” said Pele. “It’s just happening 24/7.”
Finally this past weekend, Lina was transferred out of ICU after responding positively to treatment.
“It felt like a blessing, it was all bad news the week before and really scary, and then this week has all been good news,” said Pele.
Pele’s hopeful that his being public about his family’s struggles will help influence others to be more careful.
“People have messaged me thanking me for posting it because they know it’s serious now,” he said. “It’s hard for my family, for all my cousins I usually see several times a week. The connection and the love is still there, we’re just missing each other.”
With his father and brother recovering at home, and youngest brother still symptom-free, Pele is hoping that his family has turned a corner for good, as they await the homecoming of his mom.
“We can see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.