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Keep Running, Aisea

 

In the TV series “The Flash,” 11-year-old Barry Allen’s life is irrevocably changed by his mother’s death. To find her killer, Barry determines to become a forensic scientist and crime scene investigator, a career he achieves when he grows up. Then a freak explosion in the town lab sends Barry into a mysterious coma, which he awakens from with superhero powers, most obviously (and represented by a golden lightning rod), super speed. As the fastest man in the world, Barry can now run up the sides of buildings, and even create sinkholes to travel in time. But what’s remarkable about “The Flash” is that, even as a comic book type superhero, he keeps sight of his real powers: vulnerability, humor, and loyalty.

 

It is no surprise then, that Aisea loved “The Flash.” Aisea: a boy who was just beginning to become a man, but who had already demonstrated to all who knew him, what kind of powers he possessed, and what kind of man he would be.

 

It is also no surprise that Aisea’s life was following such a positive lead.

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The Mataele family’s roots are deep here at Menlo-Atherton High, and its branches spread wide. Aisea’s brother, Vuki, is a senior at M-A this year, and his younger brother, Kolo, will attend in a few years. Aisea’s mom, Monika, and his dad, Asi, both attended M-A, though not at the same time (they met at church, a cornerstone in both of their lives), as did Asi’s eight brothers and two sisters, and Monika’s two brothers. This makes for a lot of cousins who do or will attend, or have attended M-A. And when it comes to the Mataeles and the M-A football program, our DNA feels nearly intertwined.

 

Asi played football for M-A in the 90’s, as did many of his brothers, and he had hoped Aisea would play football too. Aisea had attended Las Lomitas and then La Entrada, in Menlo Park, through eighth grade. At La Entrada he was a key force in flag football, where his tight knit group of friends who’d been in school together since Kindergarten worked and sweat and laughed and passed and caught and got one another’s backs and began to mature and bond as teammates on that field. Aisea also loved basketball: the court called him too. And despite his strong size, he was unsure about playing tackle football in high school. But Monika’s brother, Willy Fonua, a recent M-A grad and former star quarterback who is now a well-loved varsity QB coach at M-A promised Aisea some sweet, bright blue cleats if he went out for the football team. This sealed the deal: Aisea decided to simply do both.

 

The cleats may have convinced him, but Aisea’s hard work and talent, as an offensive lineman and a defensive end, shone brighter on that football field than any material thing. A quiet boy who did not like the spotlight, he had to be convinced to go to the end of season awards ceremony, where he didn’t realize he was about to be honored as a scholar athlete and the most improved player.

 

But Aisea did not just do both—both football and basketball, both athletics and academics, both ferocity and empathy—he did both well. “I will aim for over 3.5” Aisea wrote in his journal, which Monika read through, struck by his assurance and confidence, and also his humility, after he’d passed. “I will be kind today,” he wrote, and, “I know who I can be.” What was remarkable about Aisea, was that it is likely he knew he already was. Aisea had a deep respect for his family, and for everyone, really. His longtime friends remember him as someone who was “funny, but never said anything bad about anyone else,” and who “was generous, and respectful.” Aisea had something rare and powerful in our world today, and it was evident as unique even to his young friends. He had a deep respect for himself.

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Each Tuesday night, when “The Flash” came on, a gaggle of cousins would gather at Aisea’s house, with Vuki and Kolo too, to watch the next episode and hang out (and for the Mataele family, a “gaggle” could mean quite a lot). In the past few years, watching “The Flash” on Tuesdays had become such a regular tradition that, “Who’s bringing the pizza?” was really the only question that needed answering. This was an important question, however, because Aisea loved to eat.

 

After church on Sundays Aisea asked for one thing: Sizzler. Respectful as always, he waited for his turn in the family rotation to choose where they ate, and it was usually the same. He also loved the huge servings of various pancake flavors, at iHop. But two years ago, as Aisea was entering the eighth grade, he and Monika both decided they needed to get a bit “more fit” and lose some weight. “Mom, we can do this,” Aisea said to Monika, and they did. They regularly went to Mission Peak in Fremont, or to the Stanford dish to hike the trails together, and then out to breakfast (his favorite part). As a team, they lost 90 pounds combined.

 

Aisea and his brothers also frequently helped Asi with construction projects. Sometimes, Aisea would see his dad in the yard building and wander out to offer help, and sometimes he was asked to do certain tasks. He learned how to custom build a dollhouse for a client alongside Vuki, with whom he had a quiet friendly competition. “My design was right,” he’d tell Monika, meaning better than Vuki’s, with a smile after the job was done. “But I don’t say anything. Vuki knows.” It is a delightful image to consider Aisea, the beast on the football field but the gentle giant in real life, smiling and debating dollhouse dimensions with his brother on a Sunday afternoon in the backyard. It is, of course, like all memories of Aisea, also heartbreaking and surreal.

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Aisea Bojack Mataele passed away on December 20, 2016, a few months into his freshman year. It was the holiday season, and also basketball season. Aisea had made the team, against the competitive odds, and he was thriving. He went to school Friday, and played a basketball game that Saturday, after which he began to complain of not feeling well. He stayed home from school on Monday with flu-like symptoms that were non-concerning, but later that afternoon, he was unable to walk or see. Asi rushed him to Stanford Hospital, still sure that they’d get some medicine and treatment, still sure the doctors would know what was wrong, and then they’d take Aisea home. But Aisea’s condition continued to deteriorate. Doctors found that his brain was swelling, and within another few days, before anyone knew what was happening or why, Aisea slipped into a coma.

 

Quickly, dozens of family members and friends collected in the lobby and hallway near Aisea’s hospital room at Lucille Packard, filling the entire space with determination, energy, and love. For multiple days and nights Aisea’s army prayed and ate and cried and laughed and sang and bottle flipped and read and played cards and checked phones and shared photos and hugged and begged and eventually said goodbye, when the doctors said they were sorry there was no more they could do, but no one really said goodbye, not yet, still willing a miracle, and mostly they—we—just sat, just sat stunned, not running at all but sitting inside Aisea’s life, a life he still had. And then, when his heart finally stopped, everyone else’s broke wide open.

 

Only later, after an autopsy was performed, did doctors learn the cause of Aisea’s death. An extremely rare (so rare that there have been only 8-10 pediatric cases, and 100 cases total in adults and children, worldwide, since 1941), non-genetic, non-contagious disease called “acute hemorrhagic encephalopathy” had caused rapid and irreversible destruction of Aisea’s brain tissue. There was no cause that could be determined for the disease, and nothing anyone could have done, and the chances of the otherwise healthy Aisea contracting this disease had been mind-bogglingly miniscule. Aisea knew that knowledge is power, and he lived his life accordingly. But his death taught everyone who loved him what powerlessness really feels like, reminded us how precarious life is, and how vulnerable all of us are.

 

Aisea did not wake from his coma with superhuman speed. But he did leave us with a memory of a real life hero and a blueprint for how to act like one. Aisea: a boy who left himself reminders in his locker to be kind to everyone even though everyone agreed he was never unkind; a boy who diligently worked to set goals and challenge his body and his mind and his teammates alongside; a boy who built dollhouses with his dad and took hikes with his mom and was fierce on the field, and who always let his older brother have the front seat on the car ride to school out of respect.

 

It is appropriate that Aisea’s spirit is remembered and felt on wristbands and t-shirts and warm ups all over campus, by that lightning bolt of kindness and speed. “Rest Easy Aisea,” one side of the red and gold wristband says. “Keep Running Barry Allen,” it says on the other.

 

Aisea’s death irrevocably changed the lives of everyone who loved him, most especially his mom and dad, Monika and Asi, and his brothers, Kolo and Vuki. But each year, for as long as those who knew him are here, there will be a bunch of boys who are becoming men at M-A who run a little faster, and study a little harder, and act a little kinder in Aisea’s memory.

 

In line with Aisea’s ever-present desire in life to be diligent and kind, Monika and Asi hope the autopsy and further study of Aisea’s case will help with medical research and will save lives in the future. They also, along with the entire M-A family, hope this athletic scholarship will help other boys who come through Menlo-Atherton High, who share the joy and determination Aisea showed on the court, on the field, in the classroom, and in his heart. We hope that even after Aisea’s friends and family have moved on, his name will be known to others through this award. This is how we keep him. Keep running, Aisea. Godspeed.