Each Stunningly Strong woman who is featured is special to me. Their story is my story. Their strength gives me strength. I find solace in their courage and willingness to divulge the good, the bad, and the super ugly to me. As I’ve begun to collect stories I find myself thinking “Wow. I had no idea,” and this month’s story is no exception. I’ve known Puna since I was in seventh grade. I remember the first time I saw her. I was in awe. Puna is Samoan, and in my 13 years of life, I had never seen someone so striking. With her long hair, olive skin and blue eyes, she was, and still is breathtakingly beautiful, not to mention talented with an amazing voice and natural bent for dance that made each routine she performed seem effortless. But, her story got to me and I’ll admit that I am ashamed of myself. I was there, in Columbus when she was struggling, I was present during that time of her life but not really PRESENT. Being a “year-ish” older I had graduated and moved on with my life, gotten married, had a baby. I was involved, but from a distance. And yet, as she’s opening her heart to me, I remember those moments in her life and I’m feeling anger and sadness and hope and love and forgiveness all at the same time. Her story is heart breaking and beautiful. I am beyond honored that she shared it with me. Her gracious spirit, her loving heart and the gentleness that exudes every ounce of her body leaves me wrecked. I not only love her, I respect her. Here’s her story.
Puna: I was born in Mansfield, Ohio. My mom and dad divorced when I was young. After the divorce, my sister and I lived with our mom and my two brothers lived with our dad. I was six or seven years old, when my mom remarried my stepdad, Ivan. Ivan wasn’t just our stepdad, he was dad in word and deed and love. After they married, my mom and dad both felt like we needed to move to my mom’s native land Samoa. My mom really had a heart for her people and she wanted to share the love of Jesus with them, so they would go door to door and tell people about God. One day while she and my dad were out in the community, she knocked on a door and her biological father, MY grandfather, opened the door. That was the FIRST time my mom had met him.
Gena: Wait. Your mom had NEVER met her father and one day, as she’s out telling people about Jesus and she knocks on her dad’s door? What was that like for you guys?
Puna: It was so incredible. Like, what are the odds that she would knock on her father’s door? Over the course of the two years that we were in Samoa, not only did my family develop a relationship with my granddad and my step-grandmother, but we also met my mom’s half brothers and sisters. It was a really special time and my mom has always said that if for no other reason, we were supposed to go to Samoa so she could find her dad.
Gena: You came back to the states when you were nine years old. Did you get tired of all the sunshine?!
Puna: Haha, no. My biological father was on the mainland, and because of some things that he said, my mom had to bring us back to Ohio. She had to leave us with him and then go back to Samoa to take care of a few things. That was soooo hard for my mom, my sister and I. BUT, once she got things settled in Samoa, her and dad came back to the states, and my sister and I moved back in with them. We lived around the area of Mansfield, Ohio for a while so we could be near our biological father and when I eleven we moved to Columbus, Ohio.
Gena: How were things with your biological father after your mom and dad came back to the States?
Puna: It was hard. He would make promises to come and pick us up and take us places. My sister and I would sit by the window waiting for him and he would never show up. I know it broke my mom’s heart watching us be disappointed like that. Our time that we got to spend with him was never consistent. I grew up knowing that if my biological father made a promise he would sometimes break it. It was a cycle that repeated itself over and over. Then, at the beginning of my senior year in high school we found out that he had lung and esophagus cancer and our relationship slowly began to mend. I forgave him for all the broken promises and all the disappointments. Before he passed away in January of 1997, Ivan (dad) ministered to him and he rededicated his life to the Lord. That was five months before I graduated, and I’m so thankful for the time that we did have and that he didn’t pass away without me truly forgiving him and him making peace with the Heavenly Father.
Gena: I’m proud of you. Forgiving a father who doesn’t honor his word is difficult. I’m going to back up a little bit for our readers so they can have some context of our friendship. We met when you were in 6th grade, and you had some internal struggles going on that not even your closest friends knew about. Will you share what was happening with you?
Puna: Yes. There was a situation that happened to me when we moved back to the mainland. It was emotionally damaging and it caused me to have serious trust issues. In 7th grade I was dealing with suicidal thoughts. Even though I was singing in the youth choir, going to a private Christian school, and really involved in church the thought of taking my life was in the back of my mind. One night, I wrote a suicide note to my family, I had the scissors out ready to slit my wrists and the only thing I can say about that night is that God stopped me. He stopped me from taking my own life.
Gena: You seemed to win that battle in middle school, what happened in high school?
Puna: Well, in high school I had a HUGE crush on a guy, but we didn’t start dating until AFTER we graduated. Rumors and speculation at my church started going around that we were sleeping together. We weren’t, I had been saving myself for marriage, but everyone just kept talking about us, so it was like “Everyone is saying we are, we might as well,” and that was the reasoning behind losing my virginity. After it happened I was heart-broken. I was still involved with the youth group. I was a leader, I was on the dance team, I was in front of the kids on a weekly basis and I was, so ashamed of what I had done. I am by nature a people pleaser, which can be a strength and a weakness. I didn’t want to confess what had happened because I just KNEW everyone would be disappointed in me, but I was quickly heading down the rabbit hole of self loathing, shame and darkness. I HAD to tell someone, so I talked to my dance instructor. She was instrumental in helping me forgive myself and accepting the forgiveness of God.
Gena: I’m so glad that you had leadership who was able to talk you through that situation. Let’s fast forward a little bit to your next relationship.
Puna: I had been best friends with a guy from school for a long time. We actually tried to hook each other up with different people, and then one day we just started liking each other. We really fought it because we were such good friends, but we did end up dating. I found myself in the same predicament, everyone talking about us, saying we were having sex, so I let myself believe what I did before. “If they’re thinking we are, then we might as well.” I was still involved in the youth group as a leader, still on the dance team, and I was sleeping with my boyfriend. A little while into our relationship my boyfriend decided to enlist in the Army, and he left for Basic Training. A few months went by and one night as I laid down on my stomach to go to sleep it felt weird. I remember thinking, “No way. There’s no way I’m pregnant.” I was in total denial. I was losing weight, I didn’t “feel” pregnant but I decided to take a pregnancy test. It was positive. All FOUR of them that I took were positive.
Gena: What was your initial reaction?
Puna: I was so scared and I was very disappointed in myself. All I could think of was “What will everyone think?” “What will I tell my mom?” you see my dad, Ivan, had passed away in June of 2000, and there I was six months later, in December, pregnant.
Gena: What was your boyfriend’s initial reaction?
Puna: While he was on leave from Basic Training and in town visiting, I called and told him we needed to talk. He came over to the house with one of his friends and I laid out all four of the test in front of him. All he said was “Well, if you want, I can go with you and we can take care of it.” And I just thought “Take CARE OF IT?” I told him no. I was NOT getting an abortion and with or without him, I was taking care of this baby. In January of 2001 I had my first doctor’s appointment and that’s when I found out I was 18 weeks pregnant. I knew I had to tell my youth pastors and that I would have to step down from the dance team. I had already told some of my closest friends before I went to the church for my meeting.
Gena: What about your mom? How did she handle that news?
Puna: My mom wasn’t in Ohio at the time. She was in California, helping take care of our grandma who was dying. I didn’t want to tell her over the phone, so I waited. I was 22 weeks pregnant when she got back to Ohio after my grandmother passed away. She looked at me and said, “Puna, I’m disappointed, but we can get through this. I love you unconditionally and I love this grand baby.”
Gena: How did everyone else respond to your news?
Puna: Everyone was shocked. They couldn’t believe it. Some of my friends didn’t know how to respond so they backed away. Other friends stayed and were there for me. When I really started showing, I would be at church walking down the aisle to find a seat and people who knew me would look away, or purposefully go the opposite direction so they didn’t have to encounter me. I was shunned. I told my mom that I lost my best friend and she said to me “You have to look at it from her perspective, HER best friend is pregnant and it changes everything. Maybe she doesn’t know how to handle this.” I had a leader in church tell me “ We all make mistakes, and some leaders have skeletons in their closets that don’t show, unfortunately, yours… is showing.” It was the LONELIEST and most HURTFUL time of my life.
Gena: I cant’ believe you still attended church.
Puna: I did. It was the hardest thing to do. I felt like I had committed the unpardonable sin. I know some people thought I had, but I told myself “Puna. You are not here for the people. You are here for Jesus. He forgives you.” I was also getting a lot pressure from people at the church to get married, but even I knew that just because two people make a baby, it doesn’t mean they should make a family. I was 21 and pregnant, but I just knew in my heart that we would not get married.
Gena: With all of that going on was there any support from your boyfriend?
Puna: While he was finishing Basic Training, we wrote letters back and forth. Of course that was before social media and smart phones. He was able to get out and came back to Columbus for the delivery of our son. On June 13, 2001 when I held my son in my arms everything that I had been through went away. I can’t explain the love you feel when you hold your child for the first time. I remember after they handed him to me, I leaned over and whispered to him “You are worth it all.” In that moment I knew I had to forgive myself, forgive his father. And, even though I hadn’t planned it, I basically became a single mother. My boyfriend just kind of bowed out of the picture.
Gena: So just like that you became a single mom? How did you cope?
Puna: It was very hard. My mom remarried after my son was born and she moved away. I was so upset. I was angry, because in that moment I felt like she had abandoned me. I needed my mom, and she physically wasn’t there for me. I found myself wondering where I was going to go and what I was going to do because my housing situation had changed with her leaving. Fortunately, I was very blessed because my boyfriend’s parents were incredibly supportive of me and they moved us into their house. While I was living with my son’s grandparents, my boyfriend and I started sleeping with each other again, and I got pregnant. Again.
Gena: You and your son were living with his parents. You guys were kind of together but not really, and you ended up getting pregnant by him again?
Puna: Yeah. I mean what can I say. I was like “Good job Puna. You just got back involved in church. And you obviously didn’t learn your lesson the first time; now what are you going to do?”
Gena: So. What did you do?
Puna: My first thought was an abortion. Because of everything that I had gone through with my first pregnancy, and all the shame I was once again feeling, I really thought that terminating this pregnancy was the answer. When I told my boyfriend I was pregnant again and I wanted an abortion, he didn’t want me to get one, he was supportive of whatever I chose to do, but he wanted me to keep the baby.
Gena: This time, he wanted you to keep the baby, but you didn’t want to?
Puna: Right. The next day I made an appointment with Planned Parenthood, I gave them a $100.00 non-refundable deposit and sat in the waiting room. I don’t know how to explain the feeling of sitting in that place. There was such a presence of sadness in the whole building; it felt dark and heavy. When they did the exam the lady told me I was 18 weeks pregnant. I was too far along for them to do the abortion, BUT she gave me the name of a place that would be able to abort the baby that far into my pregnancy. I left Planned Parenthood, and out of desperation and just plain freaking out, I made the phone call to set up the appointment. It was going to cost $1,000.00. I told them I needed a couple of days. That night while I was lying in bed I couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking about women saying that they could hear their unborn babies cry. And thoughts started rushing in my head, I wondered what it would be like to live with that for the rest of my life? Would I hear a baby cry even though there wasn’t one? Was this baby a boy or a girl? What would he or she look like? I began to cry in my bed and in that moment I knew I couldn’t go through with the abortion. I decided to keep the baby and in February 2003, I had another boy.
Gena: How did your boyfriend’s parents react to the news of another pregnancy?
Puna: I was prepared for them to kick me out of the house. When I finally told his mom she wasn’t really surprised. She told me that she had thought I was pregnant again because my eating habits had changed, but she was waiting on me to tell her. I thank God for that family He (God) strategically placed them in my life when my family had fallen apart after my dad, Ivan, had passed away. His parents were and still are so supportive. His mom looked at my “boyfriend” and said, “Look, those are my grand-babies. That is their mother. And we did NOT raise you to be this way. But if you don’t step up to take care of them, someone else will.”
Gena: Did someone else step up?
Puna: Yes. God stepped up to take care of us and my “boyfriend’s” family was also there for us. I stayed in my little bubble and surrounded myself with a small circle of people. When my youngest was six months old, we moved into our first apartment, got on assistance, WIC, food stamps. It was so incredibly humbling. I NEVER thought I would struggle like that. My sister helped out with my boys when she could, but I just wanted my mom. I was trying to figure out how to earn money, keep things afloat, pay for childcare. We were really, really struggling. My “boyfriend” was in and out of our lives. I was trying to hold onto something, hoping that there could be something between us. I was blind to what was happening right there in front of me. He never verbally broke up with me, he just started seeing other people. I would have friends call me and tell me that he was out partying and sleeping with other girls. I was hurt and angry. I was like “God do you see us? I’m over here struggling, raising these boys by myself, and he’s out having a good time!” It was awful.
Puna: It was incredibly hard. In fact one night in March of 2006 I really felt like I had reached my limit. I was trying to figure out how to make food stretch, I wasn’t happy I was in a deep depression. I felt like everything was falling apart. I was in my closet folding clothes and I kept thinking to myself “Just get in your car and drive down 104, let the steering wheel go, and end your life.” I was so close to committing suicide. But while I was in my closet, surrounded by clothes that needed to be folded, I heard a still small voice say “Puna. You will live and not die.” And I just started repeating that over and over. ”I will live and not die. I will live and not die. I will live and not die.” It was the only thing that was keeping me sane, the only thing that was keeping me safe. Over and over I said it, and then I just started singing. I ended up writing a song called, “Here I am, Take All of Me” It was my cry to the Lord. I was saying, “Here I am God, a single mom. Messed up. Ashamed. Barely feeding my kids. Take all of me. What little I have. It’s yours.” One part in my song, says; “When I was alone you heard my cry. Broken and torn, I then replied, “Here I am, Here I am take all of me”. That song saved me. And that night, I truly felt free. It gave me peace. In a single moment I was able to cut all soul ties I had with the boy’s father and forgive him. I remember feeling NEW. I had a fresh BEGINNING. I just knew that God had gotten us that far, and that he was going to take us further.
Gena: Forgive. Whew. That’s a tough thing to do.
Puna: I really learned that forgiveness was the key to my peace. I first had to forgive myself. That was the hardest thing to do, but there was no way I could forgive anyone else if I didn’t forgive me. So first up it was “Puna. I forgive you. Now accept God’s forgiveness. And forgive others.” So that’s what I did. I forgave me. I accepted the forgiveness of God. Then I started forgiving those who hurt me. I forgave the church that shunned me, the friends who abandoned me, my mom for moving when I needed her the most and finally my ex-boyfriend.
Gena: How were you able to just forgive him once?
Puna: Forgiveness isn’t a one time thing. The boys would sit by the window just like I used to, waiting on dad to show up, but he never would. Those moments are the hardest to forgive, but God said to forgive seventy times seven, so that’s what I do. Everyday I choose to forgive. It doesn’t mean I FORGET but it RELEASES me from anger. And when I start to compare our lives again, “He’s so happy and free. I’m over here struggling. He has no responsibility. I’m raising our kids by myself.” The Lord will say “Puna. You have no idea what he’s going through. Just forgive and pray for him.”
Gena: Just forgive. I love that. What does your story look like today?
Puna: God has brought many people into our lives over the years and we are surrounded by people who love us and are there for us. I am just so grateful for each and every person who has been a part of our lives. I am thankful that my family’s relationship has been restored over the years and I’m closer to my mother than I have ever been. God’s hand has truly been in all of this.
Gena: What about a future mate? Any prospects?
Puna: I am at total peace with how my life is right now. I’m content to wait for the right man to come along and I am in no hurry to meet or date anyone. I mean, it’s been eleven years since I’ve gone on a date! I want both of us, whoever the man is, to be 100% complete and whole by ourselves before we meet each other. And I’m okay with waiting. However long that takes. Plus, I have very protective boys. My youngest son teases me and says “The only time I’m walking you down to the altar is when it’s time for you to meet Jesus.”
(Just so the readers know, both of us girls are laughing hysterically at this point. I’m like crying and it takes a minute to get it together enough for Puna to finish.)
Puna: But really, these boys are crazy, but they are so good. They have never asked for anything. And if they really want something they work hard to get it. I’m so proud of them. I’m also working on me. You get lost being a mom. Especially a single mom, so I’m focusing on me and my health, I battled binge eating for years, so I’m taking control of that, and I’m continuing to work on my heart and emotions. I’m involved with a church now volunteering with the kids and youth and helping with their social media. We still struggle, but the song I wrote in 2006, still gives me hope and I will still sing it to this day as a reminder of how far God has brought us.
Gena: How would you sum up your Stunningly Strong Story?
Puna: Forgive. Forgive yourself. Forgive others and trust in God. He will sustain you through it all.
Gena’s PS: If Puna’s story has resonated with you and you are reading it saying “that’s me, I was there.” Or if you want to talk to her about her journey, because you are walking through the same thing. you can reach out to her via Facebook. Also, to all my sisters out there who are single moms. YOU.ARE.ROCKSTARS.