A Tale of Two Mothers

By Maxine Phoenix

Mary and Vinny join the call first, followed shortly by Marlene and Joey. The mother-son duos appear in parallel squares, mirroring one another, each mom on the outside of the frame with the sons next to one another, separated only by the thin column designating Zoom windows. The families have known one another for about fifteen years, and despite them tuning in from their separate households, the energy flowing between the two rectangles, next to one another on the screen, is palpable. Joey and Vinny and Marlene and Mary are entwined in one another’s stories—the gift of friendship, understanding, of life.

Young Vinnie and Joey meeting up at the Children’s Hospital where they met in Los Angels, CA

We start with the Renal Teen Prom, with the connection of RSN. Joey cheerfully recounts the story of his Prom-discovery, many years ago through his practitioner at the time, Dr. Kamil. “She said, ‘Check this prom out!’” He quips. Joey’s been attending since he was fourteen and every year has had a blast. He keeps up with his Prom friends via social media—and Mary, Vinny’s mother, jumps in playfully to detail Joey’s status as a “social media butterfly” on Facebook and Instagram, a “selfie king.” Both mother-son duos laugh. Mary recounts her son’s Prom experience: years ago, a social worker at Cedars passed out fliers about different programs that may help Vinny socialize, meet other young people his age. One of them was for the Renal Teen Prom, and the rest is history.


Vinnie and another favorite healthcare team member, Dr. Puliyanda

The families met in a hospital, not at the Prom itself. Marlene recalls meeting baby Vinnie and Mary—they were introduced by their shared doctor as a suggestion of friendship, two women who could each understand what the other went through. And it worked. “[Marlene] knows that whenever I have a problem, I call her,” Mary says with a laugh and Marlene joins her. They crack up like sisters. “The journey’s been tough for us, and we’re both support for one another,” Marlene adds. And Mary chimes in, “I lean on you a lot more!” They joke about how much they need a spa day—or a Lionel Richie day, noting that he’s touring Southern California soon.



Joey and Vinnie at the 24th Renal Teen Prom

Joey recently celebrated the 19th anniversary of his kidney. “The whole month is ‘kidney month,’’ Marlene shares. The family’s planning an upcoming fundraiser where they’ll hang out with friends, raise money. When Joey was an infant and it was clear he was on a lifelong journey with his kidneys, Marlene found out about Lori. “Dr. Kamil told me, ‘I have this book,’ and it was Lori’s book.” Marlene half-jokes that she wants Lori to sign it. She remains inspired by the founder of RSN, explaining “[Lori] was so young when she had kidney failure and all that she went through—it amazed me the reason she started the Prom.” Joey missed his high school prom too, because of the Pandemic. “A little bit in common there,” Marlene laughs.


Vinnie and Joey just hanging out having a good time

Both Joey and Vinny were born prematurely. Vinny three months, Joey two. Vinny’s kidneys weren’t able to fully develop. Mary explains, “He basically had no kidneys when he was born.” As she speaks, Vinny gets up from his chair and disappears from frame. “He’s gone!” His mother remarks, just before he returns with a snack in hand. Marlene, across the screen, slowly begins to explain her and Joey’s story. “I wasn’t going to tell Joey about how he was born until he was 21.” Then, at a dinner, a family member “blurted it out” and Marlene had to recount Joey’s history a little sooner than expected. She preps for the story with conviction, looking between her son and the computer ahead of her, speaking calmly. She’s made peace with it.


Mary, Vinnie and Ben at the 24th Renal Teen Prom

Marlene didn’t know she was pregnant with Joey. “I didn’t change at all—maybe my,” she chuckles, “back part…became a little more plump?” She didn’t know she was carrying a child at all, until she went to Cedars with stomach pain—it was a similar feeling, she explains, to when she had her gallbladder removed. Turns out, that pain was from growing a human inside of her. Joey was born early, and Marlene met the aforementioned Dr. Kamil “I was taking medication, I didn’t know I was pregnant. That affected Joey’s kidneys.” Joey was so small, that the doctors had to manually work to help his kidneys “kick in.” He was kept in the NICU for ten and a half months. “I don’t mind sharing,” Marlene says of her history. “It’s a testimony. And a testimony to how Joey got his kidney.” Eventually, Marlene had to learn how to perform dialysis on Joey at home. But it got to a point where it wasn’t pulling all the fluid off his body. The doctors made it clear: Joey needed a kidney transplant. Marlene visited her son on all of her breaks (she expresses gratitude in a brief aside for her boss at the time, who was deeply understanding, as he had a father with kidney failure. “Not a lot of people understand,” Marlene remarks) and one night, after work, the room Marlene would usually stay in was given to a family who had been rushed in with a young son who had suffered an aneurism. The parents got to know Joey through the next few days and decided to donate the son’s kidney. “They had asked what he needed and found out—and it was a complete match.” A friend of Marlene’s was scheduled to come in the following week to donate her kidney, but then this unexpected donor came through. “It was beautiful. A bittersweet story,” Marlene says. She had a minister come and pray for the young boy, who was kept on life support for as long as possible. He donated all of his viable organs—heart, liver, kidney. “He saved a lot of lives.” She was in contact with the boy’s family for a little while. He was a traveling baseball player, and at one point his parents sent a t-shirt and a medal of his for Joey to keep. Marlene looks at Joey and smiles, exhales. “I’m very thankful that my little pumpkin eater is still here with me.” She turns towards the camera. “That’s what I used to call him when he was little. He had these round little cheeks.”

The journey’s been long, Marlene recalls, but worth it. She explains it’s kept her on her toes, taught her patience. And that it’s been a pleasure getting to know Mary and Vinny and their family in the process. Mary grins, then turns towards her son. Time for their story.

Vinnie and Joey at a family outing

“Vinnie was my third attempt at a baby,” Mary begins. Her other child, Vinny’s brother, is a lot older. She was blessed to conceive Vinny, but he arrived earlier than expected. When it appeared that Vinny’s kidneys weren’t working, Mary learned how to do his dialysis. Her son was kept in the hospital for almost nine months, and Mary lived there with him for three of them. They did dialysis afterwards for two years at home, until Vinny got very sick around the holidays—when he was subsequently listed for a transplant, he started getting calls that first day. They found a donor in a fourteen-year-old boy who had passed away and was donating all of his organs. Similar story to Joey’s—the parallels continue. Mary holds that young man in her heart, still. “There’s a white butterfly thats always flies around in the sky near us,” she says, emotion wavering her voice ever so slightly. “He’s an angel up there. I have a tattoo of a white butterfly, and of a blue one, to symbolize Vinny.” The family recently celebrated Vinny’s 15th kidney anniversary. The families have shared doctors for most of their life, and as the boys begin to age out of pediatric care, it worries Mary. “I don’t want them to leave when he’s twenty-one!” She worries. Marlene reassures her that the team has “held onto” Joey for longer than they ought to on paper. It’ll be fine. These doctors are like family, taking the extra mile to show their care, to give support. And both boys are thriving.


Joey and Marlene at the 24th Renal Teen Prom

For Joey, the call is photography. He joined a class without telling his mom, who later found out when the teacher called her. Marlene laughs, shaking her head and looking at her son with profound love, fascination, pride. Joey loves using a camera—and he’s good at it. He was at the Long Beach Aquarium semi-recently, and a woman from a Los Angeles photography studio saw him capturing the aquatic life, admired his skills, and invited him to join her class. Marlene shares, too, about an assignment of Joey’s from high school. He chose to photograph the unhoused community nearby. “Those pictures were eye-openers,” his mother muses. “Really made you think, be thankful. And grateful.” For Joey, the fascination with social media, the interest in and burgeoning skill of photography perhaps provides alternate perspective. Re-seeing the world through other people’s eyes, then capturing it and sharing it from his own. “Anything else you like to do?” Marlene asks. Mary chimes in on Joey’s behalf: “You love to dance!” And Joey laughs, semi-bashfully, then adds that he also likes to relax.


Vinnie and Dr. Elaine Kamil

Together, Joey and Marlene like to take long drives. “One day, we drove up and down the Pacific Coast Highway for eight hours,” Marlene recalls, smiling at Joey, who beams at the memory. They’re looking to take some train trips this summer, finding a new way to explore the country. Mother and son bonding through adventure.


Joey and Dr. Elaine Kamil at the 25th Renal Teen Prom

Mary and Vinny share a similar interest; they love to camp, spend time outdoors. And off-road. Our Zoom call falters and when we re-join on Google Meet for ten minutes, I’m speaking just with Mary and Vinny and Mary recounts a stressful but hilarious adventure of Vinnie’s in the desert. He was on a quad bike, following a friend, and it died—but Mary didn’t know where he had gone. As the sun set beyond the horizon, Mary panicked and called 911, fearing the worst. A rescue helicopter was sent and flew overhead, right as Vinny made his way back to the campsite. “It was funny,” Vinny chuckles, and Mary closes her eyes, putting a hand to her face. “It was not.” The sheriff had to get involved, making sure everything was okay, and by the end of the night he was getting tacos with the family. Their charm will do that. “That’s how our journeys are with these guys,” Mary groans playfully. “There’s always excitement.”


Vinnie and Joey at the Donate LIfe Walk with ABC7’s Phillip Palmer

Besides off-roading and finding himself in adventures straight out of a movie, Vinny loves music. Specifically, old-school rock and roll, eighties music. Queen, Van Halen. They’ve gone to see some cover bands, which Vinny adores. He looks like one of those classic rockers himself, with long hair and a penchant for old t-shits (Mary quips that he loves thrifting and vintage stores). He has been homeschooled since the Pandemic and has a wonderful team of people who work with him. Mary shares that “everyone knows Vinny”—he’ll walk down the street and people will shout hello from their car, talk to him. He and Joey both are artists, curious and compelling, exploring the world. People are drawn to it.


Joey showing of his dance moves at a past Renal Teen Prom

When I pose the question of “what three words would you use to describe yourself?” the group erupts into compliments for one another. Only Mary answers for herself, and she says “Crazy!” but is just as quickly followed up with Marlene’s, “a fun crazy!” She describes Mary as a wonderful person to be around. “She’s got feistiness in her.” Mary self-deprecates, “I got too much street in me,” and everyone laughs, then Marlene returns, a little firmly, “She’s a beautiful person and I love her to death.” Mary smiles. “I love Marlene and Joey and their whole family….it feels like my family. Their love, their kindness, they make people feel welcome. That whole bloodline…!” A brief conversations starts and ends about all of Marlene’s siblings (there are nine of them total) and how Mary feels like they’re her siblings now, too. She returns to the relationship with Marlene: “We have walked a journey and a path with our sons that most people haven’t. We have to walk every step with our sons, be a part of it, help them.” I feel the energy between them, the celestial sister-like bond through the screen.

The conversation turns to the boys. Mary describes Vinny as “wild,” with no filters, loving attention and joy. Very much so a free spirit. Then she muses on herself for a moment, sharing, “I love life. I love beautiful people. It’s kind of…a hard background for me. And when I find beautiful people, I want to just, I want to keep them.” She praises Vinny’s Dad, too. Shares how her son helps her. “He was outside with me this morning, seeding my vegetables.” Beyond her love for exploring the outdoors, Mary loves to craft, to garden. The tactile things keep her grounded. Crocheting, sewing. Ways to get through the hard moments.

Vinnie & Joey during a visit to hang out together

Marlene begins to open up about herself. “I’m a quiet person, to a certain extent. I like my solitude and my peace. It’s not that I’m being anti-social but I just…need my time. I’ve been like this since I was young.” She loves kindness, “good hearts.” To sit on the beach, walk along the water. Spend time in gardens, like Descanso. “When you’re in nature, that’s where you meet the nicest people.” Then she turns to her son. “Joey, I think he’s kind of like me.” She shares about Joey’s friendliness (similarly to Vinny, everyone knows him). “He doesn’t meet a stranger.” They’ll be walking along the street, and folks will come up to say hi to Joey. Mary chimes in, now, on Joey’s photography: “What we don’t see through our eyes, he sees through his.” A few moments later, in the middle of another conversation, Marlene shares that she used to have a small business making special gift baskets. She’d make arrangements for hotels and special occasions, using balloons. “I don’t do it now, just for some family and friends here and there.”

Both of the mothers slip their own creative endeavors into the conversation quickly, without much hullaballoo. But it’s clear in their sons just how much the bloodlines carries love, curiosity, tenderness towards the world—in Vinny’s appreciation towards music, towards interesting clothing, his friendliness towards strangers, there is Mary. In Joey’s watchful, empathetic eye, his openness towards every person he meets, there is Marlene. The women have raised their sons in challenging conditions and not only have helped them to grow into strong, healthy young men, but to grow into artists. They are already returning their gifts to the world at such a young age. The future is bright, indeed.



Maxine Phoenix is a freelance writer and she also volunteers for RSN.

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