I scanned the room, taking in the scene around me. Ro Mereani’s brothers and were gathered on the floor sitting on dakua mats. The elders had already broken out the tanoa (literal translation meaning ‘big wooden bowl’) to serve kava. Ro Mereani was fast at work with the nurse and housekeeper preparing the body for transport.
Sala, the nanny, had given me one her sulus to wear while I was out in the living room. “We must wear them around the elders. It’s a sign of respect,” she said with a sweet smile. She helped me wrap it and took her place next to D’Tui. I stood against the bedroom door frame, rubbing the material between my fingers.
Felix talked quickly in Fijian to the police officers in the doorway. One cocked his head around Felix’s frame to assess me standing in the back of the room. He obviously wondered what business a European white girl like me had in this situation.
I couldn’t be mad at him for thinking my presence was suspicious. I was wondering the same thing.
I eyed the internet connection to see if it was turned on (because that’s a thing here- internet is so expensive it’s not practical to keep it on all the time) and inched my way back to the bedroom I was staying in. I needed to talk to someone now. In private.
I was officially freaking out and (naturally) trying very hard not to show it to anyone here. I doubt I was very good at it, but besides the police officer, no-one was paying attention to me. So that was good. I could slip away into my bedroom and hide. And ask for advice from someone thousands of miles away.
I didn’t say it was a great plan. But it was the only one I had.
Little D’Tui (Felix’s three year-old daughter) tugged on my sulu before I could get all the way in the door. “Auntie, Auntie,” she said, in her typical chipper voice, looking at me with her gorgeous doe eyes.
“Yes, D’Tui?” I said as calmly as possible, working to keep the maelstrom of emotions from bubbling to the surface. I tapped into my psychology training and gave her a polite disconnected smile.
“We have to close our eyes,” she said, reaching on her tippy toes and touching my face. “Like papa. He closes his eyes so we have to, too.”
(Enter knife into my heart here).
I nodded and smiled and told her I would do that. She nodded with satisfaction and skipped off in another direction. Sala trailed her, the ever present shadow of the little girl.
I wondered if D’Tui really understood what was going on. Because I sure as hell didn’t.
I closed the bedroom door and sat precariously on the edge of the bed with my head in my hands. I swallowed, trying to make sense of this, listening to the commotion going on in the next room.
How had this happened? Why had this happened? And as selfish a thought as it was, why me? First I meet Talei and she dies shortly after our departure and now this? Hadn’t we all been through enough death? Enough pain? And why did this have to happen shortly after my arrival? Was I the freaking Angel of Death or something?
I bit my lip and considered the possibility that even if this was just a crazy random happenstance, the family may not see it that way. Would they recant their blessing to have me stay here? Or worse, would they hex me?
This was all too much.
I turned on Talei’s laptop and prayed adamantly for someone to be online to IM with. I didn’t care if it was my parents, my best friend, or my freaking dog. I was ready to tell my tale to the next person who posted a Facebook status update. So I waited, hoping someone would come through.
Whether through my powers of ESP or crazy good luck, my dad was on. After I messaged him and explained the situation, we Skyped. “What am I supposed to do? I’ve only known this family for such a short time. Should I even be here for this? Should I stay? Should I go?” I wondered aloud. The Clash song rang in my head over and over again.
“Well, there will be lots of people coming around,” he said gravely. “And there will be a funeral. And things will be different, but that’s okay because everything is different there for you anyway. So it’s all good, yes?”
I thought on his words for a moment. “Yeah, I guess. This just wasn’t the type of different I was expecting.” My dad smiled but I was not amused.
Oh, those damn Great Expectations (yes, they were so great they get to be capitalized). Why was it that even though I had no idea what to expect upon arrival, I still had a very firm idea of how this trip was supposed to go? Why was it that I was only willing to accept my reality up to a point?
“But really,” I finally spoke out loud again, “Who thinks this is going to happen to them while traveling?”
We left it at that.
I found Felix out on the balcony smoking a cigarette while the women finished cleaning and preparing the body and room. The house smelled of decay and bleach so it was nice to get some fresh air.
It was raining (as it always does in the early afternoon here). I felt the little drops prick the surface of my skin and collect over my freckles. With every drop that hit my skin the words, “You are alive,” repeated in my head. Only with each drop the emphasis was different. You ARE alive. You are ALIVE. YOU are alive.
Felix took a long drag before speaking. “I’m terribly sorry you have to be here for all of this. But it is for the best. It was time for his suffering to end. He was in a very bad state this morning and I kept asking God why he was putting this incredible man through all this pain.”
I remained silent, remembering hearing all sorts of commotion coming from David’s room in the early hours of the morning. I was too tired to get up and see what the deal was so I had rolled over and gone back to sleep. Meanwhile, David had spent his last hours with his wife and son. The concept that I could sleep through such a thing was sad. And absurd. And and and…
Felix carried on smoking and chatting, unaware of the conversation I was having with myself in my head. “This is a sad moment, but it’s also a moment of relief. Talei’s death was unexpected but his was not. The timing is just inconvenient.” He took another drag before continuing. “But then again, maybe this was his parting gift to you.”
I looked at him, expressionless.
He smiled out of the corner of his mouth, “Well, you said you wanted a traditional Fijian experience, yes?” I nodded mutely. “Well besides a wedding, there’s nothing that holds more custom and tradition for us Fijians than a funeral.” I turned my gaze out at the lush hills surrounding us.
Another drag. “And because he was married to my mother and because of her lineage, he will be treated like a chief. Villagers from all around will be coming over the next few weeks to pay their respects. You’ll certainly get to see something that very few visitors ever do. And you’ll even get to take part.”
I nodded, wanting to be happy about this but only feeling numb. I cleared my throat and finally spoke softly, “Well, please let me know if I can do anything.”
He nodded. “I’ll need your help keeping my mother’s spirits up, but she likes you so that shouldn’t be too hard. And we may have you fulfill some of the roles Talei would have taken had she still been alive.” I swallowed, wondering what that would mean. “Yes, this will be an enriching experience for you indeed.”
One of the men called to Felix from inside. It was time for them to wrap and transport the body to the mortuary.
He chuckled and stamped out his cigarette, turning to go in to help but stopped short of the doorway. “Then again,” he said carefully, “Who knows? Maybe instead of this being David’s gift to you, you were Talei’s gift to us during this tough time.”
I watched him go while his words echoed and rattled in my brain, sinking into my heart.
Could that be possible? Did Talei arrange all of this? Had she and David hatched a plan to have him depart upon my arrival? Was there possibly a greater cosmic plan to my terrible timing?
I laughed at myself for even entertaining the thought and headed back inside to see where I could make myself useful. Thunder clapped overhead and all the neighborhood dogs were silent.
But then again… my life was already stranger than fiction. Was it too much of a stretch to say the ghost of my friend hatched a plan to bring me here and arrange her father’s departing at the same time?
I guess I’ll leave that for you to decide.