My first experience of a Tongan funeral, putu, was when my sister-in-law, Soana was killed in a car accident.
Soana had persuaded ‘Atu that we should fly to NZ for a long weekend to celebrate their mum’s birthday. When you work for an airline and qualify for ID90 that is a do-able.
At Fua’amotu Airport we had to wait until the last minute to see if there were vacant seats – full fare paying pax take priority.
We made it!
By the time we had bundled ourselves into our seats we were airborne.
It was 23 August, ‘Ana’s fifty-ninth birthday.
On arrival we found our bags had not made the flight. Air New Zealand gave us an OOPS kit each and we set off for Waiuku.
‘Atu’s parents were our tenants so we spent the next day just catching up with what was what at the homestead. Soana had brought over some baking – a newly acquired skill that she was very proud of, her friend and neighbour, Nancy, had been teaching her. The baking was delicious and disappeared in record time. Soana had also brought me some of her clothes to knock around in until our bags showed up.
Included in the clothing was a red tupenu with a Maori motif that I had coveted. I still have that tupenu, it is my Soana touchstone and has travelled with us wherever we have ventured since.
On Sunday we set off to Mangere Airport to collect our bags. On our way back, Tatyana, aged four, started whimpering and complaining that her legs hurt and her tummy hurt and her head hurt too. On the road between Drury and Waiuku, ‘Atu had a near-hysterical call from his mum – there had been an accident and Soana was being flown to hospital. Gerard had been with her in the vehicle. He was hurt but OK.
Tatyana was still in pain.
We carried on home to check on what was happening there, to see what could be done for Tatyana, drop our bags and head back out for the hospital.
The birthday feast was forgotten. Nio and Toni were having a quiet drink. We gave Tatyana some medication deciding that whatever was happening we needed to be together.
When we reached the hospital ‘Atu went in and established we were waiting to hear from the doctors – Soana was in surgery. He wanted me in there to speak with the palangi while he stayed with our baby who was still in pain.
I think we were given an update while we waited. The doctors had elected to leave off working on the condition of her legs to concentrate on her internal injuries. I relayed this information to ‘Alakoka who translated for ‘Ana. We were shown to a quiet room where we waited again.
‘Alakoka went to check on her family.
The doctor came again…..massive trauma….too much damage…..couldn’t save her….
Soana had died in surgery.
Panic! It’s just ‘Ana and I, she with her Tongan and I with my English. Come on Amber you must try to tell her – she reads the anguish in your eyes but her eyes beg you for word of her daughter – oh my infantile command of the Tongan language – what are the right words…
Osi mate ia
It is finished, she is dead
Damn it I know that is too blunt but I haven’t learnt the more poetic/euphemistic phrases for death – for word of someone’s passing…malolo….mohe loa
Oh merciful God the weeping, the wailing!
‘Alakoka comes. I tell her what I was told. I need to tell ‘Atu now.
He said afterwards he already knew. Tatyana’s pain suddenly stopped and she sat up and started asking where they were and what was happening. That was how he knew of his sister’s passing. Not my clumsy words.
Tatyana had shared her aunt’s pain – an empath….
We went back in. ‘Atu to begin to console his mum and sister and then to tell the family members who must be told.
‘Ana’s family is quick to come and help her begin to bear and share the sorrow. ‘Atu tells Nio and tries to track down ‘Ila to tell him too and get him to bring their dad to the hospital.
Oh Lord it falls to us to tell Gerard of his mum’s passing. ‘Atu says he cannot do this..it is too much..
We go to another quiet room where Gerard is being kept company by a nurse. She leaves.
He is eleven years old.
We stall. We talk of small things. He asks. Again I stumble with the words. So sorry Gerard….very badly hurt….doctors tried really hard to save her….not in any more pain now….
‘Atu hugs our daughter.
Gerard wants to see his mum. His foot is burnt. We need a wheelchair. We take him to Soana. It is heart-wrenching to witness.
Nio comes. He has anaesthetized himself somewhat with the drink to better help him bear the pain. It is immense and weighs so heavily on him. He speaks so softly and gently to her – more so than he has ever done in life.
Details. So many details. Life crowds in on death. ‘Atu cannot get hold of Tito, his father’s next eldest brother. He must go find him and tell him.
Jenna is arriving from Wellington. She has been miserable in NZ without us and will join us in Tonga. Jenna knows nothing of the accident – we must meet her and tell her. She’ll be a help with her lil’ sis.
The dynamic duo, ‘Atu and I, get into gear. The putu will be at our home. We have a 5 acre lifestyle block – enough space to prepare the vast quantities of food needed; no neighbours nearby to disturb and room enough to hold all those who come to grieve with us.
Marquis….portaloos….cows slaughtered…..pigs located, purchased and killed
Local marae helps out agreeing to lend us their hangi equipment…no fee just a koha
Details. So many details. Newspaper notices, Tongan radio notice, casket, flowers, order of service
Many come. Some stay.
Some of those who came to pay their respects were family members who had already crossed over. It fell to me to testify to their presence.
Later on, ‘Atu said he figured it was because if I, a non-Tongan who hadn’t even met most of them, described these spirit attendees then the families would know it was the real deal.
I am fey. I am bipolar. The latter, for me, can be triggered by routine disruption, over-stimulation, emotional trauma and sleep deprivation. A Maori or Pacific Island funeral provides all this and more.
When I am manic, normal boundaries blur, cease to exist even. I leave my cautious, proper, earthbound self and become a freer spirit unfazed by ghostly encounters.
While I am sitting on the deck outside, smoking, a woman appears in the dining area. She stands, authority in her bearing, almost as if she is checking that all is as it should be. I describe her – a Finau – ‘Atu’s aunt.
Quietly another comes. A young man, a boy? He’s dressed all in white – strange contrast in this sea of mourning black – he’s wearing red, kind of fluffy woollen socks. He quietly observes, then leaves. Another Finau. ‘Atu’s uncle who died as a child.
So, indoors, when the lights are on, these apparitions are not so scary. Outdoors, in the evening shadows – another story entirely.
‘Anahulu is the only daughter of her family. She has several brothers, all of whom hold her in high regard as is customary; sisters are treasured, respected, protected. Her offspring have precedence over their own children.
All bar one of ‘Ana’s brothers have predeceased her by the time of Soana’s funeral. This is sad, as it is on occasions such as this that they show their love and support of their sister by doing the hard yards – the fetching and carrying, the food preparation, first to rise and last to rest. Toni with his limp, the last surviving brother is trying to go the distance for all of them.
One of the brothers I espied in the shadow of the Mexican Pepper tree. Tall, slender, swaying, long hair…forbidding demeanor…..
There’s another by the felila (bougainvillea) something wrong with his legs I think. Toni sees Feleti heading off up the driveway, guess he was feeling okay about Toni’s efforts on their behalf.
‘Atu worries his mother’s grief will kill her. She hasn’t rested, eaten or had anything to drink. She only has time to weep, wail and mourn. A diabetic needs to eat and drink regularly and routinely.
I took ‘Ana to our doctor in Waiuku. While we waited she “explained” to me how the funeral director would not let her see Soana’s injuries but stayed with her as she “saw” with her hands. Sometimes not having a language in common is no barrier; this was one of those times.
The doctor prescribed sedatives and stressed the importance of taking lots of fluid and meal regularity. It proved to be a good discipline for the four of us. We two to stop whatever we were doing to round up those two and get them, ‘Ana and Nio, to the dinner table to sit together and eat.
Soana’s A Po, the final night’s vigil – laying in state, was held at the Catholic Church in Waiuku. One of the lighter moments for me, I recollect, was giving directions to the church, in my dreadful Tongan, to someone who had phoned needing help. Hopefully they found their way, I never did find out.
Anyway, ‘Atu decided instead of going all night - as tradition dictated – it would cease at midnight. Again he guarded his mother’s health. The church was elaborately laid out with mats and tapa and an endless stream of people came to pay their respects and present their koloa – gifts of tapa and weaving and fabric and kato teu baskets of fragrant oils and perfume.
It is difficult to describe the kaleidoscopic nature of such an event. It assaults the senses with a riot of colours and sounds. The renewed mourning as final farewells are made. The heart-wrenchingly beautiful singing contributed by different groups and choirs. Your heart soars and swells and falls and soars again as it is led high and low over the hills and through the valleys of emotion during the evening.
The service was at the same church the following day. It came upon us all too soon. In brief snatches of time we wrote ‘Atu’s eulogy in English. Together with all his other responsibilities, it was decided ‘Atu should speak in English, on behalf of the family so Soana’s many palangi friends should know more of her.
As he made his tribute, he stayed strong – though he wept – and bid farewell to his stalwart, steadfast sister.